Rosette closed her eyes with a contented sigh. This, this was as close to heaven as she was likely to get in this world. She could hear her children playing in the background, her sister sat by her side, her brother played with one of her children. She was in her own clean, well-kept parlor, furnished and decorated exactly to her tastes. The only thing missing from her vision was Mordred, and she could pretend that the reason was that he was off at work, like any responsible man would be, providing for his family …
Actually, there was no pretense involved at all. Mordred probably was at work, at the knights’ training grounds, at this hour. Providing for his family — Rosette didn’t give too much thought to which family — just as a good man should.
And then Toinette burst her bubble.
“I’m sorry that Pa ain’t here,” she said, shaking her head. “But Ma’s been watchin’ him like a hawk since he said he was sick an’ tired of her not lettin’ him see you. Meg says he can’t even go to the privy without Ma wantin’ to know where he’s goin’ and how long it’s going to be.”
“Aye, an’ she tries to barge in if she thinks he’s takin’ too long wipin’ his arse,” Simon said from where he was playing with Melehan.
“Simon!” Rosette scolded. “Not in front of the little ones!”
“Aw, they’re too young to understand, they ain’t even a year old yet.”
“Still! I don’t want their first word to be ‘arse’!”
“Nora’s first was ‘damn,'” Toinette mused, though quietly enough that Melehan and Melou couldn’t be expected to hear. “I was ready to kill Finley when she came out with that one.”
“You’re sure it was Finley?”
“Who else would say ‘damn’ in front o’ the baby?”
Rosette nodded, conceding the point.
She looked over her shoulder. Yes, that was another thing to be thankful for: that her boys didn’t have a Finley in their lives. Neither of them were particularly sweet-tempered — Melehan had just a smidgen more patience when it came to wailing for food, for a diaper change, for a bath, to be entertained, etc., but they were both quite demanding — and Rosette frankly shuddered to imagine what would be coming out of their mouths in the next year or two had they a particularly dirty influence to learn from. And it wouldn’t be just mindless repetition, either, as Rosette was sure it had been in Nora’s case. Nora, after all, was one of the sweetest babies she had known, always smiling or giggling, and only crying when she really needed something.
But her boys were still something. They were only eight months old, but they were already beginning to show their personalities. Both of them, for instance, were as active as they were impatient, exploring their world as soon as they were set on the ground by themselves long enough to start crawling around it. Rosette had spent half of that first week or so of mobility running after them, keeping Melou from the fire or Melehan from tumbling headfirst down the stairs, at least until she got smarter about locking doors and putting some sort of blockage in front of the flames.
Of the two of them, Melou was the more adventurous one. Rosette had caught him with poor Chevy (who had grown up into a fine, if evidently very mixed-breed, adult dog) in a death grip as soon as the dog made the mistake of laying still for long enough for Melou to grab at him. Luckily Chevy was a patient dog, and though the expression in his eyes clearly said, “HELP!” he hadn’t attempted to forcibly remove the small human semi-attached at his neck. Rosette had also, once, caught Melou sampling the dog’s food when she had him and his brother down on the floor in the kitchen while she prepared dinner. Once, however, was more than enough — now Melou and Melehan were put into their high chairs if they were ever brought into the kitchen, and there they stayed, no matter how much they kicked and screamed and cried, until their dinner was finished and they were brought upstairs to play.
Melehan was marginally more manageable — marginally — being content, for the most part, to play with the toys he was given instead of searching out new (dangerous) playthings among the miscelleneous items of the household. He did, however, keep a sharp eye on his brother, and if something was tested out by Melou and found to be safe, Melehan would generally try it, sooner or later. He hadn’t quite grabbed Chevy, yet, but that was only because Chevy was mobile and more than capable of escaping from an enterprising infant with a certain “look” in his eye.
Rosette smiled. But despite all the trouble they were — already — causing her, Melehan and Melou were her boys, her precious boys, and as far as she was concerned, whatever they got into, she would handle it. One way or another, she would handle it.
“So when are ye thinkin’ of givin’ Melehan an’ Melou a new little brother or sister?” Toinette asked, raising one eyebrow.
Rosette turned a look onto her sister that could best be described as horrified. “Oh, not yet. Not anytime soon.” Not until they’re walking and talking and potty-trained, at the very least! “Mordred and I — we –”
“He’s still sleepin’ with ye, ain’t he?” Simon called over his shoulder.
“Simon!” Rosette gasped.
“Do ye mind?” Toinette called over her shoulder to her little brother. “Fer Wright’s sake, that ain’t exactly somethin’ she wants ter be blabbin’ all over the world!”
“Ye’re askin’ when she’s gonna have a new little one, all I’m askin’ is if they’re still doin’ the deed that makes little ones! What’s the difference?”
“Askin’ about babies is polite, askin’ about — ye know — is horrible manners! I know Ma taught ye some, why don’t ye use them?”
“We’re family, manners don’t mean nothin’,” Simon said laconically.
“Can we change the subject?” Rosette asked, feeling the flush climbing up her cheeks.
“Of course we –” Toinette started, then, seeing Rosette’s flush more clearly, asked softly, “He is still — ye know, isn’t he?”
“Oh, of course! But he — he buys me a potion — so I won’t …” She shrugged. “You know.”
Toinette’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Don’t suppose ye’ve got some extra?”
“I think it’s a little late for that,” Rosette said, gesturing toward Toinette’s slightly protruding stomach.
“Fer a fourth, maybe, but not fer a fifth, or a sixth …” Toinette shrugged.
“I thought you liked being a mother?”
“I do, but I’m afraid if we keep goin’, we’re gonna get ourselves another handful like Katie or Paddy — Nora was sheer dumb luck, I swear.”
“Or maybe you and Grady have finally hit your stride?”
“Or maybe it was sheer dumb luck.”
Rosette chuckled. “Well, if you want some … Mordred is so generous, he always gives me more than I need. I’ll buy some for you. But not until after your baby comes. It doesn’t keep for very long.”
“‘Course,” Toinette nodded. “An’ no point spendin’ money before ye have to — not that ye have to, o’course. Thankee, Rosie.”
“Not a problem,” Rosette said, feeling a slight twinge of guilt — what if she was interfering with Wright’s Will for Toinette? And what if Grady wanted more after this fourth one?
Then again … Grady was a practical man. He certainly wouldn’t see any point in forcing Toinette to go through another childbirth if that wasn’t what she wanted, not when they already had definitely three (and probably, hopefully, four) children. He’d be even less likely to protest if Toinette put it to him as just wanting to space the births out; there had been barely two years between Paddy and Nora and there wouldn’t even be two between Nora and the next one.
“Do you have any names in mind?” Rosette began to ask, but a call from below broke through her thoughts.
“Rosette?” The call came again. “Rosette, are you here?”
Mordred! With a grin and without so much as a by-your-leave — there were benefits to being among family, after all — Rosette jumped up and practically flew down the stairs. “Mordred!”
“Well, hello to you too, sweetheart,” Mordred said upon recovering from her rather — enthusiastic — greeting.
“What brings you here so early?” Rosette asked. “I thought that the training exercises went on until sunset …?”
“Only works if you have a horse,” Mordred said with a shrug. “Mine went lame.”
“Oh, no! Is he going to be all right?”
“With a bit of rest, he should be fine. But that leaves me with the afternoon free, quite –” He paused, hearing a shout of laughter — Simon’s laughter — from upstairs. “You have … company?”
“Oh, yes!” Rosette said brightly. “Come up with me, they’ll be so happy to see you — it’s been ages since we all visited!” Grabbing Mordred’s hand and not giving him time to protest, she ran upstairs with him, bursting into the parlor and calling out, “Toinette, Simon — it’s Mordred!”
Mordred followed her into the parlor at a slightly more sedate pace, and with a slight shock Nobility and Commons stood face-to-face.
Toinette was the first to recover herself, jumping to her feet and curtseying. “My lord.”
“Mistress Brogan,” Mordred said formally, but the smile he wore was just as charming as ever — at least in Rosette’s eyes. “You’re well, I trust? And the family?”
“Well, sir, an’ well.”
“You have — two children, now?” he asked.
“Three, sir. Katie, Paddy and Nora.” She patted her stomach. “And a fourth soon, Wright willing.”
“My congratulations.” He smiled at Rosette. “Let me know when the child comes, I’ll see to it that a suitable remembrance is sent.”
“Oh, my lord, ye don’t have ter do that …”
“Nonsense, Mistress Brogan, every child deserves a good start in life.” He turned next to Simon, looking at him with a shade of suspicion.
Simon just grinned and bowed. “M’lord — hey!” He glared down at Melehan, who was pulling at his hose.
“Oh, Melehan! Leave your Uncle Simon alone!” Rosette swooped in and grabbed the child before any disaster could occur.
Mordred’s face cleared, and he followed Rosette. “Master Chevaux. You’ve grown a great deal since I’d last seen you.”
“Don’t doubt it, m’lord. And you can call me Simon.” He reached out and grabbed Mordred’s hand, giving it a hearty shake. “After all, we’re the next best thing to brothers-in-law, ain’t we?”
Rosette was fairly certain she was the only one who could see the tightness Mordred’s lips. “Indeed.” If Simon was waiting for an invitation to be similarly familiar with his “next best thing to a brother-in-law,” he was doomed to disappointment. Instead, Mordred only raised one eyebrow and asked, in a tone of voice that sounded merely curious, “Rosette said you were working for … a miller, I believe?” He glanced at Rosette, who nodded. “How is that going?”
Why did Simon seem so suddenly nervous? “Heh — well enough. He ain’t a bad boss. But, er … I should be probably gettin’ back to the mill.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ll see ye later, Rosie — my lord — an’ ye too, squirt,” he added, ruffling Melehan’s hair. With another quick bow in Mordred’s direction, and a check around the room to make sure that Melou wasn’t underfoot, he beat a hasty retreat out the door.
And as Rosette stared at him and wondered what had been said to make him leave so quickly, Toinette cleared her throat. “Aye, an’ I should get goin’ too, Rosie. Wright knows what Nora will be sayin’ next if I leave her too long with her grandpappy.” Mordred took Melehan from Rosette so she could embrace her sister. “Ye take care, now. Let me know if ye need any help with the little ones.”
“Same to you,” Rosette said with a smile. “And don’t forget my offer.”
“I won’t, I won’t, trust me. Well, it was nice seein’ ye — and ye too, m’lord,” Toinette added. She curtseyed again to Mordred, gave Melou a quick kiss on the top of his head, and retreated almost as quickly as Simon had.
“I wonder what it was I said,” Mordred murmured as soon as the door had safely shut behind her.
“I don’t think it was anything you said,” Rosette said slowly. “I think — well …”
“They were intimidated, naturally. I suppose the last time they were this close to a lord was on tax day,” Mordred said with a shrug. “Not a good train of associations.”
Rosette giggled. “No, not at all …”
“But it’s just as well,” Mordred added philosophically. “After all, isn’t it almost time for the twins’ nap?”
Rosette cocked her head to one side. “I usually don’t put them down for another hour or so …”
“Aw — are you certain?” He grabbed her by the waist and pulled her closer. “Because I can think of much more … entertaining things we can do in the next hour then run ragged after a pair of toddlers.”
Rosette giggled. “Well … when you put it like that …” She smiled. “I guess it won’t kill them to go down an hour early …”
“That’s,” Mordred murmured, nuzzling against her neck, “exactly what I was hoping you’d say.”