Laras christmas gamble, p.1
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       Lara's Christmas Gamble, p.1
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           Ebony McKenna
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Lara's Christmas Gamble
Lara’s Christmas Gamble

  Copyright Ebony McKenna

  The moral right of Ebony McKenna to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988. All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that is shall not, by way of trade or otherwise be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the author’s prior consent.

  Lara’s Christmas Gamble

  Text copyright Ebony McKenna, 2016

  ISBN 9781311232847

  Table of Contents:

  Lara’s Christmas Gamble

  The Summer of Shambles (sample chapter)

  1916-ish (sample chapter)

  Lara’s Christmas Gamble

  Ebony McKenna

  Lara’s Christmas Gamble

  Northern Brugel, 1812

  It’s not stealing if I pay it back before they notice it’s gone.

  Lara Novak walked the narrow path through the forest. Her stays pinched. Normally her stays didn’t pinch, but normally she didn’t have one hundred silver schlipps sewn into the boning either. On this particularly foggy late November day, Lara’s workmate Miss Jean walked beside, her infant Pavel hitched on her hip.

  “I hope she comes.” Steam puffed from Lara’s nose as she tightened the shawl around her shoulders.

  Miss Jean patted Pavel’s soft head and cooed, “She promised she would”.

  Their steps crunched on the frosty ground. Ahead of them, the path opened out to a dirt road, where the damp air swirled and tried to make rain.

  Late autumn in northern Brugel was full of quiet magic; delicate spider webs festooned with droplets of mist; brisk mornings and afternoons of watery sunlight; the milking shed filling with steam as the long-haired goats came in with bloated udders.

  Soon it would get really cold, when the sun struggled to penetrate the dark clouds; when snow fell horizontally––and if it didn’t snow, it rained. Soon it would be the magical season of Christmas; yet another bleak year beckoned for Lara. Another year older and no prospects for a family of her own.

  The lean months ahead was one reason why Lara’s master, The Comte of Wistringia and his family had fled south to Craviç. The other reason went by the name of Napoleon, who was right now marching his armies east, directly through Brugel, on his way to somewhere else. 1.

  Nearly all the servants had gone too, leaving scant staff to tend the animals. The family wouldn’t return to the estate until spring, and only then if Napoleon had finished whatever he was up to.

  Lara and Miss Jean were left behind on the estate, tending the animals. A scant few months of freedom to find Lara’s true love and make their fortunes. They’d replace the schlipps they’d stolen so Comte Wistringia and his family would be none the wiser.

  Ahead of her, Lara heard the wagon approach through the fog. She saw the muzzles of the two dark ponies, their flared nostrils snorting great clouds of steam. The blur of the painted, covered wagon came into focus, its rich dark timbers creaking as it moved along the road. It came to a stop next to Lara’s path.

  Taking a breath to steady her nerves, Lara stepped towards it and knocked on the door.

  “You could have run home.” A woman’s muffled voice came from inside the wagon.

  “Aye, and I may still,” Lara said, her knees trembling from more than the cold. A now-or-never battle took place inside her mind as she debated whether to run.

  The woman chuckled, a rich sound that reverberated inside the cabin and out into the surrounding trees. In summer, the noise would have startled the birds. At this time of year the leafless boughs lay iced and silent.

  “Come in child, let me tell your fortune anew,” the woman said, as she opened the door and kicked down the riser so Lara and Jean could step in.

  It was the same woman, Alishandra Orona, who had come to the servants’ quarters last week. They’d given her fresh, warm milk; she’d read their palms. Her performance had been entertaining and enlightening, and now she was back. As she’d promised. Her painted face, curly dark hair, layers of shawls and colourful scarves cut a bright scene in the midst of the gloom. On her fat fingers sat every colour of jewel imaginable.

  “I’ve not seen the likes in all my days!” Lara said as she took in the sight of all that jewellery, “I had no notion they came in so many shades.”

  Again the woman laughed as she helped them into a seat, sealing the door to keep the cold outside. The blend of rich, exotic fragrances assailed Lara’s senses. How warm it felt inside the wagon, cosy enough to remove her shawl and bonnet. Tendrils of her copper hair fell about her shoulders.

  “They’re not real jewels, child, though nearly as good. They come from a far-off city called Venice, where they make glass out of sand and they have rivers for roads.”

  “Oh be off with you!” Lara said. “Rivers for roads? All the horses would drown!”

  The woman roared with laughter, then wiped away a tear of mirth as she composed herself. “But it’s important, you see …” she reached her palm out, inviting Lara to produce hers so the reading could begin, “… Kylara Novak. You are a child of the light, but you are often times too hasty. Your true love is coming, but you will not recognize him at first.”

  “How did you know my full name?” Lara gasped––all the same she did not remove her hand, because the gypsy’s accuracy made her keen to know more.

  Beside her, wee Pavel gave a mewling cry. Jean cradled him under her shawls and quietly nursed him.

  “You have the coins?” Orona asked.

  “Yes, I have. Please look away so I may retrieve them.”

  The gypsy averted her gaze. Lara removed her top layers then unfastened the ties. With a few judicious rips of the fabric, she had the coins.

  “… Ninety seven, ninety eight, ninety nine, one hundred,” Orona counted.

  Lara’s pulse kicked up a notch. She’d just stolen a prince’s ransom, for something she’d not even seen. For something that might not even work. Was this some elaborate theft? Would the gypsy kick them out of the wagon and disappear into the mist? No wonder she could afford to wear such incredible jewels.

  “You have kept your word, and now I shall keep mine,” the woman said. She opened a soft fabric pouch and withdrew a delicate statue from inside. It looked to be made of nothing at all because Lara could see right through it.

  “This is an enchanted faerie. She comes from the city of Venice, and she is made of glass so treat her with care. Take her with you, she will guide you to your one true love,” the gypsy said.

  Breathing stalled as Lara took in the sight of the faerie. Then she gasped in shock as the heart of the statue began to glow red.

  “She is bonding to you, Kylara Novak. Guard the faerie with your life. Do not give her to any other person, do not allow another person to keep her. When the heart of the fairy changes colour, your true love approaches. When she glows again red, you will meet me in this same place the following morning and return her to me. Your palm tells me you are a woman of your word, but I also see great cunning in you. Deceive me, and all that shall await will be sorrow and loneliness.”

  ***

  Three days later, the faerie nestled in Lara’s pocket had yet to change its glow. No men had come into Lara’s world. Correction: no eligible men. There was Schovajsa the warden, who spent his days patrolling the borders and protecting the goats. 2.

  Then there was wee Pavel with his rosy cheeks, who mewled at his mother’s skirts all day. A sly smile spread on Lara’s face. They called Pavel’s mother Miss Jean, despite the fact her belly had begun growing again.

  “The men are coming,” Miss Jean confirmed as she slid the fillets of smoked trout away from t
he bones, “Schovajsa and I have seen to that.”

  “Are we doing the right thing?” A nagging doubt pulled at Lara’s conscience. Stealing at any time of year didn’t sit well with her, but stealing so close to Christmas made her feel even more of a sinner,

  “Aye, and by the time the Master and his kin return, we’ll be well off,” Miss Jean said.

  “But the townsfolk will be poor,” Lara countered as she dolloped the flatcake mix onto the pan and put it in the fire.

  “We’re not inviting the poor ones, are we lass? We only invite the ones what can afford it. This will be a winter to remember. We’ll find a true love for you and make ourselves rich in the process.”

  ***

  Her stays pinched. Normally her stays didn’t pinch, but normally she didn’t wear her mistress’s stays. What were the Comtess’s stays made of? Certainly not straw in the boning, that was for sure. They felt like actual bones. Each breath she took pushed her bosom towards her chin, but Miss Jean only glowed with satisfaction at the result.

  “You’d pass for a real nob. Smile and keep the plütz flowing and today will be the first of many successful gatherings. Remember, they call it luncheon, not dinner, but after tasting Schovajsa’s plütz they won’t care anyway.”

  A short while later the guests began arriving, all handing Lara a gold coin on entry. She showed them to the games room. She’d set food on a sideboard and decks of playing cards on the tables. Some tables also had dice, one had a board covered in a check pattern with small figurines. What had Miss Jean called it? Choss? Chits? …Chess! That was it.

  Miss Jean tended the fire but other than that, she kept to the background and made sure wee Pavel stayed hushed in the kitchen. Doused in the Comte’s cologne, Schovajsa stood sentry by the door to protect them from any trouble. The smell of goats still managed to break through his perfumed miasma.

  While nobody was looking, Lara cast a glance at the statue tucked into the folds of her skirts. She and Miss Jean had added extra pins in her mistress’s clothes to create a makeshift pocket. The faerie’s heart glowed purple––a new colour! It could only mean one thing; her true love was near. Perhaps he’d already arrived?

  “To think, we could have done this last winter when we had so much trout we were sick of the taste of it,” Lara whispered to Jean, “Look at them gobbling it all up. Better send Schovajsa back to the smoke house before we run out.”

  “Who would have thought nobs would eat common suppers?” Miss Jean said with a grin.

  The games room hummed with guests, all declaring the food delicious, especially the soft cheese which went so well with the flatcakes and plütz. 3. The gamblers played and laughed and smoked their pipes.

  A cry rang out in the room, followed by gales of laughter,

  “You win again!” the loser said.

  A few moments later, Lara heard the words she longed to hear, as the loser issued a challenge: “Care to make it interesting?”

  Oh yes, it was time to make this very interesting. Lara wanted to bolt to the table, but she made herself step leisurely towards the men, “Gentlemen, you are all having such fun. May I sit and watch?”

  The men had the decency to blush at having a woman at the table, yet one of them fetched Lara a chair and she took a seat, sitting bolt upright in her unfamiliar stays. After a couple more rounds, she would play a hand herself, and that’s when she’d start to make some real money. Schovajsa and Miss Jean had taught her how to play the cards last summer, and she’d won their butter rations for a week. Now she’d win a lot more than that.

  Heavy footsteps rang in the hall. Miss Jean smothered a cry of shock. Schovajsa swore, his loud curse cutting through the air. Lara bolted out of her seat to see the cause of the commotion.

  Standing in the doorway, riding crop still in hand, was the Comte’s youngest of five sons, Cezar. Mud flecked his riding boots and breeches, but it took nothing from his commanding figure as Lara looked up his lean body; his riding coat fitting like a second skin and his broad shoulders seeming to fill the doorway. His eyes scanned the room with agonizingly slow composure, before coming to rest on Lara.

  How he’d changed from their younger days, when they used to play together in the milking shed. Before class or rank had meant anything to them.

  One eyebrow rose and she read the silent question in his expression: what are you doing with my father’s estate?

  Curtsy, a voice in her head shouted, curtsy you chit!

  Lara curtsied as much as she could, acutely aware the clothes she wore belonged to Cezar’s mother. “M-my lord, we were not expecting you until March.”

  Everybody in the room stopped whatever they were doing and sat like statues. Disaster! We’re all finished! Lara’s heart plummeted from behind her ribs to fall somewhere near her liver.

  “Gentlemen, play on,” Lord Cezar told the room, “I shall join you presently. Meanwhile, enjoy my family’s hospitality,” then he turned to the ashen-faced Miss Jean and the rapidly crimsoning Lara. “Ladies, meet me in my drawing room in five minutes.”

  “Yesmylord,” Miss Jean and Lara said, running the words together.

  “Schovajsa, you smell like sheep dip. Tomorrow you will bathe. For now, stay where you are.”

  “Sir,” Schovajsa said, keeping his eyes down.

  ***

  It was impossible to stop fidgeting as Lara and Jean stood in the cold drawing room, the furniture covered in dust sheets, the curtains drawn. Fine goose bumps spread over Lara’s arms, and it wasn’t from the cold. Footsteps approached just as she was about to ask Miss Jean what punishment they might be in for.

  When he walked in, Lara’s breath stopped. Cezar looked magnificent. He’d changed into fresh clothes and had splashed water over his face and thick, brown hair. His wet eyelashes clumped together, creating long curtains around his deep blue eyes. Her gaze rested on his full lips. Something fluttered in her stomach, and it had nothing to do with her impending doom.

  “Miss Jean, you may leave,” he said.

  The woman curtsied, headed to the door, then paused, “My lord, do ye mean I’m to leave the estate, or just this room?”

  “We have guests in the dining room, please attend them.”

  Jean nodded and fled.

  As the door closed, Lara stood alone in the darkened room with her former childhood friend. A friendship that had clearly come to an end. Her pulse hammered in her ears. The axe would fall soon.

  “You’ve turned my family’s estate into a gambling den,” he said. A ridge formed between his eyebrows in concern, but the corner of his strong mouth quirked upwards. “And at this most magical time of year.”

  How did she read such a face? Was he enjoying this?

  Confess! Confess everything and beg his forgiveness. Lara dropped to her knees and clasped her hands together over her bosom, “Please, Sir, it was all my idea. I dragged Miss Jean and Schovajsa into it. Punish me if you must, but they are innocent.”

  To make matters worse, a pin from her skirts loosened and the glass statue rolled onto the floor. In the dim light, the faerie’s heart glowed a deep blue.

  “What is this?” Cezar asked. In two strides he reached Lara’s position. He grabbed the statue and marvelled at it.

  Desperation sent her mind in a spin; Lara lunged forward and grabbed at his legs, pressing her body into to his flesh. Firm, warm flesh that sent strange sensations darting through her body, “Please, Sir, give it back.”

  “Steady on. I’m not casting you out. The gambling idea is a stroke of genius. There is so little else to do in winter. Aside from hide from marauding armies, although they appear to have moved on.”

  Shock fizzed through her body. Lara tilted her face to look at his, but her eyes couldn’t look past the front of his breeches. Heat raced up her neck and face, and she sprang away from him in newly discovered shock.

  Cezar laughed and kept his gaze locked with hers as he held the statue, “Whatever this is, it’s important to you, so I’
m going to keep it for the time being.”

  “But you can’t Sir. It doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to––oooh!” She covered her mouth before she incriminated herself any further.

  “Tell me, Lara, you have nothing to fear from me.”

  The way her name flowed from his lips did strange things to her insides, and she cursed the stays yet again for making it so hard to breathe. With a trembling sigh, she told him everything. The silver schlipps she’d stolen from the Comte to buy the statue, and the gambling sessions to pay the money back before the family returned in spring.

  “You’ve left out one detail,” Cezar said, the knot in his brows long gone, the amused quirk on his lips fixed in place, “What is the statue for?”

  Repent, repent. Lara threw herself to the ground, causing a cloud of dust to swirl around her. “Please forgive me.”

  “Get up.” He sounded exasperated. As she began to rise, his eyes widened and Lara realized she must be showing an extraordinary amount of bosom. His voice grew thick and husky, “On second thoughts, stay exactly where you are…”

  Dust swirled around her. Lara started coughing, making her whole body shake. Her tightly reigned bosom threatened to break free. Quickly she stood up and turned away. Not having to look at him made it easier for the words to come.

  “The faerie will find my one true love.”

  “Will it now?”

  “The gypsy promised.”

  Silence for a moment, then she heard a soft metallic creak and she turned to see him placing the statue in a safety box. Then he locked it with a key and placed the key in his pocket.

  “I must have it!” Lara pleaded.

  “And you will. But first you must pay back my father’s money, which means you will work for me. Let us not keep our guests waiting, there’s money to be made.”

  ***

  Clever Lara. Cezar mused as the gentleman played on through the afternoon. Setting up a games house during winter was a spark of brilliance. Why hadn’t he thought of it?

  With four elder brothers, Cezar would receive little from his family estate. His father had suggested he buy a military commission, but that would mean he’d have to join one of the neighbouring armies and take on Napoleon. Not something he particularly wanted to do. Another choice was to travel to the Americas and make his name there. But why risk a long journey at sea when he could just as easily gamble here and win––with Lara? The girl whose smile he couldn’t erase from his memory.

 
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