“Daddy, someone’s comin’!” called Ginny.
Ash froze. He shouldn’t have — this time last year, he wouldn’t have — but this time last year, he was reasonably certain that his fellow Sims were prepared to live and let live where the kingdom’s Plantsims were concerned. Now, after Thorn’s kidnapping … and Lady Morgause’s trial … well, it was hard to be sure. Maybe some were glad that somebody, anybody was willing to stand up to the menace that was Lady Morgause.
Maybe some thought that everyone who wasn’t a perfectly normal Sim wasn’t any different than she.
And while it would be one thing if he could be assured that those Sims would only go after those who were different, he couldn’t be assured. Mobs were never choosy. He had a family to protect.
Ash swallowed and tried to keep his voice calm and steady. “Well, who is it?”
“Dunno!” Ginny called merrily as she continued to skip. Well, surely if it was a torch-carrying mob, even Ginny would pick up on the latent hostility — right? “It’s a family, though!”
A family. If only that could be a comfort. But there were some — plenty — who brought their children to witch-burnings, so why not bring one’s children to run the local Plantsim out of town?
“Oh! And there’s a doggie!” Ginny gasped.
“Ginny, don’t move!” Ash barked. All his mind’s eye could see was his friendly, dreamy daughter running up to pet the puppy, which was in reality a flesh-eating rabid beast —
Ginny’s eyes were enormous as Ash ran to her side. “Daddy?”
“Ginny, don’t …” One hand on her shoulder, ready to jump in front of her if need be, ready to yell for Lyndsay to grab the other kids and run out the back, he looked down the road.
“Ginny!” Ash tousled her hair. “Don’t ye recognize the Pelleses?”
“The Pelleses?” Ginny’s eyes went wide as she looked down the road again. She squinted. “Mama Betsy!”
“Oh, an’ what are Davy an’ me, chopped liver?” called Martin.
“Chopped …?” Ginny asked, looking up at Ash.
“It’s jest a funny sayin’, sweetie. Ho, Mast–Martin!” Ash called back even as he guided Ginny forward to meet them halfway. “What brings ye all the way ter this neck o’ the woods?”
“Oh, we were in the neighborhood …” Martin chuckled. They shook hands. “How are ye? How’s yer wife?”
“Well, well. An’ ye?”
“Oh, nothin’ ter complain about,” Martin shrugged. What a good liar that man was. Ash knew damn well that Betsy had been fired for daring to help Thorn when he needed it. He didn’t want to consider how Sir Mordred was tormenting them now that Lady Morgause had been convicted and sentenced. The only thing that helped him sleep at night were the “wards” Lady Morgan had put on the property, magic that she swore would either keep Sir Mordred away or give them enough notice that he was coming that they would be able to escape.
“Is that your doggie?” Ginny asked Betsy.
“Can I pet him?” she wheedled.
“O’ course ye can,” Betsy replied. Ginny squealed and started to pat the dog, while Davy stood beside her and solemnly spoke of the dog’s friendliness and how Ginny shouldn’t be afraid, even if she was a girl.
Ash smiled, then asked Martin, “Where are yer other lads? Yer — baby, Bert, an’ Ella’s boy?”
“Ella’s boy!” Martin laughed. “Bess, should we tell ‘im that’s how he’s known in these parts? ‘Ella’s boy’!”
Before Ash could protest or clarify, the door creaked open and Thorn hurried out. “Mama Betsy!”
He froze halfway down the steps. “A dog!”
“He’s really friendly, Thorn!” Ginny giggled. “He licked me in the fact already!”
“Marley likes everybody,” Davy agreed.
Poor Thorn stood frozen on the stairs, gaze volleying between his savior and the dog with its wagging tail. He compromised, finally, by leaping down the stairs, hugging Betsy around the waist for a fraction of a heartbeat, and then running to pet the dog, who obligingly rolled onto his back for a bellyrub.
“Kid loves dogs,” Ash remarked, shaking his head, as Betsy chuckled over his antics. “Even I didn’t know how much until … well, ye know.”
“Aye,” Martin agreed.
The next body to come flying out the door was Bran’s, and he barely managed a polite greeting before he, too, started to rub Marley’s belly. The dog’s feet pumped in the air in ecstasy.
“It’s a good dog fer kids, ain’t it?” Ash remarked.
“Very good with kids,” Martin agreed.
“I suppose yers must love ‘im ter death?”
“Oh, mine …” Martin waved his hand dismissively. “Say, Ash,” Martin continued in a low tone, “d’ye think the lad,” he nodded to Thorn, “might like the dog?”
Ash froze. “… Eh?”
“Well, it’s jest …” Martin scratched the back of his head. “He’s one o’ the last litter our bitch whelped. Now, we usually sells the pups once they get big enough an’ we’ve taught ’em ter heel an’ come an’ ter do their business outside, but Betsy an’ me, we was thinkin’ … well, we knowed how much Thorn likes dogs, so we thought maybe …” Martin shrugged.
“Martin, ye can’t be serious,” Ash gasped. “That’s a fine dog. Ye’d jest — give it away?”
“Bah, it’s a regular mutt he is,” Martin scoffed, waving his hand. “Marley ain’t nothin’ special — leastaways, as the world values dogs. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a fine ratter an’ as good a watch dog as any — barks up a storm if a spider crosses the threshold — but ye can find half-a-dozen dogs jest like Marley fer sale at any fair. So’s we really ain’t givin’ up much, if ye think about it. But ter a little boy, a dog like that is the sun an’ moon an’ stars all in one — only better, ’cause last I checked, the sun an’ moon an’ stars don’t come down an’ roll in the mud with a lad.”
“Ye’ve got three lads o’ yer own …”
“Bah! Bert, he can’t run fast enough ter catch the dogs yet, ‘cepting Sic — the bitch — who jest lets ‘im pull on her ears an’ he’s happy as a clam. Lukas is practically a man. An’ Davy, he’s got Leroy — Marley’s sire — an’ Sic, an’ any more litters they have, ter keep him happy.”
“Still, ye’d jest give the dog ter us?” Ash gasped — a little too loudly, he realized a moment later, as Thorn, Bran and Ginny all stopped playing with the dog and turned to him with eyes as bit as some of the biggest knots in the treehouse.
“Give the dog ter us?” Ginny breathed slowly.
“Really?” Bran echoed.
“Ye would?” Thorn gasped to Betsy.
“Well, now …” Betsy started, turning to Ash with a look of mute appeal. But Ash could only shrugged.
So she smiled and turned back to Thorn. “Well, me an’ Master Martin were thinkin’ about it, we were.”
“Ye were?” Thorn asked, bouncing from foot to foot in his excitement.
“Well, we’d be happy ter give him ter ye, we really would,” Betsy continued, pushing Thorn’s hair back with a motherly gesture that had to be second nature to her even when she was Thorn’s age. “But at the end o’ the day, it’s up ter yer auntie an’ uncle, o’ course. But if they say yes, he’s –”
“Oh, say yes, Daddy!” Ginny pleaded.
“Aye, please, Da!” Bran jumped up and down.
“Pretty please with a cherry on top!” Bran topped his sister.
“Pretty pretty please with a cherry on top!” Ginny added, not to be outdone, grabbing Ash around the waist and hugging him with her most winning smile.
“Er …” Ash started, needing every last scrap of his self-control not to glare at the Pelles for managing to get all his kids to mob him at once. With his luck, Betony would come crawling out any second now and make her first word “doggie.”
“Will ye, Uncle Ash?” Thorn begged, adding his best sad-puppy face to the mixture.
Even the dog was turning puppy eyes on him!
“Well …” Ash murmured, patting Ginny’s hair and trying to think of some kind of stalling tactic, “well, takin’ care o’ a dog is a lot o’ work …”
“Ye won’t have ter do anythin’, Uncle Ash! I’ll do it! I’ll walk ‘im an’ feed ‘im an’ play with ‘im an’ clean up after ‘im an’ teach ‘im ter fetch an’ sit an’ stay an’ — oh, say yes, Uncle Ash! Pleeeeeeeease!”
“Er … I can’t say nothin’ without axin’ yer Auntie Lyndsay …” Ash tried to stall.
“Mama!” Bran called, running into the tree.
Oh, bloody hell! It was all Ash could do to keep from smacking himself in the forehead. Lyndsay was going to have his head before this was over, he was sure of it.
He glanced sidelong at Martin, and sidelong at the dog. The dog whined and wagged his tail. Ash sighed. “He … he don’t eat too much, do he?”
Ginny, doubtless sensing that victory was at hand, squealed and skipped away.
Luckily Martin was prepared to answer the question seriously. “Well, like I said, he’s a good ratter, an’ with all these critters ’round yer tree, he ought ter be able ter keep himself well fed if he wants ter be. An’ he’ll be right pleased with any table scraps ye give ‘im, as well.” Martin smiled a little. “Though I wouldn’t tell the kids that, if I was ye. Their peas would disappear right fast, they would, but they wouldn’t be goin’ in their bellies.”
“Actually they like peas,” Ash murmured, if only to have something to say that wasn’t either yes or no. “It’s broccoli that’s the battle.”
“Ye don’t call ’em little trees? That’s what Bess used ter do when Joyce an’ Lukas wouldn’t eat it. An’ what she’ll probably do again, if Bert decides he don’t like ’em much.”
“That’s the trouble,” Ash sighed. “Lyndsay did call ’em little trees. An’ somehow … between one thing an’ another … well, somehow it got inter their heads that eatin’ broccoli is like … committin’ murder.”
Martin’s eyes only just had time to bug out before the door opened for the third time and Lyndsay stepped onto the threshold. “Now, what’s all this racket?” she asked, shifting Betony on her hip. “An’ why is Bran axin’ if we could get a dog?”
“Er …” Ash started.
“Oh, Mama, look, look!” Ginny jumped up and down. “Look at Marley!”
“Mar–” Lyndsay began. “The dog?”
“Aye! Isn’t he a cute doggie?”
Lyndsay smiled her greetings to Martin and Betsy, put Betony down, and let Ginny drag her to where Marley was wagging his tail and whining. Lyndsay patted him. “How nice. Good dog, now.”
Ash sidled over to Betony and began to play peek-a-boo with her. Was it cowardly to use his baby daughter as a human shield against the coming blast? Absolutely.
Would it stop him? Absolutely not.
“Well, it’s awful nice o’ ye ter come by,” Lyndsay said to Martin. “Ain’t it a far walk?”
“Eh, we were in the neighborhood.”
“In the … neighborhood?”
“Oh, don’t mind him!” Betsy laughed, hooking her arm through her husband’s. “That’s jest his way o’ talkin’. It’s not a short walk, but it’s a pleasant one on a day this nice. Er, I hope ye don’t mind us stoppin’ by …?”
“Of course not, of course not. Can I get ye somethin’–”
“Auntie, Auntie!” Thorn, finally having enough, tugged Lyndsay’s hand. “Can we keep him? Can we? Can we?”
Here it comes … Ash thought, perhaps hiding behind his hands longer than was strictly necessary.
“Thorn! Ye know ye’re not ter interrupt grown-ups talking!”
“I know, but, but! Can we?” Thorn danced from foot to foot. “Please? Pretty please? Pretty pretty please with a –”
Lyndsay held up her hand. “Keep who?”
“The dog?” Lyndsay’s knit her brows together. “Oh, don’t be silly. Master an’ Mistress Pelles will be takin’ Marley home with them.”
“No, they said we could keep ‘im! If you an’ Uncle Ash said yes, an’ Uncle Ash said yes!”
“Oh, did he?” Lyndsay asked in that sort of tone that every adult in earshot knew was a snarl, though the children might be blissfully unaware.
“I did not!” Ash yelped, jumping to his feet.
“Well, maybe not,” Thorn sighed. “But he did say he couldn’t say nothin’ until he axed ye!”
“Aye, Mummy!” Ginny chimed in. “That means Daddy can’t think o’ no more reason ter say no! So can we keep him? Pretty please?”
When did they get so darn smart? Ash wondered as Lyndsay murmured, “Well, we’ll see. Ash? A word?”
With that she grabbed his arm, her fingers having each the strength of a bear trap, and pulled him somewhat out of earshot. “A dog?” she hissed, rounding on him.
“It’s awful nice o’ the Pelleses ter offer ter give ‘im ter us,” Ash hedged. “They was gonna sell ‘im. An’ ye know that she lost her job …”
“Ash! We got three kids an’ a baby! When are we gonna have time fer a dog?”
“The kids’ll take care o’ the dog.”
“Oh, Lord! Every kid since the beginnin’ o’ time has said that! An’ ye know who’s ended up takin’ care o’ the dog?”
“The ma, that’s who!” Lyndsay hissed.
“Well, I wouldn’t know that,” Ash finally snapped, “never havin’ been a kid, meself.”
“Oh, Ash –”
“Lyndsay, it’s a dog, not another baby. Dogs is close to wolves, ain’t they? An’ wolves take care o’ themselves all the time. It won’t be too much work. An’ if it is — well, I’ll do it, so don’t ye worry none about it.”
“Can we afford a dog?” Lyndsay challenged, switching tactics.
“O’ course we can. Think o’ that money Sir Mordred’s got ter pay ter Thorn. We can use it ter care fer the dog.”
“Ash!” Lyndsay hissed. “We was gonna invest that money!”
“Invest …” Ash sighed. “I still don’t get what it is ye want ter do wit it.”
“Use it ter make more, help the whole family out — look, I know ye want ter jest put it away an’ use it ter ‘prentice Thorn when he gets old enough, but ye know as well as I do that somethin’ will come up an’ — oh, fer Wright’s sake!” Lyndsay sighed. “That’s neither here nor there. An’ it’s got nothin’ ter do with the dog.”
“Thorn wants the dog,” Ash replied. “An’ the money’s Thorn’s.”
“Look at ‘im, Lyndsay.”
He was still playing with the dog, still petting it, still loving it. And the dog was loving him, barking, jumping, wagging its tail, licking Thorn whenever Thorn was in reach. Lyndsay sighed before she rounded again on her husband. “Ash –”
“Think o’ what that kid’s been through, Lyndsay. No, don’t think about it, jest let me tell ye: hell. That kid’s been through hell. An’ now he thinks his best an’ happiest dream jest dropped inter his lap. Are ye really gonna take it away from him?”
Lyndsay bit her lip and looked again that Thorn. “This ain’t … jest about him,” she murmured. “It’s about the whole family, it is.”
But with that Ash knew she was weakening. “Bran an’ Ginny love the dog already. An’ I told ye I’ll do all the work. He seems like a gentle enough dog too, Lyndsay. So I wouldn’t worry about him an’ Betony.”
“An’ what about other babies?”
“Lyndsay, the Pelleses got a baby about Betony’s age. The dog’s used ter babies. Ye think Martin an’ Betsy would be givin’ him ter us if –” Ash stopped, hearing baby-laughter. Betony?
Betony was getting what was possibly her most pleasant — and to her parents, most disgusting — face-washing of her life.
“Oh, hell!” Lyndsay muttered under her breath. “Even the baby loves the dog! All right, fine, Ash Thatcher, ye win this one.”
“Er … thank ye?”
“But ye’re takin’ all the care o’ that dog that the kids don’t take!” Lyndsay continued. “Every last walk, every last feedin’ every last bath, an’ Lord knows every last clean-up! ‘Cause I ain’t doin’ it!”
“I know, Lyndsay, I ain’t axin’ ye to.”
Lyndsay sniffed. “Hmph. An’ ye’re lucky, mister, that I ain’t gonna make ye get on yer hands an’ knees and scrub when that dog tracks mud over me nice clean floor.”
She shot another baleful glare at him — then, almost in spite of herself, she smiled. “An’ if there’s any justice in this world, that dog will follow ye around everywhere, when he’s not followin’ Thorn, that is.”
“Hey, wait, what? Me? Why me? Lyn–”
But Lyndsay had sailed past him and meandered to Betsy. “Well, Betsy, an’ Martin! We’ve got ter thank ye fer yer generosity. The kids will love the dog, they will. Now, I don’t suppose I can tempt ye an’ yer lad inter stayin’ fer dinner?”
And so the Thatcher circle grew by one that day.