“Ma-ma,” Melehan half-said, half-sang, his little foot kicking the high chair with every syllable, “when’s Papa coming?”
“I don’t know, Melehan,” Rosette replied in as harried a manner as she could muster as she slapped Melou’s dinner before him. Melehan was the more sensitive of her sons; he usually quieted down when she seemed to be overwhelmed or busy. Melou, on the other hand …
“Why not?” Melou demanded.
Rosette tousled her son’s curls and scurried back to the counter to grab Melehan’s dinner.
“Mama!” Melou yelled.
“Melou! That’s enough!” Rosette snapped over her shoulder. Then she cringed. What, was she turning into her mother, yelling at her children for asking questions that — from their point of view — could only be innocent? Was that the mother she really wanted to be?
And it was only natural that her children would ask after their father. He was usually so good about coming to see them, and unlike Aimée, who was old enough to recognize Mordred as someone she liked but not old enough to realize that he ought to be coming regularly, the twins were more than old enough to figure out his schedule for coming to see them and wonder why it wasn’t being met.
Schedule … good about coming to see them … Thinking of her mother must have upset some sort of cosmic balance in her own mind, for the traitorous voice that sounded so much like Cerise’s was tossing those words back at her, letting them echo off the walls of her skull. The traitorous voice would soon, she knew, start asking her questions, like why it was that her boys only saw their father on a schedule and not every day, why her daughter only recognized her father as “someone she liked,” and what Mordred was doing with his other children at this very moment if she didn’t do something to forestall it.
Rosette took a deep breath. “Boys,” she started, plunging into recital without thought — anything to keep that voice at bay — “the reason why your papa hasn’t been coming to see us is … well, you see, your papa’s papa –”
“Papa!” Melehan called out, just as the door swung open.
“Papa,” Rosette echoed weakly.
“No, dear, just me,” Mordred replied with his customary smirk as he sauntered into the room.
A thousand questions crowded around her tongue — How is your family? How did you get away? Are you all right? Just — how are you? — but none could find their way out. She was forced to watch, mute as a planet before its sun, as he made his way toward her.
But at least she could watch. She could store away every last detail of how he moved, how he walked, how he held his head and his shoulders and his spine as he made his way toward her and the boys. She’d watched him walk for years; she knew his every movement — surely, she would be able to judge how he was from that.
Yet she could detect nothing. His stride was still that of the careless lordling, the man who always traveled in a straight line between two points because he knew that there was nothing in between those two points that would not scurry out of the way as he approached, including Rosette. His chin was up as high as ever, shoulders back, and his smile … well, it was the smile he always wore in front of the boys. It told the boys that Papa was here, and it told Rosette nothing.
He kissed Melehan’s straight copper hair, then Melou’s auburn curls. Then he turned, finally, to Rosette. “Rosette.”
“My lord,” she murmured.
He did not correct her, as he often did. Not today. Today, he laid a hand on her waist and coaxed her to him.
“Gross!” Melou groaned.
For once, both of his parents ignored him. Only Melehan tossed him a sympathetic glance behind his mother’s back. But Rosette, for once, had more important things to do than watch what her children were up to. She was too occupied with their father.
She thought she knew Mordred’s walk, but that was nothing to how she knew his kiss, or his kisses. She knew the dozen little pecks so cleverly calculated to make her pant and practically weep with desire; she knew the rough, fierce ones that left her lips feeling bruised and sore for days. She knew, too, the unassuming ones of pure passion — the ones, Rosette thought, that Mordred only used when he was truly thinking of nothing but her, but them. And she knew the dutiful hello and good-bye kisses, too.
This one was cleverly disguised to be a mere hello peck. But though Mordred’s lips succumbed as firmly to his discipline as any of his late father’s soldiers might have, his hands were not so amenable to his command. There was something in the way he crushed her to him, his hands not even bother cursory explorations, just holding her —
Mordred pulled away too suddenly for a kiss hello. He looked into her eyes and tried to raise one eyebrow in that way he had, that way that said, We should continue this in the bedroom. But it was too late for that. Rosette was not fooled.
Yet, as if the desire for comfort and love from her and not mere sex was something shameful, Mordred turned from her. “Where’s my angel?”
“Aimée’s not an angel, she’s a baby,” Melou sniffed.
Mordred was already making his way toward the crib, but still was able to toss off an easy quip. “Ah, but Melou, hasn’t your Mama told you that all little babies start off as angels?”
“Even us, Mama?” Melehan asked.
Rosette did not answer. She was too busy watching out of the corner of her eye. Watching Mordred coo to the baby, and imagining — she could not clearly see through the wicker cradle — how Aimée would open up her dark green eyes. How they would focus on Mordred’s face, how she would smile. Maybe Mordred would smile as well, a real smile, not a mere smirk. Rosette wasn’t asking to be able to coax a true smile from him, not at a time like this. She’d be happy with a bit of honesty. But maybe if the baby could make him smile, that would be just as well.
“We weren’t angels,” Melou announced confidently. “And we weren’t babies, neither!”
“Oh, yes, you were, even littler than Aimée is now,” Mordred replied over his shoulder. “Littler than Aimée ever was!”
“No!” Melou called.
“Oh, yes,” Rosette tried to laugh, “you and Melehan were both much littler than Aimée when you were just born, even though you’re big boys now.”
“We were?” Melehan gasped. “Why?”
“Because you both had to fit into Mama’s tummy, silly — and Mama doesn’t have that big of a tummy!” Or at least, she hadn’t until she’d started carrying the twins. She doubted she would ever be that slim again.
“And after you and your brother stretched your Mama’s tummy,” Mordred added, half into the baby’s neck, “little Aimée here had plenty of room to stretch and grow, and so she decided to get bigger.”
One quick glance to make sure that Melou wasn’t about to throw his dinner into Melehan’s hair and Melehan wasn’t about to “accidentally” knock his bowl to the floor and Rosette was able to creep up to Mordred. “Mordred? Are you hungry?”
“I ate before I came,” Mordred replied. “But don’t mind me if you need to eat.” He rubbed the baby’s face with his cheek, then inhaled deeply. “Lord, what herbs are you putting in with her bath water? She smells so good …”
Babies, when clean, did tend to smell good — Mordred, of all men, should know this by now — but Rosette only shrugged. “Just a little bit of lavender.”
“Just a little bit of lavender,” he echoed to no apparent purpose. He kissed the baby’s cheek and continued to cradle her close.
“Aaaah,” Aimée cooed, her little fingers kneading in Mordred’s surcoat.
“Ah,” Mordred echoed. Aimée saw her mother over her father’s shoulder and shot her an enormous gumless grin. Rosette would not have been a mother if she did not smile back from her heart.
“Uh oh,” Mordred murmured.
“Does she need to be changed?”
“No … but I think she’s getting hungry. She’s trying to suck my shoulder.”
“Oh, Aimée! Silly girl! It’s Mama who feeds you, not Papa!” Rosette took the baby from Mordred.
“MA-MA!” Melou called. “I’m DONE!”
Mordred rolled his eyes. “You get her fed. I’ll take care of the boys.”
And so he did. It was too much to hope that Mordred would wash up the bowls, or even put them in the sink; he was too much of a lord’s son and a lord not to assume that a crew of servants could come throw and clean it all for him. But he was a good enough and skilled enough father to get two not-quite-four-year-olds out of their chairs and up the stairs without any major mishaps. Rosette could hear them playing even as she sat upstairs and nursed Aimée.
Later, when Aimée was nursed and burped and washed and changed one last time before she was put into bed, when Rosette could come downstairs and — for once! — sit in one of the chairs with nothing to do, she had to reflect on how lucky she was. Even if she wasn’t married, even if she was living in a state of sin. Even Mordred didn’t come every day, even if he had missed nearly a fortnight with them in the turmoil of his father’s passing. Even if he wouldn’t even talk to her. He was a good father.
He was good enough to sit on the floor with Melou and invent new games to play with that same little block toy that had been occupying Melou since he was old enough to be trusted not to swallow the pieces. He would call to Melehan from time to time, too, and keep him occupied. How many fathers would do that? None of Rosette’s acquaintance. She couldn’t even remember her father doing that; though, to be fair, she would hardly remember if he had done that with her or Pierre, and when Simon was that age, her father tended to be entertaining her and Pierre to keep them out of their mother’s hair while Toinette tended Simon and her mother took care of everything else.
There were fine ladies, Rosette was sure, who weren’t this lucky. From what she had picked up around Camford and some things Mordred had said, most lords saw the rearing and playing with children as something that was beneath them. Even Mordred himself — back when they were first courting — had spoken of his father’s “doting” over his little sister as if it were something to be mildly ashamed of.
That brought a tear to Rosette’s eye. Oh, how wrong Mordred had been then — and look at him now! She found herself praying that, wherever he was, Lord Lot could see his son on this very evening. Surely it would make him happy to see what a good father his son was being!
In fact, Mordred was even a good enough father, once bedtime was nigh, to help her wash the twins for the night and put them to bed — enduring their mighty and loud protests, even!
A lesser woman might have wondered what a lucky woman Lady Dindrane was — but Rosette had long ago done her best to banish such thoughts from her mind.
But Mordred, being Mordred, had an ulterior motive in mind … especially when he was being helpful.
As soon as Melou’s head hit the pillow, Mordred pounced. His arms locked around her, pinning hers to her sides. Rosette did not struggle. She used to, back when they were first courting. But struggling never did her any good. For all that Mordred’s ardor seemed to increase when she struggled, it only made his arms around her clasp more tightly and hurt her more. It was best to go limp and let him do as he liked.
Tonight, letting him do as he liked meant letting him crush her to his chest — so tight she was sure that, when she removed her bodice and shift, she would see little indentations on her breasts from his chain maille. Never mind the three layers of fabric that separated the chain maille from her, they would still be there. His tongue pressed insistently at her lips, like a soldier demanding entry to a besieged town. Rosette opened the gate, but victory so easily won seemed not to please him, for he did not even stay to pillage — just made a couple of exploratory swipes — before retreating. No sooner had the gates closed than the soldier was pressing for entry again. This time, Rosette let him have the fight he wanted.
At least until his hands started to fiddle with the waistband of her skirt, and for the first time since they had consummated their love, a yelp of real panic, the kind she used to make when they were courting and Mordred would press too far again, rose from the back of Rosette’s throat.
Suddenly she was upright, panting, and Mordred had let her go and was grinning at her.
That grin made her forget her panic — her fear that Mordred would loosen her skirt, and then her bodice, and take her on the floor right between the sleeping twins. That grin always made her forget her panic. As long as Mordred grinned at her like that, she would catch her breath and nine times out of ten be the one to latch onto him again, not the other way around.
There was, however, always the tenth time.
“Wright,” Mordred murmured, his hands on Rosette’s shoulders, holding her in place, “I needed that.”
Rosette only smiled.
“Didn’t you need that?” Mordred teased, but in his tease was a hint of warning.
“Oh, Mordred …”
His hands locked around her waist, tugging her chest to meet his. “Well? Didn’t you?”
Rosette pulled away, trying her best to be coy, but coyness had never come naturally to her. “I always need you,” she sighed.
“I didn’t ask whether you needed me, love,” Mordred purred, “I asked whether you needed that.”
Rosette only smiled. And Mordred let go.
She could not even ask what she had done wrong, because Mordred was watching her with the intensity of a spy scouting out the enemy’s position. “Is it your monthly visitor?” he asked.
“You’re not particularly amorous tonight.” There was a hint — just a hint — of reproach in his voice. But a hint was all he ever needed.
“No — no, it’s not that,” she answered. “It’s …”
It’s you! she wanted to shout. Your father died a fortnight ago! I want you to talk to me! I want you to admit that you’re sad! I want you to treat me like a Sim, not a hole you can fill and forget your problems for a night! I want to help you, damn it!
But maybe what he needed, tonight, was a hole. She could be a hole, if that was what he needed.
“It’s just … wouldn’t you rather take this to the bedroom?” she asked, doing her level best to be seductive.
Mordred only smirked.
He stroked her cheek, then brushed some of the trailing wisps of hair back beyond her ear. “You,” he murmured. “Trying to lure me into the bed. I see your wiles, woman.”
“Not,” Mordred let his finger trail down her cheek, to her neck, across her shoulder, and below her shift, “that you’re particularly wily at the worst of times … at least, not wily in the general sense.” He smiled. “Ah, Rosette. You’re an innocent. Pure. Why would you want to change that?”
She smiled. Even after all these years — even after all they had done together! — she was still innocent and pure in one man’s eyes. “I still want to take this into the bedroom,” she murmured.
“As my lady wishes.”
But once she got into the bedroom, there would be no escape. She knew that. Maybe this was what Mordred needed. If it was, well, she would give it to him. It was the least she could for him — it was all, it seemed, he was in a mood to let her do to him.
No sooner did the door close than Mordred’s finger hooked into the laces of her bodice and started untying; Rosette loosened the drawstring of her skirt and let it fall before he could get there. Her bodice he slipped over her shoulders and down her arms. And Rosette, she went to work on his surcoat — easy — and then his maille, which was not so easy and indeed would have been impossible without his eager collusion.
But it was not too long before the chain maille was lying in a heavy metal heap atop her skirt, soon to be covered by Mordred’s tunic (much easier to remove). So he was down to his chausses, braisses and boots, she down to her shift, hosen and shoes. Her shoes were soon gone, too, and Mordred pounced.
This time, she was ready for him, and grabbed him around the neck.
He retaliated — he didn’t mean it like that, of course, but that was how it felt — but tipping her back, back while he trailed dozens of little kisses down her neck, closer to her chest. Rosette gasped and held onto her neck. She had no balance — no purchase on the floor — if he let her go, she would fall —
He wouldn’t let her go, of course.
But Mordred seemed to relish the idea that he could, for his grip seemed lose and chancy, even as he kissed her and she clung to him. A couple of times he shifted his grip, leaving her to dangle in midair for a heart-pounding split second before his hands found their place again, holding her up.
One of Mordred’s hands had just slipped down to her hip and was going lower, to her thighs — whether to pick her up and toss her onto the bed or to part them then and there, Rosette could never be sure —
A piercing baby’s shriek rang through the night. Rosette gasped. “Aimée!”
Mordred straightened, bringing her with him. He didn’t even tell her to go, give her permission — he just let her go and let her scuttle out of the room.
Whatever it was that had Aimée upset, Rosette never knew. Maybe a pin from her diaper had stuck her. She was clean and just fed, and it only took a moment or two of holding her and shushing her before Aimée was asleep again. Rosette hurried back to the bedroom.
She stopped in the door.
She’d never seen Mordred just sitting like that.
Bent over, his head in one hand — shoulders slumped — almost defeated … that was how an old man sat. Not her Mordred.
But maybe it was how Mordred sat when he had just lost his father.
She did not say anything — she didn’t want to say anything. She just wanted to sit next to him, and rub his back, and lean her cheek on his smooth shoulder, and let him talk. Or not talk, if that was what he wanted. She wasn’t asking for much.
But as she stepped forward, the floorboard squeaked, and Mordred jumped up — for a moment, she thought she saw panic in his eyes.
He tried to smile, but the result was so unreal it broke her heart. “Mordred …”
“What?” he snapped.
“Mordred — Mordred, don’t — don’t be like that,” she whispered, coming closer.
“Be like what?”
Putting your hand near the mouth of snapping wolf was asking for a bite. Nevertheless, Rosette caressed his cheek.
“I love you,” she murmured.
“Yes. I know. And I love you. So what do you want?”
“I want to help you.”
“I don’t need help!”
“Your father died a fortnight ago.”
“S –” He couldn’t even get the word out.
“I love you, Mordred, and I want to help you. I want to help you feel better. Whatever you think will help you feel happier, tell me, and I’ll do it,” Rosette whispered.
He didn’t say anything. But he did let his head come to rest on her shoulder, and he did let Rosette hold him and he even held her in return. Not hungrily, this time, but maybe a shade desperately. She even thought she felt him gasp and tremble once or twice.
But that was all.
It would have to be enough.