“Who’s a little sweetie? There’s me little sweetie!”
Kata smiled, glad her back was turned and she could busy herself with the teapot and cups. Roma could turn around at any moment, and she would only be embarrassed to see her mother watching her with her first baby with that fond, indulgent smile.
As if Kata wouldn’t understand! As if she herself had been any less silly and sweet with Roma when she had been Marie’s age! How much of a fool she had made over Roma, playing with her, cuddling her, kissing those pillow-soft cheeks and tickling that tubby little tummy. Kata had probably been worse. She had assumed for almost a decade that there would be no man who would have her, that the closest she would come to motherhood would be the first to hold and cuddle baby after baby as she welcomed them into the world. Then, when she married Jeremiah, when they moved to Albion, when she had Roma — then all had been perfect in her world. Even Jeremiah having to hide with her people was not so bad: when Kata had Roma in her arms, she thought she could and would take on the world if it made life better for her little sweetling.
Marie even looked like Roma had as a baby, too, even if Roma didn’t look much like Kata had. Fair skin — black eyebrows — blue eyes, even something of Roma’s baby smile. Good Lord, was it any wonder that when Kata looked at Marie on that blanket, the same blanket Roma had lain on (and Ella and Billy too), she thought for a moment that time had moved backward and she had gotten her first baby back?
And much as she loved the young woman her daughter had become, who could blame her for smiling at the thought of having both?
Kata took a deep cleansing breath. And when she announced, brusquely, as was her wont, “Tea’s ready,” there was scarcely a trace of huskiness in her voice.
“Oh, goodie!” Roma jumped to her feet and scurried to the teapot. Kata sent a wink at Marie, then made her slower way to the sofa by the fireplace.
The more that she thought of it, the more it was a good thing that babies were for the young. Kata’s knees would have laughed in her face had she even thought of trying to jump up as Roma had. They lodged serious protests at the mere idea of getting down to give Marie a little kiss. But then again, what were adult children for, if not providing one with grandchildren and then positioning said grandchildren in such a place where the grandparents could reach them?
Kata sat, and Roma jumped onto the sofa beside her. “Thanks fer invitin’ me, Ma.”
“Ah, it’s me pleasure! Sure ye know that.”
“Especially since Billy an’ Ella are both out,” Roma smirked.
“Ah, well. That’s got a bit ter do with it, aye. But ye know, there’s little better than the company of one’s adult children.”
“Ye think I’m that much more of an adult now than I was when I was livin’ with ye that last year or two?”
Kata glanced sidelong at Roma. Roma, certainly, had grown up fast after Jeremiah had passed. It hadn’t been too long before the two of them were the ones making the decisions, with Kata only occasionally exercising her veto power. Roma had certainly grown up faster than Ella had. As for Billy, Kata had put most of her efforts into making sure he didn’t have to go from child to man while skipping all of the parts in between, so his not sprouting upward as fast as his sisters had was a cause for triumph, not despair.
Still, Kata nodded. “Ye don’t really grow up, I don’t think, ’till ye’ve got someone else ter care for other than yerself.”
Roma nodded. “Aye, Ma. That makes sense. Lord knows I didn’t know nothin’ until I had Marie dependin’ on me fer everythin’.” She glanced over the high back of the sofa and smiled at the baby, lying still but for her deep baby breathing. Poor thing must have been tuckered out by the wagon ride over. Then Roma turned to Kata with a sideways grin. “So’s, Ma, I’m guessing that means ye didn’t grow up ’till ye were over thirty?”
Kata snorted. “Not hardly. I was takin’ care o’ me sister Esmé when I was younger than ye. Me ma died not long after birthin’ her, remember.”
Roma nodded soberly. “I remember, Ma.”
Not as well as Kata did — but that was only to be expected. Kata had learned midwifery from her mother. She’d brought four babies successfully into the world, her mother watching every move she made, before her mother gave birth to Esmé. For three days, mother and child had been fine. And then — childbed fever. It had been Kata’s first professional failure. But as her own mother had said, smiling a little, when she could still speak and think lucidly: That’s how it is, Kat, in midwifery. Ye win some, ye lose some.
Win some, lose some. Her mother had been wrong. That wasn’t just midwifery. That was life.
Kata had lost her mother. But she had been determined not to lose her sister. She had gone with wailing, hungry Esmé in tow to every woman she had helped give birth to her own child, not asking but demanding that these women do their part and help feed her hungry sister, since Kata couldn’t. In return, she’d made them mixtures to help them prevent their next pregnancy. The women had only been too happy to help. Kata had won that round.
Then, a mere nineteen years later, scarcely after she had gotten to have a baby of her own, finally, she had faced her next battle to keep Esmé alive. She had lost that one. She had not even managed to win Esmé’s baby.
And yet … not so long after that, she’d won Ella. And she had won Jeremiah back. With two grown-up stepchildren to boot. Oh, they were a bit leafy on top, aye, but at the end of the day —
Kata started, the tea sloshing in the cup. “Eh?”
“Ye all right? Ye went right out o’ it fer a minute there.”
“Eh — just woolgatherin’. Rememberin’ days gone by.”
“Gettin’ senile in yer old age. I get it.” Roma sat back with a sage smile and a twinkle in her eye, waiting for the squawk of protest so she could laugh at it.
She would wait in vain. Kata was too busy staring at her daughter. She’d birthed three children and only three children. She’d survived every birth. So had they. They had survived to the age where they could tease their mother with impunity. How great a victory was that?
And what kind of loss would be required to balance it out?
Kata smiled and patted her daughter’s knee. “Ye’re a good girl, Roma, have I told ye that recently?”
Roma stared at her open-mouthed. “Good Lord, Ma! Ye really are goin’ senile!”
“I am not. Jest … countin’ me blessins. Unless ye think that makes me senile, lass, in which case, ye’ve got another think comin’ ter ye.”
Roma giggled. “I don’t think there’s nobody in the world who’s say there was somethin’ wrong with that.”
Good girl. Kata had raised this one right.
“Oh! Oh, Ma! Ye’ll never guess!” Roma suddenly called, nearly jumping from her seat in her eagerness.
“Never guess what?”
“Who Nicole’s mysterious ‘Erin’ friend is!”
“Oh?” Kata asked.
“Erin Shepherd! Marigold’s girl!”
Kata blinked. “Erin Shepherd? She’s the one what moved next ter Nicole?”
“Aye! Can ye believe it, Ma?”
“What did Erin say when she saw ye?”
“Oh, nothin’. She didn’t see me,” Roma shrugged. “But I saw a woman walkin’ across Nicole’s square ter jest the apartment Nicole pointed out ter me, with a little boy in tow, an’ let me tell ye, there ain’t no mistakin’ that red hair.”
No, no, there wasn’t any mistaking of that hair. “Hmm,” murmured Kata.
“What? Don’t ye believe me?”
“Believe ye? Honey, o’ course I believe ye. Makes a right amount o’ sense, it does. Don’t know why we didn’t put it tergether before.”
“Probably ’cause Nicole never mentioned that her friend has hair so red it puts the poppies to shame.”
“Well, there is that,” Kata chuckled. “But I think ye shouldn’t say nothin’, all the same.”
“What? Why? Erin must be right lonely, with Nicole bein’ the only close friend she’s got. She ought ter know that she’s got friends o’ friends around, friends who won’t judge none.”
“Oh, aye, there is that … gettin’ Erin an’ Lyndsay ter see each other an’ talk a bit might be doin’ both o’ them a service. But Roma, ye’d be best off not gettin’ involved.”
“Because I’ve helped bring enough Chevaux babies inter this world ter know ’em when I sees ’em,” Kata answered, “an’ believe me, that baby is either Pierre’s, jest like Erin said, or else Edmond’s been sneakin’ around, up ter no good in the ten seconds that witch Cerise would take her eye off ‘im.”
“Oh,” murmured Roma.
“Ye’re best off not gettin’ in the middle o’ that mess. Believe me.” Kata patted her knee. “Ye might get on Cerise’s bad side, an’ take it from someone who’s taken up permanent residence there, it ain’t no fun place ter be. An’ it would be worse fer ye, honey, much as I hate ter say it. I can sniff an’ walk on by that witch in the market. Ye’ve actually got ter put up with her.”
“He could be Simon’s,” Roma said.
“Eh — what?” Kata gasped.
“Wulf. Erin’s boy. He could be Simon’s.”
Kata blinked. “Roma, why are ye even suggestin’ such a thing –”
“Well, it’s not like it’s no insult ter me!” Roma gasped — or tried to gasp. Failed at gasping, really. Utterly and completely failed at gasping. “I mean, that kid’s old! Old as Meg an’ Pierre’s Basil! He were born long before Simon an’ I ever were somethin’ ter each other, an’ that means he must have been made nine months beforehand, aye? So it ain’t no insult ter me.”
Of course it wasn’t, when you looked at it logically. No woman in her right mind would be upset that her husband had gone and paid to relieve his urges before they had even been a couple. Hell, some might even be grateful, a willing whore could teach a man a great many ways to please a woman. The thing was, women weren’t supposed to be in their right minds when they thought of their husbands’ sexual pasts (unless the husband was a widower. Or she didn’t much care for him anyway). It was against Nature.
“Honey, why are ye even thinkin’ things like that?”
“Joyce Brogan,” Roma continued, musing on, ignoring the question. “Her man got with one of Marigold’s girls, got her in the family way, aye? An’ he took the baby. An’ now Joyce loves that girl like her own, an’ she an’ Berach are married, an’ they jest had their own baby an’ are happy as can be. Ain’t that what ye’ve told me, Ma?”
“Well, yes, but –“
“An’ ain’t it true?” Roma pressed.
“Yes. Yes, it’s true that things have worked out right well fer Joyce and Berach. But Roma –” Kata laid her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “What the hell is goin’ on that ye’re even thinkin’ these things?”
“Oh, Ma, don’t ye ever imagine that ye’re somebody else? That — that ye’ve got someone else’s problems? Someone else’s life? An’ don’t ye wonder how ye would react?” Roma laughed. It was as brittle and false as a glass diamond. “It’s jest a bit of imaginin’. Nothin’ more.”
“Roma, ye know there’s a special hell fer Sims who lie ter their mothers.”
“MA! That’s somethin’ Cerise Chevaux would say!”
“So? I didn’t say she was a total idiot, jest mostly an idiot. Besides — I’m only half serious. She’d be all serious.”
“Oh, Ma,” Roma murmured, shaking her head. “Why does anythin’ need ter be wrong? Why can’t I jest be — wonderin’?”
Because women didn’t just wonder about things like that. Even the new mother who hadn’t had a real adult conversation in three days didn’t just wonder about that. They certainly didn’t wonder about it calmly, or seemed to be trying to find their way to be accept it, or not be bothered by it. Women might wonder about things like that, but the next thing they would be wondering about would be how to castrate their man while he slept or otherwise make his life a hell.
Unless … they had reason. And they had reason for not wanting to think about murdering their husbands. They had reasons to want to make it work.
Roma’s reason babbled on the blanket.
But Roma, clearly, didn’t want to discuss it. Kata made a mental note to grill Marigold at the next opportunity. She hadn’t said a word to Marigold about Simon beforehand, because the girl had to eat–well, she had to keep a roof over her head, at any rate. She couldn’t go chasing off paying custom, and Kata understood that. She counted many of the women she helped through birth as friends, and she had no doubt that she had delivered some of their husbands’ bastards. But if that Simon was doing anything to hurt Roma — and if Roma sensed something was off — then Kata had to know. A mother would do anything to protect her baby. Including castrating that baby’s husband.
“Anyway, Ma, I got a question fer ye. Keepin’ a babe on the breast is supposed ter keep ye from conceivin’ again, ain’t it?”
“It do fer a lot o’ women. But not fer everybody. Why?”
“Oh, no reason. But it’s normal ter not know whether ye’re comin’ or goin’ with yer courses fer a while after yer babe is born, right?”
“Oh, sure! Some women gets ’em quicker than they were used ter, some later … some gets ’em heavier an’ some lighter, and some skips months and some, aye, some are like clockwork right out o’ the gate, the bitches.” Kata winked and Roma giggled. “But ye an’ Simon are bein’ careful, right?”
There were plenty of things that Roma didn’t say. Those things were, “Oh, certainly!” and “O’ course, Ma, d’ye think we’re gurt fools?” and things of that nature. And because Roma did not say any of those things, Kata paid little mind to the wording of what she actually said.
“Roma! Ye’ve got ter be careful fer that first year!” Kata said, aghast.
“Why? I mean, one or two slip-ups won’t hurt none … right?”
“It could get ye pregnant again, an’ that could hurt. Yer body ain’t finished healin’ from Marie yet, lass. Trust me — the women who have ’em one after another, with hardly no time fer their bodies ter rest an’ heal up, those are the women who gets it worst. It ain’t good fer ye. It might not kill ’em, but it wears ’em out right fast.”
“Isabel Wesleyan waited two years after her first before gettin’ her second,” Roma murmured to her teacup.
Nice way to remind Kata of a professional failure. Kata sighed. “Bein’ careful ain’t no protection against everythin’. Nor is bein’ sensible. The only way ter keep from dyin’ in childbirth is ter be a nun.” Kata considered that. “An’ sometimes not even then. But, honey, there ain’t no reason ter be runnin’ risks when ye don’t have ter.”
Roma bowed her head. “We jest … slipped up a couple times … an’ Ma, it felt good ter be with Simon again! Ye knew he left me alone as I was gettin’ bigger! An’ after, when I was bleedin’ … I was startin’ ter miss ‘im fierce!”
Kata mused over that for a moment, then nodded. Roma and Simon were young. They were in love. They were bound to do stupid things from time to time.
So she thought carefully over her next question. “So … are ye startin’ ter be feedin’ Marie less? Gettin’ her on a few solids?”
“Then ye probably got nothin’ ter worry about, if worryin’ is what ye’re doin’. Gettin’ ’em off the breast can cause near as much trouble down there as gettin’ ’em on it.”
“I doubt that, Ma.”
Kata snickered. “Well, maybe ye’ve got a point. But look, lass, ye start feelin’ anythin’ — sick in the mornin’, or tenderness in the breast, or whatnot — ye tell me, right? We can start takin’ care o’ ye right early, an’ even if it is a little early ter be havin’ another, well, we’ll get ye an’ the new little one through it right as rain.”
Roma smiled. “Thanks, Ma.”
“That’s what mas are fer, honey. Now, can I be takin’ yer teacup?”
Roma handed her teacup over without protest and followed Kata to the sink. But, of course, Roma stopped at Marie. “There’s me angel! How’s Mama’s best girl doin’?”
Kata smiled to herself as she dipped the cups into the soapy water. Yes, there was nothing like a mother and her first baby.
Marie was whimpering, though, and Kata could hear Roma shushing her. “Aww, poor baby, did ye get lonely? Don’t worry, Mama’s here now. An’ so’s Grandma. We’ll both make ye feel special again. Won’t we, sweet …” There was a sound suspiciously like a kiss.
Kata spun around with a squawk.
“Ma, she’s burnin’ up!”
“What — Marie?”
But it was Roma who had most of Kata’s attention. Roma, with her eyes wide and fearful. Nearing tears. “She were fine this mornin’! I swear! I wouldn’t have brought her nowhere if she weren’t fine! But now she — she –“
“Calm down, calm down. Let me see.” Without a word, Roma turned Marie around so Kata could get a closer look. But her hands, white-knuckled, trembled as they held Marie out.
Kata smiled only to keep Roma from panicking, and a panicking Roma wouldn’t be any good for a sick Marie. But as she looked at that baby … the red cheeks, the glazed, dull eyes … Kata swallowed.
She pressed her fingers against the baby’s forehead, and her heart did not so much sink as plummet.
But she couldn’t be upset. Not with Roma standing right here. “Ye know what, lass, I think Marie might be a bit poorly. But ye know what? It’s a good job ye an’ she are here. Why, ye can jest stay the next few days with me, an’ we’ll nurse Marie through this together, an’ I’ll show ye how it’s done, an’ she’ll be right as rain soon enough.”
That was what Kata said. And after Roma nodded, put Marie back on her shoulder and started to shush her and sway her and sing to her, Kata prayed.
She prayed that only she and the Lord Wright would ever know how baldly she’d lied.