Joshua had gone alone to pick up Baby Belle and finally bring her home, because he thought he owed her that much.
He had not brought her to the Porters; most would say that he was justified in that, having lost his wife mere moments before, but some voice in Josh’s mind — Isabel’s ghost, perhaps — refused to let him justify himself to himself. It had taken him weeks and months before he could force himself to go see Baby Belle without somebody to hold his hand. So he owed it to her, he thought, to give her some time with just her father before she was thrown into the mix of all the extended family.
Not that Josh thought being with all of her extended family would bother her. Darius when he had been Baby Belle’s age had been hesitant, reticent, scared of letting strangers or even just those whom he did not see everyday pick him up and hold him. Whereas Baby Belle, Josh had a feeling, if confronted with a burglar peeking into her cradle, would probably smile her wide smile up at him, stretch her arms up, and call, “Ah! Ah!” which was as close as she could yet get to “Up! Up!”
His baby was scarcely a year old, and Josh was already seriously considering changing the locks to keep strange men from getting at her.
“But you wouldn’t want to leave your Papa, would you?” Josh asked her, lifting her up a little before he opened the door and faced the rest of the family. “You know Papa loves you best, don’t you?”
Baby Belle smiled and giggled, as she usually did whenever somebody spoke to her. Josh had to smile back. It was either that or remember that he had to love her best, because there was nobody else to love her the way she deserved.
“Let’s go see everybody!” he tried to laugh, before he threw the door open and hurried inside of it before his courage could flee from here.
And there they were, lying in wait — though of course it was Helena and Babette who instantly fell silent when the door opened.
Josh gulped. “Well! Here we are!”
“Here you are!” Mark agreed. “Need help with her things?”
“We can get them later,” Josh shrugged. Most of her new dresses were here already anyway. Remembering how Isabel had loved fashion, Josh had rather impulsively — and perhaps stupidly — decided that Isabel’s only daughter would not even spend her babyhood wearing hand-me-downs, but would always have new things, just for her. But why not? It wasn’t as if he would have another baby in a year or two that he had to be saving up for. He would only have Darius and Baby Belle. Why not spoil them a little?
“There’s my Baby Belle!” Helena crooned, rising, her hands crooking toward Baby Belle. Baby Belle nearly jumped out of his arms.
“Mother!” he snapped as he tried to keep Baby Belle from squirming all the way to the floor. Helena only laughed as she walked over and relieved him of Baby Belle.
“Oh, you silly goose. She just knows that Grandma loves her best, that’s all,” Helena chuckled. “And don’t you love Grandma best?” Helena asked, perhaps unnecessarily, as Baby Belle wrapped her arms around her neck and clung on for dear life, or so it seemed.
Despite all that had happened in the past year, Josh did still value his life — so he decided he would let Helena think that.
“Don’t be silly!” Babette called gaily as she sprung from the couch. “She’ll never love anybody else best as long as Auntie Babette’s around, won’t you, sweetie?”
Baby Belle looked up and, Josh imagined, smiled her mostly-toothless grin. She looked all around her and smiled at Mark, too. Watching her grin chased Josh’s blues away, at least for now. The little mite was probably in seventh heaven now, with so many people to cuddle her and squeeze her and tickle her and give her all the attention she so clearly craved.
“Baby Belle,” Helena pronounced, “is a smart little girl, and so she knows exactly which side her bread is buttered on — and so she would never be foolish enough to admit in Grandma’s hearing that anybody could love her better than Grandma.”
“What about Grandpa?” asked Mark.
Josh turned. He hadn’t heard his father be so happy and teasing in … in a long time. At least, not toward his mother. And in light of everything that had happened at that whorehouse …
But Josh was not going to think about that today. Today was Baby Belle’s day. Any thought that was no focused on her was a wasted thought indeed.
“Ooh! Not Grandma’s earring!” Helena yelped.
“I’m not wearing earrings!” Babette crowed.
“Yet another reason for her to like Grandma more!” Helena retorted.
Josh saw movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Mark trying to catch his gaze. The look that passed from father to son said only one word, but that was all it needed: Women.
Mark beckoned him closer, and Josh obediently stepped forward. “How did everything go?”
For once in his life, his horse-trader father was not talking about the horses, or the carriage, or the driver, or the condition of the roads. “Everything went well.”
“She … didn’t …” Mark rubbed the back of his neck. His words were almost lost in the noisy hand off of Baby Belle from Helena to Babette. “It’s the only home she’s ever known …”
Part of Josh wanted to bristle. Baby Belle had been conceived and born in this house. But … well, the time between conception and birth wasn’t good for getting to know much of anything, and after her birth, she had not even spent an hour here before Mark went off to deliver her to the Porters.
“I don’t think she understands that … she wasn’t just going for a drive yet,” Josh replied. “Goodwife Thatcher –”
“The midwife?” Mark interrupted in surprise.
“Aye, Goodwife Porter invited her over, because … well … she knows these … sorts of things,” Josh shrugged.
“Ah. Understood. What did she say?”
“She said that Baby Belle should be fine for a while, but we should expect … well … we should expect her to get scared or not understand what’s going on. But she should adjust fairly quickly.”
“Good, good.” Mark nodded.
“Goodwife Thatcher said she would probably pitch her biggest fit around bedtime,” Josh continued, if only to fill the silence with something. “But hopefully the ride has tired her out enough that she’ll just go to sleep?”
Mark snorted. “Josh, you have seen an overtired toddler around bedtime, haven’t you? I can’t have been dreaming all Darius’s fits and tantrums?”
“Darius was a good lad,” Josh demurred.
“Of course he was. He was also one at the time.”
Josh looked over his shoulder at Babette and Helena and Baby Belle. “Well … at least we have some experts at soothing cranky one-year-olds on hand.”
“Aye,” Mark agreed. “And it’s not like we’re strangers to her.”
Josh winced. For those first few weeks, how much of a stranger had he been to her? Unable to believe that Isabel who so few weeks before had been happy and laughing and filling the house with her Simspanish curses was now dead and cold and in the ground, and that this little child who so few weeks before had only been a large swell in the front of Isabel’s dresses was kicking and squealing and crying while Isabel was no more … well, he had withdrawn, made himself a stranger. Thank the Lord he woke from that delusion before real harm could be done.
He glanced over his shoulder at Baby Belle, who was too occupied with her auntie and grandmother to pay him any mind. He had come to his senses before harm could be done … hadn’t he?
“What was that?” he asked, suddenly aware that Mark had said something while he was woolgathering.
“I asked again — do you want to see about getting her a nurse?”
Josh bristled. “No.”
“Josh, think about it. You and Isabel used to split the late-night business –”
“Goodwife Porter says she’s nearly sleeping through the night.”
“Nearly isn’t all the way.”
“Well, she will be sleeping through the night soon enough,” Josh forced himself to shrug. “Besides, we couldn’t afford a nurse to be with her all day and all night anyway.”
Mark snorted, but he didn’t argue. “It could be done …”
“With Heloise’s schooling and saving for Babette’s dowry and the school fees for Darius coming up?” Not to mention your “excursions,” Josh thought and only barely avoided saying. “What won’t we be buying to afford the nurse? Firewood? Feed for the horses? Feed for ourselves?”
“It’s hardly that desperate,” Mark grumbled. “Darius could go to the public school for a year or two –”
Josh recoiled. “What? No!”
“He’s my firstborn son, Dad! I’m not sending him to — to public schooling so we can afford a nurse that we don’t need.”
“He’s so little it’ll hardly make a difference,” Mark reasoned. “We can switch him when Baby Belle is big enough not to need –”
“Dad! He’s so little, it’ll make more difference! If he gets behind now, who knows if he’ll ever catch up?”
Mark blinked, then sighed. “Josh … Darius isn’t yet four. Falling behind, catching up? No matter where he gets his schooling, his teacher will be spending more time keeping a gaggle of four-year-olds under control than teaching anything anyway.”
“The public school isn’t in session for as long.”
“So we can teach him things at home when school isn’t in session. He might learn more.”
Josh’s jaw clenched and he played his trump card. “Isabel would throw a fit!”
His father looked so pleading, so crestfallen, that Josh took pity on him. He let, instead, the ghost of Isabel rail at him in his head. Her firstborn son, learning with the grubby sons of peasants and small traders? Her son with the blood of the Lords of Valencia flowing through his veins, playing in the mud with churls and farmers? That boy, son of two Camford-educated parents, learning his letters and numbers besides those who would only barely learn theirs and yet be none the worse for it?
No. Not while there was any other option. Josh would move heaven and earth to keep his children well-educated — and keep Isabel in heaven smiling down on him.
Mark sighed and closed his eyes. “Would have thrown a bit, Josh.”
“Isabel would have thrown a fit, if –”
If. If. If.
If she’s still been here.
Josh was never quite sure what kept him calm at that moment. Perhaps it was Babette’s cooing and Baby Belle’s giggling. Maybe it was the ghost of Isabel whispering in his ear, reminding him that Mark was only telling the truth. The Isabel who had used her whole fortune to come to Camford and seduce some unwitting wealthy man of merchant or noble stock was not the type of woman to shrink from unpleasant truths. She met them head-on and tossed them to the side, as the bulls that were the symbol of her family did.
Josh closed his eyes. “Father,” he asked, “did Babette or Mother say they thought we would need a nurse?”
“Did they imply it?”
Mark sighed the sigh of the defeated. “No.”
“So they haven’t shown any indication that they won’t be able to handle Baby Belle between them during the days, and I can handle the nighttime?”
“No,” Mark admitted.
“Then unless you’re willing to give up your — excursions — to pay for it, I don’t want to hear anything more about a nurse.”
Mark blinked, his jaw falling. Then he snorted. “So much for filial piety.”
“So much for paternal wisdom,” Josh retorted.
“And what are you two arguing about over there?” Helena queried, looking over her shoulder and quirking one eyebrow.
Josh and Mark exchanged glances.
“Nothing,” they replied in unison.
Helena snorted, and if Josh had turned around he would have seen a look that passed from mother to daughter and said only one word, but that was all it needed: Men.
Mark glanced at Baby Belle and Babette. “Well, I suppose it will be all right — even without a nurse.”
“Aye. It will be.”
“In a way,” Mark continued, perhaps only to hear himself speak, perhaps to build a bridge back to Josh with words alone, “the worst is probably already over.”
“Aye. All that baby nonsense. She’s eating solids, and soon she’ll be walking and talking and –”
Mark fixed him a gaze that stopped Josh in his tracks. “I meant with … Isabel. They say the first year is the hardest.”
Josh didn’t want to think about that too closely.
“As for raising Baby Belle … well, son, if you think the worst is over, you’ve clearly been paying no attention since your sisters turned twelve.”
Josh blinked. “And when does that part end?”
“I’ll –” Mark stared, but was interrupted by a door creaking open.
“Well!” Helena cooed. “Look who’s awake from his nap!”
Darius grinned up at his grandmother. Then his little head tilted to the side as he looked up at Baby Belle.
“Look, Darius!” Babette said. “It’s your baby sister, come home to stay with us!”
Josh didn’t remember it himself, but he had been told that he had been … less than pleased when Rob was born. Now, seeing the way his son’s eyes widened and his slightly fallen jaw, Josh had a good idea of what he himself might have looked like when presented with a little brother.
… Or maybe not. Darius, after all, was being presented with something far worse from a little boy’s perspective.
“Ack!” Babette squealed as Baby Belle tried to jump ship for Darius. “Hold still! Mother, Darius wasn’t this wiggly!”
“Neither was Rob, but you should have seen Josh and Heloise and you,” Helena shrugged.
“Oof! All right, all right!” Babette called. She put Baby Belle on the ground. “You win, sweetie. Now, go get him!”
Darius froze. His rear hit the floor with a thump.
Baby Belle stared at him.
Then, she extended her hands and tried to wiggle forward on her behind.
Darius jumped up, turned tail and ran.
“Aaah!” Baby Belle called after him. “Awie! Awie!”
She’s trying to say Darius, Josh realized in an awestruck moment. She’s figured out his name just from our visits …
“A-wieeeee!” Baby Belle wailed.
“Darius!” Helena called. “Darius, come –”
“Leave him, Mother,” Josh interrupted. “One thing at a time. We’ll get Darius used to Baby Belle later. For now …”
He moved closer to Baby Belle and knelt down at her level. “Want to come see Papa?”
Her eyes were shining with standing tears, but when Josh held his arms out, she blinked them away and was all smiles again. Josh grinned in reply.
Baby Belle clasped her little hands around his neck and scooted up, burying her head on his shoulder. He remembered how Isabel used to do that from time to time, when they were betrothed and then when they were first married. He’d always wondered what she was thinking when she did that. Was she just happy? Or was she missing her parents? Her country? Her bright future?
And sometimes, Josh thought he would give both his arms, if he thought he could hold Isabel in them, and let Isabel nestle her head on his shoulder, just one more time.
He was holding Isabel in his arms. And she was nestling her head on his shoulder.
And, Wright willing, she would continue to do both for a good long time.