you about—beautiful prosciutto on offer, it’ll do for the
“That’s lovely, Marco.” I cut him off before the lie could get any more elaborate; the apprentices were already nudging each other and stifling snickers. “Madonna Adriana wants to see both of us.”
“Better give me an apron, then.” Marco’s dark eyes twinkled. “An artistic splatter of flour, do you think?”
“Never mind the apron,” I said, but my cousin in a good mood was infectious. When he’d been the star apprentice of my father’s kitchens and I’d been twelve, I’d fallen madly in love with him—and who wouldn’t? Tall, muscled, dimpled, and handsome; that was Marco Santini. Of course, shortly after that I’d discovered that he had no sense and no ambition either, and nothing between the ears but dice games and bullfighting bets, and I’d fallen right back out of love again. Still, my reproving smack to his shoulder was a good deal gentler than the ones I gave the scullions. “Bartolomeo, see my blackberry
get into the oven—” And my cousin and I trooped upstairs to see the mistress of the house.
“I won four ducats on a single round of
,” Marco said in a jubilant whisper. “Four! I had a
hand, see, and no one else had anything higher than a
“You said you wouldn’t go gaming during the week anymore!” I scolded. “On free afternoons only—”
“I felt Lady Fortune sitting on my shoulder, little cousin. Who says no to that?” He kissed his fingertips, and then he looked around to make sure we were alone on the stairwell, and leaned down and smacked my mouth with a kiss too. “Maybe I can pay you a visit tonight?”
“Maybe.” I scowled, but gave a half smile. My cousin was a fool, and I certainly wasn’t in love with him anymore—but he was handsome. And just occasionally, when his mood flew high from a win and he felt the urge for a bedmate, well, better his little cousin who would at least never pressure him for marriage the way any of the maidservants would have done.
Not that anyone in the household could ever know that Marco occasionally shared my bed. I wasn’t afraid of getting caught with a swollen belly—I’d surrendered my virtue at seventeen to another apprentice of my father’s, and he’d addled my wits for a week or two, but not so badly I hadn’t taken care to safeguard myself with a few discreet tricks involving a halved lime and a tincture of pennyroyal. No, strict chastity wasn’t really practiced by the
’s maids, no matter what stringent standards Madonna Adriana tried to impose on her servants.
But I had to command obedience from a kitchen full of insolent boys who had to respect me as the inviolable Madonna of the kitchens, a woman far too iron-willed ever to be wheedled by a handsome face or a honeyed word. Marco had no such difficulties, of course, but men didn’t. If I’d been born a man, I could forge a career as a cook
marry, without needing to choose one or the other. If I’d been born a man, I’d have simply followed in my father’s footsteps as
maestro di cucina
in my own right, without anybody trying to stick me in a convent because what else is to be done with an extra daughter when you don’t have the money for her to marry.
But it was the way of the world, and I saw no point howling over the unfairness of it all. Even if my bed felt lonely most nights, since Marco really had more fire for the cards than he did for me or any other woman . . . well, a little loneliness in this life I’d made was worth it. Far better than making watery communal stews in a habit that choked under the chin. Because I’d been lonely then too, but I’d also been weeping actual tears at the quality of the olive oil I’d been forced to work with, and saying endless Acts of Contrition because I could never keep my sleeves out of the kettles.
“Ah.” Madonna Adriana da Mila greeted us as we were ushered