by Elizabeth Kelly
Tristan rubbed his forehead and sighed irritably. He had grown weary of the man’s fawning from the moment he had stepped into the building, and with an impatient grunt he held up one hand.
“Enough. Show me the slaves.”
“Of course.” The old man bowed low and pattered down the long narrow hallway. “Forgive me, my lord. It is not often we have someone of your stature visiting.”
They walked out into the courtyard and the man stopped short, staring suspiciously at the large horses hooked to an empty wagon. There was a young man and a small girl sitting on the seat of the wagon and they stared back at him.
He glanced up at Tristan. “My lord, how many do you need?”
“I require six.”
The man led him across the yard toward a second building. As they walked by the wagon, Tristan stopped and held his arms out to the young girl. She was no older than seven, and she hesitated briefly before allowing him to pull her from the wagon seat and set her on the ground.
“What are we doing here?” she asked.
“We’re hiring some staff for our new home, as well as a nanny for you and your baby brother.” Tristan smiled down at the girl.
She didn’t return his smile, staring solemnly at him for a moment. “I can take care of Nicholas.”
“I know you can, my love. But I think it would be best if you had some help.” He squeezed her hand encouragingly as they approached the building. “I could use your help in picking out the right nanny. What do you say, Sophia?”
She nodded, watching curiously as the small, dirty man in front of them pulled out a giant ring of keys from a pocket hidden deep within his coat. He thumbed through them until he found the correct one and unlocked the door. Its rusty hinges squealed, and the little girl cringed but followed her father into the building.
They walked down the hallway. The man flipped a light switch on the wall and the overhead lights buzzed on weakly.
“You have electricity here,” Tristan said.
“Aye -some days. We’re close enough to the city to latch on to their grid. But it goes in and out.” The man led them down the hallway to another door. This too was locked, and they waited patiently as he picked out the right key and unlocked the door. He ushered them into the room and shut the door behind him as Sophia peered from behind the safety of Tristan’s legs.
The room quieted as the women in the room stopped their chatter and stared at the two strangers. Tristan grimaced. All of the women were dirty and unkempt, their hair uncombed and their clothing ripped and stained.
He swore softly and gave the man an undisguised look of disgust. “What kind of facility are you running here?”
The man bristled. “I can assure you,my lord,that our slaves are of the utmost quality. Just because our facility is not as proper as you are undoubtedly used to, does not mean we don’t offer excellent services.”
Tristan rolled his eyes. “I’m sure.” He eyed the women in the room with suspicion. “How many of them are suffering from the sickness?”
“None of them!” The old man puffed himself up, trying to match Tristan’s formidable height.
“If they suffer from the sickness,we banish them to the outskirts immediately.” He paused.
“Perhaps my lord would prefer to go somewhere else?”
“You know very well your facility is the only one within fifty miles,” Tristan said. “Enough idle talking. I require a nanny and a house staff. Who do you recommend?”
The man didn’t reply. Instead he hobbled towardthe group of women and began pulling a few of them to the front. Out of the nearly fifty women in the large room, he separated fifteen of them into two groups before returning to Tristan and Sophia.
“They have experience in both cooking and cleaning.” He pointed to the ten women on the left. “They have experience with child rearing.” He waved his hand at the other five on the right.
Tristan moved forward, Sophia trailing behind him, and looked over the ten women. He stood in front of the oldest. “What’s your name?”
“Marian.” She kept her gaze on her bare feet.
“What experience do you have?”
“I was the head of the household for the Farthing family for more than fifteen years. Perhaps you have heard of them?”
“I am not from here. Why did you leave their employment? Were you fired?” Tristan asked.She shook her head. “No, m’lord. Mr. Farthing grew ill and died. Mrs. Farthing could no longer afford my services and sold me to pay some of her bills.”
“How long have you been here?”
She squinted in thought. “Not long, m’lord. Six months perhaps?”
He looked behind him. “I’ll take this one. Who among this group of women would you recommend,Marian?”
She hesitated. “How many do you need, m’lord?”
“Five, including yourself.”
She pointed to four of the other women. After questioning them, Tristan agreed to the ones she had chosen.
He turned to Sophia, crouching beside her and patting her back awkwardly. “Sophia, would you like to help me pick out your new nanny?”
“Yes, Tristan,” she replied.
Tristan stared at the women critically as he and Sophia paced in front of them. “How many of you were nannies before?”
Three of them raised their hands and Tristan glanced at the other two. “You’re dismissed.”
They melted back into the crowd of women as Tristan questioned the remaining three women.
Sophia clasped her hands behind her back and stared at the group of women behind Tristan.
There was a flash of colour to her left, and she glanced over at the woman standing next to the window. Her long red hair glowed in the late afternoon sun and Sophia edged closer, fascinated by the red strands.
The woman smiled at her in a friendly manner as Sophia stopped in front of her. “Hello, little one.”
“Your name is Sophia?” At Sophia’s nod, she smiled again. “That is a very pretty name. My name is Avery.”
“Avery,” Sophia repeated, and the woman nodded.
“That’s right. This is my little sister Maya.”
There was a petite blonde woman standing behind Avery and she peeked around and smiled just like Avery. “Hi,Sophia. I like your dress.”
“Thank you.” Sophia ran her hands over the stiff fabric, wincing when it rubbed painfully against the cut on her finger.
“Are you hurt?” Avery crouched in front of her.
“I cut my finger.” Sophia showed her the long cut on the pad of her index finger.
“Ouch.” Avery frowned. “That looks very sore.”
“It’s not healing very well,” Sophia said. “Marshall says if I don’t make a better effort to keep it clean, he’ll have to cut it off.”
“Well that won’t do.” Avery smiled at her. “Shall I kiss it better for you? When Maya and I were little, our mother would always kiss our owies.”
Sophia stared at her. “I like your hair.”
A strange look crossed Avery’s face, one that Sophia didn’t understand,before she smiled at her. “Thank you, honey.”
“Can I touch it?”
“Of course.” She tipped her head forward so that her long hair fell over her shoulders, and Sophia rubbed it between her fingers.
“It’s so soft, so pretty,” she whispered. She ran her fingers down the strands and Avery smiled again at her.
“I’m glad you like it, Sophia.” She captured Sophia’s hand in her own. “Shall I give your owie a kiss?”
Sophia hesitated and then nodded. Avery bent her head and placed a gentle kiss on her finger, directly on the cut. Warmth surged down Sophia’s finger and through her hand. She gasped and pulled her hand free, staring down at her finger.
Tristan looked down. “Sophia, do you…”
He frowned when he realized she was no longer at his side. He glanced around the room, his scowl deepening when he saw her standing in front of the Red. The Red was holding her hand and when she kissed Sophia’s finger, he stomped over to them.
“Get away from her.” He pushed the redheaded woman to the ground with a hard shove. A blonde woman put her arms around the Red as Tristan pulled Sophia away. He took the little girl by the shoulders and shook her gently.
“Sophia, you know better than to leave my side. Did she hurt you?”
Sophia shook her head, staring with wonderment at her index finger. Where once there had been a long, swollen cut, there was now only smooth unbroken skin.
Read Also: Kiss and Cry – Part 1 (Chapter 1)
Tristan’s expression softened and he smoothed her hair back from her face. She was still looking at her finger and he took her hand and examined it.
“Look at that -your cut has finally healed. That’s good news. Marshall was getting ready to cut it off,” he teased.
Sophia didn’t smile, just looked at Avery with wide eyes.
Tristan took her hand and led her back to the three women. “Which of these women would you like as your nanny?”
Sophia stared up at them for a moment before looking back at Avery and Maya. “I want her.” She pointed at Avery and Tristan sighed.
“No, Sophia. You must pick from these three women here.”
“I want her.”
Tristan glanced at the man who was idly swinging his ring of keys from one finger. He shook his head. “No, m’lord, you don’t want that one. She is contentious and disagreeable. You know how the Reds are.”
Tristan looked back at Sophia. She was still staring at the redheaded woman and he frowned. “Stay here, Sophia.”
He returned to the Red. She stared unblinkingly at him as he looked her up and down. She was wearing a dirty, grey dress that was too large. She practically floated in it. Her feet were bare, and her legs and arms were covered in grime and grass stains. Her hair hung halfway down her back, a cascade of fire-colored locks with twigs and leaves stuck in it. Her light green eyes regarded him with a cool sort of haughtiness that belied her dirty and disheveled appearance. Her face was as dirty as her arms and legs, and he wrinkled his nose at her smell.
“Do you have any experience with children.”
She shook her head. “No, m’lord. But she does.” She dragged the small blonde woman out from behind her and pushed her toward Tristan.
“Avery no,” the girl whispered.
“Hush,Maya,” Avery said fiercely,and the girl quieted immediately.
“Have you nannied before, girl?” Tristan asked her. The blonde girl blushed and stared down at her bare feet, and Tristan rolled his eyes with barely-concealed impatience.“Well, have you?”
“No, m’lord,” she whispered.
Before he could turn away, Avery said,“She’s had plenty of experience with our younger siblings, my lord. She practically raised both our younger brother and sister. She has a comforting touch with babies, and she can read and write. She taught our brother to read when he was only three.”
Tristan stared at the trembling girl and then at her older sister. “Are you that eager to rid yourself of her?”
Avery flushed. “I want nothing more than a better life for her, my lord.”
“And what makes you so certain I will give her a better life?” He arched his eyebrow at her.
She looked around the room and,in a voice filled with desperation, said, “Anything is better than this. She is too bright and too beautiful to live her life in a cage. Please, take her with you. She will serve you well. I swear this to you.”
Tristan frowned. The woman’s impassioned plea had moved him more than he cared to admit. “Very well then –we’ll take the girl.”
Avery nodded with relief,but Maya let out a loud wail. “No,Avery! I will not leave you!” She threw herself into the redhead’s arms, sobbing brokenly. Rather than soothe her like Tristan expected, Avery grabbed her upper arms and pushed her upright.
She shook the young girl harshly. “Maya, enough! Stop your crying right now.”
The woman struggled to obey, sniffing and hiccupping as a stray sob escaped. “Avery, please don’t send me away.”
He watched as Avery cupped her face, wiping away her tears with dirty thumbs. “Maya, listen to me. I love you. I will always love you. I do this for you. Do you understand?”
Sobbing quietly, Maya nodded,and Avery hugged her hard before kissing her on the mouth.
Dry-eyed, she pushed Maya toward Tristan who took her upper arm and led her toward Sophia. He stopped when Avery dropped her hand onto his arm. He could feel the heat of her hand through his shirt. A shiver went down his back and he stared at her as she stepped closer.
“Keep her safe,” Avery demanded, her green eyes staring into his. His eyes dropped to her mouth and then to her breasts. They were well-hidden beneath the sack of a dress she wore,and he looked back up at her, flushing a little at the wry look on her face.
“Promise me you’ll keep her safe.” She frowned at him, and with a small jerk he yanked his arm free. He pulled Maya toward Sophia. Already the girl’s relentless sobbing was beginning to grate on him, and he was regretting his impulsive decision.
“Come, Sophia. Let’s go,” he said brusquely.
The little girl shook her head. “No. I want that one.” She pointed again at Avery.
“No, Sophia. I do not have time for your games.”
The small, dirty man gave an ugly laugh. “Listen to yer father, girl. The Reds are all witches or whores. No one with half a mind brings a Red into their household. They bring nothing but death and destruction they do.” He picked his nose, staring at the green smear on his finger with interest before wiping it on his pant leg.
Tristan stared at him with disgust, and then at Sophia as she took his hand in her small one. She was staring up at him, her dark eyes large and wet with unshed tears. “Please, Papa. I want her,” she whispered.
Sophia never called him papa. She kept her distance and referred to him as “my lord” or “Tristan” when prompted to interact with him. Hearing her call him papa made it difficult to resist her.
As though sensing his weakness, Maya said,“Avery is also very good with children, my lord. And she is excellent with plants. Your garden will thrive and provide plenty of food for your children’s bellies.”
Tristan scrubbed his hand across his face. “Fine. I’ll take her as well.”
Maya gasped with happiness, and Sophia grinned triumphantly as Avery joined them. Maya hugged her and Avery kissed her cheek before taking her hand. The four of them joined the others and as they filed out the door, the man grabbed Tristan’s arm.
“Perhaps you would care for one more, m’lord.” He looked down at Tristan’s bare left hand.
“Perhaps a fine wench to warm your bed?” He pointed to a dark-haired woman who was wearing a dress that left little to the imagination. She smiled slowly and invitingly at him.
Tristan pulled his arm free. “I have no need for a bed warmer. Let us agree over the price so I can leave this wretched place.”
Watch Out for RED MOON (Chapter 2) ……….