Someday, Mark would wonder what might have happened if he hadn’t gone up to get that book when he did.
When he came to wonder, he would probably realize that getting the book or not getting the book wouldn’t have made much of a difference. They would have had to tell him eventually. And when they told him, he would have reacted the same way. It would have only made the difference of a few days, or weeks, or hours.
On the other hand … time had already been short when he finally found out. It was only sheer dumb luck that kept it from growing shorter. Sheer dumb luck and that book of poetry.
Mark had known he was being a fool to hide the slim volume in Heloise’s room, even if it was the best place to hide a book of any type. He was the master of the house; he should have been able to read anything he darn well pleased wherever he darn well pleased. However, Josh’s disapproval had been growing with the weeks, and Mark had not the heart to do anything that might provoke another argument.
The irony, he had realized, was that he had no idea from where the book had even come. He’d simply found it on the shelf one day when he was feeling more besotted than normal. It wasn’t from Heloise, or Josh, or probably even Rob … unless it dated from Rob’s courting days with Dannie. Maybe it had been Isabel’s. Perhaps it was Helena’s.
Maybe it was even Babette’s.
Mark had just been reaching for the book and considering that when he heard the wail.
Some might have said he wasn’t very good at either, but at the end of the day, Mark was a husband and a father. What did a husband and a father do when he heard someone in the house crying? He stopped what he was doing and looked for the sound. He had barely made it to the door when he wailing came again.
“Darius?” Mark called out the door.
“At school!” called Josh from the bottom of the stairs.
“You hear that?” Mark yelled.
“Is it Baby Belle?” Mark yelled back.
“No, she’s fine!”
That leaves … “Babette?” Mark called.
“Helena?” Mark wondered.
The wail came again, and now that his head was stuck firmly out the door, he could tell it came from the bedroom he still shared with Helena. But that doesn’t sound like Helena …
Whatever it was, it could not be good. He knew even more that it could not be good when he opened up the door and poked his head inside … seeing no one.
Then another wail came from the direction of the washroom, followed by a soft murmur that could only be Helena in a shushing mood. Mark was across the room and tossing back the curtain that separated bedroom from washroom before he was quite aware of what he was doing.
He was not entirely surprised by what he saw: Heloise with her arm around a sobbing Babette. He was surprised by the unmistakeable odor of vomit that assailed him as soon as he breathed. “Babette? Helena?”
It didn’t matter how big your children were: when they were sick, there was always a cold knife of fear that stabbed you in the gut. And if Babette, grown-up Babette, felt so poorly that she was crying … or had she perhaps made a mess on her dress? Illness and then ruining a favorite outfit … it could make even an adult cry, if she was feeling that sick still.
“Babette?” Mark asked again. She didn’t answer, only cried harder.
“Helena?” he yelped. “Should I send for a doctor? Babette, what’s wrong? You can tell Papa …”
Helena sighed, leaned her forehead on her daughter’s shoulder, then turned to face him. Why did she put herself between Babette and him, as if she was trying to protect Babette? What on earth would she have to protect Babette from? “A doctor won’t do much good at this point.”
A doctor won’t … Mark’s eyes bulged. “What do you m-mean?” Babette had been fine yesterday, before she’d gone to bed! Aye, she’d slept in a little late this morning, skipped breakfast, but far be it from Mark to —
She had been skipping an awful lot of breakfast, lately …
Helena sighed. There was a hint of despair in it that made Mark suck air in and reach preemptively for the wall. “She’s missed her course. Twice. And now …” Helena gestured toward the vomit-filled close stool.
Damn it, didn’t she know that he only knew about horses’ illnesses? How was he to know what horrible disease in young ladies came with missed courses and sickness —
First came a soothing wave of relief — then came the sucker punch of shock. And horror. And anger.
“What?” Mark heard himself growl.
Helena tilted her head back and glared up at him, daring him to go ahead and said whatever it was on his mind. What she said, however, was, “This isn’t her fault.”
Isn’t her — She’d gone behind their backs and gotten herself with child and it wasn’t her fault? Then whose fault was it? Babies didn’t just implant themselves into unmarried young girls by themselves! Mark’s lips parted to say all of this and more —
And then another thought, more horrible than that of Babette dying, worse than mere pregnancy, rose up. “She — she wasn’t –?”
“That boy tricked her!” Helena spat. “He promised her marriage, and she believed him! You can blame me, if you like, for this, but you shan’t blame her!”
Tricked. Promised marriage. So it wasn’t … that.
You can blame me, but you shan’t blame her!
Things were starting to fall into place.
“His name?” Mark growled.
“We need to find someone to marry her, quickly,” Helena whispered, as if she hadn’t even heard him. “Preferably a widower. With children. Who won’t mind if perhaps there’s one in the nest who isn’t his. Do you know anybody?”
Why would they need a widower? What was wrong with the man who — unless … “Is he married?”
“Whoever got her into this!” Mark snarled.
Helena was silent.
“Babette!” Mark yelled. “Babette, tell me his name!”
Babette wailed, but a wail wasn’t particularly informative.
“Mark, that’s not important –”
“Not important!” Mark snapped. “How the hell are we going to know what to do next if we don’t know who got her into this mess?”
Helena rolled her eyes. “And if he can’t get her out of it, what difference does it make, knowing his name?”
“We don’t know that yet!” Mark shouted. “Not until she tells me — or you tell me! — who he is!”
And then Mark had another thought — another reason, nay, the only reason that made sense why Helena might not want him to know who the father was. For he wasn’t Babette’s father, was he? That was Ban du Lac. And Ban had a son … grandsons …
Why else would Helena not want him to know?
“A-aglovale!” Babette sniffled.
“What?” Mark asked, dumbstruck.
“Aglovale! Aglovale of Gwynedd! That’s — that’s who …” Babette turned around, sniffling and wiping her eyes.
“Babette,” Mark heard himself say, in that calm kind of tone that only served to give the lie that much more thoroughly to the roiling storm beneath it, “are you feeling as if you might be sick again?”
She shook her head.
“Then go lay down for a bit. Your mother and I will determine what to do next.”
Despite her clear ability to carry a child, Babette showed how much of a child she still was by hurrying through the curtain — Mark and Helena following her — then out of the bedroom, and presumably into her own chamber.
“Why didn’t you want me to know?” Mark heard himself asking.
Helena only sighed.
“Helena?” he barked.
“What good does it do, knowing?” she asked. “Now she’ll only get her hopes up that she’ll get her Prince Charming in the end.”
“Prince Charming?” Mark spat. “After what he did to her?”
“You shan’t be able to convince her otherwise,” Helena shrugged. “And now when she has to marry some chubby merchant old enough to be her father –”
“That won’t be easy.”
Helena ignored him. ” … she’ll be twice as disappointed. And whether you might think she deserves it or not –”
“Deserves it? I don’t care what she deserves! I care about what’s going to be best for this family!” Mark roared. “And why shouldn’t the father of the child marry her? He got her into this mess!”
“Mark! He’s a nobleman! The only relationship he’d consider with her is — is — is what everyone says Sir Mordred is doing with that peasant girl of his!”
“A mistress, you mean?”
Helena’s cheeks flushed as they had not since she was a lovestruck girl — or since the last time she grew utterly furious with him. That may well have been when she was a girl. Mark rather doubted she’d put forth enough energy into thinking about him, caring about him, to grow utterly furious with him since then.
“Our daughter is not going to be some nobleman’s mistress. No matter what she’s done, she’s not that!”
“Of course she’s not going to be some nobleman’s mistress!” Mark exploded. “Not if we want Heloise married! Not if Josh and Rob and I want to be able to hold our heads up in this kingdom! Do you think I’m that much of a fool, Helena?”
Helena snorted and looked away. It was probably as close as she was going to get to saying, There are days when I wonder.
But she wouldn’t say that now, would she? Oh, no. Now she needed him. Now he was the only thing standing between Babette — Babette and all of their children — and certain ruin. Helena could not go out and find someone to marry Babette in a hurry. He could. And now … if he wanted … he’d have the perfect excuse to cast them both off, wouldn’t he? Like mother, like daughter.
“And you know what?” he snarled. “If you do think I’m that much of a fool, you’re twice as much a fool, Helena!”
Helena’s lips said nothing, but the lift of her eyebrows could have filled a whole volume of poetry. Hate poetry.
He kept his voice down. Now, he would be vindicated if he wanted to shout it from the rooftops … but Mark still kept his voice down. For Babette, who wasn’t to blame for her birth, and who if Helena was to be believed — and if Mark knew anything about young men in the pursuit of sex, especially young noblemen — wasn’t entirely to blame for the predicament she had landed all of them in. “I’ve put up with this for years because I knew it would be Josh and Rob and Heloise — and Babette — who would be hurt most if anything came out. I’ve told you as much! You think I’m going to let it all out now, when we’re in even bigger trouble and everything will look even worse?”
“It could get you out of trouble,” Helena pointed out.
“And Josh, Rob and Heloise into more. No.”
Helena sighed. “Then what are we going to do?”
“Talk to Lord Pellinore, to start.”
“What?” Helena yelped. “No! Are you mad?”
“Mad? Mad? He’s about to be a grandfather, unless you don’t think –”
“Oh, she’s telling the truth,” Helena interrupted, snorting. “Don’t fear that. She wouldn’t know how to lie about who the father is.”
Well, good. At least he and Helena between them had done something right with Babette.
“Then I’ll go speak to –”
“No!” Helena snarled. “He’s a nobleman! He’ll kick you from his keep before you can get the word ‘grandfather’ out!”
“Lord Pellinore is a fair man! And perhaps –”
“No! He might look fair, seem fair, but he’s the same as all the rest of them! He cares only for what he wants, and he won’t want a commoner girl for a daughter-in-law! Trust me!” Helena laughed, bitterly.
“He doesn’t have to want her for a daughter-in-law! He only has to –”
“What? Force his son to marry her? When he doubtless has three Glasonlander girls lined up for his son’s hand?”
“He only has to do what’s right by her!” Mark exploded.
“And what’s that?”
“Help with the dowry! Suggestions for men who’d have her! Something, anything! And he might have his son marry her! You don’t know –”
“He–is–a–nobleman,” Helena snarled, the elongated pauses between each word cursing him for his perceived stupidity better than mere curses or imprecations could have done. “A commoner girl with child by him or his get? All in a day’s work.” Helena tossed her head, filly-like, her stiff and heavy braid almost ending up on the opposite side of her shoulder.
Mark narrowed his eyes at her. “Why … are you so certain that a nobleman will do nothing for her? Aglovale’s the second son, you know, not the heir. And it’s not as if I have nothing to give Babette. It wouldn’t be a bad –”
“It would be a terrible match!” Helena gasped. “From his perspective, at least.”
“How much more terrible than Sir Bors marrying his daughter — the Crown Princess’s own sister — to Freddy Ferreira?”
“Richard’s on the way up!” Helena snapped. “And we’re as ‘up’ as we’ll ever get!”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“That you’re no Richard Ferreira, always sailing for the next horizon! You’re comfortable, we’re comfortable, you’re happy with that!”
“Oh, and you would have rather have married a Richard Ferreira, eh? You didn’t seem too happy with the thought of rising when I wanted to move us to Albion, even when I told you –”
“I would have rather married a man who had the least idea of how the world works!” Helena hissed. “I’m telling you, talking to Lord Pellinore is a waste of time. Just find somebody to marry her! Somebody who we can fool, or who won’t mind raising another man’s child in addition to his own!”
“Not until I’ve –”
“Think of it this way,” Helena interrupted. “Lord Pellinore is a lawman. Accusing his son of being with Babette, wouldn’t that be slander? And what could he do if he found us guilty of slandering his son? He’d take us for everything we have, Mark!”
“Are you insane?” Mark rolled his eyes.
“I’m more sane than you are! I –”
“I am not going to try to hoodwink some poor fool into marrying a girl with a bun already in the oven when the man who put that bun in there is still unwed! Lord, Helena! Have you no decency, no honesty?”
“I’ve got a daughter with a baby and no wedding ring,” Helena snarled. “I can’t afford decency and honesty.”
“So have I,” Mark replied. “And I can’t afford, for her sake, not to be honest or decent.” He turned on his heel and strode for the door.
“And just where do you think you’re going?”
“To speak to Lord Pellinore!”
“Mark! Mark, don’t do this!” Helena wailed. “We can’t afford for it to go wrong! Think of Josh — Rob — Heloise! They’re the ones who will suffer if –”
“Good Lord!” Mark cried, spinning around. “Do you think I’m so stupid I’ll get Lord Pellinore to sue us for slander? And even if he does — do you think the King would stand for it? The King who imprisoned his own sister for what she did to a gypsy boy?”
“And Sir Aglovale was on that jury! And Lord Pellinore was the judge! You think the King might not feel like he owes them something?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mark snapped. “You hear that? It doesn’t. Because I owe it to Babette — to — to ask. So she doesn’t end up married to some fat, complacent merchant, and find herself raising a cuckoo in his nest, and having this argument with him in twenty years!”
Mark didn’t wait for her reply. Instead, he threw open the door, threw himself out of it, and slammed it behind him.
For once in their marriage, he had said all that he needed to say.