“Who’s Daddy’s little angel?” Tom crooned, nose-to-nose with his perfect baby princess. “That’s right, you are!”
His mother, Lynn, Lynn’s mother — they all kept telling him that Elise was too little yet to respond to those kinds of games and blandishments. They kept telling him to wait a few weeks or a couple of months. They were all quite, quite wrong. Maybe Elise didn’t laugh or kick her feet or coo as a baby a bit older might have, but that was just because she was her mother’s daughter at heart. The expression in her fathomless blue-gray eyes said that she knew exactly what her father was saying — and that she approved.
“And not a word,” Tom growled from the side of his mouth, “from you. Understood?”
“I wasn’t saying anything,” replied Will.
“Damn right you weren’t.”
Tom kissed the baby’s forehead and smiled again at her. “Of course,” he mused, “give it six, seven months and you’ll be making just as much of an idiot of yourself, won’t you, now?”
“Perhaps,” Will shrugged, in the tone of a man who didn’t believe a word he was saying, but was humoring his slightly mad friend regardless.
Well, for once in his life, Tom was going to be smarter than Will, and the moment, six or seven months from now, when he got the chance to say I told you so would be one of the most hilarious of his life. He could hardly wait.
“Care to hold her?” asked Tom offhandedly. “Practice?”
If horror and panic ever fell in love and had a child — or fell in lust and had a child — that offspring might well have been the expression that found its way to Will’s face. Tom smirked. “Good,” he answered. “We just chased off the grandmothers and the aunts. Now it’s Daddy’s turn. Isn’t it, Princess?”
“You are going to spoil her rotten before she’s a month old.”
“Bah! She’s a Princess. They’re supposed to be spoiled rotten.” He held Elise high, high in the air, to see if she could react — she didn’t. But at least she didn’t spit up, either. That had been his reward the last time he had tried that.
“Tom, are you sure you should be …”
“She likes it!” Tom protested. But he brought the baby back to his shoulder, just to be safe. One finger traced circles on her back. He was amazed, now as he had been the first time he held her, just how soft and supple her skin was. He was also amazed at how whenever he spoke, her head turned to him. He had had no idea that babies could pick out a voice from a host of other sounds.
He’d had no idea about a lot of things before his mother had come out from the bedroom four days ago, tears in her eyes and a bundled baby in her arms. He’d thought he’d known panic as he paced for hours in the sitting room, listening to Lynn yell as he’d never heard her yell. He’d thought he had known relief when Lynn’s screaming had stopped and the squalling of a thoroughly annoyed newborn had begun.
And then his mother had said, “It’s a girl!” and he had panicked all over again.
He’d wanted a son. Well, of course he’d wanted a son, show him a Prince who didn’t want a son and Tom would show you a Prince who must have had a few of them already and was realizing he’d need a daughter or two to move over the marital chessboard. But what he’d wanted most was a healthy baby and, Lord knew, a healthy Lynn. They could wait for sons.
No, the reason why he panicked wasn’t because he was stupid enough to think that the birth of a daughter put the whole dynasty in jeopardy. He panicked because he had no idea how he’d hide his disappointment — however little it was — from Lynn. As the baby got bigger and Lynn’s time had grown nearer, he’d woken up several times to hear Lynn praying quietly, not for a safe delivery and a healthy baby, but for a son. So she wouldn’t “fail” him.
And if Tom gave Lynn the slightest indication that he was at put out by the birth of a little girl and not a boy, he would be failing her.
Yet even as he quailed and panicked, his mother put Elise into his arms. And the panic had melted away. Tom had thought, before his mother had handed Elise to him, that he knew all about love. He’d barely known a damn thing. All he knew in that moment was that he’d stand between this little girl and the Grim Reaper and all his demons. All he knew was that he might well have to, and the thought barely bothered him a bit.
She was only four days old, but Tom already knew he wouldn’t trade Elise for a kingdom full of sons.
He could feel himself getting choked up at the thought, and rather than burst into stupid sentimental tears in front of his best friend — who wouldn’t have a prayer of understanding for six or seven months — he noisily kissed Elise’s belly, hoping he’d hear her squeal and laugh.
“Er …” Will murmured.
Tom looked sidelong at him, one eyebrow raised. “Do you have something to say?”
“You sure you’re … allowed to do that?”
“She likes it,” Tom repeated. He gave her another loud kiss and brought her back to her shoulder. After all, it really couldn’t hurt to be too careful.
“How’s Lynn doing?” Will asked, nodding his head to the bedroom.
“She’s doing beautifully. Morgan and Widow Thatcher were here both here this morning. They say there are no problems. And that the delivery …” Tom glanced sidelong at Will. “But surely Jess told you about that?”
“Jess said I didn’t want to know.”
“She looked like she didn’t particularly relish knowing.”
“Hmm.” Tom heaved a mental shrug. It was probably different for a woman, especially one who in six or seven months was going to be doing the same thing. But Jessie was a witch herself, and Morgan would be at her delivery too. Everything would be fine.
… Well, everything had damn well better be fine, or you and I, oh Lord, will have to have a little chat.
He brought Elise back up and nuzzled her belly.
“Is she resting?” Will asked. Tom raised his eyebrow and cocked his head to one side. “Lynn, I mean. I thought I ought to pay my respects …”
“Oh! Her father’s with her now. We can see her after he goes.”
Will glanced at the shut door, then smirked. “Don’t care to be in the same room with him?”
“He might want to hold the baby,” Tom laughed, though in truth … in truth Bors, too, had been in the room when Alison had come out with Elise, and Tom had thought he heard a rather familiar sigh when the baby’s sex was announced.
“Ah! Well, all is explained,” Will chuckled.
“Damn right it is,” Tom murmured, rubbing Elise’s back again. He thought he heard her sigh and nuzzle against him. That’s right, you know Daddy, you love Daddy …
“Er,” Will murmured. “Tom?”
“She’s sucking on your doublet.”
“She –” Tom pulled Elise away and glanced at his shoulder. “Oh, you silly goose! Why didn’t you tell Daddy you were hungry? Daddy would get food for you … ‘scuse me,” he added, sidling past Will. “Be back in a moment.”
“Lynn’s feeding her herself?” Will asked, startled.
“Aye — well, Lynn didn’t want to give her over to the wet nurse at first, and Morgan said that Lynn feeding the baby herself might be healthier for both of them in the long run, and so that was the end of that,” Tom shrugged. Truly, he only had the least idea of any of it because he’d been in the room at the time, holding Lynn as she held the baby and thinking himself the happiest man alive. Otherwise … well, whatever Lynn wanted was fine with him. It wasn’t as if he had the least idea what was best.
With the pleasant memory of holding his two best girls in his arms — and the pleasant anticipation of repeating the sensation, perhaps immediately — he opened the door the bedchamber.
For the scene that lay before his eyes could hardly be called pleasant at all.
“Now, Gwendolyn,” Bors was continuing — how long had he been going on in this vein while Tom laughed out there with Will as if nothing was wrong — “I know you tried to do what was right and best. But you know very well that this won’t do. Your husband is a Prince, your father-in-law is the King. They need sons, and they don’t have time to waste. The sooner you’re with child again, the sooner you can provide one. So no nonsense, now, about feeding the baby yourself. That’s what a wet nurse is for.”
Lynn wasn’t saying anything. If she’d been trying to protest, however feebly, maybe Tom would not have done what he did next. If Lynn had been protesting, that would have meant that she wasn’t utterly defeated. That would have meant that the scolding couldn’t possibly be as bad as Tom had imagined. There still might have been hope.
But as things were, the only thing that kept Tom from balling his fists and lunging for his father-in-law was Elise, still hungry in his arms.
Without a word, he turned on his heel and marched to the sitting room.
“Tom? Is something–”
“Hold the baby.”
Will’s eyes went wide. “Tom, I don’t think –”
“Sir William, I am your Prince and will someday be your King, so when I tell you to hold the baby, you will hold. The. Baby.” And without another word he pushed Elise into Will’s arms. Will stared at the baby and froze.
At another time, Tom might have laughed at the absurdity that was Will’s expression. Maybe later, when he had calmed down, he would laugh. Now, he turned again on his heel and marched back into the bedroom.
He couldn’t even manage a smile for Lynn, who was staring glassy-eyed into space, not even crying. A polite greeting for Bors was obviously out of the question. “Sir Bors.”
“Your highness! I was just saying to Gwendolyn –”
“A word with you.”
“Now, hold just a moment, I think you might want to –”
Bors gaped at him. Some part of Tom’s mind that wasn’t contemplating murder calmly took note of the expression and filed it away for further pondering. Perhaps there were results that could be gained from throwing a royal tantrum every now and then.
The rest of him simply turned around and marched out of the room, trusting that Bors would scuttle in his wake.
Tom forced his temper to keep on an even keel until they were out of the sitting room with the door safely shut behind them. He prayed that Will would have the sense to close the bedroom door, too. Lynn didn’t need to hear this.
His temper only lasted, however, until that moment. One hand closed the door — the other grabbed Bors’s collar.
Slam! Fine dust exploded from the plaster as Sir Bors’s body went flying into it. “You will not speak to my wife like that!”
“Your highness, I don’t under–”
“You don’t understand?” It wall Tom could do to stop himself from shoving Bors into the wall again. But somebody would surely be angry if they had to repair the plaster. “You seem to have forgotten that I have a name, and yet you don’t understand?”
“I am your Crown Prince!” Tom shouted, slamming his fist into the wall. “She is your Crown Princess! You are our subject, and you will not speak to her like that!”
“But, my liege –”
“I was only trying to h-help …”
“Help?” he snarled. “You were trying to help?”
Bors’s eyes were rather terrifyingly wide as he nodded.
“Help Lynn the way you helped her mother, eh?” Tom spat.
“My lord! I do not like what–”
“Shut up! You speak when I give you permission, and not a second before — you understand that?” Bors stared at him with mouth agape. Tom banged one of the wooden beams on the wall. “Do you understand?”
Sir Bors gulped and nodded.
“Good,” Tom spat. “Now, I am going to make some things very, very clear. You think you were trying to help. Fine. But you don’t help. You practically drove Lynn’s mother mad. Do you understand that? It’s been over a year — do you have the least idea of what you did to her?”
“I — I –” Bors gasped. “They say — sometimes — after having a child — women can get –”
“Not like that!” Tom yelled. “Lady Claire is a strong woman! She only broke like that after over twenty years of your abuse!”
“I never laid a hand on her!” Bors gasped.
“Did I give you permission to speak?” Tom roared. Bors yelped but managed to shake his head. “Damn right I didn’t. Now, now that you know exactly what you did, let me tell you some things that you will — if you have the least idea of what is good for you — refrain from doing in the future. I may not be able to stop you from abusing Lady Claire or your other daughters, but you will never say another word about duty, or her role, or sons to her again. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes, yes, I understand!”
“Good. Because if you don’t … if you breathe one word like that to Lynn or even around Lynn, ever again — you will never get within fifty yards of Elise or any other of my children while I live and breathe. Do you understand?”
“My lord! You wouldn’t — you wouldn’t take away my grandchildren!”
“I will do whatever I have to to protect my children! Wright damn it! I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to fix the damage you caused to Lynn! I am not going to stand by and let you do the same thing to her daughters!”
“No buts! You will either behave yourself, or you will not be allowed near my children! And that is final!”
Bors stared up at him, lip trembling, meek as a child. “I … I never meant any harm …”
“I don’t care! You’ve caused too much of it!”
He sagged against the wall. “I never … I thought …”
Tom stepped back. “Get out.”
“Get out!” Tom shoved him away from the wall. “And don’t even think about coming back until you can behave yourself!”
Bors stared at him, his legs shaking, mouth opening and closing like a fish’s. He looked over his shoulder at the shut door to the sitting room. Was that — longing?
He cast one last glance at Tom, then scuttled down the stairs.
Tom sagged against the wall to catch his breath.
Had he just …?
“Oh, fuck,” he muttered to himself. There would be hell to pay for this as soon as his father found out.
But for now …
With a trembling hand he forced the door open and stumbled inside.
And he snorted. “You got used to that quick enough.”
Will looked up with a half-smile. “Hey.”
“Hey. How much of that did you hear?”
“All of it.”
“Oh, bloody –”
“You did the right thing, Tom.”
“Would you have done that?”
Will shrugged. “If my blood had been up as much as yours was, I wouldn’t have been able to reason with him as you did.”
“I reasoned with him?”
“More than I would have, if my blood had been up as much as yours was.”
Tom snorted. “You willing to tell my fa–”
He heard something.
It was sniffling — the sniffling of someone very young trying desperately not to cry. But it wasn’t Elise.
Ashen-faced, Tom glanced at the door to the bedroom. “You don’t think she …?”
“Go to her.”
“But Elise –”
“I’ve got the baby,” Will replied. “You take care of your wife.”
“Aye,” Tom sighed. “Aye …” And right now, mate …
You’ve got the easier job by half.