The Rose Master (Valentina Cano)
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The Rose Master, Book 1
The day Anne Tinning turns seventeen, birds fall from the sky. But that’s hardly the most upsetting news. She’s being dismissed from the home she’s served at since she was a child, and shipped off to become the newly hired parlor maid for a place she’s never heard of. And when she sees the run-down, isolated house, she instantly knows why:
There’s something wrong with Rosewood Manor.
Staffed with only three other servants, all gripped by icy silence and inexplicable bruises, and inhabited by a young master who is as cold as the place itself, the house is shrouded in neglect and thick with fear. Her questions are met with hushed whispers, and she soon finds herself alone in the empty halls, left to tidy and clean rooms no one visits.
As the feeling of being watched grows, she begins to realize there is something else in the house with them–some creature that stalks the frozen halls and claws at her door. A creature that seems intent on harming her.
When a fire leaves Anne trapped in the manor with its Master, she finally demands to know why. But as she forces the truth about what haunts the grounds from Lord Grey, she learns secrets she isn’t prepared for. The creature is very real, and she’s the only one who can help him stop it.
Now, Anne must either risk her life for the young man she’s grown to admire, or abandon her post while she still can.
“In this Gothic fantasy, Cano evokes both Beauty and the Beast and Jane Eyre while creating something new and strange. Cano does a beautiful job of setting mood and atmosphere, and her characters dance around one another with relentless industry and brooding allure, fighting their inevitable attraction. This is a strong, satisfying effort.” ~Publishers Weekly on THE ROSE MASTER
|Dimensions||5.25 x 8 x 0.44520 in|
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Read The First Chapter
The day I turned seventeen, birds fell from the sky. A flock of them seemed to cross an invisible line, a boundary of packed winter breezes that wrapped them up in a coat of ice, freezing whatever kernel of magic allowed them power over the air. In great chunks, like collapsing hair, they let out feathery sighs and gave in to the fall.
I was out in the courtyard, clearing a pathway through the new snow, huffing at the chill picking away at my bones. I was distracted by strange thoughts and did not see what was happening in the early dawn. Only when I began to hear the soft thuds did I turn.
Mounds of black down spotted the white courtyard. My hands flew to my mouth to cover a yelp of surprise. There were so many birds!
I hiked up my skirt, ignoring the wet hem flapping against my calves, and ran to the nearest bird to see if I could help. My footsteps crunched in the snow that piled around the indentation made by the black feathers.
A crow. A large one, with wings like melted coal, and a satin sheen to its beak that tempted my fingertips.
“Oh, you poor thing. What happened? What happened to all of you?” I looked around at the other bodies scattered in the snow. I’d never seen this before; nothing remotely like it.
I knelt beside the still figure and reached out a hand steadied by hours spent plucking larger creatures. I knew what a bird’s blood looked like, smelled like, felt like under my hands. The twist of their necks, like a cracking piece of chalk, was a familiar one.
I stretched out a finger and stroked one feather. The bird let out a grey cry and scurried up, allowing its talons to grip the packed cold beneath them. It shook its head and turned its eyes toward me. I was too stunned to be frightened; all I could do was stare into its orbs—pits that shone with the knowledge of flight and wind currents, that knew rain and ice intimately.
I don’t know how much time passed before the bird looked away, breaking the connection. I turned my head and saw the rest of the fallen creatures waking from their sudden slumber. One by one, they dipped their wings, seeming to churn the air around them, and lifted off once again into the London morning.
My name shook through the small yard and dragged me away from the feathers and snow. I turned to Elsie, who stood by the open kitchen door, one hand holding her cap, fussing with it, pulling it and stretching it.
“Anne, come on. Lady Caldwell is calling for you.”
I stood, brushed my moist hands with the inside of my skirt and trod to the open door.
“Did you see the birds?” I asked her as I passed into the bustling warmth of the kitchen.
“What birds?” Elsie pushed her cap down onto her head, tucking her light bun underneath it. She lifted a silver platter to her face and peered into its surface. “Is this on straight? Her ladyship reprimanded me yesterday for its ‘unpleasant angle.’ I wish I could advise her of a few ‘unpleasant’ things about herself.”
I moved to her and waved my hand toward her head. She brought it down to my hands and I tucked in some loose threads of her hair, spreading the edge of the cap in a fan of lace.
“You didn’t see the birds, then?”
“All I’ve seen this morning is the inside of the linen cabinet. Only the Good Lord knows why Her Rotundness needs every sheet refolded before she even dresses. She’s still dawdling in her bedchamber, giving orders and dirtying teacups.” She grimaced. “She wants you up there, though, so you’d better go. Wouldn’t want to keep her waiting in her cozy chamber.”
She pulled away from me, managing in her movement to shift the carefully placed headdress. Pushing the image of the birds away, I smiled at her turned back and groaned.
“I suppose I must.” I looked out the window. “Any idea what she might want? She’s always coming up with impossible requests. A few days ago, she wanted artichoke hearts. Where in the bloody hell am I supposed to get artichoke hearts in the middle of winter?”
I scrubbed my hands with a wet cloth and shrugged at my untrimmed fingernails.
“Maybe she wants to congratulate you on surviving another year.” Elsie smiled at me. “How does it feel to be seventeen?”
“Well, when my fairy godmother appears and grants me all my heart’s desires, I’ll let you know.” I lifted my head and winked at Elsie. “Perhaps I’ll even meet a handsome stranger and fall in love. We’ll live happily ever after in a place where there is no silver to polish.”
Elsie barked out a laugh and shooed me off into the hall. As I stepped out, she turned to me again.
“Wait, what were you saying about the birds?”
“Oh, it was nothing. Forget it.”
I bounced down the hall and headed for her Ladyship’s rooms.
My footsteps thumped lightly on the wooden floors, their surface shining like water. I wondered what the Mistress could possibly want with me so early in the day. It couldn’t be a good thing, that was certain. I passed the overstuffed sitting room with its large chairs, their bulk swallowing the room like gigantic brown mushrooms. A hideous room, but one I knew very well. I’d dusted every arm on each porcelain figurine; I’d polished the silver decanters until I thought I would die from the nausea; and I’d rubbed at the dark wood for hours, making sure the surfaces became smooth mirrors under my hands. I could have described every object and its exact placement much better than her Ladyship, and yet, nothing in there belonged to me. It never would.
I grasped the stair’s banister without thought. Two steps later, I yanked my hand back.
“Damn it.” I cursed under my breath. I looked around, but there was no one nearby. I listened and heard the chattering voices of the cook and two scullery maids, their piping tones vibrating through the wood around me. Lifting the edge of my clean apron, I scrubbed the fingerprints off the banister. You would think after living under the weight of domestic service my whole life, I’d be able to keep my hands to myself. I peered at the wood and smiled. No evidence of my presence remained.
With a sigh, I clutched my hands together behind my back to keep them from further insubordination, and moved with sure steps up the winding staircase. At the top, I took a moment to catch my breath before knocking on Lady Caldwell’s door. It would not do to gasp out syllables in her presence; she might think it an impropriety. She seemed under the impression that if someone’s heartbeat clopped along at a quicker pace than her own sedentary one, her honor was called into question. Crazy old witch.
I gathered myself, checked my uniform for untucked hems or loose strings, and then knocked once, softly.
“Enter.” Her hoarse voice reached me through the coffin-like door. I rolled my eyes and opened it.
“Anne, it’s very kind of you to grace me with your presence. I only asked for you half an hour ago.”
I curtsied. “I beg your pardon, your Ladyship. I was delayed.”
“When I ask for something, it must be brought at once. You should know better, Anne.”
“Yes, your Ladyship.” I curtsied again, trying to keep from toppling over. I’d never been much good at curtsying.
A long moment of silence followed. Lady Caldwell fussed with her powders and creams, opening and closing jars that promised much more than they could ever grant. Her size always amazed me, no matter how many years I’d been coming in and out of her presence. She was a large woman, every aspect of her multiplied, from her chin to the creases in her elbows, all of them doubled, sometimes tripled. It didn’t help that her fashion sense hadn’t evolved along with her bulge.
My leg itched. How much longer did she want to hold me in suspense? I had the whole china cabinet to dust, along with a multitude of other pointless duties that just had to be performed every day. God forbid a pillow went without fluffing.
Finally, she put her creams down and inhaled. “You turned seventeen today.” It was not a question. Her Ladyship never deigned to ask questions.
“Yes, your Ladyship.”
“Good. Now, Anne, you have been in my household a long time, at least ten years, and in that time I have seen you grow into a capable youth, someone who has the makings of a competent housekeeper. As you well know, this house has many servants who are older and who have a better chance of reaching that position before you do.” She looked at me. “You also know how much I appreciated your mother’s company when she was my personal maid, and it’s because of her that I called you in here today. I feel I have a better opportunity for you.”
I kept silent and waited. This was certainly unusual.
After rummaging through her drawers, she pulled out a letter. “I’ve recently received a note from a distant relative, someone of whom I have little recollection, but who seems to remember me well enough to have sent me this by post. It appears his household, Rosewood Manor, is in need of a maid, someone who does not need to be trained in the managing of everyday tasks and who has potential to become a leader. I’ve been asked to recommend someone discreet, obedient, disciplined, and self-sufficient. The work would involve a bit more than what you are required in my service because it is a smaller staff, but for that same reason, you would have an almost sure place at the head of the household. I have sent word to your father at Exter House, and he has agreed with my decision. I have full confidence you are the appropriate person, having come from sturdy parents with impressive references. Your father’s employer calls him his ‘most attentive valet,’ a high compliment indeed, from someone who’s had as many as Lord Exter.”
The news she’d contacted my father shocked me more than her previous words. I hadn’t seen him in about a year, what with Lord Exter going off on one voyage after another, always dragging my only parent along.
Lady Caldwell’s voice brought me back to attention: “I have notified Rosewood Manor of your imminent arrival.”
Imminent arrival? “Pardon me, madam, but when will I be departing?”
“Why, in two day’s time. I thought I mentioned that. Now . . .”
Her voice faded, coming in and out, grazing me like a beam from a lighthouse. At first, all I could feel was panic. I’d been raised between the walls of this place—cold ones, to be sure, but the only ones I knew. A house I’d grown to like, if not love. But I now saw the silliness I’d lived under, thinking myself safe, not realizing I was expendable, a rug that could be rolled up and shipped somewhere else.
Her voice flooded in. “So make sure you are prepared to depart. It is a long journey. Plan to spend many uncomfortable hours on a coach.”
“A coach, your Ladyship?” I was stunned even further.
“Yes, it seems your new employer has eccentric ways of going about things, and transporting a new maid in a personal coach is just one of them. I expect, of course, for you to be on exemplary behavior. I will not have any relative of mine, however distant, suffering under my recommendation.”
“I would never dream of putting your Ladyship in that position.”
She cleared her throat. “Good. Now that this business is settled, you may go back to work.”
“Yes, your Ladyship.” I curtsied again and turned. I opened the door and stepped into the dark corridor, walking toward a corner in a more secluded part of the second story. I blinked back hot tears and clenched my fists, focusing my attention on the cuts my fingernails were molding into my palms.
It all seemed so sudden. In two days time, I’d be leaving—forever.
A wave of fear washed over and away from me, leaving me limp. Slowly, I got my breathing back to normal; after all, there was nothing I could do. My hands stopped shaking and, with a pair of newly dried eyes, I climbed down the staircase. My hands were gripped behind my back.
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