“Happy birthday, Basil,” Pierre said as he lifted his son from his crib. Pierre’s bright blue eyes, a gift from his Grandma Pelles, smiled into his green ones. “Two years old already! Ye’re gettin’ so big!”
“Aye, very big. ‘Fore long, ye’re gonna be too big for Papa ter go holdin’ onto ye. What do ye think o’ that?”
Basil’s lip quivered. “No Papa hold?”
“Er …” Well, he hadn’t planned on that reaction. “Someday, champ. But not yet. But fer now …” Without warning, he tossed Basil into the air. “Fer now, Papa can still make ye fly!”
He caught Basil, and Basil grabbed onto his arms. “Do ‘gain! Do ‘gain!”
He’d learned that particular phrase just after he’d mastered “no.”
“Well, I don’t know, scamp … ye might go throw the ceilin’, ye know, if we ain’t careful. Papa don’t know his own strength.”
“PAPA! Do ‘gain!”
“Aw — all right. Seein’ as it is yer birthday an’ all.” Up in the air Basil went again, squealing all the way.
“That good fer now, Basil?” Pierre asked. “Or am I gonna have ter tickle ye until ye beg fer mercy?”
“Aw, what’s the matter, two years old an’ ye’re too old fer a tickle from yer ol’ man?”
“Two years old an’ not a sibling in sight,” Cerise sighed. “Ain’t it a pity?”
Pierre stiffened. Basil looked up at him with wide eyes. “Ma, unless I lost track o’ me figures, there’s seven years between Toinette an’ me.”
“Bah, that was different. Yer father was away at that last war, don’t ye ferget.”
Pierre wondered how he was supposed to forget something he wasn’t alive to remember in the first place. But he did remember hearing about the military debacle that was then-Prince Vortigern’s attempt to re-seat one of his brothers-in-law on the Reman throne. He hadn’t been able to get the whole army of Glasonland involved; his father wouldn’t hear of it. So the lords who were Prince Vortigern’s closest allies had raised armies of their indentured men and tried to storm Reme. They’d had some stunning, and surprising, victories on the way in … which was probably why it took them five years to finally quit, and nearly another year for all the men to finally make their way home. Those who survived, that was.
Edmond never talked about that war. Finley Brogan, who was also in it, never really talked about it either, except to say that it was yet more proof that nobles couldn’t tell the truth about anything to save their lives. Pierre never figured out what he meant by it, for that remark was always followed by a request for more beer, ale, wood alcohol — whatever was on hand.
“Well, in any case, so what if he don’t have a sibling? Fer Wright’s sake, he’s only two. He’s probably enjoyin’ bein’ the center of attention an’ all.” Before Basil could begin to sense his discomfort, Pierre set him on the ground. Basil looked up at the two of them, then toddled over to where he had left the horse Pierre had carved for him one long winter’s night.
With that, Pierre turned to his mother. “Besides, Ma — I don’t know if ye’ve noticed, but Meg ain’t exactly …” He glanced toward Basil. “She ain’t exactly let me back into her bed yet, ye know. Kinda hard ter make a little sib for Basil without access there.”
“I’ve noticed, Pierre. First of all, ye’re still sleepin’ up in the loft with yer Pa an’ I, an’, well … ye don’t get ter be my age without gettin’ at least a noddin’ acquaintance with the facts o’ life.”
“I would imagine.”
“But Pierre, d’ye really think ye can rebuild yer marriage if ye don’t start actin’ like husband an’ wife again?”
“… Ma, ye know, there is such a thing as too much meddlin’.”
“Look, I know ye don’t want ter talk about this sort o’ thing with me. I tried ter get yer father ter do it, but he pretended he was goin’ deaf an’ wouldn’t listen.”
That’s because Pa has a sense of TACT and BOUNDARIES, Ma!
“But, well, yer Pa an’ I are both gettin’ older. We want ter meet as many grandchildren as possible before we — well. Ye know what happened ter Jeremiah Thatcher last year.”
“Ma, ye ain’t goin’ nowhere until ye’re good an’ ready ter go.” I’d bet the Lord Wright would rather let ye stick around fer a while longer than listen ter all the grief ye’d give ‘im fer takin’ ye before ye were good an’ ready!
“Ye don’t know that.”
“Still. Meg an’ I got more … problems ter work through before we can start even thinkin’ about a siblin’.”
“Are ye even tryin’ ter work through ’em?”
“Are we even–MA! Ma, we’re making progress! We’re …” She’s smilin’ at me again. She’s talkin’ ter me about more than jest necessities. Fer Wright’s sake, three nights ago I made her laugh! She laughed, at me! I’d barely seen her more ‘an chuckle since — since Erin showed up, an’ now I’m makin’ her laugh!
“Oh, ye’re gettin’ along better, that’s fer certain-sure. But how much o’ that is jest exhaustion after fightin’ so long?”
“Does it matter if it is?”
“Yes, Pierre, yes, it does matter. It matters because I want ter see ye happy. Ye ain’t happy if ye’re still sleepin’ up here, in the loft.”
“Well, obviously, Ma. But I ain’t expectin’ ter get some forgiveness without some — some penance!”
“I know, I know. But think about Basil, too.”
“What about Basil? Ma, he’s two. He probably wouldn’t know what a baby sib was if we gave him one fer a birthday present!”
“Pwesent?” Basil asked, making both Cerise and Pierre jump.
“Later, scamp,” Pierre replied. He turned again to his mother. “Now ye’re puttin’ ideas into his head.”
“I ain’t puttin’ ideas into no one’s head. Pierre, I understand why ye an’ Meg waited until Basil was a year old before even thinkin’ about tryin’ again, I do. It was madness, havin’ ye an’ Rosette less than a year apart. There’s a reason why Simon came along that much later, ye know.”
“Ma, does the phrase ‘too much information’ mean anythin’ ter ye?”
“Shush, let me finish. Look, it’s not good ter have kids ter close too together, aye. But it ain’t good ter have them too far apart, neither. They’ll get spoiled. An’ before ye even mention Toinette,” Cerise continued, her voice rising, “I could barely even feed the two of us, sometimes, when yer pa was away. There weren’t no way that girl was gettin’ spoiled.
“Look,” she concluded, “I know ye don’t want ter hear me — I don’t know why, but I know it’s the truth. So I won’t say nothin’ more. But jest think about it. That’s all I’m axin’ ye ter do. Jest think about it.”
Later that night, as they all ate the cake Meg had baked for Basil’s birthday, though, Pierre couldn’t help but wonder. That kid sure did know what he wanted, and how to get it. Why, Meg had let him dribble his fingers all through the icing — twice! “Aw, it’s nothin’, an’ it’s his birthday, too,” Meg had said when Cerise frowned, and Cerise had wisely not pursued the subject — probably because she was too busy pursuing Edmond, who had decided to defuse the tension by dragging his own finger through the icing and dabbing some on Basil’s nose, with a wooden spoon.
Anyway, it didn’t matter if Basil was getting spoiled. Well, it did, of course, but not in the way Cerise was trying to make it matter. For Wright’s sake, he’d never heard of a stupider idea than to have a second child in order to prevent the first one from getting spoiled! Not that he didn’t want a second child, and probably a third and a fourth, someday. But certainly not just to stop Basil from getting spoiled.
But if it was such a crazy idea, then why, when the supper dishes were cleared, when Basil was safely in bed and his parents, too — when Meg was probably asleep by now and he wasn’t even undressed yet — why was he standing outside the door to the room that a year ago had been his and Meg’s, and now was, really, just Meg’s?
Why was he knocking?
And when her soft voice said, “Come in,” why did his hand turn the knob, why did his arm push the door open, and why did his feet march over to her bedside?
At least she was still awake. She was dressed for sleep, but she was lying in bed, reading. Pierre didn’t recognize the book, but she had probably borrowed it from somebody. Father Hugh, maybe. He’d lend out a book to anyone who asked for one.
“Pierre? Is somethin’ wrong?” Meg set the book to the side, started to rise. “Is Basil sick? Oh, Wright, I shouldn’t have given him all that sweet stuff before bed–”
“Meg, Meg, calm down. There ain’t — nothin’s wrong. Everythin’s fine, Meg.”
“Oh.” Her back sank against the pillows. “Then — then what did ye need?”
“I needed — I wanted — Meg, can we talk?”
She watched him, eyes narrowed. Her eyes were already narrow enough, didn’t she know that he loved them wide, open, drinking in the world around her? “Aye, we can.”
“Can I sit?”
Slowly, he lowered himself down to the squashy pallet. Wright — how long had it been since he had sat here, on this mattress, next to this woman? How long had it been since he had touched her …
Well, he certainly wouldn’t be touching her again now, not with the way she was moving away from him. “What’d ye need, Pierre?”
Pierre took a deep breath, and suddenly had no idea where to begin. “Basil,” he spat out without thinking. “He — he’s gettin’ big, ain’t he?”
Meg smiled. “Aye, that he is.”
“D’ye think …” How the hell to put this? “D’ye think he might be gettin’ lonely? He’s of an age ter start playin’ with other little ones, ye know.”
“No — no, he ain’t that old, not yet.” Meg chuckled. “When little ones are Basil’s age, they only notice another little one if that little one has a toy they want.”
“Oh.” Well, there went that approach. “Still, though. Don’t fightin’ over toys teach little ones somethin’?”
“Hmm. Ye’ve got a point,” Meg mused. “Maybe we should bring him over more often ter Toinette’s. He can get into right good fights with Nora an’ Sean.”
“Ye, ye don’t think somethin’ a little … closer ter home might be in order?”
Pierre knew Meg’s eyebrow. He knew what ever little degree more of curve meant. A fifteen-degree arc was normal. Thirty, amused. Forty, confused.
This eyebrow was practically at a ninety-degree turn. “Pierre, is that supposed ter be some sort of trick ter get me ter let ye back into me bed?”
Damn it! “Er … well, eventually. I mean, I was just thinkin’, we both want what’s best fer Basil …”
“She got to ye, too, didn’t she?”
“She — who?” But the lead ball in Pierre’s stomach already knew who.
“Yer ma, who else?” Meg answered. “She talked ter me about a week ago. Tried ter feed me a cock an’ bull story about how it’d be best fer Basil if we had another kid. I told her that Toinette seemed ter turn out jest fine with seven years between her an’ ye, an’ that I ain’t worried about Basil.”
“Ma had an answer fer that when I talked ter her.”
“I ain’t surprised, but I told her, before she could say nothin’, that I didn’t want ter hear it. I’d let ye back into my bed when I was good an’ ready, an’ not a second before.” Meg settled back and looked at the ceiling. “Then, o’course, she tried ter guilt-trip me about her an’ yer pa wantin’ ter meet grandkids.”
“I told her she ain’t goin’ nowhere until she’s good an’ ready ter go.”
“Well, ye were nicer than I was. I told her if she wanted ter meet more grandkids, Rosette had two of ’em. An’, if Toinette’s ter be believed, she’ll have another one in five months or so. So what’s Cerise gettin’ on my case fer?”
Pierre whispered. “Ye said that?”
“Aye, why not?”
“‘Cause … wow. I’d never be that brave.”
“She never chased me around with a wooden spoon, growin’ up. I suppose ye might have an easier time standin’ up to me ma than I would,” Meg replied philosophically.
Pierre stared at her. Stand up to her mother? First of all, why would he ever need to? Betsy Pelles was nothing if not kind and accommodating. Secondly, if he tried, Martin would probably beat him to death with his old cudgel. He still hadn’t forgiven Pierre for the whole “cheated on his daughter” thing.
“So, now that ye’ve run yer ma’s errand …”
“Who’s ter say it’s just me ma’s errand?”
She didn’t say anything. Didn’t seem to breathe. Didn’t blink. She just stared at him.
“Meg — Meg, I love ye,” he said. “I know I don’t say that often enough, and Wright knows — Wright knows I ain’t showed it often enough. But I … I do. An’ I want ter be close to ye. Is that so wrong?”
“What, I’m supposed ter put out jest because ye say ye’re sorry?”
“No, no, that’s not what I’m sayin’ at all. I’m jest wonderin’ if, if maybe a bit of … of physical affection might help.”
“No, Pierre. I ain’t ready yet.”
“I know — I know ye ain’t ready fer — that. I ain’t axin’ fer that. I’m jest axin’ if we could — ye know — work toward that.” Before she could answer, he added, “An’ I would like another baby, ye know.”
“We ain’t ready fer that. I’m not bringin’ another baby inter this until things get better.”
“I know, I ain’t axin’ ye too. I’m jest sayin’ … well, don’t ye want another baby? Basil ain’t gonna be little fer much longer.”
Meg bit her lip. “No, he ain’t.”
“So maybe — maybe we could make that a goal. Gettin’ ready ter make another baby.”
“… We could, I suppose.”
“Good.” Without stopping permission, because if he had he never would have had the courage to go through with it, Pierre sidled closer to Meg and put an arm around her shoulder, drawing her near to him.
To his surprise, she wasn’t stiff and unyielding in his arms. No, she was soft Meg, soft and fluid, fitting into all the cracks and angles of his body as if they had been made for her and only her.
They sat there a moment, just enjoying the sensation. Then Pierre sighed and kissed Meg’s forehead. “Good night, Meg. Ye sleep well now.”
“Ye too, Pierre.”
And with that, he got up and left the room, to sleep in the narrow bed in the loft.