I placed a marker in the book and set it to the

“I placed a marker in the book and set it to the side. “I’ve warmed your chair for you,” I said cheekily.

He laughed and shooed me from the room, settling comfortably into his chair. I passed the room I shared with my sisters and saw Blye sitting on the bed, placing careful stitches into my shirt. The back panel didn’t look new, just smaller. I didn’t pause, not wanting to know what she had to do to fix it, and made my way to the kitchen. Bryn had the biscuits in the oven with the door slightly ajar so she could watch them brown. A knock sounded at the front door, and we stared at each other for a moment before she waved for me to answer it. I wished for my trousers as I pulled open the door.

“Benella,” said the baker. “Still lovely in your dress. Is your father home? I would like to speak with him.”

My legs shook. I knew the topic of conversation he wanted to have with my father but assured myself that Father understood my distaste of the man.

“Come in,” I managed without a quaver. I stepped aside and let him into the kitchen.

“Wait here, please.”

Leaving him to criticize Bryn’s biscuits, I tapped on Father’s door. Without waiting for his call to enter, I stepped in, quickly closing the door behind me.

Father looked up from his book in surprise. He still wore his jacket and simple neckcloth. Papers from his few students lay spread out on his desk.

“What is the matter, dearest?”

“He’s here,” I whispered in a panic. “The baker. He saw me in this senseless dress today.” I gave the skirt an agitated shake. “Now, he wants to speak with you.”

“Ah,” Father murmured distractedly. “Perhaps, once he’s in the study with me, you’d like to go for a long stroll and forego dinner?” I nodded emphatically, liking the way Father thought. The baker, now that he had come to state his intentions, would not leave easily.

I opened the door and called to the baker. Given the size of our small cottage, he had no trouble finding me. Despite stepping aside, he still brushed against me as he passed; and this time, I couldn’t suppress my shiver of revulsion. His low throaty chuckle drifted to me as I closed the door.

With a quick step, I checked on Blye’s progress, hoping to change before I left, but she still sat in the room placing careful stitches. In the kitchen, Bryn removed the biscuits from the oven.

“May I have one?” I asked, grabbing my bag from the hook.

She made no comment about my leaving, just wrapped a biscuit in a cloth and handed it over. I fled the cottage quietly, hoping the baker wouldn’t hear my escape.

The woods didn’t feel the same as I wandered beneath their swaying limbs. The skirts encircling my legs made passage difficult. I had to avoid stretching bramble and muddied paths and made far too much noise as I moved.

When I finally reached the spot in the estate wall where the rocks had fallen, I saw nothing to harvest. Though the walk had felt torturously long, I doubted enough time had passed to see the baker gone from the cottage. Deciding a walk in the dark didn’t bother me, I turned east to make a full circuit around the wall, but a sound to the west stopped me.

A creak of wood and the crush of gravel under iron drew me toward the gate where a cart fixed with a long pole like a mast waited. The gate stood open and the cart sat just outside of it. Had someone from the estate pushed it out? What a peculiar cart. I caught sight of a tangle of freshly shorn vines laying loose at the base of the pole and felt my stomach twist. The pole, the cart, the vines…I’d seen it all before when the men had attempted to sack the estate. They’d meant to tie the beast to it and burn him. Instead, they’d been run or thrown from the estate and had abandoned the wagon, which had been later retrieved by the smith.

Turning to flee, I crashed into something solid.

“Just the person we wanted to see,” Tennen murmured, clamping his hands down on my upper arms. “I thought you might run when the baker came calling.””