It was at the request of Lord Gabriel Delessan that a handmaiden of the Order of Solace be delivered to his manor house. For young and ingenuous Tranquilla Caden, it would be her new position of service?devoted as she was to fulfilling every demand of her new master, to stimulating his mind, stirring his soul, and arousing his body. Yet something happens that Quilla never counted on: she was falling hopelessly, dangerously in love with the enigmatic?and very married?man she was required only to service.
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A flower is made more beautiful by its thorns.
Glad Tidings was a house with a great many thorns seeking to hide its beauty. If ever a house had been more ill-named, Tranquilla Caden had never seen it. She lifted the heavy brass knocker and let it fall against the door three times before stepping back to look up again at the manse.
The stone façade had weathered to gray without even ivy or moss providing a hint of green. The shutters, black. The gabled roof, black. Even the door, black, the brass knocker weather-dulled. The twin towers on each end of the house gave it an interesting roofline, but they were more buttress than fae-story spirals. It lacked not for glass windows, but even those looked purely practical and not for ornament.
Glad Tidings looked well and fashionably maintained, a grand manor house. It looked like raised eyebrows and pursed lips, like mutton for supper and a clean-your-plate demeanor. Then again, those who lived in whitewashed cottages with flower-filled gardens rarely seemed to have need for a Handmaiden.
“Sure you doona want me to wait, mistress?”
Quilla turned to give the coach driver a smile. “No, thank you, Steven. They’re expecting me.”
The man who’d been her traveling companion for the past seven days looked doubtful. “Are you sure’n? For I’d not like to leave you here, alone.”
Before she could reply, the door creaked open. Quilla turned to see a rolling blue eye peering at her. “Hello?”
“You the Handmaiden?”
The lack of welcome didn’t disturb Quilla, who put on her best smile. “I’m Tranquilla Caden. I’m here—”
“I know what you’re here for.”
A snort and a grumble preceded the door opening to reveal a stout, broad-faced figure in a flour-dusty dress worn over a pair of ankle-high breeches. A head of untidy gray curls and a streak of soot on one cheek completed this unusual ensemble.
“You,” said the woman—but was it a woman? The mustache and manner made it difficult to be sure. She pointed at the coach driver. “You’ve been paid, hent ya?”
He nodded. “Aye, but I’ve come to deliver—”
“And deliver you’ve done! Get gone!”
Steven made a rude gesture, but lifted down Quilla’s sturdy case and handed it to her. “Pleasure making your company, mistress. May the Invisible Mother keep you.”
“Today and all your others,” replied Quilla. The case stayed next to her feet as she watched Steven get back in the coach and start the horses on their way again. She looked back at the person standing in the doorway with arms folded, brows beetled, and a frown so fierce it would have frightened a boogen. Quilla took in the flour and soot, and more importantly, the haughty manner. “You must be the chatelaine.”
“I’m Florentine. You might as well come in.”
The name gave no more clue to the person’s gender, but the acceptance of the title did. A man would never have been named chatelaine. Florentine stepped aside to let Quilla enter the grand entrance hall. The interior of Glad Tidings was no less impressive and no more joyful than the outside had been.
Quilla looked around with interest. The grand staircase curved upward to a landing above. To her left and right arched doorways led to well-lit rooms furnished with exquisite taste. Most interesting to Quilla were the woven tapestries she glimpsed on the walls. Even from this distance it was clear they were the finest she’d seen.
“If you’ve finished gawking,” Florentine said over her shoulder with a sniff, “might as well follow me.”
Quilla hefted her case to get a better grip and followed Florentine down the hall tucked beneath the front stairs. More doors opened off this hall, but Florentine ignored them all. At last she turned through another archway and then down a short flight of steps to the kitchen. A fire crackled in the large stone fireplace, and the smells of baking bread and roasting meat filled the air. Quilla took a deep sniff, her stomach rumbling.
Florentine quirked a bushy eyebrow at her. “Dint eat afore you came?”
“I had a long journey. My last meal was yestereve, almost a full day past.”
Florentine huffed. “Sit down.”
Quilla did with a grateful sigh. It might not be her place to complain, but the journey had exhausted her. Her nose wrinkled. She was famished and dusty and certain she smelled unpleasant, if not downright horrid.
Florentine plunked a bowl of something steaming and hot in front of her, along with a hunk of fresh brown bread and a crock of sweet butter. At the smell of it, the simple but sufficient quantity of it, Quilla’s mouth watered. Florentine set a mug of creamy milk on the table, with a pitcher full of the same, and Quilla murmured a blessing of thanksgiving and drank the cup within moments, then filled it again.
“Don’t make yourself sick,” cautioned Florentine, watching with her arms crossed over her chest. “There’s plenty more where that come from. Our master Delessan ain’t generous with much, but he don’t stinge us on the eats.”
Quilla wiped her lips. “Don’t worry, Florentine. I won’t make myself sick. I’m just hungry.”
Florentine’s huff seemed to be a common reaction. She moved toward the massive fireplace to poke and prod the large joint turning on the spit. Quilla dunked her bread into the stew, soaking up the rich broth, then savoring the flavors. Her last patron had been an elderly gentleman who could chew naught but the softest foods and stomach only the blandest. When her tongue detected the hints of garlic, onion, springbulb and others, Quilla moaned at the pleasure of good food.
Florentine shot her a narrow-eyed look, mustached mouth pursing. “Wotcher?”
Quilla swallowed the mouthful of food and drank some more milk to wash it down. “It’s so delicious. I haven’t had anything like it in a long time. Thank you.”
“Don’t look like you’ve been missing many meals, I’ll say that.”
Quilla paused in raising another bite of bread to her mouth to answer without rancor. “I am as I was made. No more, no less.”
“He don’t like fat girls. He’s not going to be happy when he sees you. He likes ’em skinny, the master does. Starved, like.”
Quilla swallowed and wiped her mouth again. “The Order sent me based upon what Lord Delessan requested. If I don’t please him, he can send me away.”
She looked down at the plain, deep plum-colored gown she wore for traveling. It buttoned from throat to hem, and the cut of it emphasized her ample breasts and hips, covered the soft curve of her belly, clung to her strong, rounded thighs. “Woman I began and woman I shall end. I can only be what I am, Florentine.”
The cooked huffed and added a sniff, perhaps of disgust or disdain, Quilla couldn’t be sure. “Spare me your philosophies, if you please.”
Quilla bent back to her meal. “I meant not to offend.”
Florentine squatted to poke at the fire, making it blaze up to char the joint. She stood and turned, putting her hands on her wide hips. “He’ll take one look at you and howl like you’d got three heads, you mark my words. ’Tis not his nature to be satisfied with anything. Or at least, not to admit he’s satisfied with it.”
Quilla had long experience with those who were not easily satisfied. “Has he complained about his previous Handmaidens?”
“Never had one, so far as I know, and I been with him since I used to be a boy[CE1] . Which I don’t need to tell you was a long time ago,” Florentine said. “And in another place.”
Quilla smiled. “If he’s sent for a Handmaiden, he must feel he has need of one.”
The chatelaine rolled her eyes. “He’s got a wife who sufficed him for a goodly long time in that manner. Whatfor he needs a new wick to wax, I’m not privy to say.”
“Ah.” Quilla ate a bite, chewed and swallowed, then looked back to Florentine, who was still watching. “I’m not a whore, you know. None of us are.”
That seemed to get a different reaction out of the chatelaine, who stared, mouth agape. She shut it with a snap and frowned, brow furrowing as she shook her finger at Quilla.
“Don’t you tell me what you izzerarnt! I know what you’re here to do!”
Quilla looked at the other woman for a long moment in calm silence. If there were going to be problems, best to confront them now. Saying nothing was the best response. She sipped more milk.
Florentine scowled. “’Tis not my place to say what my lord Delessan does, you understand. He deems he needs a Handmaiden, so I sends away for one. What he does with you is of no concern to me.”
“Exactly,” said Quilla gently. “I am here to serve him and no other in any way he pleases. That is my role, one I have trained to do and would miss sorely should I leave it. It does not make me a whore, who is paid to provide her body, only.”
The other woman rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe in that rot you of the Order make your faith. Filling Sinder’s Quiver. Waiting for the Holy Family. The Holy Family is long gone from this plane and won’t be back no matter how many of us you try to soothe. I don’t believe it, not a word.”
“Then how fortunate for you that I do.” Quilla buttered another slice of bread. Defending herself and her faith had long ago ceased to make her angry. “And for whatever his reasons, it would seem our mutual master does.”
This made Florentine grin, exposing startlingly white teeth. “We’ll see. I warrant he won’t like you at all.”
“I might not please him, though I’ll do my best to try. It will be his choice to send me back if I fail.”
“I don’t see as how you can’t,” replied Florentine. “He’s hard as stone, Gabriel Delessan. No pleasing him. Believe me, I’ve tried. There’s not a meal what comes out of this kitchen he don’t bitch about, not a mote of dust he don’t notice. He can’t keep house staff long enough to keep up with the cleaning. We’re down to just three maids and two houseboys, which has made my life and Vernon the butler’s quite a pain in the arse, don’t you know it. He can’t keep assistants, as he tends to scream them into apoplexy. Our lord Delessan is a cantankerous, discontented, disillusioned, and aggravating son of a bastard.”
Not a flattering portrayal. “Why do you stay, then?”
Florentine looked at Quilla as though she were stupid. “He took me in when I had no place to go. He didn’t care about where I came from, what I’d done or what I’d been. He gave me a place in his house when I’d probably have starved otherwise.”
“You make him sound like a hero, when just moments ago you were denouncing him as a curmudgeon.”
Florentine rolled her eyes. “Sinder’s Arrow, girl. Are you daft? Don’t you know he can be both?”
“I do know that.” Quilla smiled. “And as I said, if I fail to please him, he can return me to the Order.”
Florentine regarded Quilla with a squinted glance. “I wouldn’t bother unpacking much, then, if I were you.”
“Fortunately I haven’t much to unpack.”
“Does naught disturb you?” Florentine threw up her hands.
Quilla shrugged. “Why are you so determined to frighten me away? Are you so afraid I’ll what . . . replace you? Or does your innate tenderness cause you to worry his rejection is going to hurt me? Because I can assure you, Florentine, that won’t be the case.”
“I’m not worried he’s going to hurt you.” Florentine glowered. “But the moment I laid eyes on you, I knew you’d hurt him.”