“Cap’n, how many more places do we gotta go?”
Jessiah glanced at Banana, whose short legs were still somehow able to keep up with him, even after the hours of walking they had already done that day. “Gettin’ tired, sweet?”
“Not really,” she replied. Jessiah raised his eyebrows. “Well … not that tired.”
The only thing worse than a seven-year-old on a day out for admitting that she was tired was, Jessiah knew, a toddler just before nap time. Probably getting that concession out of her was more than he should have hoped for. It didn’t help that somehow, in a family full of pirates and rogues and ne’er-do-wells, Banana had somehow ended up with a sweet disposition to go with the family heart of gold. It made her much more difficult to manage than her ostensibly more troublesome siblings.
“I just was wonderin’ something,” she continued.
“Oh? What’s that?”
“… Cap’n,” she said, turning that big smile, molded to melt a fond grandfather’s heart, and those huge eyes at him, “can we stop in the toy shop?”
“Oh-ho, the toy shop, is that what you’re wantin’ to see?” Jessiah made a great show of leaning back and stroking his beard. “The toy shop, the toy shop, the toy shop …”
“Please?” She hopped up on tiptoe and fell down again, smiling as broadly as she dared. “Just to look? Not to buy? Pretty please with a frosty walrus on top?”
“A frosty walrus?” Jessiah laughed. “You’re too young for that, lass!”
“I know that.” And there was no one for making you feel quite as much a fool as a seven-year-old — even when she wasn’t trying. “But,” she giggled, “I don’t think Cherry would want to be on top.”
“And I know you like frosty walruses,” Banana wheedled, batting her lashes up at him. Those lashes would break a lot of hearts in five years or so — not that Jessiah would go mentioning that to Bart anytime soon. Poor Bart had almost had apoplexy when Cherry grew up a bit and started drinking the boys under the table. “So I thought …”
“You thought, you thought. You know thinkin’s a dangerous pastime, eh?” he asked, winking. “But I’ll tell you what, me lass.”
Banana leaned forward, hands clasped adorably in hope.
“We can go into your toy shop … and if you’re very good … we just might come out of there with more than we came in with, savvy?”
Banana’s eyes bulged. “But Mummy says we’re not allowed to ask unless it’s our birthday?”
“Ask? Did I hear you askin’ for something?”
“Well … no …”
“So that’s settled, then. You get a toy, we can both tell your mum that you didn’t ask for something — and answer me one thing, missie. Since your older brother and sister would rather me buy them frosty walruses than toys, and since your little brother is a bit too young to be going out on jaunts with me, who am I supposed to buy toys for?”
“Thank you, Cap’n!” Banana launched forward and wrapped her arms around his waist. “When can we go?”
“Hmm … toy shop is right over there, ain’t it?”
“Then there’s no time like the present, dearie.”
Banana squealed and jumped up and down. Then she grabbed his hand and half-dragged him to the toy shop. Jessiah barely managed to stifle his laughter as he followed. That girl was too funny.
Once they tumbled into the shop, Banana’s eyes went to the stuffed bears, the leaping dragons, and even some of the little toys that Jessiah would have thought would be of more interest to Benji than to her. But Jessiah’s eyes … went elsewhere.
You didn’t go far as a seaman without good eyes. You doubly didn’t cut a swath through the ladies of Bledavik without a good memory for faces — if nothing else, it helped you know when to run and when to approach with a swagger. Jessiah Andavri could recognize a fine lady’s profile at fifty paces, even — no, especially if the rest of the face was covered in veils against the bitter cold. While the cold wasn’t that bitter today, it was chilly enough for a southland lady to bundle up, plus the women here did have some peculiar notions about modesty.
Yes, Jessiah was sure of it: that had to be Blanche Chausseur. Fancy. He’d not once seen her out of her shop. But even the most dedicated shopkeeper had to eat, and had to get her food from somewhere.
And even the most penny-pinching mother had to give her kiddies some treat, some hope for the future. Jessiah glanced around the shop, and soon enough found two dark-haired young ones trying out some of the wares on the floor. The younger-looking one, the girl, had gotten up and was saying hello to Banana, and her brother was quick to join her.
That left the way to the mother quite conveniently open. Jessiah grinned and used his best deck-shaking walk — the one he used when he knew his crew was up to something and wanted them to quit it before he got there and had to do something about it. It also helped to let a pretty lass know that he was coming.
Blanche, as he expected her to, looked up — and even though she tried to be a modest widow-woman, careful and sober, she couldn’t help the smile that bloomed over her face when she saw him. If she smiled like that at all of the men, they’d be swarming her like bees around a prize bouquet.
Then again, maybe that was why she didn’t smile at all the men like that. This was a new land. A widow with a tidy shop — and three kids to help work it! — would be quite a catch here. Poor thing probably had to be careful.
“Blanche Chausseur!” Jessiah called, ignoring the shop boy who jumped and rubbed his ear afterward. “Looks like I owe my granddaughter one!”
He didn’t wait for her to reply fully before grabbing the hand she extended and kissing it. This came with the only slightly-anticipated pleasure of watching her face turn a lovely shade of rose.
“Oh! Cap’n!” She grinned, still blushing like a girl. Good Lord, had that husband of hers never bothered to romance his pretty wife? Or did she just assume herself and her charms to be so stale that no man would bother to pay her the least bit of attention? “It’s wonderful to see you again!”
“Ah, the pleasure is all mine, my dear. I’m just amazing a lovely lady like you puts up with a decrepit old fool like me.”
“Hardly decrepit — and you don’t strike me as a fool, either.”
“Can I get that in writin’?” Jessiah asked with a wink.
Blanche’s laugh filled the shop. It was low and unsure, even a little rusty, perhaps. This was a woman who didn’t often have cause to laugh long and hard, except maybe with her kids. The kids in question looked up to hear their mother laughing, then the girl asked something of Banana. She giggled but answered easily.
“You … you mentioned a granddaughter?” Blanche asked, looking curiously past the display.
“Aye, that’s me Banana! Banana, wave to Widow Chausseur!” Jessiah called. Banana, obliging as ever, waved before turning back to her conversation with the little girl.
“Banana?” Blanche queried.
“Aye — well, with her older sister, a redhead she is, bein’ called Cherry from the very font, what can you do other than call the little blonde one Banana?”
Shoot, these southlanders — even if they were closer to the lands where the banana grew freely than Jessiah’s home port — might not have even seen a banana. Certainly not a banana still in a state that might bring to mind the yellow tuft of hair on top of a darling baby girl. “It’s a fruit, dear. Grows way south of here — the Twikkii Islands, ’round about there. Yellow, and about …” Just as his hands came up to demonstrate the length of a banana, he thought of the other things to which a banana could be compared and backtracked. “… the sweetest fruit I ever tasted.”
“Aww. How adorable! So you got her parents to name her that?”
“Well, no,” Jessiah admitted. “Her parents insisted on callin’ her Annabeth. And truth to tell, she didn’t start gettin’ really blonde until a bit after she was born — she lost all her hair soon after being born, poor thing. But once her hair came in, well, that was the end of that.”
“And the two other young ‘uns in here?” Jessiah asked. “I’m guessing they’re …?”
“Mine. My Henry and my Pippa.”
“Huh.” Jessiah stroked his beard. “Well, Blanche, my dear, I have to hand it to you. Never would have thought it possible, myself. But it’s one way to toughen up a lad, givin’ him a name like that. And his sister, too!”
“I beg your pardon?” Blanche asked, her head tilted slightly to one side.
“Why, a boy with that name has to be defendin’ his honor against every little twerp on the playground! And his sister’s, too! Can’t imagine what the lads and lasses say to a girl called Henry!”
“A girl — Cap’n!” Blanche laughed again and playfully smacked his arm. “Henry is the boy, and Pippa is the girl!”
“What? Oh! Well, Blanche, why didn’t you say so?”
“I thought it went without saying!” Blanche chortled. “I’d never name my boy Pippa! Or my girl …” She trailed off, watching the back of her son’s head, frowning a little.
“Somethin’ the matter, love?” Jessiah asked, leaning a little forward.
Blanche looked up and hardly seemed surprised that the distance between the two of them had closed. “We named him after John’s father,” Blanche admitted the fact as if it were somehow a grave fault that she expected to be chastised for at any moment.
John — was her husband. “Well!” Jessiah replied. “I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a fine idea. Frankly, between you and me, I wish my Bart might have come up with that idea.”
Blanche didn’t even smile. She also didn’t even make the remark about potential confusion that Jessiah was expecting and planning for. “You don’t know that man.”
“Er … no, I don’t, but now I’m guessin’ he might not have been …” Jessiah glanced at the children, who were still laughing together, and lowered his voice. “Someone you wanted to name your son for?”
Blanche took a deep breath — then she broke off. “Oh. Oh, never mind. You surely don’t want to –”
“Now, now,” Jessiah laid a hand, light and gentle, on her arm. He took it off, too, almost before she had cause to note that it was there. He didn’t want to go frightening the poor lass. “Let me ask you a personal question, Blanche — how many folks have you told about whatever troubles you had with your father-in-law?”
“My mother and sister and I have talked it to death.”
“They don’t count.”
“My uncle –”
“He doesn’t count, either.”
Blanche blinked. She ducked her head, blushing again. It wasn’t as pretty a rose this time, but then again, it wasn’t as happy a blush. “I suppose … nobody, then.”
“Nobody? Nobody? Blanche Chausseur, you mean to say that a man who should have been looking after you and protecting you hurt you so bad that you regret naming your son for him — and you’ve told nobody but your own kin? That won’t do, Blanche, that won’t do.”
“And why not?” It wasn’t an arch question, or a testy one. It wasn’t a lighthouse lit to warn the other ships of rocks, this question. It was more like the lights of a port city, blanketed gently over the hills, telling the sailor he was home at last. It was an invitation.
“Because you need somebody to be helping you get over it, helping you heal whatever hurt he caused — not just …” Well, he had met Pamela Chausseur and Cressida Chausseur before this. Cressida was a cute little thing, but that Pamela … a piece of work if he ever met one. No, she wouldn’t be helping Blanche much, try though she might.
Blanche took a deep breath, glancing sidelong at her children. “When … when John died … John didn’t have a will,” she explained. “It was too expensive to have had one drawn up — and other than the shop and the stock, well, we didn’t own much, anyway. So my father-in-law … he threatened to sue to get financial control over the shop. To best safeguard my son’s interests, he said. And when my mother and I wouldn’t give in, at first, he threatened to sue for the children, too.”
Jessiah’s eyes bulged. No wonder Blanche hated the man so — hell, if anyone tried that kind of nonsense with his Sorcha … well, if he or anyone else had tried to get control of Sorcha’s money or kids if, heaven forbid, something should happen to Bart, that Sim would likely have a yard of steel up his gut and be supper for the fishes. Blanche wasn’t that type. That was probably the only reason why this “Henry” lived and breathed still.
But it got worse. “My father and my mother built that shop from the ground up,” Blanche sighed. “And he just took it all. And he would have squandered it, too, if — if my mother and I hadn’t taken our share of the money raised and run from Glasonland.”
“Good Lord,” Jessiah whispered. “That’s an awful brave thing you did, then.”
“Hardly? What makes you say that?”
“Running away from your problems never made anybody brave,” Blanche sighed.
Jessiah snorted. “Whoever told you that, lass, never had to set his course for uncharted waters. It doesn’t matter if there’s a na–a pirate ship on your tail when you do it, and that you’re only trying to lose it. Sometimes it takes more courage — and more plain common sense, too — to cut and run than to hold your ground and fight.”
“Uncle Richard said we probably would have won, had we tried to fight in court,” she sighed. “That is … if we had been able to find a good lawyer. He grants we might not have been able to do that.”
“And so you might have lost your kids and your shop. I’d say you did the right thing, Blanche.”
“Sometimes I wonder. The children …” She looked over her shoulder, where they were still playing with Banana.
“You’ve been here how long?”
“And they’re still missing their home?”
“Not Pippa. Not even Henry, so much, anymore. It’s Geoff I worry about, mostly. He’s not been the same, since …”
He wouldn’t be, Jessiah wanted to tell her. He wanted to point out that losing a father young was one of the quickest ways to turn a boy into a man. And the trouble with that was that the boy skipped, or tried to skip, many of the parts in the middle. And when you did that —
Jessiah looked up, then down. “Well! Hello, my lad!”
Now that he was a bit closer, Jessiah could tell that this Henry lad was a year or two older than his Banana. But he had the skeptical look of a boy many years older … until he opened his mouth. “Banana says you’re a sea captain. Is that true?”
“Henry! Mind your manners!” Blanche half-scolded, half-laughed. “I’m sorry,” she tried to smile, “he’s awfully curious …”
“Bah, the day children stop being curious will be the day we’re all done for. If children weren’t curious, how’d we get them to learn everything they need to turn into grown-ups and take care of us in our old age?” Jessiah winked at Blanche and turned back to Henry. “Now, my lad — are you calling my granddaughter a liar?”
“No! No, sir –”
“That’s Cap’n to you, my lad.”
“So you are a sea captain?” Henry asked, his eyes growing wide.
“Last I checked,” Jessiah answered, “or leastaways, I used to be.”
“Used to be?” asked Henry, one eyebrow rising skeptically.
“Aye, used to be! Look at the gray hairs I’ve got, lad! Do you think I want to be hobbling about the deck using a cane, and having to put my teeth in before I yell at my crew?” He winked broadly at the lad, and as Jessiah had hoped, Henry laughed.
But all too soon the laughter was done — no surprise, really, once he started talking again. “So — so, where did you sail to? Did you ever see a sea monster? Or a mermaid? Or what about a –”
“Henry, slow down, give the poor man a chance to answer!” Blanche laughed.
Henry pouted, but he looked expectantly at Jessiah.
“Well,” Jessiah answered, “I’ve sailed all eight seas, and I think I’ve seen my share of sea monsters. As for mermaids — oh, could I tell you stories! Salty ones, too!” he added with a wink for Blanche, who started to blush. “Tell you what … if it’s all right with your mother, how about you and your sister and your brother come to Avilion sometime. I’ll tell you and your brother the stories my grandchildren got sick of hearing, and your sister can play with Banana. Would that be all right?” he asked Blanche.
“I — well, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble …”
“Of course it wouldn’t!”
“Then … then that would be lovely.”
“Yay!” Henry yelped, then scampered off, presumably to tell his sister the good news.
“Jessiah, that was …” Blanche began.
“Completely transparent, I know,” Jessiah admitted. “Get into the mother’s good graces by making nice to the kiddies. Oldest trick in the book.”
“You — what?”
“Trying to get in your good graces, love. Come now …” He edged a little closer. “A lovely lady like you? You must have ’em lining up clear out the door to get a little smile from you, eh?”
“I …” She looked away, but she couldn’t hide her blush. Or her smile. And when she looked up again, she wasn’t even trying to hide the smile. “And you would really tell my kids all those stories just so I would like you a bit more?”
“Sure thing! Your kids might even believe ’em!”
Blanche laughed. “As if that would be necessary. I like you just fine already, Cap’n.”
“Then perhaps …” Jessiah leaned a little closer, “that day you bring the kiddies over … you might like to stay for dinner?”
Blanche gasped. Her color rose again. But — after a fraction of a second’s hesitation — she nodded.
They didn’t set up a date or anything, but Jessiah still had a warm glowing feeling when Blanche collected her children and left the store. That was when Banana approached him. “Cap’n? Are we going to be going soon, too?”
“Not until after you’ve picked out your toy, my lassie,” Jessiah replied, “because thanks to you … your Cap’n has just been made a very happy man.”