In Bed With A Stranger(4)

By: Mary Wine

Chapter Two

Warwick Castle, 1602

“Hurry up with you, Anne. The mistress is in a snit today.”

“As if that’s any change.”

Joyce shot a stern look at her charge, her nose wrinkling. “Mind that tongue, miss. She is your better, above you, placed there by God.”

Anne lowered herself, while balancing a tray of morning offerings for the lady of the house. She did need to mind her tongue. However, not for herself. She had little care for her own comforts yet it was a poor child that heaped burdens on her mother. Lady Philipa wouldn’t punish only her. The lady would cheerfully lay her wrath on Anne’s mother as well.

With a sigh she followed Joyce toward the west wing, hurrying so that the tray would still be warm when the mistress was roused. Polished silver domes covered the mistress’s morning meal. Each was ornately carved with flowers and birds, the precious metal heated over the fire before being placed on top of each plate to retain the heat.

She, herself, had risen with the first rays of dawn in order to be present when the lady of the house was ready to be woken. That duty had been hers since she began her woman’s flow. The first few months, her wrists had ached from the weight of the tray with its silver, but now she was steady as she moved. Philipa had ordered that Anne dress her each morning to ensure that Anne slept in the maid’s chamber behind the kitchens under the eye of the housekeeper. There would be no trysts. Her body was expected to remain virgin.

The reason was simple. Even bastard born, her blood was too blue. Philipa might detest the very sight of her and her siblings but she was also a keen mistress of the house. She wasted nothing, overlooked not one single resource. Anne’s blood might be useful in some marriage negotiation. There were lesser knights who valued noble, blue blood in a wife. It was also just as likely that Philipa would see her as a courtesan, serving on the whims of some fat merchant. Whatever the lady had in mind, she had yet to unveil it.

So, Anne stood silently as the bed curtains were opened and Philipa turned her head to look at the assembled staff. Her eyes roamed each of them, inspecting their uniformed livery from pressed cap to skirt hem. Philipa missed nothing. Her lips never seemed to smile and her face bore the wrinkles to prove it. A painting in the lower hall showed her in her youth when she had been a bride, but there was little of that sparkle left in the woman before her. Anne watched Philipa through her eyelashes as the line of maids lowered their heads in deference.

“My feet were cold last night.”

The covers were drawn back as the lady sat up. Plump pillows were moved behind her back as she adjusted her position.

“The fire was not laid correctly; the coals lost their heat.”

None of the maids said a word. They lowered their heads each time Philipa spoke as they moved in a practiced team around the chamber. The heavy tapestry curtains were pulled aside with a care for how expensive such fabric was. The huge fireplace was quickly cleaned of its ashes and another fire built to warm the chamber. Anne waited until the lady looked settled before placing the tray across her lap. She was careful to make sure that the small brass legs of the serving tray didn’t touch either of her mistress’s legs but slid smoothly onto either side to hold the tray above Philipa’s thighs.

The lady began to inspect what was hidden beneath the polished silver domes on her morning tray. Her lips pressed into a hard line as she dropped one dome back over whatever the cook had prepared.

“Tell the cook to present herself at noon.”

Every maid tensed just the slightest amount because they had all been the unfortunate recipients of the lady’s displeasure before. The cook would not have a pleasant day. Philipa began eating one of the offerings while she watched the servants with a critical eye. Every one of them had learned to move on carefully soft steps, so as to not bring notice to themselves. All eyes were kept downcast for fear that the mistress might single them out.

“I am ready to rise.” Philipa dropped her eating wares with a clatter. The tray was removed almost in the same instant. Another maid pulled the covers down to the foot of the bed.

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