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“Ladies on your feet and form a line for inspection,” the Duke orders, and one of the men who held me down comes my way. I’m not going to be manhandled again. I get to my feet and form a line with the other girls. I’m standing next to Lady Joanna Nethercutt. She stands with her weight balanced on the leg not branded. Her eyes are red from crying, but she tries her hardest, now, to suppress the tears.
Nicholas struts over to us with a confident swagger. I want to dig my nails into his eyes and rip the balls from his body. He walks up and down the line, taking in everything about us. When he gets to me, I face him down. I'll not be shown to be weak in his eyes. I’m not a feeble woman as these men clearly think. If he chooses me to stay, I’ll make his life hell and not the other way round. He'd do better to get rid of me, now, if he wants the meek and mild little wife, who’ll go to his bed willingly, because I never well. Even when hell freezes over. He shakes his head and laughs.
“There are five girls: Amelia, Daphne, Elizabeth, Joanne and Victoria. Which three do you choose to take forward?” the Duke asks of his son.
“Elizabeth,” he names the first one, and it figures, she's the bitch who ignored me at the start. They'd make a good couple. Why doesn’t he just choose her now, and the rest of us can go home?
“Amelia.” A small girl with blonde hair whimpers when her name is spoken. I feel sorry for her but not that sorry, since it means there’s only a one in three chance of me having to stay here any longer. I can find somewhere with a rose garden and lose myself in the scent. Maybe, I could get a rose tattoo over this thing on my thigh.
“Daphne is free to go.” Nicholas states, and the girl screams with delight. Her father curses out loudly — the language coming out of his mouth a complete contrast from the religious ropes he wears.
“So I’m down to two.” Nicholas stands in front of Joanna and myself. I think I can hear my heart beating out of my chest. I’m praying my name isn’t spoken.
“Victoria you may…” He pauses. Go, say go, I’m pleading within my head.
“Not go anywhere. Joanna’s free to go.”
I groan long and low with frustration and fear for what comes next. The women named are pushed to the side, and the two not named are grabbed. I try to jostle the guys off Joanna.
“Leave her alone. She wasn’t chosen — she's free to go.” I ball my fist and punch one of the men. He goes to slap me back, but Nicholas catches his hand and sends him flying off the stage.
“Stop!” the Duke commands, and everyone freezes. He comes up to me and, in a smooth movement, throws me to the floor. I land on my burn, and agony cascades through me. I scream.
“You had to pick the one who’s going to cause trouble, didn’t you?” he addresses his son with a scowl.
“Why would I want a meek and mild wife when I can have one who puts up a fight?” Nicholas responds, and I try to kick out at him, again. Bastard.
“You…” the Duke addresses me. “Unless you want to spend the rest of the evening locked in the dungeon, I suggest you keep quiet and let me finish this part of the ceremony.”
I go to tell him to fuck off, but I think better of it and silence myself with a no-nonsense pout.
"Lady Joanna, Miss Daphne. I’m afraid my son was wrong with his words that you are free to go. You belong to the society now. You may not be in the running to be his wife, but we still own you, and as such, you’ll be taken from this place to rooms for rest. Tomorrow evening, you'll be sold to the highest bidder to do with as they please. Take them away.”
I gasp, and both girls start to cry. He's going to sell them like slaves. I look to the man who was complaining about Joanna earlier. He's expressionless. This is his daughter — he's going to allow her to be sold to god knows who. I want to scream at him to help her, but when he turns away and leaves the room, I know that it’ll make no difference. The men in this room have no respect for women. We're back in centuries of old when women were chattels: bought and sold for gain. I’m pulled to my feet by one of the guards. I don't fight him — I’m tired and weak. I look over my shoulder to Nicholas. He's watching me be dragged away. He wears the mask of many others in this room. I’ve died and gone to hell.
About AnnaAnna hails from the rural countryside near London. She previously worked as an accountant, and while she still does a bit of accountancy on occasion, the majority of her time is now spent writing and looking after her family. An avid reader herself, Anna turned to writing to combat depression and anxiety after her diagnosis in 2015. She loves travel, hunky heroes with dirty mouths, demure but spunky heroines, and dramatic suspense. You will find all four woven into each of her magical stories.
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