Who would’ve guessed that shoemaking could prove to be a dangerous occupation? A cobbler facing the death penalty merely for creating beautiful footwear—what were the odds?
Will studied his latest creation, open-toed sandals with lacing that went almost to the knee to accentuate the calf of their wearer. He’d actually used flecks of gold to make them shine. The heel was modestly high at the request of Princess Dahlia. She was a tall woman who didn’t wish to tower over her dance partner. The sandal design was striking, and at any other time, he would’ve been proud of it.
Now he didn’t care if his shoes were beautiful or mere wooden clogs. All that mattered was that they wear well. The soles must be nearly indestructible if he were to remain alive. King Bertram had decided the royal cobbler’s work was shoddy. That was the only reason His Majesty could imagine for his daughters’ shoe bills and the stacks of dance slippers worn through on a monthly basis. He never questioned how the six princesses managed to destroy so many shoes or what they might be up to at night. And because of his royal shortsightedness, Will would be punished.
“The king is exaggerating. He won’t actually execute you, merely dismiss you from the palace.” Will’s friend Louis, a second footman, sat on the bench across from him, polishing the king’s leather boots.
“Same thing. If I lose my place here, no one will hire me. I can’t resume the business I had before being appointed royal cobbler. The nobility would shun me, and the merchant class would take their cue from them. I’d be left making workingmen’s boots, or have to leave the city to set up shop someplace else and hope my reputation didn’t follow me.”
“For a successful man, you’re the glummest person I know, always imagining the worst,” Louis said.
“I’m not imagining it. The king actually summoned me rather than have the housekeeper handle it. He told me to fix the problem or pay the consequences. Perhaps diamond-tipped heels are the answer.”
Louis laughed. “Naturally, you immediately decided his warning meant he’d execute you over some worn-out shoes.”
“Or throw me in prison.” Will wrapped the sandals in tissue paper before gently laying them in a box, then took up his awl and began stitching strips of kidskin together around a form. The model for the form was Princess Iris. Will recalled the shape of her foot, the high arch and pink perfection of each toe. Although the eldest of the king’s remaining unmarried daughters, she was the most petite and, to his mind, the most beautiful.
Also, the most irritating. She burrowed under his skin and left him itching unbearably. He thought of her far more than he ought to, but how could he help it when she teased him so mercilessly and looked at him with those laughing blue eyes?
“You need to face the fact that you’ve succeeded beyond your family’s wildest expectations.” Louis waved his blacking brush at Will. “You’ve taken your great-grandfather’s simple occupation and turned it into a thriving business. Now you’ve reached the pinnacle of what a cobbler can possibly do, and that frightens you.”
“No place to go but down,” Will agreed. He took a few neat stitches, drawing the soft kid together without tearing it. “At any rate, I think the only way to save myself is to find out what the princesses do at night and let their father know exactly how their shoes wear out.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear his daughters sneak away to secret trysts. Every father would be glad to know that.”
“They’re all spoiled beyond belief.” Will ran his fingers along the instep of the shoe and thought of how warm Iris’s foot felt when he cradled her heel in his hand. “She flirts with me, you know.”
“Who? Jennie?” Louis looked up, his gray eyes suddenly sharp and his usual jolly manner gone. “I wondered how long it would take you to notice.”
“The parlor maid? No. I meant Princess Iris.”
The footman laughed and resumed polishing the brass studs on the seam of the boot. “In your dreams she does.”
“I’m quite serious. She says things, does things…”
Like the way she leans in so close I can smell her warm skin beneath her perfume and her cleavage is practically in my face. Like the way her gaze lingers on me just a little too long when she looks at me. Like the way she sometimes touches my shoulder or forearm and lets her hand rest there.
“The other day, she said, ‘William, you’d be a very handsome man if you’d smile more often’, a compliment wrapped in an insult and both of them inappropriate for a noblewoman to say to her servant.”
“Maybe she’s simply tired of your moody face. I doubt she was flirting.”
“She enjoys playing with me like a cat with a mouse.”
“Say it is true. Why not let the cat catch you? You might enjoy it.” Louis grinned, his freckled face reminding Will of a cheeky street urchin.
“Yes, and then I really would face the gallows. Secrets like that tend to get out.”
“True enough. I knew a groom once, had a fling with his mistress and ended up out on the street without a reference. Definitely not worth a few nights of pleasure.”
Will nodded, but the thought of even one hour in Iris’s arms—in her bed— was beginning to seem worth everything. Often he awoke sweating and breathless from dreams of bodies thrusting together, wrestling for dominance, and when he stared into the darkness, her mocking eyes haunted him. This itch he couldn’t scratch was starting to drive him mad. Better to focus on his more immediate problem, “fixing” the shoe situation as His Majesty commanded.
“So, how do you think the princesses escape?” he asked Louis. “They must go somewhere to wear out my shoes, yet their suite is guarded all night.”
“I couldn’t venture a guess. Perhaps they climb out a window.” Louis chuckled, for the windows of the six sisters’ suite were four stories above the ground.
“There are secret passageways throughout the palace, tunnels created for the royal family to escape if the castle is ever under attack. I thought perhaps the girls had discovered one of those,” Will mused.
“You need to spy on them and find out. Hide in their room before it’s locked for the night.”
“Oh yes, that wouldn’t get me pilloried if I were discovered.” Will paused. “But perhaps with the king’s blessing. He did tell me to fix the problem at all costs.”
“Mm, I think he meant for you to make thicker soles or something.”
“I can’t make magic shoes that never wear out, so I’ve got to stop the princesses from doing whatever it is they’re doing. They need to be reined in and made to face up to their irresponsible behavior.”
Iris’s laughing eyes told him he was a fool. She wasn’t someone who could ever be controlled. But he was damn sure going to try.
Iris watched the tree branches whipping against the windowpane like angry black fingers trying to claw their way in. She loved wild, windy days. An overcast sky and a little rain wouldn’t stop her from taking a long walk around the grounds, but Lady Lambert did. The woman was like a bit and bridle stopping Iris from running free. Iris’s life was bound and bordered on every side, her days and her future mapped out with military precision. Only the promise of secret nights kept her from throwing herself right out of this window.
On the whole, she’d preferred childhood in the schoolroom. At least book-learning had beaten lessons on elocution, and there had been time then for games and fun. Iris yawned prodigiously and rested her tired head against the window. Now she had to take time out of sleeping to play.
Lady Lambert tutted. “My dear princess, you must not—you really, positively must not—yawn like that. If you truly cannot avoid it occurring, then hide it behind your hand and make it silent. You sound like an elk!”
From the upright chair, Dahlia, Iris’s next oldest sister, giggled.
Iris sighed in her window seat and let her embroidery frame drop into her lap. “I wish I was an elk. At least then I could run in the forest.”
“With a plague of murderous huntsmen after you.” Dahlia twirled a lock of honey-blonde hair around her finger thoughtfully.
“Oh, I’d outrun them easily,” Iris promised, sinking into the fantasy. “I’d run so fast that the wind would stir up my fur like spikes and whistle through my antlers. I’d run so far that my very feet wore out.” Laughter caught in her throat. “And the cobbler would have to make me my own special shoes.”
But the idea of an elk wearing four of Will’s glittering, delicate dancing shoes reduced her to helpless giggles.
Pansy, who always took everything literally, glanced up from her embroidery to regard Iris over her spectacles. She was a sober, serious girl who was developing a permanent crease in her forehead. “But Iris, Will would never lower himself to make shoes for a mere animal. Ouch!” she added, aggrieved, and sucked her finger. She’d stabbed herself with the needle again.
“Too snooty and too full of himself by far for a mere cobbler,” Rose agreed from her place at the little round table beside her twin, Lily. The twins couldn’t have been more different physically, with Rose short and round, and Lily slender and pale. In fact, the two rather resembled the flowers they were named for. Lady Lambert sat at the table with the girls, sighing at the sisters’ inane chatter as if they were a trial to her.
“Do you think so?” Iris said, surprised. “I don’t find him like that at all. I think he’d make shoes for anyone, princess or peasant.”
“Maybe,” Dahlia said dryly, “but I suspect even he would draw the line at an elk.”
Which set Iris back off into giggles again. She’d ask him, next time she saw him: How would you feel about making a pair of shoes—two pairs of shoes!—for an elk? And watch for that hunted look creeping into his ravishingly serious brown eyes, betraying that he knew very well he was being baited and wasn’t quite sure whether to laugh at her or spank her. And was incredibly frustrated that he could do neither.
A loud snort distracted her. Oh dear. Lily had fallen asleep with her head on the table again. Lady Lambert wouldn’t like that. She wouldn’t like it at all.
Lady Lambert’s eyebrows drew together below that horrid wimple that she insisted on wearing even though the style had been passé for ten years. She drew herself up in her chair until she appeared taller even than Dahlia—which the petite woman definitely wasn’t. “Your Highness!” she boomed in outrage.
Lily jumped to her feet, eyes wild and hair collapsing all around her angelic face. “What? Which Highness? I haven’t been anywhere! It wasn’t me! I never touched him! Ouch!”
The last was, presumably, in response to Rose’s ungentle kick.
“Oh good heavens,” Lady Lambert uttered in disgust. “What is wrong with all of you today?”
“It’s the weather,” Dahlia soothed her. “It makes us tired and restless at the same time. Maybe we could stop early this afternoon? I have a shoe fitting.”
“Stop early? Some of you haven’t even begun! If Princess Iris has made one stitch, I’ll eat my wretched shoes!”
“Don’t be an old grump, Lady Lam,” Iris said, sliding off the window seat and throwing her embroidery joyfully onto the table. “It’s nearly dinnertime, and I, for one, am looking forward to bed.” Or at least to what came after…
“Oh yes,” Lily said fervently and hastily jerked her ankle out of Rose’s reach.
Before Lady Lambert could veto Iris’s clearly popular suggestion, they were saved by a knock on the door, heralding the entrance of Louis the footman, who bowed.
“Begging your pardon, Highnesses. Will Shoemaker is here and wonders if it’s convenient for the Princess Dahlia to have her new shoes fitted this afternoon?”
“Oh, wonderful!” Dahlia cried, spinning joyously until her blonde hair whipped across her face. “I didn’t think they’d be ready before tomorrow at the earliest. Tell Will to come in.”
Since Lady Lambert herself seemed to be easily soothed by the sight of Will’s shoes, Iris wondered if she could use the old dragon’s distraction to slip out into the rain. But then Will himself strode in, and she decided it would be more fun to stay here and tease him. Besides, there wasn’t really enough time before dinner with Father. He hated unpunctuality only slightly less than unnecessary expense.
Serves him right. He shouldn’t sell us like cattle.
She was aware the bitter thought wasn’t entirely fair. Princesses weren’t sold for hard cash but for political advantage, and she knew she should be glad to do this small service for her people. But still, the thought of being tied until death to some boor or spiteful old fool such as her older sisters had been obliged to marry just made her cringe inside. If she had to submit to that, as they had, then she’d damn well do all her living first. And all her swearing and yawning and teasing of cobblers.
She watched as Will bent his tall frame and knelt at her sister Dahlia’s feet. There was a collective holding of breath as he unveiled the new shoes from their enveloping tissue.
“Ooh,” Dahlia sighed. “These are gorgeous…”
Will inclined his head, turning one shoe in his large, capable hands to show her the heel. Dahlia nodded enthusiastically and thrust her foot forward with a little wiggle of eagerness.
Will took her foot between two fingers and placed it inside the sandal. Then he began to wind the ribbons around her ankle and lower calf. Iris felt her eyes widen. She wished she’d chosen shoes like those and had the chance to feel his rough, strong fingers on her leg like that… Her skin tingled as if she shared his touch with her sister. Her body heated with awareness and desire, as it would later on.
Fortunately, the door opened again with another distraction in the shape of Honeysuckle, her youngest sister, who tripped in with a tray of her latest baking. She loved cooking and used it to get out of afternoon embroidery. She was meant to be learning about supervising menus rather than indulging in any kind of manual labor, of course, but Iris knew she wound the cooks round her little finger and spent most afternoons up to her elbows in flour and fat and icing.
“Here comes the Queen of Tarts,” Iris said gaily, jumping up to see what treasures her sister had baked today. “Oh, yum, raspberry cakes.”
“Highness!” Lady Lambert cried. “Such language!”
Iris winked secretly at Honey. “Oh, she knows the kind of ‘tart’ I mean.”
Unfortunately, Will glanced up at the wrong moment, and she was sure he saw the wink. Ignoring him, she took one of the little cakes and bit into it. It melted in her mouth, and she closed her eyes.
“Mmmm…” She hoped Will was still watching. And perhaps he was, for when she opened her eyes again, he was standing up and his color was slightly heightened.
“Ah, Will,” she said. “Lily and I both need new shoes.”
He closed his eyes as though he really didn’t want the business. What was the matter with the man? They were making him rich!
“Walking shoes?” he said hopefully. “Some riding boots, perhaps?”
“Dancing shoes,” she corrected.
His eyes opened again, gazing directly into hers. “I’m already making you the new dancing shoes you requested last week, of the softest kid and embroidered with irises, as you wished.”
“Oh, they won’t last long,” she said carelessly. When his dark brows drew together, she added, “There’s bound to be dancing at the ambassador’s evening reception.”
He sighed a little too obviously. Why did he have to look so long-suffering? You’d think she was stealing his money rather than thrusting it into his pockets. The truth was, it piqued her.
He said wryly, “You must dance an awful lot, Highness.”
“Oh, I do,” she said seriously. “My sisters and I love to dance at every opportunity, and we practice with each other every day.”
“It’s practically the only genteel exercise open to ladies of our rank,” Pansy added.
Will muttered something under his breath. It sounded like, “I don’t suppose you’d consider doing it in your toughest riding boots?”
Amused, Iris said, “Pardon?”
“Nothing,” he said hastily. “Dancing shoes. For you and the lady Lily. Any particular requests?”
“Ooh, something with jewels,” Lily enthused. “Something that glitters in the dark. Don’t you dare kick me, Rose!”
“I’d like shoes similar to Dahlia’s,” Iris said. She bent to lift one. “Only…” She glanced up through her lashes at Will. “Could you make the laces longer?”
“But then they’d go—” He broke off, flushing.
“Exactly,” Iris murmured. She straightened, picked the last cake off Honey’s tray and popped it between Will’s parted lips. “Thank you!” And she breezed away toward the inner door that led to the dressing room and bedroom she shared with her sisters. She wished she could have waited to see the inevitable embarrassment chase the surprise from his stunned eyes. But it was time to change their dresses and then dine privately with their father. After which they could all be tucked up in bed. And then… And then…