Sighing, Rosette Chevaux tapped her quill against the table. Stare though she might, the indecipherable lines of prose refused to transform into something more meaningful.
She shouldn’t be here, she thought. What right had she, the daughter of farmers, to be attending the most prestigious university in the region? She should be back home, plying her needle, making clothes for her sister Toinette’s new baby. Or helping her mother in the kitchen. Maybe, if the weather was nice, she could be outside, laughing alongside her brother Pierre as they worked the fields, while their father dozed in the sunshine and failed to notice that Simon was off chasing some skirt …
Why had she ever come here, anyway?
Rosette looked up and smiled across the table at the room’s — indeed, the house’s — only other occupant. That was why she came here.
“Well?” asked Mordred Orkney as he swallowed the last of his porridge. His tone was still mild — possibly because he was talking to her. Not many other people could get away with keeping the heir to the vast Orkney holdings waiting. Few would dare, since Mordred was also sister’s son to the king.
Rosette gave a wan smile. “It’s just this assignment,” she explained. “It’s … frustrating.”
“You’re the one who decided to take philosophy,” Mordred replied with a decidedly philosophical shrug.
“I know, I know. I just … it seemed …” She let the thought trail off as she shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I just need to pass. It’s not like–” Quickly she bit down on the rest of the comment.
“It’s not like you’ll need it in real life,” Mordred finished for her before addressing himself to the remainder of his porridge. “This is good, by the way.”
“Thank you.” Watching him dig in with a will brought to mind the rest of her planned statement — It’s not like I came here to get an education.
But then why did she come here?
She stared again at the assignment and bit back a sigh. She knew the stated, official reason for her presence, the reason that had convinced Lord Lot to pay her tuition and that had convinced her parents to let her go. She was to be cook and housekeeper for Mordred while he pursued his studies. Mordred had had no inclination to try living in the common dormitories, and Lord Lot had more than enough money to purchase a small house for them on the outskirts of the campus. But of course the young lordling could hardly be expected to cook and clean for himself, and Mordred had (or so he led Rosette to believe) made a great fuss about the trustworthiness, or rather untrustworthiness, of maids in the university. Hence Rosette — a girl whose character they knew, who was honest to a fault, and who would more than likely jump at the chance to get an education otherwise unobtainable for a girl of her station.
Rosette had to wonder, though, whether Lord Lot had ever been truly deceived. He was a man of the world and certainly would see nothing wrong in the way Mordred was acting — assuming he could ever see anything wrong in any way his only son chose to live his life. Her parents, on the other hand, they had certainly believed the planned tableaux. Rosette could still remember the shining look in her father Edmond’s eyes when he had imagined the world of learning that would be opened to his daughter. Cerise, her mother, had gotten a glimmer in her eye as well, though hers had been prompted by the realization that there were bound to be well-off merchant boys at the university, merchant boys that Rosette could perhaps coax a wedding ring from.
But how could Rosette seek to ensnare the heart of another, when her own heart was so firmly bound that it knew not whence to turn?
Looking back, Rosette was never certain just how it happened, just how she and Mordred had come to form a relationship that would have been repugnant to both of their families, had they known the truth. The whole truth. For as indulgent as Lord Lot might be towards Mordred forming a liason, a mere fling, with a peasant girl, he never would have approved had he known that his son was in love.
As to how they had met, well, that Rosette couldremember. It had been a warm, lovely day in late spring. She had been walking home from school when a gangly boy with coal-black hair had fallen into step beside her. Though Rosette could sense that he was well-born from the quality of his clothes and the careful cadences of his speech, they had struck up a conversation. His name was Mordred, he said, Mordred Orkney. The name had meant nothing to her, but nonetheless, when they walked by her farm, she had invited him in. He had seemed surprised but had nonetheless accepted.
Once they were past the gate, Rosette had done the unthinkable, though at the time it had struck her as very funny. Her brother Pierre had a quantity of pig bladders filled with water hidden in a shed behind the house. They were so full that they would explode if thrown at someone. What a grand joke it would be, Rosette had thought, to surprise her well-born guest with an explosion of water to the face! And so she had.
If he had been a few years older, perhaps Mordred would have reacted with typical noble outrage at such an affront. As it was, he had been surprised, but thrilled after a moment. Rosette had shown him the rest of the stash, and they had spent a glorious afternoon pelting each other with pig’s bladders. They had also both endured a scrubbing from Cerise after she found them covered in mud, and Pierre’s wrath when he discovered that his entire stash was used up.
Shortly before supper, Edmond had insisted on walking Mordred home. Perhaps their acquaintance might have ended there. But Rosette had walked Mordred and her father to the gate, and had waited there until they were both out of sight. That was how she saw Mordred turn around and look back … and the silly grin that had lit his face.
The years passed, of course, as they were bound to. Rosette and Mordred both grew up. They should have grown apart, but somehow … somehow they kept seeing each other. Mordred in particular seemed determined not to let Rosette out of his life. He had even invited her up to his estate on numerous occasions. Rosette had never gone inside the keep — despite her curiosity and Mordred’s welcome, she could never quite muster up the courage — but it hadn’t been necessary, really. Mordred could capture her heart just as well outside.
It had all been so innocent … so easy. They had been standing in the garden, chatting about nothing. Rosette had complimented the flowers and asked Mordred to pass her remark along to his mother.
Mordred had laughed. “Mother? Mother wouldn’t trouble her head if the flowers all burned to ash. I’ll tell the gardener, he might actually care.”
“Oh … right …”
Rosette had stared at her feet. “It’s just … I’ve forgotten again. Who you are. What you are. Of course your mother wouldn’t care about flowers … and gardens … she must have so much else to take up her time … forget I mentioned anything.”
Mordred had said nothing for a long moment. Then, “Mother may not give a damn–sorry–care about flowers–but I do.”
“I beg your pardon, my lord?”
“Don’t call me that,” Mordred said sharply. “Never call me that. To you I’m Mordred. Just Mordred.
“And you …” He stepped forward then, resting his hand on her cheek. “You are Rosette, the sweetest flower in the garden.”
With those memories in mind, Rosette couldn’t help but smile. Her eyes fell back down to her assignment, but she pushed it aside, having no reason to destroy–
The smile fell off her face as she looked at what she had placed under the assignment.
Mordred looked up sharply. “I thought I told you not to call me that.”
“I know, I’m sorry–it slipped. But …”
She swallowed and twisted her hands around her mother’s letter. “Mordred, we need to talk.”