A sweet fragrance brought Lena from her deep slumber to a state of awake. Her large blue eyes fluttered open, and she was delighted to see the modest array of colorful wildflowers that sat atop her small wooden nightstand.
She reached for the small square of parchment that sat beside the flowers and unfolded it. In simple, untrained script, it read “Happy Birthday Lena”.
Lena smiled to herself for a few moments, pondering how her love Gregory had managed to sneak them into the maids’ quarters the night before, let alone her small room to deliver her birthday surprise. She blushed at the mere thought of him seeing her while she slept.
Lena rose from her cot and took the three familiar steps toward her window, with a smile still on her face. Although she was merely a servant in a servant’s room, Lena felt that the view from her window was far superior to those of the wealthy family that she served. The views from their suites overlooked the rolling hills and expansive forests in the westernmost regions of the manor. But Lena’s, on the easternmost corner, overlooked the lake.
Lena closed her eyes and breathed in deep, taking in the crisp, cool scent of morning. A light breeze teased the smooth chestnut hair that cascaded down her back.
She recognized the familiar orange ray of light begin to appear off in the distance and across the water, and admired the gradual beauty of the sunrise that began to unfold.
With a pleasant sigh, Lena stepped away from the window, realizing the time had come to start her day.
“My goodness, child, you’re going to work yourself to death!” Marie exclaimed. Lena’s eyes widened, and she paused in her task of stripping the tapestries of the Crown guest suite.
“What do you mean? I always try to be efficient, Marie,” Lena replied. Marie shook her head, unbelieving, and walked over to the far wall to help her.
“There is something different about you today. I have never seen you work this fast in the all the years you have been living here. This wouldn’t have anything to do with tonight?” she asked knowingly. Lena began to blush.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you are talking about, Marie. I just like to do good work,” she replied pleasantly, absently rolling the tapestry she held.
The older woman took the tapestry from her, re-rolling it properly.
“So this doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that this is your eighteenth birthday, and that stable boy’s plans to enjoy you on the first night of your womanhood?” she asked. Lena’s pale cheeks turned scarlet.
“That is positively improper! However…I suspect that Gregory might propose tonight,” she replied, unable to hide her blissful smile.
Marie smiled at the young girl, unable to resist her sweet, pleasant disposition.
“I knew he was a respectable young boy. A very smart match for you. Congratulations darling,” Marie said, embracing the young girl that had become much like a daughter to her over the years.
“Thank you Marie,” Lena replied happily.
After releasing her, the two chambermaids continued to remove the tapestries. Once finished, new oil paintings were hung in their place. New linens and down quilts were added to the large bed that dominated the sleeping room, and new rugs were placed on the carpeted floors of the lounge outside of the double doors of the bedroom.
“Why the sudden need for redecorating?” Lena asked eventually.
“For the ball tonight, of course! Dozens of Master Sterling’s friends will be staying for the next week, and he thought it best to decorate each suite of his most noble guests with schemes to suit their individual tastes,” Marie explained.
Lena regarded the new suite, unsure if she liked the way it was decorated. Before, it had been light and open and warm. But now, dark colors and intense paintings dominated the formerly pleasant quarters. Lena frowned at the angry looking tiger pelt that sat in the middle of the floor of the lounge.
“Who is staying in here?” she asked.
“Some German lord, his name escapes me. Why do you ask?” Marie replied. Lena shrugged her narrow shoulders.
“Must be a very pleasant man, is all,” she answered, slightly giggling.
Marie and Lena refurnished an additional four suites before retreating to the kitchens so that the cleaning maids could do their work. The cooks were busy with preparing the feast for the evening, and Marie had to argue with Leonardo, the head chef, just to obtain a loaf and some cheese.
“You really must eat something. You are much too skinny,” Marie mentioned, as the two women sat outside for lunch. Lena shook her head, bright smile still on her face.
“I can’t! I am too excited!” she replied sheepishly. Marie smiled fondly at the young girl.
“I remember being your age with my first love. It’s a wonderful feeling,” Marie replied.
“With Mr. Landley?” she asked. Marie’s eyes widened.
“Oh, heavens no! I met my husband years later. No, this was a farm boy from the village where I grew up. Dominic,” Marie answered, remembering.
“What happened to him?” Lena asked. Marie paused before answering.
“He went off to sea, intent on finding a fortune for us. I never saw him again. I love my husband, he gave me my beautiful daughters, but…there’s no one quite like your first,” Marie said.
Lena noticed that Marie had become somewhat saddened.
“What time will the guests begin arriving?” Lena asked, hoping to change the subject. Marie closed her eyes and shook away the feeling of sadness before answering.
“At sundown. We should probably head back inside to finish preparing. Although…”
Lena looked at Marie expectantly.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I am fairly certain that the stable boys are grooming the horses right about now. And we are slightly ahead of schedule because you were so efficient earlier,” Marie began. Lena’s eyes widened in joy, and she embraced Marie in gratitude.
“Thank you, Marie! You are good to me!” she said, standing up.
“Be quick, girl!” Marie encouraged, lightly slapping her on her bottom. Lena quickly darted down the hill, towards the stables.
She found Gregory brushing Cobalt, a black stallion. She admired him for a few moments, with his long, lean body, messy blonde hair, and tanned skin. She thought he was very handsome.
He finally looked in her direction, and he smiled broadly.
“Why my lovely little Lena,” Gregory said warmly. Lena rushed over to him, and he opened his arms to receive her, and spun her around.
“Thank you so much for the flowers,” she said happily. Gregory gently brushed away a stray tendril that had found its way to her face.
“Happy birthday love,” he whispered, gently kissing her cheek.
“I know we said we would wait until tonight, but I just couldn’t wait to see you,” Lena exclaimed happily. Gregory chuckled.
“Always the eager girl, Lena. I’m actually very glad you stopped by. There is something I have been meaning to talk to you about,” Gregory began.
Lena settled down and did her best to appear serious and mature. Gregory released her hands and lead Cobalt back to his stall before beginning to speak.
“I have been courting you for many months now, and…we have reached the point where we need to make decisions about our future,” Gregory mentioned, taking her hand. Lena nodded, feeling her heart begin to rapidly pound in her chest.
“I have set some money aside, and although I will never be as wealthy as Master Sterling, I do have modest means for a wedding, and eventually a family,” he continued. Lena nodded, trying her best not to burst with excitement.
“Do you understand what I’m saying, Lena?” Gregory asked. Lena nodded, but she couldn’t find her words.
“I want to get married,” Gregory said seriously. Tears began to form in Lena’s eyes, and she stood on her tiptoes and wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Oh, Gregory, I’d love to marry you!” Lena squealed.
Gregory gently kissed her forehead.
“Lena, dear…I didn’t mean I want to marry you,” he said. Lena froze.
“B-but you said—”
“I said I wanted to get married, love. To Eleanor Smith. I proposed to her this morning,” Gregory explained. Lena took a few steps backward, and began feeling as if the world were spinning.
“But…you said you love me. Do you love her?” she asked. Gregory sighed.
“Lena, you’re a beautiful girl. The prettiest I’ve ever seen. You’re vivacious, passionate, and delightfully innocent. But Eleanor is older; she has seen more of the world. She…fulfills those needs you cannot. And I love her,” Gregory said.
Lena felt a ringing in her ears, and sick began to build up in her throat.
“You’ve been intimate with her this entire time,” she murmured.
“I won’t lie to you. Yes,” he replied. Lena put her hand on her forehead.
“But…it’s my birthday,” Lena said, unsure of what else to say. The tears were falling freely now, forming rivers down her flushed cheeks.
Gregory walked over to her, and placed a hand on her trembling shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Lena,” he said, kissing her forehead once more.
He left her then, and Lena was alone with the horses in the stables. She felt as if someone had punched her deep in the gut, and before she knew what she was doing, the sick she felt building up in her throat finally spilled over, and she sank to her knees and emptied the contents of her stomach on the floor of the stable.
Gregory had never loved her. He had just been amusing himself with her. But now he was ready for someone serious. And she just wasn’t good enough.
Lena began sobbing once more. Each time she tried to stop crying, a fresh set of tears would spill from her eyes. She’d never felt more alone, and had never been betrayed by a person this way before. No one had prepared her.
Lena did her best to keep her emotions under control once the guests started arriving for the ball. She bathed, and dressed in her formal black uniform with white lace.
She tried to be pleasant to the guests that arrived, showing them to their suites and taking care of additional accommodations, but all she really wanted to do was cry.
“I hear the guests are very pleased with the rooms. You and Marie have done well, Lena,” Master Sterling said. Lena couldn’t help but smile at him. He was a kindly, older man that had taken her in when she was orphaned as a young toddler. Her mother had been a maid, and her father’s identity was never known. After the death of her mother, Sterling had made sure Lena always had a place at his manor.
“Thank you, sir,” Lena said politely.
“It is a busy time for me, with my acquisition and my son’s engagement, but…well here,” Sterling said, handing her a small box. Lena temporarily forgot about how much pain she was in, and her smile widened.
“Master Sterling,” she began, touched by the gesture. Sterling smiled at the girl.
“You know I would never forget what day it is today. Go ahead, open it up!” he encouraged. Lena opened the box, delighting in what was inside. It was a lovely, pale blue hair ribbon.
“Thank you so much sir!” Lena exclaimed, bowing slightly.
“I hoped that would put a smile on your face, I know how much you adore those. I need to hurry on to the party dear, but run upstairs and turn down the noble suites?” he asked. Lena nodded.
“Of course, sir. Thank you very much!” Lena said again. Sterling nodded, and left for the grand hall.
Once she was alone, Lena began feeling hurt again. She tried to shake away the feeling and focus on her duties, so she took the long walk to the western wing of the manor, which contained the noble suites.
Lena entered the Crown suite, trying her hardest to keep from crying. She realized she was still holding the gift from Master Sterling, and she walked into the bathroom of the suite to put it on.
She released her hair from the tight bun it was in, allowing it to flow down her back. She tied the ribbon as a band around the top of her head. She liked the way it looked, and smiled weakly at her reflection.
Lena put the box in the pocket of her white lace apron and exited the bathroom, crossed the lounge, and opened the double doors to the bedroom.
She wrinkled her nose in distaste at the sight of the painting depicting a storm that hung above the bed. The bed was inviting, however, with its rich dark tones and fine fabrics.
She began removing the decorator pillows and replacing them with sleeping pillows stuffed with goose down feathers. She turned down the sheets and comforter, trying not to think of everything Gregory had said to her earlier that afternoon.
Eventually, she couldn’t contain her emotions any longer, and Lena began to cry. She felt a very physical pain in her heart, and felt like she might get sick again. But in that moment, she didn’t care.
Lena was sobbing so loud that she didn’t even realize there was a second person in the room.
“Now why is a girl as lovely as you crying?” a deep male voice said. Lena hiccupped in surprise and quickly wiped her face, trying to locate the speaker.
He was standing in the doorway in white tie. He was tall and incredibly masculine, well-built and powerful looking. He had thick black hair, faintly peppered with gray at his temples, that was held together at the back of his neck. Thick, dark, expressive eyebrows sat atop deep-set, steel gray eyes. His jaw and chin were broad and hard. To Lena, he looked dangerously handsome.
“I’m so sorry sir, I was just…preparing the rooms for bed. I did not know you would be here so early,” she stammered. He slowly stepped closer to her, and Lena began feeling incredibly diminutive in comparison to him.
“It’s no problem, really. What is your name?” he asked. His steely eyes seemed to see right through her, and she began feeling uncomfortable.
“Lena,” she replied.
“Pleasure to meet you, Lena. I’m Renz,” he said. Lena curtseyed.
“I apologize for disturbing you, sir. I will leave—”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Renz interrupted. Lena’s eyes widened.
“Pardon?” she asked. Renz smiled, and removed his jacket.
“I said, you are not going anywhere. You, Lena, are going to tell me what made a beautiful girl like you cry. And I am going to do whatever I can to help,” he said softly. Lena shook her head.
“Sir, that is very kind of you, but I really have to finish turning down the rooms,” Lena answered.
“Just for a few minutes, Lena. Why were you crying?” Renz asked.
Lena couldn’t hold it inside anymore, and she began to cry a fresh set of tears. Renz stepped in close and pulled her against his torso, wrapping his arms around her small body. She was feeling too sad to protest, and didn’t even think of how inappropriate the situation was.
“There there, sweetheart…what happened?” Renz asked, tenderly stroking her back.
“M-my beau…the man that I thought loved me…he’s in love with s-someone else! And he proposed to her this morning…and it’s my birthday today!” Lena cried. Renz gently stroked her hair.
“Why happy birthday, Lena. How old did you turn today?” he asked. Lena sniffled.
“Eighteen, sir,” she replied.
“Such a tender young age. What kind of man would dare break your heart this way?” Renz asked. Lena began to cry harder.
“H-he said that…I’m immature and c-can’t fulfill his needs,” Lena sobbed.
Renz gently lead her to the cushion at the foot of the bed, beckoning her to sit down.
“Wait right here,” Renz said, quickly exiting the bedroom and closing the double doors behind him.
His brief departure allowed Lena to return to rational thinking. What was she doing? He was a guest of Master Sterling, and she was crying to him about her love problems. Surely she would be dismissed if Sterling ever found out…
Renz walked in, interrupting her thoughts. He was carrying a bottle of champagne and two glasses. He kneeled in front of her where she sat on the cushion and poured two glasses, handing one to her. He still seemed large, even though he was kneeling in front of her.
“Drink this,” he said softly. Lena shook her head.
“I’ve never had champagne before,” she admitted sheepishly. Renz chuckled.
“Just try it. You might enjoy it. I insist,” Renz said. Lena took a tentative sip, enjoying the light, sweet, bubbly flavor.
“That’s it…have a bit more,” he urged. Lena took a few more confident sips, and pretty soon had finished the glass.
Renz handed her his glass, which she took a sip of.
“It sounds to me like this man was completely unworthy of a woman like you,” Renz said. Lena’s brow furrowed.
“What do you mean? He’s…beautiful. He works in the stables…with the ponies and the…horses,” Lena said, finding it strangely more difficult to speak. She was beginning to experience an odd sort of dizziness she’d never felt before.
“Lena, I can already tell you’re a very vibrant girl. You deserve someone as equally passionate as you are. Someone who will also delight in guiding you,” Renz suggested. Lena shrugged her shoulders clumsily, spilling a bit of the champagne.
“I am so sorry, sir. Is this what it means to feel drunk?” Lena asked. Renz laughed, hard.
“No, darling, I don’t think you’re drunk yet. But perhaps you are a little tipsy. Tell me, have you eaten anything recently?” he asked. Lena shook her head, realizing she actually hadn’t eaten anything all day.
“Perhaps I should…go to my room. No I have to finish turning down the beds. But after, I think I should sleep,” Lena said, words slurring, beginning to stand up. Renz grabbed her by her tiny waist and sat her back down on the cushion.
“You’re not leaving,” Renz said calmly. This made Lena frown.
“Why not?” she asked. Renz smiled warmly at her, beginning to play with her hair at the center of her back.
“Because I’m not finished with you yet. How long were you involved with this stable worker?” Renz asked.
“Six months,” Lena replied. Renz nodded.
“And might I ask…how far did you progress in physical intimacy in these six months?” he pressed. Lena began to blush, and tried to stand up from the cushion. Renz, however, grabbed her waist again, and kept her locked where she sat. She squirmed a bit, completely unaware of the increasing rise in her skirt.
“You…it is not seemly to ask such things, sir. I really best be going,” she said.
“Not very far then, I take it. Did he ever even kiss you, sweet Lena?” he pressed. Lena automatically shook her head.
“You poor girl. Eighteen years old, and never even properly kissed,” he murmured sympathetically.
“Sir, I think I should leave. Thank you for the champagne,” Lena said softly, becoming increasingly dizzy. She tried to stand up once more, but Renz had a solid grip on her waist.
Her heart pounded in her chest as he moved forward on his knees, and squeezed her waist tighter. Lena bit her lower lip and stared into the gray eyes that were boring into her.
“Let me stand, please sir,” Lena whispered quietly. Renz continued staring at her.
“No, Lena. You’re staying here,” he replied simply. Lena shook her head, growing increasingly fearful.
“Sir I have to finish the rooms before the guests retire for the evening,” she protested, trying to pry his hands off of her.
“No one will notice. And they will not be back for a very long while. We are alone, Lena,” Renz said softly, bringing his face closer to hers.
“Sir, stop that. Not any closer, please,” Lena pleaded, pressing her hands against his wide shoulders. Renz curled his fingers in her hair and pulled her face closer to his.
“That ribbon makes your eyes look…so blue,” he murmured. And with that, he pressed his lips against hers.
Lena sat there wide-eyed as she felt his lips begin to move on hers. She was frozen in fear, unsure of how she was supposed to react. She felt him run his tongue along her lips, and instinctively, Lena opened her mouth. She gasped when he sank his tongue into her mouth, and trembled when she felt it chasing hers.