“Oh, me girl,” Cerise sighed, holding her eldest as tightly and closely as she could. “How are ye?”
It had to be a good sign that Toinette was out and about, so soon after sweet Aileen had gone. It had to be. Roma had practically disappeared into her home, or into her mother’s home, those first days and weeks after Marie had passed.
Then again, where was Toinette going but to her mother’s home?
Cerise squeezed her daughter harder and rocked her a bit, just as she had done when Toinette was a baby. Times like now reminded her of when Toinette had been little, and Edmond away at the wars, when it had been just the two of them. Oh, how they had struggled! Running a farm, even a small one, with just a little girl was no picnic. But Cerise had survived, and she had made damn sure that Toinette had survived, too. They had both been stronger for it, or so Cerise used to think.
But here was the first big test of strength that both of them were facing together, and Cerise could only pray that she didn’t come up short. Her daughter needed her too much.
Toinette broke away, sighing. “Eh … been better.” She laughed a little, half-hearted and cynical, but at least genuinely half-hearted and cynical. “Obviously.”
Cerise nodded. She wasn’t going to ask after Grady, after the other children. Today was just about Toinette and how she was feeling, how she was doing. Cerise already knew too well how everybody else was doing, anyway.
It was Grady who had been the most broken up by Aileen. Poor man, how he had sobbed at the wake, after the kids were sent outside to run around with their cousins and he didn’t have to be strong for them anymore! The only thing holding together was the other children, all dazed and sad. That, and Toinette. But he wasn’t being strong for her. He was being strong because of her, because she was holding him together and giving him a place to fall apart. The mother in Cerise, and the old-fashioned woman, too, was annoyed that it was Toinette who had to be the strong one, that Grady wasn’t stepping up — manning up! — for her. But Cerise had seen too much of life to let that annoyance show. Sometimes it was the man in the relationship who held everything together while the world fell apart. Sometimes it was the woman. Better that one of them was holding together than neither — as it seemed to happen with Simon and Roma.
“Anyway, come in, love,” Cerise said, shooing Toinette inside. “No use both of us standin’ out here an’ catchin’ — a cold,” she finished, lamely. “Have a seat, have a seat.”
Cerise almost sat herself, but she stopped just in time. “D’ye want somethin’ ter eat, Toinette? Drink? How about some lavender tea?”
Toinette smiled. “Me favorite. Ye remember.”
“I remember? Bah! Ye think I forget what all me kids like ter eat an’ drink? If I didn’t remember that, how would I get ye ter come by fer dinner?”
“It’s jest been so long,” Toinette replied. “Since …” She looked around, surveying the old furniture, the children’s — Basil and Felix’s, now — drawings stuck to the wall, the worn curtains that had been new when Toinette was young. Well, new to them, anyway. “Since I was jest a daughter whose ma would fix her her favorite things.”
“I know, I know.”
“An’ everythin’s so different now.”
Cerise nodded. Toinette and Grady had a fine new house — well, new to them — in the capital. Cerise had seen it, had visited it often. She didn’t approve of men like Grady, trying to change their stars, move up when the good Lord had placed them where He placed them for a reason. She approved less of children abandoning their aging parents.
But Grady … well, he’d done well for himself, there was no denying that. And he had moved her grandchildren out of reach of that horrible Finley. Katie and Paddy seemed much the better for it already, Nora was the sweet dumpling she always had been, and Sean seemed to likely to be much less of a handful. And Aileen …
Kids got sick. That was the way of it. Sometimes they died, breaking their parents’ hearts. But that happened in royal halls just the same as it happened in peasants’ hovels. Even Cerise could see that trying to draw a line from Grady’s assent to Aileen’s death was ludicrous. If the Lord did punish the children for the sins of the parents, then there would be no children left.
“But here …” Toinette spoke again, waking Cerise up from her reverie. “Here everythin’s the same. Or at least it looks the same.”
“Well, ye know yer pa an’ me. Why knock what works?” Cerise shrugged. “An’, ye know, with little ones about … an’ Meg expectin’ another one before the year’s half over … she’s nappin’ in the other room, by the way, an’ so’s Felix. But there ain’t no time and no money fer changin’ things.”
“I know,” Toinette replied. She leaned forward, resting her chin on her hands, staring across the room at the counters and the fireplace. She sighed. “Ma?”
“We did it fer the kids, ye know,” she said. “Changin’ everythin’. Grady always swore that his kids wouldn’t grow up with what he grew up with. But Ma … Grady an’ his brother an’ sister, they grew up.”
“Oh, Toinette. Don’t go thinkin’ like that. It’ll jest break yer heart.”
“Break me heart? Ma, what’s left o’ me heart to break?”
“What’s left? Toinette, ye got four beautiful kids left. Ye got yer husband. I know it feels now like … like everythin’ ye love is gone, but it ain’t. It’s still right here. The kids … the kids, an’ Grady, they’ll help ye get through this, ye know.”
“The kids! Grady! The kids are shakin’ in their boots, Ma. They think … I don’t know what they think. I don’t know what ter tell ’em! I can’t make it no better fer ’em!” Her hands threaded through her hair, pulling more strands loose from the messy bun. Cerise gently reached across the table and replaced them one by one. “An’ Grady … he’s wanderin’ through the house like a ghost. Or sobbin’ whenever he thinks the kids can’t hear ‘im. Ma, today was the first day I could get ‘im to open the shop up again! An’ get the kids ter go ter school!”
Get Grady to open up the shop again … Cerise blinked. Did that mean there was something — something she could do? Something other than those meals she had cooked and put away in the larder, ready to warmed up at a moment’s notice, easy for Toinette to handle so she didn’t have to worry about that? “Honey … are things bad fer ye an’ Grady? Ye know yer pa an’ I ain’t got much, but anythin’ we got, ye know ye’ve only got ter axe –”
“No, no, we’re fine. I almost — that’s why it took Grady so long ter go back ter the shop. If we weren’t fine, he wouldn’t be lettin’ himself –”
Knock-knock. “What the bloody blazes?” Cerise asked, glancing at the door over her shoulder. “Ye sit tight, Toinette, I’ll get rid o’ whoever it is.”
And would she! Family never knocked, so it couldn’t be any of them. If it was a neighbor come to borrow a cup of flour, she’d send them off with a flea in their ear, or her name wasn’t Cerise Chevaux. Fancy bothering them at a time like this! No, if whoever came came for any reason less than fire, famine, or flood, they would regret it until their dying day!
But it wasn’t somebody come to warn the Chevauxes of fire, famine, or flood.
It was worse.
“Hello, Mother,” said Rosette. She didn’t even smile. And her words — so clipped, so formal! The girl she had raised didn’t talk like that!
But the girl who had gone to Camford and come home with a diploma and a belly full of a nobleman’s twins did …
The girl Cerise had raised, however, did have trouble looking into Cerise’s eyes when she had done wrong and she knew she had done wrong. So did this girl — no, this woman. Cerise’s girl also clenched her fists and held herself very stiffly when she was nervous. So did this woman. And Cerise’s girl could never ask for anything difficult or troublesome without taking a deep breath beforehand. This woman was gulping in air as if she would need to hold her breath for all eternity. “Grady told me that Toinette was here. Do you mind if I see her? I won’t stay long.”
“Rosie?” came Toinette’s voice. “Is that ye?”
“Toinette!” And with that, Rosette somehow snuck around Cerise, and Toinette vaulted from her seat to catch her little sister in her arms, and they were gabbling furiously, as only sisters could do.
All Cerise could do was sigh, shake her head, and close the door before winter’s cruel wind could make this reunion even colder than it already was.
Except … it wasn’t cold. Not as far as Toinette and Rosette seemed to be concerned. It didn’t seem to be a reunion, either. Rosette and Toinette spoke as if the last time they had talked was no more than a fortnight ago. It wasn’t just the tone, either, but the words they said … the things they talked about.
Well, Cerise had known for a long time that Toinette was still seeing, still talking to Rosette. She hadn’t brought it up with Toinette, or at least, not too often, because that would only lead to fights. She was a mother with but one daughter left — who could blame her for not wanting to alienate or upset that one daughter?
Then the knife turned in Cerise’s gut.
If there was any woman in this family who could talk about the daughters she had “left,” it was Toinette. Toinette only had two daughters left. Cerise had been lucky enough to have two daughters, and here was one, five-and-thirty, the other eight-and-twenty … seven childbirths between the two of them, including a set of twins, twice as dangerous as a single baby! And how many illnesses between the two of them, how many childish accidents, how many things that could have torn one or the other from Cerise forever and didn’t?
What right could she possibly have to drive one daughter away when she was so lucky, so damned lucky, to have two and to have lost neither?
But I didn’t do it on purpose! wailed Cerise’s conscience. And for whose good had she done it? Not for her own. How could Cerise have done this for herself when her heart wept whenever she thought of those three grandchildren, three grandchildren whom she had never seen and might never see?
She found herself looking at the door, even though she had closed it her own self. Rosette hadn’t even brought her children with her … maybe Melehan and Melou would be in school, but Aimée wouldn’t … she could have brought Aimée …
Cerise shook herself. What was she thinking? She separated herself from Rosette for one purpose: to separate Rosette from that man.That man couldn’t be any good for Rosette. He was too far above her, for one. He would never understand her — she would never understand him. He had tried to lift Rosette up to his level, higher than she was ever meant to go. But she would never reach him. And now … the only thing holding her up was him. If he let go, what would happen to her girl then?
She would crash onto the hard and unforgiving ground, that was what would happen. Cerise could only hope that by separating herself from Rosette, she would bring Rosette to her senses, get her to find a soft landing spot and aim for it before that man of hers let her go.
But that didn’t seem likely now.
Look at Rosette! Offering to help her sister, offering to take the kids if ever Toinette felt too tired or too sad to put up with them. Toinette’s kids had gotten better, removed from Finley’s influence, but Cerise knew damned well that they were still exhausting. And Rosette had three of her own, and no help! She would be beaten down and exhausted after an hour or two!
“Rosie, honey, ye don’t have ter put yerself out that …” Toinette was saying.
“I know I don’t, but I want to help.” Rosette’s eyes glistened, then she pulled Toinette in for a hug. “Anything I can do, Toinette. Anything. And anything — anything that …” She glanced sidelong at Cerise and blushed. “Anything he can do, you just tell me, and I will find a way to get him to do it.”
“No, no, Rosie, that ain’t necessary. We …” Toinette pulled away and shook her head. “We don’t need none o’ that kind o’ help. Really. We’re fine, with money an’ everythin’. An’ yer man …” Toinette tried for a smile, but managed only a grimace. “There are some things that even a nobleman can’t do nothin’ ter fix. Even a noble wizard.”
Cerise gulped and looked away. Look at her girl — look at both of her girls! One, calmly turning down the help of a nobleman, the King’s own nephew, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom for all the scandals his family had ridden out over the past few years. And the other, mistress to that same man! Blamed for breaking up his family, her name dragged through the mud — look at how sweet and loving she was, still!
Cerise looked away. She was going to cry now, and not the silent, dignified tears she had permitted herself at Aileen’s funeral, with everybody looking on and Toinette and the kids to comfort. She was going to bawl. They, those people, they were daring to hurt her baby because they just didn’t understand. And there wasn’t a damn thing Cerise could do about it, except try to get her baby away from that man who was corrupting her —
And people still wouldn’t accept Rosette after she had done that! But what else could she do? What kind of mother would Cerise be, if she didn’t do everything she could to keep her daughter from treading the paths of sin and despair?
A click of a latch, and Cerise looked away, toward the sound, anywhere to distract her from her thoughts. The door to the bedroom opened, and out came Meg’s stomach, followed by Meg and Felix. “Look who’s –”
She stopped dead. Her jaw fell. She looked from Rosette to Cerise and back again. Then, just to be sure, she repeated the cycle over again.
Felix tugged on her dress. “Mama?” he asked.
“Felix!” Toinette called, for a moment as joyous and carefree as she had been a fortnight ago. “Oh, look at ‘im, Meg! He’s gettin’ so big!”
“That’s Felix?” asked Rosette.
“Ye-es …” Meg replied. She glanced nervously at Cerise as she did.
“He’s adorable!” Felix looked to the new voice and smiled. Some words the boy understood, and some words he didn’t — clearly adorable was one of them. If only they could achieve the same miracle for no. “Look at his big blue eyes!”
“Thank’ee,” Meg replied, slowly walking forward and depositing Felix on the ground. “Felix, say hello ter yer auntie.”
“Hello, Felix!” Rosette replied, crouching down to Felix’s level. Felix threw his little head back and laughed.
Rosette was always good with children. Once upon a time, Cerise had imagined that that would work to her advantage, would make it easier for her to secure a good and stable husband. How wrong had she been there! All of Rosette’s sweetness and kindness, the reason why she loved children so, had worked against her, made her the prey of that man.
But was it so bad?
Cerise watched Rosette play with Felix. She watched Meg and Toinette, too. But Toinette seemed bound and determined to only talk to Meg about things which concerned Meg. As for Meg, Cerise could only see her back, and her back wasn’t very expressive.
“An’ how are ye feelin’, hon?” Toinette was asking Meg.
“Oh, all right. Not as good as I did, not as bad as I will before this little sprout is in me arms,” Meg laughed. “He is a bit of a kicker, though, even if he does keep gettin’ the same spot over an’ over again.”
“He? You think it’s a boy?” Toinette asked.
“Well, I don’t feel no different, really, than I did with Basil an’ Felix, an’ they were boys …”
“Hmm. That don’t seem ter clinch it. Not ter me.” Toinette frowned. “Ye tried spinnin’ yer weddin’ ring?”
“No, but I did that with Basil, an’ accordin’ ter the weddin’ ring, he was supposed ter be a girl.”
“Oh, Lord!” Toinette laughed. “So ye ain’t wastin’ yer time with that again, are ye? Smart woman.” She patted Meg’s belly. “Still …” Her eyes grew misty. “I hope — I hope this one’s a girl. We could use another girl. A strong, healthy girl –”
“Oh, Toinette!” Rosette cried, arms open, ready to enfold Toinette in them and let her sister have a good cry — just like everything was normal.
Everything wasn’t normal.
“Rosette,” Cerise said. And so the tableau of a happy family was frozen before it even had a chance to form.
Rosette turned, her head held high, hands on her hips. “Yes, Mother?”
Look at her, trying so hard to be strong! Her girl truly had grown up this year. “Look,” Cerise said, stepping forward, “this don’t change anythin’, ye hear? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad ye’re here fer yer sister, but –”
But what? What could she possibly say in front of Toinette, in front of her own heart, that would justify pushing her other daughter away from her once again?
Cerise took a deep breath. “But I don’t like that man o’ yers! I don’t like what he’s done ter ye! I don’t like the fact that he puts yer soul in danger, that he — that he’s responsible fer yer name bein’ dragged through the mud! That ye — that ye –”
That ye’ve had ter grow so hard! That ye could have been so happy an’ carefree! But he stole that from ye, an’ now ye’ll never get that back!
“I know, Mother. You don’t like that I’m a — a — loose woman,” Rosette replied, flushing. Her daughter couldn’t even say the words that ugly people with ugly minds called her! “But you saying that will not change what I am. I love Mordred, Mother. I won’t leave him. And if you don’t want to see me anymore –”
“No!” Cerise had said that before she could stop herself. But that’s what made it true, wasn’t it? “That’s what I don’t like the most! I ain’t never gonna like that man o’ yers, but, Rosie –”
For the second time that day, Cerise grabbed her daughter and held her as closely as she could. “If I have ter choose between havin’ ye around with that man, an’ not havin’ ye around at all — then I’ll take that man, an’ damn the rest! Rosie! Me baby!”