They said it wouldn’t be long now. A couple days. Maybe a week. Maybe. The look on Kata Thatcher’s face when she had said that told Finley that she wouldn’t be betting any serious sums on that maybe.
Mother Julian had come and gone, leaving absolution and cold comfort in her wake. Berach and Ailís were by with their children every day. Grady’s kids poked their little heads in the door a couple of times a day, sometimes tearfully, sometimes hopefully, sometimes only curiously. Grady and Toinette took care of the day shift of care. But there was nothing they could do.
There was nothing anybody could do, but wait.
Wait and remember Lilé.
Finley couldn’t remember the first time they met. They’d grown up in the same seaside fishing village; their parents and their grandparents and their great-grandparents, all the way back to the days when St. Robert walked the earth, had all lived and died in that village. You didn’t meet people in a village like that, barring strangers and new babies. You just knew them, from the day you were born until the day you joined your ancestors in the old churchyard.
Finley did remember the first time he’d really noticed Lilé, though. Noticed her as a woman, and not just Lilé, one of Grady Fisher’s three mousy daughters. Lilé was the youngest and the mousiest. Bookish. Quiet. In his mind, dull.
Then one day he’d realized something — out of all the young, pretty, unmarried girls in the village (and plenty who were only some or perhaps none of the above), she was the only one who never bothered to look in his direction.
He could still remember the way he’d been talking to his old friend Craig, making telling remarks about this girl’s tits or that girl’s hair or that girl’s legs. He’d been just eighteen then, and considered himself quite a stud. The best thing to happen to the girls in three shires. And you couldn’t have convinced him otherwise for the world.
Finley still remembered the way he’d nudged Craig, pointed to her behind, and said that while he never much cared to see a Fisher girl coming toward him, damn how he loved to watch them leave. He’d pitched his voice to carry. He wanted to watch her gasp, spin around, shoot him a dirty look or an insult. The Fisher girls were notoriously proud; he wanted to take one of them down a peg.
Lilé didn’t even pause. She didn’t turn. It was almost as if she hadn’t heard, or, worse, hadn’t listened.
His eighteen-year-old self had suddenly realized that here was a girl whose every thought didn’t revolve around his existence. Here was a girl who wasn’t going to jump when he called her name. Here was a girl who didn’t care.
And instead of taking the humiliation in stride and moving onto easier targets, as an older, wiser man might have done, Finley found he couldn’t stop thinking about her. This Fisher girl. This mousy, bookish, dull girl. Who nevertheless had hair that shone like spun gold; and a clever, impish, impossibly pretty face; and a figure that made you hate to see her leave, but love to watch her go.
So Finley decided, some days later in the tiny lending library Brother Tybalt ran, to make her care.
He still remembered the way Craig had shuddered when Finley had tapped him on the shoulder and asked how long it would take him to get that pretty little ass into his bed. He still remembered the look Craig had given to him. He still remembered Craig wondering, loudly, why he wanted that ass in his bed.
He still remembered the way Lilé took a book off the shelf, examined the spine and first page, smiled and meandered over to the nearest sofa. It was as if she hadn’t even heard him. Could she really care so little? Was he really that unimportant to her? He was one of the best catches in the village, at least in the eyes of the pretty girls if not in their fathers’ and brothers’ eyes, and she didn’t see him?
He had scarcely noticed the details then, but now, in memory, he saw them all. Her thin, work-worn hands as she reverently ran a finger over the vellum pages. The way her pretty fingers held a page between them when the time came to turn the page. The candlelight glistening off her hair. The itch she must have gotten, and the way she tugged at her bodice by her breasts in order to relieve it —
All right, maybe he did notice that detail at the time.
But then, like the true oaf he was, he had to go ruin that perfect picture with his own stupid desires.
So many years later, he didn’t remember what it was that he said to her. That in and of itself was proof that there was a god, and He was merciful. Some nights, when he hadn’t had enough to drink at supper and couldn’t get to sleep — when all he could do was feel the tremors in his hands and watch the spiders on the ceiling — he would go over the things he said to girls now and cringe at the very thought. Lord only knew what he said at eighteen and supposed to be oh-so-clever.
But he did remember the way Lilé looked up, puzzled, when he said her name and she realized that yes, he was talking to her. She’d smiled a little bemusedly, but politely, and thanked him — thanked him — for the compliment before retreating back into her book.
So Finley tried again. She looked up again, her brows knit, and thanked him — and then asked him to please not disturb her, because she wanted to finish this chapter before Brother Tybalt closed up the lending library.
“Disturbing ye?” Finley had asked, laughing. “Baby, this ain’t disturbing. This is flirting! Ain’t ye ever been flirted with before?”
They had continued on in that vein until Lilé finally lost her temper, put the book down, stood, and yelled at him.
Finley didn’t remember what she had said. He was so surprised at the time that he scarcely paid attention. Oh, he was no stranger to shouts, yells and the odd slap or two — he hadn’t always been the picture of masculine perfection he was at eighteen — but usually he had to at least pinch a girl’s arse before he got this reaction! He never got yelled at for just talking to a girl! (Leastaways … not by the girl.)
But Lilé wasn’t having any of his shit, and now, from the comfortable vantage of two-and-fifty, he knew it was shit. He wished that Lilé would have kept not taking his shit. She would have been better off.
He remembered the way she’d looked as she yelled. Her eyes dancing with fiery light, her mouth spewing forth words that she no doubt thought were very hurtful and unpleasant, but really had all the force of a toddler’s clever insults. She never yelled like that after they were married. She’d tried too, once or twice in the early years, but he’d not been in the mood to hear it, so had slapped her and told her to hold her peace. He’d been too young and hot-tempered, then, to handle an angry wife, even if she was angry with good reason. Especially if she was angry with good reason.
And later on, after he’d gotten older and mellowed out, and might have responded to a yelling like that … Lilé didn’t yell anymore.
You had to care to yell like that.
Finley was too flabbergasted by the treatment then to even respond properly to it, let alone understand it. Now he thought he understood it. The daughters of Grady Fisher never had to put up with the treatment that the likes of Finley Brogan doled out to pretty girls. Part of it was probably that they were all mousy and bookish and practical. Maybe they could have been pretty, but they spent too much time buried in their books or their shopping or their manning their father’s fish stall to pay much mind to their looks. They were the sorts of girls who appealed to widowers with households to run and children to raise, or to young men just as serious and practical as they. Not to the likes of Finley Brogan.
Also, the fact that their father managed to bring in some of the biggest nets in the village by the strength of his own two arms also did a lot to keep the likes of Finley Brogan away.
But the truth of it was, Lilé Fisher didn’t know enough about the likes of Finley Brogan to realize what he was trying to do. She saw him as an annoyance and a bother, and so she treated him as an annoyance and a bother. That was her one mistake.
Because that treatment — as well as the view she presented when she stormed out of the lending library — only made her more fascinating to the likes of Finley Brogan.
He waited a long time before he made his next move — nearly a week. He let her cool off. He planned his strategy. He couldn’t just bother this one until she fell into bed with him. He’d have to be suave, he’d have to be smooth, he’d have to make her feel not just wanted — and oh, how he wanted her — but needed. Cherished. Special.
So he was careful. He stayed well away from the lending library. He didn’t bother her at the fish market, where she was too busy selling her father’s catch to entertain a flirtatious customer who didn’t plan on buying anything. He even refrained from ogling her at church, in case she proved to be religious like her elder sister Ivy was.
But when he heard she and her sisters counting up the day’s take, exclaiming happily over it and saying that now they could get the new lamp they’d been saving up for, and then sending Lilé out to get that lamp … well, he followed her.
And there he made his move.
He made sure not to look at her at first. He pretended that he was only interested in the lamps. But as the minutes passed, he stole glance after glance at her. If she looked at him, he looked away. He even manged to conjure up a blush. He was pretending to be flustered, smitten, shy. And she fell for it.
Or maybe he fell for his own pretense at pretense.
So when he finally “gathered his courage” and spoke to her — a simple compliment, the fact that she looked nice that day — Lilé didn’t snap. She didn’t bite. She smiled, and said thank you, and seemed … flattered.
Oh, she was putty in his hands from that moment.
But he knew he had to go slow. If he didn’t, she’d realize what the game was about and run away. He couldn’t have that. So Finley did something he rarely did with girls — he started a conversation. A real one, not just a string of words that sounded complimentary but meant nothing and cut off once he got the girl into bed.
It started simple enough — he asked her what brought her into the lamp shop. She told him. Pretending to be the knowledgeable male, he pointed her to a particular lamp — it didn’t matter which one, any one would have done for his purposes — and claimed that he had one like it at home, and that it shone the brightest out of all of them.
“It’ll bring out the lightest gold in yer pretty hair,” he told her, “‘specially if ye fill it with good whale oil. An’ it’ll make yer eyes shine like stars.”
She was every bit as caught as a fish in one of her father’s nets. She just didn’t know it yet.
Lilé hadn’t giggled and simpered like the other girls he knew did. She wasn’t the type. But she smiled. Oh, Lord, how she’d smiled! It was her teeth that sparkled in those moments just as he’d lied about her eyes sparkling. Or had he lied? Surely in his memory her eyes shone every bit like the stars he’d lied about …
The thing was, poor Lilé Fisher had never been properly flirted with. The only types of men who were interested in her were widowers with houses to run and children to raise, and young men every bit as practical and serious as she was. Even if she’d lit a fire in either of them, they didn’t know how to flirt the way Finley did. They were too serious and sincere to flatter and please the way an accomplished rake like Finley Brogan could. She was just waiting for a bad boy to come along and sweep her off her feet.
Finley was only too happy to play the broom in this instance. And when he’d stopped sweeping, the better to leave her begging for more …
Well, this time he wasn’t the one watching her leave.
And after that, well, they became a couple. Sort of. Finley had never thought of them as a couple, not consciously. Lord knew he only talked to her father insofar as it was required of him. He wasn’t trying for anything serious. Not consciously.
But unconsciously …
Would he have done all that if there hadn’t been something there? Would he have taken her walking in full view of the village? Brought her flowers and candies? Bought — worked for and bought — a chess set, as fine as the one old Lord Heron had in his very study, for her, because he knew she liked chess and could only play it with some different-shaped rocks she and her sisters had found along the beach? Taken her for long walks on that said beach, and been able to spend seconds, minutes, hours looking into her eyes and holding her hands and not wishing for anything more?
He should have known it was all too sweet to last. She should have known it was all too sweet to last. She was, after all, the smart one.
Because even if Finley’s heart was trying to tell him something, his pride wouldn’t let him listen. His pride reminded him of the objective here: Lilé in his bed. A Fisher girl bent and broken. Proof that Finley Brogan was the hottest young stud in three shires, and there wasn’t a girl in the village who could stand proof to his charms.
Still he’d waited and bided his time. But now, to his shame, when the first likely opportunity came up … he took it.
It started off as a drizzly night, not too wet or even too cloudy for a walk along the shore. Then, without warning, a storm had come up from the sea, lightening cracking the sky wide open and thunder shaking the very ground beneath their feet. They ran back to the village and into the first open door they found.
The lamp shop where he’d first managed to catch her attention.
Finley had stumbled about and lit a few lamps while they waited out the storm. Lilé sat down on a pile of rugs. She was shivering from the drenching she’d gotten. So Finley, gentleman that he was, offered to warm her up.
Any fool could have predicted the way things would go after that.
The wonder of it was that Lilé didn’t.
If there was one thing, though, that Finley could say about that night, it was that he hadn’t been a brute with her. He’d been slow, he’d been gentle. He hadn’t acted the way he did with other girls, moving toward the target with the single-minded determination of the Reman army bent on sacking a city. He didn’t make his way to the gate, thrust his way in and conquer with no care about the devastation he caused.
No, he did none of that. He did his best to ensure she enjoyed it. He stroked and caressed her as if the mere act of touching her skin gave him as much pleasure as taking her would. He made her feel needed. Cherished. Special.
It was probably the last time he would ever do that for her.
Because the results of that night? Oh, they were only too predictable. Within a fortnight, Lilé came crying to him about a missed monthly. Within six weeks, her sister Rosie blabbed it all to her pa, and with a fisherman’s spear prodding the small of his back, Finley Brogan did take Lilé Fisher to his wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death did they part. Grady, named for her blasted father, was born seven and a half months after that.
And that was that.
But oh, how Finley wished he could wake her now! He would tell her all the things he should have told her these four-and-thirty years. He would tell her that he’d been a fool. That he shouldn’t have been such a self-absorbed prick, pitying himself for being forced to marry at eighteen, and then pitying himself for what he’d seen in the wars when hundreds had seen just as bad or worse than him. That he should have spent his life trying to make her feel needed, cherished, special
He couldn’t wake her, though. Kata Thatcher, damn her eyes, had been quite specific about that. If Lilé was resting, it meant she wasn’t coughing, wasn’t gasping, wasn’t struggling for each and every breath. If she was resting, she wasn’t suffering.
Finley had made her suffer enough these four-and-thirty years. He could let her rest now.
He looked up to see his eldest son standing at the doorway.
“Da, ye look beat. Why don’t ye go up an’ get some rest? I can sit with Ma fer a while.”
“Ye won’t do no one any good sittin’ here, wearin’ yerself out, makin’ yerself sick –”
“I said no!” he snapped. Lord, he needed a drink.
But he wouldn’t drink now. He wouldn’t let his last time with Lilé be spent in a drunken haze. After she passed, he’d fill a keg and drown himself in it, one way or another. But now … no.
With the dispassionate eyes of a man well used to his eldest’s cowardice, he watched Grady jump back. Then he glanced at Lilé, but she hadn’t even stirred. Good.
“An’ stop,” he said in his lowest, most gravelly voice, “pretendin’ that ye ain’t jest waitin’ fer me ter die, so’s ye can get this house an’ sell it all ter become a fine freeman an’ merchant. Stop pretendin’ that ye don’t want me ter get sick. Stop –”
“– actin’ like ye don’t wish it were me in that bed, dyin’, an’ not her.” Finley snorted. “Though son, if that’s what ye’re wishin’, ye ain’t the only one.”
“Shut up, Grady. An’ after that, do one thing fer me.”
Grady didn’t say anything, but he didn’t storm out of the room, either.
“I want ye ter to go up ter that loft,” Finley said, “an’ I want ye ter lay down next ter yer wife. I want ye ter make her feel needed. Cherished. Special. Because …”
He looked at the prone figure on the bed.
“Because Lord only knows how long ye’ll get ter keep her, son, an’ when it comes time fer ye ter lose her, I don’t want ye ter wish ye’d spent more time lovin’ her.”