Page 3 of The Lover's Leap

Even with my back to her, I could tell from the acid in her voice she was annoyed. She’d likely overhead me squabbling with Norwin and was unhappy at both my tone as well as what she expected me to say to the butler. There were many secrets kept from the staff in this household, and the true paternity ofthe crofter boywas one of them.

“Kindly refrain from keeping Miss Lombard any longer. If you’ve concluded your tasks for the evening, perhaps we should adjourn to my husband’s study and discuss the engagement announcement?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Norwin looked grievously disappointed that I’d won this match. He nodded deferentially at my mother, cocking his chin at an angle. “I expect Ms. Deylia has matters sorted in the kitchen, but you are quite correct. I should excuse myself to supervise that all is in order before the rest of the staff retire.”

The odious man scurried off toward the kitchen, while my mother stared at me, a slight press in her pretty lips. “Are you off to…play?” She bit out the last word as though she could scarcely stand to say it.

“I am,” I said, my chin lifted.

There was so much more I wanted to say in response. That I deserved to enjoy my last few weeks of freedom, spending time with the people in my family I actually cared about before I was essentially brokered into one of my father’s business deals. But my mother seemed tired of the usual sides we squared off on. I was not in the mood to play games with her tonight. And it appeared she felt the same.

Lady Petra Lombard folded her hands and lowered her eyes to avoid my glare. “You might check the sideboard in the main hall. Deylia picked the loveliest bouquet this afternoon.”

“Mother…” I shook my head, trying but not quite succeeding at summoning a smile. “I am family to Idony. I do not need to bring a gift when I visit her cottage.”

“Just, I suppose, as you do not require an invitation.” Her words were cutting, and beneath them, the unmistakable echo of bitterness.

My mother had always had a strained relationship with the woman who gave birth to my father’s firstborn. His true heir. Had history gone differently, my half brother would have been the true heir to the Lombard estate. But my parents and their conspiracies had changed all our destinies.

I do not believe Lady Petra Lombard was jealous of Idony, although my mother was certainly capable of the emotion and had proven as much countless times in the past. I believe she was sad. Perhaps resigned. The bond I shared with my half brother’s mother was more genuine than any I might ever hope to share with her. Had Idony been my mother, I would never have tried to fake my own death—not that anyone knew about that. Had Idony been my mother… Well, I truly cannot imagine what shape my life might have taken.

I smiled, a tight but sincere gesture, to let my mother know I was not being cruel. “Besides,” I reminded her, “The crofters grew the very flowers that Deylia picked. I do not think Irony would much appreciate them being plucked from the ground that gave them life just to be returned to her in my hand.”

My mother raised her brows and pressed her lips into a half smile. “Hmmm,” she murmured, meeting my eyes. “Well, then. Extend my regards to the crofter and his mother.” She rarely spoke Biko’s name, referring to him only by his role. Even though I had just done the same, somehow, coming from my mother, the term sounded like an insult. She smoothed the fine wimple around her hair and, holding her shoulders stiff and still as a stone carving, ascended the staircase. “Palmeria,” she added, turning her back to me, “do be cautious.”

“I always am,” I snapped.

I waited until she nearly reached the top before breaking into a full-speed run, holding my skirts in my hands. A pale silver moon and the many torches that lit up the grounds at night provided plenty of light. I didn’t stop until I slammed to a halt outside the crofter’s cottage. My head covering was askew, my hair damp with perspiration. My heart thundered in my chest from exertion as I peered through the bare window glass at the warm lights and loud noises coming from inside.

The crofter held arguably the most important position on an estate as large as ours, second in esteem only to running the household as Norwin did. While the butler managed the indoor staff, the crofter ran the farm operation that fed and employed hundreds of people who lived and worked on the Lombard land. In addition to managing the fields, the crofter raised the livestock that kept meat on our table and leather on my feet. Even brokered deals with merchants and traders.

My half brother took over the crofter role after his stepfather passed, and together, Biko and Idony, son and mother, used their gifts to transform our estate from one that survived to one that thrived. Even when most of the shire of Omrora suffered from blight or a season of weak sun, the Lombard land remained rich and fertile.

In many ways, the crofter was responsible for the survival of what amounted to a small village. The village where I’d been born, and where, if my parents’ plans were not disrupted, I would spend my entire life. Trapped in a generational cycle of deceit, theft, and lies until the day that I passed from this place in body and spirit. It was a wonder I had not tried to fake my death far sooner.

Inside the cottage, my half brother was belting out a song, an odd rhyme that he’d probably made up thanks to a generous serving of ale. I grinned and pounded on the door before shoving my way inside. The cottage was unlocked, as I knew it would be.

The moment I passed the threshold, the song shifted.

“Pali! Pali! Get in here. Don’t dally!”

I was hardly through the doorway when Biko, his chest-length curls hanging free over an unlaced tunic, thundered over to greet me. He gave me a dark, teasing look, and then his face broke into sunshine. He wrapped his arms around me, picked me up, and spun me in circles, causing the game board and my leather pouch to fly from my arms. Checkers and a pair of dice scattered across the rough planks of the floor with a crash.

“Biko!” Idony shook her head and laughed so hard, she grew red in the face. “Put the girl down. You’re a brute.”

She stood from a chair before the fire, where she’d sat weaving scraps of cloth into plaits. Her hair was as curly as her son’s, the long, dark strands lightened by silvery gray. She swatted her son’s shoulder and moved him out of the way.

“Pali, sweet Pali.” She cupped my face in her hands, her eyes misting with tears. “It’s been too long, girl. I’ve missed you.”

It had been nearly two weeks since my last visit to the crofter’s cottage; seeing my half brother and Idony now, my heart seemed to beat its first in all that time.

“I’ve missed you as well.” I sighed, collapsing into her arms. I held her tight, squeezing my eyes shut and savoring the rich scents of sweet grass and fresh lavender. “Am I interrupting? It sounded like Biko was putting on a show.”

Biko had a boot on the hearth, and he stared into the fire while he tapped out a beat with his palms against his thigh. “You just missed dinner. And no, you’re not interrupting. But we do have company. As long as you don’t mind this trencherman…” He jerked a thumb toward the table in the center of the kitchen.

“Trencherman?” I released Biko’s mum as my heart tumbled in my chest. There was only one man whom Biko would refer to so casually. One whom he would insult and tease just as easily as he would me. I swallowed hard and composed my face.

“Miss Pali.” My brother’s best friend, Syndrian Serlo, stood from his chair and bowed his head. “Good evening.”

Tags: Callie Chase Fantasy
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