Why don’t we do some shopping together next Wednesday? We can meet at the little tea shop across the lane from my father’s warehouse. Come on, it’ll be my treat. Cressida thought it was the offhand way that the last sentence had been offered that made her accept. It was like she was back home with her old friends. They used to treat each other all the time, depending on whose parents had hit a lucky streak or who was sneaking money from the till when their father wasn’t looking. Just for a little while, she thought that being with Dannie would mean she could pretend. So here she was, at the not-so-little tea shop across the way from Richard Ferreira’s warehouse, with the sound of the seagulls in her ears and the smell of good things under nose. Just like home.
Except it wasn’t home, and as far as Cressida knew, she would never go home again. Even if she made it back to Glasonland, she would never be able to live in the house she grew up in. That was sold, a new family sliding down the banisters that Cressida and her sisters had made their own and Blanche’s children after them, new clothes hanging on the old lines, new mattresses and sheets and blankets on the bedframes they’d left behind. A new couple, perhaps, sleeping in the bed she and Edward had shared for those blissful two weeks.
Damn you, Uncle Henry, Cressida thought, and not for the first time. Damn you for ruining everything.
“You look miserable,” Dannie remarked, putting her chin on her hands and surveying Cressida’s face with a frankness tempered only by affection. “Care to share what’s bothering you?”
“Just thinking about Uncle Henry again,” Cressida sighed.
Cressida giggled. “My mother would wash my mouth out with soap if she heard me saying that — even now!”
“Mine wouldn’t. She would know I would go crying to Granny if she tried.”
“Mother always talked about how Gr–Granny was a strict disciplinarian,” Cressida put forward hesitantly. “I would think she’d give your mouth another washing.”
“Oh, Granny was strict with us, don’t you worry about that,” Dannie replied, waving her hand. “But Granny always appreciated the virtue of straight talking. I mean, sure, there are other words you could use to describe your Uncle Henry, but they’re even less acceptable to polite company than ‘bastard.’ Granny would compliment me on my coyness for that one.”
“You’re making that up!” Cressida laughed.
Dannie only raised one eyebrow. “You need to spend more time with Granny.”
Cressida thought she did. Of course she had heard stories of her grandmother — her mother loved to talk about her, and so had Aunt Sophie, and even Blanche could remember enough to tell a story or two. But Cressida herself had nothing, and everything Dannie said — everything she heard come out of her grandmother’s lips! — seemed determined to prove that the stories hadn’t done the old lady justice.
“It must have been great,” Cressida sighed, her chin going to her hands, unconsciously mirroring Dannie’s pose of a moment before, “growing up with her in the house. She seems like she would let you get away with anything.”
“Not anything. She lets you know where the line is, all right. And she’ll wallop you good if you put so much as one toe across it,” Dannie shrugged. “But you can dance right up to that line and she won’t care. Heck, she’ll join you in the jig!”
“See? That’s what I mean! It just sounds like so — so much –”
“Maybe that’s the fundamental difference between parents and grandparents. You know. I’m sure you see that with your own mum, and your nieces and nephews. Even your Ned!”
“Ned’s an angel, he doesn’t go anywhere near the line!”
Dannie again raised her eyebrow. “Um, Cressida?”
“He’s a year old. I’m not sure if that’s old enough to figure out that there is a line, never mind where it is and how to go about crossing it.”
“Oh, phooey! Like you would know!” Cressida giggled. “You haven’t even had a baby yet!”
“I don’t think you actually need to have a baby to have a basic working knowledge of how they function.”
“That’s what you think! Me, I thought the same thing too, before I had Ned.” If there was one thing Cressida had over her older, posher, better-educated, better-married (that is to say, still married to a man who could support her) cousin, it was Ned. The fact that she had Ned, that she had a baby and had a better feel for all it entailed. She would cling to that as long as she could. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve seen Geoff, and Henry, and even little Pippa — I know all about babies!’ And then out came Ned and I realized that I didn’t know the half of it!”
“That’s what my mother and grandmother keep telling me,” Dannie admitted.
Cressida sat up, her eyes darting automatically to Dannie’s disconcertingly flat stomach. “… Oh?”
But before Dannie could answer, the nice waiter stepped up, two treats in his hands. “One snowtop meringue and one order of crepes?” he asked.
“Crepes here,” Dannie raised her hand, and Cressida took the snowtop meringue.
“Anything else I can get you two?” the waiter asked. Both young women shook their heads.
And as soon as the waiter was gone — Cressida watching him go in spite of herself — Cressida had to take up the thread of conversation again. “So your mother and Granny keep giving you baby advice?”
“The same sort of ‘you’ll need this sooner than you think’ baby advice that I’m sure every newlywed woman gets, from Betty the Newbie on down.”
“Who would be giving Betty the Newbie that advice? She was the first woman!” Cressida laughed.
Cressida had to giggle into her snowdrop meringue. “Dannie! That’s — that’s practically blasphemous!”
“Only practically?” Dannie blinked, her eyelashes fluttering innocently. “Anyway,” she continued, shifting topics as easily as a harried housewife shifted her baby from one hip to the other, “I’m sure you got all that advice after you were first married, didn’t you?”
Cressida felt rather than told her arm to put her fork down into the meringue. She watched the sugary confection deflate under its weight.
“Oh, damn, I’ve put my foot into it, haven’t I?”
Cressida shrugged. “The morning after Edward left, I was sick into the bucket all morning. I thought — I thought it was a reaction to him going. Then it wouldn’t stop. Then I missed my course. The advice your mother gives to you takes on a decidedly different tenor after that.”
“Wright Almighty,” Dannie whispered. “Did — did Edward even know …?”
Cressida sighed. “No — at least — not before he died. After …”
“He probably got a chance to meet Ned before he came down,” Dannie patted her cousin’s hand, “and tell him to be a good boy for his mummy.”
Cressida smiled. “He looks so much like Edward, sometimes,” she murmured. “His expressions, mostly. Especially when he gets frustrated, poor baby! He looks just like Edward used to look when he couldn’t find his other boot!” She laughed, then frowned. “You … you don’t mind me …?”
“Honey, you do what makes you feel better. I can listen all day if you like.” Dannie rested her cheek on her hand, put her head to the side, and seemed prepared to do just that.
“Thank you,” Cressida answered. She gulped. “I — I can’t talk much at home. Not after John.”
Dannie’s eyebrows issued her a silent invitation to continue.
“When I heard about Edward — when his friends finally came home and told me, for sure, what had happened — I cried for three days straight. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I mean, I was about eight months along with Ned, so I wasn’t too keen on getting out of bed to begin with! But after I found out about Edward … I don’t know. I was heartbroken and shocked and — and terrified. How was I supposed to raise a baby all on my own? It was John who got me going again.”
“Aye. He — well — he didn’t say anything. He just brought Pippa into my room and told me she’d learned a new trick. Climbing up onto the bed!” Cressida chuckled. “So the next thing I knew, I had a two-year-old climbing all over me, and touching my belly — Ned was kicking all over the place right then — and giving me her big sloppy kisses …”
“Like this?” Dannie pursed her lips.
Cressida giggled. “Exactly!”
“That’s what Georgie-porgie used to do. Back when he was cute.”
“Oh, he’s a cute little man now!” Cressida giggled, digging back into her snowdrop meringue.
Dannie, who had never paused in her attack on her crepes, only raised her eyebrows. “Cressida. Please. Have you seen the hair that dumb kid is sporting?”
Cressida had to wince. “Your poor mother …”
“I know. I know.” Dannie sighed and shook her head. “Of course, Granny thinks it’s hilarious.”
“You … don’t agree?”
“I think it’d be a lot funnier if it was someone else’s little brother!”
“Like — like the youngest prince? Or the Crown Princess’s little brother?” Cressida dared to ask. Was it completely pretentious of her to want to hear more of the Princess and the Crown Princess — those two young women whom Dannie called so easily “Jessie” and “Lynn”? Could she be taking far too much pleasure in knowing herself related to a boon companion of royalty?
Whether she was or not, Dannie certainly seemed to be taking the question seriously. “Not so much Kay. Kay’s a good kid — well, I guess he isn’t much of a kid, he’s exactly your age.” Three years ago, Cressida’s heart would have skipped a beat to hear that, and she would have been wracking her brains to angle her way into an introduction. Now … well, now, she still wanted that introduction. But her heart beat on as steadily as before. “As for Squire Elyan or Sir Elyan or whatever the hell he’s supposed to be called, well, he’s an ass. So I’d take positive pleasure in him making a fool of himself!” Dannie grinned a devilish grin that was the twin of Granny’s and, truth to tell, George’s.
“An … ass?”
“You bet. I told you how he treated Freddy at Prince Tom and Will’s bachelor party, didn’t you?”
Cressida cast her mind back — yes, there had been some complaints on that topic. Cressida hadn’t absorbed them too well. Her mind had gotten stuck in a permanent loop at, “When Freddy when to Prince Tom and Will’s — that’s the guy who married Jessie, the Princess — bachelor party …” Cressida swallowed. “You did, but I wasn’t too clear on what happened.”
“Well, Freddy tried to be nice, introduce himself, get to know the stuck-up kid who’s going to end up being his brother-in-law someday, you know? And the kid just blows him off! Worse than blows him off, implies that Freddy — Freddy — isn’t good enough to be married into their family! Which is the biggest load of bull I’ve ever heard. I read the letters he writes to Mum and Granny, and Lynn and I have talked over the matter a lot. If there was ever a match made in heaven, it’s Freddy and Clarice … well, as long as they actually bother to talk to each other, that is. So, anyway, Georgie-porgie and I’ve already made our decision about that.”
Cressida blinked. “About what?”
“What we’re going to do to Elyan — after Freddy and Clarice get hitched, of course.”
“Of course,” Cressida murmured, her head still reeling. If her cousin was married to the Crown Princess’s sister … what did that make her? Anything at all? Did it even matter, so long as she could say her cousin was married to the sister of a Crown Princess? “So what are you going to do?”
“Give the brat the comeuppance he so richly deserves. One way or another. Georgie-porgie’s already looking up spells.”
And spells. That was another thing. If one cousin was set to tread among the highest of the high, then another seemed ready to descend to the lowest of the low. Or so most would think back in Glasonland. Cressida herself never bothered to give the matter much thought, and her mother had always — somewhat surprisingly, for her — had always been of the opinion that they shouldn’t judge. “There’s some that say that some Sims are born with magic,” Pamela used to say. “If that’s true, who are we to judge them for what they can’t help?”
It was a statement that made a lot more sense now that Cressida knew about George and Uncle George, whom George had been named for.
“Why can’t Freddy give him his comeuppance?”
“Because Freddy, at the end of the day, is too darn nice. So Georgie-porgie and I have to fight his battles. Are you going to finish that?” Dannie asked, pointing to the quarter of Cressida’s snowdrop meringue that remained on her plate.
Cressida looked to her plate, then to Dannie’s flat stomach. Then, as her cousin so often liked to do, she let her eyebrow do the talking.
Dannie blinked in what could only be called innocence — unless the blinker was Dannie. Dannie could never be that innocent. Without a word, Cressida pushed her plate toward Dannie.
“Thanks!” Dannie tucked in with a will. “… I have a question.”
“When’s the last time Ned got a new toy?”
“A new — oh, Dannie, you needn’t do that! Just because I gave you my dessert!”
“Don’t be silly. It has nothing to do with your dessert. It has everything to do with me wanting to be the fun auntie. Or close enough. So? When’s the last time he got a new toy?”
“… He mostly plays with Geoff and Henry’s hand-me-downs. Although John did carve a horse for him when he was just born.”
“That settles it!” Dannie signaled for the bill. “We’re going to see Josh.”
“Josh?” Cressida asked.
But it was not until they (meaning Dannie) had paid their bill and were cutting through the clean-if-worn sailor’s tavern below the tea shop that Cressida got any answer to that question. “Josh is Rob’s brother,” Dannie remarked over her shoulder. “He bought a toy shop, oh, about a year back or so. An investment opportunity, he said.”
“I am so glad that Rob doesn’t think that way,” Dannie sighed as they stepped into the sunny lane. “Looking at everything in terms of silvers and coppers. There are so many more important things than that, don’t you agree?”
Cressida said nothing, because all she could think to mention was how obvious it was, now, that Dannie had never truly had to worry about money a day in her life. She’d never had to worry where the next meal might come from. She’d never had to look at her home and wonder if she might be driven out of it the next day.
Then again, how different had Cressida been before Edward — no — after Edward, even — before John had died? They’d always been comfortable enough, then. Even after her father had died, they had been able to eat and keep the roof over their heads without too much difficulty. If she’d faced that kind of difficulty, maybe then she wouldn’t have turned her nose up at all those fat, red-faced merchants who saw the world in terms of silvers and coppers and allowed no room in it for romance.
But if she had thought that way, she realized as she stepped into the carriage (oh, there were benefits to being the cousin of the daughter-in-law of the man with the biggest livery stables in the kingdom!), she would never have married Edward. And she wouldn’t have Ned.
So she answered, “I agree.”
The ride to the toy shop was short, and it wasn’t long before Dannie had hopped out and clambered up the steps into the little thatch-roofed shop. If Cressida’s suspicions were correct, she wouldn’t be doing that for much longer … but all the more reason to let Dannie enjoy relative freedom of movement while she still could, then. “Josh! Josh, where — oh, there you are!”
Cressida did not look at Josh. She looked around the shop instead. Frowsy curtains, polished wooden shelves, even a pretty inlay along the border of the tiles. There had to a woman’s hand in the decoration. And probably not the hand of the scowling black-haired woman who stood behind the cashbox, either.
There was a smell, however, that was not a woman’s smell. It was the smell of new-hewn wood and fresh paint. The smell of so many evenings around the fire after John had come to live with them. He used to love carving. And most importantly, he loved carving for his children. Cressida could still remember John and Blanche sitting before the fire, Blanche’s tummy huge with Geoff and her head resting on John’s shoulder, while John leaned forward, his small carving knife flashing in the firelight. He had made a fox that evening, a fox so cunning that its ears were practically translucent and its tail seemed to twitch if you left it sitting where the firelight would dance over it. Geoff still had that fox. Cressida caught him cradling it from time to time, now, not crying — he thought himself too big a boy to cry — but watching it with eyes full and glassy.
Cressida had to keep telling her that the Lord Wright had a plan, and that plan was surely for the best. Otherwise she would have thought him a very cruel god indeed. First there was Edward — taking her baby’s father from him before her baby could even be born — then John, who would have been as great a surrogate father/uncle as Ned could have wished for.
“Come on, Josh, you’ve got a little boy yourself! You ought to know what a boy would want!” Dannie scolded, and Cressida wandered over to see whom she was taking to task.
This was Josh? From what Dannie had let fall, Cressida had been expecting a potbelly, fingers faintly stained with silver dust and ink — a red face at the very least! Yet here was a trim young man with a complexion that tended, it was true, a bit toward the pink, but certainly not the red of too much food and too much drink. His hands were quite clean, as well. His wife was to be commended for the great care she took of him.
“Dannie, considering I once was a little boy, I can tell you that not all of them are alike.”
“That’s what you think. We women know you’re all the same, don’t we, Cressida?” Dannie put a chummy arm over Cressida’s shoulder. “My cousin,” she added, squeezing Cressida. “Cressida Tabard. Cressida, this is Joshua Wesleyan, my brother-in-law.”
Josh was furrowing his brows together. “Tabard? Rob said your cousins –”
“Cressida was married before they left Glasonland.”
“He died,” Cressida put in. “About — about a year ago.”
Was it Cressida’s imagination, or did a shadow cross over Josh’s face? “I see,” he murmured. “I’m sorry for your loss, Widow Tabard. Anyway, I might have an idea for your son. Please come with me.” He turned on his heel and said not another word until he led the way to the far end of the tiny shop.
Cressida looked at his suit of almost unrelieved black, and she had to wonder …
“Dannie said your son was about a year old?”
“Aye,” Cressida agreed.
“What sorts of toys does he like?”
“Oh, toys he can do things with! … Er, that is, he’s an active little boy, always running around, now that he knows how. More or less,” Cressida laughed. “He needs something that won’t break easily.”
“For a one-year-old, that’s pretty much a given,” Josh smiled.
“And — and probably not a cloth toy, either.” Cressida had nothing against them — indeed, it was probably a good thing to give Ned cloth toys that wouldn’t break apart or break anything else, no matter what he banged them on — but there was no point in spending Dannie’s money on what she could make herself for Ned. “But nothing he could hurt himself with.”
“Tall order,” Josh replied, eyebrows lifting slightly.
“And he — well — he’s not the sort of boy who will just sit quietly in the corner and move his toy around, you know? He needs to be … doing things …”
Now a real smile crept up Josh’s face, all the way to his eyes — but it did not, Cressida noticed, quite erase the sadness in them. “My son is the same way.”
“So then you do know what Ned would like!” Dannie cried.
“I have an idea, maybe. Duck on a string sound good?” he asked Cressida.
“A — a duck on a string?”
“Aye. It has wheels, your boy can pull it along behind him. Makes a lot of noise, though.”
“We’ll take it!” Dannie cried.
“Dannie! It’s my son!” Cressida giggled.
“So? It’s my present! Lots of noise, sounds perfect!”
Josh let his eyebrows go up. “You buy anything of that sort of Darius or — or — Baby Belle, and I’m warning you now, you’ll find your ‘kindness’ returned threefold.”
“Darius isn’t the type of kid to appreciate that, poor thing. And as for Baby Belle … well, we’ll see. How much?” Dannie asked.
Cressida let them haggle over the price — it wasn’t her money — but all the same, she was a bit surprised when Dannie fished the coppers out of her purse and gave them to Cressida to take up to the cashbox. Josh gave her the duck, though, and so Cressida meekly went up to pay.
It wasn’t until she heard murmured conversation between Dannie and Josh — and saw the hug Dannie gave to him — that Cressida began to understand why Dannie wanted to be rid of her.
Or did she? Their good-bye was polite enough, and it wasn’t until they were halfway out the door that Dannie thought to say anything at all about it. “Poor man,” she murmured. “He lost his wife a few months ago — did I mention that?”
And suddenly the blacks made sense. “No, no, you didn’t.”
“Childbirth,” Dannie murmured. “So now Josh has a son and a daughter to take care of, all by himself. I feel so awful for him.”
Cressida looked over her shoulder, where he had wandered over to another customer who seemed to be having trouble. “Poor man,” she echoed, and thought of Edward, and John, and Blanche, and herself. “Poor, poor man.”