Chapter One || To Wed a Beast

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"AND WHEN HE reaches out to touch you, do not lean away from him," they instructed me as they painted rouge over my lips, their voices hushed and sorrowful.

The widow and her daughter tightened my corset, lacing the ribbons into the eyelets spread along either side of my spine. I held my breath, fighting the urge to squirm from their tugs. "Do not hurt him," the elderly woman reminded me as she cut my fingernails and smoothed them into harmless nubs. "When he asks you a question, do not make him wait for an answer. Speak softly and eloquently, do not ever raise your voice over his."

Fingers scraped against the base of my scalp, pulling and sectioning locks of hair, keeping them in place with intricate braids and jewelled pins. Arlette knelt before me, avoiding my gaze as she braced her wrists on my cheekbones and darkened my lashes. Her fingers moved with honed precision, quick and accurate from the many times she had done this. It was odd to see the two of them—to see their faces lit by the candles. They usually kept to themselves, remaining in their cottage until it was time to prepare a bride.

"When he visits your bedchamber tonight, stand until he tells you to sit. Do not look up into his face," the widow warned me. "Only lift your gaze when he requests it."

"When he begins to undress you, do not flinch or jerk. And if he asks you to undress without his assistance, then do so with ease. Show no fear." I felt a tug at the hem of the gown's sleeves. "If he gets impatient, sweetly request that he pulls the pins from your hair or undoes your corset lacings."

A jewelled necklace was clasped around my neck. The cold diamond pendant rested on the lacing of my white gown, strung up so it settled atop my breasts. "A gift from his lordship," Arlette whispered as she fastened the necklace.

I thought to tell her that it was the same necklace given to the brides before me, that it was the very necklace torn from her sister's dead body. I pressed my lips together. Her own mother had prepared her for that wedding, unaware that they would have to bury her the next month. I still recalled that day, when her mangled body had been sent back to our village.

"If he wants to kiss you, you must open your mouth for him. Do not pull away or cut his advances short," the widow recited, imprecating me to my duty as a wife. "And if he wants to do something else, you must oblige to his wishes."

"When it is time for you to consummate," she murmured gently, "be warned that he may hurt you. If he is harsh with you, do not cry or yell out. You must bear with the pain. It will be done quickly."

My eyes remained on the red rug, lit by the soft orange glow of the candles. With quiet voices, the hands at my skirts ceased moving and I heard the soft shuffling of feet. I slowly opened my eyes and beheld the beauty that stood before me.

Her hair was that of burnished gold and brown copper, braided into silken locks and held by adorned pins. Her lashes had been darkened, making them appear long and luscious. Red were her lips, sultry and irresistible. A dusting of blushed rose has been applied to her cheeks, warming her features. She looked innocent and gentle, incapable of sin.

That lady in the mirror was who I wanted my future lord husband to see: Meek and defenseless, for I was only meant for his pleasure.

He will not expect it—will not expect me—when I slit his throat.

It was then that I heard the soft rapping of knuckles against my door. I nodded towards Arlette and her mother, glad that they had been solemn. They mumbled some words of goodbye and hurried to exit, leaving me and my visitor to our privacy. Fortunately, he would be the last of my guests. I had spent the better half of last night in the company of my weeping sisters and our matrons. I knew that if any of them returned to persuade me to abandon my marriage, I would likely snap.

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