“Ready fer tomorrow, lad?” asked Martin as he shuffled the cards.
Berach was twenty-six years old. He’d seen more than a quarter of a century on this earth. He lived on his own; he had a child who (if you asked him) he’d done a fairly good job of raising these past four years. He was nobody’s lad.
Except, of course, to Martin Pelles. But if there was one thing Berach had learned in twenty-six years of living, it was that when a man who could wield a cudgel the way his daughter wielded clipping shears called you “lad,” you didn’t argue.
Especially when that man would be your father-in-law before noon tomorrow.
“Aye, sir, I believe I am,” Berach replied, watching the cards dance in Martin’s hands. All the same, he was able to see the older man’s faint lift of his eyebrows, and his not-so-faint smirk.
“Ye think so? I’m surprised. What d’ye think, Grady?”
Berach glanced sidelong at his brother, who was in turn watching his cards. Trust Grady to take what should be a quiet game between friends, played for low stakes, and watch every move of the cards as if it was his very life was on the line. Then again, this was Grady. Maybe he did value every last copper at a value just shy of that of his own life.
His own wedding ring flashed in the candlelight with every tap of his finger against the table. The light seemed to catch Grady’s eye; he tore his eyes away from his cards long enough to watch it. Berach thought he saw the ghost of a smile.
Then Grady dispelled the illusion with a shrug. “Eh. Is anybody ever ready?” He peeked at the underside of a card. “An’ is there any man — ‘cept one who’s bein’ coaxed ter the altar by the business end of a crossbow — who don’t think he’s ready?”
Martin chuckled. “Well put, Grady. An’ ye — pay attention, lad,” he added, nodding to young Lukas. “Just ’cause yer girl don’t have a pa ter be wieldin’ that crossbow don’t mean that ye don’t have a da that’ll make ye do the right thing.”
“Da!” Lukas groaned.
Poor kid, Berach chuckled, gets ter come along fer a night with the big boys, an’ spends the evenin’ being lectured at by his pa on how he’d better not go actin’ like those big boys else he’ll be in more trouble than he knows what to do with!
Then again … maybe if Berach’s pa had given him such advice, Berach wouldn’t have had to wait until he was twenty-six to get married for the first time. But if he’d taken that advice, he wouldn’t have Leah. He’d rather have Leah than a wedding band at the age of twenty-four any day.
As it was, the advice that Berach’s pa had given him gave him Leah, and almost lost him Joyce. “Have yer fun, lad, have all ye can afford — but have it with girls what don’t have pas who’ll force ye down the aisle with a crossbow when their daughter gets a bit of a belly on her!” All things considered, it was probably a good thing Berach had stopped listening to his father when he did. And Berach certainly didn’t envy Neil right now, who somehow had drawn the short straw and was having to entertain Finley.
He was getting married in the morning, and his finances were never all that great at the best of times, but Neil was drinking on Berach tonight.
“I’m jest sayin’, lad,” Martin continued, drawing Berach back to the conversation if not necessarily to the card game, “ye need ter be thinkin’ with yer head, an’ not with any other part o’ yer body. Thinkin’ that way will do naught but get a man inter trouble.”
He didn’t say “look at yer future brother-in-law.” He didn’t have to. The faint movement of his eyes, and after that the studied attention to his cards and not to anyone else in the room, said it for him. Berach gulped. Why don’t he jest come out an’ say it? I break his daughter’s heart — er, again — an’ he’ll break me neck?
Maybe Berach would have to say it himself, clear the air. It would be easier to do that now and get it over with than living the next five or ten or twenty years with a father-in-law who never quite forgave him for that slight against his daughter, wouldn’t it? And hopefully they’d all had enough ale that Martin wouldn’t take anything too personally …
Besides, Berach was fairly certain that Martin had left his cudgel at home, and if there was a time to broach this topic, it would be when Martin was several miles separated from his cudgel.
“I’d agree with yer da, Lukas — thinkin’ that way do get a man inter trouble.” He hesitated, then continued, “I mean, I thought that way fer a bit too long, an’ it almost lost me Joyce. An’ not many men are going ter be as lucky ter get a little angel like Leah out of it.”
“Angel?” Grady sputtered.
“Ye’re jest still sore that she pushed Paddy in the mud an’ sat on him till he cried for mercy,” Berach answered.
Martin, however, said nothing — but the look he said to Lukas spoke volumes. Listen ter yer brother-in-law, he’s been around the block a couple o’ times, learned a thing or two.
Did Lukas see? Maybe he didn’t. Or maybe he was just so used to these meaningful fatherly glances that he’d learned to ignore them. He just chuckled. “Maybe she can teach Davy a think or two, then. I keep tryin’ ter teach the kid about a good right hook, but he don’t listen.”
“He havin’ problems, then?” Grady asked.
Lukas looked to Martin, who shrugged. “Eh, he’s one o’ the little boys — in terms o’ age if not in terms o’ size, I mean, he’s a good-sized kid fer his age — an’ the little boys are always gonna be picked on by the bigger boys. Way o’ the world.”
“Don’t suppose ye have a name on those bigger boys?” Grady tried to look calm and cool as he asked that — he really did — but Berach for one would never believe that all the ale Grady had that night hit him at just that moment, forcing him to draw his hand along his collar.
It didn’t fool Martin, either, for he smiled and replied, “Ain’t yer Paddy, I know that much.”
“Ain’t yer Katie, neither,” Lukas chuckled.
“Katie don’t pick on the little ones.” Grady sighed. “Thank the Lord. At least that’s one group she don’t pick on.”
“Not after Leah sat on Paddy, she don’t,” Berach chuckled.
Grady was glaring and he didn’t care. Oh, how wonderful it had been to hear his pa railing on him about that one! How many times had he wished there was something, anything he could do to get Grady off his back? Why hadn’t he thought of Leah’s way of solving the problem?
Then again … Berach was six years younger than Grady; Leah was only two years younger than Paddy. Leah just needed the right amount of leverage and sheer angry strength overpower her cousin. For Berach to push over Grady would have taken a miracle.
Martin watched Berach and chuckled. “Maybe we ought ter be keepin’ Davy away from Leah,” he remarked to Lukas. “He might end up gettin’ picked on the littlest girls, and Wright knows how he’d live that down!”
“Maybe we should get him an’ Nora ter play together. Nora won’t pick on him,” Grady remarked.
“Grady, Nora wouldn’t hurt a fly that landed in her last bit o’ porridge on this earth. If we want ter be toughin’ little Davy up, it’s Leah he’s got ter talk ter,” Berach tossed back.
Grady eyed Berach with eyebrows raised. “Aye, an’ if Leah starts pickin’ on him?”
“How do ye know?”
“I’ll ask her not to. She won’t pick on him if I axe her not too.”
“So the poor kid’s only friends are gonna be me girl an’ the people his brother-in-law axes ter be nice ter him. Oy. Da, he’s jest gonna get picked on more, ain’t he?” Lukas asked.
“Either that, or he’ll gain the reputation as quite the lady’s man. Not bad fer a five-year-old,” Martin chuckled.
“Hey,” Berach mock-growled, “if that’s how he’s gonna be with my baby Leah, he ain’t goin’ near her.”
“My son ain’t good enough fer yer daughter, eh?” Martin waggled his eyebrows up and down.
“Aye — when ye’re marryin’ his sister tomorrow?” Lukas chimed in.
“Leah’s too young ter be thinkin’ that way.” Berach clucked his tongue and glanced as his cards.
“An’ when will she be old enough?” Lukas asked.
“When she’s thirty — maybe — an’ not a day before!”
“Oh, Wright,” Grady rolled his eyes.
“Buck up, man,” Martin smiled and lightly punched Grady’s shoulder, “we’re jest jokin’. Besides, as a father of daughters …” He glanced up and winked at Berach. “Ye of all people, ought ter understand where we’re comin’ from.”
“I do. Or I suppose I would. But I figured I’ll worry about boys an’ Katie an’ Nora when they get old enough fer the boys ter start bein’ interested in more than pullin’ on their pigtails.”
“I’d be careful about that, Grady. Don’t ye know that Joyce …” Berach began, then glanced sidelong at Martin.
Martin said nothing, but he did let the chips in his hand fall down, slowly, one by one, each chip clicking as it settled into place above its neighbor. “What about Joyce?”
“Well … she first got my attention by pullin’ on my hair,” Berach admitted.
And finally that got Grady to start acting like the father of daughters and not … well, the husband of a man who happened to have a couple girls in the mix. “Oh, Wright! The boy who sits behind Katie keeps tuggin’ on her pigtails!”
“Is he puttin’ them in the ink?” Lukas asked.
“Tried once. Then Katie somehow got Paddy ter pull his hosen an’ braises down in front o’ the whole playground.”
Lukas laughed, if Berach had been drinking anything it would have come out by way of his nose, and even Martin cracked a smile. “Defendin’ his sister’s honor,” Martin remarked. “Good lad, that.”
“I’d believe that if –”
“Wright damn it!”
Berach looked up to see his father throwing a fit, Neil cringing away, and one of the darts they’d been throwing stuck in a crack between stones. “I’m blown if there ain’t somethin’ wrong with that damn target! It keeps movin’!” Finley snarled.
“Finley, it can’t be –” Neil started.
“It must be! I was the best dart-thrower in three shires when I was yer age!”
Aye, when ye were sober —
“Even stone drunk, I was the best!”
Fine, Berach amended, even stone drunk. But ye had thirty years less of drink in ye back then, an’ I’d wager yer hands didn’t shake so when ye tried ter do anythin’.
“I quit!” Finley announced. “Ferget about it! I’ve had enough o’ this rigged game.” He shambled over to the nearby sofa and sat down. “Say, boys — lemme know when one o’ ye wants ter bow out. I’ll take his place.”
The four men — for if Finley was calling them boys, then in Berach’s mind even Lukas was a man — glanced at each other. “Maybe,” Grady remarked, “ye ought ter see if those other folks,” he nodded to the other table of players, “might stand ter have ye as a third, Pa.”
“Naw. I came out here ter enjoy meself with me family before me son’s weddin’ — an’ enjoy meself I will!” Finley laughed. One good thing about Finley’s drinking — he could be a very happy drunk when he had a mind to. He could be an equally mean drunk. And he tended to switch between the two very quickly, unless you worked hard at keeping him in the happy state.
Berach glanced at Grady, as he always did whenever Finley’s imbibing started to affect the family. Grady stared at his cards — but the candlelight was just strong enough, and Grady’s beard just wispy enough, for Berach to make out the bead of sweat on his brother’s upper lip.
Grady wiped his nose, or maybe his lip, or maybe both. Whatever it was, the sweat was gone. And then Grady could speak. “Well, then, Pa, ye jest sit tight over there — an’ when Lukas is done, maybe he’ll let ye have a hand or two.”
Berach watched Grady eye Lukas, then eye Martin. Martin sighed and tried to pass it off as having a bad hand, but his poker face wasn’t nearly so good as all that. At least, not to a man who knew exactly what he was feeling, because he was feeling it himself.
Martin pulled on his ponytail, but he sighed and nodded. “Aye. Lukas, maybe in a bit ye’ll get tired an’ want ter join Neil by the darts — darts can get awful lonely if ye’re playin’ it by yerself.”
Lukas’s eyes narrowed and darted over the table and the faces around it — first to his father, then Grady, then Finley, then Neil, then finally Berach. Berach nodded.
“If ye say so, Da,” Lukas shrugged, taking the cards and flipping them in his hands.
“Good lad,” Martin murmured, his eyes not so much as moving from his cards.
“So …” Berach started, clearing his throat like a fourteen-year-old desperately trying to sound like a man, “how are things goin’ with ye an’ Ella, Lukas?”
“Can’t complain,” Lukas replied with the insufferable smugness of a seventeen-year-old who might think he knew what love and loss and heartache were all about, but had no idea. He no idea just how good a thing not being able to complain was.
“Good, good. Ye’re treatin’ her well an’ all?”
Lukas just gave Berach a look, as if to say, An’ ye’re one ter talk? But Lukas had no idea. Nothing that happened between him and Wei Li had the least to do with Joyce. Joyce took it personally, because … well, because she hadn’t been much older than Lukas was now, and because Berach had been a fool. But they’d both grown up since then. They’d both changed. If they were ever ready to get married, well, now would be the time.
“Well, if ye don’t believe that I am,” Lukas remarked, “ye can axe her sister.”
Berach looked up to see a smiling Roma Thatcher — now Chevaux — at the head of the stairs. “Hallo, boys!”
“Hallo, Roma,” Lukas mock-saluted. A rumble of low greetings followed that.
But there was one voice missing, Berach realized a little too late —
“Can I be gettin’ ye boys anythin’?” Roma asked, her hands on her pretty little hips and her smile stretching across her face. “More ale, Neil? Master Pelles?”
“Naw, thank’ee, lass,” Martin replied, and Neil shook his head.
“Well, what about ye, Grady? Berach? Master –”
“Ooh,” came Finley’s creaky voice — followed by his joints creaking as he rose — followed by his footsteps creaking across the floorboards as he tried to saunter over to the stairs, “ooh, I think I could stand ter have some o’ what ye’re servin’, missie.”
If Finley hadn’t been his father — if Roma hadn’t been barely eighteen — if Roma hadn’ t been married, and just married at that, to one of Berach’s closer friends — well, it might have been funny.
“Grady …” Berach whispered.
“We gotta do somethin’.”
“Master Brogan,” Roma sidestepped Finley’s clutching fingers if not his leer, “we’ve got plenty o’ ale on tap, though if ye don’t mind me sayin’, I think ye’ve had jest a wee bit too much.”
Understatement if there ever was one. “Grady, I think it’s time ter take Pa home,” Berach hissed.
“Are ye volunteerin’, then?”
Berach watched Roma leaning away from Finley, the half-disgusted, half-unnerved look on her face, and thought he was seeing Joyce as Clarence — may he rot in hell — came after her.
“Aye,” Berach answered, standing, “I am.”
“Berach, wait, set yerself down, it’s yer par–” Grady grabbed Berach’s sleeve and tried to pull him back down.
“Master Brogan, ye’ve definitely had too much ter drink tonight,” Roma repeated, her voice a good deal more firm this time. “Maybe ye should jest set down, quiet-like.”
“Naw! Ye jest came up here, the party’s only jest started!” Finley laughed.
“Pa! She’ll be goin’ down in a minute! Leave her alone an’ let her do her job!” Berach barked. Roma flashed him half of a relieved smile.
But only half — because Finley cast an unsteady look at his younger son, raised an equally unsteady eyebrow, then grinned.
And all Berach could see was Finley’s meaty fingers reaching for Roma’s behind.
“Now that’s ENOUGH, Master Brogan!” Roma yelled.
And once again, Berach could only watch as a strong, feisty young woman took care of unwanted attention with no help from him.
“Ye oughter be ashamed o’ yerself!” she scolded. “A respectable old man! Pickin’ on young girls! Well, I don’t know what ye’ve heard about young barmaids –”
“Hey! I ain’t old!”
“– but there ain’t no girls at the Onion who are here fer the takin’, if ye know what I mean! If ye want easy girls, ye know where ter find them!” She pointed across the lane, to the whorehouse.
“Now there! I’m yer customer, lass, if I say jump, ye oughter –”
“If ye say jump, I’ll say how high — but Master O’Neill says that if a man tells me ter jump inter his bed or somethin’ like it, I got every right ter jump him out the window!”
“I’ll show ye jumpin’ –”
“An’ that’s enough!” Grady finally snapped. “Pa! Ye’ve had enough. We’re leavin’!”
“Grady, I ain’t goin’ nowhere –”
“Well, I’m leavin’, an’ if ye don’t want ter be sleepin’ outside tonight after I set the bar on the door, ye oughter come with.”
“Hey! It’s me own house! Ye can’t lock me out of me own house!” Finley called, trudging down the stairs as Grady shooed him forward.
And that, apparently, was the magic word, or the magic words. All Berach would have had to do was pretend to somehow upset Finley’s sovereignty, and Finley would have gone out of the room like a little lamb. But if it was that easy, why hadn’t Grady done it sooner?
Berach glanced at Roma and swallowed. “Ye all right, lass?”
Roma didn’t see him — barely seemed to hear him, so busy was she, scowling at Grady and Finley’s backs.
“Oh!” she spun around. “I’m fine. Honestly, ye shouldn’t feel bad, Berach. I deal with drunks like yer pa twelve times a night. Er, well, not that yer pa is a drunk per se …”
Berach sighed and slumped into his seat. “Don’t lie, Roma, we all know he is.”
“Oh, Berach! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean ter upset ye — an’ on the night before yer weddin’, too …”
“Don’t worry,” came Neil’s low voice, followed by his slow smile in Roma’s direction. “It ain’t yer fault, lass. It’s Finley what’s upset him, not ye.”
He moved to Grady’s vacated chair and pulled it out. “Now, my lads — what game were ye playin’, an’ how can we fix it so that Berach will win an’ put a smile back on his face?”