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False Employment

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When you were eight, you’d told your mother that you were going to be a dancer. Then a dressmaker, a poet, a horse-groomer. As a teen, you’d decided that you’d be a wife, just a wife, who’d raise the kids while your husband was away making fortunes, no doubt. Your mother had been happy enough with that idea, but it had soured on you. After all, you thought, why spend your time looking after others and not yourself?

In the end, though, you’d found work as a maid. A house-servant in black and white, cursed to parole the hallways of an estate that’d never feel homely, or private. The irony of it was not lost on you. Employed to look after people that weren’t even yours to look after, half the reasoning but triple the pay. At least this way, the work you did was profitable, and the money you made was saved in your own name. The catch, however, was that you hated it. And you hated it because you were frustratingly terrible at it. No matter how many times Frances taught you to fold the sheets, you got it wrong. Somehow. No matter how carefully you swept, or cleaned, or shined the child’s shoes, you missed a spot. You always missed a fucking spot. It’s like you were cursed, destined to be the worst possible maid in the Midlands, and there was nothing you could do about it.

The strangest part, of course, was that you hadn’t been fired yet. You’d hardly even been chastised. The most unbecoming maid in the history of housekeeping, and you still had your job. You were still paid more than the industry standard. Despite all you knew about him, it seemed Mr. Shelby, unlike most employers, was endlessly forgiving of his staff; it was only when you started to question why, that you realised that wasn’t entirely the case.

On the Friday, you’d been called to bring tea to the front sitting-room. You’d say it’s one of your least favourite tasks but, honestly, they all sit equally on the list of things that you hate to do. The dishes always clatter on the tray, rattling wildly as you take the stairs from the kitchen. The china is scolding to touch each time you go to pour it. The spout is short, the saucers fragile and ill-fitting. Really, there’s a lot less grace in serving tea, than there is in drinking it, and that day was no different.

‘Your tea, Mr. Shelby,’ you announced, once you’d wobbled through the doorway. The milk had spilt onto the metal, but the cups and teapot had stayed strong, thank God. ‘Where would you like it?’

He wasn’t alone, the aunt and his cousin were waiting with him, but only your cold-faced boss had acknowledged the arrival. He was stood by the window, picking a cigarette from his case, and had paused to give instruction that no-one else would offer. His gaze flicked to you briefly, then over to the low coffee table in the centre. ‘There.’

You obliged with a nod, before crossing the room to set the tray and its precarious contents down. ‘Should I pour you some, sir?’ you asked the cousin, hoping he’d say no, hoping he’d let you return to some other, more menial job. One that at least let you work without an audience. Instead, he nodded, and leant forward to hold one of the tea-cups up. Why he couldn’t just leave it there, on the flat surface, where no spills could do any damage, you didn’t know. He probably thought he was being helpful; tragically, he failed to take into account that you were the clumsiest tea-maid in the house.

The handle stung, as expected, the moment you took hold of it, but you were interrupted before you could even begin to pour.

‘Shouldn’t milk go first?’ he asked, continuing once you looked at him like he was wild. ‘In china, to stop it from cracking?’

‘Oh.’ You stuttered, straightening from your bend with the burning teapot in your hand still. ‘Of course,’ you answered. Of course there was some rule you had forgotten, some high-class superstition about breaking the bone china they could replace so easily. You wanted to roll your eyes, but instead you smiled, and set the tea down again. ‘Sorry, sir.’

When his cup was filled with an inch of the obviously critically important milk, you tried again to pour his tea. The aunt and Mr. Shelby were talking around you, but you were so focused on the act that their words fell away into rubble, just birds chattering between the trees. You lifted the pot again and poured as steadily as your arm would allow.

From the sudden hiss of breath between his teeth, it hadn’t been steady at all. You’d poured scolding tea onto the rim, the saucer, and finally, unfortunately, onto the pinstripe-stretch of his knee.

‘Fuck,’ you burst, ‘sorry.’ The pot went back to the tray quickly, your hands into the pocket of your apron. You hadn’t realised you’d sworn until it was too late to correct it. Another X against your name, surely. ‘Forgive me,’ you told him, pulling a cloth free to offer it, ‘it’s clean.’ At least, for your sake, you’d remembered that dabbing the stain yourself would be inexcusable.

He took it, sighing, and his mother rolled her eyes so plainly that you couldn’t have ignored it if you tried. ‘It’s alright,’ he said, though his scowl didn’t agree. ‘That’s enough anyway.’

You nodded, leaving him to pat awkwardly at the stain, balancing the cup and saucer in his free hand. What Mr. Shelby thought of the ordeal, you didn’t know. He was behind you, quiet, and impossible to see without turning entirely. The embarrassed heat that lingered in your ears was enough to keep you from trying. The last thing you needed, was another unimpressed look sent your way; you got enough of them from Frances.

When you shifted to face the aunt, she spoke before you could, insisting, ‘I can pour my own.’

You smiled before she’d even finished. ‘Course, ma’am,’ you offered with a shallow curtsey. Anything to get out sooner was welcome, even if it was a dig at your serving expertise.

Straightening fully, you smoothed the back of your dress and spun, facing the windows and the silhouette before them. ‘Will that be all, sir?’ you asked as you met his gaze —which had already been there, waiting. Taking account. He’d been watching you fuck up, yet again, probably wondering how you got the job in the first place. You chewed your lip as he deliberated.

‘Yes,’ he said after a moment, speaking through the cloud of his cigarette, ‘that’ll be all.’

Why you got off so lightly, made no fucking sense, but you weren’t about to stand there and argue with him. Instead, you dipped your knees again and left. It had felt like he’d watched you until you’d gone out of sight, through the doorway, but that was more likely to be a symptom of your over-thinking. Just jumping to paranoid conclusions like you always did, assuming his eyes had clung to your back until the door had shut them away.

By the next week, you were starting to think you weren’t paranoid at all.

Frances had caught you in the hallway between your room and her own, just as you were heading down for something to eat. ‘Mr. Shelby will be home soon,’ she said, stopping in front of you with a sure knot between her brows.

You watched her undo the tie of her pinafore. ‘Okay?’

‘He’ll need his coat taking, and offer him a drink, not supper.’

You balked. Why was she telling you this? ‘Isn’t that your job?’ you asked, feeling dread settle into your stomach. She was top of the hierarchy, the one he trusted most, you were a scullery maid at best. It’d make more sense for his boy to greet him, over you.

She sighed like you were at fault, and folded the pinafore over her arm. ‘He’s asked for you.’

‘He has?’

‘And don’t speak more than you should,’ she continued, ignoring your obvious alarm. ‘Just, just do as I would.’

But you didn’t know what she did. You never paid attention to what she did. ‘Do you think he wants to speak to me?’ you asked, following as she started towards her room. ‘Am I in trouble?’ Was it finally the chopping block for you?

She turned sharply, causing you to stumble to a halt. ‘I think,’ she stressed, ‘that he wants his coat taking.’ Then her door opened and she shut herself inside, leaving you to stand aimlessly in the hallway.

With little else to do, you made your way downstairs to wait within hearing distance of the front door. It didn’t take Mr. Shelby long to require your services, but it did take just long enough for you to think yourself into a panic. No, not a panic, it was more of a steady confidence. A certainty that he had asked for you, specifically, so that he could tell you to work harder. Better. So that he could get you alone, and threaten a cut to your wages if you didn’t stop pouring tea onto his guest’s laps. It was the only plausible reasoning you could settle on.

When he stepped into the entry-way, your heart was beating hard enough to trick your mind into labelling it as excitement. A twisted bout of adrenaline at the thought of being fired. You’d have laughed if you weren’t trying so hard to be professional, instead, you kept your face serious. ‘Good evening, Mr. Shelby,’ you started, moving from your post to meet him. ‘Can I take your coat?’

You thought you saw his lip twitch upwards, but it was redirected into a short nod. ‘Frances changed the rota,’ he said, though it was obvious. He turned, showing you his back, and you pulled the collar from his shoulders before you could overthink the motion.

‘She did, sir,’ you agreed. Don’t talk too much. Don’t talk too much. ‘Have you had your hair cut?’ you asked, unable to stop once you’d noticed the close shave at the back of his head.

He faced you again, letting the coat peel from his arms until he was separate, and you were left to wrangle the heavy fabric alone. To no surprise, he didn’t answer your question. He didn’t even remove his cap. Instead, he stared, squinting slightly, then held the briefcase out for you to take.

You were running out of hands to be useful with. The folded coat was thick enough to render one arm useless, and now his case occupied the other. ‘Would you like something to eat, sir?’

‘No,’ he answered, too quick to have really considered it. Then he looked down, eyes on the leather gloves he was removing, and asked, ‘What’s your name?’

‘[Y/n], sir.’

He repeated it once. Rolled it over his tongue and out again like he was testing for its flavour. Analysing its worth, though he had surely heard it a hundred times before.

Your adrenaline had finally been replaced by fragile nerves. The silence felt like an open invite for critique, and you’d rather have it filled with the forbidden small talk than let it begin. ‘Would you like me to fetch Char—‘

‘Have you lit the fire in my office?’ he asked blankly, interrupting you as he lifted his eyes to yours. The blue alone was enough to quiet you. His stare was more intimidating than luxurious; if he had been watching you as you thought he had, you weren’t sure that was a good thing anymore.

‘No,’ you stammered. ‘Should I have?’ It was dark already, but you hadn’t noticed the cold yourself. ‘Should I do it now, Mr. Shelby?’ you corrected, playing catch up on your responsibilities. ‘I’ll put these down.’

He shook his head and put the gloves, together, on top of his coat. Piled it all on you like you were a walking hat-stand. ‘Make sure you have next time,’ he said. ‘It’s winter.’

‘Yes, sir. Sorry.’

It didn’t look like the apology meant anything to him, probably because you had rushed it out nervously, rather than sincerely. You didn’t often know what you were apologising for after all, just that you should be, and that you were normally at fault in the first place. So you said sorry quickly, before he could leave. And then, once he had done, turning from you after a final clinging-look, you said sorry again into the absent space he had left behind. Sorry, Mr. Shelby, don’t fire me, Mr. Shelby. I know I’m a terrible fucking servant, Mr. Shelby. He didn’t look back, nor did he ask for you again that evening. From your perspective, that was a win. It meant he hadn’t planned to stage an intervention, or to tell you off like a scorned school master. He had simply wanted you to do your job, well, Frances’ job, and somehow, you hadn’t massively disappointed. A few mis-placed questions hadn’t caused your downfall, and you found yourself hanging his coat with an easy smile. Perhaps you were valuable to him then, or at least acceptable. Perhaps you were employed for a reason.

When he next went away, you made sure to light the fire before he returned. Clever, you thought, well remembered indeed. What you failed to do, however, was time it well enough that it would be lit, burning strong and heating the room, before you had to meet him at the door. You were still knelt by the hearth when he arrived.

He cleared his throat once, from the doorway, and the noise was loud enough to startle you over the snaps of the fire. You sprang from the floor in one panicked burst of energy, turning in almost the same motion, moving faster than you felt you ever had.

‘Oh, Mr. Shelby,’ you panted. ‘Sorry, sorry, I was just finishing the fire.’

He was fully dressed still. Obviously, because you hadn’t been there to pull the outer layers from him as you should have. It wasn’t even a difficult task and you’d seemingly failed on your second try.

‘Have you been there long?’ you asked, hoping that if you kept him talking, and kept his eyes on yours, he would fail to notice the ash on your knees. The grey powdering of your tights and the hem of your dress, dirtied from kneeling too close to the bricks. It could be brushed away easily, but you hardly wanted more attention drawn to it. ‘I didn’t hear you come in.’

He shrugged, not bothering with a real answer. The nonchalance made you nervous. He could’ve been standing there for seconds, or he could’ve been there for minutes, watching you bent in half, folded in front of the fire as you worked. Whether someone could even be judged on their fire-making skills, you didn’t know. But he seemed the type to be able to judge anyone for anything.

‘Sorry, I should take your coat,’ you started, crossing the room with your hands out.

‘It’s alright.’ He walked past you before you could even reach him, moulding into the study like he was a part of it. ‘I have to go out again, anyway.’

You nodded. He didn’t offer any other instruction, so you just stood there, dirty like a chimney-sweep, gormless like a fucking goose in the river. ‘Should I go, sir?’ you asked.

His case went on top of the desk, his body dropped into the seat behind it. He didn’t look at you, or answer you, he just pulled a cigarette from his inside pocket and lit it. You watched him inhale and exhale once before growing tired.

‘There are things I should be doing, sir,’ you said, hoping to sound more apologetic than rude. In truth, you were just bored. Uncomfortable. You couldn’t stop thinking about the ash on your knees.

It definitely wasn’t paranoia that time. His eyes finally found you, in the middle of the room, and drank you in like you were one of his racehorses. The flashy ones that he bought for the sake of money and money alone. You fidgeted under the weight of them, knowing the crystal irises were skimming every part of you that should’ve been ignored. Especially for a maid, for one of his house-servants. Your body should’ve been nothing beneath the rigidity of your uniform, and yet he scooped it out from between the seams, looked at the curves that you were sure had been hidden.

‘Do you live at the house,’ he started, voice low and catching, ‘or at home?’

‘The house, sir.’ You threaded your fingers together, kept them clutched over your pinafore. ‘I share the room next to Frances.’

The smoke pooled from his lips again, trailing after him as he leant back into his seat. He was looking at you down his nose, through his lashes, holding the silence just long enough for it become taut. Sharp enough to make your cheeks warm.

‘And when she hears the bell at night, do you hear it too?’

You frowned, but nodded. The service bells were mounted on the wall between the doors.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘next time it goes, I want you to see to it.’

His gaze was unmoving. Yours had been charmed into the same fate, unable to pull away from him. ‘Sir?’ you said, understanding his meaning, but not believing it in the slightest. There was no innocent reason for him to switch orders like that. The older woman had always covered the night work, as infrequent as it was.

He cocked his head, and narrowed his eyes in one quick pulse of intent. ‘Let Frances have her rest, eh?’

It was either a promotion, or a proposition. You had neither the gall or the desire to ask which. ‘Of course, Mr. Shelby.’

After that, your encounters with him had remained short and indifferent. You took his coat, brought him tea, whiskey, followed orders when he gave them. You’d watched him, watching you, every time, and thought nothing more of it. Or at least tried not to. You never saw him interact with other staff, so you couldn’t dispel the idea that he treated you any different from them; he could’ve held all of his employees under the same searing gaze and you wouldn’t have known. Frances had commented on his favouring of you, claiming ‘he’d ask for you over anyone else’, but she had seemed relieved all the same. She liked her work, but she liked free time just as much. His request to switch you to the night-calls, however, had been a dormant one, an almost pointless one, because he’d never rang. Never asked anything of you once he’d taken supper.

At least, he hadn’t before now, right now. This very moment. You’d been dragged from your sleep by the dull clanging of the service bell, and now you’re hot-footing down the stairs with your pinafore barely fastened. What the allowed time for dressing is, you have no idea. You’re trying to rush, but there’s no way of knowing how long it has been, or how presentable you are. The only comfort is that he’s yet to ring the bell again, so you obviously haven’t been long enough to make him impatient.

The door to his study is shut, but there’s nowhere else he’d be, so you knock once you’re stood in front of it. You hear him cough from the other side, before saying, ‘Come in.’

Right then. Here you go. You take a few steps into the room, just enough to be present, but not intrusive, and force a quiet breath before speaking. ‘What can I do for you, Mr. Shelby?’ you ask, starting as he shows no sign of doing it on your behalf. He hasn’t even looked up to acknowledge you.

He’s leaning on the end of his desk, staring into the embers of the once lit fire, with a half-filled tumbler in his hand. His jacket’s off, shirt sleeves rolled and shoved to sit above the elbow. If it weren’t for the waistcoat, still fastened and adorned with the chain of his pocket-watch, he’d look almost scruffy. Off-guard. ‘So,’ he says, ‘you heard the bell, then.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And you don’t mind the disturbance?’

‘No.’ Though, if he’d brought you down just to test the mechanism, you would hardly be happy about it. ‘Is that all, sir?’

He snorts, following it with a sip of whiskey. The motion causes the gold band around his bicep to catch in the lamplight, glinting at you. A lighthouse through the dark. ‘You don’t get bored of saying sir?’ he asks, finally flicking his eyes in your direction. ‘You say it more than the others.’

Your brows sink together, frowning before you can help it. You weren’t aware there was any other thing to call him, or that sir had a quota, one that you were seemingly well over. ‘Am I wrong to address you as that, Mr. Shelby?’

Quietly, he stands from his lean and tips his head back to finish the final portion of his drink. You watch his neck against the light, follow the whiskey as it travels down his throat. Once it’s empty, he turns to face you with his arm limp by his side, glass dangling in his palm. ‘No,’ he says, shaking his head half-way, ‘call me what you like.’

You catch a whim in the dim-setting, a spark of courage from the fireplace. It’s like the quiet of the house, the certainty of your solitude together, is daring you to test the bounds of your employee-boss relationship. His lingering pause gives the same effect, his blank stare waits to be challenged.

‘Not Tommy, though, sir?’ you ask, wanting to smirk with it, but missing the moment. Or rather, losing the courage as soon as the name’s left your lips.

His chin lifts a fraction. ‘No, not that.’

Tommy is too personal, too close to him. The faint hope you had, that he’d allow you to say it, is squashed into the rug beneath his feet. Without asking, he holds the glass up, arm straight and pointed toward you. You understand his meaning well enough and cross the room to take it from him.

‘Do you often wake a maid, just to pour your whiskey?’ you ask from beside the drinks cabinet. The decanter is there, ready, un-topped and waiting. You fill his glass a quarter, and then a quarter more after a pause of consideration. It doesn’t seem like an evening for single measures.

He doesn’t answer until you’re back in front of him. ‘No,’ he admits shamelessly, leaving you yet another silence to fill.

‘Just me then, sir?’

He nods. ‘Yep, just you.’

He takes the glass and lifts it for a drink. By the time he’s swallowed, and set it down again, you’re two steps back, waiting in the middle of the rug. Anxious for the next order. You’d hoped that the late hour would’ve made him more accessible, more willing to drop the formalities and pretence of your relationship. Instead, it’s made you all the more aware of them. All the more sensitive to the ladder of power between the two of you, and the way he manoeuvres it. He seems so easy, so comfortable, unapologetic of his status and the benefits that it gives him. He can walk the line without risk of misstepping, because he’s the one who sets it.

‘Do you like your job, [y/n]?’ he asks, sounding as if he knows the answer already.

You chew the reply over in your head. As lucky as you’ve been so far, the outright truth might finally throw you into the cold. ‘I like the company,’ you answer, ‘the people.’

He pushes a laugh through his nose, amused but barely smiling still. ‘Didn’t ask you that.’

No, but you won’t lie to him. ‘I’m terrible at my job, sir,’ you say. He surely knows that as well as you do, maybe that’s the reason for him calling on you. It’s time for the meeting you’ve been dreading. The conversation was here at last. ‘In all honesty,’ you tell him, ‘I don’t know why you’ve kept me on.’

Sighing, he half-sits on the desk again, arms folding across his chest. ‘You think you’re that bad?’

‘Awful, sir.’ The added responsibilities have done nothing to improve your prowess. His extra requests have just given you more things to misplace, more damages to cause. ‘Why have you never said anything?’ you ask, adding a ‘sir’ at the raise of his brow. ‘Most people would’ve docked my wages by now.’

He blinks once. ‘Do you want me to punish you?’

The heat it sends up your neck is scorching, embarrassing. For a moment, you forget that he could mean it plainly, that he could speak as an employer and an employer alone. If he had any other expression, you’d be able to validate that, but he’s stoney as ever, waiting for a response like he’d simply asked for the time. ‘No, sir,’ you manage. ‘I just wondered why.’

He takes a sip before answering, hissing the whiskey between the set of his teeth. ‘You know why,’ he says, watching his hands for once, giving you respite from his stare. ‘You look at me just the same.’

‘I do?’

You don’t know why you’re asking, because you’re already in agreement. The self-indulgent glances you’ve taken of him were for the exact same reason you had hoped he looked at you. It wasn’t judgement, but hunger. You had thought it silly to imagine he felt that way too. Maybe men were men after all, easy to read regardless of status, free to want as they liked, but not without the worry of consequence.

‘I don’t want to misunderstand you, Mr. Shelby,’ you say carefully, speaking slow enough to set your thoughts straight. ‘Why do you employ me still?’

You’d expected bravado in reply, but his eyes are on the glass and his voice is taut. ‘I can’t,’ he states. He knows the reasons as well as you do. The chains that bind him, the ones that keep both of your roles in place. There are rules in this house, things that can’t be changed for desire’s sake and he’s counting on you to respect them; the sheer fact that you’re here, alone with him in the middle of the night, proves that his willpower is faltering. He expects you to make up for what he lacks.

The irony, of course, is that you’ve never been any good at meeting expectations. You feel your heartbeat in your skull, right behind your ears, as you take a step forward. ‘Can’t say,’ you challenge, ‘or can’t act on it?’

Another step and you’re an arm’s length away from him.

He puts the glass down and faces you steadily, like he’s flicked the switch back into place, like he’s got cold, iced water in his veins again. ‘You’ll tempt me in my own house, eh?’ he chides, pushing it through a smirk. ‘So quick to be a whore.’

‘I’m not a whore,’ you answer, ‘I’m a maid.’ You chance it and put a hand to his waistcoat, pinching the edge of it between your fingers. He doesn’t stop you. You’re invincible then, you could do anything in the world, and he still wouldn’t think it reason enough to fire you. ‘You don’t seem like a man to ignore his wants, Mr. Shelby.’ Indulge while you can, taste what you’ve been thinking about for so long. ‘If there’s anything I can do to help,’ you purr, ‘then it’s surely my job to do it.’

He doesn’t say anything, but maybe he’s ran out of words. Maybe they’d just take him further from what it is that he wants. Now that you both know it, there’s no reason to discuss. You may be terrible at housework, but men have never been a challenge, you could never fail at something you enjoyed so thoroughly.

Standing, he takes you by the wrist and pulls your fingers free of the waistcoat. He holds your hand in front of your face like you’re a caught criminal. ‘Go back to bed,’ he says, bluntly enough that you almost turn and run. But you were so close to the impossible, so close to tipping over the line, that adrenaline catches you instead.

‘Why?’ Your brows pinch, your manners forget themselves in the disappointment. ‘You suddenly have morals?’ you ask, teetering on laughter. ‘Shame?’ He could kill a man, but fucking his maid is where his ethics hardened. Where they steeled to a stop.

His jaw sets. For someone so familiar with staff, and giving orders, he’s struggling to put you in your place. You know it’s coming though, you can see the threat behind his eyes.

‘Are you scared, Tommy?’ you taunt. ‘Worried we’ll be found out?’

It was a risk, but it paid off, and he switches the play so easily into his favour, that the wind is knocked out of you before you can piece together what’s happened. He’d pulled you forward, then past him, so that your thighs are against the edge of the desk and his chest is pressed along the length of your back. His arms are either side of you, palms flat on the wooden top. ‘Is that how you want it?’ he bites, putting the question to your neck. Down the collar of your uniform. ‘Ay? Against the boss’s desk?’

‘If that’s what suits you.’

He puts a knee between yours, pushing your legs just far enough apart to feel like he’s predator and you’re prey. Like your body is his to bend, to set in place and enjoy. ‘What?’ he asks, breath hot and liquored by your ear. ‘I didn’t hear you.’

You clear your throat, willing your voice to strengthen. This was what you’d initiated, after all. This is the side you’d asked to see. ‘If that’s what suits, sir,’ you say again, stressing the ‘sir’ like it’s the key to it all, the fuel under the fire. By the way his breath shudders against you, you’re starting to think it is.

He exhales again. ‘We shouldn’t.’ He’s quiet with it, like the thought had escaped without him realising.

‘I want to,’ you insist. You lean forwards slightly, curving your lower back upwards and into him. ‘You want to, sir.’ It was obvious enough. The extra work, the lingering stares, the hardness growing against the back of your thigh —it all lead to one thing, to wanting, lusting. To favouring desire over anything else.

His hands lift from the desk-top to your waist. Taking the bait, then, making it his.

You turn between them, not caring that the motion has skewed your uniform, twisting the skirt beneath his hands until it’s sat, bunched, at your hips. It would have to be moved eventually, taken off entirely if he had the time. ‘If you take any longer,’ you say, ‘the house’ll wake up, Mr. Shelby.’

‘Yeah?’ He lifts you as he answers, putting you onto the desk, and himself between the spread of your legs. ‘And you’ll have duties to attend,’ he says, looking over you, rather than at you. His gaze is foggy from the need. You hum in agreement, playing the game, following his lead as you’re paid to. When his nose finds the space beneath your earlobe, his lips ghosting the edge of your jaw, you melt. You pour into him like scorching gold. ‘I’ll have to have you now,’ he decides, ‘while you’re off the clock.’ The words rumble out of him, low and careless, shouldered by a kiss.

You close your eyes, holding his biceps to keep you upright. ‘If I’m off duty, should I call you sir, or Tommy?’ you ask, barely managing a hoarse whisper.

His mouth opens against your neck, hot and possessive. His lips drag down to the base of your throat before he replies. ‘Are you a maid,’ he asks, panting into the skin, ‘or a whore?’

A whore, you think. He’d never kiss his wife this way, would never have relations like this with any other member of staff. You purl against him as his hand goes between your thighs. ‘Whatever, sir,’ you breathe, ‘I’m whatever you want.’ Right now, you’re a torched flame, you’re a white hot coal, split apart by the heat. His fingers move like he’s known you before. ‘There,’ you tell him, sighing as he finds that tight bundle of nerves through the cotton. ‘There, sir.’

When he kisses you on the mouth, you’re almost surprised enough to reject it. You had wrongly assumed he would avoid kissing you like a lover, but his tongue swept between your lips, pushing in to find yours, and then the thought had gone entirely. You kiss back like you’ve been starved of it, your arms around his neck to ensure that he’ll stay.

‘I imagined it like this,’ he pants, pulling back to say it into your cheek. ‘From the start.’

Really, you want to ask, right from the beginning? But instead, you moan and curl into him, spine mirroring the path his thumb had taken across your clit. ‘I didn’t,’ you breathe, humming as he repeats the motion. ‘I imagined more fucking.’

His hand pulls away fast enough that you regret saying it, but he speaks so urgently that you don’t have time to mourn the loss. ‘Take them off,’ he says, already starting on the fastening of his trousers. ‘Now.’

You do as you’re told, unclipping the garters from your tights, so that you can push your underwear down and over your knees. He’s back against you before you can shake them from your ankles.

‘It’s just a fuck,’ he says, with one hand on himself, and the other on the bare bone of your hip. ‘Alright?’

You nod, meeting his gaze with the same rushed sincerity. ‘I know.’ You hadn’t doubted that for a second. You’re after the same thing he is: relief. A purge of the tension that he had been building between you, a break from the questioning of ‘what if?’.

‘Just a fuck,’ you repeat, desperate now the heartbeat pulses from your head to your toes. Now it thumps from you, to him. You’re sure he can feel it as he presses into you.

He groans, savouring the sensation, and lets his hands stray to grip your thighs. ‘That’s what you wanted?’ he pants, rocking his hips forward again. ‘That answer your question?’

You lie back, over the newspapers and the letters. Let him fuck you like you’re just another object on the desk. ‘Yes,’ you sigh. ‘Yes.’

‘Yes, what?’

‘Yes, Mr. Shelby.’ It not only answered your question, but clarified another that you had yet to consider. You knew now, why he employed you still, but you’d discovered why you worked for him, too. Why you kept the job you hated, why you hadn’t quit after failing so many times. ‘It’s this,’ you tell him, ‘it’s for this.’