(photo credit: https://www.writeabout.com/)
“Why is my horse not saddled?”
A deep sigh rattled Ash’s chest as he tossed the last square bale down from the loft. His head was pounding with the start of a headache in the broiling heat of the summer and his younger, stepsister’s whiny call did nothing to help his temper. Down below he could see her pacing the barn floor with irritated little heel stomps and skirt swings. He took a breath to steady himself, wiped his face of all expression hinting at annoyance, and started the descent down the loft ladder.
“You’re not riding in this heat,” Ash stated, feet thumping hard on the floor as he jumped from the last rung. His shirt lay discarded across the tack rail and sweat poured down his chest mingled with rivers of dirt. The muggy air was smothering, heavy against his lungs even with the wide doors open on both ends of the barn. August heat had fully set in and taken away any flicker of a breeze with it. “I’m sorry Clara but I can’t let you take a horse out when it’s like this.”
He realized his mistake the minute the words spilled from his lips.
“Let me,” Clara sneered, turning toward him with her mouth twisting in incredulity. She stopped her pacing and stomping only long enough to march toward him with a finger pointed directly in his face. “How dare you assume you can let me do anything, Ashton?”
Clara wore a riding dress in warm beige, dotted with leather buttons and matching caramel boots. For a moment, Ash wondered how the hell she was breathing through the heat but quickly noted her face already flushed along her cheeks. Her carrot hair was tossed atop her head in a tightly cinched bun, matching the severity of her angry set eyes.
“Clara,” Ash murmured. He stood a good foot taller than her and resisted the urge to rest his hands on his knees to speak with her on a shorter level. Clara seemed to refuse any movements toward maturity and he still found himself thinking of her as a child even though she was well into her teens. “Please. Let it be today. The horses can’t breathe any better than we can.”
Rage contorted her features, however, in a horrifying childlike way: her freckles darkened and her lips pinched together as though she’d tasted something sour. Ash reached out a hand to soothe her, hoping he could get the young girl to understand the seriousness of the scorching weather. He knew her love of speed and had no doubt she would push the horse until it frothed and was left ragged.
A sharp crack rocketed against his face before he realized she’d moved to strike him. Instantly, Ash diverted his gaze to a spot on the wall and pressed his hands against his sides to keep them from shaking. Clara stood there watching him for only a few silent seconds before a mocking smile replaced her frown like rotten oil spreading over water.
“I’ll see you beaten for this,” she whispered before fleeing back to the house.
Several moments ticked by as he watched her retreat, his stepsister’s threat churning in his stomach. She’d be closing in on his stepmother’s private wing now and exploding with her version of the events which had just passed. Slowly, he felt his hands unravel from fists and the dread pump its way out of his bloodstream like a steady brook. There wasn’t a single thing he could do to prevent whatever punishment he would receive; he was better off just finishing the work for the day and accepting his fate.
“My, my, what a petulant little creature,” a voice purred behind him. Ash didn’t bother to turn when the female voice held fixed familiarity. His shoulders tightened back into knots as true fear curled down his backbone.
While Clara was an impulsive girl with emotions as rocky as the sea during a hurricane, her older sister was a different matter entirely.
A finger trailed across his lower back as she circled around him, his mind instantly picturing the vultures he’d seen days ago picking apart a donkey carcass outside of town. Her nail scraped the tender skin along his ribs before she came to stop directly in front of him.
“Eve,” Ash stated, “as much as I would like to discuss what brings you all the way out in this heat, I have work I need to finish.”
He could feel his heart stuttering with adrenaline and dread; his body begged him to flee but he knew it would only entice the dark-haired woman before him. Eve was opposite in every way from her younger sibling. She was not a cannon ball of emotion like Clara but instead overly calm and always in control. Men flocked to share a space she dominated with as much heat and sultriness to rival the August weather. Some called her beauty enticing while others claimed too much foreign lineage had darkened her breeding: her inky hair fell to her waist in a thick, black curtain and her slate grey eyes held a bit of curve at the corners. Where Clara was pale and gingery, Eve was olive and exotic. The younger sister stuttered flirtations and blushed an embarrassing crimson while Eva paraded her charms with the ease of a panther stalking prey. What Eve wanted, Eve received. It had been the way of things since she’d been a child and was now a poisonous thrill she abused to lighten her spirits.
A dry glint, the closest thing she knew to a smile, broke across her lips. They were painted a soft pink but Ash knew for a fact how cruel a monster was hidden under the innocent facade.
“I haven’t seen you for days,” she purred, reaching out brazenly to run a finger down his chest. Chills fettered Ash’s spine in a sort of paralyzing cage and something in his throat gave way to a thundering pulse. A dark cloak of disconnection gathered across his skin as he felt her finger slide lower toward his stomach.
“Monnie, come on. Let me in,” Brock crooned. His voice was gentle, at odds with his massive shoulders cramped in the door frame of the gallery. Somewhere along the way up the stairs to find the princess, he’d shed his admiral blue military jacket and thrown it over his shoulder. Maids blushed as they passed and batted eyelashes while they rushed about with breakfast trays and linens.
Maids. They seemed to be the only thing occupying the castle currently; they were like a colony of ants constantly on the march to complete cleaning preparations. Curtains were shaken, the silver polished, and all the paintings had been straightened on the walls. Flowers filled every vase and the floors had been rubbed to a glaring shine. As Brock looked around the pristine and empty hall, he heard the faint sobs shaking out of Monnie’s chest behind the door.
“Damn it, don’t cry,” he murmured. He laid his forehead against the door and knocked again quietly. “Just open the door. It’s only me.”
The next few seconds of silence seemed to stretch as long as hours before he heard the tell-tale click of the lock releasing. He cracked the door tentatively, unsure of what he’d see in the space the princess claimed as an art loft. He threw a pointed look, sending the nearest maid scurrying away, and locked the door behind him.
Brock’s heart constricted at the sight of her frame curled up in the window seat. Her eyes were glued to the movements in the circle drive below, carriages weaving in and out in figure eights. Some unloaded supplies while others escorted women in fine silks and men in starched cravats to the many guest houses dotting the property open for the mourning week.
Monnie’s hair was tied back in a loose braid, the waterfall of strawberry blonde a stark contrast to Brock’s own charcoal black. She had paint-stained fingertips and flecks on her arms; her skin seemed to always be streaked with vibrant hues of sunflower yellow or candy apple red. Her eyes were swollen with silent tears.
“Look at them,” she whispered, her forehead pressed against the glass. “They’re running around like hounds after a coon, bawling and simpering. They didn’t even know him, Brock. This isn’t about my brother’s funeral at all. This is about them.”
Brock leaned against the wall, listening to her gravelly voice carry across the room to him. Nothing about Monarch was dainty or delicate; she was aggressively sharp and compelling with an edge most men found irritatingly self-righteous. Monarch had been raised with a contrasting education from other female royals after her father passed away early in her childhood. The Queen had seen to have her daughter completely trained in all mental and physical aspects of court politics, the duty of the law, and the ramifications of war. Women in frilly dresses with smooth hands would scoff at the outline of muscles along Monarch’s arms and the callouses lining her palms.
“You can’t help you have a bigger heart than all of them thrown together,” Brock whispered. Taking a few steps forward, he stood against the massive table covered in canvas strips and brushes. She’d been working on a lavender field piece the last time he’d been up here and he could see it against the furthest wall. He hadn’t the faintest idea what she’d been working on before he’d come in. The room seemed to push in on him for a single second before his chest expanded with a full breath.
A brittle laugh rattled her chest as she rose from the window seat. She had on a simple dress the color of wheat with acrylic and oil dotting the cloth along her chest and stomach. The edgy mood radiating off her instantly deadened when she looked up from her feet into Brock’s eyes.
“Brock,” she whispered, steps hurried and pushing against his resisting shoulder gently until he sat on the table. “I haven’t seen you this bad in months. Why didn’t you come get me sooner?”
Monnie’s light touch across his cheekbones felt like ice against his skin and he could see her shoulders set firmly before she undid the back of her dress. When she turned, he studied the constellation tattoos along her spine as familiar to him as his own hands.
“You stubborn pig,” she murmured, taking a step backward toward him. Her skirts tangled with Brock’s legs and his hands reached for her hips reflexively to keep her from stumbling. “Take what you need.”
Sweat was starting to clam up his skin and he could feel his hands shaking as they tightened on her hipbones. He pushed away, further back onto the table, trying to put a few feet of space between them.
“Stubborn pig? Monnie, you just lost your brother two days ago. I didn’t come up here to-“
“Enough,” Monarch snapped. Brock could see the dance of goosebumps along the skin of her shoulders and the scar on the back of her neck she’d had since they were six. She’d fallen from her horse after refusing to ride side-saddle and collided with the sharp edge of a brick wall. He could still remember the way she’d fought tears and climbed back onto her horse without a word. “Please.”
It was the way she let the word slip- like it was her who was in pain, not him. She turned to look over her shoulder and the last of his resolve crumbled when he met her eyes.
“I won’t take much,” he whispered. She sighed with barely concealed annoyance and a small smile tugged at the edge of his lips. He scooted forward til he rested on the edge of the table, her neck only inches away from his mouth and the smell of paint coating her skin. “Pleiades, since you want to be so stubborn.”
He traced the constellation above and to the right of Orion. The tattoo lined the tender skin directly along her cervical vertebrae and was one she’d allowed him to use hundreds of times over the years. He felt the way Monnie relaxed as he gently circled the tattooed stars over and over with his thumb.
“Even the Seven Sisters couldn’t have dealt with you and your headstrong resistance to those who only want to help you,” she laughed quietly.
Her breathing quickened when he laid his forehead down onto her shoulder and his strokes became erratic and rough. She could feel the way he was pushing down onto her with almost all of his weight and she was suddenly thankful they weren’t standing like they usually did when Brock was hurt. She took a firm step backward and sat in his lap, taking his hand away from the tattoo and wrapping it around her waist. Heat crawled along the edges of the ink, warming until it felt hot enough to forge iron. Biting down onto her lip to keep from crying out didn’t stop the rest of her body lighting up with discomfort.
“Monnie,” Brock stated, his mouth hushed into her skin. His hand was soft at her waist, holding on as gentle as his pain could afford. Monarch could hear the misery in the way he said her name. “I’m so sorry.”
A sudden spark erupted from her backbone, leaving it in shattered pieces of agony but she felt the deep breath drag into Brock’s lungs.
“My stars are you stars,” she whispered, thankful to feel strength flood him as he hugged her to his front.
She passed out before she could hear his reply.
Copyright © 2016 Pearl Bayou