Helena let her fingers ripple through the boy’s silky hair and come to rest on a satin cheek. Darius grinned up at her. “Sing, Gwandma?”
“Of course, baby.”
This was one of Helena’s favorite parts of being a grandmother. It truly was a gift to watch her grandson’s eyes slowly become leaden, just as his father’s had, to feel his soft little-boy skin under her fingers as she sang. If she closed her eyes, she could almost pretend it was Josh or Rob she was singing to again. It was the same lullaby that had soothed Josh’s colic, Rob’s night terrors, Heloise’s bedtime stubbornness and Babette’s fear of the darkened room.
But it was not the lullaby that had soothed Darius to sleep when he was tiny. That lullaby had been Isabel’s. Helena could not sing it; Isabel had translated it for her a dozen times, but Helena could never make her thick tongue flow around the liquid syllables of Simspanish. For most of Darius’s life, she had shrugged it off. Heloise … well, Babette’s children would hear her lullaby; it made sense that this sort of thing should go mother to daughter. After Isabel’s death, though, Helena had cursed herself for not knowing the lullaby — maybe that might have soothed Darius’s nighttime tantrums, when the pent-up patience that buoyed him through the day finally ran out. At night, Darius had wanted his mother. It got to the point where he would not go to sleep at all — he just screamed himself into exhaustion. Now, though, he went to sleep easily, and never seemed to want Isabel’s lullaby.
He never asked after Isabel anymore, either.
“Night, baby,” Helena whispered when the lullaby came to a close and she began to straighten.
Now that Darius had settled in to the new routine, the lack of Isabel, Helena could shake off the initial relief at the end of the crying fits and see the tragedy in it. Everyone liked to shake their heads and sigh over Baby Belle, who would never know her mother. But part of Helena thought that it was Darius’s case that was sadder. Darius knew Isabel, but he would never remember her. Maybe there would be a fleeting impression of a touch, a scrap of a lullaby he would hum to himself when he was sad or afraid. But other than that? Nothing. He would have nothing more than Baby Belle.
Helena’s mother had died when she was ten. Once upon a time, she had felt so sorry for herself because of that. Losing one’s mother while on the very cusp of womanhood — what was a girl to do! She’d had no older sisters to show her the way, and her father did not remarry until after she married. Poor her!
She’d been full of it back then. Ten years was not a long enough time to have a mother, but it was better than three, and barely three at that. Helena could still remember her mother’s face, and the lullaby she sang to her babies and now her grandbabies had been her mother’s lullaby. And if she worked very hard and was very patient — or bribed one of the boys to figure something out — she could still hear her mother’s laugh whenever something exceptionally amused Heloise. If Baby Belle or one of his own daughters ever came to laugh Isabel’s laugh, Darius would never know.
Helena blew out the candles and watched Darius curl into himself on the pallet. She ought to just walk away, let the boy sleep. He sometimes would wake up if you did not leave the room right after he fell asleep, and then there would begin another round of lullaby-singing, story-telling, and hand-holding. It was adorable, unless it was the third time this week he’d done that.
But, as usual, Helena could not resist one last tousle of the boy’s dark hair. “Goodnight, Darius. Grandma loves you.”
Darius’s toe twitched, but his eyes did not open. Helena stole from the room without a sound.
And once she was outside, the door shut behind her as soft as she could, she waited. A count of ten ought to do it.
One … two … three … four … five …
Odd how thinking of her mother made her think of her husband …
Six … seven … eight … nine … ten!
No plaintive, “Gwandma!” or “Papa!” came from the little one’s room. That should have been her cue to tiptoe down the hall as quick as her feet would take her.
Helena went nowhere.
Her mother was not strong — that was what they had said, heads shaking and whispering, at her funeral. “Well, she was never strong, poor dear …” Those mourners were full of it, of course; Helena saw that now. Her mother had been written off as “dying” and “not strong” since she had been the age Helena was when she died, and yet she’d managed to wed, work, bear and raise three children until that cold had finally been too much for her exhausted body. Not strong, my arse. Helena’s mother had been strong, stronger than any of her mourners, where it counted: in her mind and in her heart. It was only her frail body that had trouble shouldering its share of the burdens.
Her mother had been wise, too. She knew Death was stalking her, ready to swipe her with his scythe the moment she let her guard down. She refused to let him defeat her, though. If he insisted on taking her early, then she’d squeeze all the living she could out of the time she was allotted. “Life’s too short,” that was her motto. Life was too short to keep the house spotless, to not eat dessert, to not pull her husband (Helena’s father) up to bed in the middle of the afternoon, never mind that the shop was technically open and customers waiting.
Helena always felt vaguely ashamed when she thought of her mother and her marriage. Life was too short for the periods of the barest civility between husband and wife to stretch from hours, to days, to months and then to years. Her mother would have been so disappointed if she could have seen the way Helena’s marriage had crumbled while she was busy doing other things. Life was too short to have taken everything Mark had said so to heart. She should have done her best to forget about it, and make him forget about it too.
Well, there was no time to fix it like the present. Life was, after all, quite short.
If any of Helena’s numerous male acquaintances and more-than-acquaintances could have seen her at that moment, they would have recognized the look on her face, the smirk on her lips, the swish of her hips underneath that thin nightgown. They would have known it was time to start salivating. They would have been lining up.
And when Helena opened the door to her bedroom and drawled, “Hello, dear,” they would have sat up and paid attention.
Helena struck her best pose, the one she’d shamelessly copied from the shop girls her father had hired after her mother’s death. Hips cocked, bust forward, hand on one hip, pressing her nightgown flat against it so her interlocutor could see the shape of it. And of course, there was the smile. Brighter than a thousand thousand candles, and all for the man she was currently aiming it for (or so he would think, whether it was true or not). It was the pose that had stood her in good stead, for one purpose or another, since she was thirteen.
Mark was slipping his feet under the sheets. He didn’t even look up.
“Mark?” she crooned.
“Mark!” Helena snapped, shutting the door for emphasis.
He looked up. “What?”
Not the most auspicious of beginnings. Helena fixed her smile. “Going to bed already?” she simpered.
“You look ready for bed.”
“There’s ready for bed,” she stalked over to him, “and then there’s ready for … bed.”
Mark’s eyebrows slowly rose like a kite caught by the wind and taking flight. He stood. “Helena …”
“Don’t you want to get ready for … bed?” she asked.
“I mean, truly! How long has it been?” she giggled — and then thought about that. Perhaps that wasn’t the best question to ask. She changed course. “Now, I know that there are some couples who take a vow of chastity in the sunsets of their lives, the better to devote their lives to the Lord and so forth … but Mark, we haven’t entered the sunset yet. We’re barely in the late afternoon, don’t you think?”
He sighed. “I have an early day tomorrow, I don’t want to argue semantics with you now.”
“That’s easy to fix. Stop arguing.” She laid her hand on his shoulder, let it creep spider-like into his curls. Oh, how she had loved his curls when they were first married! So thick and crisp! She liked her own waves, too, but thinking of those curls on a baby’s head had made the processes of pregnancy and childbirth seem almost worth it!
From that it was nothing to rest her fingers on the back of his neck, tilt her head, close her eyes — lean it —
Her eyes sprang open to find her husband springing away from her and into the bedside table, which rocked and swayed. Mark grabbed the candle before it could be upset.
“Son of a–” he started, but finished with a glare. “Wright Almighty! What does it take to get through to you?”
“I’m not interested!” Mark sighed. “I told you, I have an early day tomorrow!”
“What, you can’t sleep in if you feel like it? You’re the boss!”
“Rob asked me to swing by the pet shop tomorrow afternoon –”
“So you can swing by in the afternoon! Have a leisurely morning! You don’t think Josh can handle the stables without you?”
Mark stared at her for a long moment, then sighed. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
“I understand that you are a gifted business man, and so is Josh, and so he should be able to handle things for one day –”
Mark rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath, then squeezed around her.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Helena snapped, grabbing his elbow. Her voice, however, did not gain so much as a smidgen of volume. If there was any one thing she had learned in all her years of marriage, it was how to fight in a whisper.
Mark shook the elbow off as a horse would shake off a bothersome fly. “To Heloise’s old bedroom, because I’m obviously not going to get any sleep here tonight!”
Helena flinched — he could have slapped her, and she could not have been more stunned and stung. “What?”
“Heloise’s bedroom. There’s a bed in there. A single bed, and blessedly unoccupied.”
“Blessedly?” she hissed. “What is that supposed to mean?”
If there was anything he could do that would make her blood boil, it was this — sighing, rolling his eyes, scowling. As if she were the idiot for not understanding! Who in his right mind would rather sleep than make love to a beautiful woman — and if she wasn’t beautiful anymore, well, she was still a damn sight better than most other women her age!
“What it says! Wright Almighty! What do you think it means? It means I want to be left alone!”
“Alone! Alone! I’ve left you alone for — I don’t even know how long now! Don’t you ever get tired of being alone?”
Mark’s eyelids flickered, but the only thing he did that could be considered a response was to shrug.
The air whistled between her teeth as she sucked it in. “Marital rights are a two-way street, you know!”
“Oh, says the woman who kicked me out of her bed for almost a year!”
“After what you said to me! What you accused me of! What you said about our daughter!” Helena snarled.
“Everything I said, you never denied!”
She did not flinch at that. She had known, if she ever brought the conversation up again, that would be Mark’s main weapon against her. That was why she had kept silent for so long. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Mark. You want me to deny it? Fine. I’ll –”
“No!” His hand sliced, cutting the air between them in behalf. “That’s the thing. I don’t want to hear you deny it. I don’t want to be lied to!”
“Lied to? When have I ever lied to you?”
“Every day of our marriage, for all I know!”
“Mark!” Helena whisper-cried. “How can you even say something like that?”
“Because it’s true, for one thing!”
“I never told you a lie–”
“Oh, let’s not even start with that,” Mark scoffed.
“I haven’t!” Thinking of various things she had said to her husband over the years which might not have held up to the strict standard of truth she had just imposed on herself, she backtracked, “Well, not about anything important! Not about –”
“Helena, every word out of your mouth might have been the Lord’s own truth for all I care, but you were never truthful with me! If you didn’t want me, why the hell did you marry me?”
Helena blinked. “Now I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Twenty-seven years ago, Helena, you had a choice. You could have said no. If this wasn’t what you wanted, you could have told me so and it could have been over then and there! But after, it was too late!”
“Mark, what are you trying to say?”
“You lied to me!” Mark could not, would not roar with Darius sleeping down the hall, and Babette getting ready for bed or fixing her hair or doing who knew what else the next door down from Darius. But in his face, there was still something of the lion all the same. “You said you would stay faithful and true to me forever, or at least until one or the other of us died! And you lied to me!”
She felt the bones of her spine lock, each and every one of them, into place. She could have no more backed down then than she could have skipped to the moon. “I didn’t lie to –”
“Oh, because you weren’t planning on being unfaithful then and there, is that it?”
“How dare you? Who do you think you are?”
“Your husband, in case you’ve forgotten — again! Since you seemed to have trouble remembering that little — detail!” Mark kicked the side of the bed.
“I’ve never forgotten it!”
“Perhaps not. If you forget you have a husband, then you forget to be careful, and he might catch you.”
“Catch me! Catch me! Aye, and that’s one thing you’ve never done, isn’t it?” Helena edged closer, the better to hiss in his face. “You’ve never caught me. You’ve never found anything to suggest to you that I was unfaithful!”
“Babette’s eyes. Her jaw. Her –”
“Stop it!” Helena gasped. “Stop it! If — if you think you have anything to reproach me with, you leave her out of it! She’s nothing to do with any of it!”
“Nothing to do with your infidelity? Fine, if that’s the way you want to be. If you can’t be a decent wife, you can at least be a good mother.”
“If I’m not a good wife, then what do you think I am? Some kind of whore?”
“Better an honest whore than a lying wife!”
“For heaven’s sake! As if you could find an honest whore! They don’t exist!”
Mark pulled away, a sudden faraway look springing into his eyes. It struck her as familiar, somehow, but Helena had no time to ponder why.
All he said, though, was, “You’d be surprised.”
Then he turned and strode away from her.
“Where are you going?” Helena snapped.
He wasn’t going — he couldn’t be going —
Helena watched him open one of the drawers of the bureau.
“You can’t go out!”
He said it without anger, without even a kind of horrible glee at winning when she was so obviously lost. He said it with no more excitement than he would announce the state of the weather, or the latest news from Glasonlander merchant circles.
“It’s late! You said you have an early start tomorrow!”
Mark pulled his sleeping shirt over his head and replaced it with a day shirt. “As you pointed out, I’m the boss — and Josh is more than capable of seeing to things for a day or so.”
“What if you fall off your horse? Or get set upon in the night? You’re mad to go out at this hour!”
“If it’s as late as you say, I’m sure the thieves and footpads are in their beds — or else they’re planning to rob a house or a warehouse. Not just some lone traveller.”
“Traveller? Where are you going?”
He did answer at first; he had a tunic over his head. But when he did turn to answer, he only had one word for her anyway: “Out.”
He pulled his boots on without so much as looking at her.
“Mark, turn around when you’re fighting with me!”
He grabbed his money bag from the top of the dresser and affixed it to his belt.
He left without another word, not even shutting the door.
“Mark?” Helena whispered. It was not even a whisper-shout, just a whisper. “Mark?”
The door did not open. All that broke the silence was the creaking of the stairs as Mark descended.
Threats were born, reached her lips, and died unsaid. What was the use of even thinking them? Mark wasn’t here to hear them. He wasn’t around to respond. And even if he had been …
Helena wouldn’t think of that. But in the course of not thinking about it, she thought of something else.
That faraway look in his eyes. She had seen it before. She had seen it turned on her, when they were courting, twenty-seven, twenty-eight years ago.
Apparently Mark, too, had decided that life was too short.