“An’ so ye told yer cousin she weren’t ter get too big fer her britches?” Berach asked Leah, trying very, very hard not to laugh. He really wasn’t supposed to be encouraging the inter-cousin warfare. His mother would probably march down from Heaven and smack his backside with her old wooden spoon if she had the least idea what was going on.
“Yep!” Leah laughed.
“Leah, that weren’t very nice,” Joyce admonished, taking one for the team — doubly generous when one considered that it wasn’t even her team.
“Nora thought it was funny! She laughed an’ laughed!” Leah protested.
“I’m sure she did, sweetheart,” Berach tried to explain. Nora did tend to approve of most things that Leah did. But Nora struck her uncle as a born follower, a young girl who was always going to be swept up admiringly into the train of whoever had the strongest personality. She was probably just glad that having Leah around meant she wasn’t stuck in her sister’s train by default. “But funny ain’t the same thing as nice.”
“That don’t make sense. Laughin’ makes ye happy. Bein’ nice makes folks happy!” Leah replied.
The minute Leah opened her mouth, though, a piece of cake was on its way to Berach’s, rendering him unable to answer the protest against his logic he knew was coming. He was sure to be chewing as openly as he could be without meriting himself a smack from Joyce’s fork, so Joyce had no choice but to take another one for the team.
Joyce knew it, too, and shot him a baleful glance — probably more baleful because their baby was an eater, making all sorts of demands on her poor mama. Joyce probably wanted a chance to scarf down the delicious cake she’d made as much as Berach did. Berach tried to smile in a way that was convincing and didn’t show his teeth.
It didn’t convince, to judge by the way Joyce rolled her eyes. She wasn’t letting him off that easily, however. “Berach, dear, why don’t ye answer Leah’s question? Such a good question it is, too. I’m sure ye’d have a much better answer than I would.”
“But Mama Joyce,” Leah said, “ye always say ye’re much smarter than Papa is! So how come he has a better answer?”
“Oh, sweetie,” Joyce answered, her glittering eyes never leaving Berach, “once ye’re a grown-up married lady, ye’ll know that smarts ain’t everythin’. Won’t she, Berach?”
Berach gulped his cake down. “I’m sure she will. Did — did I mention that this is right good cake, Joyce?”
“Several times, dear.”
“Ye know how ter spoil a man.”
“Well, it is yer birthday.”
“I know,” Berach replied, still trying to stall. Joyce only grinned at him. Somehow she managed to do it without showing any of the chocolate that logically had to be on her teeth. As if Leah needed any more proof of Joyce’s superiority over her poor bumbling papa.
Still, he supposed he had stalled enough — or at least stalled enough to have a somewhat legitimate distraction to hand. “Well, Leah, can you remind me what yer question –”
Saved by the boom! “‘Scuse me, lasses — better go see who that is,” Berach said as he rose, but not before rubbing Joyce’s belly for luck.
“Leah,” he heard Joyce say, “once ye finish that last bit o’ yer cake, why don’t ye get yer da’s an’ yers an’ my plates an’ get ’em washed up?”
So we are on the same side — I was fergettin’ that a minute —
“Aww, do I have ter?”
“Yes,” Berach replied over his shoulder, “yes, ye –”
Boom boom boom!
“Oh, fer the love o’ Wright! I’m comin’!” Berach threw open the door, thinking to himself that whoever this was, it had better be good —
It wasn’t. It was very, very bad.
“Berach! Ain’t ye got a kiss fer yer ol’ Pa?”
“Pa,” Berach replied. He made no move to bestow a kiss. That would, after all, require getting into range of the vaporous remains of whatever vile grog Finley had consumed this night. With Grady and his cash gone, Finley could only be partaking of the cheapest and most disgusting brews available. “What brings ye here?”
“Oh, jest droppin’ by me favorite son, wantin’ ter see how –” Finley suddenly sniffed. “Is that cake?” He tried to peer around Berach.
Berach didn’t move. “How much ye been drinkin’?”
“Now, Berach, what kind o’ question is that?”
The kind o’ question a man asks when he don’t want ter be cleanin’ up yer puke from his floors. “It’s the question ye’ll be answerin’ if ye want ter get inside.”
“Jest three grogs.”
Three grogs … even if Berach doubled that, Finley’s stomach was made of the kind of steel that could take a bath in six grogs without so much as a gurgle. Berach took a step back and Finley hurried for the cake.
Berach would have followed at a slower pace, except he realized that Finley was bound to sit down. Joyce was still in her seat, staring at Finley and then at Berach. Which meant that if Finley sat down on the one side of the table … he’d be next to Leah for Lord only knew how long.
Berach slipped into what was normally Leah’s seat; now, no matter what Finley picked, Leah at least would not have to sit next to him.
“Chocolate cake,” Finley sighed as he sniffed it. “Yer ma’s recipe?”
“No,” replied Berach.
“No? Ye ain’t still cookin’?”
Berach glared at the back of his father’s head, waiting for the cruel joke to come at his expense. It didn’t — it was probably waiting for an answer. Well, even if it came, his father wasn’t worth the energy it would take to lie to him. “Yes, I am still cookin’. But Joyce made the cake.”
“Joyce did? Well, Joyce, this smells like a mighty fine cake. An’ what’s the occasion?” Finley pretended to gasp. “Leah! Is it yer birthday again?”
“No!” Leah giggled. “It’s Papa’s birthday!”
“Papa’s birthday!” Finley repeated. “Imagine me fergettin’ a thing like that!” As Finley crossed to the table, Joyce jumped up and busied herself with the dog’s dish.
Leah giggled, but Leah could. Leah was used to adults saying silly things for her amusement or edification. She’d never realize the truth: that Finley had honest-to-goodness forgotten it was Berach’s birthday.
Well, Berach didn’t care. He knew he was the unfavorite, anyway, the least useful of the three Brogan children. Grady was the worker, Ailís the comforter and homemaker, and Berach? Berach had been worth something for a couple years there, when he got old enough to go drinking with his father, but after Leah had come into his life, all that had stopped. Finley probably hadn’t devoted a thought to him since, unless it was to snigger over his stupidity in taking that “whore’s” child.
Until now, anyway. He probably just wanted something anyway. Maybe Berach should allow himself to get angry — it would make it that much easier to say no when Finley asked for whatever it was. Not that Berach was angry, or hurt. Because he wasn’t.
“So, Berach,” Finley mused, “ye’re still cookin’.”
“Ye-es …” What the hell did that have to do with anything?
“Still wantin’ ter open up that tavern?”
Berach blinked. He’d had no idea his father knew about the tavern. “The tavern” — as if Berach had the least idea how he was going to go about getting a tavern. There wasn’t even a building nearby that could be used for one, so far as he knew. “Er … yes.”
“Ye know,” Finley remarked, stuffing a bit of cake into his mouth, ” ‘twould be much easier ter open up a tavern, if ye had a farm ter be sellin’ back ter Lord Pellinore when ye’ve got yerself enough money ter be buyin’ or buildin’ that tavern.”
“Lots o’ things would be easier if I had a farm,” Berach shrugged. “Things would be easier if a bag o’ gold dropped from the sky, too, but that ain’t happenin’ anytime soon.” He smiled at Joyce as she sat down beside Finley. Good, she was thinking the same thing that he was — keep Leah away from the drunk.
“But ye could get yerself a farm.”
Berach tried not to roll his eyes. “How? Axe Lord Pellinore right nicely? He won’t let me get another one, Pa. I’m still makin’ the same pittance I was when he kicked me off the old one. An’ now … well, Joyce ain’t gonna be able ter work fer a while, an’ I — we’ll have two kids ter be feedin’.”
“But he wouldn’t be able ter argue none if it were left ter ye.”
“Left ter me by –” Berach stopped. “Pa?”
“After all,” Finley sighed, “yer brother Grady decided he didn’t want none of his father’s bounty. Ungrateful son o’ — ungrateful sot,” Finley corrected, which was a bit rich, coming from him. Then again, he probably didn’t want to insult Lilé, and Berach found it hard to disagree with the one example of humanity he had seen from his father in the past decade or so. “An’ Ailís an’ her husband, they’ve got a farm. So that leaves … ye, son. Ye want it?”
Did he want it? Did he want it? Did sheep baa? Did dogs bark? Was Finley a drunk?
But there had to be a —
“In fact,” Finley continued, “if ye’re really wantin’ it, ye won’t see nothin’ wrong with movin’ in right away, won’t ye?”
“Won’t we?” snarled Joyce, shaking her head as subtly as she could while keeping Berach’s attention.
“Aye, I knew ye wouldn’t! So it’s settled, then?” Finley grinned.
“Nothin’ settled yet. Berach ain’t said nothin’. Berach, what was it ye were gonna say?” Joyce replied, glaring at Berach and letting him know in no uncertain terms what he should say.
And he knew what he should say, he really knew … good Lord, he’d been raised with Finley; Joyce hadn’t. He’d have to be mad to want to go back there. But …
But this time it would be different. He was a man now and didn’t have to put up with his father’s cuffs and abuse. He’d be the man around the house, really, since his father was too old and infirm to be much good. If he just made sure Finley had enough money to keep him in grog and whores, maybe he wouldn’t bother him much …
“It’s … it’s definitely an offer ter think about …” Berach began, pretending he couldn’t see the way Joyce’s eyes were bugging from her head.
“Think about? Come now, son, ye don’t have ter pretend. Yer ma … well, bless ‘er, but she ain’t here now ter scold ye fer actin’ without thinkin’. Ye don’t need ter think.”
“Berach does so need –” Joyce started.
“I mean, look at this place, Berach. Is this the place ye want ter be bringin’ yer new little baby inter?”
“It’s fine!” Joyce protested. “It’s nice an’ snug fer all of us! We don’t need no more. An’ when we need it, we’ll earn it ourselves. Tell ‘im, Berach.”
Joyce didn’t understand. Oh, this place wasn’t even as snug as her parents’ cottage, but that was different. It was better than the cottage she’d started living in, once she was out on her own. It was a step up for her. She’d never owned a nice place on her own.
And she — she didn’t understand. Leah was sleeping on a mattress on the floor. So were he and Joyce. But Joyce’s baby would have a crib. Joyce’s baby wouldn’t have to stay on the floor with the creepy-crawlies, and Joyce could imagine that by the time her baby got big enough for a bed, they could be somewhere else. But Leah could use a bed now! And the cottage had beds. The cottage had a farm, more than just a little kitchen garden. The cottage had a pond — place for a little shop — if he wanted, he could surely get Lord Pellinore’s permission to build out the first floor, add a tavern right there …
“Ye’re lookin’ tempted, Berach,” Finley smiled.
“Berach!” Joyce gasped.
“Now, don’t listen ter her none,” Finley continued, smooth as a bottle of good scotch, the kind that Berach would never taste in his life. “It’s the baby, ye know. Messes with the thinkin’.” Finley tapped the side of his head as if he had the last idea how one went about using that particular organ. “But ye’re a man, ye are, Berach, an’ ye’re man o’ yer own household. Ye ain’t gonna go riskin’ yer family’s good fortune an’ future fer some silly woman’s thinkin’, are ye?”
“Berach! Ye know dam–darned well that I’m not bein’ silly!” Joyce argued. “Think about it, honey. Think about everythin’ ye ever told me –”
“About what?” asked Leah, clambering onto the one remaining seat.
“Leah!” Joyce called. “I thought I told ye ter go play with yer ark!”
“I was playin’,” Leah answered, “but I could hear ye all, so’s I decided ter come talk with ye!” She smiled that smile of hers, so happy, so winning, that Berach could never guess where she had gotten it from. The Brogans didn’t smile like that; it was beaten out of them by life. Her … the woman who had given birth to her? Who knew?
Finley snorted. “Girl needs ter learn some manners.”
“She’s five,” Berach snapped. An’ ye put up with worse from Katie an’ Paddy, I’ll wager.
“Still needs ter learn manners. Anyway! Yer pa’s jest thinkin’ about movin’ in with grandpa! Won’t that be nice, Leah? Ye’ll see me every day!”
Leah blinked and turned to her father. His heart smote him. She couldn’t — that look couldn’t be begging him to say no, could it?
Of course it could be. Nora was her best friend as well as her cousin. Nora would tell her everything. Berach might have not said a word about being raised in Finley’s domain, but he might as well have tried to empty a well with a sieve. She still knew.
And Berach knew that Joyce was also seeing Leah’s expression. He could feel her eyes boring into his skull. But they didn’t understand — either of them — it wasn’t their responsibility to provide for the family —
“Leah?” Finley asked, though the tone was dangerously close to a snarl. Berach could feel old, unused muscles tensing, ready to run. But he couldn’t run, not now. He had a wife and child in range. “Won’t that be nice?”
Leah watched her father, then turned back to Finley. “Will ye stop drinkin’, Grandpa?”
Berach was never sure whose gasp was loudest. For that matter, he was never sure how there was enough air in the room for all three of them to gasp at once. Finley, however, was the one to speak first. “What?”
Leah gulped. Berach held her hand under the table. “N-N-Nora said, Nora said that the reason why her ma put ‘er foot down was ’cause ye wouldn’t quit drinkin’. And that it ain’t nice with ye, when ye’re drinkin’. So — so, will ye quit drinkin’?”
“Why — why ye little –” Finley’s grip around the fork became a stranglehold. Berach felt different sets of muscles tensing — muscles for springing, not for running. “Whore’s daughter!” Finley spat.
Crash! It was Berach’s own hand on the table — thank the Lord not the one holding Leah’s — but he hadn’t even felt it! “Pa, out!”
“Now, Berach, I ain’t done –”
“Now!” Berach shouted and leaped to his feet.
Finley opened his mouth to argue, but for once in his life, Berach was having none of it. For once, being younger meant being stronger. For once, his father’s drunkenness didn’t give him superhuman strength, but the normal flailing weakness of intoxication. Berach was able to grab Finley’s collar and hoist him from the chair with ease. “We’re havin’ a chat, Pa, outside.”
“Papa!” Leah wailed.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Berach called — amazing how one could keep one’s voice level for the sake of the children, “Grandpa an’ I jest need ter have a little talk.” He didn’t even break off from shoving his father toward the door, then out the door, then finally to the balcony outside — hopefully far enough away that Leah and Joyce wouldn’t hear him yelling.
He barely had a moment to catch his breath before he heard himself snarl, “What the hell was that?”
“Was what?” Finley asked.
“Ye don’t call me daughter a whore’s daughter!”
“What, even when she’s actin’ like it?”
Berach never knew how it was that he kept from punching his father. Maybe it was the precarious state of the railings of the balcony. If there was a tousle, one or both of them could be over the side, and it would be just Berach’s luck to break his own neck in a fall while Finley walked away with no more than a bruise or a bump on the head.
“She don’t act like a whore’s daughter,” Berach snarled. “She don’t never act like a whore’s daughter. An’ ye don’t call her that! Understood?”
“But she is a whore’s daughter!”
“No, she ain’t!
The sound, for all Berach knew, might have carried clear to Avilion in the north. The echo certainly seemed inclined to bounce around the square for a while, check out the tavern, peek in the windows of the dress shop. There was no hoping that Leah hadn’t heard. But perhaps she wouldn’t know what he was talking about.
“Berach,” Finley sighed, “she is. Unless ye imagined the bit where the whore brought her to ye –”
“She’s my daughter, got it? My daughter an’ Joyce’s! More than that don’t matter!”
Finley snorted. “Ye really don’t think the blood will tell?”
“She’s a whore’s daughter — there ain’t no escapin’ it — sooner or later it’ll be obvious as those squinty eyes on ‘er face, an’ sooner or later –”
“She’s a drunkard’s granddaughter, too! Ye think there’ll be any escapin’ that?”
Finley blinked, and his voice took on that low, dangerous tone. “What did ye say?”
But Berach was bigger now, he was stronger, and he was furious. “Ye’re a drunk! An’ Leah’s yer granddaughter! What, ye think she’ll end up like ye when she’s yer age — soused an’ alone an’ miserable, because every child she had hates her, an’ with damn good reason?”
Finley flinched. “This — this ain’t about me –”
“It’s always about ye!” Berach roared, and shoved his father. “Ye’re the reason fer all of it! All of us! Why we’re all so fuckin’ miserable, hard as we try not ter be! Ye’re the reason why we all run, all of us, as soon as we could! Even Grady, now that he’s grown some balls!”
“If I were ye,” Finley growled, “I’d be right careful what I said next. Otherwise, I might end up … well … me ol’ pa might not be so generous with me, catch me drift?”
“Generous? Generous?” Berach laughed. “Oh, I get it now. ‘Ye put up me with me shit fer however long it takes me ter die, an’ ye can have some money when I’m gone!’ That ain’t generosity, Pa, that’s bribery!”
“Berach!” Finley gasped. “What would yer ma say if she could –”
“I don’t know, Pa, what would she say? Ye really want ter think about it, eh? She always tried ter protect us from ye! Maybe she’d say I was doin’ right!”
“She wouldn’t say no such thing!”
“Maybe not — but she’d sure as hell think it!”
“Ye — ye –”
“Get out, Pa!” Berach yelled, not caring to hear whatever insult his father had in store. “I’ve had it with ye! Ye don’t come callin’ around here no more unless ye’re stone sober an’ plannin’ ter keep that way!”
Berach shoved past him.
He walked into the hallway outside his apartment, slamming the door behind him.
The plaster walls did practically nothing to drown out the sound. Berach stormed into his apartment and slammed that door, too.
Berach found Joyce waiting in the doorway. “L-Leah?” he whispered.
“She’s in bed,” Joyce whispered back.
Berach cringed. “Oh, Lord. How much d’ye think she …”
Joyce held open her arms and Berach stumbled into them like a wounded child. “I tried ter keep her distracted,” Joyce murmured.
“She heard it all, didn’t she?”
“She ain’t gonna be able ter sleep until ye talk ter her.”
“Oh, Lord. I — I wanted what’s best fer her, Joyce. Fer ye — fer all o’ ye.”
“I wanted ter protect her. Ter have her never — never …”
“I know,” Joyce answered. “An’ ye’re in luck, Berach — ye jest did protect her. An’ all of us with her.”