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.