TITLE: Lora (working title) - Chapter Two
By Rachel Rossano
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By Rachel Rossano
Seth listened carefully for the sound of the latch. The moment he was sure she was gone he turned and looked at the door with a frown. She was going to complicate things beyond his control. For him, a man whose life depended on the control he had of the situation, she was dangerous. Running his hands through his hair in frustration, he closed his eyes and tried desperately to think.
If only Danica hadn’t let slip to her aunt-in-law that he was unattached and staying near Jumare, Aunt Irene would have never come visiting and started meddling in his affairs. Firmly resolving to never again let his sister, Danica, know where he was staying while visiting somewhere on business, Seth strode over to the bell pull and rang it hard for Quinn.
If he fouled up this operation, he was certain he would be sent back to Ratharia. As much as he had enjoyed his time of service there, he was eager to go home. He hadn’t seen his parents in years and he needed a break from the constant stress of his position. If he could just manage to complete this mission and report to Anavrea, then he could take time to rest.
“Sir?” Quinn’s measured tones interrupted his thoughts.
“Has the shipment arrived?”
“Last night, sir. I examined the whole myself and Lachine and I distributed it into the appropriate vessels. It is ready and waiting.”
“Good.” At least one thing was going as planned. “I just instructed Miss Guinia in her duties. See that she has all she requires and Lachine is available for her use.” Waving a hand to dismiss him, Seth lowered himself wearily into the desk chair. The late nights and constant worry were beginning to take their toll on his endurance.
“Very well, sir.” Quinn bowed, but remained standing where he was.
Looking up to study the man, Seth frowned at him. “Is there something else?”
The Ratharian cleared his throat and shifted his weight. At any other time, Seth would have enjoyed seeing the somber man squirm slightly. But he had too much riding on this delivery and his sense of humor must have gone the way of his endurance. He wanted his peace.
“It came to my attention that the new housekeeper does not have suitable attire for her position.”
“So?” Seth doubted that was important considering they would all be leaving in four days.
“It might raise some suspicion with the buyer,” Quinn pointed out.
Seth sighed and hung his head. “I am not going to buy the child clothing for just one meeting with the buyer. If you are not satisfied with how she looks, we will simply not let her be seen. Lachine can serve and she can remain in the kitchen.” He looked up at the tall Ratharian.
“Very well, sir.” Quinn bowed again and left.
After a few moments, Seth found himself staring at the work scattered across the top of his desk. His brain was blank and refused to bend to his will. Most of his preparations for the meeting were already in place. The food was due to arrive in two days. Hopefully Miss Guinia knew how to prepare the Ratharian dishes he required, but if she didn’t, he and Lachine would manage. He had been planning on spending the next few days preparing the rooms so that it appeared he was living in the house, but with the girl’s arrival that had changed.
Unaccustomed to having spare time, Seth found himself suddenly at a loss for things to do. He had always meant to write home and let them know he was planning on coming to visit soon. He lifted his hand toward the stack of writing paper when a loud crash shook the floor. Jumping to his feet he crossed to the door and flung it open.
The sound of splintering wood still echoed in Lora’s head as she looked in horror at the mess. The ladder she had been using had collapsed beneath her as she was just reaching out for the chandelier above the table in the dining room. She had jumped off it and onto the table only a second before it had fallen over, taking a few of the chairs with it as it crashed to the floor in pieces.
Dust blossomed in clouds around her. Her eyes burned as the wave of dirt washed over her. Coughing violently, she sat down on the dining room table and brought her apron to her face. The tears that soaked into the thin cloth were only partially from the dust in her eyes. Her coughing quickly became a hacking that tore at her chest. Forcing herself to remain calm, she labored to breathe evenly through the material. Now was not the time to be having an attack. The last one had been over a year ago and she was determined that this would not be the beginning of a new one.
“Miss Guinia?” a male voice inquired worriedly from the direction of the hall. She looked up expecting to see Lachine, looking amused, or Quinn, looking disapproving. Much to her humiliation, she found the Baron making his way toward her. The dust clouds now lingered in the air filling the beams of sunlight with glinting particles and plaguing her lungs. Another cough tore at her throat.
Picking his way across the debris of the now broken ladder and the remains of the chairs, the Baron was making his way steadily toward her. Suddenly realizing how she must look sitting cross-legged on the top of the long dining room table with her apron to her face, Lora felt her cheeks growing hot. She hurriedly swiped at the tears with the backs of her hands and smoothed her apron down over her dress. The process of getting down from the table, however, was a more difficult feat, but she managed. By the time he reached her, her feet were on the floor and she was struggling to regain her composure.
“Are you alright?” he asked, eyes squinting against the thick air.
Nodding, Lora coughed again. Hurriedly covering her mouth with her hand, she reached for her apron. A second spasm constricted her chest and she fought against it.
“No,” he said as he produced a handkerchief from a pocket. “Use this. That thing is only going to make the coughing worse.”
Lora would have protested, but she didn’t have the breath. Another coughing fit, worse than before drove her to accept the offered square of cloth. Clutching it to her mouth and nose she concentrated on controlling the now painful coughing.
“Come,” he ordered. Taking the hand that wasn’t holding his handkerchief to her face, he led her out into the hall and left her. Lora sank down on the carpet and forced air in and out of her lungs through the filter of material. She didn’t notice where he had gone, but moments later he was back pressing a glass of water into her hand.
“Drink,” he ordered. When she didn’t immediately obey, he began prying one of her hands from their place over her mouth. “Miss Guinia,” he began. After working her hand free, he forced the fingers to grasp the glass. “You must drink. It will help.”
Obediently, she did. The liquid did help sooth her throat, but another rasping cough followed soon after. She could feel the Baron’s steady gaze, but Lora was afraid to look up and see the disapproval she knew was there. Her ribs and lungs hurt, her throat was raw, and all she wanted to do was crawl away and cry. Of course that would only make the coughing worse. Lifting the glass, she tried to wash down the lump in her throat with the dust.
“What is going on?” Lachine’s voice asked as he appeared at the end of the hall.
“She is having a coughing fit from the dust.” The Baron rose to his feet. “Could you find her a better ladder for cleaning the higher places? She about killed herself trying to dust the chandelier in there.”
Lachine nodded and disappeared.
“The chandelier was still swinging,” the Baron commented.
She looked up to find him smiling at her. Laughter sparkled in his eyes. “I am surprised that the thing is still attached to the ceiling considering the tug you must have given it on your way down.” She smiled weakly, certain that she looked amusing sitting on the table with the chandelier swinging above her head. The laughter in his eyes dimmed as they narrowed slightly. “Are you going to be all right? For a few moments there, I wasn’t sure you were breathing in between.”
“Fine,” Lora managed roughly.
He nodded, but watched her for a moment before he turned away. Then he disappeared into the study again.
Before she had a chance to think, Lachine appeared with a ladder and asked, “Where do you need it?”
As she got to her feet to show him, she realized she was still clutching the Baron’s handkerchief and glass. She was going to have to return them later.
The Lora’s next few days were filled with dust, coughing fits, and brief encounters with the men. She only saw the Baron at meals, but Lachine spent his afternoons helping her clean. He spent his mornings working outdoors before the sun was at its peak. Quinn would appear at intervals throughout the day obviously busy about his own tasks.
On the morning of the fourth day, she finished scrubbing the floor of the parlor. Sitting back on her heels, she surveyed the glowing wood before her and sighed in relief. It was done; she had done it. A thrill filled her chest and for a moment she wanted to laugh. The rooms were clean and after Lach helped her move the furniture back to their places, they would be ready.
She dropped the brush into the dirty water in the bucket and climbed to her feet slowly. Her muscles, unused to the hard labor she had demanded of them the past few days, complained. As she straightened her stomach grumbled noisily. Closing her eyes she frowned. Now she had to start thinking about making lunch. The pantry was beginning to look bare. The men had finished the last of the bacon that morning and she had only managed to scrape half a bowl of porridge out of the pot after the men had eaten that morning.
Then she remembered the turnip and carrots she had found under the bottom shelf that morning. If she could find some potatoes, an onion, and flour she could make a stew. There were still some bread crusts that were too hard for eating straight. The stew would soften them. Her stomach growled. Smiling at the thought of food, she picked up the bucket and headed toward the kitchen.
As she opened the door, she felt her jaw drop. Vegetables covered the table, the smell of onions and curry rose from the large kettle hanging over the fire, and a man was standing at the counter chopping up more onion. It wasn’t until he turned and glanced her way that she recognized her employer. He looked very different standing there with his sleeves rolled up and an apron tied about his waist.
“I could use a hand, if you are finished with the parlor,” he said calmly before turning his attention back to the cutting board.
“I just have to throw out the water,” she told him.
When she returned, he was scraping the onions into the pot. Without looking up, he nodded to the table. “If you start chopping up the peppers, I will turn my attention to the rice. They need to be chopped finely.”
Crossing to the table, she found the peppers and set to work. Taking the other cooking pot, he disappeared out the door. A few moments later he reappeared and set the now full kettle over the flame and then started sorting the ingredients on the table.
“Who is coming to dinner tonight, sir?” she asked suddenly. The movement behind her stopped for a moment.
“I haven’t decided to trust you or not yet,” he said finally.
After a lengthy uncomfortable silence in which she finished the peppers, he spoke. “I know you never asked to be involved in this, Miss Guinia. I am sorry, but the less you know the safer you will be later.”
She turned to find him looking at her. His face was calm, but his eyes were tired as he met hers. Something in his gaze tugged at her. She felt drawn to him somehow as if a part of him was asking her for help beyond the task at hand.
“I am here to help you, sir. What would you have me do?” she asked.
His gaze fell to the vegetables on the cutting board. “Add that to the first pot and start the carrots.” Then he turned to the pantry. Producing a large bag of rice, he emptied part of it into the now boiling water. He pulled a chair from the table to the hearth and began stirring the rice.
“So, Miss Guinia, tell me about yourself,” he said suddenly.
“What do you want to know, sir?”
“Anything…do you have siblings?”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “I have four older brothers: Kaled, Waren, Jerat and Braun.”
“And your given name?” he asked suddenly.
“Lora, sir,” she answered as she glanced at him. He was sitting with his head bowed as if listening intently. Even as she watched he lifted his head and looked at her questioningly.
“Are they good brothers?” he asked.
The look that leapt to Lora’s warm brown eyes answered Seth’s question more than her quiet ‘yes.’ He had to work to suppress his reaction to the emotion in her eyes. It reminded him of his own relationship with his brother. She obviously loved her brothers deeply.
“So, explain to me why you are here and they are…I believe you said they were in school?” Sadness darkened her eyes before she turned away.
“Father didn’t have a large estate, but he wanted to take care of us, especially when he knew he was dying. He set it up so that my brothers would have their schooling paid for and he instructed them to look after me. I believed he wanted us to live together, where I could keep house for them and they could take care of me. After he died, Aunt Roalalt changed all of it. She arranged for the boys to go to this boys’ boarding school where I can never see them. Then she brought me here. I suppose she expects me to stay here until my brothers graduate and seek me out, but I am not sure she told them where I am.”
“Did she tell you the name of the school where they are?” he asked.
She sadly shook her head. “She refused, sir. Said I would just get them in trouble if I showed up there. She said it was better that we went our separate ways.”
Seth found himself frowning. Something was definitely odd about this arrangement. He was going to have to look into it later. If he could find Lora’s brothers and work out a way for them to provide for their sister, he might be able to settle her safely somewhere else.
Just then, the back door opened and Lachine entered. “The lamb you wanted, Jorthta,” he announced as he set the meat on the counter.
Removing the rice from the heat, Seth rose to begin the preparing of the meat. There was work to be done and the problem of his new housekeeper was going to have to wait.
Four hours later, everything was ready. Lora had just placed the last freshly cleaned pan back on its hook when suddenly someone burst into the kitchen from the foyer.
“Ah! Jorthta Ethan does have something he is hiding.”
Swinging around, Lora’s breath caught in her throat. A man of medium build was looking her over with a lewd gleam in his eye. Dark and unkempt hair fell in greasy curls over his forehead and two days worth of stubble darkened his weak chin. He licked his lips and then rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. “My, you look tasty. I told Ratuer that the Jorthta wasn’t as clean as he tries to make us believe.” He took a step toward her.
“Who are you?” she asked as she stepped back. The edge of the washbasin dug into her back reminding her she could go no farther. She spotted one of the knives she had left drying on the cabinet and forgotten to put away. Unfortunately, it was out of reach. Being careful not to look in its direction too long, she tried to think of a way to maneuver so she could get to it.
“Name’s Turny, Sweet. What might I be calling you?” The man swaggered toward her in a way that he apparently thought was attractive. Lora’s stomach tightened painfully and the strong odor of unwashed skin assaulted her nose. The kitchen door swung open.
“Miss Guinia,” a new voice interjected. Turny turned to face to the new arrival, his hand going to the dagger at his belt. Taking the opportunity, Lora stepped sideways and slipped the paring knife out of sight beneath her apron.
“Ah, Quinny,” the stranger greeted the somber Ratharian. Visibly relaxing, the ruffian laughed. “I thought it was Woran coming to steal my prize.”
Bowing politely, Quinn acknowledged the man. Then turning, he calmly spoke to Lora. “Jorthta Ethan is ready for dinner to be served. Would you please bring in the first course?”
Lora met his eyes in surprise. She had been given specific instructions to stay out of sight. Of course, that was impossible now that one of the visitors knew of her existence in the house, but if she appeared in the dining room against the Baron’s wishes she did not know what would happen. In spite of the odd events of the past few days, she was determined to keep her position.
“The Jorthta hates to be kept waiting, girl,” Quinn reminded her firmly. “Which are to go first?” he asked, gesturing to the table covered with serving dishes and trays. When she still didn’t move, Quinn raised an eyebrow questioningly. Then it dawned on her, he was putting her in the safest place in the house, in the presence of the Baron and himself.
“I will wait. Anticipation makes the conquest all the better, don’t you think?” Turny said in a mock whisper with a suggestive wink. He drew out a chair and slumped into it.
Lora slipped the knife through the hole in her dress and into the pocket of her underskirt, out of sight, but still available. She wasn’t about to go unarmed if there were more like this stranger about. The lustful grin on his face as she turned to the table made her stomach churn and for a moment she thought she might be sick. Hurriedly she looked over the trays and chose the one laden with the first course. Hoisting it to her shoulder, she followed Quinn as he preceded her out of the kitchen toward the dining room.
The foyer was empty, but she heard rowdy laughter coming from the front parlor. “Our visitor’s lackeys,” Quinn explained when he noticed her wary glance in that direction. “They are an unsavory bunch. I will be fetching the remaining courses. You stay in the dining room and you will be safe. Just keep the water and wine glasses full, keep your eyes down, hold your tongue, and you will be fine. You understand,” he asked as they approached the dining room door.
She had barely nodded her understanding when he opened the door and held it for her.
Seth leaned back in his chair and studied his guest. Saan Ratuer, official trader of the Sardmaran nobility, was an unsavory character. A slave dealer who boasted that if a customer paid the right price anything was possible; he was not a man to be trusted. Wanted in Ratharia for slave raiding, kidnapping, and assassination, he made Seth’s skin crawl. Yet, Seth continued to smile over the wine in his glass, thankful for the blade nestled in his sleeve and Lachine’s armed presence at the door behind Ratuer’s back.
“So what is your assessment of the Rahijia’s health?” Ratuer asked as he raised his own half-full glass to his lips. The Raijia was the ruler of Ratharia and there were rumors that he was dying.
Setting down his wine, untouched, Seth frowned slightly. “Last I heard, he was not doing well. His doctors are being sketchy about the details, which is never a good sign.”
“A regime change in the next few months,” Ratuer agreed with a nod.
The door opened and Quinn entered followed by Lora carrying the first course. Seth felt his frown deepen. Something was wrong; she was not supposed to be here. He glanced at Quinn, who bowed slightly.
“Dinner is served, sir,” he said formally. “Pardon the delay, but there was a problem in the kitchen.”
Understanding that Quinn had determined it dangerous for Lora in the kitchen, Seth turned his attention back to his guest. The meal passed smoothly. Lora managed to stay in the background and the conversation flowed. Then it was time to do business.
“So, where is my merchandise?” Ratuer asked as he leaned back in his chair. He had eaten well, emptied four glasses of wine, and a pleased smile lingered on his face. “I always enjoy your hospitality, but I cannot afford to make this trip every year just for that.”
“Waiting for your payment,” Seth responded. “Forty cases of Ratharian silk in a rainbow of colors are waiting in my storeroom. All we need to do is complete the exchange.”
Lora stepped forward to fill Ratuer’s empty wine glass.
“So you haven’t taken my advice and expanded your trading services.” The trader watched her movements with appreciation. “I am telling you; in Sardmara, you could get a nice price for just one young thing like this girl.” Moving quickly the man caught Lora’s wrist as she finished pouring. Grabbing her chin with his other hand, he forced her face to the light. Lora closed her eyes.
Seth’s stomach tightened. The ridges on the wine glass cut into his hand as he gripped it tightly. It was all he could do not to lunge at the pirate sitting across from him. If his behavior toward Ratuer didn’t affect the international community, he would have had his fingers around the rat’s throat moments ago. Out of the corner of his eye, Seth saw Quinn straighten, a grim look crossing his face. Lachine took a step closer to Ratuer’s chair, his hand on his throwing knife hidden beneath the fall of his tunic.
“Fine bone structure, clear skin, and fine form,” Ratuer said apparently oblivious to the tension in the men around him. “She would make you a pretty profit.”
“Release the girl.” Seth struggled to keep his voice even. “We are not here to discuss my business practices, we are here to trade. Have you brought the payment?”
Without releasing Lora’s face, Ratuer met Seth’s eyes across the table as if to assess how much he was irritating his host. Seth knew his face was a mask of disinterest, but he was not sure how much of the anger he felt was revealing itself in his eyes. After a moment, the trader released her and turned back to Seth. Draining the glass Lora had just filled, he said, “I brought the agreed upon amount. Where are the goods? I wish to inspect them before we finalize.”
The moment Ratuer’s hand dropped, Quinn stepped to Lora’s side and guided her out of the villain’s reach. She was visibly shaking as Quinn led her to the chair next to Lachine.
“Come,” Seth said as he rose from the table, “I will show you myself.” Anything to get Ratuer away from Lora, he thought. Quinn and Lachine would take care of her until he was able to finish this.
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