Chapter 22: Detracting Distractions
Five more evenings came and went with the baron’s visitors under his roof. Kwado never shared the events of that afternoon with his patron, but he did cease attending their nightly gatherings around the dinner table, politely confining himself to his room under the pretense of a stomach bug. Either Baron Frankel did not mind his absence or he quietly understood something must have transpired between them. Either way, he did not disturb Kwado.
The entire estate was abuzz with preparations for a gala in Todrick’s honor. He was to leave on the morrow, and the baron had made every effort to send him off in proper fashion. Pousin informed Kwado that the baron had invited every nobleman and wealthy merchant in his duchy to attend the event. Scores of temporary laborers were working around the clock to set up for the gala. Furniture was rearranged or cleared out altogether from the lower halls and library to make standing room for the guests. Several wide pavilions were set up on the front grounds, with row after row of tables brought up from the lumber mill. A tilt-yard was constructed for a grand jousting tourney, along with a small stage for the band to perform. The house staff said there was sure to be much dancing. Miss Hawfuk was busy in her kitchens, adding fifteen more able bodies to complete her task in preparing for such a lavish banquet. Even she was sorely pressed by this task, so much so that she did not balk once when Kwado offered his services.
He helped her for two days, baking breads and cakes, preparing geese and ox, and arranging fruit platters. There was so much to do that the temporary staff had little time to wonder at the troll in Miss Hawfuk’s larders, and he soon lost himself in the work, delighted to have something to keep his hands busy and especially grateful for a place to remain hidden from the baron’s guests.
Kwado finished icing a three-tiered cake with a royal buttercream and set it on the counter beside a basket of cherry tarts. He stepped back to admire his handiwork and wiped his hands on the apron folded around his waist.
“I think it all came out rather well,” he said to Miss Hawfuk, who was elbows deep in preparing a stuffing.
She grunted without looking up. “Yes, yes, you’ve made a cake. Bully for you.” Her hair was frayed and a stripe of flour adorned her forehead like a chef’s version of war paint. Kwado did not fault her for the cross response. She was tired and overworked and he was happy to be in her good graces once more.
He smiled. “Is there anything else I can help with tonight?”
“No, you’ve done quite enough,” she said. “And stay away from my spices. Still can’t find my sage since you messed up the herb cupboard.”
Kwado chuckled. He bowed and dismissed himself, removing his apron as he walked. He crumpled it into a little ball and tossed it in the kitchen laundry basket.
“’Night, Vincent,” one of the maids said.
Kwado bowed his head at her with a smile and the group of girls she was with broke into giggles. He pressed open the wooden door to the stairwell and stopped short, almost bowling over a woman just about to enter the kitchens. She crashed into his chest like a flower and almost crumpled over, but he caught her in his thick arms, fumbling over an apology. The words stuck in his throat as he locked eyes with her and his back stiffened.
“Hello, Vincent,” Margerite said.
Kwado stared at her for a long moment, his mind blank. Then he realized he was still holding her tight to him and quickly put her at arm’s length. “Margerite…oh…I, um, I’ve—”
“Been avoiding me?” she said with a coy grin.
“Oh no, nothing like that,” Kwado said quite unconvincingly. “It’s just that, well, they’ve needed me down in the kitchen, and I couldn’t really turn my back on Miss Hawfuk in her hour of need.”
“Yes, I’ve heard how fond of you she is,” Margerite teased. “It’s okay, Vincent. I understand your quandary, but I want you to know that Todrick was completely out of line the other day by the pool.”
Kwado adjusted his wig and looked sideways down the hall. “It’s alright. He was just doing what brothers are supposed to, I guess—protecting his sister.”
Margerite shook her head with a wicked grin that made his chest feel hot.
“You are something else. I don’t know how you do it, remaining so calm all the time. I suppose you are correct in the end, but I do wish he would not get so overzealous in his brotherly duties.” She batted her eyes at him and threw on a pout. “What is a lady to do?”
“Is there something you needed in the kitchen?” Kwado asked, clearing his throat. “Should I fetch Miss Hawfuk for you?”
“I came down here to find you,” Margerite said pointedly.
“You did?” Kwado’s voice spiked an octave and he backed away as if he might be attacked. His wig flopped sideways and he had to quickly slap it back in place. He felt like a canary was stuck in his throat.
Margerite stared up into his eyes and slowly nodded while she set the palm of her hand against his chest. “I know you’ve been avoiding me. But the gala is tonight, and I was hoping to see you there.”
“Oh, um, I don’t know,” Kwado tried to say, his conviction sticking in his throat like tar. He coughed again, adjusting the wig. “I might have to take care of something, not feeling well…”
She slowly brushed her fingertips down his chest to his rib cage. The feeling of it ran through his body like an electric current, and he froze in place as if stunned. Kwado could not break free from her gaze.
“Well, I hope you will reconsider and come tonight,” she said. There was something wicked in her tone. “You won’t leave me up there all by myself, will you, Vincent? You wouldn’t do that to me—get a lady’s hopes up and then hurt her feelings?”
She shook her head and Kwado found himself doing the same. “No,” he whispered. “I could never let you down.”
“Perfect!” Margerite beamed. “Then it’s settled, I will see you this evening.”
She reached up on tiptoes and grazed his cheek with her lips, the faintest of kisses, then turned and disappeared up the stairs faster than he could blink. Kwado stood there for long moments, his heart thundering in his chest, staring wide-eyed at the air in front of him, before finally regaining control of his body. He brought a hand up to his cheek and grinned then raced to his bedroom. Tonight was going to be the best night of his life!