Chapter 7: Reparations

In many quarters, there is no such thing as a kusire. An unwed man remains a besire until the day he dies. — Klaus de Hakrin, The Standards of Tarsan

Lily hummed to herself as she unrolled the fabric for Nirih’s dress across a large table in the back of her store. The light material easily covered the rod-long surface before slumping off the far end. With practiced grace, she set down the weights as she pictured the pattern she would cut out.

Among all of her current projects, Nirih’s dress was the most important. The girl’s parents would ensure that she was seen everywhere it mattered, that her name was announced in the perfect moments of calm, and that every step she took would be in the full view of the upper echelons of High Society. For one night, Lily’s work would be draped over the the center of attention.

With a sigh, Lily reached over and plucked her wineglass from the table. It was heavy despite being half-full, the glass was weighted to avoid tipping and she had just opened the bottle. It was a good year, moderate in cost and light to the taste, but she liked to make the bottle last an entire night of sewing. Sewing drunk never worked.

She glanced at the fabric. The pattern wavered in her head for a moment as she imagined the cloth draping over Nirih’s body. With a steady hand, she began to block out the shapes and lines with a stick of chalk. When she made a mistake or changed her mind, she would use her pinkie finger to erase it before redrawing the line.

The initial design was easy, most dresses had the same basic construction. It wasn’t until she got into the details, how the fabric would accent Nirih’s breasts or cling to her shoulders, that Lily found herself doubting her own skill. The gravity of her situation, the force of a thousand imagined eyes, made it hard to concentrate because every line had to be perfect.

She struggled with each part, working through the patterns in both her head on fabric. The world slipped away, lost in a haze of shifting lines, smeared chalk, and the steadily decreasing level of wine in her glass.

It wasn’t until hours later that she had just redone the collar at least a dozen times. Each time, the lines didn’t feel right. She tried the classic patterns and the more modern ones, but they wouldn’t accent Nirih’s shape in a way that felt right to Lily. Something was off but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

With a hiss, she stared at the dusty fabric for a long moment while rolling the stick in her hand. She knew what she thought would work, a cowl collar instead of a scoop or even a square, but it wasn’t traditional for a mother like Djulian. In fact, it would be somewhat shocking since it hid more than showed the girl’s beauty. On the other hand, her gut feeling was that it would emphasize the right parts and the exoticness of the collar was different enough to draw attention.

Lily hated her decision. Her dress was only one part of Nirih’s presentation, there were milliners and shoes and makeup and even perfumes. The lace businesses. Different combinations over the days would accumulate into finding a husband.

High Society was also superstitious. If Nirih found a wealthy mate, then every business that supplied her outfits would benefit as the next year’s debutantes would flock to them in hopes of stealing a bit of that luck.

Likewise, if the presentation went disastrously, such as Lily’s own, then business could dry up. Nine years ago, a seamstress and a milliner closed their doors in part because of Lily’s trouble.

It was cruel to have so many businesses hanging off the actions of a few teenage girls, but that was the nature of lace businesses. They needed to be associated with enough good marriages to weather the bad showing. The richer businesses could be more selective of their clientele, but Lily didn’t have the years of history behind her to avoid risky projects.

Lily sighed and erased the collar again. She started to draw out another scoop but changed her mind and drew a cowl instead. It felt better to her but still wasn’t it. Even as she marked out the pattern, she imagined herself explaining to Djulian about the choice. The conversation in her head quickly turned sour. Unwilling to keep herself distracted, Lily redirected her thoughts to her new home.

She had moved in only a few days before and it still felt like an ill-fitted corset. She couldn’t get the bathroom decorated right and the bedroom smelled wrong. Thanks to Hasan’s workers, both rooms had been painted over twice. While she worked on the dress, they were painting the upper bathroom a third time and finding a new set of fixtures for the bedroom cabinets; Lily didn’t want to be a burden but Hasan noticed her discomfort and insisted in his usual intense manner.

She smiled to herself. It was nice having him doting over her. There hadn’t been many men interested in her that she found herself craving the moments when he reached out and stroked her hand. She loved when he scooted his chair closer to hers just so they could touch as they worked through ledgers, estimates, or designs.

The fact Hasan was married bothered her. She wanted more, to invite him to stay for dinner or let the touching growing more heated, but it was improper with a marriage bracelet around his wrist. Despite that, she found herself silently begging him to push even further, to press his firm body against her own and to kiss her.

Her body warmed up at her thoughts. She could feel it tingling along her inner thighs and along her sex. They both wanted it, that was clear. The bracelet was the only thing keeping them apart. She hoped that it would remain between them, she didn’t know if she could say no if he actually kissed her.

Lily rolled the chalk in her hand, the dress momentarily forgotten. Her breath came out in short gasps as she tried to picture his lips against her shoulder. Would he kiss as intensely as he looked at her? Would it be firm hands that grabbed her and pushed her against the wall? Or would he be gentle and delicate, trailing over her skin with fingertips and heated breath?

With a start, she realized she was grinding her hips against the edge of the table. She felt hot and slick, excited without another lover to touch her. With a whimper, she clutched the chalk stick and tried to pull her thoughts out of the dark.

The chalk snapped.

Lily gasped and let the pieces drop from her palm. She planted her fingers against the fabric and pushed herself away. She had a dress to make, she had to concentrate.

There was a creak near the front door, muted through the archway leading into her working area.

She jumped and pushed back, a blush burning on her cheeks as she imagined some stranger seeing her humping the edge of the table with some fantasy. “H-Hello?”

No one answered.

“May I help you?”

She felt a little foolish assuming there was someone in the front room of the store. She straightened her back and groaned as sore muscles protected the movement. Working on dresses was hard on the body, hours of bending over a table or the tedious hours of embroidering left little aches and pains to greet her day.

Lily rubbed her eyes and headed toward the front. “Hello? Who’s there?”

When she saw a man standing just inside the store, she jumped back with a gasp.

He stood there in a black suit, a bowler on his head and his hands held behind his back. It was like a military posture with square shoulders and a straight back. Behind him, the light from a few carriages cast his entire body in darkness as they passed. “Hello, Lily.”

It was Kendrick.

Her heart thumped loudly. With a shaking hand, she reached over and ran her finger along the stalk of a lamp.

It brightened up the room, revealing his broad shoulders straining his jacket, the dark scruff of his beard, and even the way his muscular legs seemed to straightened out his trousers. His body was taut, almost vibrating, as he kept his position.

Lily’s fantasies couldn’t help but rise up. One man was still on her mind while the other stood in front of her. She noticed differences as the seconds stretched out between them. Hasan was slender and lithe compared to Kendrick’s muscular hardness. The blond administrator was closely shaved, soft in just the right places when her hand accidentally touched him. Kendrick looked more primal, with dark eyes barely visible underneath the brow of his hat and the way his body flexed as he stood there.

She gulped and felt the welcoming surge of heat rising up inside her. Both were beautiful. She wanted to know how Kendrick would kiss compared to Hasan.

Her exhaustion made it hard to concentrate. She turned her head slightly to clear her thoughts before speaking to him. “Kendrick… I wasn’t expecting you.”

Kendrick chuckled and shrugged, his hands still clasped behind him. “Life has been a bit chaotic. I wanted to see you.” He let out a long breath. “Years ago, actually but a few days ago also. I left in… a bit of a hurry and made a mess.”

She gulped, sweat beading her brow. “H-Has… someone said you were in prison.”

Kendrick cocked his head. The smile never left his lips but it grew harder. His eyes seemed to gather in the darkness for a moment and the smell of the ocean wafted through the air. “Word gets around, doesn’t it?”

“Not much, but I heard that.”

“Yeah, everyone is afraid the brat is going to ruin things. You’d think nine years would be enough. As soon as I come back, they assume I haven’t changed.”

“No, I didn’t mean—”

“I know what you mean, Lily. I’ve been followed since the day I got off that boat. There are three of them just outside, two to the right and one to the left.” He nodded with his head as he spoke.

“Martins?”

Kendrick looked at the store front, giving her a profile of his face. His beard was a little longer than before, dark hair covering his strong jaw. “Sorry about the mess last time. I was very rude for… I was rude.”

Lily tensed. “To me?”

A smile and he glanced at her. Her body tingled with the look. “You broke a bottle of wine over my head.”

“You ruined my life.”

As soon as she said it, she knew it was probably the wrong thing. She gulped and tried to build up the courage to take it back but Kendrick turned back to her. He brought one hand from behind his back, there was a bottle between two rough fingers. “Maybe I can replace the bottle?”

Lily’s heart beat faster. She struggled to keep a tremble from shaking her body. “It was empty,” she whispered.

“This one isn’t.” He held it up. “Reparations for ruining your store?”

She considered him for a moment. He still wore the same ill-fitted suit from before, but the hat was new. He also had fresh scars on the hand holding the bottle, the red scab looked like a sword cut of some sort.

Hasan had told her Kendrick was trouble. Every night, he reminded her not to talk to the dark-haired man. But standing in front of Kendrick, Lily remembered the stolen kiss and the way Kendrick held her in the gazebo years ago. He had a powerful grip, demanding but gentle at the same time. Would he still have it?

“Just in case the Merlon 1490 didn’t appeal to you, I also brought a Larvin 1508.” Kendrick held out a second bottle. His thumb had been bandaged and there was a crimson spot at the middle. The hardness in his eyes disappeared in a flash and he favored her with a smile.

She hesitated but then nodded. “I do.”

Lily went to her desk and picked up two fresh glasses. When she turned around, he was sitting in one of her chairs with a small table between them. With a tiny sigh of relief, she slipped into the other one. She didn’t know if she could handle being close to him; it was hard enough to resist Hasan when they sat next to each other.

As Kendrick uncorked and poured the glasses, she spoke up.

“Where are you staying now?”

“An inn near the docks. It isn’t very clean or,” he pulled a face, “or quiet. But the keeper owed me a favor and I needed a place.”

He finished pouring her glass with a twist of his wrist. A single drop of red wine splashed into the glass, leaving ripples radiating out.

“You can’t stay at your father’s?”

Kendrick chuckled. “My father moved back to the country after… us.”

“It wasn’t—”

He held up his hand. “I brought shame on my family, I know that. But I’m not here for that, I’m here to pay back the wine.” He smiled and she felt heat radiate along her stomach. He had a brilliant smile.

Kendrick poured a second glass. When he finished, he twisted the bottle again but this time the last droplet of wine hovered in air just a heartbeat too long before splashing. He set down the bottle and handed her one of the glasses.

She took it but his fingers weren’t out of the way.

Lily parted her lips with surprise as their hands slipped against each other. Rough skin against her delicate fingers sent a thrill coursing along her body, adding to the heat and the flush that colored her cheeks. She gulped and stared at him, watching as he sipped at the glass before setting it down.

“I heard some wines need a few more years than normal to grow up,” he said as he leaned toward her.

The table between them didn’t seem large enough. She could feel his heat in the air and his breath against her skin. It smelled of ocean and surf, a hint of the magic that he could use.

Lily’s heart beat faster. She lifted her lips, tasting the wine in the air.

Kendrick’s breath heated her lips. They tingled from the wash of air. She could feel his presence even though they weren’t touching, every inch of his body somehow beating against her body.

“Ken…?”

“Seven years in that damn prison,” he whispered. “All that time, the only thing I could do was find the words to apologize for what I had done.”

Lily’s breath came faster, tiny pants as she felt pinned by his words. She need to escape, but her body refused to move. Instead, she stood there and stared into his dark, brown eyes.

“I was going to find you and come to your house. To ask you to forgive me and to wish your husband the best of luck.”

“I…”

Kendrick frowned. “But you weren’t married. I don’t know how that happened, but I know it was my fault. I didn’t… I didn’t mean for that to happen. It wasn’t supposed to be what happened. You weren’t supposed to be alone.”

“It was the only… only thing I could do,” she whispered back, afraid to break the tension that stretched between them.

He licked his lips and leaned closer until they were only inches away from each other.

She trembled at his closeness. Her cheeks burned and she wanted to just throw herself at him, to close the gap. Inches away felt like miles.

Suddenly, his eyes darkened even more. Kendrick pulled back sharply. “No.”

Lily almost slipped from the chair. Her breath coming out in a rush.

“I won’t ruin your life again,” he said in a hard tone. He surged out of his seat and rushed to the door.

Lily held up her hand, trying to find the words to stop him.

The door closed shut with a crack.

Kendrick was nothing but a dark blur of movement as he crossed the street and walked out of sight.

She took a deep breath, struggling with her emotions. She gulped and looked down at the glass in her hand. With a start, she looked around for the other but it was gone. He had taken it

For a long moment, she stared at the empty spoke that he had just vacated. It felt like someone had been torn out of her and she wondered why both Kendrick and Hasan were back in her life.

A suited man with a Martin crest ran across the front of her store, crossing the street as he did. He disappeared after Kendrick.

Lily wondered what Kendrick did to upset the Martin family. But then she reminded herself that she had a dress to make. Picking up the other bottle, she carried it and the glass back into her work area.

She’d have a few hours of pretending not to think about either Kendrick or Hasan. She was doomed to failure but at least she could struggle with Nirih’s dress while she dreamed of both men.