I had this one completed for some time. It was too short to make longer, though I had thought about doing so. Spinning more of the tale just wasn’t happening. Every word scribbled just felt unnatural. So I let it sit on my hard drive, under the original title of Beneath the Boughs. I had hoped that an anthology would come along that it would fit under but nothing came. Thanks to the Romance on the Go line, this story gets out to the masses.
Lily pulled her tattered and worn cloak tighter against the cold, only to hear the fabric tear. The wind whipped around her skirts, biting at her ankles. A quick glance behind her at the spires of Pikka Solace brought a tear to her eye. The life she’d known behind those walls was gone. In refusing to take the vows and serve the coin goddess Asha, she’d been cast out on her eighteenth birthday.
A pair of priests rowed her over to the docks of Latúk during low tide. The warm and heavy fur that shielded her from the wind punishing all who dared walk out during the blistering winter night was stripped from her the moment her soles touched the weathered planks. She had never experienced anything beyond the stone enclosure of the Monastery’s walls, and they drove her out to seek another purpose in her life. A mere orphan dropped on the doorstep of Pikka Solace as a babe, her solitary life never prepared her for the sights now unfolding before her. The leer of the fishermen guarding their boats drove her deeper into the port city.
With nowhere to call home, Lily wandered the streets. The yipping of a stray dog startled her, its yellow teeth bared as she stepped too close to the bone near its feet. She shivered and brushed the hair out of her eyes. Above, a sign clanked against the chains securing it to the building.
The Fox Hunt Inn.
She flinched as the door to the establishment swung open and a group of men filed out into the streets. Their glances in her direction were lecherous in intent, and their tongues darted out as if to catch her taste on the wind. She fled down the alleyway, fear stabbing at her heart. Lily stuttered to a stop at the sight of a man unloading a wagon that spread the whole length of the alley. Despite the weather, he wore a thin tunic. His dark hair hung in his face as he heaved a sack of flour onto his shoulders. Her steps quickened when he disappeared into the building.
The wind fluttered her skirts like the hot breath of a hunter caressing her legs. She looked behind and saw the group of men turning into the alley. They paused near the mouth before fanning out to block her path. With her fingers nearly frozen, climbing over the wagon would be almost impossible. By the time the dark-haired man came out of the inn, she stood by the wagon.
His eyes darted to her. “No handouts. Be gone.”
“I am looking for work, sir. Please. I have nowhere to go this eve.” She shivered as the wind lashed her again. The man, however, stood unmoved by the weather or her plea.
“It would be best,” his low growl carried over the groan of the wind, “if you left now.”
“Please.” She clutched at his shirt. “The men.”
“Morgan!” A woman’s voice bellowed from inside.
The man stiffened. An older woman, hair pulled back in a severe bun, appeared in the doorway with a scowl on her lips. As she locked eyes with Lily, her face brightened. “Who’s the woman, Morgan?”
“A passerby. Nothing more, Miss Siena.” He tore away his shirt from Lily’s clutches and grabbed another sack.
“I am looking for employ, Miss Siena.” She smiled through chattering teeth, almost losing her nerve when she caught Morgan’s storm-clouded eyes. “I have skills.”
“What kind?” Miss Siena crossed her arms, her brow raised.
“Leave her.” Morgan shifted the weight of another flour sack.
“To your duties.” She snapped her fingers and pointed inside the Inn. “You were saying, my dear?”
“I worked in the kitchens at Pikka Solace.” Lily buried her fingers in the thin cloth of her dress.
“Why have they turned you out? Loose in the legs?”
Lily blushed. “Nay. ‘Tis my eighteenth year, and…”
“What is your name, child?”
Siena moved around the wagon and took Lily by the hand. “Come inside. I may have work for you.”
The warmer air welcomed Lily as she crossed the threshold. She noted Morgan’s unease before the brooding male stepped outside for another sack. Siena tugged Lily into motion and placed her near the fire crackling in the large recess. A pot hung above the flames with a pleasant aroma wafting out. Siena poured warm water from a kettle into a cup. From her apron, she pulled out a packet and dumped it in.
“Drink this. It should warm you.”
Lily tilted the cup back. The warm liquid trickled down her throat. Heat rose in her cheeks, and the numbness of her fingers faded.
With a smile, the older woman helped Lily shed her threadbare cloak before bellowing for Morgan again.
A loud thump of another flour sack announced Morgan’s return.
“Prepare your room for her, Morgan,” Siena instructed. “I have no free rooms upstairs at the moment. Hang a curtain across … and I do not have to remind you what will happen if something should cause harm to this young lady.”
Morgan scratched his chest as he eyed Lily. “I have a few more supplies to unload.”
“Be quick about it.” She shooed him away and turned her attention back to Lily. “You will be working in the kitchen with Morgan and will not venture into the common room, except when my inn closes to outside patrons. Some of our customers can be quite rambunctious, and I do not want anything to befall you. ”
Lily dropped her head. “Yes, Miss Siena.” She’d gladly stay in the kitchen if it meant she would not be a pawn for men to toss around like a possession. The snap of the door shutting and the bolt locking in place brought her head back up. Morgan wiped his hands on his pants, keeping his eyes off her.
Siena patted her arm, taking her attention away. “Good. I will see you in the morn. Morgan, to your task.”
“Yes, Miss Siena.” His dark shadow loomed over Lily. “Follow me.”
Siena smoothed back Lily’s blonde locks. “Worry not. Morgan will not so much as touch you. He is my most loyal worker.”
Lily barely kept up with Morgan as he crossed the kitchen into a room off to the side. She fidgeted in the doorway as Morgan strung a few linen sheets on the far side of the small space. Blankets were thrown on the floor opposite, and he flicked his fingers to the corded off section.
“Your side and bed.” He removed his shirt and settled on the floor of blankets.
Her head turned away, her face hot from the sight of him half-naked.
A snort came from his lips. “You are as pure as the snow sure to fall this eve. No wonder she took an interest in you.”
She hurried to her side of the room. Behind the curtain, she took in her surroundings. A small cot and stand encompassed the bulk of the space. The sheets on the bed appeared clean, not that she’d complain. Even sleeping on the floor would be preferable over the cold outside.
Guilt riddled her. It was Morgan’s bed and she’d taken it. Moving the curtain aside, Lily stared at the man on the floor. His backside faced her, a blanket covering his lower half. Lean muscles rippled underneath tanned skin, bringing a wave of heat to her core. She’d never witnessed a man in a state of undress before. Females at Pikka Solace were cordoned off from the males to preserve their purity.
“I cannot take your bed.” Lily gnawed on her lower lip and tried not to allow her eyes to wander.
His body heaved a long sigh. “You can and will. So says Miss Siena. Go to bed, woman. Morning comes too early.”
The chill of the stone floor seeped into her bones as she removed her fur boots. She paused a moment, her thoughts on Morgan stretched out on the cold surface, before she climbed into the warmth of the animal skins and wool. Perhaps tomorrow she would move the bed to his side. Comfortable and tired from her day, Lily closed her eyes and fell asleep.