“Well, well, well. I didn’t know old Jack kept pretty girls in stock.”
Joyce knew that voice. Joyce hated that voice. Joyce cringed when she heard that voice.
And considering whom the voice belonged to — she doubted anyone would blame her for doing so.
Maybe she would just ignore him. Clarence was, it was true, as dense as a whole hod of unfired bricks, but maybe he would take the hint. It was possible. Stranger things had happened. Yes, she would just keep her back turned, keep looking over the heads of lettuce for tonight’s supper with Berach …
“Hey! Ain’t ye gonna say hello ter yer friend Clarence?”
I ain’t got no friends named Clarence. Joyce glanced sidelong at the boy behind the counter, but he was looking at the design on the money-box, the cobblestones of the square, the hay-wagon perpetually parked in front of her cottage — anywhere but at her. So clearly, he was not about to come to her defense. Though did she really need or want a gangly fifteen-year-old leaping to her rescue?
Then again, considering the alternative …
She stared at the heads of lettuce in the hopes that Clarence would simply get bored and go bother someone else. Preferably an old granny who kept stones in her shopping basket and had no compunction about swinging that basket into harassers’ heads.
“Say, boy!” Clarence called to the boy behind the counter, “how much do pretty ladies go fer? ‘Cause I’d sure like ter take this–”
He grabbed her arm and Joyce shook his grip off. “Don’t touch me.”
He didn’t seem to hear her. “Sa-ay, that’s one firm arm ye’ve got! Who would have thought a little thing like ye —
She just felt his fingers brushing her sleeve and that was enough. “I said not to touch me, ye great oaf!” she snapped, giving him a little shove with her hand.
“Then ye should stop touchin’ me, shouldn’t ye?” Clarence asked, winking as he glanced at the hand that touched his shoulder to keep him — literally — at an arm’s length.
Joyce jerked her hand away as if the contact burned her.
“Aw, what’s the matter, Joyce? Pretty Joyce? Ye scared o’ gettin’ too close ter the big, strong, handsome man?”
“First of all, don’t call me pretty Joyce.”
“Then what should I call ye? Saucy Joyce? Sweet Joyce? Sweet Cheeks?”
His hand moved, but Joyce smacked it down before he could demonstrate just which part of her anatomy he found to be so sweet.
“I told ye not ter touch me!”
“I didn’t touch ye — not yet — ye touched me.” Why was this making him grin like a lipless skull? “Can’t keep your hands off me, can ye?”
“Why I — ugh! Ye insufferable devil!”
“Oh, did ye hear that, Sam?” Clarence asked, glancing over his shoulder at the boy behind the counter. “She really likes me!”
“Are ye deaf or jest an idiot?” Joyce shouted at him. “What part o’ insufferable devil would be causin’ ye ter believe that I felt anythin’ fer ye?!”
“Look ‘ere, missie, I might o’ quit school afore I hit double-digits — but I learned me some things at school, I did. One o’ em is that words like insufferable an’ devil are strong words — an’ women don’t knock around strong words unless they be havin’ strong feelin’s, ye see?”
He leaned close to her and Joyce leaned away, her mouth opening partway in horror and partway in disgust. His breath reeked of onions, garlic and strong, bloody meat. Part of her wondered, idly, where he was eating, for Joyce knew that none of those things were likely to find their way onto Berach’s table.
“Didn’t nobody never tell ye that hate an’ disgust were strong feelin’s?” Joyce answered, sidestepping his leering and half — more than half, completely — hoping he would fall into the display of lettuce.
He didn’t, in fact, he sidestepped along with her. “There ain’t no woman alive who knows how ter feel disgust fer a strong man — ‘cept maybe nuns — an’ ye, Joyce Pelles, ain’t no nun.”
Joyce didn’t bother asking what he meant by that, or what he thought he meant by that; she turned her nose up and walked around him.
He followed. “I mean, I be seein’ what ye do with that dance troupe,” Clarence cooed. “I watch all the performances that I can get into, don’t ye know that? Aye, an’ plenty that there ain’t nobody who wants me ter be there. I see ye. I see those skirts ye wear, they way they kick up an’ show bits o’ leg an’ ankle — what, ye think there’s a man watchin’ ye who don’t see that?”
Joyce didn’t dignify that with a response.
“An’ I see the men who come up ter ye after every show. Tell me, pretty Joyce Pelles, which o’ ’em do ye belong to?”
Joyce froze. “Belong to?”
“Ye gotta belong ter one o’ ’em. Otherwise, how is it that all o’ ’em ain’t shoved ye up a wall an’ got ye back fer teasin’ and titillatin’ ’em?”
Joyce stood still, her breath coming in short gasps. It was true, she couldn’t dance without some member of the audience making a smart comment, and of course she was flirted with after every performance, but this — this — none of those men had offered her anything but something they thought might give them both pleasure! They didn’t have a high opinion of her virtue, true, but she was able to straighten that out very quick. It wasn’t like she was some of the other girls, the ones who needed to have a particularly burly male member of the troupe assigned to act as their “brother” or “husband” and chase away harassers. Joyce had always been able to handle her own harassers, thank you very much.
Perhaps it was because of this that she did not even realize that she had turned around and started to scream at him until she saw Clarence’s ugly mug filling her vision, felt her nails digging into her palms and heard the words tumbling from her mouth. “Ye son o’ a bitch! What the hell do ye think ye’re implyin’?”
“I think I’m implyin’ it’s about time ye stopped this ‘good girl’ nonsense an’ started actin’ like the whore everyone on this square knows ye are,” Clarence answered, so matter-of-factly it was a miracle Joyce didn’t leap upon him like an ill-mannered alley cat and claw his eyes out.
“Ye ain’t married, ye ain’t widowed, ye ain’t livin’ with yer parents even though everyone on this square knows they’re alive — what the hell else are ye?”
“The only reason ye all know me parents are still alive is because either me ma or me da is by me cottage once a week! If I was some whore, why would they be doin’ that, eh?”
“Why should I know or care? Ye ain’t under their roof, like ye should be, so clearly ye ain’t no woman of virtue.”
“Ye don’t know nothin’ about women o’ virtue!”
“Aye, true, but I know everythin’ about women who ain’t got no more virtue than I got gold — an’ I know ’em when I sees ’em.” He leaned closer, that awful smell of onions and garlic and bloody meat invading the air she had to breathe. “An’ I’m lookin’ at one–”
Her palm was stinging and Clarence’s cheek was red before she had consciously decided to lift her hand and slap him.
“Hey! Ye filthy–”
His hand locked around her wrist, but the burly men of the dance troupe had made sure the girls all knew a thing or two about chasing away unwanted male attention, things to keep the men off of them while the girls screamed bloody murder and the burly men of the dance troupe ran to their aid. Joyce twisted her hand out of his grip just as she sent the heal of her sturdy working boot into his instep.
“An’ let that be a lesson to ye!” Joyce shouted. “Ye don’t go insultin’ good women like that! ‘Cause we ain’t all little wallflowers in distress!” she snapped. “An’ another thing — ye bother me again, an’ I’ll make sure me sewin’ scissors go somewhere as’ll make sure ye never bother no woman again!”
He stopped, and she turned around — only then allowing her fear, however momentary and fleeting, to show. Luckily they had the attention of half the square now, so even if the boy behind the counter was too cowardly to say anything to Clarence or even just ask Joyce if he was bothering her, somebody in the crowd would help her if Clarence went after her again. If nothing else, hopefully Clarence wouldn’t be stupid enough to try something with all these people staring at her.
She could feel his glare on the back of her head, cold and menacing. Joyce did nothing obvious, like rolling her shoulders or looking back. But she did tilt her chin up and march toward the small fishmongers’ stall by the church.
Her plans for supper with Berach had just undergone a complete transformation. Fish, she thought now, would be admirable. Some nice trout that had been swimming and doing fishy things in the lake that very morning. Even though it might mean a bit more preparation, it would be completely worth it.
Because when she gutted it, and de-boned it, and prepared it for cooking, her mind would be putting Clarence’s face on it for every step of the way.
“Ye really didn’t have ter do this, Joyce. After all ye’re doin’ fer me?”
“Don’t be silly, Berach, I axed ye here ’cause I wanted ye ter come here,” Joyce answered. “An’ ye could have brought Leah, too. I told ye she was invited, too.”
“Naw, I figured I’d give ye a day off from her. I love that girl an’ Wright knows it, but I ain’t foolish enough ter know she can’t be a handful.”
It was so nice to have Berach in her cottage, talking with her as she prepared their dinner. She wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but sometimes — more than sometimes — it got just too darn lonely in there. It was fine during the days, because somehow Leah’s three-year-old body filled all the nooks and crannies of the cottage in a way Joyce was sure her whole family couldn’t have. But in the evenings … well, in the evenings it was just her and Sable, and though Sable had the cutest puppy face in the whole wide world, Sable wasn’t the same as another Sim.
“Are ye sure there ain’t nothin’ I can do ter help?” Berach asked, edging closer to her, as if to see over her shoulder if there was any part of the dinner preparations that she did not have fully covered.
“Naw, I’ve got everything set.” Could he hear the smile in her voice, she wondered? But having Berach so near her chased away the loneliness, made her feel warm and covered and protected. She found herself wondering if maybe he would touch her shoulder, or her waist, as he used to …
Whoa, Joyce! If ye ain’t movin’ too fast down a road ye’ve already traveled!
“So how are things goin’ with yer young man?” Berach asked.
Joyce almost sliced her finger off. “What?”
“That young what walks ye home in the evenin’s? The big one with the muscles?”
“The — ye mean Charlie?” Joyce chuckled as she brought the pan over to the stove.
“That his name?”
Was it Joyce’s imagination or did Berach sound like he was desperately trying to appear casual? And why couldn’t Joyce help smiling as she heated the pan? “Aye, ’tis. An’ he’s married.”
“He is?” Oh, Berach sounded far too happy when he said that! “I mean — er — well, that don’t look too good fer ye, don’t it?”
“Naw,” Joyce replied. “The girl he’s married to, Amy, she’s a sweet thing. Also in the troupe. An’ they’ve got a little girl, Daisy. She’s so cute, ‘specially when her ma puts daisies in her hair.”
“Oh, Wright, don’t mention that in front o’ Leah. Next thing she’ll be wantin’ flowers in her hair.”
“Well, if she ever does, jest bring her over ter me an’ I’ll figure somethin’ out.” She shook the pan a bit, moving the fish around so it cooked evenly. “Oh, an’ Berach?”
“Jest so ye know … I don’t like with muscles that look like they’re about ter come a-jumpin’ out o’ their skin. Well, I mean, I’m sure I can like them as well as any other Sim, but … let’s jest say, I’m afraid what those arms would do term me if they wrapped around me.” Joyce allowed herself one brief touch of Berach’s shoulder. “I like men who are … leaner.”
“So, that ain’t changed since we … decided it weren’t gonna work out between us.”
That was certainly a diplomatic way of putting it. “Ye’d be amazed at how many things ain’t changed,” Joyce answered.
“I hope some things have,” came Berach’s all-too-serious reply.
Joyce frowned. “Well, sure they have. Life’s change. Like this fish,” she said. “Today it was swimmin’, this afternoon it was lyin’ in a fishmonger’s stall, this evenin’ it was gettin’ cut up an’ raw, an’ now it’s cooked.”
“Is that my hint ter set the table?” Berach joked, and the tension evaporated.
It stayed evaporated even as Joyce sat down and Berach began to shovel food into his mouth. “Goodness!” Joyce laughed. “Is yer own cookin’ that bad?”
“Worse than ye can imagine,” Berach answered around a mouthful of fish. “Though I’ve been gettin’ better. Ye have to, once ye have a little one who’s off the goat’s milk.”
“An’ ye can’t be takin’ her down ter the tavern fer a quick bite ter escape from yer cookin’.”
“Couldn’t even afford it!” Berach laughed.
The smile fell from Joyce’s face. “Truly, Berach?”
He shrugged. “I’m savin’ ter get me house back, Joyce. That means not havin’ a lot of … little luxuries. An’ puttin’ up with some … bigger inconveniences.”
“Oh …” Joyce swallowed and pushed her fish around her plate, praying he wouldn’t bring up his lodger. She didn’t want to sully this day with Clarence even more than it already had been sullied.
“But I won’t go on about me problems,” Berach continued. “That ain’t what ye invited me here for.”
“No, no, it ain’t,” Joyce replied. “I invited ye here so ye could have a nice evenin’, an’ a chat with an’ old friend. Worryin’ about money don’t go into that.”
“No, it don’t!” Berach chuckled. “So how are things goin’ with yer ma an’ da?”
Oh, how she loved that smile of his! So wide and charming. Not leering, either, or the slightest bit possessive. Just … happy. It made her feel happy.
“What–oh! Me ma an’ pa. They’re all right. Ma was awfully shook up, though, when Lord Lot had his … I ain’t even sure what he had, but I hear it’s bad.”
“Aye, aye, I heard the same thing. Lord Pellinore got called ter the Orkney castle the day it happened, though we didn’t know why at the time. Hell, I still don’t know why. Ye’d think the situation would be one fer a doctor, not a magistrate.”
“Maybe it’s jest a family thing? I mean, his daughter’s married ter Sir Mordred. Ain’t she?”
“Bah, nobles don’t see family like we do. I hear tell that they don’t even consider daughters ter be part o’ their family once they’re married off.”
“No! If that ain’t the silliest thing I ever heard!”
“I know, it’s mad, ain’t it? But I guess it comes of havin’ servants.”
“What’s servants got ter do with it?”
“Well, if ye’ve got servants takin’ care o’ ye from the day ye’re born, an’ ye’re only trotted out fer yer parents on special occasions … I dunno, might make ye less fond o’ ’em or somethin’. An’ if ye got servants around, why would ye need family around if someone collapsed? The servants can take care o’ all the messy work.”
“Maybe fer moral support?”
“Aye, maybe,” Berach agreed. “Did I mention this fish was good?”
“Ye said it was better than yer cookin’, but I ain’t sure that was enough ter get it all the way up ter ‘good.'”
“Well, it’s good.” Berach smiled. “It’s very good.”
Joyce grinned back and did her best not to flush.
“Her best,” though, wasn’t very good, and so she looked at her plate. “Ye know, it’s too bad that ye work days an’ I work evenin’s,” she said. “I only get one night a week off, ‘sides Sundays. Makes it hard ter do this often.”
“Aw, I wouldn’t make ye cook fer me every week.”
“Berach, ye ain’t makin’ me do nothin’. That’s — that’s what I like about ye. Ye don’t put no pressure on a girl ter do nothin’.”
He didn’t answer, and when Joyce looked up, she found him watching her with concern. “What?” she asked.
“Joyce, is there — is there a reason ye said that? Is there some man who –”
Joyce glanced at her plate again. “Joyce …” She heard the drag of wool against wood, and felt Berach’s fingers brush hers lightly. Before she was quite aware of what she was doing, she put her hand over his.
She stared at their intertwined hands and felt herself start to smile. “Berach,” she said finally, “other than ye, me da an’ me brothers, there ain’t no man in me life who matters at all …” She smiled at him. “An’ I jest said, ye don’t put pressure on a girl ter do nothin’.”