“Oh, it’s gonna be a good night, Berach,” Berach Brogan said to himself as he closely examined his face in the pocket mirror some spoiled little lordling had thrown away. A perfectly good mirror it was, too — only a single crack running all the way down the middle — how was it that lordlings could throw such good things away? But that wasn’t important. He cocked his head a little to one side, trying to angle the mirror so that he could get a good view of his teeth and anything that might be stuck between them.
No, what was important was how good a night it was going to be. He’d finally saved up enough to get a night — a whole night — alone with the prostitue Wei Li. No “wham-bam-thank-ya-ma’am” in the crowded whorehouse, no waiting for hours for her to be free while he lost his shirt at cards. No other customers clamoring for their turn. No other whores trying to wheedle him into their beds while he waited — not that he saw anything wrong with beautiful women doing their uttermost to get him in bed, but really, he usually only had the money for one go, and he wanted it to be with Wei Li.
And surprisingly enough, she’d come cheap tonight! He’d expected to have to save up a silver coin, maybe even two, but no, she’d named her price at only five coppers*. Five coppers! That wasn’t even two days’ pay for him! She’d even suggested it herself–seemed eager to see him!
“Well, can you blame her, m’friend?” he asked the crack running down the nose of his reflection. “She probably doesn’t get this kind o’ lovin’ from all them fat merchants … she’s probably dyin’ fer a hard, lean body, strong from workin’ all day … not sittin’ behind some counter countin’ money.”
He grinned, his reflection grinning back, and continued to grin like a fool until he heard–footsteps? He froze. Of course it wasn’t that late, those steps could belong to someone other than the exquisite Wei Li … but it wasn’t likely …
Then he heard something else–something that made him run to the window, his original intention to not appear too eager be damned.
His heart leapt into his throat — it was Wei Li! — and then he scratched his head as he saw what was with her.
A … baby?
He ran to the front porch, openly goggling at the whore and the infant in her arms. “Wei Li?” he called into the summer darkness.
“Yes?” Her accent was barely perceptible, just a pretty lilt to her words. His heart did a little flip-flop just at the sound.
“What–what is that?”
“Pardon?” She tilted her head adorably. “What is what?”
“Oh! You mean my daughter!”
Her daughter? Well, I suppose it was bound to happen eventually … still, she couldn’t have found someone to watch the brat for an evening?
“Her name is Leah.” As she mounted the porch steps, Wei Li smiled down at the little one — though was it Berach’s imagination, or was the smile a little wistful?
He did not have any more time to ponder that, though, for Wei Li continued, “Leah Brogan.”
And with that she put the babe into Berach’s arms.
“B-B-Brogan?” he stammered, trying very hard not to drop the little one, who seemed somehow far more heavy and far more fragile than someone her size ought to be. “B-b-b-but –”
“That is the tradition here, is it not? The babe receives the surname of the father?”
“Y-y-yes — b-b-but –”
“So that is all right,” Wei Li said with a smile.
“B-b-but — but only if –” He stopped and swallowed. “Who — who are ye sayin’ is the father?”
“You, of course! How many other Brogans are there?”
Well, there was his father, and his brother, to be precise … but Grady, his brother, wasn’t the type to “waste his money” on whores, and if Finley … Berach decided he didn’t want to think about that too closely.
“But — but — but ye can’t know that she’s mine!”
Wei Li stared at him. “I can’t?”
“Ye — ye’re with five men a night, at least! Ye can’t say she’s mine!”
One of Wei Li’s delicate black brows arched. “Do you think I am a fool, Berach Brogan?”
“Do you think that I do not keep track of my fertile periods?” she said. “Do you think that I would be with five men a night when I know a child could result? How then would I locate the father?”
Berach’s jaw fell open, and then he slowly forced it shut. “Ye — ye mean ye were only with me then?”
Wei Li nodded.
“B-b-but –” His protest died at his lips, and he could only stand there staring at her.
Wei Li, perhaps assuming that she had won the argument, gave Berach a dazzling smile. “Good. Now I will put the goat’s milk in the larder, and then we can get started?” Without waiting for his response she swept into the cottage, leaving Berach still standing on the porch, stupidly holding the baby.
“I don’ know what yer ma thinks she’s up to,” Berach remarked to the infant, who only cooed in response. “Goat’s milk … what in hell’s name is she puttin’ goat’s milk in my larder fer–”
The baby burped, and that burp told Berach everything he needed to know.
He stormed into the cottage. “How long are ye plannin’ on keepin’ her here fer?”
Wei Li turned to him with a prettily tilted head. “Pardon?”
“The baby! How long are ye plannin’ to leave her here fer?”
“Her name is Leah, and she is yours,” Wei Li replied.
“B-b-but — I can’t keep her!”
“Be — because –” Berach finally just waved his free arm in the air. “Because! I don’ know nothin’ about takin’ care of a baby!”
“Oh! Oh, that is not hard,” Wei Li replied. “Just feed her some goat’s milk when she gets hungry, I’ve already weaned her onto it so she shouldn’t give you any trouble with it … when she gets dirty, change her, and cuddle and play with her from time to time.” She grinned. “You should have no trouble.”
Wei Li did not directly reply to that, choosing instead to look out the window. “Dawn will be in a few short hours, won’t it?”
Berach jumped; it would be, and dawn was when his five coppers’ worth with Wei Li would be spent … “I’ll be right back,” he said, already sprinting toward the loft. “Just got ter put her someplace,” he continued, nodding to the baby.
He never thought he’d do it, but he was sending thoughts full of gratitude to his mother. She’d given him a crib and a changing table as soon as he moved into his own cottage, saying he’d need them before he knew it. He wasn’t sure whether his mother would be horrified at him needing them this soon or whether this was exactly what she was expecting; but either way, he was grateful.
“Now ye just sleep tight,” he said, gingerly laying the infant down onto the little pallet, “while I … uh … well, look here kid, can ye do your da a favor and leave him be fer the next few hours? I’ll be grateful ferever, I swear …”
The baby stared up at him — if Berach was a little crazier than he thought he was, he would have thought the baby was looking at him like he was abandoning her. But that was foolish. The little mite would be fine in her crib.
“Right,” Berach said, taking a step back. He could still just see the baby, and she could still just see him. “Well … I’ll be back before ye know it.” And with that he sprinted back down to the main floor.
Wei Li, much to his joy, was already in the bed … and much to his disappointment, was still clothed. “What?” she asked as he hung uncertain in the doorway.
“Well I … I thought ye’d be … ready,” he muttered.
“I am ready,” she answered with a quizzical tilt of her head.
“Ye’re gonna … gonna …” he swallowed and blushed, “well, ye know … in that?” And he gestured to her outfit.
She stared at the direction of his gesturing. “Oh! Well I thought it would be more pleasurable if you took it off yourself.”
Berach’s eyes went wide. “Well, ma’am, when ye put it that way …” He leapt for the bed and landed almost on top of Wei Li, only the space of his strong arms separating them. “How’s now a good time t’ start?”
He didn’t give her time to answer that, bending his lips to hers in a fierce kiss.
He intended to get to work, but to make it last, getting every copper’s worth out of the lovely Wei Li … for heaven knew when he could afford this again … but in less and more time than he would have thought possible (less because he hadn’t even gotten his partner undressed yet, more because all those damned knots in her clothes were taking more time than he’d planned), their foreplay was interrupted.
Wei Li pulled her head away as Berach’s lips continued to explore her jaw. “Aren’t you going to get that?”
An ear-splitting shriek rang out over Berach’s planned response. “Eh–ye fed the kid before ye came here, didn’t ye?”
“Then she can wait.” And he tried to kiss Wei Li again.
But, more slippery than any fish, she wiggled out of his grasp. “You need to take care of her. Leah is your responsibility.”
“If ye’re so worried, then why don’t ye take care o’ her?”
Wei Li glared at him. “Because you are paying me to be your whore, not your nanny.”
“If I’m payin’ ye to be–” But Wei Li’s glare prohibited him from going any further. He sighed. “Well–I s’pose that no one can git in the mood with that screechin’.”
As if to puncuate his point, the baby let off a scream that was easily double the volume of all her previous cries.
Wright Almighty, how in hell does somethin’ that small make so much noise? he wondered as he trudged into the loft. “All right!” he shouted, if only to be heard above the baby’s screamings. “What in hell’s the matter with ye? I thought I said–”
He was able to answer his own question once he got within ten feet of the crib. “Phaugh!” he choked, then, staring in disbelief at the baby, asked, “How does a little thing like ye produce so much stink?”
The baby stopped crying, and simply give him a quizzical glance that reminded him rather too much of her mother.
“Well,” Berach said, trying very hard to breath through his mouth, “might as well git ye cleaned up.” He gingerly picked up the baby — Wright Almighty, he could practically see green clouds of stench coming from the full diaper — and brought her to the changing table.
“I’m too young for this,” he remarked to the baby, who merely giggled at him. “Up to me elbows in dirty diapers … Wright Almighty, I should have me a woman to do this …” He shook his head as he finished the job, somehow managing to attach a new cloth diaper without sticking himself or the baby with a pin. “Now ye,” he said, bringing the baby to his nose, “ye’re gonna be quiet for yer da now, aren’t ye?”
The baby just laughed and tried to grab some of the loose strands of his hair.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he replied and put the baby back into the crib. Then he pounded down the ladder back to Wei Li.
“Now,” he said, strutting to the door and leaning seductively (or so he thought) against the post, “where were we?”
Wei Li left just as the light of false dawn was giving the sky a faint tinge. Berach let her go without protest. He’d gotten every last farthing’s worth out of Wei Li, and in testament to that, he felt more exhausted than he did after a full week’s work, never mind the two days’ pay he’d just spent.
The baby had, surprisingly, been good as gold for the rest of Wei Li’s visit, with not so much as a peep out of her. Berach, as he settled back against the pillows to rest, smiled to himself and dared to believe that maybe the babe would let him have a few hours’ sleep …
It was a foolish thought, for no sooner had Berach closed his eyes than a banshee wail awoke him. Sighing, he trudged up the ladder, already holding his nose … only to be greeted by no foul stink, no green clouds of stench.
But the baby was crying, thrashing around in her crib, and it wasn’t until Berach noticed the sucking motions she made with her mouth that he figured out what she wanted. Sighing, he trudged with the baby down to the larder.
It was a bit of a job to figure out the odd bottles Wei Li had filled with goat’s milk, but Berach managed to feed the infant without getting too much of the milk on either of them. And by the happy smile and contented burp the baby gave when Berach pulled the empty bottle away, she seemed to think he’d done just fine.
“Well,” Berach said, nuzzling the little one, “that wasn’t so hard, now, was it?” The baby cooed.
Frowning a little, he brought the baby up for a closer inspection. “Hmm … Leah … that’s a pretty name … wonder what made your ma think of that …” She did not reply, only blowing a bubble and laughing when it popped.
“Leah,” he repeated, bringing the baby to his shoulder. “A pretty name … a pretty name for a pretty girl.” He patted her back gently. “That’s what you are … my pretty Leah …”
Leah nestled against her papa’s shoulder in complete and total agreement.