“And since all are present and accounted for,” Dannie said as she sat down, “as your president, I hereby call the first meeting of Albion Young Mother’s Club to order.”
“Mother’s Club?” asked Sandra Tower, puzzled.
“President?” Cressida squealed at the same time. “Who made you president?”
Dannie did her best innocent blink. “Well, I founded the club …”
“You’re not even a mother!”
“Yet,” Dannie replied, patting her just-bulging stomach.
“But we can’t have the president not be a mother!” Cressida protested.
“Sure we can, as long a) the president is expecting and b) the vice president is already a mother.”
“And who’s the vice president?” asked Cressida.
“Well, who else did you think it would be? No offense, Sandra. I just think you’re better suited to be secretary, or treasurer if we ever get any money.”
“Money?” asked Sandra. “Why would we need money?”
Dannie leveled her best look at Sandra — the one she was practicing for when her baby came — and Cressida giggled, scandalized. “Sandra. You’re asking Albion’s best dressmaker why a group of women might need money?”
“I don’t think we could afford one of Dannie’s dresses if we pooled all of our pin-money together. No offense, Dannie.”
“Sandra, I’d only take offense if you were to imply that my dresses weren’t worth every last farthing.”
Sandra chuckled. Her chuckles were so low and throaty, the sorts of laugh that seemed more at home coming from the mouth of an exotic temptress, not practical and prosaic Sandra.
Then again … Sandra certainly looked exotic. Not for the first time, Dannie wondered who her parents had been. In vain, of course, Sandra had already mentioned that she was an orphan, dropped on the doorstep of a nunnery when she was only a few days or a week old. Dannie couldn’t imagine how Sandra managed to live with the curiosity alone.
“But …” Sandra’s voice broke through after the chuckle. “I’m still confused. I thought we were just here for a play date?”
“We are here for a play date. See the kids playing?”
Sandra laughed, even though she couldn’t — technically — see, at least not without squirming around and getting a crick in her neck. Which she promptly did, Cressida too. But Coralie had made a beeline for the blue bear Dannie had just finished making that morning, and little Ned was having a ball with the toy chest. And Darius, whom Dannie was babysitting (and who was her excuse for the play date), was following Ned around.
It was too cute, really. Darius was usually so shy and retiring, and from what Dannie had seen of Ned, Ned … wasn’t. But Darius had grabbed Ned’s little hand as soon as Cressida put him on the floor, led him over to the toy chest, and happily showed him all the “best” toys that Rob had either made or bought from his brother. Ned was still at the age where banging things around was all he needed to do to count as “playing,” but Darius was trying to show him how to play with the horsie, how to move the knight around, how to cuddle the doggie. Neither of them were paying the least attention to Coralie, and Dannie had already filed that away as a story to embarrass them with in ten or twelve years or so, when they’d doubtless be fighting over Coralie.
After all, if she had learned nothing else from her grandmother, she had at least realized that the chief job of an older relative who was not a parent was to watch the children as they grew up, remember all the potentially humiliating things they did, and trot them out at opportune moments.
Sandra and Cressida turned back around, chuckling a little. “Ned and Darius are adorable, aren’t they?” sighed Cressida.
“He’s your nephew, you said?” Sandra asked.
“Well, Rob’s technically, but since I’m his favorite auntie, I guess we can say he’s my nephew.”
“His favorite auntie?” laughed Sandra. “Really? He’s said?”
“Oh, Darius would never say that! He loves everybody,” Dannie shrugged.
“But then why …” Sandra murmured, or started too. Then she narrowed her eyes. “Wait. Let me guess. You decided that you were going to be the favorite auntie, and lo, it was so?”
“How did you guess?” Dannie gasped, and Cressida fell back against the couch, laughing.
Baby Jason made a sound at that — all Dannie could identify it was as “not a wail” — and Sandra was half out of her seat before the baby snuffled and seemed to snuffle back to sleep. Heck, even Dannie was half out of her seat, even if all she wanted to do was watch the baby and more importantly, his mother. Somehow or other, newborns had never been part of the curriculum at Camford, and she had a lot to learn before she got one of her own early next year.
“So the worry doesn’t stop?” asked Cressida, reminding Dannie that she wasn’t the only ignorant one in the room.
“About the new baby. I know when Ned was first born … well, he only had to sneeze for me to be running toward him with diapers and blankets and my bodice half undone.”
“Oh!” Sandra smiled. “You still run for the baby. You just don’t bring all the things with you. Because you know that you’ll be able to figure it out when you get there, and you’ll have plenty of time to get what you need once the baby knows that you’re there and you’ll fix whatever is wrong. But …” Sandra looked at Jason again, pushing her hair back behind her ear.
“But?” Dannie asked.
“Well, when they’re this new … you don’t know each other very well yet, you see. Well — the baby knows you. But you don’t know him very well yet. So you need a bit of time to figure out when a snuffle is a request for food, or a cuddle, or is just a snuffle.”
Jason snuffled again.
“Or is a way of making his mother crazy?” Dannie inquired, eyebrow raised.
“That too,” murmured Sandra. “Coralie never tried to make me crazy. Well, not on purpose.”
“Sandra, Jason is a boy. That’s what they do.”
Cressida snickered. “You’d better hope for girls if that’s what you think boys do.”
“Oh, the vice president dares to disagree with the president?” Dannie put her hand on her hip and cocked her head to the side.
“The vice president has only a son who is an angel.”
Sandra’s lips pursed together as she tried to bite back a smile. She looked over one shoulder at Coralie, then over the other at Jason. “Sister Abigail told me,” she murmured, “that boys are harder when they’re young, but once the girls hit their teens, things get … a little hairy, let’s say, and the boys are the easier ones.”
Cressida laughed as only the youngest of four sisters could, and Dannie raised her eyebrows as only the elder sister of two brothers could. “Your Sister Abigail needs to have a long talk with my mother. And she’s clearly never met George.”
“That’s the –”
“The hellion, yes,” Dannie replied. “Mind,” she leaned back, head resting her hands, surveying the ceiling, “he’s a cute hellion. Cute like a bunny rabbit is cute, that is, and nobody had better tell him I said that. But he’s a hellion all the same. I swear he gives my mother more trouble in an afternoon than I gave her in the seven years of my teens. And you can stop laughing, Cressida!”
“How?” Cressida chortled. “If you could hear yourself!”
“I can hear myself just fine. That’s how I know I’m not mispronouncing any words.”
“But what you said! Acting like George is a –”
“Hellion, and he is a hellion.”
“Maybe, but you’re not the paragon you’re making yourself out to be!” Cressida giggled. “Blanche tries to do the same thing,” she said to Sandra, “or at least …” Cressida’s face fell. “She did.”
Dannie couldn’t see Sandra’s expression, but her voice was gentle and somehow managed to be coaxing and offhand at the same time. “How so?”
“Oh …” Cressida flipped her hair back and slouched against the back of the sofa. “Well, it was when Edward and I were courting. Mother didn’t want me to even give Edward the time of day.”
Dannie and Sandra listened with the rapt if somewhat startled attention of two young women whose parents and/or guardians had heartily approved of their choices of mate.
“It wasn’t that she had anything against Edward, though,” Cressida continued. “I mean, not personally. It was … well … that Edward didn’t have two farthings to rub together, and Master Dyer from down the lane was interested in me. But he was … oh, he was tubby and red-faced and over thirty! He stared at me the way you might stare at a plate of sausages, if you expected the sausages to make babies for you after you ate them up. And Edward was … well, Edward! Strong and dashing and …” Dannie watched Cressida’s eyes go far away, her face shining with an inner light. “So … so Edward. So wonderful.”
“You really must have loved him,” Sandra murmured.
“I shall never love anyone like that again,” Cressida answered, and sighed. It was the sort of sigh that was supposed to come straight from the soul. But somehow, to Dannie’s ears — love her cousin as she might — it seemed to come from the same place other sighs came from. The middle of the stomach.
“So what was it that your sister was so insufferable about?” Dannie asked.
“Oh … well, when Mother was throwing Master Dyer at my head, and I was throwing him back at hers, Blanche tried to talk to me and calm me down, and tell me to be ‘reasonable,’ that Master Dyer was a good man and would provide for me and … well, I’m sure you can guess the rest.” Cressida rolled her eyes and shook her head. “As if she hadn’t had blazing row after blazing row with Mother when she was insisting that she marry John!”
Blazing row? Dannie couldn’t help her eyebrows’ slow migration upwards. From everything she had seen of her cousin Blanche, she was too calm, too stolid, too … beaten down to summon up the energy to have a blazing row with anyone. Least of all Aunt Pamela, who seemed to enjoy flattening the wills of other Sims with her own outsized sense of the way things out to be.
Sandra was shooting her a look as if to ask, What is she talking about?, but Dannie could only try to will her eyes to tell her friend that all would be explained later.
Cressida, however, seemed to reach the end of her story — which made it as good a time as any to ask a question or two that might clear things up for Sandra. “I thought Blanche liked John? She sure seems to miss him …”
“Oh, she did! But not like that. At least, not at first. I don’t think.” Cressida frowned. “I don’t really know. I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight when the rows started. I just knew that Mother and Blanche would start shouting at each other as soon as the shop was closed and John went home.”
“So John was …” Sandra murmured.
“Oh! He was our cousin. Uncle Henry apprenticed him to Mother after Papa died. He was supposed to help us out, though somehow that got turned into an obligation for Blanche to marry him … and then turn over the shop to Uncle Henry when John died.” Cressida’s face scrunched up as if she had bitten into something sour.
Dannie was only saved from having to explain that mess to Sandra by a knock on the door. “Door’s open!” she shouted.
“Not even going to answer the door?” Cressida laughed, her good humor returned as soon as Uncle Henry was no longer the topic of conversation.
“I’m in a delicate condition. I don’t have to.”
Cressida and Sandra were still chortling after that when a shout came from the vestibule. “Oy! I thought you weren’t due for months, Dannie! Where’d the two-year-old come from? … And why doesn’t she look a thing like Rob?”
“You idiot!” Dannie answered, springing to her feet, delicate condition or no delicate condition. “That’s Coralie! Sandra’s daughter! Sandra, this is Josh Wesleyan, my idiot of a brother-in-law. Josh, this is Sandra Tower, my friend. And you’ve already met Cressida.”
“Ladies,” Josh inclined his head in their direction as Dannie waddled up to him. A kiss of greeting to each cheek was all that Josh gave to politeness before he scooped Darius up. “Well, my lad! Did you have fun today, getting your first sweetheart?”
“Ned’s not my sweetheart!”
“Ned?” Josh asked, looking around until he saw the little blonde boy staring up at him. He glanced over Dannie’s shoulder. “Mistress Tabard, is this your boy?”
“Aye!” Cressida jogged over and scooped Ned up. She kissed the top of his head. “He’s a likely lad, isn’t he?”
“He has your eyes,” Josh murmured.
“Thank you,” Cressida replied.
Sandra took advantage of that opportunity to rescue Pepe from Coralie by picking up her daughter. “And your daughter is lovely, Mistress Tower. I’ll need to keep my son away from her if I don’t want his heart broken before he gets a chance to grow into it.”
Sandra, Dannie was sure, was dimpling. But Dannie would rather watch Darius, who was old enough to know the meanings of all these words but nowhere near old enough to understand them. He’d be puzzling over this one for days … or until his father brought him home a new toy, whichever came first.
And while Dannie watched Darius, Cressida and Sandra brought their children to the sofa, leaving Dannie alone to have a tête-à-tête with her brother-in-law.
“So,” Josh remarked, “I should have guessed that there was going to be an ulterior motive when you offered to take Darius for the afternoon.”
“Ulterior motive?” Dannie gasped and blinked, the perfect picture of innocent shock — provided that innocent shock came with a healthy dose of sarcasm. “Whatever do you mean, Joshua-dear?”
“Apparently I haven’t been doing a good enough job finding little friends for this little man,” Josh bounced Darius, “and you had to step in for me.” He grinned.
“Don’t be ridiculous. If I had any criticism about the way you were raising your son, I’d tell you to your face!”
“Now that,” Josh remarked to Darius, “is what’s known as straight talking, son. If you want to make friends and keep them, you’ll learn to do it sparingly.”
“Don’t listen to a word your Papa says, Darius. He doesn’t realize the benefit of having a friend who tells it to you like it is.”
“That’s perhaps because Papa doesn’t think there is that much of a benefit.”
“Not so, not so! What Papa doesn’t realize is that if the friend who tells it to you straight isn’t criticizing you, it means you aren’t doing anything worth criticizing! And that, my friend, is always a good thing.”
Darius looked between the two of them and buried his head in his father’s shoulder. Dannie laughed and ruffled his hair.
“So if your motive wasn’t to criticizing my parenting,” Josh hefted Darius up farther, “what was it, eh?”
“Oh, that’s simple. Entrance ticket into the Young Mother’s Club of Albion! I figured if I was going to be president …”
The look on Josh’s face was enough even Dannie up.
“He doesn’t need you to be his mother,” Josh snarled.
“He doesn’t need anyone to be his mother. He had a mother. Still does, if anything the monks say is to be believed.”
And Dannie realized what Josh was trying to say. “Joshua Wesleyan, if I were you, I’d stop right there.”
“Are you trying to take offense?”
“No, I’m succeeding. You idiot, I’d have done the same thing if Isabel was still here — all right, all right, fine. I’d have borrowed Baby Belle, because she’s cuter and let Isabel bring Darius as her entrance ticket. But that’s not that big of a difference, Josh, and you know it.”
Josh only snorted.
“Joshua Wesleyan …”
“I should get going. This little guy is going to need his dinner soon. It was nice meeting you, ladies!” Josh called.
“Josh –” Dannie hissed.
“I should probably get going too,” Cressida murmured, walking over to Dannie and Josh, swaying a little with each step. “It’s a long walk.”
And for a split second, Dannie watched Cressida cuddle Ned and Josh make funny faces to Darius — and that was all it took to convince her to jump feet-first into her next plan.
“Don’t be silly, Cressida. If you want to leave that’s one thing, but I’m sure Josh will give you a ride home.”
Josh’s head whipped up, something like panic in his eyes.
And so Dannie backpedaled, as she knew she would have to, but not too far. “I mean, his father does own the closest stables. I’m sure Josh could manage to rustle something up.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to be any trouble …”
“Don’t worry about that, Mistress Tabard,” Josh replied. Dannie wondered if everyone else could hear the relief in his voice. “It wouldn’t be any trouble. You’re family, after all.”
Oh, is that how you’re going to play it? Dannie thought. But it didn’t matter how Josh played it for now. The important thing was that the idea was there, planted in his head. Maybe in Cressida’s head, too. It just needed time to grow, so that when Josh and Cressida were ready to start testing the waters again, the current would bring them toward each other.
“But I don’t want to impose …”
“It won’t be an imposition at all. Come along, we’ll walk down to the stables together.” And with that they were out the door, Cressida trying to politely protest and Josh succeeding in deflecting each and every last attempt to demur.
Dannie turned her head to see Sandra creeping toward her.
“Are you sure that was wise?”
“Wise?” Dannie let her eyelids flicker. “Whatever do you mean, Sandra?”
“I saw what you were trying to do there.”
“Make sure my poor, widowed cousin doesn’t have a lug an almost two-year-old kid home to Port Finessa?”
“You know what I mean. Dannie, you told me yourself that your brother-in-law only lost his wife not even a year ago.”
“Sandra, you’re acting like I’m trying to get them back at the altar tomorrow.”
“And you’re not?”
“Of course not. If there’s going to be a wedding, there ought to be a party. A really good party. And that sort of party needs at least a week to plan.”
“Relax, Sandra,” Dannie chuckled and waved her hand dismissively. “I know what I’m doing.”
“And what would that be?”
“Planting a seed. No more, no less.”
“It’s too early to –”
“To get married again? I agree absolutely. To fall in love again? You know, I think I might agree with that too. But to start thinking about it? To realize that there’s no way Josh’s parents and Cressida’s mother will let them stay alone the rest of their lives? That Ned needs a father and Darius and Baby Belle need a mother? And — hey, presto! — Cressida’s already a great mother and Josh is already a fantastic father? No, I don’t think it’s too early to start thinking about that.”
“Dannie, how would you like it if something — Lord forbid — happened to Rob, and your well-meaning but rather daft sister-in-law was trying to set you up with somebody within a year?”
“Not at all, that’s why I’m being subtle about it. Which, I suppose, makes me not rather daft, but very wise.”
Sandra sighed and rolled her eyes.
“You need a dose of humility, my friend. And luckily …” She looked down at Dannie’s belly. “I know just the Sim to give it to you.”