The rain misted. Gabrielle held out her hand, letting the water kiss her palm. She looked up at the night sky and closed her eyes. The soft touch of the rain against her skin was refreshing. For a few moments there was nothing but Gabrielle and the cool night. She smiled then dropped to her knees. She buried in her hands in the moist earth as she hunted worms.
Something pink wiggled between her fingers, and she pinched it. The worm squirmed. She dropped it into her blue jar. She corked it as she continued to search for more. Liam hadn’t jumped higher than the ball, but after his collision and Cordelia’s temper, he deserved a little treat. She just wished the fireflies were out tonight. He never said it, but she had a feeling that he liked those best.
She found two more worms and pocketed the jar. She stood and looked around. Her eyes rested on the stable.
Liam’s words echoed in her head.
She knew she shouldn’t…but she couldn’t resist.
She hurriedly tiptoed toward the stables. She unlatched the front doors and pushed them aside. A horse neighed. Her shoulders pressed together. When no one jumped out to stop her, she went inside. She searched a wall for a sack and found one for feeding. She snatched it then entered one horse’s stall.
The horse shook its head, causing its mane swipe the air. It snorted and edged away as Gabrielle ventured into the back of the stall. The stall was clean, so she went to another. It wasn’t until her fourth try that she found a horse with a fresh deposit.
She pinched her nose and turned the sack inside out. She stuffed her hand into the bag and dove into the feces. A lump of disgust formed in her throat. Even through the sack she could feel that the waste was still warm. It broke apart easily in her hands. She shoved down her nausea and turned the sack inside out again, trapping the dung inside while keeping her hands clean. She tied a knot at the top of the bag and erased any sign that she had been in the stables before she left.
She entered the castle and took the left stairs to the servants’ quarters. Laughter escaped the common room where the servants went after work to relax and have fun. They shared stories and tips for cooking and cleaning with the occasional gossip. Excitement raced through her; she couldn’t wait to join them.
She went a little farther down the corridor to Lucinda’s room. There was nothing remarkable the door, so Gabrielle had to count off the plain, wooden doors to make sure she had the right one. She opened the door to Lucinda’s room; she knew the woman would either be cleaning up after supper or would be eating her own meal.
Lucinda’s room wasn’t very different from Gabrielle’s. Every servant had a small room with a cot. Some servants bought dressers, but others kept their things in baskets; she had learned the basket owners were the ones who didn’t stay long. Lucinda had a dresser with a straw doll and a bible on top.
Gabrielle picked up the doll. She would have never guessed Lucinda had such a toy. She returned it to the dresser.
She grabbed Lucinda’s pillowcase. With two vigorous shake pillow flopped out. She opened the bag of feces and gagged on the putrid smell. Lucinda would probably smell it before her head touched the fluffy head cushion. Even so, Gabrielle was certain Lucinda wouldn’t check the pillow; no one ever suspects the pillow. She shook the excrement into the pillowcase then stuffed the cushion inside.
She dashed out the bedroom and into the common room. The fireplace burned, casting shadows against the walls. Ronan, Albert, and Daniel laughed boisterously in front of the fire. Melinda and Warren chatted in the corner—lovebirds. Fiona, Isabella, and Mackenzie huddled together, drank ale, and sang a song about a man shipped off for a murder he did not commit. Thomas sat in a rickety, old chair, teaching Samuel how to read. Marina danced with Eric, and Oliver played a jaunty tune on his flute.
“Gabrielle!” Marina gasped and twirled out of Eric’s hold.
“Come join us.” She took Gabrielle’s hand and spun her into Eric.
Gabrielle laughed, laid her hands on Eric’s chest, and pushed away. She hiked up her skirts and jigged to the upbeat tune. Marina mimicked her.
“Now that isn’t very nice,” Eric chuckled, his cheeks flushed from dancing. “I thought you and I were having a wonderful time.”
“You’re being too sensitive, Eric,” Marina said as she pranced toward him, taking his hand in hers. He spun her around then latched their elbows together. They bounced and twirled.
Gabrielle hopped on the balls of her feet. She jumped into the air with a kick and clapped her hands. She spun, and Thomas was suddenly there. He linked his elbow wither hers. More of the servants joined, and she passed between them. The older ones lined the room and clapped out the beat. They laughed whenever someone fumbled, but then were quick to cheer the person on.
Gabrielle was breathless and hot. Sweat dripped down her forehead and armpits, but she loved the thrill of the dance too much to care. She brushed her bangs out her face as she was passed to Ronan.
A scream pierced the air.
Lucinda burst into the room. Her plump cheeks were ruby with fury, and her brown strands whipped around her face like snakes. The thin, blue veins on her neck throbbed. She thrust her pillow up for all to see and pinched her nose.
“Who did this?” she shrieked.
“Did what?” asked Albert. He walked up to her and stopped two steps short of her. He covered his nose and waved his hand. “What is that stench?”
“Shit!” Lucinda screeched.
A few of the younger servants snickered, including Gabrielle.
“It’s not funny.” Lucinda stormed up to Eric and pinched his ear. “How would you like it if you just finished working, wanted to go to bed, and then found shit in your pillow?”
Eric yanked free of her and rubbed his ear. “Use your spare clothes as a pillow. You can wash it tomorrow.”
“I want it washed now!” Lucinda stomped her foot. “Now who did it?”
No one answered.
Lucinda scanned the room. She looked at them as if they were all murderers. Her gaze landed on Gabrielle and narrowed. She shoved her way to Gabrielle. She shook the putrid pillowcase in Gabrielle’s face. “You.” She seized Gabrielle’s arm. Sharp nails dug into Gabrielle’s skin.
Lucinda tugged her forward. “You clean this up now.”
“Stop it, Lucinda,” Marina pushed her way out of the crowd. “You’ve been picking on Gabrielle, and you are just using this as an excuse to do it again.”
“She’s the one who did this.”
Warren pulled himself away from Melinda. “What’s your evidence?”
“Who else would do it?”
“That’s not evidence,” Marina rebuked.
Lucinda looked between Gabrielle and the crowd of angry faces. She released Gabrielle. “Fine.” She spun, slamming the door behind her as she left.
Gabrielle rubbed her abused arm.
Murmurs about Lucinda’s pillowcase floated in the air. The older servants looked at her suspiciously. Some of the younger ones also eyed her with curiosity, but most chattered amicably with one another.
Marina approached Gabrielle. “Are you all right?” She reached to touch Gabrielle’s arm. Gabrielle jerked away.
Gabrielle forced a smile. “It’s a little sore, but should be fine by tomorrow.”
Marina frowned. “Are you sure?”
Marina lowered her hand and tossed a glance at the servants eyeing Gabrielle. She stepped closer to Gabrielle and whispered, “If it was you, you should avoid doing anything else to Lucinda. She is not the most well liked, but some people are a little too high on their moral horse. You might get in trouble.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I think I’ll go to bed now.”
Marina stepped away. “Goodnight then.”
Gabrielle smiled and waved. “Goodnight to you too.” She ignored the stares of others and gently closed the door behind her as she left. Once outside, her knees felt weak. She gripped the doorknob for support. She collapsed against the door and raised her head to the ceiling. Giddiness danced through her veins. She grinned like a fool. Lucinda would make her life miserable for the next few days, but the look of absolute horror and disgust on her face had given Gabrielle a high she hadn’t felt in months. The rush and thrill was worth it.
She pranced down the hall and twirled.
She had to do it again.
“Those don’t look like riding clothes.” Lord Kenneth examined his horse’s saddle and patted his steed’s side.
Cordelia hadn’t changed out of her simple blue gown from breakfast. Her father would have preferred her to switch into a more regal dress, but even he acknowledged what a terrible idea that would be. She forced a smile on her face and giggled like a fairy, just as she had been instructed to do once she became eligible for marriage.” I hope you don’t mind, I wanted to look my best for you.”
Lord Kenneth leered at her. His lips curved up. He stepped toward her. “I’m honored that you would try so hard to impress me.”
"Who said it was difficult?" She grinned but then mentally kicked herself. It was comments like that one that had gotten her in trouble before.
Lord Kenneth blinked then shook his head. He was probably brushing aside her comment as the result of nerves.
She breathed a sigh of relief.
He held out his hand, and she took it. He led her to her horse. “I noticed your family’s orchard as I rode in today. I thought we could explore it.”
She nodded and kept her teeth pressed against her bottom lip. If she didn’t speak then she couldn’t insult him. He helped her onto her horse. She internally groaned at the prospect of riding sidesaddle. She was certain her father had specifically told the stable hands to put the sidesaddle on. She waited for him to climb onto his steed. He did so with ease.
He clicked his teeth and moved the reigns. The horse trotted away. Cordelia rubbed the neck of her horse and gave the reigns a tug; it pranced after its brethren. She rode up beside Lord Kenneth. He glanced at her and smiled. “I’ve heard that you are the adventurous sort. How about a race to the orchard?”
A race? Warm glee tickled Cordelia’s insides like a feather. Other suitors had scoffed at the notion of racing against her. They became furious when she took off and left them behind. It was one of the first things her father had told her not do. Even the few who were willing to race got offended when she won. Lord Kenneth, however,
Perhaps it was his face that still had its baby fat, or maybe it was his soft blue eyes, or even his brilliant grin, but something about him radiated the same aura that Liam gave off right before they raced. He didn’t seem to care who won or lost; he just wanted to have fun.
She nodded and whipped her reigns.
Lord Kenneth mimicked her action.
They blasted around the corner toward the front gates. Guards rushed and stumbled to open the gate. They barely parted the doors in time for Cordelia and Lord Kenneth. The two were neck and neck.
Cordelia pressed herself closer to her horse and kicked its side. She gritted her teeth as the horse rocked beneath her. She felt like she was sliding off her horse; this was why she hated sidesaddle.
They charged down the dirt path toward the orchards. An old man with a cane flung himself off the road as they rounded a corner near him.
Cordelia peeked at Lord Kenneth. He kept his gaze focused on the orchard. It made Cordelia grin; it would have been upsetting if Lord Kenneth turned out to be one of those overly sensitive types that would stop their race just because they startled someone.
The wind slapped her hair in her face as they rounded the last bend. She shook her head and gave her horse one firm kick.
The horse jumped and flew over the orchard gate. It landed with a thump and ran a few more paces until she pulled on the reigns. Cordelia made soothing sounds and rubbed her horse’s neck. “That’s a good horse.”
Lord Kenneth’s horse snorted behind her.
Cordelia beamed and turned to face Lord Kenneth. Her smile toppled.
She could see it in his squinted eyes, his white-knuckle grip, and his clenched jaw: he was furious. Her heartstrings knotted, and her stomach churned. Was there any way to recover from this?
A strained smile formed on Lord Kenneth’s lips. He chuckled drily. “Well, it seems you won. I should have expected your stable hands to give you the best of your horses.”
"Actually, your horse is the better of ours." Internal cringe. She’d said too much again.
His smile looked so forced that it made her cheeks ache in sympathy. She sighed and shook her head. There was no making the situation better.
"Ah, well then, good for you. If my steed hadn’t needed rest, I’m sure I would have won this match."
Cordelia’s skin itched with irritation, and the hair on her arms bristled. “I’m sorry, but do you realize how silly you sound?” There was no point in playing the docile female anymore. She was ecstatic to rip off the uncomfortable facade. “If your horse didn’t need rest? Ignoring the fact that every animal has its limitations, and that you’re basing your assumption on a possibility that does not exist —and that you have no evidence to back up your assumption —the fact is, you lost. Nothing you say or do changes that.”
"The fact is," he stressed his words, "I could have won."
"The fact is, you’re an ass."
"How dare you? Do you know who I am?"
"Of course." She raised her head high. "You’re a lord, and I am a princess."
His cheeks reddened then turned purple. His tongue tripped over half-formed words. He looked every which way, as if he could find a witty retort on the ground.
She snapped her reigns. The horse dashed toward the orchard’s fence and jumped over it. She eased the horse into a trot and went home.
She hoped her father could forgive her.