A Poor Man's Boots | Verso.ink
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A Poor Man's Boots

By Caren Hahn

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Elliott stepped away from the mare, raising his brush in defense as she lifted her tail and dropped a fresh load of poop.

“I just mucked out this stall,” Elliott complained. “This is how you thank me?”

She flicked her dirty tail in response, and Elliott darted out of the way, cursing as he tripped over the currying basket and fell to the floor.

“Very smooth.” An amused voice came from the doorway. “Is that how you’ll dance with the fine ladies at the princess’s ball? That’ll be a night to remember!”

Elliott looked up into the laughing blue eyes of his stepbrother. Of course Trey had seen.

“You know I won’t be going to any ball. Father would never risk the embarrassment.”

“Don’t say that, El. Father’s proud of you. Last week I heard him tell Lord Hampton that he’s never seen a lad with such a fine hand for horses.”

Elliott frowned at Trey, trying to see if he was joking. But Trey’s blue eyes were clear without a hint of teasing.

“There’s a difference between being praised as a hired hand and being treated like a real son,” he said drily.

“Nonsense,” Trey scoffed. “Father expects all of us to work hard. I just came from the village where I had to go warn a handful of families that if they missed another month’s rent, they risked eviction. That was tough, I tell you. I would have much rather been here in the stables.”

Elliott turned away to hide his expression. Nothing he could say would make a difference. Trey was certain that his father viewed Elliott as a third son, but the older Elliott got, the more he was being treated as little more than a glorified servant. As hurtful as it was, what really got under his skin was knowing that Mirthen Hall should have been his in the first place. If his mother hadn’t remarried after his father’s death, it would have been Elliott’s as soon as he reached adulthood.

Instead, she’d married Lord Allred, changing his future forever. Allred was kind enough, and at first Elliott liked having brothers. But after his mother died, things had changed. Allred’s favoritism toward his oldest, Bryan, was understandable. But when that favoritism started displacing Elliott — when Bryan was assigned the best tutors while Elliott’s education was ended, or joined Allred in important meetings while Elliott was sent to do chores — it became clear who Allred intended to replace him.

“Let me give you a hand with that,” Trey offered as Elliott pushed the barrow of manure toward the outer yard.

“You’ll get yourself all filthy. No ladies will want to dance with you tonight if they can smell this on you,” Elliott protested.

“At least let me help you finish your chores. What’s next?”

Elliott paused, squinting against the bright sunlight. Trust Trey to help Elliott go to the ball. The long list of chores were meant to keep Elliott busy so that there was no chance he’d have time to prepare. Allred’s meaning had been clear. Elliott wasn’t one of the family when it came time to present themselves at court.

Clear to everyone, that is, except Trey.

Feeling a rush of affection for Trey, Elliott tried to think of a way to soften his disappointment. “You know, I don’t really feel up to going to the ball. I think I’ll just stay home tonight. It sounds better than trying to flatter a bunch of preening, stuffy old women.”

Trey gaped. “What are you talking about? This is the event of the year, and now we’re finally old enough to go! Rumor has it, Princess Moira is going to begin accepting suitors. Bryan says the ball is a chance for young men like us to get noticed by her. Anyone she likes after tonight might be issued a special invitation back to the palace to get to know her better.”

Elliott rubbed a hand across his forehead, and grimaced as he felt the damp of manure spread across his face. “I won’t be attracting any princess’s attention tonight. Why would I want to? She’s probably looking for someone who knows how to tie his cravat with perfect folds and hold a glower on his face for hours on end.”

“You mean someone like Bryan?” Trey said with a glint in his eye.

Elliott laughed, and pushed the barrow forward, startling a chicken scratching at the dirt. Trey followed him to the manure pile.

“Serene should be there tonight. We haven’t seen her in ages. She’s bound to have lots of friends to meet.”

“Serene will be there too?” Elliott felt a pang of disappointment. Serene’s mother had been close friends with Mother, and there was a time Serene had been like a sister to Elliott. A sister he chased through the cornfields and hid frogs in her drinking cup. Those visits were another thing that he’d lost with Mother’s death.

“Yes, can you believe she’s all grown up?”

Elliott didn’t point out that she was born the same year as the two of them. “You know how girls are. I’m sure she’ll be too busy with…doing girl things to spend time with us.” The truth was, since he’d never been to a ball, he didn’t know any more than Trey did what to expect.

“Come on, El. This is my first ball. I want you to come with me.”

“You’ll be fine, Trey. I really don’t want to go.”

But later, in the little room above the stable that had become Elliott’s special retreat, he looked again at the royal invitation. He’d snuck it off Allred’s desk one day after building the morning fire. The grand gala was held annually on the spring equinox that marked the beginning of the court season, but this time it included a special promenade of unmarried young men. Elliott traced the royal seal with fingers stained black with dirt, wondering for a moment what it would have been like if Mother hadn’t died and she and Allred had presented him at court properly. He wasn’t interested in catching the attention of any princess, but the most important people attended court. He could have made powerful friends who could have helped him know what to do when late winter rains flooded the village and more and more farmers were struggling to pay their rent. Allred had done little to help their tenants, and Elliott felt the injustice of that like a pebble caught in his boot.

But what could he do?

He watched from the window as the sun sank behind the distant hills, casting the courtyard in shadows. The family’s finest carriage sat outside, waiting for Morris to bring it up to the house. Four gray mares stood at lazy attention.

Footsteps sounded on the outside stairs and Trey burst through the door. He was dressed in royal blue silk that made his eyes seem even brighter in the waning light. His hair was combed neatly and he smelled faintly of rosewater.

“Are you ready, El?” He stopped, face falling as he took in Elliott’s appearance. “You really aren’t coming, then?”

Elliott shrugged. “Maybe next year.”

Trey frowned. “There won’t be a next year, will there?”

Elliott didn’t reply.

“I thought you were just putting me off. But then I heard Father tell Bryan that his place as heir would be cemented tonight. When I pointed out that you’re the heir of Mirthen Hall, they both laughed at me. It’s almost like Father plans to give your inheritance to Bryan.”

Elliott swallowed, unsure of what to say. He’d suspected the truth for some time, but to hear it spoken aloud by Trey seemed so final.

“You’ve got to stop him, El. It’s not right.”

“What can I do? Mother always wanted Mirthen to go to me, but her property became his as soon as they were wed. Once she died, it was his to do as he pleased.” A familiar hollowness filled his chest as it always did when he spoke of Mother’s death.

“But it’s not right,” Trey insisted. “You’ve got to fight it.”

Elliott smirked. “How? The law is on his side. Even if I found a loophole, who would help me fight him for it? I’m nothing more than a farmhand now.” He held out his hands stained with dirt and manure to prove his point.

Trey narrowed his eyes at him. “Come to the ball tonight. Maybe you can speak to one of your mother’s old friends. Find a patron to help you. You know Sir Duncan will be there, since it’s Serene’s first time at court.”

“Father would never allow it.”

“Father would never have to know.” Trey grinned. “You can come as our driver and sneak away during the ball. It’ll be dark, Father won’t notice. We’ll tell him Morris is sick and he’ll just think you’re one of the stablehands. But you can’t go like that. Get cleaned up, quick!”

Trey’s enthusiasm was a force Elliott couldn’t refuse. Before he knew what was happening, he was stripped to the waist and rainwater was poured over his head, with harsh lye soap and a scouring brush to scrape away the smells of the barn.

While he scrubbed his hands raw until no sign of manure remained, Trey ran back and forth to the manor house and servants’ quarters. He found a set of livery to dress Elliott like Morris, and carefully packed away a change of formal dress clothes of his own for Elliott to change into once he got to the ball.

“There,” he pronounced, looking Elliott over. “You just need to keep the hat pulled low and avoid looking directly at Father. As long as he has no reason to look closer, he won’t notice it’s you.”

Elliott caught his reflection in the stable window. His dark hair was still wet from his rain barrel bath and curled behind his ears. He had his mother’s arched eyebrows and sloping forehead, and for a moment he looked almost noble. But once Trey put the cap on his head, he instantly looked like a servant.

“I’ve put the bundle of clothes up in your seat,” Trey said, steering him toward the carriage. “They’ll get a little wrinkled, but that can’t be helped. Just…try to avoid Father once we’re there. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Bryan says the ballroom is so crowded you won’t see the same person twice all night!”

Elliott climbed up to the driver’s seat of the carriage. He couldn’t believe he was actually doing this. He’d never defied Allred before. He’d always done what was expected to keep the peace. But now…something was kindled in his heart that filled him with purpose. He would sneak into the ball in disguise. And maybe, just maybe, he would meet someone who could change his life.

Trey was right. Allred didn’t notice Elliott as he came out of the Hall in the gathering dusk, a shining cape draped over one shoulder and Bryan trailing behind. He didn’t notice Elliott as he climbed into the carriage, grumbling about the dust on his newly polished boots. Trey studiously avoided looking up at Elliott, and Elliott kept his cap low, the bundle of Trey’s clothes pressed against his hip.

Elliott let out a deep breath as the carriage door shut and he lifted the reins. The drive to the palace was uneventful, but still his heart thudded as if he were being chased by an enemy. Twice he decided not to go through with it. But Trey’s words kept coming back to him, and he knew that if he balked tonight, he would never find the courage again.

The avenue to the palace was festooned with ribbons and lanterns hanging from the trees. The carriage wheels rattled over cobblestones that had been carpeted with petals — tulips? Elliott wondered. Roses wouldn’t bloom for months. He had to stop himself from gawking and focus on the task at hand. Even the horses picked up on the festive mood, prancing with a little more vigor than they’d shown on the country roads.

Elliott slowed them as they approached the gate, queuing up behind the other carriages. As he waited for his turn, he took in the grand view of the palace. Built of pale yellow stone, it practically glowed from the many braziers and lanterns. An expansive staircase welcomed guests to open doors where two servants dressed in royal livery waited at attention. Men in white trousers and formal coats led women in large ballgowns and satin gloves, looking confident and self-assured as they moved up the stairs. Elliott marveled at the pageantry of it all.

He’d had plenty of time to watch the other drivers, so he maneuvered the carriage to the base of the stairs without mishap. A servant waited to help his passengers disembark, and Trey’s excited chatter drifter up to Elliott, followed by Bryan’s chiding murmur.

“Be back at midnight,” Allred commanded as he straightened his lapel. He glanced briefly in Elliott’s direction, but his eyes slid over him disinterestedly. “It’s a clear night and I want to be home before the frost.”

Relieved, Elliott eased the horses forward and exited the courtyard, following the path of the other drivers around back to the stables. There he found the other carriages lined up, with some of the horses already unhitched.

Elliott followed suit, taking his time to rub down the gray mares after feeding and making sure they had water. But eventually he’d done all he could for the horses, and it was time to either join the other drivers in the kitchens for their evening’s refreshment, or continue with Trey’s outlandish plan.

Hoping he wasn’t making a mistake, Elliott grabbed the bundle and ducked into the shadows behind the stable. He stripped quickly, took a moment to rinse his face and smooth his hair, then pulled on Trey’s clothes. The waistcoat was a little tight, but no one should notice beneath the long black coat. Elliott hoped the black wouldn’t obviously mark him as an outsider, after seeing the other men in their coats of royal blue and scarlet. But Trey had assured him it would look sharp with his dark coloring, without attracting admiring gazes that might draw too much attention.

Checking his white trousers one more time for dirt, Elliott caught sight of his feet and his heart sank. In all their preparations, they’d forgotten to find him a pair of suitable boots! Not only were his boots not as fine as his stepbrothers’ — polished to a high sheen and so new they creaked when they walked — but they were worn with age and caked with a layer of stable yard dirt.

Elliott panicked. He couldn’t go into the palace with boots like this. He’d be laughed at, or worse, recognized as an imposter. But he’d already come so far. If this was his best chance at having a future that included more than shoveling manure for the rest of his life, he might as well risk it all.

Taking a deep breath, he stuffed his old clothes back into the sack and tossed it onto the carriage seat. When he turned, he caught the eye of two servants making their way across the stable yard. They saw him and stopped.

“Beg your pardon, sir,” one of them said, removing his cap. “Are you looking for someone? Your driver perhaps?”

Elliott’s face grew hot, but he hoped they wouldn’t notice in the dim light. “Uh, no. Thanks, but no. I just…I just forgot something.”

A look passed between the servants, and Elliott tried to imagine how Bryan or Allred would act. He tried to steady his voice.

“Thank you for your concern. I’m quite well.”He strode away decisively, resisting the urge to turn back and see if they were still watching him. Suddenly conscious of how big his steps were and whether his arms were swinging naturally or not, Elliott was sweating by the time he rounded the corner out of sight.

It was going to be a long night.

Elliott clung to the shadows, skirting around the outbuildings and wondering how to sneak into the palace without going through the entrance where he would be seen and announced. There were various windows and side entrances on the side of the building, but guards patrolled lazily around the perimeter. If he couldn’t even talk to two servants without raising questions, surely he couldn’t handle a guard.

When he rounded the back of the courtyard, he smiled. There, a walled garden with a wide veranda invited the guests to flow out of doors as the heat inside the ballroom became oppressive. This early in the evening, the garden was empty.

Elliott spotted the arched doorway to the garden, and two guards chatting nearby. Holding his shoulders back and head up, he strode toward the gate as if he belonged there. One of the guards looked him over, but Elliott didn’t pause. He simply nodded (imperiously, he thought) and the guard went back to his conversation.

Elliott grinned as he closed the gate behind him. Even with his servant’s boots, people saw what they wanted to see. As long as he stayed in the shadows or thick crowds, no one would ever see his feet.

He passed another guard on the veranda and paused outside one of the tall glass doors. Between the crystal chandeliers, sparkling goblets, and fine jewels gracing every woman’s throat, the ballroom fairly glittered. He searched dancing couples and idling bystanders, looking for his family. It wouldn’t do to be seen by Allred before he’d had a chance to find one of Mother’s friends.

There. Lord Allred was mercifully down at the other end of the room, his back turned to the door. Elliott opened the door and slipped in.

Instantly the music and voices swarmed him. The noise was almost as tangible as the heat. Elliott’s eyes widened taking it all in. So this was what his life would have included if he were still the heir of Mirthen Hall. This is how Trey’s world would get increasingly separate from his. How long before Trey began to view Elliott as a servant too? Surely it was inevitable.

Unless Elliott did something about it.

He moved toward the crowd at the perimeter of the room, looking for a familiar face. There were so many strangers here, that after a while he started to worry. What if Sir Duncan wasn’t there? Or what if he didn’t remember Elliott?

Lipsticked women smiled at him, and men nodded politely, but they all blurred into a mass of insignificance as Elliott tried to find —


An elbow collided with Elliott and a wine goblet tipped dangerously in his direction.

He caught it, steadying the soft fingers with his own and looked into the face of a lovely young woman with brown curls framing her face.

“Serene?” Elliott asked, recognizing her.

“El!” Serene’s lips parted into a wide smile. “You ARE here then! I thought only Trey and Bryan came and I was so disappointed. I’d hoped you wouldn’t miss our first ball.”

Elliott felt a surge of hope. “Is your father here? I’m hoping to have — “

“I’ve already been claimed for the next three dances,” Serene said, as if he hadn’t spoken. “But you can take the one after that.” Her cheeks were flushed with excitement and wine and Elliott wondered when she’d gotten so pretty.

“Sorry, but I’m not here to dance. I’m actually trying to find —.” Elliott looked past her at the crowd, trying to make out her father’s profile.

The light in Serene’s eyes dimmed. “Oh. I see. You’ve only come for the princess? That’s all Trey could talk about too. Very well, then. Forgive me for wasting your time.”

She turned away and Elliott realized his mistake. “Serene! Don’t go. Please!”

She looked back in annoyance. When they’d played together as children, he’d never noticed the hints of gold in her eyes. Suddenly he wished for a cup of wine himself.

“What is it, El?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.

Not wanting to be overheard, he took her elbow and pulled her toward the nearest exit. A long hallway stretched in either direction and down one end a door opened into a little antechamber. A small table was laid expectantly with fruit and wine, but the room was empty.

Serene raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What’s going on, El? Why so secretive?”

“The truth is, I’m not even supposed to be here,” he admitted. “Trey helped me sneak in. I can’t let Father know I’ve come.”

Her eyes brightened with curiosity. “Indeed? Why ever not? You have just as much reason to be here as I do.”

Elliott hesitated to say the words. It sounded disloyal. “Father didn’t want me to come tonight. Or any night, I suspect. If he can keep me away from court, he can prevent me from legitimizing my claim to Mirthen Hall.”

“Why would he do that?”

“I think Father is planning to name Bryan as heir of Mirthen Hall.”

Elliott could read the disbelief in Serene’s eyes. “That’s ridiculous. Mirthen Hall is your inheritance. Bryan is already heir to his other holdings.”

Elliott shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe his other holdings are doing poorly? But ask Trey. It was his idea to sneak in tonight and talk to your father.”

“What could my father do?”

Elliott shuffled his feet. He hadn’t really thought through this part of the plan. He’d expected to be able to speak with Sir Duncan directly, and now he realized how weak his petition was. “If I could get a patron of some kind — someone who could help support my claim — then perhaps I could convince Father to change his mind. And if not, I might get representation at court.”

Serene looked up at the chandelier above their heads and tapped her chin in thought. “I see.” Elliott watched quietly as she thought through his proposal, resisting bouncing gently on his toes in impatience. At last, she fixed her gaze on him. “I can’t promise that my father will help,” she began sternly. “But he did promise your mother to help watch over you. I think he would be interested to know your case.”

Elliott let out a small breath of relief. “Do you know where I can find him?”

She smiled conspiratorially. “I’ll do better than that. You stay here and I’ll bring him to you. That way your stepfather need never know.”

Elliott grinned with a lightness in his chest. “Thank you, Serene! I could kiss you for this!”

She looked at him in surprise and he cringed. He’d been thinking of the childhood playmate, not the bright-eyed woman before him. The thought of kissing her made his cheeks flush. She must have thought the same thing because her face reddened as well.

“I’m sorry. I just…thank you…” he stammered.

Serene ducked her head and moved quickly to the door. “Don’t thank me yet,” she said, as she slipped out, leaving the door ajar.

The long minutes while Elliott waited stretched interminably. He cursed himself for being a fool. It was only Serene. He shouldn’t be embarrassed. But somehow her good favor meant more now than it used to when they were children.

The door creaked open and Elliott turned, hopeful. But the young woman who entered was not Serene. She looked a little bit like her, but her hair was a lighter shade of brown and she was dressed in a gown of exquisite pale gold that shimmered in the candlelight.

She spotted Elliott and sighed. “Oh good, I’m glad you’re here. Will you get me some wine? What have they got at that table? I can’t eat much, they laced my corset too tight. But something to drink would be pleasant.”

The young woman moved to a tufted divan and — ungracefully, Elliott thought — flopped herself down on it and closed her eyes. After a moment, she cracked one eye open and fixed it on him.

“Some wine, please. Don’t look at me like that. Do you have any idea how hard it is to lay down in a corset? You should be impressed I managed it at all.”

Elliott didn’t know who she was, and heat was beginning to creep up his neck at the thought of Sir Duncan coming to the room and finding him with this strange young woman. But he was used to taking orders and hurried to fill a glass for her. He set it on a tray as he’d seen the servers in the ballroom do, and brought it to her side.

She propped herself up on one elbow long enough to drink half the glass, then returned it to the tray and collapsed in exhaustion. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. Then, just when Elliott thought he couldn’t be more shocked, she lifted her gown above her ankles and kicked off her silk slippers.

“My feet, if you will. They are positively screaming at me.”

Elliott’s voice trembled with uncertainty. “My lady?”

“Rub my feet? Just for a moment. I’ll have to return to the dancing soon enough. But if you could restore them, that will carry me through the next round of hopeless gentlemen whom I’ve promised my attention to.”

The stockings were of such fine silk that Elliott was sure they would snag under his calloused hands. He wasn’t opposed to serving a beautiful woman, but to touch her stockinged feet? This was going too far.

“Forgive me, my lady, but I think that one or both of us is confused. “

“Indeed.” She raised up on her elbow again and frowned. “I don’t believe I know you. Are you new to my staff? You keep calling me, ‘my lady’ as if you don’t know who I am.”

The heat in Elliott’s neck climbed up to his face. “I’m afraid I don’t…my lady.”.

Her eyes widened, and then her mouth split into a grin. She pushed herself up to a seated position, and tucked her legs beneath her. “You really don’t know who I am? You come into my house, hide in my special respite room, drink my wine and eat my food and can’t guess whom I might be?”

Elliott’s mouth became very dry. “Your Highness, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” He offered a bow, and she laughed.

“You’re certainly not on my serving staff,” Princess Moira chortled. “No one would make it through training with a clumsy bow like that.”

Shame burned in Elliott’s chest and he longed for an escape. “I didn’t mean to intrude on your sanctuary, Your Highness. I was simply waiting for a friend. Please forgive me.”

“Never mind that. I suppose I should ask your forgiveness. You must have been indignant for me to treat you as a servant. But in fairness, the black was deceiving. What is your name?”

“Eilliott Falstead of Mirthen Hall. And I wasn’t offended, Your Highness. Just confused.”

Moira laughed lightly and reached for her wine glass again. “Justifiably so. I’m confused as well. Why did I not see you in the promenade?”

Elliott busied himself by returning the tray to the table, trying to think of a convincing excuse. “I’m not much of a dancer, Your Highness. I didn’t wish to embarrass myself before all of the court.”

“Interesting. You don’t seek royal favor? Should I be offended?” She raised one eyebrow in challenge.

“It’s no offense meant to you, Your Highness. I simply have no ambitions outside of Mirthen Hall. To insist on a dance with the princess would be a waste of your time and a precious unnecessary tasking of your feet.”

Moira laughed. “Elliott, I appreciate your honesty. I must ask, does your reticence involve a certain young lady? Is that the friend you were supposed to meet in secret tonight?” Her voice dripped with curiosity.

“No. That is…she’s my friend, but we aren’t…It isn’t like that.”

“Like what? Do you favor her? Do you favor her more than me?” Her eyes twinkled with humor.

“I don’t know you at all, Your Highness, so I’m obliged to answer yes.”

“I knew it! A secret tryst with a forbidden lover! But I’m disappointed you didn’t choose to join the promenade. I think I would have enjoyed dancing with you.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen me dance. My friend Serene says I’m like a marionette in boots with a child holding the strings.”

This time when Moira laughed, a small snort escaped, which threw her into a fit of giggles. She covered her mouth over another snort as her cheeks reddened. Elliott grinned, his earlier embarrassment forgotten. The princess was strange, but in a very pleasant way.

Eyes shining, Moira stood and held out her hands in invitation. “I insist on a demonstration. Right now. We can hear the strings well enough from here. No, no refusing. You can’t say you’ll embarrass either of us because there’s no one to watch.”

Feeling even more daring than when he’d walked past the guards to sneak into the palace, Elliott stepped forward and took Princess Moira in his arms. One hand held hers and the other slipped behind her back. This close he noticed how long her lashes were and the floral scent of her perfume.

Then, with a small nod of her head, Moira stepped into the dance. Elliott stuttered on the first few steps, but soon got the rhythm of it. It was easier if he looked over her shoulder and focused on counting. If he looked into her eyes, it was too easy to lose track of the steps. For a brief moment he wondered how it would feel to dance with Serene this way.

“I’m sorry it took so long — oh!”

Elliott dropped his arms at the sound of Serene’s voice and stepped away from the princess guiltily.

“Your Highness, forgive me for intruding.” Serene offered a slight curtsy, but not before Elliott noticed the look of hurt confusion on her face. Behind her, Sir Duncan stepped into the room, dabbing the perspiration from his forehead with a handkerchief.

“Elliott! What is this? My daughter tells me you’re in need of a private conference but she said nothing about the princess joining us.”

“Welcome, Sir Duncan,” Moira greeted graciously. “You must be Elliott’s friend Serene. Please, come in and make yourselves comfortable. Let’s all hear what Elliott has to say together, shall we?” Her eyes twinkled and Elliott knew she was enjoying his discomfort.

The words died on Elliott’s tongue. “Sir Duncan…I was wondering if you…I know how much you…the thing is…Ugh, there’s really no easy way to say this.”

“He wants to marry your daughter,” Moira said briskly. “That about sums it up, doesn’t it?”

Elliott gaped, his face flaming hot. Serene’s eyes widened and her face paled.

“No!” Elliott blurted. “No, that’s not it!”

Furious color rushed into Serene’s cheeks and she dropped her eyes to the carpet.

Sir Duncan frowned. “What’s the meaning of this, Elliott?” he growled, putting his arm around his daughter protectively.

“Serene, I’m fond of you, yes. But you know that’s not why I’m here.”

“It’s not? Drat,” Moira pouted. “The way your eyes lit up when you talked about her…I thought…Well, what is it then?”

Elliott really wished the princess would stop talking. “Sir Duncan, I’m looking for a patron to represents my interests at court. I want to make a claim for Mirthen Hall before my father — stepfather, that is — can make a claim for Bryan.”

“That’s it?” Moira exclaimed, and there was an edge to her voice. “You men are all the same. You care about land and titles and wealth as if those are the things that will make you happy. Well, Sir Duncan, what do you say? Does he have your support?” She sounded almost bored.

Sir Duncan was taken aback. “What a strange tale, Elliott! I would know if there was a plot to take Mirthen Hall from you. Lord Allred is a fair man, you must be mistaken. Has he told you this directly?”

“Not in words, sir. But if you could see — “

“There you go. You’re imagining things, son. Talk to Lord Allred. He’s cared for you all these years. I’m sure he would never even think of it.”

Elliott felt his hope slipping away. If he couldn’t convince Sir Duncan, who would help him? But even Trey had been unsure until that very night.

“His boots, Father.” The words were murmured so softly Elliott almost didn’t realize Serene had spoken.

“What’s that?”

“Look at his boots,” she said, raising her head but still refusing to meet Elliott’s eyes. “Do they look like the boots of a man who stands to inherit Mirthen Hall?”

Elliott fidgeted as Princess Moira looked down and gasped. Sir Duncan placed his monocle over his eye to get a better look. “Hmm. I see. Upon my word, those boots look fit for a stablehand not a nobleman. You may be right, my dear. Very well, Elliott. If you are in need of a patron, I’d be honored to help you.”

A surge of hope filled Elliott’s chest and he wanted to laugh with relief. Those awful boots had spoken for him in a way he hadn’t been able to speak for himself. “Thank you, sir. I’m in your debt.” He reached for Sir Duncan’s hand and pumped his arm gratefully.

Sir Duncan chuckled at his enthusiasm. “My pleasure, Elliott. And perhaps, not only mine.” He looked meaningfully at Serene. “Come call next week. I think we should both be happy to see you.”

“Yes sir. Of course. Me too.” Elliott feared he was being nonsensical, but couldn’t think well enough to get his words straight. Especially with Serene beaming at him.

“All well, it’s not as good as wedding bells, but I won’t give up!”

Elliott had forgotten about Princess Moira.

She held out her slippers to him expectantly. “It’s time I return to my guests, Elliott. If you’ll be so kind as to assist me with these slippers… ”

Elliott dropped gratefully to one knee to slip the shoes on the princess’s feet.

She winced a little as she tested them. “Ah, I fear my poor feet shall never recover from this night. Thank you for the dance, Elliott. And if your claim should fail, you’re always welcome to join my serving staff,” she said with a wink.

Serene stepped forward and slipped her hand into Elliott’s, making his heart flutter. “I think that won’t be necessary, Your Highness.”

Moira looked at them both and smiled knowingly. “No, indeed. Elliott, you may have come looking for land and wealth, but I believe your happy ending is already at your side. Come, Sir Duncan. You may escort me back to the ballroom.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.” Elliott offered his most sincere bow.

As Moira left the room, he was sure he heard a quiet giggle and the word, “marionette” under her breath.

“So, you wouldn’t dance with me, but you’ll dance with the princess?” Serene teased when they were alone.

“It was my civic duty,” Elliott insisted.

Serene’s eyes were bright and a brown curl had escaped her pins and lay tantalizingly across her neck. Had they been younger, Elliott would have tugged on it. But now, he wanted to brush his fingers gently across it and kiss the skin beneath it.

Afraid of these thoughts, he looked for escape. “I should go back to the…um…the horses…”

But Serene was reaching for his hands. “I think you can spare one dance, don’t you? It isn’t even midnight yet, and the party will go for hours.”

Elliott could only nod. His head spun and he could barely hear the music over the pounding of his pulse in his ears.

“Midnight,” he murmured. Wasn’t there something important about midnight? But whatever it was, it was lost in the feel of Serene’s warmth in his arms.

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About Caren Hahn

Caren Hahn writes relationship dramas in a variety of genres. With deeply empathetic characters and richly layered plots, readers of her fiction will enjoy an emotionally resonant experience—and have some fun along the way!

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