Never After - By Laurell K. Hamilton

Chapter 1
Can He Bake a Cherry Pie?


The Earl of Chillswoth was a pervert, and everyone knew it. Elinore knew it, and the sensation of his age-spotted hand over her pale young one frightened her more than anything had ever frightened her before, because the earl, though a known abuser of every kind of vice, was wealthy and well connected at court. Her father was neither of these things, because of the small matter of a disagreement with the current king's father about a war. The war was long over, the king's father long dead, but Elinore's father longed to regain his standing at court. It wasn't just for himself, he reasoned, but for his two sons. The fact that the price for saving the family reputation was his only daughter's health, happiness, and body didn't seem to bother her father. Elinore found that... disappointing.

He'd never been particularly affectionate, except in that absent way that fathers have, but she had thought, truly, that he loved her as a daughter. The fact that he had already agreed to marry her to the aging earl, with his hungry eyes and wet lips and overly familiar hands, without so much as, I'm sorry, Elinore, had made her realize that to her father, she was not real. She was not a son, and thus was only something to negotiate with, to use as a bribe, like land, or a fine horse. She was property. Legally, she knew she was, but she hadn't realized that her own father believed it.

Her mother had been deaf to her pleas, and even now sat smiling at the other end of the huge banquet table. It was the celebration for midsummer. It was a time of games, dancing, bright colors, and looking the other way when some of the young girls and men went off by themselves. Many a hurried marriage followed midsummer. Elinore had always been a good girl. She had refused all those handsome young men. She had been dutiful, and pure, and everything a daughter should be. She had her mother's long yellow hair; skin like milk that had never known a hard day in the sun. Her eyes were the color of cornflowers - by far her best feature, so her mother told her. She had her grandmother's eyes - again, so she was told. Her grandmother had been a great beauty in her day, but sadly stubborn. Elinore was even named after that lost ancestress. She'd always been very unlike the dead grandmother. She had been pliable, and look where all that good behavior had gotten her.

The Earl of Chillswoth - "Call me Donald" - leered down the table at her. He was sitting by her father, not because he had the highest rank, but because he was the highest in favor at the distant court of the king. She did not wish to call him Donald, and she did not wish to have her father announce to all that she would be the earl's fourth wife. Or was it fifth? Two of them had been as young as Elinore, and they had not lived to see twenty-five. One had died in childbirth, but no one wanted to talk about what happened to the last one. She'd heard whispers that the old man was becoming unable to perform, and so his desire of the flesh had turned to harder things. She did not understand everything that was meant by that sentence, but she understood enough to know that she did not want to be the earl's fourth, or fifth, wife.

Elinore would rather have lived as an old maid, done her sewing, overseen the cooking, and done what a good wife does. Their keep was small enough, and the time hard enough, that she could actually cook, and sew, and do all the things that made a woman's world. Many noble girls were fairly useless. Elinore liked to be busy, and because her desires were all women's work, no one had ever objected.

She herself had helped arrange the tails on the peacocks, stuffed and cooked and brought lifelike to the table. The head cook had said, "Begging the miss's pardon, but you have a fine eye and hand for the kitchen."

Elinore had taken that for the high praise it was, and not been insulted in the least. She loved the big kitchen, and would have spent more time there if her parents had allowed. She'd been mostly forgotten until she was too old to be Copyright 2016 - 2024