VII. Foreign Home

August 1799

Blair was woken by a sharp puckering sound in her head that she tried to repress by squeezing her eyes shut more tightly and willing the noise to stop. However, as sleep slowly left her, she realized that it was not a headache that had awoken her but the machines of the mill. Swiftly, she opened her eyes, surprised that Miss Scott had not yet come to call her out of bed. Blair blinked at the bright slivers of sunlight streaming through the small crack between the drawn curtains, which told her that the time was way past dawn. The heat of the day was already beginning to creep into the bedroom, the thick feather blanket starting to feel more suffocating than comforting.

Not yet wanting to leave the bed, Blair let her gaze sweep over her nightstand, its smooth surface covered with shriveled petals and strewn pollen that once belonged to the vase filled with now withered poppies. She reached out one hand to touch one of the fallen petals, rubbing it between her thumb and index finger until it dissolved on her skin and left it stained red. The sight of it left her uneasy, since she was not sure that the flower in the crystal vase would ever be replaced by new ones after what happened in the library. Maybe Mr. Bass wanted her to look at the carnage every morning to teach her some kind of lesson.

He was attracted to her; that much she knew. Reveling in the power she had over him, she had enjoyed being able to tease and to play the tease, but it had never been her intention to go as far as she had. She only knew that at that moment she had felt the need to kiss him. Maybe it had been sympathy; maybe it had been the uncouth reading material, or perhaps just the heat of the fireplace and the scotch.

She squeezed her eyes shut tight and hid her face in the pillow, trying to escape the discomfiture and shame of her memories. Why couldn't she be more like Serena? Blair remembered that her friend had kissed a lot of her beaus behind rose bushes or marble pillars at balls, but never once had seemed remorseful or embarrassed.

Letting out a frustrated sigh, Blair rolled over onto her back until her movement was stopped by a hard object. Frowning, Blair reached under her spine and pulled out the book she had stolen from him and been reading till late in the night. She recalled hiding it under her blanket to prevent detection by Miss Scott.

Blair blushed as she remembered the words she had read, the images swirling anew in her head. It had served well to distract her from the surge of conflicting feelings about what had occurred downstairs, but now, in broad daylight, she would like nothing better than to burn the vulgar text. She liked to imagine that not even Serena had done all the bawdy things described in there.

A lifetime ago, before Blair had been married and before Serena ran away from home, her friend had whispered scandalous things in her ear when they had lain awake after a particular exhilarating country dance. Things that people did to themselves and that Serena had tried to teach her one night. Afterwards however, Blair had been so horrified and appalled that she had threatened Serena with telling her mother if she ever mentioned it again.

She had often thought about heeding Serena's advice when she had been intimate with her husband, when she could see the pleasure on his face, but had felt none of it herself. Later she had come to accept the fact that satisfaction in the marriage bed was not meant for her, and as she had been taught by her mother, was neither desired nor expected of ladies of her station either. Still, she had hoped that for her it would be different.

Last night she had encountered vivid descriptions of these acts, reminding her once more of Serena's hushed instructions. Lying there in the dark, Blair had almost been tempted then to let her fingers slide down her body, until the stern eyes of her mother appeared in front of her, judging and condemning her. Serena would certainly have laughed at her silliness and would have reminded her gently that she no longer needed to worry about her mother, now that she was beyond reproach.

Clenching her eyes shut and pressing her lips together, Blair pushed her mother's face further and further out of her mind until it was only a small dark stain on the edge of her consciousness. She let her hand slide down her cotton-clad body timidly, flinching slightly as she grazed the scar on her stomach, her fingers halting at the hem of her nightgown.

Hesitating for a moment, Blair told herself that she would just get it over with and shoved her fingers to the apex of her thighs until she felt soft, curly hair brush her skin. Heat spread to her cheeks, as she pushed one fingertip lower and deeper, trying to remember Serena's hushed instructions.

Slowly, she began to move her hand in tender circles, but drew it away when she felt nothing more than a shallow tingle instead of the overwhelming pleasure promised in the novel. She opened her eyes, sighing in frustration. Serena had made it sound so easy, so Blair knew she must be doing something wrong. Maybe if she only tried harder –

A sharp rap on the door broke through her thoughts, and she had only so much time to arrange herself in a non-compromising position before the door was opened.

Miss Scott bolted into the room without sparing Blair a glance or a nod, marching without deterrence to the curtains to pull them open forcefully. "The Master has asked me to call you down for breakfast," the servant stated brusquely once she had finished her task.

Blair turned her face to the side to avoid the glaring sunlight and stretched her arms above her head lazily as if she had only just awoken. The book, still hidden under her blanket, punctured her hip like an unwanted insect as she turned and twisted.

"Did you oversleep, Miss Scott?" Blair asked the servant innocently, hiding her amusement behind a false yawn, "it must be 9 o'clock already."

The woman turned towards her with a cold smile. "It is 10 o'clock, Miss, and it was the Master's orders, not my good will."

Blair gave a curt nod, careful not to let it show on her face how pleased she was. "And will the Master be waiting downstairs for me?" she asked in what she hoped was an off-handed tone while she busied herself with propping her back up against the pillows.

She thought she detected a faint knowing smirk on the other woman's lips before she shook her head. "No, Miss, he already went out to meet his attorney. But the butler has laid out a breakfast for you in the kitchen."

"In the kitchen?" Blair repeated in disbelief.

"I thought it would not be proper for you to eat in the salon when the Master is not present," the housekeeper replied solemnly, folding her hands over her skirts.

The unspoken implications reverberated in the air between them, but Blair refused to rise to the bait. "I'm sure this was not part of Mr. Bass's orders," she said with a tight smile.

"His orders were not specific on that account, Miss."

"You should know that Lady Baizen tried to put me in the kitchen as well, but she had no luck with that either," Blair said with threatening sweetness.

Miss Scott let out an indignant laugh as she walked back towards the door, but stopped short before leaving the room and turned around once more, her face filled with anger. "I'm sure your closeness with the Master helped you there, so you might as well make use of it with Mr. Bass in the same way."

Blair could see on the servant's features that she would never be able to sway her to her side. No matter what she did, no matter what she said, she would always confirm whatever suspicions and prejudices the servants of this house entertained.

"Why do you hate me so much, Miss Scott?" she asked, more out of curiosity than resentment.

The other woman shook her head almost sadly. "I don't hate you, Miss Waldorf, for that would be a sin." She paused for a moment, regarding Blair with stern, judging eyes that reminded her of Lady Baizen. "I just don't like you and the way you live your life, luring honest men into an amoral life."

A small forlorn smile tugged at her lips at the servant's naivety that felt too familiar to bear. So she turned her head towards the window to hide the hurt behind the glaring rays of sunlight.

"I don't know if you will believe me, Miss Scott, but I was a respectable, innocent and pious girl once," she said quietly, "but it did not save me from what I have become."

"Do you need help getting dressed, Miss?" was the only response the servant offered.

Blair waved her hand in dismissal. "No, but you can tell the butler that I'm not hungry."

Hearing the door close behind Miss Scott, she closed her eyes for a long moment, trying to focus on the incessant thumping of the mill and the murmurs and laughter down in the yard, hoping to drown out her own thoughts. However, she could not stop the tears rising behind her eyelids.

She longed for Serena's arms and her advice, even though she still felt betrayed by her friend's absence. It seemed so out of character for Serena to just leave her to fend for herself in a stranger's house that Blair now wondered if something had kept her friend from visiting.

Eyes flying open with realization, Blair scrambled out of bed as quickly as her body would allow. If Serena did not come to her, she would just visit her herself, if only to assure herself that her friend was not lying in an unmarked grave on the Oldham cemetery. And while she was at it, she might as well use the outing to post a letter to Lady Baizen, telling her about the arrangement with Mr. Bass.

Hastily, she slipped into a shift and tied her corset tightly before combing through the selection of yet unworn dresses in her wardrobe. Her fingers came to rest on a demure high-waisted crème muslin gown, the sleeves and hemline trimmed with beautifully deep green lace. She knew it was a gown befitting a blushing debutante rather than a fallen woman and wondered why Mr. Bass had thought it suitable for her; still, she pulled it out and held it up to her body in front of the mirror.

Blair had spent enough time in society to know that a dress like this on a woman with her reputation would be noticed, and would have Miss Scott pray for her soul in the Sunday mass. Smiling at the thought, she slipped into the dress, enjoying the smooth material sliding over her skin. With relief she found that it could be buttoned in the front, though thinking that if Mr. Bass had been present, she might have liked to tease him some more. Her thoughts toyed with the impropriety of the idea and how rough and gentle his fingers had felt on her neck.

Checking her appearance in the dressing mirror, she was surprised to see that her cheeks already had a pleasant color without having had to rub them with a towel, the pale gown accentuating the milky hue of her skin. While combing through her hair with her fingers and tying it with loosely with a red satin sash, she searched the floor for her shoes and quickly slipped into them when discovering them near the dresser.

Nodding to herself in the mirror, she grabbed her old straw bonnet and money purse and started towards the door. As she stepped onto the gallery, she let her eyes adjust to the now familiar darkness. A few candelabras down in the entrance hall had been lit, but no ray of daylight penetrated the shadows.

Carefully, she made her way down the steps to the entrance door, wondering if anyone would stop her or if she would find the heavy door locked. There was no sound except her nervous breathing and the clap of her slippers on the marble floor. Without looking back into the blackness, she pulled on the door handle. It opened with some effort and creaking, but it was not locked. Swiftly, she slipped out into the morning chill, goose bumps appearing on her arms as she crossed the yard. The sun was only just beginning to heat the air, where by the afternoon it would be unbearable and stifling.

As she made her way to the gate, she noticed the whispers following her. Hence, she forced herself to slow her gait and make eye contact with as many workers as would look at her. Some of them took off their hats in greeting, some only nodded, some turned away, but she tried to hold her head high and smile at all of them, and not let them see that she wished she had taken the servant's entrance.

Seeing Miss Scott and Mr. Linton talking at the gatehouse, she forged her lips into the most amicable smile. "Mr. Linton," she greeted with a well-practiced nod, ignoring his eyes traveling her body and imagining him being chased from the mill by an angry mob. "Miss Scott," Blair acknowledged icily, feeling the other woman's disapproval in the censure of her eyes and her rigid posture.

"Might I say that you look lovely today, Miss Waldorf," the overseer said sweetly, oblivious to the housekeeper's apparent displeasure.

Blair inclined her head gracefully. "Thank you for your compliments, Mr. Linton."

"I take it you are on your way out?"

"Indeed I am, Mr. Linton. I have some urgent business in town," Blair said as she turned to leave. "Some social calls."

"Then, we shouldn't keep Miss Waldorf from visiting her friends, Mr. Linton," Miss Scott called after her, in a tone heavy with underlying accusations that Blair answered with a tight smile.

"Oh, that is good to hear, Miss," Mr. Linton said jovially, deaf to the tension between the two women. "It is a pastime much better suited for you," he added while wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. "I don't know what Mr. Bass was thinking."

"You question my abilities then, Mr. Linton?" Blair challenged, refusing to overhear his insult.

"No, no, Miss Waldorf," he retracted, waving his arms nervously. "I didn't mean to offend." With fascination Blair watched the drops of sweat on his upper lips multiply as he cleared his throat several times. "I only meant to say that a stuffy office is no place for a Lady such as yourself."

Blair knew exactly what he was trying to say. That a woman had no place in business. She could read the thoughts on his face easily, since those thoughts had also swirled through her own mind many times. A few months ago, she would have surely condemned any woman working in a men's business as unnatural or amoral. Even though Mr. Bass seemed to trust in her skills, she was not quite so convinced herself. However, she knew that to satisfy those around her, she had to wear an iron mask of confidence.

"I guess it is for Mr. Bass to decide how he wants to use me," Blair chirped innocently, but holding their gaze for a long moment. "I bid you good day," she said as she turned her back on them and walked out of the gate out into the busy street, feeling their eyes on her until she had turned the next corner.

Exhaling an incredulous laugh, she was surprised how easy it had been for her to leave the mill. As she continued down the slender alleys, she occasionally glanced over her shoulder, assuring herself that she was not being followed. She did not know if she had expected armed soldiers to bar her way or dogs being sent to hunt her down, but after years of having to ask for permission to leave the house, it frightened and exhilarated her that she could do as she pleased and go where she wanted.

For half an hour she strolled aimlessly through the sunlit cobblestone streets, admiring the displays in the shopkeepers' windows and the town's busy energy. Errand boys and kitchen maids were hurrying by, fully stocked mule carts making their way to the market, well-dressed gentlemen on horse passing through the dusty streets.

Blair realized that the color of her dress had been ill-chosen for a town stroll, since the hemline had already turned a horrid shade of grey and because it drew attention to her person. Despite the absence of gloves, a parasol and a carriage, several gentlemen and shop owners bowed or lifted their hat in greeting, possibly believing her to be a wealthy lady or mill owner's wife. For this moment it felt delightful not to be me met with hostile and reproachful glances, but to be looked at with admiration and respect.

Though the sky was hazy and the air smelled and tasted like the thick, musty smoke from the factories and mills, the town seemed alluring to her for the first time.

After following some twists and turns through the withered streets without recognizing a single stone or house, Blair eventually asked a passing servant girl to show her the way to The Lion. As directed she followed the alleyway leading to the market square, soon hearing hard, fast steps approaching her from behind. A familiar voice called out her name, echoing along the narrow lane.

When she turned around, she immediately recognized Thomas's pale, round face and gave him a warm smile.

"Miss Waldorf, it is so nice to see you," the small boy said in a breathy voice as he came to a halt before her.

"It is very good to see you too, Thomas, especially after what you did for me after my fall," Blair said sincerely, reaching out to touch his shoulder tenderly.

Quickly, he averted his eyes, his fingers fluttering nervously over the buttons of his shirt. "It's quite alright, Miss," he mumbled.

"If there is anything I could do to repay your kindness –" Blair prodded, unsure if he would expect some material gratitude from her.

"No, Miss," he said hastily, shaking his head without meeting her eye. "There is no need. I'm just glad you are well now. Miss Serena was very worried."

Blair smiled down at the boy, his humbleness filling her with an odd sense of pride. She pushed him along gently, signaling him to accompany her as she continued on her way to the tavern.

"I'm very sorry I was the cause of her distress, so I would like to visit her today," she said with a tense smile, thinking of how she would have needed Serena during her own troubles. "Do you know if she is in her room?"

"Oh yes, Miss," Thomas answered eagerly as they reached the entrance of The Lion. "She will be so happy to see you."

"Do you think I can go up to her room?" Blair asked, looking doubtfully up to the windows of the upper floor.

A grin spread over the boy's face as he meet Blair's gaze. "It is only Arthur in there now and I'm sure he won't mind, Miss."

"I guess I will try my luck then, Thomas," she replied teasingly. As she put her fingers on the door handle, she remembered that she had wanted to post a note for Lady Baizen.

She turned around to the young boy once more. "Thomas, could you tell me where the post office is? I would like to send a message to Lady Baizen later."

"Gladly, Miss, but I can also deliver your message," he offered shyly. "It will be no bother at all."

Blair couldn't help but smile at his generous suggestion. "I think I would be lost without you, Thomas," she said warmly while opening her money purse. "I will pay you for your troubles, of course."

"But Miss –"

"No, there will be no argument," Blair said sternly as she grabbed the boy's hand and shoved three coins in his palm, closing his fingers over it. "Please tell Lady Baizen that all is settled with Mr. Bass and she can send the child to the mill in the next days."

Thomas nodded and smiled timidly before turning around to run across the market square in the direction of Twelve Oak's Manor.

With a sigh, Blair finally stepped into the inn, the now well-known mix of stale alcohol and other abhorrent odors assaulting her nose immediately. The bar room was empty except for Arthur, who had his back turned towards her and was busy polishing one of tables with a dirty rag.

To get his attention, she cleared her throat loudly. When he turned around, his eyes widened in surprise, the leathery skin of his face stretching into a grin.

"Ah, lass, you are looking more beautiful than ever," he said with a welcoming sweep of his arms as if he wanted to draw her into a hug. "I see Mr. Bass has taken good care of you."

Blair only nodded wordlessly.

Arthur took a step towards her, apparently wanting to have a closer look at her. "I wasn't sure we would see you again when he took you. Looked as if you were not long for this world, child." It almost sounded as if he had been concerned about her, so Blair for once refrained from being angry with him for calling her 'child'.

"Well, I'm still here as you can see, Sir," she said kindly. "I apologize if I caused you any troubles."

He let out a bellowing laugh. "No need to apologize to me, lass. But Martha on the other hand might have a mind to hang and quarter you," he said with a merry twinkle in his eyes. "She had to close the back rooms for a few days until she had cleaned up all the blood and, of course, we lost two of our richest patrons that night."

Blair grimaced. "Of course." It had never dawned on her that The Lion had lost some valuable customers due to her misfortune, though she believed she had done the inn a favor in ridding it of Mr. Baizen.

"So Mr. Bass has not been here since that night?" she asked uncertainly, mulling the old man's words.

He smiled knowingly. "Why would he, child? When he has you for himself now," he said with a wink that Blair answered with an indignant huff.

Arthur only chuckled in amusement. "Come now, lass. You can't play coy with me. You wouldn't be askin' if you weren't interested in my answer."

"I have not come here to discuss my feelings with you, Sir," she scoffed angrily, strategically avoiding a response. "I've only come here to visit Serena."

"I won't be stoppin' you," he said with a wave of his hands towards the staircase. "But make sure you don't run into my wife."

She had almost feared Arthur would tell her that Serena had suffered from a terrible accident or had been kidnapped by one of the patrons, but his unperturbed attitude told her that nothing of the sort had happened.

Relieved but also irritated, Blair crossed the bar room and made her way upstairs to the girls' rooms. As it was barely past midday, the hallway was eerily silent as the girls were most likely still sleeping. Hesitantly, Blair approached Serena's door, unsure if her presence would be welcome.

Still, her anger and bewilderment at her friend's absence outweighed her uncertainty, so that she finally lifted her hand to knock loudly against the wood.

Hearing some quiet noises and shuffles behind the door, she tried to school her features into a friendly mask to be prepared for any kind of reaction from Serena.

The door opened with a forceful pull, revealing a barely awake and presentable Serena. Slowly, her eyes focused on Blair's face and recognition spread over her features. Suddenly, she let out a loud gasp and swiftly embraced Blair in a tight and almost painful hug. All doubts about Serena's loyalty and love were pushed to the back of her mind in that instant, and she wound her arms around her friend's back, holding her tight and burying her face in her tangled, blonde tresses.

"Don't cry," Serena said with a watery laugh as she took Blair's face into her hands, wiping away the tears with her thumbs.

"Only if you don't," Blair laughed with her.

Serena looked more haggard and tired than she remembered, her eyes red and swollen from lack of sleep or the smoke in the club.

"You should be eating more," Blair said seriously, jabbing her index finger into her friend's stomach gently.

"Only if you do," Serena replied, letting her eyes trail pointedly over Blair's figure until landing once more on her face. With a pained look, Serena stroked back Blair's hair as if wanting to make sure that her coiffure was still neat and proper. Grabbing her hands, she pulled her fully into her dingy room, and closed the door behind them.

"I like your dress," Serena added almost as an afterthought, "not something I thought I would ever see you wear."

Blair let out a wry chuckle as she lowered her eyes to her garment, recalling Mr. Bass's schemes and ploys in order to get her into this dress. "Trust me, me neither," she said, smoothing out a small wrinkle, "to be honest, I did not really want to wear them at first, but now –"

Unexpectedly, she felt Serena grasp her chin, forcing her to lift her head to meet her eyes. "Did he give it to you?"

"What if he did?" Blair asked, shrugging her shoulders defiantly, already guessing Serena's train of thought.

However, her friend lowered her head and scrunched her eyes shut tightly as if in pain. When she spoke again it was only to their joined hands. "Blair, I was so worried about you after he took you away from The Lion that night. I didn't know what to do, and there was so much blood –," Serena's voice cracked and she took a deep breath before continuing, " – so I just let him leave with you," she whispered.

Blair opened her mouth to reassure Serena that it did not matter, that she would have done the same, that this decision saved her life, but her throat went dry at the thought that her best friend had left her alone once more. So she remained mute, pressing Serena to fill the silence.

She finally lifted her head to meet Blair's eyes, her own shimmering with unshed tears. "I'm so sorry, Blair. I shouldn't have. I shouldn't have," she continued, shaking her head in agony, "the stories I have heard about him and the fire –" she trailed off, searching Blair's face carefully. "If he did something –"

Before Serena could finish her sentence, Blair disentangled herself from her friend's hold brusquely and walked towards the small window, ripping open the curtains to let in some air and light.

"If you were so worried, why didn't you come to visit me?" she said over her shoulder, crossing her arms over stomach.

"I tried, Blair," Serena cried out behind her, "I came to that wretched house several times and asked to see you, but the servants would not let me in, they would not pass on any of my messages, and the housekeeper swore that Mr. Bass would make my life a nightmare he ever found me on his grounds."

"I just wish you –" she trailed off, not knowing how to continue. In those first lonely hours, she had liked to imagine her friend whirling into the mill and demand Blair's release as she had been wont to do during their silly childhood games; but now she saw that Serena was trapped by her own identity and fear of exposure just as she was.

"I woke up in my nightgown in the house of a strange man, with no idea where I was or how I got there," Blair said quietly, moving to sit down on the settee. "I hope you will never have to experience that."

She heard Serena's hesitant steps before she sank down to her knees in front of her, "I didn't know what to do, Blair, and I was so scared," her friend said, reaching out to clasp clasping Blair's hands in her own and squeezing them firmly, "please forgive me."

Studying their intertwined hands, and how her own hung limp in Serena's firm grasp, she knew in heart that there was nothing to forgive. Still, she could not find the strength to look into her friend's eyes as she consented with a short nod.

"Now, please tell me he didn't hurt you," Serena said, her voice raw but steady. "And when you answer, I want you to look at me, Blair."

Blair took a deep, theatrical sigh and lifted her eyes to Serena's. "He did not hurt me," she enunciated firmly for her friend's benefit. "He saved my life."

Serena only nodded solemnly, tightening her grip on her hand. "Did he take advantage of you?"

Feeling the heat rushing to her cheeks, Blair shook her head fervently. "No, Serena. He did nothing I did not want him to do."

Her friend seemed to be weighing her answer for a few moments. "Did you lay with him then?" she continued bluntly, causing Blair's eyes to widen with horror.

"Serena!" she exclaimed angrily, trying unsuccessfully to withdraw her hands from her friend's iron grip. "Where are all these questions coming from?"

"I have been hearing things in town and from the girls and I –"

"Would it really be so terrible if I had?" Blair asked tartly. "You have been doing it throughout our whole adolescence."

Serena's eyes narrowed at her words, but her features remained calm. She held up one of her hands in defeat. "Blair, would you let me finish?"

As she shrugged silently, Serena let out a small sigh and rolled her eyes.

"I only wanted to say that I would prefer to hear it from you – if it is true."

Wanting for once in her life to be the daring one, she was almost tempted to tell Serena how she had seduced Mr. Bass and lain with him in all imaginable positions; but she did not want to lie to her, not about this. "I have not bedded him, Serena," she finally admitted, lowering her eyes to avoid her friend's propping gaze, "but I did kiss him."

Feeling Serena's fingers under her chin, Blair took a deep breath before lifting her head once more. "That's all right, Blair," she said intently, her features tense but without judgment, "you don't have to feel guilty."

She let out a small laugh as she realized that in all of this, it had never crossed her mind how her husband might feel about her decisions. "I don't," she stated with surprised conviction.

Serena's face broke into a smile, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. "I taught you well," she said when she drew back, cupping Blair's cheek tenderly with her hand.

Chuckling softly, Blair playfully swatted away her friend's hand. With a pout Serena rose from the ground and mussed up Blair's hair in retaliation, before picking up a comb from her vanity and starting to untangle her blonde locks.

"So, do you like him?" she said teasingly over her shoulder, all the while combing with enough force to rip out strands of hair.

"If you keep doing this, you will be bald in one week," Blair chided as she got up from the settee and wrenched the comb from her friend's fingers. "Here, let me," she said, pushing Serena down onto the stool in front of the vanity. "I fancy him enough to kiss him, I guess," she answered her friend's question evasively as she tried to smooth out the knots in the thick tresses.

"At least there was some grain of truth to the rumors then," Serena teased.

As the words sunk in, Blair was reminded of something her friend had said earlier, "Serena, what are they saying in town?"

She could feel her friend's eye on her in the mirror, regarding her carefully. "It is of no consequence, Blair."

"It is to me, S. You know that," she said while parting the thick hair, determined to master the unruly mane with a braid.

"B, it is only gossip," the blonde mop of hair in front of her said pleadingly.

"Which you were more than ready to believe a few moments ago," she answered, yanking Serena's tresses forcefully to keep her from turning her head. "You know I will find out another way, if you do not tell me."

Serena lifted her hand to rub the back of her head, her face contorted with pain. "Would you please let go of my hair before I tell you?"

With a sweet smile, Blair finished the braid and patted the top of Serena's head fondly. "There."

Running her hand over her tightly bound locks, Serena looked less than pleased. "I think I last had a braid when I was 13."

Blair leaned over and placed the comb pack on the dresser. "I know," she said with a sad smile, remembering the exact day it had happened - the day of Serena's first kiss, "but it is the only decent coiffure I can do myself."

She moved back over to the settee, carefully straightening her dress over legs as she sat down. "Now, tell me what they are saying."

Taking a deep breath, Serena turned around to face Blair. "They are saying that Mr. Bass throws wild orgies in his cellars, where he seduces innocent spinner girls," she said almost apologetically, "they are also saying that his blindness is god's wrath for his pact with the devil."

Blair could not help but laugh, "That is beyond ridiculous, Serena."

Instead of joining in, however, her friend lowered her eyes, which, Blair knew, meant that she would not like what came next. "They are saying that you are his whore," Serena stated quietly, "or his mistress, if they are kinder."

Though she felt like falling into a bottomless hole, Blair shook her head, struggling to keep an amused expression on her face. "You can't tell me that people believe such nonsense," she bit out cheerfully.

"Some even believe you are his slave or a human blood sacrifice, depending on whom you ask," Serena answered with an uneasy chuckle. Yet, when her friend looked up at her, a deep frown appeared on her forehead which told Blair that she had seen through her charade.

"They believe what they want to believe," Serena said in a voice meant to be comforting, "you should know that better than anyone."

Her head started to feel dizzy as she remembered how fond she had been just a few months ago of threatening other girls with spreading ugly tales about their character, just to put them in their place. Back when she had had all the power and they were nothing.

Trying to mask the hot tears that had gathered in her eyes, she let out an unbelieving laugh. "I guess I never thought it would feel so final."

"It is not," Serena said earnestly as she rose from her seat at the vanity and sat down beside Blair. "Just look at me."

"And what am I supposed to see?" Blair responded sourly. "My future? Will I spend the rest of my life in a filthy brothel, pleasuring men like Mr. Baizen?"

As she watched Serena's face harden, Blair knew she had gone too far. So she grabbed her friend's hand and squeezed it, silently asking for forgiveness.

Serena smiled weakly, but gave her a soft squeeze in return. "I know you are upset, Blair, but don't take it out on me."

Blair nodded, but did not loosen her grip. Not knowing what to say, she let her gaze sweep the small room, taking in the remnants of last night's activities – the unmade bed, the half-emptied wine bottle on the night stand, discarded stockings and ribbons cluttering the floor and a black top-hat dangling on the open door of Serena's wardrobe.

Sighing, Blair fixed her attention back on her friends pale face, which seemed to have followed her inspection of the interior carefully. "Do you like your new patron, S?"

"He is nice enough and he pays well," she replied with a shrug of her shoulders.

"Does he also treat you well?" Blair implored, lifting her hand to cup her friend's face.

"He is nice enough," Serena repeated in a stern tone, telling Blair that the discussion was over.

Letting her hand fall back to her lap, Blair regarded her friend for a long moment. "What are we still doing here, S?"

Serena took a deep breath, a smile forming on her lips that did not quite reach her eyes. "We are free."

"Are you?" Blair responded with a pointed look to her friend's rumpled bed. "Because I don't feel that I am."

"We are free to make our own choices at least, B," Serena replied with an untroubled determination, that Blair had never resented more than in this moment.

"Free to be a whore, you mean?" Blair spat as she rose from the settee to put some space between them. "Free to jump into bed with Mr. Bass just as I please. Isn't that what you would have me do?"

Serena caught her wrist calmly and pulled her down again onto the sofa, remaining quiet until Blair had found the courage to look her in the eye. "Yes," she finally answered with a shrug. "If it is what you want, you should be a whore."

"It is not that easy, S." Though she wished it was as simple as in her friend's mind.

"I know," Serena said with a sad smile, and Blair thought she detected a hint of disappointment in her eyes as she let go of her hand.

"I had a letter from your mother asking about you," Blair stated, trying to shift the conversation away from her own shortcomings. As she had expected, Serena's posture immediately turned as rigid as a hard-backed chair. "She says she is ready to forgive and forget, if you only returned home."

Serena's eyes met hers for a long moment before she rose and walked towards the wooden wardrobe. "You know I can't, B. I can't go back to that life," she stated, while ruffling through the choice of robes and dresses in front of her.

"S, don't you see how lucky you are? To have someone that loves you and misses you and wants you back?"

Pulling out a silky green dressing gown, Serena slipped into it quickly, tying the sash around her waist loosely. "It is not enough. Not for me." As she sat back down in front of the vanity mirror, she quietly regarded her reflection for a long moment.

Blair gestured to the room in frustration. "Is this enough for you? Is this what you dreamed of when you ran away?"

Serena shook her head, her fingers hovering over a myriad of glittering hair pins and feathered hair bands on her dresser. "What else is there? Become a maid or a governess?" she asked disdainfully, finally deciding on a deep red barrette adorned with pale pink gemstones. "Wake up Blair. You tried to do everything properly and look where it got you?" Serena continued as she fastened her braid into a bun, strategically pulling out a few tendrils to frame her face. "You are the most buttoned-up person I know and people still think you are a wanton harlot."

Watching as her friend applied rouge and perfumed creams to transform herself into the fresh-faced young girl she was supposed to be, Blair wondered whether Serena was not the wise one. "So what do I do now, S?" she asked gravely, "There is no home I can return to."

Apparently satisfied with her appearance, Serena turned around once more. "Then make yourself a new home, B," she said with a hint of irritation.

Blair laughed incredulously. "Here? Where everyone hates me?"

Letting out an exasperated sigh, Serena pulled Blair to her feet forcefully before pushing her down on the place she had just vacated. "You know that some nasty rumors don't mean that everyone hates you," she lectured while she untied and combed her hair, "and I'm sure that some people might be feeling quite the opposite about you," she taunted Blair with an accompanying tug on her locks.

"I'm sure I don't know what you are talking about," Blair said with as much indignation as she could muster.

"In any case," Serena continued cheerily as if she hadn't heard her, "you can make your home anywhere in this world, silly," she said almost giddily as she arranged Blair's hair into an elegant twisted bun that she last remembered wearing on Christmas eve last year. It had been the evening she had told her husband of her pregnancy and it had been the first time since their wedding that he had looked at her with something akin to love – at least that was what she had told herself at the time.

Through the haze of her thoughts, she could hear her friend's chatter as if muffled by a thick layer of heavy fog, " – it could be here in Oldham, or maybe in Persia, or in Paris, or the new Americas."

"But why is it so hard letting go of the home I almost had?" Blair asked the reflection in front of her.

Serena's face came into view next to hers as she crouched down beside her and wrapped her arms around her shoulders tightly. "Blair, you have to let go of the past," she heard her say close to her ear, her fingers squeezing her upper arms firmly, "your baby is buried and your husband is divorcing you." The words cut into her like a shard of cold glass, her eyes snapping up to connect with her friend's in the mirror. "Promise me that from now on we will only look forward," Serena whispered, while pulling her closer to her body. Blair tasted the salt of her tears on the edge of her lips as she nodded and turned to kiss Serena softly on the cheek.

A timid knock on the door broke them apart. Letting out a long sigh, Serena wiped away Blair's tears with a quick stroke of her thumb before rising to straighten her attire. With a quick nod to herself, she called in the visitor with a practiced cheerfulness that sent chills down Blair's spine.

The door opened slowly before Thomas's face appeared. Blair couldn't suppress a small smile as she noticed the deep red blush on his cheeks and the way his eyelashes fluttered up and down nervously. "Can I come in, Miss Serena?" he asked in a barely audible voice.

"Of course, Thomas, make yourself at home," Serena answered with a inviting smile, turning the whole expanse of his neck into a flaming sign of his distress.

He stepped in reluctantly, barely lifting his feet from the ground. "Actually, I have business for Miss Waldorf," he mumbled, his eyes glued to the ground.

"Did Lady Baizen send a message for me?"

The boy paused for a long moment before his eyes flitted up to her face. "She sent the two young Misses in their carriage. They are waiting outside, Miss," he sputtered hastily before ducking his head as if expecting a slap.

"Both of them? " Blair rose from the settee so quickly that she almost fainted from the sharp pain cutting through her body. Letting out a small moan, she clasped her hands over stomach, scrunching her eyes shut tightly till it had subsided to a dull throb. Her head spun at the thought to have to bring both girls back to the mill and explain this unfortunate situation to Mr. Bass.

Taking a long, unsteady breath, she opened her eyes, only to find herself confronted with the worried faces of Serena and Thomas.

"You can't just leave them downstairs by themselves, Thomas," Blair said with a tight smile, dismissing their stares, her fingers smoothing the fabric of her dress over her stomach.

"I apologize, Miss Waldorf," he stuttered, red spots appearing on his pale cheeks, "but Lady Baizen told me that they were not to leave their carriage before arriving at Mr. Bass's mill."

"You did right, Thomas," Serena interjected chirpily, "I'm sure Lady Baizen would not want her daughters to be seen in an establishment such as this," she said with a scolding glance at Blair.

She abhorred being chided like a naughty child, but realized that Thomas, least of all people, did not deserve her venom. So she took a step towards the boy and touched his arm gently. "Thank you, Thomas," she said warmly. "Did Lady Baizen say something else to you?"

Eyes widening as if surprised by her question, he swiftly shook his head. "No, Miss, she did not talk to me at all. Just the servant. I gave your message to the servant and she told me to wait outside. Some time later she brought out the two misses with her Lady's orders."

"Is Lady Baizen unwell?"

"Miss Jenny –," he stopped short, suddenly looking flushed, "the servant," he corrected himself in a loud voice, "said that Lady Baizen has to take care of her husband and that he can't rest with two children in the house." Not only Thomas's shifting skin color, but also his reluctance to meet her gaze told Blair that he probably hadn't paid much attention to what had come out of Jenny's mouth.

"Of course he can't," Blair said sweetly, casting a questioning glance at Serena, who only shrugged.

"Maybe," Blair purred, turning her attention back to Thomas, "I have another message for you to deliver to Lady Baizen soon." As expected his eyes lit up with excitement at the prospect. "Perhaps you can ask Miss Jenny when we can expect his lordship and her ladyship back in society?"

He nodded his head eagerly. "I would be happy to do it, Miss Waldorf."

"It is settled then." She leaned forward and gave him a small kiss on his cheek. When she drew back, his eyes were so wide, that she almost regretted using him for her own purposes. He was not more than a child after all. "Thank you, Thomas. Please be so kind and tell the girls I will be right down."

With a short nod, Thomas rushed out of the room, his hurried steps echoing in the hallway.

"You are terrible, Blair," Serena said in amused tone, poking her arm in mock reproach.

Blair only rolled her eyes in response. "It is not like I'm not doing him a favor as well, S. Though I'm doubtful Jenny will reciprocate his feelings. She seems to have her aim set on higher things." In fact, she knew that Jenny would be less than pleased by Thomas's attention. Yet, despite the unease spreading through her body, she refused to feel guilty. "Still, it doesn't hurt to try, right?" she added more for her own than Serena's sake.

Her friend smiled indulgently as she walked towards her bed, letting Blair know without words that she did not approve. "If you don't take care, he will be in love with you soon, B."

Frowning, Serena surveyed the mess of blankets and pillows for a moment before shifting the pile from one end of the mattress to the other. A small satisfied squeal escaped her lips as she lifted two rumpled, white stockings from the sheets. "Besides," she said, sitting down on the edge of the bed to smooth the silken garments over her calves and thighs, "why do you care what is going on up there? It is not like he can ever show up in polite society again without being whispered about or laughed at. Everybody knows what happened to him."

"Maybe I just want to know he is suffering," Blair said icily, watching Serena carefully fasten the stockings with a red ribbon.

Lifting her head, Serena regarded Blair for a long moment. "Believe me, he is," she said imploringly. "That night, when he came to The Lion, he was drunk. He kept asking to see me, but I told Arthur and Martha that I was scared of him and wanted nothing to do with him." She was no longer looking at Blair, her gaze lost and unseeing. "Arthur had thrown him out. I watched it from my window. It was too dark to see anything, just the light from windows."

Since Mr. Bass had refused to divulge any knowledge he had of this incident, Blair felt desperate to get a glimpse at the truth. "What happened then, S?" she whispered hoarsely.

Serena wrinkled her forehead, as if trying to call back a long forgotten memory. "Another man appeared and said something to Mr. Baizen. Mr. Baizen was trying to hit him, but stumbled. The other one pulled something out of his coat, which, I think, was the pistol. It all happened so quickly, B," she paused once more to gather her thoughts. "There was a loud bang and then Mr. Baizen fell to the ground. I thought at first that he was dead, but then he started screaming, and I saw the blood on his breeches."

"And the other man? What did he look like?" Blair asked with bated breath. If Mr. Bass had played a role in this as she suspected, the gunman might be somebody she already knew.

Her eyes refocusing on Blair's, Serena shook her head regretfully. "He was no more than a shadow, B. Before I knew what had happened, he was already gone."

She opened her mouth, wanting to press Serena for more details, but had to admit to herself that the truth she was seeking was not to be found here.

Blair straightened her back as if going into combat. "I better go, S. The girls are waiting," she said with a rueful smile.

Jumping up from the bed, Serena pulled her into a hug so tight that Blair could smell the expensive orange-scented oil in her hair. "Promise you will come and visit me again soon, B?" her friend said in low, muffled voice against her neck that raised goose bumps along her spine.

She pulled back and saw the weary look in Serena's eyes, as if she was afraid that they might never see each other again. "I promise, S," she said reassuringly, rising up on tip toes to give Serena a kiss goodbye on her cheek before stepping away from her.

As she closed Serena's door behind her, Blair took a deep breath before climbing down the stairs hastily to avoid Martha's wrath. After waving a quick goodbye to Arthur as she passed through the bar room, she swiftly climbed into the black carriage waiting for her in front of the inn.

One pair of alert, and another one of resentful eyes awaited her inside, looking at her expectantly.

"Hello, girls," Blair said with false cheerfulness as she sat down next to Kathy, Margaret perched on the bench across from them like a proud queen. Both children were dressed and coiffured impeccably, wearing rose-colored silk gowns with matching bonnets and stockings. It all had been masterfully arranged to show Blair that even if the children had to be sent to another person's house to be educated, they still wore more precious garments than Blair could ever imagine possessing.

"I hope you are doing well?" Blair spoke into the silence as the carriage started to move.

"I am well, Miss Waldorf," Kathy answered softly while attempting to nod. However, the heavily decorated hat on her head looked as if might snap of her small neck any minute. Without asking, Blair reached over to pull the long hat needles out of Kathy's hair and removed her bonnet.

"Better?" she asked, stroking down the child's curls to make her presentable.

Kathy nodded, smiling shyly in response. "I'm hope you enjoyed Ireland, Miss Waldorf."

She had almost forgotten that she had told the child the false story about her sick aunt in Ireland to make her sudden departure more palatable for the fragile girl.

Wanting to keep up appearances for the her, Blair forced a pleased smile onto her lips. "Yes, Kathy, it is a very beautiful and mysterious country indeed."

"We heard you took quite the fall there, Miss," Margaret cut in sweetly, though there was nothing amiable about the icy glare in her grey eyes or her frozen posture, her head held high and firm.

Blair met Margaret's eyes for a long moment until the girl averted her gaze to stare out of the window. "I took a deep fall indeed, Miss Margaret, but I'm still here, as you can see." To Blair's surprise the young girl turned her head once more to look at her, though her face remained hard.

"If Kathy had not taken such a fancy to you, I know, my mother would have never done this to us," Margaret said with a poise that Blair almost envied.

"You mean the disgrace of being taught by me and to having to come to town for your lessons?" Blair said in a calm voice, knowing that Margaret wanted to rile her. Yet, what the girl did not understand was that Blair knew better than anyone what it meant to be living in someone else's shadow, trying to create perfection that was never wanted or desired.

Margaret looked taken aback for a moment, but then gave a short nod.

"Do you think we could get along for these few hours, Miss Margaret?" Blair asked, watching the older girl's eyes study her young sister intently. Before she could answer, however, her attention was drawn to a noisy commotion outside the carriage.

Realizing that they had just turned into the courtyard of Mr. Bass's mill, Blair immediately sensed the nervous atmosphere. None of the workers was even paying attention to their richly ornamented vehicle, all eyes glued to two figures at the far end of the courtyard. She could make out Mr. Bass's terse figure quickly, but the highly agitated voice of the other man, echoing off the walls of the buildings seemed foreign to her. His wild gestures suggested that they were in a serious discussion or argument, though Mr. Bass's quiet and detached manner was even more unsettling.

She heard Margaret jump up from her seat, squeezing her small head out of the carriage window, her pale hands clasping the window frame wildly, her eyes gleaming with delight and excitement.

A slight quiver next to her drew her attention to Kathy, her wide clear eyes staring at her with a questioning expression, her lips and fingers pressed together tightly.

Blair lifted her hand to stroke her hair softly, trying to ease the tautness in her body. "Nothing will happen to you, Kathy, I promise."

The child's only response was a small shake of her head, though her eyes kept returning to her sister's form at the window.

"They are going to have a duel, Miss Waldorf," Margaret exclaimed, her voice full of disconcerting glee.

Blair leaned forward to push the girl back into her seat. "I doubt it, Miss Margaret. And even if they did, you shouldn't take so much pleasure in it."

The girl contorted her lips into a pout that Blair decided to ignore. She knew from experience that pouting was the first step to throwing a tantrum and she would have none of that in front of Mr. Bass and half of the mill's workers. "If you don't pay attention, your face may stay like that, sweetie," she said off-handedly, while watching the child's reaction from the corner of her eye. She couldn't help but be content with her own deviousness as Margaret's hands shot up to her mouth, covering it in panic.

As the carriage finally came to a halt, she held up her hand to stop the girls from moving. "You'll wait here until I fetch you. Is that understood?" she said in a tone often used by her mother when she had been especially displeased with her. Waiting till both girls had nodded their assent, she climbed out of the vehicle.

As she made her way to the two men she noticed with growing discomfiture that workers started to curtsey or take off their hat in greeting. She was torn between feeling proud that they seemed to respect her and the suspicion that they thought of her as someone who had influence on their Master in one immoral way or other.

Getting closer, she could now recognize the second man as Mr. Linton, whose face was twisted into an angry mask, his hands curled into fists, looking as if he wanted to throw a punch any minute.

Without thinking, Blair stepped forward quickly, touching Mr. Bass's upper arm softly. "What is going on here?" she asked tentatively, her eyes flickering between the two men.

She felt his arm muscles twitch under her fingers as he turned his head toward her and gave her a pained smile. "You should not be here, Miss Waldorf."

"Oh, I'm glad she is," Mr. Linton cut in brashly. "She is responsible for this after all," he spat at Blair, his eyes glinting with so much hatred that she took a step away from him.

Apparently sensing Blair's distress, Mr. Bass put one of his hands over her fingers on his arm. "Miss Waldorf," he addressed her in a calm voice, his thumb stroking the back of her hand softly, "Mr. Linton here thinks you are to blame for is his misfortune of being without employment as of this hour. He thinks you whispered it into my ear during our illicit meetings at night." She knew he meant to ridicule Mr. Linton's accusations, but she could only imagine what they had discussed before her arrival, for all the mill workers to hear. It would take no longer than a day for the gossip and exaggerated tales to spread around the whole of Oldham; how Mr. Linton had called her a harlot, how she had seduced both men for her own devious schemes, how both men had fought over her with a bloody fist fight in the yard of the mill, how she had stood there like a marble figure without uttering a word to stop it. Lady Baizen would probably never send her daughter to the mill again.

"Your little whore here just couldn't keep her nose out of my business," she heard Mr. Linton hiss. Mr. Bass's face darkened, his lips thinning into a rigid line, his fingers stilling over her skin.

"You should watch what you say, Mr. Linton," Mr. Bass responded in a voice that send chills down her spine, "my patience is dwindling."

She felt flattered that he was protecting her honor, but she also felt the need to defend herself, to be more than a mute porcelain doll. "It's quite all right, Mr. Bass," she intervened, turning her head back to the other man, "all the whores I know are far more honest than Mr. Linton," she said with a frozen smile.

Suddenly, she felt a hard grip on her arm, pulling her forcefully away from Mr. Bass. She stumbled and lost one of her slippers on the dusty cobblestones. Before she knew what had happened, she was staring in the red and sweaty face of Mr. Linton, who leered at her like a wild dog. His large hands encircled her upper arm with a grasp so painful that she was certain it would leave bruises. She squirmed to escape his hold, but his long fingernails dug into her flesh even deeper. Images of the Baizen's kitchen flashed before her eyes, the rough wood of the door scraping her back as she was pressed against it, the demanding, uninvited hands on her wrists and under her dress.

Blair felt the thick, stale breath of Mr. Linton on her cheek, her eyes searching to find Mr. Bass. He seemed to be calling to someone outside her range of vision, though she could not hear his words through the roar of voices in the courtyard.

"Why don't we test that theory, Miss Waldorf. I'm sure I can pay even better than Mr. Bass," she heard Mr. Linton whisper against her ear. Not being able to think of any other way to express her fury, she leaned back and spit in his face.

For a moment he looked surprised, but just a second later his eyes rolled into the back of his head and his grasp on her slackened. Slowly, he sank to the ground, he head hitting the stones with a nauseating thud. Blood started pooling from the back of his head, and its color reminded her of the red poppies that had ornamented her night stand once. Behind her she heard distant screams for a doctor, but she could do nothing but stare at the motionless figure in front of her.

Next to Mr. Linton's body she noticed a stone as big as a man's fist, the dark spots on it suggesting that someone from the crowd hat thrown it at his head. Quickly, she let her gaze sweep the people in the yard, but most of the workers stared at the scene in shock or surprise. Only Mr. Bass's old butler caught her attention. He and Mr. Bass were talking quietly a few steps away from her. She could not overhear their conversation; however, she caught the servant tuck a gleaming, strangely shaped object back into the inside pocket of his coat.

As her mind grasped for clarity, her gaze wandered back to the man on the ground; a few of the women workers now crouching beside him, trying to stop the bleeding with some of the fabric the cotton bales were delivered in.

A light touch on her shoulders startled her, her thoughts already planning to use the abandoned stone as a weapon. However, when she spun around, the concerned eyes of a vaguely familiar face were studying her. In the back of her mind Blair recognized him as one of the worker who had so kindly offered to show her to Mr. Bass's office the other day. In his left hand he was holding her lost slipper. "Are you all right, Miss? He didn't hurt you, did he?" he asked calmly as if not to spook her.

She gave him a grateful smile and took her shoe from his hand. As she slid it back on, her eyes fell onto the carriage with a small, pale face peering out of the window. Margaret. Of course, she had not obeyed her instructions.

"Excuse me, Sir," she muttered to the man next to her and marched towards the carriage, watching the face disappear back into the darkness. When she opened the door, Margaret was occupied with straightening the wrinkles in her dress and avoiding eye contact. Kathy, however, had pulled up her knees to her body and had covered her ears with her hands, her eyes shut tightly. She must have heard the commotion outside or maybe her sister had given her a detailed account of the events in the yard.

Gently, she laced her hand through the child's and drew it away from her ear. Surprised, Kathy's eyes opened and stared at her in bewilderment and something that looked like relief. "It is all right now, Kathy," Blair cooed quietly, "I will take you into the house now."

"Is the dead man still outside?" Kathy asked hesitantly.

Blair cast a reproachful look at Margaret, who at least felt guilty enough to blush, before tugging on the small child's arm so she would leave her seat. She wanted the girl to see what was going on for herself instead of being scared by her sister's tales.

She took Kathy's hands in her own and stepped to the side so she could have a clear view of the yard. "Look over my shoulder, Kathy. He is not dead, just unconscious," Blair said with forced levity while her mind wished it to be otherwise. "I promise he will be fine."

The child's eyes moved restlessly over the scene before her, before coming to a halt on Mr. Linton's limp form that was still sprawled out on the ground. Blair imagined that the girl was waiting for a sign of life before she nodded, obviously satisfied.

Since she could not lift her, Blair led Kathy down the narrow steps with her hands and urged her to jump onto the ground. Still, she felt the pull on the severed skin and muscles in her stomach, clenching her teeth sharply so as to not alert anyone.

Margaret neither sought nor asked for her assistance but instead decided to jump down from the carriage door with an exhilarated yelp reminding Blair that, despite her demeanor, she was still very much a child. Feeling the eyes of the driver on her neck, she knew that everything would be reported in detail to Lady Baizen, yet Blair decided to refrain from scolding the girl for the display of unrefined behavior.

"Come now, girls," Blair commanded, leading Kathy by the hand towards the main house, past curious whispers and prying eyes that had already tired of the bloody scene. She could tell that even Margaret felt intimidated by how close she kept to her side.

A few people still crowded around the body, trying to wake him with cheek pats and wet clothes; however, Mr. Bass and his butler had disappeared.

When Blair opened the heavy front door to let them in, the thick darkness of the entrance hall greeted them, their steps reverberating hollowly in the marble hall. Kathy froze almost immediately, her fingers becoming limp and damp in Blair's hold.

"What is it?" Blair asked concerned, looking down into the soft, round face.

"I think we have been here before, Miss," Margaret answered, her voice uncertain and unusually quiet.

Blair furrowed her eyebrows. "Perhaps, you were here on a visit when you were younger," she suggested to appease the children, but hardly convinced herself.

"I can't imagine what other reason our mother would have to take us to this dirty house," Margaret said in an indignant voice, scrunching up her nose. "Don't you have a housekeeper?"

Blair smiled at the thought that Miss Scott might be listing behind the kitchen door, but reminded herself that she had to punish the girl's insolent behavior. She crouched down next to child and grabbed her shoulder with her free hand to turn her body towards her. However, the girl crossed her arms over chest defiantly and wrenched herself out of Blair's reach.

"Mr. Bass has a housekeeper, Margaret, and he is very generous in letting us use his house for your lessons, so you should not insult him," Blair said sternly.

Margaret only shrugged her shoulders, refusing to meet her eyes. "My father says he is a cripple and a thief and that he burned down his own mill." The child's remarks strengthened Blair's conviction that there was a hostile history to the two men's relationship she was not privy to.

"He says Mr. Bass is a monster," Kathy whispered into the darkness, her fingernails now digging into Blair's skin.

"Don't be silly, Kathy," Margaret chided, "that was only a story."

Blair looked from one girl to the other, her mind desperately trying to find a way to ease the tension After the rebuke from her sister, Kathy was now staring at the floor, while Margaret was one careless word away from throwing a tantrum. She sighed deeply, whishing she had asked her mother about child-rearing when she still had the opportunity. When she had fallen pregnant, she had believed everything would just fall into place once the child was born. The most important thing then had been to choose the right color for the nursery.

"No more squabbling, girls. Let's get on with your lessons," she finally said, pushing the children towards the library with gentle strength.

When Blair opened the door, the children were reluctant to enter, their eyes studying the rows of paper and leather with apprehensive curiosity.

"Come on, nothing will bite you in here," Blair said over her shoulder while walking towards the windows. Swiftly, she pulled the heavy drapes aside to let in more light, releasing clouds of dust into the dim rays.

When she turned around, she saw Margaret walking the shelves with a skeptical expression that evoked images of the girls' mother, whereas Kathy was still hovering at the door.

"Why does Mr. Bass need books when he is blind?" Margaret asked with a child's innocence and an adult's skepticism, as she seated herself dutifully on the large timeworn armchair.

"Maybe he was not always blind," Kathy offered tentatively, taking a careful step into the room as if the floor board would swallow her whole.

"That is quite right, Kathy," Blair said with an encouraging nod, "he had a terrible accident a few years ago, which destroyed his sight."

The little girl's face fell as she regarded the room solemnly. Blair knew that she was clever enough to figure out the implications of that revelation for herself, so she refrained from saying more.

Quietly, Kathy walked to the shelves and let he fingers glide over the spines almost lovingly, as Blair had done when she first discovered the library.

"So he can't read any of these anymore?" Kathy asked with such a deep sadness in her voice that it unsettled Blair.

As she drew a breath to answer, Blair noticed a shadow moving in the open doorway. It made her uneasy that she had to idea how long he had been standing there, but his position suggested that it had been a while. Leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest, he appeared to be listening intently.

Blair hesitated, regarding him carefully, not knowing if he was waiting for her to answer the question.

"He has people that read the books to him, girls," she said, keeping her eyes on Mr. Bass's face. Both children had their backs to the door, so they had not noticed his presence yet.

"He has more than one?" Blair heard the older girl scoff.

"I don't know, Margaret, maybe it is just one," she said for his benefit, which he answered with an amused smile.

"What does Mr. Bass like to be read, Miss Waldorf?" Kathy asked curiously, while continuing to walk the lines of books.

She saw him raise an eyebrow, a knowing smirk on his lips challenging her to respond.

"He enjoys adult fairy tales, Kathy," Blair said with a playful undertone she hoped he would catch.

"You mean books with kissing and such," Margaret said with a shudder, curling her lips in distaste.

Blair couldn't help and let out a laugh at the child's sour face. "Yes, something like that." The child huffed and slumped back into the chair, crossing her arms over her body in displeasure, clearly not happy with her answer.

Yet, when Blair's gaze shifted to Kathy, the child's face had grown pale, her wide eyes staring at Mr. Bass's form in the doorway. Swiftly, Blair walked over and kneeled down next to her, touching her shoulders gently. From the corner of her eyes, she saw Mr. Bass straightening his posture, apparently sensing the change in the room.

"Kathy," Blair said, shaking her softly, "you don't need to be afraid. This nice gentleman is Mr. Bass."

Margaret jumped up from her seat immediately, dipping a deep curtsey in front of Mr. Bass. "I'm very pleased to meet you," she chirped sweetly.

Without hesitation, Mr. Bass stepped into room and bowed dramatically in front of Margret. "You must be one of the young Misses Baizen," he said smoothly." The pleasure is all mine then."

With amusement Blair noticed Margaret blushing and a flattered smile appearing on her face.

"Excuse me, Miss Baizen, I must not neglect your sister," he said regretfully. "Might you show me the way?"

"Gladly, Mr. Bass," Margaret replied obligingly as she lifted her arm to grasp his hand. For a moment she hesitated, probably wondering if it would be proper for her to touch him, but then deciding to take his sleeve instead.

When they stopped in front of Blair and Kathy, Mr. Bass crouched down next to them and held out his hand to the small girl. "You must be the youngest Miss Baizen then?"

Kathy only nodded in response, her eyes darting anxiously from Blair to her sister to Mr. Bass and back again.

"Remember your manners, Kathy," Margaret hissed.

Trembling, the young girl lifted her hand and laid it in Mr. Bass's palm daintily. He gave a sincere smile and bent down to place a kiss on the back of the child's hand. "It is a great pleasure to meet you, Miss Baizen," he said in a velvety voice that Blair had never heard him use before.

Like her sister before , Kathy grew flustered, drew back her hand and started regarding her shoes with great interest. It made Blair wonder how many girls and women had already succumbed to his charms and graces and if she herself had already become one of them.

"Ladies," he said as he got back up from the floor, "I have to get back to work, but you are free to use the library at your own digression."

"Thank you, Mr. Bass. That is very gracious of you," Margaret said with another curtsey.

Rather than leaving, however, he held out his hand to Blair, offering to pull her up. Smiling to herself, she joined her hand with his and let him assist her. Yet, instead of letting her go, he drew her closer to him. So close she could smell his shaving water and count the small scars on his skin. Suddenly, she was reminded of the night she had counted these scars with her fingers and how exciting it had felt to kiss him.

For a moment she feared he would be indecent in front of the girls, but he only leaned down close to her ear. His breath on her neck making her shiver and his lips almost touching her earlobes, she found it hard to concentrate on anything else but him and the way his thumb stroked the skin on the back of her hand. "I trust you won't let them read the adult fairytales, Miss Waldorf," he whispered before stepping back and letting go of her hand.

He gave a short nod to the girls. "Goodbye, Ladies."

Margaret's eyes followed his retreat from the room with great fascination, as if watching a strange animal. Blair, however, could feel Kathy's eyes on her, regarding her curiously.

To break the strange atmosphere in the room, Blair clapped her hands twice. "Come now, girls, take your seats. We have a lot of work to do." She waited until both children had made themselves comfortable on the plush sofa.

"Since I didn't have much time to prepare a lesson, we'll make do with what we have here in the library." Blair scanned the room with desperation . "I'm sure Mr. Bass has some German books we can use."

Margaret let out a deep dramatic sigh and slumped back against the back rest. "Do we have to do German, Miss Waldorf? It's tedious," she whined.

"First, straighten your posture, Margaret," Blair replied in a steely voice. "I'm sure your mother did not teach you to slouch like a baker's boy."

"Ja, Miss Waldorf," the girl answered with an eye roll, but did as she was bid.

"Now girls, let's see how much you remember. We'll start with conjugation and then move on to practicing the cases."

Margaret let out another groan, but remained quiet when Blair looked at her with a questioning eyebrow. Kathy, on the hand, was occupied by watching the open door attentively.

"Gut," Blair continued, "Fräulein Katherine, bitte konjugieren Sie das Verb 'essen'." It took a moment until Kathy had realized that she was spoken to, not without a helping nudge of her sister's elbow.

Her wide, puzzled eyes locked with Blair's, apparently not having heard the instructions. "Entschuldigung, Miss Waldorf," she said quietly.

Blair gave a short nod of understanding and turned her attention to her sister. "Dann vielleicht Sie, Fräulein Margaret?"

Blair saw Margaret's eyes light up at the prospect of besting her sister and began to rattle down the verbs eagerly.

It took a few tries before the smaller girl was able to concentrate enough to answer a question correctly without being distracted by her surroundings. Blair had the feeling that the house unsettled the child for some reason, but whenever she inquired whether something was bothering her, Kathy shook her head.

After a few hours of reading, conversation, and practicing vocabulary, Mr. Bass's butler appeared, telling her that the carriage was waiting outside to take the two Misses back home.

"Margaret, you can go ahead and wait in the carriage. I would like to have a short word with your sister," Blair said, hoping the young girl would open up to her when alone.

For a short moment, Margaret looked as if she wanted to argue, maybe fearing she would be missing something important, but eventually left the room with slow steps, glancing back to see if she might catch some of the words.

"Please be to kind as to close the door, Margaret," Blair called after her to keep her from lurking just outside the door.

When Margaret had shut the door, Blair sat down next to Kathy on the sofa, taking her small hand in hers.

"Kathy, your mama told me that she caught you playing in the old mill a few times. Is that right?"

The child's eyes looked at her with surprise and guilt. Quickly, Kathy averted her gaze to study the ruffles of her dress, perhaps stalling to come up with an excuse, but Blair knew that her silence was answer enough.

"You are not supposed to play there," Blair continued in a firm voice. "It is dangerous and it worries your mother and me. Do you understand that?"

Kathy nodded wordlessly, but big tears started to roll over her pale cheeks and drip onto the skirt of her dress, leaving dark stains.

"Little one," Blair said softly, wiping away a tear with her thumb, "will you promise me to not go there anymore?"

"But I need to help them, Miss," she replied boldly as if wanting to defy Blair.

Blair frowned in confusion, turning the child's face towards her gently. "Whom, Kathy?"

"The burning people," the child whispered, her eyes wide and nervous.

Remembering that Kathy had often suffered from similar nightmares when Blair had still lived at Twelve Oaks Manor, she feared those images had now spilled over in the child's waking hours. She hoped with all her heart that Kathy had neither told her parents nor doctors about these daydreams since it might move them to not only send her to a reformatory school but possibly to an insane asylum.

"Kathy," Blair said imploringly, "the people in the mill are all dead. You cannot help them anymore."

The girl nodded once more, but her eyes told Blair that she had no intention of heeding her words. With a sigh, she squeezed the child's hands affectionately. "Now go, little one. Your sister is waiting outside."

She slid off the sofa clumsily with a toothy grin and made her way to the door, stopping suddenly to turn back around. "When will we have the next lesson, Miss Waldorf?" she asked doubtfully.

Blair smiled. "Soon, I think, if your Mama does not change her mind and your Papa does not object."

"Why would Papa object?" Kathy asked with all the innocence of a child that had just learned about the true origin of babies.

Swallowing, Blair searched her mind for an adequate answer. "He was not very satisfied with me, I think." Her voice cracking, she knew that Mr. Bass would have known immediately that she was lying. Yet, she hoped it would escape Kathy.

The girl looked at her silently as if waiting for another explanation, making Blair uneasy. "Run along now, Kathy. You sister will be angry with you if you make her wait too long."

Doing as she was told, the child left the room promptly without asking further questions. When Blair finally heard the entrance door fall shut with a dull thud, she allowed herself to recline her head against the back of the sofa, her eyes closing almost of their own account.

For a moment she wondered if she should have told Kathy the truth about her dismissal from their house, to put her and her sister on their guard. Yet, even if they believed her, she did not know how to protect them if their father meant to hurt them. The sounds she had heard behind the locked rooms in the Baizen's manor still echoed relentlessly through her memory, as she stood in front of the barred doors, incapable and helpless.

Suddenly, there were Kathy's cold fingers grabbing her hand, pulling her along, up the stairs, along endless white glimmering hallways filled with darkness. Large wooden double wing doors to their left and right lined their path as they approached a small window at the far end of the hall. Hearing odd noises behind the doors, Blair moved to open them. Kathy, however, shook her head sadly and coaxed her further along until they had reached the window. As she peered out, bright, violent flames blinded her, though she could not feel their heat on her skin. Unable to look away, she saw the form of large brick buildings emerge from the blaze, a courtyard filed with working people, oblivious to the surrounding fire.

She wanted to call out to them, to warn them, but a loud clattering sound next to her caught her unaware. As she looked to her left, expecting to find Kathy, the grey face of Mr. Bass's butler was staring at her instead. To her bewilderment he was carrying a loaded tea tray, which he placed briskly on a side table next to the sofa, the cups and saucer clinking garishly.

"Are you all right, Miss?" he asked politely.

Blair tried to sit up slowly, her mind still grasping for reality. With surprise she noticed that someone had already lit a fire in the room.

Giving the butler a silent nod, she now realized that she must have fallen asleep after her lesson with the girls.

"The Master bid me to bring you some refreshments, Miss," the servant drawled.

"Thank you," she answered dismissively while trying to smooth out her dress. She felt embarrassed, knowing how the scene must have looked to him, to find her sleeping in the library rather than working diligently.

After he had left her with a sharp bow, she rose to check her appearances in one of the windows, trying to shake the dream from her thoughts. Fortunately, it was already dark enough to see her reflection in the glass, though the sky still wore a pale shade of violet.

A dark shadow appeared behind her. "You are up, Miss Waldorf?" a deep voice said with surprise. "The servants told me you were resting in here."

"Quite the scandal, I imagine," she stated dryly, turning around to face him.

He chuckled, stepping into the library and closing the door behind him. She saw that he had already taken off his coat and cravat, the vest over his starched white shirt already unbuttoned.

"Why did you not tell me you were going to sack Mr. Linton today, Mr. Bass?" she asked with an accusing tone, needing to know why he had not wanted to involve her in his decision even though she had discovered that the overseer was not to be trusted.

"Why did you not tell me you were bringing the Baizen girls today or that you were planning to go to The Lion?" he asked in return, his voice tense and demanding.

"I don't owe you an explanation," Blair said, letting it hang between them for a second. "But I guess it was a spur of the moment thing."

"Ditto, Miss Waldorf," he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

She felt disappointment rise inside of her at his overbearing temper. "I was hoping I could be of more assistance to you with Mr. Linton," she said formally.

He lowered his head, smirking, before walking to the armchair, leaning his arms on the backrest. "You mean to imply, you would have liked to concoct a war plan with me, in the dark of the night?"

She huffed, already feeling silly to have told him. "Well, if you put it like that, Mr. Bass, I don't –"

He raised a hand, stopping her. "I think your talents are far more valuable for more pressing matters of business, Miss Waldorf. I wanted to deal with Linton clean and swiftly, but he insisted on making it difficult. "

She remained silent, waiting for him to continue.

He cleared his throat. "I apologize for the turmoil. It was not one of our finest moments." Pausing for a moment, his fingers started kneading the weathered leather beneath his hands. "I hope he did not harm you."

She shook her head, pleased to hear the concern in his voice even if it did not show on his face. "No, I'm very well, Mr. Bass, only the children were a bit scared." The scene played in her head once more, blurry and dreamlike. Felling Mr. Linton's anger vibrate through his body, wondering about the object in the butler's hand, hearing the sickening thud as stone hit its target, seeing the blood soil the dirt beneath her. "Thankfully one of your workers had a good aim," she said, her thought still on the lifeless body on the ground and how she had felt nothing but relief.

"Yes," he said quietly, his jaw tense, as he turned his face towards the fireplace. If it had been another man, she would have said that he was staring at the wall, lost in his thought, but it seemed as if he wanted to hide from her.

"Did you happen to see who it was? I might want to thank him for his courage," he finally continued in a more animated tone.

"I'm sorry, no. It all happened too quickly."

"Of course," he said as he pushed himself off the chair and walked towards the side table next to the armchair, pouring himself a glass of scotch. "Would you care for a drink?" he asked without turning his head.

"No, thank you." She watched him fill a glass with the brown liquid, his hands working meticulously, the movement perfected through years of practice. "I like to keep my wits about me."

She saw his lips twitch as he gestured to the tray on the table across from him. "I also had Andrew lay out a cold dinner if you are hungry. I'm sure you have not eaten much today."

"Who is Andrew?" she asked in confusion.

Turning towards her, he took a deep gulp from his glass. "Andrew is my butler, Miss Waldorf," he answered wryly.

Indeed feeling her empty stomach, Blair made her way to the generous display of scones, cold ham and fresh blackberries. Sitting back down, she plopped one of the berries into her mouth. As the fruit burst between her teeth, she closed her eyes to enjoy the tart taste on her tongue. It felt like an eternity that she had last enjoyed a blackberry. She remembered stealing them from her parent's garden before her mother had decided to replace them with rose bushes.

"How did your lesson go?" Mr. Bass's voice cut into her thoughts, probably wondering why she was being so quite.

She quickly swallowed the berry. "Very well, I think, though I think I have to work on their manners a bit."

"They seemed well-behaved to me already," he said with a benignancy certainly meant to flatter her. "But you should not try to mold them too much," he added, taking another sip from his tumbler.

"And you say this why?"

In response he only smirked, which always made her feel as if she was missing a crucial piece of information. "Let's just say I'm very observant, Miss Waldorf."

She was not sure if she should take offense that he thought he needed to give her advice in child rearing or if she was truly projecting her own childhood onto the girls. As she could not decide on her reaction, she grabbed one of the scones instead and bore her fingers into it deeply before ripping it apart.

As she swallowed her frustration along with the baked morsels, she was reminded that she had no right to hold grudge against Mr. Bass when it was her who had broken their contract.

"Mr. Bass, I apologize that both girls were here," she said while watching his face, "I know that is not what we agreed on."

He let out a small, dismissive laugh, his features holding no signs of disappointment or resentment. "I think I can afford to be forgiving today, given your generous renouncement of your personal maid."

Like always when one of her shams had been discovered, she felt as if being dropped from a steep height. "How do you –?"

"Oh, I might not be able to see, Miss Waldorf," he said, toasting her with his drink, "but I can assure you that my lawyer certainly can."

Blair paused, not wanting to admit to anything before she knew his game. "Of course," she acquiesced.

"Might I ask what caused this change of heart?" he asked with unsettling casualty, swirling the scotch around with slow movements of his wrist.

Despite his non-chalant demeanor, she understood that he wanted her to reveal some part of herself, which had made her cross out the paragraph in a moment of sheer stupidity. "One can't really trust maids, Mr. Bass. It would be an ordeal to find a suitable one," she replied somberly.

"I see," he said with an emphatic nod. "Nothing to do then with what I told you about the state of my finances?"

"I'm not that tender-hearted, Mr. Bass," she sneered. "You should know that by now."

"I do know that, Miss Waldorf," he replied in a calm voice. She could see a pensive smile playing on his lips as his fingers traced elusive shapes on the tumbler's crystal surface. "What I don't understand is why you kissed me."

He raised his head, seemingly to look at her. "Is it because you felt sorry for me?" he asked with such sincerity that Blair knew she had to answer him truly.

She shook her head silently, but remembered that he couldn't see her. "No," she stated with conviction.

He raised an eyebrow, apparently doubting her answer.

Blair let out an exasperated sigh. "I guess it was momentary insanity," she said tartly.

Playfulness spread across his features. "Will it happen again?"

She knew he had meant it as a teasing question, wanting to draw her out, but all she could think about were the hate in Mr. Linton's eyes today in the yard and Serena's words.

They are saying that you are his whore.

Scanning his face, Blair searched for an answer to a question she hadn't yet spoken aloud.

"Do you want it to happen again?" She had wanted it to sound confident and aloof, but knew immediately that she had not succeeded when the self-assured grin on his lips faded to be replaced by a frown.

He hesitated, which caught Blair more unaware than she cared to admit.

"I can't deny that I do, Blair," he finally answered in a controlled voice that lacked any smugness, "but you already knew that, didn't you?"

"I would make a perfect mistress, wouldn't I?" she probed.

He shook his head, the crease on his forehead deepening. "I don't follow."

She rose, stepping towards him, a mindlesssense of anger at this ignorance seething inside her. Without warning, she pressed her lips against his – hard, keeping her eyes open to enjoy the surprise on his face. She nipped at his lips slightly to provoke him into a response.

When he started parting his lips and a silent moan escaped, Blair drew back satisfied. She waited a moment till his eyes fluttered open to reveal the dark intensity beneath, before leaning back in.

"This, Mr. Bass," she whispered against his ear, drawing out his name. "My family cast me out, I'm a fallen woman," she said slowly, her nose brushing his cheek. Blindly, Blair placed her fingers on his upper arm, letting them trail a path down to his hand. Gently, she interlaced her fingers with his before she pulled his hand towards her and placed it over the scar on her stomach. His skin was cold to her touch and she felt the chill seep slowly through the fabric until goose bumps rose on her skin. She heard him exhale softly against her neck as she continued, "and I'm not in danger of falling pregnant." She paused to let her words sink in. "So there is nothing to hold me back. No one that would be hurt by my disgrace."

His lips brushed along her chin up to her ear, making her shiver involuntarily. While her body was apparently not averse to going through with her proposition, her mind balked at the words that had come out of her mouth. As she felt him nip her earlobe with purpose, she admitted to herself that there might be worse ways to lose her honor and reputation.

"No one," she heard him whisper trough her dizzy thoughts, while his fingers drew undefinable shapes on the thin fabric covering her stomach. "No one except yourself."

As his words pierced her consciousness, she let out a laugh, which had already frozen dead in her throat. She stepped back away from him and out of his reach. "Maybe I don't care anymore. Isn't that what you told me? To stop caring about other people's opinions?" Blair crossed her arms in front of her, balling her hands into fists. Feeling exposed and furious enough to slap him, she turned away from him.

She heard him place his glass on the table before taking a step towards her, close enough that she could feel the pull of his body. "If that is truly how you think, I, of course, applaud it," he paused, exhaling softly, "but you should know that is not why I wanted you."

"No?" she scoffed, turning back around so she could see his face. "Then tell me," she whispered, running her index finger up the lapels of his shirt, "that you didn't want me for my body when we first met."

He ran a hand through his hair, his eyes flickering with frustration. "I won't deny it, Blair."

"So why did you save me that night if you only wanted me for my body?" Her voiced was laced by a hard, uneasy edge that was foreign to her. "Did you feel sorry for me?" she echoed his former question, though suddenly feeling sick at the thought that he might answer in the affirmative.

"I guess it was momentary insanity," he replied dryly.

She laughed humorlessly, letting her fingers slip from his clothes.

He let out a sigh, starting to rub his neck with his hand, which he seemed wont to do when feeling uncomfortable. "I was intrigued," he said with a shrug, "you seemed so out of place there and still you kept teasing me with your body, trusting me with it. I knew I couldn't let you just slip away." He raised his eyebrows expectantly at her.

The honesty of his answer pleased her and a small smile played on her lips, as she reached for his hand. Slowly, she twined her fingers through his, pulling him down next to her on the sofa.

"Shall I read another book to you today, Mr. Bass?" she asked in a rigid tone, though knowing very well where she was steering the conversation.

For a moment bewilderment flickered on his face as he was trying to read her intentions. However, content amusement lit up his features as he reclined against the velvet cushions, one arm gesturing dramatically towards the bookshelves, the other one draped leisurely over the backrest so that his fingers almost touched her shoulder. "Whatever pleases you, Miss Waldorf."

Frustrated at his refusal to play along with her, she decided to push him further. "So you will nott force me to read from the last book again?"

"I was under the impression that you were quite taken with it since you took it up to your room," he said suggestively.

Blair's gaze swept the rows of books unseeingly, while trying to come up with a satisfying and uncompromising answer.

"For reasons of study, of course," she said in her most disinterested voice as she glanced back at his relaxed form. His open arms all but inviting her to lean into his embrace.

"Of course," he said with mock sincerity. "I hope your studies were fruitful then?"

For a moment she felt as if he was watching her again, the flames of the fireplace reflected in his dark eyes, making them appear almost affectionate. She could not recollect her husband ever looking at her in such a way and now realized that this man in front of her might deserve from her than coquettish taunts and spiteful intimacy.

With slow progressing movements, she bridged the gap between them, leaning forward and letting her weight rest on one arm as she pressed her lips against his tenderly for a long moment. "Quite," she whispered against his mouth. His lips twitched under hers in response before they stilled completely. When he did not move, she drew back, watching the frown on his forehead deepen and his lips harden into a thin line. "Why do you like to tease me like that?" he said in rough voice that barely veiled his displeasure.

Blair paused for a moment, searching for the right answer within the ever-changing mix of raw contentment and misery displayed on his face. "Because of your reaction. It's like you can't bear it," she finally said, hoping it would be enough.

He let out a shaky laugh and shook his head in apparent disbelief. "Well, I can't, so don't tease me unless you mean it."

She knew he was giving her a way out of their game, but she had no desire to play coy with him any longer. "I do, Chuck," she said in a hushed voice, that he could choose to overhear.

The faint smile appearing at the corner of his mouth thrilled her. "So, we are on first names now?" he jeered, his eyes twinkling merrily.

She let out a laugh, enjoying his impertinence. "On certain occasions, yes."

"And which would that be? Just to be clear."

"When we are alone," she murmured softly, leaving everything else unsaid.

Blair watched his fingers trail along the plush surface of the sofa until he found her muslin-covered leg. "So," he said in a tone that sounded almost bored, "I can call you Blair when I do this?" His fingers brushed along her thigh, upwards, to the top of her knees. His perfected casualness might have angered her before, but she knew this game now. It was a game she had started. He was testing her boundaries to elicit a reaction, slowly weakening the barriers between them.

"Yes, of course," she replied in a similar tone.

His features betrayed no sign of disappointment or amusement at her answer. "What about this?" he asked as he carefully lifted the hand resting on her leg to her neck, curving his palm and fingers gently around her throat. She felt her pulse quicken under his touch and knew that he must feel it too. Still, she nodded.

"And this?" he whispered darkly, as he bent down to her neck, pushing her body deep into the lush cushions. She closed her eyes as she felt his lips on her skin, her pulse now beating loudly and erratically. When his tongue tasted her pulse point, she couldn't even delude herself into thinking that he had not noticed. Blair knew that she had lost this game, and he knew it too. It felt surreal and unlike everything else her husband had ever done with her.

She felt the smirk on his lips as he continued his path down her collarbone towards the neckline of her dress; yet, she did not stop or slap him. Instead, she let her head fall to the side to give him better access.

When she noticed his hand leaving her neck to untie her gown, however, her mind started racing. All she wanted in this moment was to be like Serena. To just enjoy the moment and worry about it afterwards. She had nothing to lose after all. Still, she felt her body tense as his kisses grew more fervid.

His fingers tugged on her sleeves, while she heard him whisper her name against her bared shoulder. "No, Mr. Bass," she heard herself say in a strangled voice.

Blair felt his lips leave her instantly, and a shaky breath meeting her skin instead. She heard him inhale deeply before pulling away from her and reclaiming a seat on the settee as far away from her as possible - so far that it almost hurt, though it was what she had wanted.

Realizing her state of disarray, Blair straightened her posture and clothing as graciously as possible, while trying to calm her breathing which seemed to sound as loud as the spinning wheels in the mill. She was embarrassed at herself for not stopping earlier, for stopping it in the beginning, for not being as fearless as Serena, for being herself.

Not knowing what to say or how to relieve the heavy tension in the room, she glanced over to him, but found him with his elbows resting on his knees and his fingers knitting the muscles in his neck restlessly.

"I think that is all for tonight, Mr. Bass." She rose to leave the room.

"Do we have a deal, Miss Waldorf?" she heard him ask behind her. Surprised, she turned around and saw him standing, holding out his hand to her as he had done the first night, an encouraging smirk playing on his lips.

She couldn't help but smile in return, though as always, his features showed no sign of recognition. Quickly, she grabbed his hand, squeezing it tightly to let him know she was pleased. "We have a deal, ."

Blair moved to pull her hand away, but he held fast and brought it up to his lips, stepping closer at the same time. Surprised, a small laugh escaped her and in the spur of the moment she lifted her free hand to caress his cheek. Yet, before she had time to analyze her folly, a loud knock on the door startled them both into a more appropriate distance.

After a short moment, the iron hinges groaned silently, and the old butler stepped into the room, as usual not even glancing at Blair as he bowed.

"What is it?" Chuck barked, clearly irritated at the intrusion.

"I apologize for the disturbance, Sir," he said stiffly, "but there has been a letter for the Misses. A servant boy from The Lion came to deliver it."

Chuck waved his hand in dismissal. "Give it to her then."

He produced the letter from behind his back and held it out for Blair to take, but made no effort to step towards her. So she marched towards him and made a show of curtsying deeply before snatching the document from his fingers. "Thank you, Andrew," she said politely.

She knew very well that every well-trained butler would take offense at being called by his first name by a woman of questionable circumstances, but she was also aware that he would not dare to chastise her before the Master of the house.

He opened his mouth to speak, but when she raised an eyebrow at him in warning he only bowed stiffly in the direction of his Master and left the room.

"That won't make him like you more, Miss Waldorf," Chuck stated in a warning tone before she even had time to enjoy her triumph.

Astonished at his reproach, she watched him pour himself another glass of scotch at the side table. Until now he had mostly seemed amused or even admiring of her power play with the servants. Unsure how to take his reaction, she only shrugged. "Don't worry, Mr. Bass. I don't think I can fall any lower in his esteem."

He took a sip from his drink. "He has been with me for a long time, Miss Waldorf, so I think he commands some respect from you, given that you were a servant yourself," he said in a cold, stern voice.

"I apologize if I offended you," she said in a tone reflecting his, "but don't treat me like a child."

He only nodded, gesturing towards the door. "I think it is best if you leave now, Miss Waldorf."

To punish him, she did as he bid without saying another word or making another sound, except for the creaking floor panels and iron door hinges.

Blair grabbed a candle from one of the tables in the entrance hall to light her way upstairs. Though she wanted to be furious at him, she knew in her heart that he had the right of it and that she should have behaved more courteously. For a moment she considered returning to the library to tell him, but decided she would not grant him the satisfaction. There was still tomorrow morning for that.

When she entered her room, she felt a light breeze creep through the open window though it did nothing more than to stir the stuffy heat. She placed the candle on her dresser and turned to the letter still clenched in her hand.

She was relieved to see that it was still unopened. For once she was glad that the frail butler was so devoted and stern in his duties. The paper was unmarked by handwriting or seal, but when she unfolded it, she recognized the sender immediately. Serena had never been the most skilled at letter-writing and it made Blair smile to know that after everything, this at least had not changed.

She stepped closer to the flickering light on her dresser to better decipher the scrawled lines.

B,

You are right, as always.

Leaving Oldham on the morrow. Meet me at dawn in front of The Lion so we can take the first post to Manchester. And then maybe Scotland or Ireland?

We can make our own home, remember?

S

Blair stared at the letter, reading the words over and over before she grasped their meaning. Serena wanted to escape Oldham as hurriedly as possible, and this time wanted Blair to come with her. Even if rash decisions were not usual for Serena, Blair knew that something dreadful must have happened to elicit such panic from her friend.

Her mind was already planning how to leave the mill without being seen or heard, but then her thoughts stopped at the library door and what lay behind it.

With frustration she crumbled the paper between her fingers, staring unseeing into the flame of the candle. All she had wanted to do this night was crawl under the blankets and have a dreamless night for once, but now Serena was forcing a decision on her she was not quite ready to make.

Slowly, she held the parchment over the flame, watching it catch fire and vanish before her eyes.

AN: Much love to Kate for editing this chapter!
Also, I can't express my gratitude enough for those who kept reviewing and encouraging me throughout the last months. It meant to much to me that you kept the faith that I would eventually finish this chapter (as I promised I would). Thank you! :)