THE SUDDEN BAYİNG of hounds startled the chickens at my feet. “Hugh?” I called, shaking the grain dust from my apron. “Here, Miss Eloise.” Our groomsman appeared from the stable, leading Sugar by her reins. “Does that sound like hunting dogs?” “It does.” He nimbly leapt onto Sugar’s back. “I’ll go warn the hunters away.” As Hugh rode down the rutted path leading away from our small estate, I turned toward the two-storied house I called home. Smoke curled from all four chimneys, but with the hint of spring in the crisp air, I knew the fires wouldn’t be necessary for long. Letting myself into the kitchen, I inhaled the warm yeasty smell of the bread dough Judith was kneading. “Were those hounds we heard?” she asked. “Yes. Hugh went to warn the owners off.” I shrugged out of my cloak and hung it and my apron by the door. “It’s been happening too frequently in recent years.
The king should remind people that he cares about these lands by visiting them more often.” Judith, who’d been with our family since I’d been born sixteen years ago, knew just how infrequently the king left his castle. “I’m sure he has bigger concerns with Prince Granger’s negotiations in the north,” I said. “What could we possibly need from the north?” Anne asked as she set a tray with a tea service for three. “My guess is wool,” Judith said. “In those colder temperatures, the herds probably have thicker coats.” While they spoke, I inspected the tray for something to eat. “I was about to take this to the sitting room,” Anne said, noting my interest. “Mrs. Cartwright requested you join her and your sister in there.
” “You know Mother would be upset if she heard you calling her that,” I said. “You’re supposed to use her given name, Margaret.” “In her presence,” Anne said with a small smile. “Elsewhere, I’ll respectfully use her title.” I followed Anne from the kitchen, glad that Mother had selected her out of the many who had applied for the position. Already a widow, Anne was only two years older than me and didn’t want anything other than security in life. Something Mother wanted for Kellen and myself. Something I had no interest in if it came in the form of a husband. From the study, I heard the soft murmur of Kellen’s voice as she read to Mother. She paused when Anne and I entered the room.
Mother reclined on a settee by the window. Although the sunlight gave her pale skin a healthier glow, the blankets that covered her body and pillows that propped her head bespoke the true state of her well-being. Yet, as much as Mother lived the life of an invalid, her gaze still alertly found mine. “Hounds again?” she asked. “So it seems,” I answered, taking the seat near her. Kellen shut her book and looked at me. My twin was my opposite in almost every way. Her straight ebony hair contrasted with my wavy golden tresses. The startling blue of her eyes, as well as her pale skin, held no warmth, whereas my golden tones were reflected in the warm hazel of my gaze. While I was quick to let the world know every emotion I felt, she held everything inside.
I also towered over her petite frame by four inches, which I never used to my advantage. I never had to because Kellen and I didn’t fight. Ever. Our differences did not make me love my sister less. No, I loved her more for each one. I leaned forward and placed a kiss on my mother’s soft cheek, surprising her. “What’s that for?” “For giving me a sister instead of a brother. She would have been beastly as a boy.” “I would have been too small to be beastly,” Kellen said evenly. “And tormented for my manly inadequacies.
The only safe thing Mother could do for me was make me a girl.” Mother snorted, a smile ghosting her lips, our banter amusing her as I’d hoped it would. “Speaking of manly attributes…did either of you notice any of interest when you went to market?” she asked. “I’d rather hoped there would be callers soon.” I gave Kellen a side glance. She kept her gaze focused on Mother. “What?” Mother asked, catching the look. “What happened?” “Nothing of importance, Mother,” Kellen said. She looked at Anne, who’d been preparing our tea, and accepted the first cup for Mother. The milky brown liquid was laced with medicine.
“I won’t drink that until you girls tell me what happened,” Mother said. The surly note in her words made me smile. “Well, we know it’s not Father who gave me my temper,” I said. “You’re right,” Mother said, relaxing visibly. “It is better to nurture kindness in every thought and deed than to let even a cinder of anger smolder in your soul. For it only takes a cinder to start a fire.” Then, she looked at me, love reflecting in her gaze. “A fire can easily destroy what it took a lifetime to build.” “Or the face of a shopkeeper’s son,” Kellen added. Mother made a pained expression.
“Oh, Eloise, what did you do?” “I tested the sturdiness of the blacksmith’s newest frying pan. I’m happy to report the smith was quite pleased with the results.” “You hit a boy with a frying pan?” “Well, if you must put it so brashly…yes.” Anne made a small noise and quickly excused herself. Mother stared at me for a moment before taking her tea from Kellen and drinking it down in several long swallows. She handed back the cup and closed her eyes. “I’m ready for the full adventurous tale, my darlings.” Kellen and I shared a smile and launched into a recounting of our market visit from the day before. We embellished a few places for entertainment purposes, but never so much as to veer from the truth. The truth being that, years ago, Kellen and I had gradually gained a reputation of sorts with the boys in town.
My quick to ignite temper had earned me the nickname of Cinder while Kellen’s abidingly cool exterior had earned her the name Snow. “When Carver lobbed a ball of muddy snow at Kellen, I grabbed the pan to block it; but my aim was off. While the ball splattered us, the pan hit Carver with a resounding gong that gained the attention of just about everyone on the street.” Mother snorted a laugh and held out both of her hands without opening her eyes. The tea always made her tired. Kellen took one, and I took the other. Mother’s thin fingers felt so frail in my own. “I have been blessed with two beautiful, headstrong daughters who not only know how to care for themselves but for others, too. Your beauty is not in the texture of your skin or the shine of your hair. It’s what’s inside each of you, and it’s how you influence the world around us.
You are my sun, Eloise. And you, my moon, Kellen. Both lights shine brightly and fill my life with joy.” She gave our hands a gentle squeeze. “You would fill my life with more joy if one of those thick-headed miscreants had caught your fancy, though.” She peeked at us from under the lashes of one eye before closing it again. “I hardly believe a miscreant—” “Or a band of them,” Kellen added. “—is what you had in mind for our future spouses,” I said. Mother sighed. “Too right you are.
A handsome man with a good heart and steadfast loyalty, like your father, is what I hope for both of you. Go now. I need to rest. Anne dosed my tea again. Tell her this concoction tasted like shite from the yard.” I choked on my laugh while Kellen shook her head. While Mother rested, we took the tray to the kitchen. “How is she today?” Judith asked. “The same,” Kellen said. “Dying.
” “Aren’t we all?” Judith said, not put out by Kellen’s bluntness. “Some of us just take longer going about it and don’t see it for what it is. The end comes for all of us, Kellen. It’s what we do with the days we have that matters.” Kellen nodded and grabbed her cloak. I did the same. Side by side, we walked down the hill toward town. Just before the path met the larger road, we took a small walking trail to the right and started the trek up the rocky incline. Neither of us spoke until we reached the top. There, we stood near the edge and looked out over Towdown.
“Mother received a letter from Father yesterday. He’s due to return soon,” Kellen said. Mother hated when Father had to leave. However, given his profession, he left often. “I don’t blame him,” Kellen said when I didn’t speak. I turned to look at my sister. “For staying away,” she clarified even though I knew my sister well enough to guess most of her thoughts. The world might see Kellen’s steady, light blue gaze and bland expression as being unfeeling. But, I knew better. I saw her expression for what it was.
A mask to hide the pain. It hurt her to see Mother like this…almost as much as it hurt Father. Wrapping my arms around Kellen, I stared down at the rooftops and the lazy spirals of smoke hazing the air. The din from town didn’t reach us, and the wind kept all but the barest hint of smoke from the air. Just beyond the rooftops, I could see the glimmer of white stone in the sun. The castle. With a sigh, Kellen placed her head on my shoulder and wrapped her arms around my waist in return. “Mother knows we all love her deeply. That’s why she hired Anne,” I said. “She hopes we will leave when the time is right.
” “Since marriage appeals to you as little as it appeals to me, I doubt either of us is going anywhere,” Kellen said. “Having Anne here hasn’t changed that.” “Mother’s hope will continue, regardless.” Kellen lifted her head and stepped away from me. “What does the future hold for us?” she asked. “Spinsterhood, most likely. Nothing too terrifying,” I said. The faint pounding of hooves drew our attention. “We’d better get back,” she said. I followed her down the familiar trail.
By the time we made it to the stable, Hugh had already unsaddled Sugar. “Was there any trouble?” I asked. “None. The hounds don’t belong to hunters. They belong to the Crown. It seems the Royal Retreat is due for a visit.” Kellen and I shared a look. I could barely recall the last time the rambling estate, a bit further up the hill, had been used. It had been at least five years ago. Neither Kellen nor I had gotten a glimpse of the royal entourage during the king’s week-long visit then.
We’d been strictly forbidden from leaving our small estate. “We must tell Mother,” Kellen said. Judith was absent from the kitchen, but a small roast spit over the fire said she would return soon. I inhaled deeply. “Stop smelling dinner, and tie your shoes,” Kellen said without rancor. “This is why you’re four inches shorter. You don’t appreciate your food, so you don’t grow.” She snorted, and I knew I’d amused her even if her face didn’t show it. Anne was sitting quietly in the corner, reading from a primer, when we entered the parlor. She left us to wait for Mother to wake.
It didn’t take long for her to open her eyes and smile at us. “Did you watch me sleep long?” she asked. “Ages,” I answered. “One doesn’t often see a sleeping princess.” Her smile widened. “Speaking of royalty,” Kellen said. “It seems the hounds belong to the king. He has finally decided to visit his Royal Retreat.” The Royal Retreat was more than just a massive stretch of land north of Towdown. It was also the name of the sprawling home the royal family used when they wanted some time away from the castle.
“This is not good news,” Mother said, looking concerned. “It would be best if you stayed out of the woods while the king is in residence at the retreat.” Most mothers would be excited for a chance encounter with royalty, especially since we lived on royal land and were allowed to hunt it when others were not. Not our mother. “I cannot imagine needing two homes,” I said, trying to distract her from her worry. “It’s not fun cleaning one.” “Do you honestly think His Highness cleans anything?” Kellen asked. I grinned. “Certainly his privy. It wouldn’t be fair to ask someone else to do that.
” Kellen nudged me with her elbow, and I realized what I’d said. Mother used nothing but a chamber pot that Anne, Kellen, or I cleaned every day. “They would rob him blind,” I added smoothly. “How so?” Kellen asked. “Come now. It’s obvious.” I paused for a moment and glanced between Mother and Kellen. “His shite is gold.” Mother burst out laughing, and Kellen shook her head. “Eloise, I hope that you find your beau soon.
” “Why is that, Mother?” “Because you’ll soon outswear him. A lady shouldn’t speak so.” “Too right. But, any man worthy of my interest will need to take me as I am. Filthy mouth and all.” Anne knocked on the open door, calling our attention. “There is a delivery boy,” she said. “Send him in,” Mother said. Anne disappeared, and a few moments later, a youth walked in. He was dressed in neat trousers and a coat that was just a tad too short for his wrists.
A common sight for growing boys. His gaze swept over the three of us, and he removed the floppy red cap with a gold emblem on it from his shaggy dark head to give a precise, small bow. “Can we help you?” Mother asked. “Yes, ma’am. I have a delivery for Mrs. Cartwright.” He lifted the small, brown paper- wrapped package he held. “I am she,” Mother said. The boy came forward. “A coin, Kellen,” Mother said.
Kellen gave the boy a copper in exchange for the package. With a bob of his head, he returned to Anne, who I knew would see him out. Mother smiled in excitement as Kellen handed her the package. The gifts that Father always sent made his absence less cruel. Each one let us know he was thinking of us. “I should wait until he returns to open it,” she said. I grinned. “At least, until yours arrive,” she added. Her eyes never left the package. “He sent yours ahead of his arrival for a reason,” Kellen said.
“Open it. We want to see what it is.” Mother didn’t need any further encouragement. She tugged the string free and removed the paper to expose a small, cloth-covered box. We all gasped when she removed the lid to reveal a gold encased emerald pendant strung on a delicate gold chain. “Your father’s latest venture must have done very well,” Mother said, breathlessly. She lifted the chain and let the pendant dangle in the sunlight. It almost seemed to glow with a light of its own. “It’s beautiful,” Kellen said.