There Was a Crooked Man

an excerpt

Chapter One

The loud knock on his door rudely woke Blue from a rather pleasant, if slightly erotic dream about Tom Piper, and he scowled at the disturbance. At the second knock he scrambled to push his long hair out of the way and poke his head out from the covers.

"Yes, I'm awake. I'll be down in a minute." Blue sighed heavily as he slowly sat up, then he smiled.

Although Blue hated getting up so early, if he was lucky, Tom Piper would call by on his way to market and they'd share a few minutes together, perhaps there would even be some of Tom's mother's delicious bread.

Although his own mother gave him what she could, she looked after so many of the village's waifs and strays in the old shoe of a house. Mother Peep, as she was affectionately known, never turned her back on anyone in need. Consequently, the house was also home to the teenage Pigg triplets, the often-squabbling twins, Robin and Richard, and Blue's best friend, Tommy Tucker.

Generally, each morning, Blue purposely took a little less for his own breakfast, since Tom so often brought food they could share. They'd take it out to Old MacDonald's fields where Blue tended both his small flock, plus Old MacDonald's many sheep, and the cantankerous ram.

Reluctantly leaving the pleasant cocoon of his bed, Blue stood, and with a shrug, wiggle, and a snicker, waited for his voluminous nightshirt to shimmy to the floor. It was a gift, of sorts from Bad, a distant cousin of the triplets.

Poor Bad. Blue shook his head before splashing some water on his face. The wolf-shifter was the Alpha of a pack that lived on the outskirts of town, but he wasn't really bad. He occasionally teased and taunted the triplets and acted like he didn't care for them at all. But Blue, like his mother, knew it was all an act.

Quietly, without fanfare, Bad paid toward the triplets' upkeep, and passed on clothing he acquired, like the nightshirt he'd given to Blue as a gift. The pack was a surly gang. As their Alpha, they're as much Bad's family as much as anyone else.

It wasn't as if they were aggressive or troublemakers. So far, if any pack member had misbehaved in any way, they were immediately disciplined by Bad, but the villagers remained wary of them, and other than Bad, few ever came to the tavern or mixed with other villagers.

Glad of the summer heat, Blue donned a pair of pale blue knee britches, and a loose, white open-necked shirt. He pouted at his shoes. They would fall apart soon, and he doubted there was money enough to buy him a new pair. But there was no time to worry about them now.

Reaching behind, Blue wound his hair up and secured it into a loose knot, a few blond tendrils sliding free almost immediately. His sister, Bo, always managed to make her hair look immaculate. He was less lucky with the so-fine tresses.

With a tight grip on the rickety handrail, Blue made his way down the uneven stairs. For the state the misshapen house was in, the rent his mother was charged by Grundy was highway robbery. But then Grundy was crooked in every sense of the word. A hooked, crooked nose, spindly, bony body, and, worst of all, crooked by nature. In Blue's eyes he was a rich, mean, selfish man.

But in this town, Grundy owned many of the smaller cottages, so people didn't often speak out against him. His money protected him. Blue pushed Grundy out of his mind. At the bottom of the stairs, Blue turned right into the heart of their home; the kitchen.

Pausing for a moment, Blue smiled. His mother was already at the range, humming to herself, and Tommy Tucker sat at the table. The Blacksmith's apprentice often spent the night in the smithy, but there was always a bed and a welcome in their house for him, and he still paid Blue's mother regularly.

Of course, from Blue's perspective, there was one wonderful advantage of getting up early. He missed all the commotion when the others got up. With a bickering set of adult twins, the most un-identical imaginable, and a set of teenage triplets yelling and jostling, Blue by far preferred to be out in the fields with his sheep. Peace, tranquillity, and opportunity to spend time with Tom Piper. Now that is bliss.

It seemed to Blue that he'd always loved Tom. Even when as a small, stubborn six-year-old, Blue had trailed after him, Tom had always shown nothing but patience and affection. Now that Blue was officially an adult, the five-year gap between them meant nothing.

The only reason they hadn't openly announced their betrothal was Tom's determination to have enough money saved to buy some land and build their own cottage. Then he wanted to announce their engagement.

Just the thought of that dream was enough to lift Blue's spirits. Especially since Tom was certain that in a year, or maybe less, there'd be money enough. Blue tried to add his meagre savings, but he needed to help his mother.

"Morning, Ma." Blue pecked a kiss to his mother's red cheek.

"Good morning. Tea's in the pot. I'll get you something to eat. Tommy brought a few eggs."

"I'll just have some bread. With milk if you have any?" Blue asked hopefully as he returned his mother's smile.

"That's what I thought you'd say. I already have some that's been soaking with sugar and cinnamon spice, and it's nicely warm."

"You should eat more. You're all skin and bone." Tommy looked up at Blue, but the warmth of his eyes belied the gruffness of his tone.

Blue shrugged.

"We can't all be solid and well-built like you, Tommy. I can't imagine ever having shoulders as broad as yours."

"Or broad as Tom Piper's?" Tommy grinned, and Blue's cheeks flamed red.

"Now don't you let that Tom Piper distract you, Blue." Blue's mother wagged her finger as she set down the bowl of bread and milk. "Remember Grundy told Old MacDonald you'd been sleeping in the haystack, and we can't afford to lose your wage."

"And Old MacDonald told him it was none of his business who slept in his haystacks. And I've told you a dozen times, I wasn't sleeping. The feet Grundy saw were Tom's. He was resting after a day at market and I was just out of sight. You know I wouldn't risk anything happening to the sheep."

"You're a good boy, Blue." Mother Peep patted his head. "But Grundy delights in trying to cause trouble wherever he goes." Mother Peep shook her head as she went back to the range.

"Don't I know it?" Blue murmured softly as he attacked his breakfast, earning a sympathetic wince from Tommy.

"Heard anything from Bo, yet?" Tommy asked.

"No." Blue shook his head. "Not since the message she was safe in the city. King Cole has all the candidates staying at the palace. Bo was so excited when she knew she was in the last sixteen selected." Blue smiled, proud of his older sister's achievement.

It wasn't often the palace advertised for a lady-in-waiting. But when it did, all ladies in the Kingdom of Rhyme were considered, and Bo, representing the small village of Verse, was just a few steps away from clinching the position. If she got it, she was assured of a good job and salary for life. Then she's promised that we'll be able to afford something better than this hovel.

Blue was as excited for his sister as she was herself. In some ways Blue and his sister were very alike, with their slim build, and pale skin. But Bo had lush golden hair that hung in perfect ringlets past her shoulders, and with the right make-up her sky-blue eyes seemed huge.

By contrast, Blue's fair hair was almost white, without so much as a hint of curl, and hung straight past his shoulder blades. Although he, too, had his mother's blue eyes, they were far paler than Bo's. Not that either mattered. Tom loved playing with Blue's hair, and always said how beautiful his eyes were.

"When you're ready to leave, I have something for you," Tommy whispered, leaning toward Blue. "But keep it quiet. I can't provide for all, and you're doing your own work plus Bo's while she's away."

"Oh, very well. Thank you." Blue had no idea what it could be and focused on his food. Once breakfast was finished, Blue slung a bag across his chest, and retrieved his crook. When he looked around, Tommy stood close, then pressed a cloth-covered parcel into Blue's hand.

"It's pie. Since the pie-maker took him on as an apprentice, Simon's grown into a pie-maker of some repute himself. Sometimes, if he isn't fully happy with a pie, he lets me have it. This one's meat and potato. I had half. You take the other half."

The gesture was so touching, that Blue felt the tears prick his eyes.

"Thanks, Tommy. I really appreciate this."

"You're the most reliable income your mother has. The twins' bickering has lost them more than one job of work in town, and the toymaker's temper isn't one to be tested too much."

"They've promised to keep their arguments away from work. They took a couple of days to accompany Bo to the palace. The toymaker has a soft spot for her, and she was the one who went personally to ask." Blue sighed. "But...I don't know...I've never known a pair like them."

The sound of boys' raised voices caused both to stare up the stairs. Taking advantage of Tommy's temporary distraction, Blue pecked a kiss to his cheek, then called out to his mother.

"Bye, Ma. See you later. Thanks again, Tommy."

"Watch old Grundy doesn't catch you with Tom." At Mother Peep's shout, both Blue and Tommy smiled.

"I won't, Ma." With a skip in his step Blue headed out of the village and up the lane to Old MacDonald's farm.