It had been a long day. Three of the horses had thrown shoes, one after another, all trying to be hitched to the same wagon. The half-dozen horses from the last auction had been delivered today, and one of them had mysteriously gone lame in the three days’ delivery time, and the seller hadn’t wanted to budge on the price, insisting that the animal had been lame when Joshua bid for it. That had been an exhausting half-hour. To crown the day, Nestor, usually one of their most even-tempered donkeys, had taken exception to the man Joshua was hiring him out to, and in retaliation had delivered a nice kick to Joshua’s stomach that send him flying halfway across the stables. It was a miracle he wasn’t seriously injured. Who was he kidding? Three feet to the left, and it would have been a pitchfork right behind him. It was a miracle he wasn’t killed.
All he wanted, when he opened that door, was to retreat to his bedchamber and stare at the ceiling for a bit. Maybe he would have the courage to lift up his tunic and see how many colors his midsection was turning. Maybe he would have the wherewithal to ask his mother to heat water for a bath for him. Maybe he would just hide from the world until morning.
But that was before he heard it, the shocking sound that reached his ears when opened the door and stepped through. Not his children’s laughter, they laughed all the time. Not even the other high-pitched squealing that joined Darius and Baby Belle’s.
The mid-range laughter. The mature chortles. The woman’s laughter.
Helena didn’t laugh like that, though she laughed with her grandchildren often. Babette had never laughed like that, her shrieking squeals climbing to a register nearly as high as the children’s. Heloise might have laughed like that, but she preferred to snicker or chuckle to full-bodied laughs. No woman had laughed like that in this house since …
It didn’t matter. Joshua had to go see just who the hell it was with his children. He pushed open the door to Baby Belle’s nursery and —
Stopped in his tracks.
The sight of Darius with Ned killed his worry stone dead. If Ned was here, that meant Darius and Baby Belle were safe and with somebody he trusted. Dannie, the younger Widow Chausseur, Cressida — it didn’t matter which. None of them would let the children come to any harm.
No, what surprised him was the scene by the doll castle, the one he had meant to display in the toy shop but had ultimately given to Baby Belle. Baby Belle was still a little young for dolls, since from time to time she insisted on holding them in her teeth, but she was careful with the dollhouse. Still, nobody really played with her with it. Helena’s knees protested when she got down on the floor with her; Baby Belle’s aunties were not often around; and while Darius would teach her rhymes or share his blocks with her, he drew the line at dolls.
But today, Cressida was with Baby Belle, and Baby Belle was looking up at her with baby adoration.
Joshua coughed, and winced — apparently that was a great way to aggravate the mule-kicking injury — and said, “Well, nobody told me we were having company.”
“Papa!” Darius yelped, jumping up and hurtling himself at Joshua. Joshua barely managed to bend in time to avoid a collision that might have sent him tumbling to the floor. That hurt — but it was worth it to feel Darius’s strong arms clinging around his neck. Cressida, meanwhile, jumped up, though she didn’t face him yet.
“How are you, son? Having fun with Ned?” he asked when Darius seemed of a mind to let go. That hastened the process, and Joshua could try to concentrate on standing without showing pain.
“We’re havin’ lots of fun! Widow Tabard came over for a chat with Grandma, and she brought Ned! He was here when I got home from school!”
“Did she now?” Joshua smiled at Cressida. She looked a little unsure, but she smiled back.
“Aye! Ned and me played with my blocks, and then I got my soldiers out — but he’s not much better than Baby Belle is with them. He just sort of banged them for a bit. Isn’t that right, Ned?”
“Aye!” Ned giggled, grinning up at Joshua with an intensity not unlike Baby Belle’s. Joshua smiled to see it.
“And I hope you kept Widow Tabard entertained too, like a good host?” Joshua asked, winking in Cressida’s direction.
Darius considered that for a moment, then shook his head. “No. Baby Belle took care of that.”
“Oh, did she now?” he asked Cressida, stepping forward and smiling at her.
Cressida’s brows knit hesitantly, but she soon smiled. “Oh, yes. She is an excellent hostess, Master Wesleyan. She got me updated on all the latest gossip in Doll Kingdom.”
“Oh, gossip, eh?” A little hand tugged at his hosen, and he looked down … to see Baby Belle, of course. Ignoring the protests his midsection would send to him, he swooped down to pick her up. “Baby Belle!”
“Papa!” As much as he loved her hands locking around him and her whole body clinging to his like some particularly adorable leech, today, far too much of his thoughts revolved around the fact that she was wearing shoes. And somehow the left one had found precisely the spot Nestor had kicked. He was barely able to keep from wincing until she gave him the biggest and sloppiest of baby kisses.
“Hello, sweetheart,” he replied, kissing her back. Then he put her down again before his eyes could start to water. “So … gossip?” he asked Cressida.
“Gossip and girl talk,” she replied. Then — she crouched? “Isn’t that right, Baby Belle?” Baby Belle giggled ecstatically to have her opinion consulted.
Cressida stroked Baby Belle’s cheek, one hand trailing in the hair, finer than any spun silk. Baby Belle grinned hugely. After a moment of what Joshua could only term as mutual admiration (and why not — they were two beautiful young ladies, after all), Cressida popped back up again, much like the new boxed clown toys Joshua was starting to sell. “Anyway — have you heard of the latest trend in shoes in the Doll Kingdom?”
Funny. She wouldn’t look him in the eye unless she was talking about the children directly. Why would that be? “Oh? What would that be?”
“Tooled leather.” Cressida’s eyes sparkled. “In avery specific design. I shall have to tell Pippa, so she can have them for all of her dollies’ shoes.”
“Tooled leather?” Joshua asked, mystified. He stared at the dolls lying forgotten in the courtyard. No, Baby Belle wasn’t old enough yet for dolls with clothing you could take on and off … certainly not for dolls with tiny leather shoes!
“Aye!” Cressida replied merrily. “Why, on the top, it looks just like a baby’s bottom front tooth!”
Cressida’s teeth, as pearly and perfect as Baby Belle’s, showed as she threw back her head and laughed. Joshua laughed too. “Oh! Well, then! I want to know — how on earth is Pippa going to find a baby to replicate that for her dolls?”
“She can borrow Ned. He’d be happy to gnaw on her dolls’ feet for a bit.”
“He hasn’t outgrown that yet?” Joshua asked. He was a year older than Baby Belle; he thought Darius had been mostly done with putting everything in his mouth by the time he got to Ned’s age.
“Mostly, but he still lapses from time to time. And sometimes he chews his blocks when he thinks I’m not looking. His father used to chew his nails, though.”
“Ah!” Joshua had never chewed his nails — they never got long enough to chew. And though Isabel had cultivated herself a fine set of talons while they were in Camford and still managed an impressive length afterward, she had never, never chewed on them.
“Anyway, I don’t suppose you could tell me where my mother is?” he asked. “I’ve got a … question for her.” What sorts of possets she had on hand, namely. His abdomen was starting to bother him more and more with every passing second.
Sudden guilt flashed across her face. “Er … she’s not here.”
“Eh?” Not here? Then where was she? And why was Cressida alone with the children?
“I was just about to leave with Ned, and she was about to start on some baking … I guess she was mixing something, then one of the dogs barked and startled her, and, well.” Cressida sighed and shrugged. “I heard the yelling, came back in and saw a pile of white dust on the floor … with what had been a couple of eggs in the middle of it.”
“Ah.” She had to go out for eggs, then. Sounded like had had a day like Joshua’s. “So you babysat?”
“That was kind of you. Er …” Now he was the host, a host who owed a favor and not had an idea of how to repay it. “Have a seat?” he asked.
Her eyebrows waggled. “Do you think the children will be all right?”
“Sure they will be! Hey, kids!” Three sets of mildly confused eyes turned to him. “Widow Tabard and I will be in the other room, aye? No killing each other while we’re gone!”
Darius shrieked with laughter, Baby Belle stared at him in confused, and Ned looked between them both, wondering how to react, as Joshua squired Cressida out and saw her seated. “Er …” he asked. “Can I get you anything to eat? To drink?”
“No, no, I’m fine. Your mother and I had a nice lunch.”
“Oh …” But lunch must have been a while ago. And getting her something to drink would give him an opportunity to scour the kitchen for some kind of painkiller. Or just some ale. Ale dulled a lot of pain.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “You … you look …”
“Uncomfortable. Look, I’m sorry about — about presuming, with your children. I know you didn’t know I was going to be babysitting, and you didn’t give permission.”
“I’m not uncomfortable about that!” Joshua gasped, shocked that she would think so little of him. She had been kind to watch the kids when his mother needed the help. And if Helena trusted somebody with the children, then Joshua did, too. Not that he didn’t trust Cressida all on her own …
His mouth opened to tell her that, or something much like it, when she shocked him by smiling slyly and replying, “Then sit next to me.”
Joshua blinked. After the mule-kick, he hadn’t planned on — well, sitting. His thought had been more of reaching the bed, bending his knees and going vertical. But if a pretty lady wanted him to sit next to her …
Joshua sat. And winced.
“Josh? Is — is everything all right?” she asked, looking at him, concerned.
Joshua looked at her, wondering how best to lie his way out of this one — then wondered, why bother? He had nothing to be ashamed of. It was fifteen-year-old twits who were ashamed of the natural accidents of day-to-day living, and telling them to girls. Joshua would know; he had been one. “Well, I got kicked by a mule today, and that was only the worst thing that happened.”
Cressida’s eyes bulged. “You what? My Lord, Josh! Are you all right? Do you need a doctor? Are you in pain?”
“Yes — no — yes, but I’ll live.”
“You’ll live? You got kicked by a mule!”
“Aye, and not for the first time, and probably not for the last, either,” Joshua shrugged. “I’ll be fine. And I’ll be leaving to the mules to the stableboys for the future, too. At least for the next month or so.”
“But — but — you got kicked! By a mule!”
“Er … yes?”
“Don’t men die from that?”
“Only if they hit the wrong place.”
“Josh! That’s not funny!”
“Well, no, it isn’t now,” Joshua admitted. “But it’ll be hilarious in a week or so.”
“Still …” A hand, work-roughened and red in places, but still gentle, alighted on his shoulder for half a second before flitting away. “Are you — are you sure you’re all right? Is there nothing I can get for you?”
“Nothing, nothing! I’m fine!” He smiled. “You act like you’ve never known anybody who’s been kicked by a mule!”
Cressida blinked at him.
“… How could you not know anybody who’s ever been kicked by a mule?”
“We didn’t have a mule,” Cressida replied. “Nobody on our street did. We didn’t go very far. If we needed to transport things, we hired a cart from the stables.”
“Yes, but still — you must have known somebody!”
Cressida wrinkled her nose. “Well, probably,” she admitted after a moment’s reflection. “Just not right after, if you understand what I’m saying?”
Joshua did understand. He nodded. “It’s nothing, really,” he added, as much in a bit to reassure her as to keep himself certain. “I’ll just be very grumpy in the next few days. But soon, my sparkling personality will reassert itself, and all will be well with the world.”
“You goose,” Cressida laughed, “it’s women who have sparkling personalities, not men.”
“A goose? I protest!”
“Why? You don’t think you’re silly?”
“Well, no, I don’t, for the record, but I’ve never convinced a woman to the contrary and doubt I’ll be able to now. But a goose! I’ve never been so insulted!”
“And what’s so insulting about that? The children call each other worse.”
“I’m a gander, that’s what’s so insulting!”
“Oh-ho!” Cressida’s eyes sparkled. “I insulted your delicate male ego. I see. All is understood.”
“Delicate male ego? You’ve been spending too much time with Dannie!”
“I have not.” She smirked. “I would have said the same to any goose of a man I met long before I met her.”
“… You really have been spending too much time with Dannie,” Joshua sighed, or pretended to, and let his head thunk back against the wall.
But that was the wrong thing to do in front of a woman, especially a woman who hadn’t quite processed that a mule kick could be nothing as easily as it could be deadly. “Josh? Joshua? Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to –”
“Cressida!” He popped up again and manfully — gander-fully — did not wince when his abdomen reminded him that that was not a good idea. “I was only teasing! I’m fine, really.”
“You don’t look fine.” It wasn’t said teasingly, or even all that worriedly. Just matter-of-factly. A calm and capable woman had sensed that there was a problem with this silly gander in front of her, and she was doing her best to solve it, and not in a mothering way, either. Joshua hadn’t been so well taken care of since Isabel. “Joshua, please don’t feel obligated to stay out here and sit with me if you’re not feeling up to it. Please, if you don’t feel well, get yourself into bed. I can keep playing with the children.”
Not unless you care to join me, came the naughty thought on the heels of that. He kicked himself, as he always did when those thoughts came. He was a married man! He wasn’t allowed to think —
Except — he wasn’t a married man. Not anymore. His eyes felt inexorably drawn to the wedding band he still wore.
But … but he still couldn’t think things like that. Not about nice women like Cressida. You didn’t think things like that about nice women. You certainly didn’t say them. However much you might —
The door flew open, and his mother flew in, and his thoughts flew out. “Well! Cressida, you wouldn’t believe — Josh!” She started and gasped. “You’re home!”
“Last I checked,” Joshua replied drily.
“Is everything all right?” she asked, hurrying toward him.
“Everything’s fine, Mother.” Cressida looked at him, aghast, and Joshua amended that state. “Or most everything’s all right, and what isn’t will keep.”
Helena stared at him, brows wrinkled, but after a moment she turned back to Cressida. “I have to thank you again for watching the little ones, dear. It was very kind of you.”
“It was no trouble. But I really should be going.”
“Are you sure? You and Ned can stay for dinner, if you’d like. It’s the least I can do, considering.” Helena didn’t so much as give a spare glance in Joshua’s direction when she said that. But that was hardly reason for relief. Helena would be much more likely to pretend it wasn’t about Joshua when it was about him, and much more likely to be concerned over his reaction if it was about him.
“Thank you, but no. My mother and sister will worry if I get home too late.”
“Well, if you’re sure … but do make sure you stop by the stables and tell my husband that you’d like a ride home. That really is the least I can do.”
“Tell him I asked, too,” Joshua added. That would keep his father from griping — even privately — about Helena trying to bankrupt him by having him give free rides to all of her friends. Mark could understand about repaying a kindness with a kindness. None better.
It wasn’t long before Cressida had collected Ned and was walking down the front walk with him. “You know,” Helena murmured, safely so that Cressida wouldn’t hear, “she’s a very nice girl.”
“Mother,” Joshua sighed, “please don’t start. I don’t want to talk about this right now.”
Helena didn’t listen. She began to rub Joshua’s shoulder instead. It was the opposite shoulder Cressida had so briefly touched. Joshua didn’t know why that made him feel vaguely warm all over. “I know you don’t. But I want to see you happy. And she is a nice girl. That’s all I’m saying, Joshua. She’s a nice girl and maybe you should start … considering. It’s been almost two years.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life alone, Josh. I can tell you, it’s never as appealing as it might sound.”
Joshua swallowed. “I know you’re not pressuring me, Mother … but I really don’t want to talk about this right now.”
Helena looked into his face, then she patted his shoulder again. “All right, Josh. All right.”
But as Cressida slowly moved out of sight, Joshua could not help but think that his mother was right.
She was a nice girl.