“And — and I thought for certain that you know what to do, so …” Erin could practically hear Nicole biting her lip. “So I wanted to ask you. Once I thought about it on my own.”
“Lemme jest finish with the tea.” Erin was glad she had her back to the younger woman, otherwise, how would she hide her sighs and rolling of her eyes?
Really, what would make Nicole think that Erin had the least idea of what to do in her “predicament”? Predicament. Honey, a knight’s chasin’ after ye! Lord, if only we could all have such problems!
But that wasn’t fair. Nicole liked this boy, even if she barely knew him. And while there were girls a-plenty out there who would know how to wrap this knight around her finger and get what she wanted out of him — gifts, kisses, a bastard child and a good husband to help raise it, maybe even a wedding ring — Nicole wasn’t one of them. She was probably honestly devastated that her handsome boy from the tavern wasn’t just a soldier with whom she could imagine a future.
Erin herself, at Nicole’s age … Erin knit her brows as she poured the tea. Yes, at Nicole’s age she would have taken this knight for all he would give. But at Nicole’s age she had been married, almost killed by her husband, run away and been supporting herself as a prostitute for years. At Nicole’s innocence, would she have known what to do?
Hell no. She passed the full tea mug to Nicole and shooed her to the couch. “Sit down, lass, an’ let’s figure this out.”
They sat. Erin took a sip of her tea and let Nicole do the same. Then she turned to Nicole, “So … why would goin’ ter see Roma or Lyndsay be a bad idea, again?”
“They wouldn’t understand,” Nicole whispered.
Erin bit back a sigh. “I understand … but I don’t think I do, either. If ye’re afraid he’ll take advantage o’ ye, ye’re right ter run away fast as yer little legs’ll take ye. Ye …” Ye’ve not got the head on yer shoulders ye’d need ter take advantage o’ him right back. “Ye’ve got a future ahead o’ ye.”
“And a past,” Nicole replied.
“Ahead o’ ye?”
“No — no, just … I have a past.” Nicole blushed and stared at her lap.
“A past … or a past?” It couldn’t be a past. A girl with a past wouldn’t exude innocence the way Nicole did — or if she did, she’d be the best actress to never tread the boards. And if that was the case, she wouldn’t be coming to Erin or anybody else for advice. She’d have that knight right where she wanted him already.
“Not a — past. At least, not in the way it’s usually meant. Er …”
Erin avoided looking. She would rather not see the questioning look in the girl’s eyes. Erin’s past was her own damn business, and even if Nicole said she would be understanding, that didn’t mean it was her duty to share.
“But all the same, I haven’t been any more honest with him than he’s been with … me. You know?”
Erin knit her brows. “I don’t know, Nicole. I mean, ye’re a tavern waitress, ain’t ye?”
Nicole blinked. “Er — yes?”
“A free girl, but with no real money ter speak o’? Keepin’ body an’ soul tergether an’ a roof over yer head, but not much else?”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“An’ ye ain’t been actin’ anythin’ different with him? I mean, ye ain’t been pretending ter be someone else ter impress him or make him like ye?”
“Then lass, ye’ve been more honest with him than he’s been with ye. ‘Cause wherever, whatever ye’ve been, ye’ve told him nothin’ but what ye are. He ain’t been tellin’ ye what he is, ye see.”
Nicole made a face and took a sip of her tea. “But …”
Erin raised one eyebrow.
“What I’ve been — where I’ve been — doesn’t that make me who I am today?”
Erin snorted. “Course it does. That don’t mean ye got ter tell him until ye’re good an’ ready. Look, Nicole, ye’ve met the boy three, four times? Ye don’t owe him yer life story.”
“He doesn’t owe me his, either.”
“I ain’t sayin’ he does. But he owes tellin’ ye who he is. He weren’t willin’ ter do that until ye gone an’ found him out. And ye’ve got yerself ter protect.”
“I know, I know, my reputation, my honor –”
“Yer honor? Lass, honor’s jest … honor, in a woman, is somethin’ they make up ter keep yer legs shut until ye’ve got a wedding ring.” Nicole’s eyes bulged and she blushed, but Erin had no pity on her. Ye came ter me fer advice, me lass — me advice is what ye’re gonna get. “I ain’t talkin’ about honor. I’m talkin’ about — about yerself. Trust me. From a woman who’s been with … with a man who don’t exactly axe by-yer-leave before he does as he pleases.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Nicole whispered. “Erin, I — I had no idea –”
“That’s cause I don’t talk about it, Nicole. It were … it were a long time ago. An’ it’s over now. Done. Ain’t never gonna happen again.” Erin nodded, as if the mere act of nodding could put Walter back in the grave she’d made for him in her mind, even if she’d never had the satisfaction of seeing him six feet under in life.
“But … but let me tell ye somethin’, Nicole. Honor — honor is what ye make of it. An’ reputation, well, sweetheart, there’s only so much ye can do ter control that. Even if ye’re doin’ everythin’ right, or tryin’ yer best to, ye can still make one little mistake that ruins it. And we all know there’s folks who do everythin’ bad an’ still get banquets thrown fer ’em. But yer self? That’s worth protectin’. It ain’t … it ain’t no picnic ter lose yerself like that. ‘Specially not ter a man who everyone else will say has the right ter ye, body an’ soul.”
“But Milo doesn’t!”
“Neither did Walter. But everyone said he did. An’ ye … he’s a knight, an’ aye, ye’re a free girl, but ye’re a poor one. Whatever happens, it’ll be yer fault in everybody’s eyes.”
Nicole took a deep breath and a long sip of her tea. Erin waited. Was this why Nicole had come to her? To hear somebody say, quite starkly, why she should give him up now, before it was too late?
“He … he doesn’t … he seemed so sweet …”
Erin wanted to snort, say that was a likely story — but was it? She’d been underneath more men than she cared to count. And the sad thing about a life like that was you started to realize that for all the badness in the world, there was some good in it too. For those who got to see more of the good, it made the bad easier to bear. For those who got to see far too much of the bad, the good could sometimes strike as a cruel cosmic joke, a bait the Lord Wright danced in front of your face to keep you dancing a few steps more.
There were men who were sweet. Who, even if they were knights and the objects of their interest poor girls, wouldn’t rape. They wouldn’t even take advantage on purpose, though it was easy enough to do it accidentally when you had that much power over the object of your interest. Maybe Nicole had found one of them. Stranger things had happened.
“He may well be, Nicole. I ain’t never met ‘im, remember.”
“But — but you just said …”
“He’s a knight, Nicole. Look, I’ll admit right now, if I were ye — an’ in yer shoes — I’d be runnin’ in the other direction fast as me legs could take me, else … well, else tryin’ ter turn the tables on ‘im, I’ll admit.”
“Turn — turn the tables?”
“Take him fer all I could get,” Erin shrugged.
Nicole gasped. “But — but why?”
‘Cause the world’s cruel, Nicole. Because it’ll take ye an’ chew ye up and spit ye out before ye realized ye were in somebody’s mouth. It’s chew or be chewed in this life. Or at any rate, it always was in mine.
“‘Cause I ain’t ye, Nicole. We’ve been different places, seen different things, lived through different things, too. But who knows? Maybe in me shoes, ye wouldn’t be doin’ that. Or maybe ye would. But what ye’ve got ter decide is — what do ye want ter to in yer shoes, ’cause those are the only shoes ye’ll be havin’.”
“So — so you think I should talk to him again?”
No, that wasn’t what Erin thought at all. But she did think that it meant something that Nicole would latch onto that admission of different experiences, different lives, different personalities and see in it a reason to go see her white knight again.
“If ye do …” The advice of doing it somewhere public, in the open, where he couldn’t make a move against her without a hundred witnesses came to mind … and died. What were the odds a knight would speak to a waitress in those kinds of circumstances, anyway? And if Nicole liked him … well, she wouldn’t take that advice. “Ye do it someplace where ye’ve got plenty o’ exits an’ can run fer help if ye need it. An’ while ye’re at it, make sure ye’ve got yer cookin’ knives nearby, an’ keep ’em right sharp.”
“Oh, Erin! Now you’re joking!”
No, no, she wasn’t. Even if attacking a knight with a kitchen knife would be suicide, brandishing one might give her time to get away if she needed it. Besides, if Nicole was bound and determined to make a fool out of herself, one way or another … well, Erin hoped to keep the consequences limited to looking foolish.
“Look, Nicole –” Erin started, but was cut off by the sound of the door opening.
“Mama! I’m home!”
“Wulfie!” Erin jumped up, all smiles, Nicole’s mysterious knight chased as surely away from her head as a mother with a broom chased an unwelcome suitor away. “How was yer day?”
“It was good, Mama! Basil an’ me found some worms out behind the schoolhouse an’ — Missie Nicole!” Wulf grinned and ran up to her, his mama completely forgotten.
“Hello, Wulf.” Nicole squeezed him and Erin had to smile, a little bit. Nicole probably ought to have had a little boy or girl about Wulf’s age by now. No wonder she was so eager to take a risk with her knight. Better to risk all with a somewhat-sure prospect than to lose everything and have to start all over again. And Nicole wasn’t getting any younger.
“And Mama!” Wulf cried as soon as Nicole let go, latching onto Erin’s skirts. Erin laughed. Her boy certainly had a sweeter disposition than she ever had. Then again, her parents had never been the type to encourage cuddles and caresses, while Erin couldn’t get enough of either from her little boy.
Erin hugged him back and released him. “So, what were ye doin’ with the worms?”
“Basil wanted ter put ’em in the teacher’s tea!”
“The teacher’s tea?” Nicole gasped, while Erin almost choked.
“But I told ‘im that was a bad idea.”
“That’s me boy!” Erin sighed in relief.
“So we put ’em on her seat instead!”
“Ye what?” Erin gasped.
“Aye! An’ it was so funny! ‘Cause, ye see, Mama, Missie Nicole, she didn’t even see at first! She sat there an’ sat there, an’ didn’t realize nothin’ until she turned around an’ the girls up front started carryin’ on! It’s cause her arse is so big, Basil said, she didn’t feel nothin’!”
“Basil,” replied Nicole, her voice trembling, “I don’t think that’s a very nice thing to say.”
“Sorry. It’s cause her bottom’s so big.”
Erin had to duck her head to avoid the giggle escaping. “Wulf,” she said as soon as she recovered, “what Missie Nicole means is that ye shouldn’t be sayin’ that a woman’s bottom is big.”
“Why not?” asked Wulf, tilting his head to one side.
“Because most of ’em don’t like it.”
“But why not?”
“Because … well, because it’s somethin’ folk says only when they want ter make a woman feel low an’ small.”
“But how do ye feel small when ye’ve got a bottom that’s real big?”
Erin’s mouth opened, and closed, and then she reverted to her fallback answer. “Very carefully.”
Wulf nodded, as he always did when she trotted that answer out, then he gasped. “Oh, Missie Nicole! I almost forgot! There’s a man outside yer cottage! A knight! An’ he said he was lookin’ fer ye!”
Nicole’s eyes went wide; Erin cursed under her breath. “Wulf — dearie — why don’t ye go upstairs an’ play with yer ark? I’ll come up with ye in jest a minute.”
“But Mama, I’m hungry.”
“I’ll bring ye up a nice snack.”
“All right!” And with no more protest, Wulf shot up the ladder. Nicole turned a pleading glance to Erin.
“Don’t worry, hon, I’ll check.” Erin ducked into the bathroom — because that had the best view — climbed onto the ledge of the tub, and craned her neck to see out the high window.
The man was still there, waiting. Nervously too, or so it looked. Erin pursed her lips together and climbed down from the tub.
She had scarcely turned around when she saw Nicole waiting for her, twisting her hands much like her young man was twisting his hands outside her door. “Well?” she whispered.
“Is — is it –”
“That depends, hon. Yer young man, does he have black-brown hair, an’ does he wear a white surcoat with a red cross on it?”
Erin rubbed the back of her neck. “Then I’m wagerin’ it’s him.”
“Oh! Oh, Erin! What am I going to do?”
“Well, seems ter me ye’ve got two choices. Ye can stay by here until he gives up an’ goes away …”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t! Juniper’s in there, I have to feed him!”
Erin barely refrained from rolling her eyes. Didn’t the girl know it was better to keep cats a little bit hungry so they’d have incentive to catch mice? “Or ye could go out there an’ talk ter ‘im. Don’t invite him in, mind. Jest talk ter him.”
“But Erin! I — I couldn’t do that!”
Sure ye could, lass, lasses talk ter knights every day. An’ ye’ve talked to him before. Now, however, was not the time for logic, at least, not that particular type of logic. “I think ye ought ter.”
“‘Cause …” Erin sighed. “Nicole, he’s a knight. An’ he knows where ye live now. Ye’d be better off facin’ him now, when ye might get the upper hand by takin’ him by surprise.”
“You make it sound like … some kind of battle.”
“There’s a reason why they call it the battle o’ the sexes, hon.”
“How did he even find out where I live?” Nicole whispered. “I never told him!”
Erin would not answer, but she could guess. She could guess that the Onion had something to do with it. When a knight showed up at a peasant tavern asking questions about a waitress, it was usually best to answer and be quick about it. The sooner you got him out of there, the sooner you stopped scaring the custom.
“Never mind that now. He knows now.”
“But what will I do?” Nicole repeated, shuddering.
For an answer, Erin climbed up onto the bench and checked out the window again. “I see Guardsman Couderc out there. If ye’re gonna ever talk ter yer man, now might be a good time ter do it.” She hopped down and shrugged.
Nicole’s face had taken on a decidedly greenish tinge. “But … but what if he wants …”
“Scream yer head off,” Erin replied with a shrug.
“No … I mean … to explain.”
Erin raised one eyebrow.
“Then — then I might have to explain, too.”
“No. No, lass.” Erin grabbed Nicole’s shoulders and stared into her eyes. “Listen ter me. Ye don’t owe him nothin’. No explanations, no talkin’ about yer past. He knows what ye are now. That’s what’s important. What happened before; ye can deal with that later. What happens after? That’s up ter ye. Right now.”
Nicole gulped. “So — I should go talk to him.”
“I think so.”
“And not tell him … anything.”
“Somethin’ like that.”
Nicole swallowed, tossed her hair over her shoulder, and squared her shoulders. “Then I’ll do it!” Then, brave and bold as a Reman soldier, she marched out the door.
Erin, however, was not so sanguine. As soon as the door was shut, she was back on the bathtub. And thus she had a front-row seat to the reunion of Nicole and her knight.
She didn’t look so soldierly now. Nor so bold or brave. But it was the knight’s face that Erin could see most clearly, insofar as she could see clearly at all at this distance. But that knight …
Lord, he looked besotted. And if there was anyone who knew besotted men, it was Erin. They had been her bred and butter for a decade.
She hopped from the bathtub and stood for a minute, frowning. Then she shrugged and passed upstairs.
She had far more important things to do than wonder about her friend’s love life. Nicole would doubtless tell her all the details once it was over.
So up the ladder she went and into Wulf’s room. “Wulfie?”
“What were ye wantin’ fer a snack?”
“I –” Wulf knit his adorable little brows together. “I don’t ‘member, Mama.”
“That’s all right, sweetie, I’ll cut up some apples fer ye. Would that be nice?”
Wulf frowned. Erin blinked. I thought the lad loved apples — don’t tell me he changed his mind! “Wulfie?”
“Mama … can I axe ye somethin’?”
“Ye can axe me anythin’, lad.”
“Instead o’ gettin’ me those apples, can ye stay up here an’ play with me for a moment.”
Erin’s mouth opened, ready to protest that she had much more important things to do — but what was more important than this?
“Sure, lad,” Erin replied, getting herself as comfortable as she could on the thin rug.
And as they played, Erin watched the light play off the red hightlights in Wulf’s hair. And she smiled.
Whatever else happens with Nicole an’ her knight … if she gets a kid half as sweet as Wulfie out of it, I’ll bet she’ll think it was worth it.