Part 5

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Natalia stood alone as the coach continued toward the stables.

Fluttered glow from lamps hung to either side of the mansion's open doors welcomed her as she strolled through to gently close them behind her.

The entry room just inside was as grand as she remembered it; with its curved stairway that led to upper floors, while a candle lit chandelier graced the high ceiling to bathe the room below pleasantly and with warmth.

She could sense the house was empty except for her host who waited in the dining room, undoubtedly used as he was to servants who'd normally have greeted his guests had they not been given the next few days off.

Ezekias Brandt smiled from his chair at the head of the table; a signature cigar in one hand as he watched Natalia enter the room.

With the other, he motioned to a side chair that he'd pulled from the table for her where a long stemmed glass of red wine waited as her only place setting.

"Pardonne-moi madam, if I do not get up, for I am in the midst of dinner; si vous plait."

Dark hair silvered with accent of age, his eyes smiled with the same darkness as the mustache that graced the curve of his upper lip. She remembered his solid build as not unlike that of the men who handled his cattle and worked his fences.

Natalia settled into the chair, before she enjoyed a sip from the glass. "I trust that you will be pleased with the relief your men will have from the supplied reward for their labors." She offered.

"The coachman will have the usual token of our thanks when he takes you back, while it should be a busy day or two in the mean time; cattle calls such as they are with so many in need and those who look for yet more as distraction from their tedious days of working such long hours under the sun as they have."

She watched as Brandt devoured what was left of his meal with quick bites.

"How is our dear Leviticus?" he inquired as he refilled his glass. "Does he treat you well and keep you as satisfied as he should?"

Natalia smiled at the undercurrents of his question.

"Well enough that he offers two of our women that should keep your men warm and well tended long after I've returned when we are done here."

Brandt frowned as he drew from the cigar and slowly exhaled a stream of smoke not entirely unlike that of a dragon.

"And exactly how much will this kind offer cost me."

"Twenty-five hundred for the elder - who while fairly experienced is far less practiced than she should be and a mere five-hundred for the challenge of troubled yet youthful exuberance."

She replied with a curt smile as she gently sipped her wine before she continued.

"Both may yet be offered a chance to return in the spring should they be found properly aware of their situation and all that comes with it. We would have also thrown in the services of a doctor for the usual wear and tear, but I'm also as sure that your camp physician would enjoy a change of scenery now and again at no further cost to you."

Brandt put on a show of mock thoughtfulness as he weighed the pros and cons, while he watched her sip from her glass.

"You have a deal. We should break even on room and board, but come out ahead even with their monthlies. Do I want to know the particulars of what they did to make them available to us as they are?"

Natalia rose from her chair and straightened her dress before she gently pushed her chair back in.

The intake of breath from Brandt as her hands gently moved over her bodice to neaten the soft fabric had not gone unnoticed.

"If I am not mistaken, as part of our agreement there should be a warm bath prepared, for which I will politely excuse myself to properly cleanse the dust and other unmentionables from my recent travels."

She mused as they considered one another across the table.

"I shall also look forward to the comfort of your bedchamber once you retire ..." she continued, "... as to the young women and why they are here, make sure that you keep an eye out for any loose coin or other silver that may be left unattended; while our fair Louisa may have simply been a victim of her association with such youthful greed as that of Chandra, both need to be reminded of who they work for and what we must do to keep them in line when they cross them as they have."

Brandt smiled in response as Natalia turned and moved back toward the archway of the entry room, only to  pause as if in thought before she turned back to face him once again.

"I've been told, on ..." she offered with apparent whimsy, "... fairly good authority, that the distaste of monthlies can be adequately parlayed with the touch of a slick tongue and firm grip when required. Many have also suggested on more than one occasion that one door always remains open even as another seemingly closes for the usual duration."

While he nearly choked on his cigar, Brandt leaned back in his chair to consider her words as she removed herself from the room.

"Oh, the word play of a woman with such blood thirsty spirit ..." He mused to the empty room as he set the cigar down and returned to his meal.

Without doubt he would need the energy later, as he indulged her needsand she tended his in return.

An even exchange by any standard, of that there was little doubt for all concerned.

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