Mordred left his horse blowing and sweating at the entrance of the old keep and ran through the double doors, down the dim corridor and to Rosette’s door. He knocked on it once, and then, not waiting for a reply, he let himself in. “Rosette?” he called into the empty kitchen. “Rosette, I’m home!”
Silence. For a moment Mordred’s heart pounded — what if she wasn’t home? If not home, where would she be? — then Rosette’s lightly lilting voice called from above. “Up here! In the nursery!”
Mordred grinned and pounded up the steps, two at a time, three if he could manage it. Time was of the essence; he was due at the practice grounds before the end of the morning.
He should have, he knew, come to see Rosette last night, except of course that the logistics were too complicated. He and Dindrane had only gotten home in the late afternoon. His parents had been expecting them; there was the usual flurry of greetings and inquiries as to how their trip had been, and particularly pointed inquiries as to Dindrane’s health. Dindrane had announced her pregnancy in her rather abrupt fashion (“If what you want to know is if I’m pregnant, you can stop beating around the bush, I am”), and the rest of the night had been taken up in toasts to Dindrane’s health, to the baby’s health, to hopes for a son, to Mordred’s health. By the time the servants had been sworn to secrecy and everyone managed to stumble to bed, it was past midnight — far too late to visit Rosette for any reason other than to announce a death or an invasion.
But that was last night, and this was today. He’d left Dindrane still asleep, told his parents he was going to the practice grounds, sent a messenger to the practice grounds telling Sir Lancelot not to expect him before eleven. He had time — precious time — a few hours for pleasure, before returning back to work.
Odd, though, how nearly everyone would have thought that he had just returned from pleasure, and was going to work … Mordred shook his head and pushed the door open to the room that would soon be the nursery.
He hesitated for a moment, just watching her. Watching her as she glanced around the room in that way she had — the way that indicated she was sizing it up, trying to determine how best to fill an empty bit of wall or whether to move that tapestry across the room. Wondering if she needed more candles, or if she had more than enough. Trying to decide what kinds of curtains would go best with the decor.
Mordred leaned against the door frame, and the slight creak of the wood alerted Rosette to his presence. She turned her head toward him, an enormous smile breaking out upon her face. Mordred took a step forward, and she turned around —
His jaw dropped. “Rosette — you’re — you’re huge!”
He realized as soon as the words came out of his mouth that they were a mistake. “Huge” was simply a word that one never used in relation to a woman. He braced himself, waiting for the slap to the head or the kick to the groin or the curse that would turn him into some kind of small reptile or amphibian —
What came instead was gentle, rippling laughter.
“Well, I should hope so!” she replied. “I’m only carrying a baby in here.” She patted her protruding belly with a proprietary air. “A big, strong — oh!”
“What’s wrong?” He was on his toes, hesitating — run to Rosette, or run for the midwife?
“Nothing, nothing. Just kicking — oh!” She rubbed the opposite side of her stomach. “Your son is a flexible little man.”
Mordred ignored that, taking a slow, wondering step forward. “The baby was kicking? You felt it?”
“Of course I did. And you can feel it, too, if you like. Try … here,” she said, pointing.
Mordred took another step forward and put his hand on the spot Rosette had indicated. Sure enough, he felt a slight bulge in her skin — he pulled his hand away. “That — that was –?”
“The baby, yes.” She giggled as he stared at her belly in awe. “You act like you’ve never seen a pregnant woman before.”
“I’ve seen one pregnant with my child before.” A twinge of guilt as he thought of Dindrane — but he pushed the thought out of his mind. Dindrane didn’t even look pregnant yet. She didn’t count. Eager to move away from that train of thought, he added, “Never felt a baby kick before, either.”
“No?” Rosette asked. “Your mother didn’t let you feel when your little sister was kicking?”
Mordred stared at her. “No … why would she?”
“Oh, I …” She flushed and looked away. “Well, with Simon — my mother …” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
He almost asked, but Rosette turned to him with a smile as bright as it was brittle. “But where are my manners? Would you like something to eat? I made a pie yesterday, I’d like someone else’s opinion on it …”
When she turned that melting stare on him, he was clay in her hands. It didn’t matter that he had just had a full breakfast before mounting. “I would love some. Pie, you said?”
“Well, not technically pie,” she admitted as she led the way down the stairs. “I got the recipe from an old sailor’s wife — she said it was called ‘cheesecake.'”
“You turned cheese into a cake?”
“Sort of … come on, proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
“Same for the cake,” Mordred replied, smiling to himself.
The cake was good, not that Mordred had expected anything else from Rosette’s kitchen. The woman had an amazing hand with anything edible. She probably could whip up an excellent mud pie if she put her mind to it — not that Mordred was particularly eager for her to attempt that, not when there was cheesecake on the table.
He reached his hand toward hers, and Rosette replied by laying hers over his. “I missed you,” she murmured to her plate.
“I missed you too,” he replied.
“More than you can imagine.”
She smiled, a faint pink suffusing her cheeks. She glanced again at the food. Mordred couldn’t help but notice that, however much she missed him, it certainly wasn’t harming her appetite. Then again, maybe her appetite was affected; maybe it was the babe’s that was going strong. “So, how was your … trip?” she asked, finally.
Trip, eh? Well, if that was how she wanted to play it, he’d be more than willing to oblige her. “The hunting was good,” he said, neutrally. “Other than that …”
“Other than that?”
“Very … lonely,” he replied. Well, it had been — it wasn’t like Dindrane provided much in the way of company. “You need a party to make a success of a hunting trip — with just one — one hunter, I mean — well, you may get some good trophies, and plenty of meat for the larder, but at the end of the day, you come home wondering what the point was.”
Not that Mordred didn’t know exactly what the point had been … but damned if he was going to tell Rosette, waddling about big-bellied as she was, that he would become a father for the second time some six months or so after she gave birth …
She’d find out eventually — just not from him.
Rosette nodded, her lips pursed rather tightly together. “Catch anything … exciting?”
“Not much. A few deer, a few foxes — unfortunately you need a party of experienced hunters to go after boar or bear, so neither of those were on the cards.” He watched her hand drop from the table, down to her skirt to pick at a loose thread. I should send her some more silver for clothes — or cloth, knowing her, she’ll want to make it herself. “So …” he said, deciding to get off this subject before one of them went too far into forbidden territory. “You mentioned a boy?”
She looked up, reddening slightly. “You mustn’t be angry if it isn’t a boy.”
“But you think it is?”
“I — I don’t know, honestly. There — there are supposed to be ways to tell, but … but I can’t use them …”
Mordred raised one eyebrow. “Can’t use them? Is it money you need?” he began, his hand reaching toward his belt.
“No, no! No, my lord, it isn’t that.”
“Then what is it?”
She flushed. “Well — er — the one I remember, you’re supposed to take your wedding ring, tie it to a string, and hold it above your belly … if it swings back and forth, the baby is a girl, and if it spins in a circle, it’s a boy … but …” She shrugged.
“If it’s a ring you need –” Mordred began — then the key word of the statement came home to him. “Oh.”
Rosette smiled and shrugged. “It probably doesn’t work anyway,” she continued, her tone almost bright. “I remember — I was very little but I do remember — Mama tried that when she was expecting Simon. She was sure he was going to be a girl and was quite disappointed … and then, well, he was born, and …”
“You had a Simon, not a Simone.”
“Exactly.” She glanced toward his plate. “Do you not like it?”
Mordred looked down to see that most of his cake was still there … and Rosette’s was gone. He laughed. “It’s a very good cake, love — you just can’t expect me to keep up with both you and my son.”
She giggled, then frowned. “You — you never said if you would be angry if it was a girl …”
“I shan’t be,” he promised, easily. Truth to tell, much as he might want a boy (what father wouldn’t?), what Rosette had didn’t matter at all. And it wasn’t just because he, as any expectant father with a brain would, would be sure to tell her that the health of mother and child were more important than the sex of the child. It didn’t matter simply because it didn’t matter. Whatever children Rosette had would be disbarred from receiving the bulk of his estate no matter what their sex. Only his personal wealth could be left to his and Rosette’s children, and there were no laws in Albion demanding that he favor his illegitimate sons over his illegitimate daughters.
Now, as for Dindrane, what she had would matter …
Mordred pushed the thought of Dindrane to the side. She didn’t matter, not now. Now he had more important things to worry about. Things like finishing his first slice of cake before Rosette put him doubly to shame by polishing off her second.
When they were both finished, Rosette looked up shyly. “How — how long do you have before you have to leave, Mordred?”
He glanced out the window, at the progress of the sun … he should leave soon if he wanted to get to the practice ground when he said he would …
But a look into Rosette’s apple-green eyes decided him differently. Hang the practice grounds, hang Sir Lancelot, hang knighthood itself. He’d show up when he was good and ready.
He reached across the table and stroked Rosette’s hand. “I’ve all day to spend with you, my love.”
She smiled; and he was well rewarded for whatever trouble would surely come his way, thanks to this.
Later, much later, when the sun’s rays slanted golden through the window … when his tunic and hose and chain mail lay littered across the floor with Rosette’s apron and skirt and bodice … when he stroked Rosette’s arm and she lay, happy and sated and sleepy, in his arms, Mordred permitted himself a smile.
This was happiness. Now, now, he could finally enjoy himself. Now he didn’t need to worry about touching Dindrane for months; his duty was, first of all, done, and secondly he was sure he could find a midwife to say that bedroom sport was bad for the baby. Never mind what he and Rosette had just been up to; he was certain that the babe would survive that.
Survive and thrive through, if he wasn’t mistaken. He watched the shift bunch as the babe kicked, first on Rosette’s right side and then on her left. “He is a flexible little one, isn’t he?” Mordred asked, patting Rosette’s stomach.
“Don’t remind me,” Rosette muttered, nestling her head on his shoulder. “Maybe he’ll grow up to be a knight like his daddy.”
Unlikely; Mordred had never heard of a bastard rising to the Order of Knighthood — at least not a bastard and a peasant’s son. But he only smiled.
“Maybe,” he replied. He kissed Rosette’s forehead and left it at that.