Lord Lamborne looked up from the pile of papers on his desk. “I thought I told you to stay on it,” he said, frowning.
“I am ‘staying on it’, as you so aptly put it. I’ve been on her trail since last Wednesday. The russet beauty is elusive.”
Lord Lamborne pushed his leather chair back and stood. He was several inches taller than I was, and that coupled with the frown of displeasure on his handsome face made me cringe. I knew what this man was capable of, and I didn’t want to be the recipient of his wrath. Before I could back away he’d grabbed my arm.
“No more excuses, Reinette. If you haven’t found her by Monday you will be punished.”
“Yes, my lord,” I said, making the mistake of meeting his dark eyes. What I saw there chilled me to the bone.
“Get out of my sight.” He let me go and I backed away until I felt the door behind me. Turning, I fled through it.
My full name was Vonzuccalimaglios Reinette but since no one could pronounce it, I was simply known as Reinette. My grandmother, despite protestations from the entire family, had bestowed this moniker upon me. “It suits him,” she’d said looking down on my wizened baby face. Why she thought this I never found out, since she died before I reached one year of age.
I had worked for Lord Lamborne for over six months now, and wished I’d never applied for the job. I’d expected to be his secretary, since he did a lot of writing and needed someone to organize his papers. Unfortunately this was not to be. Instead he expected me to find people, women mostly, who had gone against him in some way. This latest russet beauty, as we referred to her since her hair was a flaming red color, had been his lover before she disappeared. Her full name was Maeve McDuff. I had enjoyed several pleasant conversations with this lovely lady, and understood completely why she did what she did. Lord Lamborne was a cruel man who when angered lashed out with riding whips or fists. I’d seen the bruises on Maeve’s face and neck.
I hurried to the stables to tack up my horse, my mind on several conflicting plans. I knew where Maeve was, but I was caught in a moral dilemma. Should I let her remain and incur the lord’s wrath, or should I bring her back to him and watch her suffer? It was a hard decision since I was reluctant to undergo the physical punishment that came with displeasing his lordship.
As I rode into the forest I listened carefully for bandits. This hilly area outside the manor lands was a hard place, with hard men about, and although I was a good shot, I carried no gun. I did have a dagger on my belt, but this would not protect me from the roving thieves who thought nothing of killing for a few coins.
It was several hours before I came close to the small village where Maeve made her home. This was a poor place where disease was rampant and villagers scrabbled to stay alive. Many had succumbed to the afflictions that had taken up residence in the air and water, and because of this, thieves gave it a wide berth.
I found Maeve hanging out sheets from a hastily erected line. She wore a scarf to keep her wild hair back, her face red from exertion.
I dismounted and let my horse forage, approaching her carefully since she was known to throw heavy objects when startled. “Hello, Maeve,” I called.
She turned, and when she saw me her eyes narrowed in irritation. “What are you doing here, Reinette?”
“I bet you can guess.”
“I’m not going back to that bastard. I’m needed here.”
I was well aware of her healing skills that caused people to call her a witch, a word that could be used as a compliment or a curse. “If I don’t bring you back he’ll have my hide.”
“Better yours than mine.”
When she reached up to wipe the sweat from her forehead her scarf fell, letting loose her red tangle. I sucked in my breath realizing how utterly beautiful she was. No wonder the lord wanted her back. My breath quickened as her green eyes met mine. I was not as handsome as the lord, but women enjoyed my company often enough.
“I understand your dilemma, Reinette, but if you have any feeling for me you will leave this place.”
“If I don’t return with you he’ll find someone else to do his dirty work, and that person may not be as kind as I am.”
“I don’t care. I have duties here, and until that day I’ll continue to do them.”
“Could you entertain the idea of my company?” I asked before I could stop myself. Her beauty was unparalleled. and not only that, she was a kind and gentle woman I would gladly spend the rest of my life with.
A look of surprise moved across her features. “I…I’ve never thought of you in that way.” She seemed to assess me after that, her glance moving across my face and physique. I straightened my back, trying to appear taller than my six feet. “You’re not bad to look at,” she admitted, her head cocking to one side. “But what are your other attributes?”
I saw the little smile playing around her lips and had a moment of hope. “I can cook, I’m handy with tools, I'm good with a dagger, and with a gun, if I have one. I can dance quite nimbly. And traveling with me is a delight because I refuse to go without my creature comforts. In other words, I spend a lot of time setting up camp and finding the best herbs to go with my freshly caught rabbit.”
Maeve laughed, a tinkling sound that made my heart skip a beat. Would she? Could she…? I’d seen her gaze at me from time to time at the manor house, but I never dared interfere with his lordship and try and woo her for myself. I realized with a start that I’d loved her for a very long time.
She bent to pick up another sheet, throwing it over the line. Her bare ankle appeared beneath her skirt, the skin pale. I longed to bend down and take her foot in my hand and kiss every dirty toe.
When she straightened her eyes were bright. “If I come with you then both of us can escape his punishments?”
“That’s correct, and I have a safe place in mind. But what about your duties here?”
“If it is within traveling distance I can come as I'm needed. Where is this safe place you speak of?"
I thought of my cave up in the hills far from the roads, what I'd done over the years to make it livable. Would Maeve be comfortable there? It was hidden by thicket and far from any beaten path. My bed was of soft heather covered in a sheepskin, another sheepskin as a blanket, my latrine, a hole dug far in the back and filled with sand and covered over with moss. My kitchen was a fire pit, my food the rabbits I trapped and the fish I caught. My water came from a stream at the bottom of the hill and that is where I bathed. The thought of bathing there with Maeve made my heart beat faster.
Maeve stared at me for several long moments, her thorough perusal making the blood rise into my cheeks. “I’ve wondered about you, Reinette,” she finally said. “I’ve seen the way you looked at me, but you never said a word.”
“How could I? His lordship would have killed me on the spot.”
“I suppose that is true. Did you not see my interest?” she asked.
“You were interested in me?”
“I would have been had you made a sign.”
“Well, I am now,” I said strongly, taking hold of her hand.
She took one last look at her sheets and then picked up her long skirts and followed me back to where I’d left my mount. I took hold of the reins and swung into the saddle and then reached down to grab her hand, pulling her up behind me. Her arms went round my waist and I could feel the warmth of her body against my back. A thrill went through me as we rode toward the distant mountains.