It was her special day. Her day to be patted and prodded and fussed over. Her day to sit when others stood and ran around like madwomen. The most special day of her life, if her mother was to be believed.
Oh, how many times had Betsy sighed and smiled in remembrance. Joyce had heard the story a thousand times. How Betsy’s dress, the same dress her mother had worn and all of her sisters would wear, had been the prettiest in the village. Joyce knew exactly what flowers Betsy had worn in her hair — orange blossoms, myrtle and violets. She even knew all about the goat that had gotten loose and had come this close to upsetting the table with the ale and mead on it.
But if this was supposed to be the most special, most perfect day in all of her life, then why was Joyce feeling so numb and disconnected, like the seeds of a dandelion blown into the wind?
Oddly enough – or not so oddly — it wasn’t the marriage. When she thought of life with Berach and Leah, only the good came to mind. Working at Berach’s side in the garden, cooking dinner for him — or letting him cook for her, he was good with that fish — pooling their little savings together to get out of that apartment and into a proper cottage. She could picture them raising Leah together, watching her grow and learn and change. And as for their own children, well, Joyce was convinced that a little girl with Berach’s nose, her eye-shape, her mother’s eye color, Lilé’s hair and her own mouth would lead the boys on a merry dance. Their boys would all have to look after Berach — though they could inherit coloring from her — and then they’d be able to walk out with any young lady they pleased.
The thought of children was only pleasant; even the thought of what she’d have to go through to get them didn’t spoil it. She wasn’t exactly looking forward to pregnancy and certainly not to childbirth, especially after watching little Bert’s birth, but thousands of other women had shouldered that burden multiple times and come out all right. Joyce would be fine.
Maybe the thought of the wedding night was what was making her feel so numb … Betsy had told her in a thousand-and-one conversations after Joyce’s first course that it was supposed to be a fun and joyful thing, maybe a little uncomfortable the first time, but after that it was supposed to be pleasurable. The giggles and details Meg had divulged in the first two years of her marriage hadn’t dispelled that impression. But maybe after Clarence …
But Clarence was dead. Joyce didn’t have to worry about him anymore.
“Joyce? Ye all right?”
Joyce’s status as the bride had won her a stool while everyone else stood. The size of Meg’s belly had won her the other stool. The fact that Meg was Joyce’s big sister had won her the right to edge her stool next to Joyce’s. Still, Joyce had to blink for a few seconds to realize what she was being asked and how she ought to answer it.
“Oh — oh, I’m fine. Why?”
“Ye’ve got that look.”
“The look ye never used ter get before …” She didn’t need to finish the sentence.
Joyce looked away. “I’m fine.”
And she was fine. If it came down to it, Berach had whispered to her that they didn’t have to do anything tonight; they didn’t have to do anything until she was ready. Although Joyce figured they might as well do it tonight. Leah was staying with Ailís specifically so that they could do it tonight; when else would they get another night completely free of potential four-year-old interruptions and impertinent questions? And it wasn’t the idea of doing it that upset her, or made her nervous — she didn’t think so, anyway. Berach knew his way around a bedroom; Leah was ample proof of that. And he loved her, and he would be gentle with her. It was just, after Clarence …
But Clarence was dead. Joyce didn’t have to worry about him anymore.
To distract herself, she looked around. Well, at least Leah was sure to pass a fun night, however eventful or uneventful Joyce’s night turned out to be. Look at Ailís dancing with Katie! She might have been a strict and practical mother, but she certainly was a patient and indulgent auntie. Her Nellie was just Leah’s age, too. They’d have a ball together.
“Joyce, ye ain’t foolin’ me. Ye want ter talk about it?”
Joyce had to jump to hear the same refrain issuing from her sister’s mouth that had so often come from hers. “Sorry?”
“Whatever ye’re feelin’, it ain’t fine. What’s wrong?”
Joyce bit her lip. “Well, nothin’s really wrong …”
She half-expected to hear her sister say something she had so often said to Meg: An’ if I buy that one, d’ye have a lakefront cottage in the Dousa Desert ye want ter sell me? Or, Right, nothin’s wrong. Then why are ye lookin’ like yer world’s crumblin’ about ye? Or perhaps, Meg, I ain’t gonna stop buggin’ ye until ye tell me. So ye should spill now an’ save us both some time.
Meg, however, said none of those things. Instead, she furrowed her brows, tilted her head to one side, and frowned a little. “So, in other words, there’s no reason fer ye not ter feel like ye’re walkin’ on rainbows an’ sunbeams all day — but ye don’t feel that way.”
Joyce flinched. “When ye put it like that …”
“I ain’t puttin’ it like that, Joyce. I’m not judgin’ ye. Ye don’t have ter be all smiles if that ain’t how ye want ter be.”
Joyce jumped and instantly looked around —
“Don’t worry about Ma,” Meg chuckled, “she’s too busy with the baby ter be payin’ us any mind.” And true enough, Betsy was crouched over the basket, tickling Bert’s little toesies and tummy.
So Joyce turned back to Meg. “Ye — ye mean it?”
“That ye don’t have ter be spoutin’ rainbows from yer behind if ye don’t feelin’ like it?”
Joyce laughed — the first real laugh all day. “Meg!”
“That’s somethin’ I would say!”
“No,” Meg replied — was that a sly uplift to her brow that Joyce saw? “Ye’d be much more direct. If ye meant shittin’ rainbows, ye’d come right out an’ say it.”
“Meg!” Joyce shrieked with laughter. “I wouldn’t say –”
Meg’s eyebrows went up, and Joyce remembered — suddenly — her own testy reaction to her mother’s fussing and Meg’s nonresponsiveness on Meg’s wedding day. Fer cryin’ out loud, Ma, it’s Meg! She ain’t gonna be shittin’ rainbows like ye were on yer weddin’ day! She wouldn’t shit rainbows if ye fed her on a diet of rain an’ vegetable dye!
Joyce glanced sidelong at their mother. “Ye think she’ll box yer ear fer comin’ out an’ sayin’ that?”
“Hopefully not?” Meg shrugged and then patted her belly. “If she tries, I ain’t spry enough ter run away.”
“We’d better clean this talk up right quick then.”
“Aye,” Meg chuckled. She then cast Joyce a half-indulgent, half-bemused grin. “Ye stuck up fer me on my weddin’ day, though. Why shouldn’t I stick up fer ye?”
A good question. A good question like that deserved some good thought. “I don’t know,” Joyce said finally. “I guess because ye’re ye an’ I’m me.”
“Ye don’t want ter give up yer role as self-appointed champion of everythin’?”
“Naw, it ain’t that, it’s that … well, Meg, when ye’re really happy, ye don’t show it too much. An’ when ye’re really sad, ye don’t show that too much either. Quiet-like, that’s what ye are.”
“I ain’t shut up since I first learned how ter talk.”
“An’ woe ter all of us, but ‘specially Berach now, on that day,” Meg chortled. “An’ yer ma- an’ my sister-in-law too.” She nodded her head toward Toinette and Lilé.
“Hey! Why no poor Ailís?”
“Because she’s a smart woman, she is, an’ she moved her an’ Neil a good ways away!”
“Meg! Ye’re mean!” Joyce cried, smacking Meg’s knee.
“Aye, but it’s got some o’ yer spirit back, ain’t it?” Meg rubbed her knee and smirked.
But Meg was smiling, so wide, the way she hadn’t smiled since before Pierre’s kept woman showed up at their door … how could Joyce not smile back?
Meg’s smile crinkled into her eyes and moved all the way up her forehead before she decided to look away. Then her eyes narrowed. “Uh oh.”
Joyce looked around, and saw Katie standing off by herself, rocking back and forth on her toes. “Where’s Ailís? She was keepin’ her occupied …” Why Katie had to pick today to be one of the big girls was something Joyce doubted she would ever understand, and was not sure why she had allowed.
“With Ma, apparently.”
And so she was, and Joyce could just make out their conversation. “An’ how is your little Jake doin’, Ailís?”
“Oh, he’s thrivin’! Kickin’ an’ rollin’ over on his tummy an’ crawlin’ over the place, now. Neil an’ me, we can barely keep up with the little mite — especially when he decides ter start goin’ after we’re already wore out from chasin’ Nellie an’ Josie.”
“Ye ain’t swaddlin’, then?”
“Not anymore. I let Nellie an’ Josie move around once they got ter the movin’ age, an’ it worked well fer ’em.”
“Aye, I did the same with Meg an’ Joyce … but when Lukas came along, oh, Wright! I was run ragged! I swaddled him a bit longer jest so I didn’t have ter worry about runnin’ after him, too.”
Joyce glanced at Meg. “Ye listenin’?”
Meg only smiled.
Joyce permitted herself a brief grin, then she tilted her head toward their mother and raised her eyebrow. “Ye think we were that hard ter manage, as little ones?”
“We were little ones, Joyce. Most little ones is hard ter manage — ye should know, watchin’ Leah fer all that time!”
“Aw, Leah was a bit mischievous, but nothin’ I couldn’t handle.”
“O’ course she weren’t. But multiply her by three or four, an’ ye’ll know what most mothers is handlin’.”
“How’d ye know? Ye’ve only got one.”
“Soon to be two.”
“Or three,” Joyce added devilishly, eyebrows waggling, “maybe, by the way that belly’s growin’ on ye.”
“Joyce Pelles! Bite yer tongue!” yelled Meg with a smack of Joyce’s arm.
“Ow — it’s me weddin’ day, ye ain’t supposed ter be givin’ me bruises!”
“I’ll give ye bruises if ye’re deservin’ them — an’ they won’t be showin’ till tomorrow, neither, so ye an’ Berach can be havin’ all the fun ye’re wantin’ within him seein’!”
“Don’t mean I want bruises!”
“Oh, tough up, ye can handle ’em,” Meg snorted. “How many bruises d’ye give yerself with yer dancin’?”
“Those are accidents,” Joyce insisted, rubbing her arm. “Ye ain’t fair, Me –”
“Ye’re a good woman, ye know, Ailís Porter,” Betsy was saying, her voice pitched just right to cut into Joyce’s thoughts. Was she trying to do that? No — no, she still seemed too engrossed in her conversation with Ailís for it to be deliberate. “Takin’ in that poor motherless mite, when ye had three little ones o’ yer own runnin’ about an’ no big ones ter help ye. I — well, I admire ye, ye know. An’ I’m sure I ain’t the only one.”
“Well, what was I supposed ter do?” Ailís shrugged. “Let the poor little thing starve?”
“Ye’d have been justified in sayin’ no.”
“I couldn’t do that. I don’t think most women could do that, if there was a baby in need an’ they could help. If Bert had been born a few weeks earlier, or Isabel a few weeks later, ye’d have done it yerself, Betsy.”
There was no denying that. It was almost enough to make Joyce begin to smile again.
“Don’t worry,” Meg murmured.
“About babies an’ such. Ye’re a dancer, Joyce! Ye’re strong. Ye’ll be fine.”
Joyce glanced at Meg’s belly. “Maybe it ain’t me I’m worryin’ about.”
Meg only blinked. “What will be, will be,” she answered — and she said more, but it was cut off by Betsy and Ailís’s sudden raucous laughter.
Nor could Joyce ask her what she had said, for a bowed-down figure chose that moment to slip between Joyce and her sister. “Joyce?”
Joyce looked up to find Lilé blinking down owlishly at her. “Mi — Mama Lilé,” Joyce answered. And gulped.
But why should she gulp? Surely, if there was a single woman in the kingdom least likely to become an overbearing mother-in-law, it was Lilé Brogan. Cerise Chevaux could, of course, be nothing but overbearing — Kata Thatcher was too no-nonsense to put up with any nonsense from a daughter-in-law — and if there was any one thing Betsy Pelles, though her intentions were always good, didn’t understand, it was that there was such a thing as being too helpful. But Lilé? Life itself had borne down too hard on Lilé. Lukas had blabbed about Finley’s ridiculous behavior at the Onion the night before, and you couldn’t have a relationship with Berach Brogan without figuring out a thing or two about Finley even less flattering than his carrying-on with little Roma Chevaux. Surely, Lilé Brogan had enough to do to bear herself up; she didn’t need to be overbearing with anything else.
And yet there she was, standing over Joyce with something inscrutable on her face, and there Joyce was, looking up and gulping.
“Were ye two discussin’ somethin’?” Lilé asked, glancing between the two of them. “If ye were, we can talk later. Ain’t no rush.”
“We were just chattin’, Lilé,” Meg answered. “But I hope ye don’t mind if I don’t move?”
Lilé only smiled. “Ye sit as long as ye want, Meg. I ain’t got nothin’ ter say ter yer sister that she’d mind ye hearin’, I don’t think.”
And then Lilé turned to Joyce, and Joyce was face-to-face with her future — soon to be present — mother-in-law, and Joyce had no idea what to say.
For once, though, Joyce could count herself lucky that someone else had a planned speech. “Joyce, I jest want ter say … I’m so happy ye’re joinin’ the family, an’ marryin’ Berach.”
Well, whatever she had thought she was going to hear, it sure wasn’t that. And if it was that — well, she wasn’t expecting it to be so warm, so heartfelt, so sincere, so without guile or affectation! Hadn’t Cerise, with her many protestations of gladness about the match, always had a light of cunning and planning in her eye, hadn’t she been queening it over Meg already? But with Lilé, there seemed to be none of that. Just happiness.
“Ye’re — ye’re good fer him, ye know,” Lilé continued, wearing her little smile. “I don’t know if ye can quite know how good ye are fer him. Ye steady him. Ye keep him from gettin’ too wild.”
“I — I think it’s Leah what steadied him,” Joyce finally found the breath to croak.
“No — well, yes, I suppose she did. Steadied him earlier than ye could have, at least. But ye … ye were always a good influence on him, Joyce. Ye’re tough. Ye don’t take no nonsense. That’s what a man like Berach needs.”
“I think Berach outgrew all of his nonsense –”
“With Leah, aye, I know. But even if we hadn’t had Leah, ye still would have — would have …”
Joyce tilted her head, unable to do more than watch as Lilé struggled with the words. “It’s like this,” she finally managed to spit out, “when — when my young ones were little — I was always worried, that of the three of ’em, Berach was the most likely to end up like his father.”
“He loved fun,” Lilé admitted. “An’ — an’ once he got older — he loved wenches, an’ drink, an’, well, fun! That’s what Finley was like, when he was young, ye know. Charmin’, an’ a bit feckless, an’ he was a rogue an’ all the girls knew it. There wasn’t barely any of us but those who had steady men lined up already who weren’t settin’ our caps at him. He had the pick of any of us, an’ he knew it, an’ …” Lilé sighed. “Well, I ain’t gonna go inter that. But ye see, Berach has some of that in him. An’ when ye picked him, well … well, ye see, ye were forthright an’ honest, an’ ye let him know ye wanted him, an’ that ye weren’t gonna stand any nonsense from him. That’s good, ye know.”
“I was scared, ye see, that he might go down his father’s path,” Lilé continued in a rush. “An’ — an’, well, end up with a woman like me. I’m no good fer a man like Finley and Berach. Finley … well, I let Finley drown. I kept me an’ the kids, our heads above water, an’ I eventually scrambled us all to the shore — but Finley I let drown. Ye … ye won’t even let Berach go near the pond.”
Maybe there was a woman somewhere who would have a good answer for Lilé after that. Joyce wasn’t that woman. She could only stare at Lilé with her jaw somewhere in the neighborhood of her knees. As for Meg, a quick sidelong glance confirmed that she wasn’t doing much better — maybe even a little worse, for all that she only showed it in wide and saucer-like eyes and lips slightly parted.
“So,” Lilé knit her hands together, “I guess — I guess what I wanted ter say was, welcome ter the family, Joyce. Ye’ll fit in right well here.”
“Thank — thank’ee, Mama Lilé,” Joyce managed to murmur, and managed to stand up, and managed to embrace her soon-to-be mother-in-law.
No sooner had she turned around than she saw her own mother standing at her elbow. “Ma! Don’t pop out o’ the ground like that! Ye’ll scare a girl!”
… Apparently that was the wrong thing to say, for Betsy looked close to tears. Or maybe she had been looking like that for some time now. She had certainly been a bawling mess at Meg’s wedding. “My little girl,” Betsy whispered, fingering Joyce’s hair and smiling.
Joyce wasn’t little — hadn’t been little for a long time — but it was with a rather disconcerting jolt that she realized that in Betsy’s mind she was likely to be the little girl for the rest of her life, since she wasn’t too likely to conceive again after Bert. “Ma …”
“D’ye need me ter be tellin’ ye anythin’ else? About what ter expect tonight?”
“… Not really, Ma. We’ve been over it enough times.”
“Meg, ye told her it weren’t nothin’ ter be afraid of?”
“At least a hundred times, Ma, since I was married.”
“Good, good.” Betsy touched Joyce’s shoulders and held her at an arm’s length. “Oh, my Joyce! Ye’re gonna do so well at — at –”
Joyce let her raised eyebrow do the talking for her.
“At everythin’!” Betsy half-sobbed. “Oh, my Joyce! So pretty an’ clever! Ye’ll be a wonderful wife an’ mother.” Joyce could do little more than smile before she was suddenly pressed to Betsy’s ample bosom. “I am so proud o’ ye!”
“Thanks — thanks, Ma.” Damn it, was her voice growing thick, and why was there water crowding in the corners of her eyes?
Betsy pulled away from Joyce, then leaned in again to kiss her on the cheek. “Ye’re gonna be so happy. I jest know it.”
“An’,” Betsy continuing, practicality resurfacing, “we’re gonna be leavin’ in a couple minutes. So any last things ye want ter be doin’, get ’em done now.” With that Betsy patted Joyce’s shoulder and moved toward the ladder.
Joyce turned back to Meg, who was slowly negotiating her way to her feet. “Well!”
“Well,” Meg agreed. She laid a hand on Joyce’s shoulder. “Ready, sis?”
Joyce looked around, at the upstairs loft that she could never really call home again … at Betsy, cradling Bert into the corner of her arm … at the other women lining up at the ladder and heading down one by one. She turned back to Meg with a smile.
“Ready as I’ll ever be. Come on, Meg. Let’s do this.”