Moscow. May, 1775.
Alexander paced the length of the kitchen. He glanced at his mother. Lines of concentration and stress were etched into her wrinkled face from long years of working as a servant of the Sokolov family. Her silver hair was braided on top of her head into a tight bun. Its shade was too close to her pasty complexion.
She put the finishing touches on the food and pushed the tray towards him. “Here. Bring this to Katharine.”
Alexander wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers, his fingers brushing a tiny hole forming in the tattered material. He picked up the silver tray and beamed at her. “I will.”
“Alexander, wait,” she said, her voice strained and throaty.
He glanced over his shoulder as he reached the doorway. His mother’s pained expression made him set the tray back down before he rushed to her side.
“Sit. You do not look well these days.” He guided her to the stool near the furnace, hoping the heat would bring a little colour back to her cheeks.
Taking the offered seat, she patted his shoulder. “You are a gentle boy, my dear son.”
He squatted in front of her. The excitement he felt before had dissolved, only to be replaced with worry. “Mama, take a break for the rest of the day. I will do the chores around the house for you.”
She shook her head. “You have your work and I have mine. Katharine wishes to take you into town today.”
Alexander’s heart jumped at the mention of his mistress’s name. It rolled off the tongue like a caress he wished to administer to her face every time he saw her. Only, at the present time, his mother came first. It hadn’t been a year since his papa had passed away. The lord of the house chose to replace him, no second thought spared. Without as much as a proper burial to a soul who spent his entire life in service to the Sokolovs.
Alexander took his mother’s hand in his and massaged her calloused fingers. “When I return, I will take over for you.”
She smiled. Her front tooth was slightly crooked, marring her perfectly pearly row of teeth. “Go bring Katharine her food before it gets cold. I will be fine in a few moments.”
He studied his mother for the last time, seeing a little rouge returning to her cheeks at last. He kissed her hand and rose to his feet. “As you wish.”
Alexander picked up the tray, the metal cooling his sweaty palms. He marched out of the room like a soldier on an important mission. This was his chance to see her again.
Every day Katharine’s beauty became greater. Her small plump lips were the colour of gentle pink roses blooming in their garden on a summer’s day. Those emerald eyes on her heart-shaped face kept him tossing and turning in the night, imagining that he was a son of a nobleman instead of a servant.
He came to a stop in front of her door and drew in a breath. His heart had already picked up speed. He balanced the tray in one hand, careful not to spill any tea out of the ceramic pot. He balled his other hand and knocked three times.
The door swung open and there she was, Katharine Sokolova, the daughter of the royal jeweller, who in Alexander’s eyes shone brighter than any polished diamond.
He drank the sight of her in. Her mahogany hair was loose, cascading down to her waist in soft waves. He imagined touching her locks, brushing them aside to kiss the long expanse of her slender neck.
“Alexander, come in. I cannot decide what to wear for our walk,” she said and moved to one side.
He mentally berated himself for having such terribly inappropriate thoughts. He could never have her. That was part of being a servant in a noble’s home. She would marry someone worthy of her who could give her anything and everything she ever desired. He was not that man.
Alexander set foot in her room and placed the tray on the small round table next to her favourite armchair where she read her books. It was not a strange occurrence for him to find her sleeping while clutching a book to her chest in the evenings.
He lowered his eyes. “Good morning, Lady Katharine.”
She sighed. “You know you may call me Katya in private. I prefer it that way.”
Alexander’s lips twitched upwards. An honour she had not permitted any other man or woman during important gatherings.
He inclined his head. “I will try it next time.”
She giggled and glided closer to him. Her long, slim fingers reached for his hair, combing through it. “I love your hair. It’s so soft and beautiful.”
He leant into her touch. “It is not as beautiful as yours.”
Her hand slid downwards and cupped his cheek. The warm touch of her skin burned right to his heart where her name was already branded on his soul.
“Will you help me choose a dress?”
Alexander’s eyes grew wide. “I should summon a female servant to help you with that.”
She pressed her index finger to his lips, forcing any further argument to remain unspoken. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed when he swallowed his nerves. Closing his eyes, he revelled in the sensation of her finger on his lips as well as fought the urge to kiss it. With a shaking hand, he pushed her hand away. “Then I shall help you choose a dress, but nothing more.”
Katharine pouted. She walked to the wardrobe and pulled its large doors wide open, revealing over a dozen tailored dresses her father had purchased for her. She reached in and picked out two dresses with ruffled sleeves that would reach her elbows. She tossed them on the bed and planted her hands on her hips.
“What do you think? Red or green?”
Both dresses had an equal amount of craftsmanship and hard work put into them. The crimson dress would accent her hair while the green would bring out her eyes. She was playing a game, one he was uncertain of.
“Do you wish for me to choose what I like more about you?”
Katharine traced the delicate embroidery on the red dress with her fingers. “Is it so wrong of me to wonder?”
He shook his head.
“Then tell me, red or green?”
“I like them both equally, but if I were to choose something that would attract less male attention to you on the streets, it would be the green one.”
Katharine circled the bed to stand before him. “Does that mean you do not wish for other men to see me in red?”
He drew his hands behind his back, clamping his fingers around his wrist to keep himself from touching her. “I cannot answer that. If I do and your father finds out, I will be severely punished.”
She leant in and whispered in his ear, “Would the punishment be worth it if I let you kiss me?”
His blood rushed to his cheeks and his pulse beat against his eardrums as if trying to escape his body. He wet his suddenly dry lips. “I’m sorry.” He cleared his throat. “I’d better check on my mother. She is not feeling well this morning. Please summon me when you are ready to leave.”
He hurried out of the room. His heart and body may have demanded that he take her offered kiss, but he would not let his mother suffer because of his desires.
Alexander held Katherine’s newly bought shoes and other accessories in both hands. From beside her, he watched her nibbling on her thumb.
She picked a velvet glove from a colourful selection, closing her eyes as she traced the material with her fingers. Setting it down, she picked up another; this one was made of pure white silk.
Katharine turned to Alexander. “I cannot make up my mind.”
Alexander shifted the boxes to one side, so he could have a better look at the sets of gloves. The old merchant behind the counter was eyeing Katharine’s chest without the slightest attempt to conceal his lecherous actions.
The gall. Alexander glared at the man. “Which glove would you prefer to slap an unwanted suitor with?”
Katharine hid her smile behind her hand and giggled. “That’s good. I will remember your advice.” She pointed to the silk set of gloves.
The merchant nodded and took both sets away. His eyes lingered on Katharine before he retreated into the back room.
Alexander’s jaw clenched. He fought the urge to call the man back to apologise to his lady for the illicit thoughts he knew were going through the merchant’s mind.
“Alexander, are you unwell?” she asked, her large green eyes focused solely on him.
“I’m fine. I suggest we return home. Your father was insistent that we do not dawdle.”
She waved his words away. “My father would have me locked in my room until he finds me a fiancé with enough wealth to satisfy him.”
Perhaps that is not such a bad idea.
The merchant emerged from the back room with her gloves neatly packed into a small parcel. He mentioned a price, and she handed over enough money to equal Alexander’s salary for an entire month.
“Let us go,” she said, taking the parcel.
Alexander struggled to balance the other items in his arms. “I can carry that for you.”
She held the door open for him. “Don’t be silly. You are carrying everything else. Don’t tell anyone, but I feel somewhat helpful carrying an item for myself.”
Alexander hung his head in shame as they left the store. He could not be like his father—an ideal servant who could make his job appear effortless to others.
“I am sorry, Lady Katharine, I should be the one holding doors open for you.”
She winked at him, saying nothing.
Alexander frowned. He couldn’t figure out whether she was agreeing with him or not.
Her eyes widened, and she pointed to the small park across the road. “Oh, we must take a break before returning.”
“He can wait. It is my papa who wishes to attend some social gathering, not I.” She lifted her skirts just above her ankles and ran across the empty cobbled road.
With a light chuckle, Alexander hurried after her with the items sliding around in his hold. He followed her to a well-walked dirt trail and then to a free wooden bench. A group of birds near a pond eagerly glanced up at them, perhaps expecting to be fed.
When she plopped down on the bench, Alexander scanned the area around them, making sure no one saw her unladylike behaviour.
“Relax, Alexander. No one cares,” she said.
“If someone saw you, your father would…”
Her smile faltered. “You only speak of him. He is not here, and we will return home shortly.”
Alexander sat down next to her, setting her newly acquired belongings on his lap.
She spread her skirt over the small space between them and pulled his hand underneath, entwining their fingers.
He tensed. As much as he wanted to continue holding on to her soft hand, he started drawing away. “This is wrong.”
Katharine clutched his hand tighter when a couple strolled by. An elderly woman tugged on her husband’s arm and eyed the two of them, interest budding behind her heavy-lidded eyes. She whispered something to her husband, who grunted in response and led his curious partner further down the trail.
“See?” Katharine said to him with a mischievous grin. “Here, I can finally give you your birthday present.”
Alexander stared at her in disbelief. She had remembered his birthday when even he could not remember the date. He stroked his thumb over her smooth knuckles and lifted her hand to his lips. “This is more than a big enough gift, my lady.”
Katharine’s cheeks reddened, summoning pride in him.
“We grew up together, remember?” Her voice was a little higher than a whisper that could be carried away by the wind if they were not so close to one another. “And my hand was not the present.” She closed the last few inches of space between them and kissed him.
At first, Alexander thought he was dreaming. He had to be as he had fantasised about this moment more than once. When he heard a gasp from across the park, and Katharine quickly drew away, he realised how real their kiss was.
Her warmth lingered on his lips for a fleeting moment after their mouths parted. She covered hers with her hands. Her face was painted a shade lighter than her loose mahogany locks.
Alexander immediately looked at the ground. This could mean everything and nothing. He steeled himself for the latter. “If this was a mistake, a blague, my lady, I will understand.”
Katharine shot up. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. “You think I give away my precious first kiss to any man or servant so readily?”
His heart squeezed painfully. He had made a grave mistake, one that he could not hope to fix with an apology alone. He moved her shopping aside and knelt before her, facing the tips of her leather boots that peeked out from under the hem of her dress. “Forgive me. I alone am at fault for my words. I never expected you to do that.”
Her fingers combed his platinum hair. “Then take responsibility for the kiss bestowed upon you, Alexander.” She moved her hand away and glided past him.
For what seemed like an eternity, he sat there, staring at the spot where her feet stood mere moments ago. Her words kept echoing in his head, urging him to do the things he had banished from his mind long ago.
***END OF SAMPLE***