Excerpt: Hunting a Lady

Jessa wiped the sweat from her brow before hunching her shoulders over the low wooden table and the deer hide laid out in front of her. The blade of her short, sharp knife glinted in the bright sunlight coming in through the door she’d propped open to release some of the stuffy fall air as she worked. She didn’t use her knife while stretching hides, so there was really no reason for her to have it out. But seeing it there, just within arm’s reach, made her feel better.

“You still working on that? Any other apprentice would have that hide stretched and ready to cut by now.”

Ignoring the gruff voice behind her was a lot easier said than done, especially when Brent put a heavy hand on the bare skin of her tanned shoulder. His fingers curled over her smooth muscles, and she shook her head, getting back to work.

“Can’t imagine why my uncle kept you around. No sane person would have a girl as an apprentice working under him. But maybe under a man is exactly where you belong.”

Brent moved his hand to the back of her neck, where the fine tendrils of dark hair that had escaped from her bun curled over her nape. Jessa shivered and bit the inside of her cheek to keep from snapping at him.

After taking a deep breath, she turned around to face him. Brent had to move to avoid getting hit by her knees as she got comfortable again on the rickety stool. “Sir.” The word hurt to say, but as her trade master, Brent was supposed to get at least that much respect from her. Too bad he hadn’t earned it. He was nothing like his uncle in that regard. “The hide needs to be stretched by this afternoon to make bracers for the order due next week. If I delay, the leather won’t have enough time to cure.” Jessa let the implication linger in her voice. Brent was taking up her time and they, meaning she, had an order to fill or else they’d lose the sale and risk word getting around that they couldn’t do it. They weren’t the only leatherworkers in Pierce, and even before her master died they’d been struggling to compete.

Brent took a step back and blinked as the sunlight hit his eyes. “All right. Get it done before supper or you don’t eat.”

Jessa nodded, expecting such a condition. Her previous master had said it often enough as well, although she’d never gone hungry in her three years of apprenticing under him. “Anything else?” she asked him when Brent hadn’t turned to leave her to her work.

He took a moment to reply, as if he was considering something. “My uncle’s price to train you. It wasn’t enough.”

She raised her dark eyebrows, waiting for him to go on.

“Your work is shoddy. I’ll have to work with you for much longer before you’re anywhere near being a journeyman. That’ll be time consuming.”

Jessa leaned forward over her knees as she met his gaze. “What are you saying?”

“I’m extending the duration of your apprenticeship by two years. And meals, board, and the other expenses that my uncle ignored because he was too soft on you will now come out of your share of the earnings,” he said sternly.

She jumped to her feet angrily. “That’s impossible!”

Brent gave her an arrogant smile and nodded toward the door. “Then leave. My uncle is dead and you’re a complication I don’t need. Leave, if you think someone else will take you in. I hear they’re hiring women in the capital, but it’s not the kind of work you’ll like—a lot less making armor and more taking it off of men… if you get my meaning.”

Yeah, Jessa got it all right. It made her blood boil that he’d even suggest that. “There’s got to be another way. You know I can’t afford what you’re asking me for.”

He sucked on his bottom lip, and Jessa had the sick feeling she’d regret what she just said. “I suppose you could buy your journeyman’s commission right now despite your deficiencies, if you could afford it, which we both know you can’t.” Nor would she be able to save for it, with him deducting all of her upkeep from her share of the earnings. “And, well, I wouldn’t normally offer this, but since you’re in a bind, and I can’t simply toss my uncle’s apprentice onto the street…”

“What is it?” she ground out, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Marry me.”

Jessa laughed before she caught sight of his expression and realized he was actually serious. “No,” she snapped at him. She barely knew Brent Harper, and what she did know of him, she didn’t like. Spending an hour in his presence was difficult enough, a lifetime with him in her life… in her bed… No. Just the thought of such a fate made her shudder.

Brent shrugged as if her response hardly mattered to him one way or the other. “Then come up with the money for your journeyman fees. Six gold, in my hand, or no deal.”

“And if I can’t get it?”

He gave her a slow once over that made her want to scrub herself raw in the river. “Then you either leave with nothing, or agree to marry me. Do wash up before coming in to eat,” he added. “You stink.”

Jessa glared at him until he’d left the workshop and she was once again alone. Only then did she let herself wilt a little, hunching over the filthy table and clenching her throat against the shiver of impending tears. This was it, then? Years of hard work, rising above the loss of her parents and the skepticism of society to win an apprenticeship and master a trade, and now at the end, she was to fail? Due to her new ‘master’s’ venality?

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