“Admit it, Joyce, admit it!” Berach called. “Ye’ve got no choice but ter admit it now!”
Berach grinned even as Joyce tilted her head from one side to the other and rolled her eyes at him. This was what he needed: a quiet evening at home with the family, no one to bother them, no concerns to break through from the outside world, nothing worse than the occasional draft to worry about. If there was anything to keep him from thinking about Finley —
Damn it, he had promised himself he wouldn’t think about Finley!
Joyce’s chuckling, however, drew him away from that dark path. “Berach, I weren’t arguing with ye!”
“But ye weren’t agreein’!” Berach replied, waggling his finger in her face with a stupid grin spread from ear to ear.
“Nah-ah! I want ter hear ye say it, Joyce!” He leaned back and smirked. “I want ter hear ye say it an’ admit I’m right.”
“Fer once in our lives, ye mean?” Joyce chuckled.
She laughed. “All right, all right, ye win. Ye’re right …”
Her smile softened as she looked down on the floor. “An’ we do have the two cutest little girls in Albion.”
Leah, of course, had long ago taken the prize for the most adorable little lass in Albion — or at least, she would have if Berach was giving it out. Berach had been amazed that he had been able to produce such an exquisite specimen, and would have doubted that he was the father if not for certain signs. Her little nose, the Brogan nose that he and all his siblings shared, for one. And then there was her temperament: his to the life. No, there was no doubting that Leah was his.
And then there was Lilibeth, Albion’s most precious little baby. She had that Brogan nose, too, and Lilé’s eyes had never looked prettier on anybody. But she had plenty of good features from Joyce, too. Her hair, both Joyce’s color and its consistency, so far as they could tell. She was a go-getter like Joyce, too. Leah and Sable had found that out to their peril: as soon as Lilibeth was mobile, she had been crawling after the two of them, and there was no place to hide. But Leah was good and patient with her sister, happy to play with her most of the day.
Hell, it was Berach who probably took Lilibeth’s activity worst. He was used to Leah, who was as lazy as her papa. When Lilibeth started walking, Berach was firmly convinced that they were all doomed.
And when Lilibeth got old enough to conspire with Leah … Joyce assured him that that wouldn’t happen until they were both grown-up, and her mother said the same thing, since they did have a large age difference between them. But in Berach’s mind, that only made it worse. Women didn’t need to be sisters to figure out how to get their menfolk dancing to their tune. Put two sisters like Leah and Lilibeth together, though …
They were done for, they truly were.
“Ye know what I was thinkin’?” Joyce asked.
“I think it’s about time Lilibeth got her first taste o’ playin’ in the snow.” Joyce turned to Berach with a raised eyebrow. “Next time ye an’ Leah go build a snowman, ye ought ter take her out with ye.”
“Won’t it be too cold fer the little mite?”
“Ma says that babies don’t get much colder than we do. But ye shouldn’t keep her out fer hours, o’ course, like ye an Leah can stand. Just a few minutes — can ye imagine how much she would love the snow?”
Berach looked out the window, at the blanket of white that covered the kingdom. Of course Lilibeth would love the snow. Lilibeth loved everything. “Aye — but ye should come out with us. Wouldn’t ye want ter see her?”
“Tomorrow mornin’, then?” Joyce asked. “After services?”
Berach blinked. “Ye — ye want ter bring Lili ter services?”
“No, no! She’s still too young fer that,” Joyce gasped. Berach nodded. Lilibeth was a good baby, there was none better better in the kingdom as far as Berach was concerned. However, she was a baby, and as a baby she had only two modes: sleeping, and loud.
As if to prove Berach right, she squealed and shrieked in response to Leah’s most recent trick, which made the poor dog whine and retreat to the nursery.
“Besides,” Joyce added, “won’t ye be seein’ Grady an’ the family at services?”
Oh, Lord, Berach thought. Relations with his brother were still … well … they would be even worse if it wasn’t for Leah and Nora. With everything else going on, neither Grady nor Berach had the heart to get into a big enough fight to not want to see each other any more and thus deprive their daughters of each other’s company. But the resentment still simmered underneath. They had — very well, Berach had — said too many things the day of Finley’s death that couldn’t be unsaid. And they had left too many things unsaid that, perhaps, needed to come out to clear the air.
But not now. Not when they were both still licking their wounds. Not when Berach only had to look at Lilibeth and think of little Aileen. He had hoped that Lilibeth and Aileen would have been best friends, just like Leah and Nora. But that wasn’t to be. Lilibeth would have to find her own friends … maybe Josie. Or the baby Meg had on the way, if she finally had a girl.
“Aye,” Berach replied to Joyce. “I’ll be seein’ them.”
“Well, see if Nora might want ter come fer the day — an’ if Grady an’ Toinette can spare her. I wager we’re a bit … jest a bit more cheerful over here, aye?” Joyce glanced sidelong at Berach, arms already crossed defensively over her chest.
As if Berach would have anything snappish to say to the woman who was trying to make his little niece happier. Besides, it wasn’t like she was saying anything other than the truth. “Joyce, I would wager that we’re a lot more cheerful here than things are at her house.”
The trouble was, as it ever was in Berach’s opinion, with Grady. Berach had one half of their father’s own temper, which, as little as he liked to admit it, did carry one advantage. Both Berach and Finley were quick to explode, but for Berach, once the explosion happened — well, that was it. There was no more anger after that. On the other hand, Grady had the other half of their father’s temper. He didn’t explode. He brooded; he festered. Things went on in that head a long time before anything got brought to the surface, and they went on a long time after the eruption, too. It was probably the same with grief as it was with anger. Hell, it was probably worse with grief than with anger.
“But aye,” Berach continued, “I’ll axe Toinette if she can spare Nora. The little lass can stay the night, too, if that’s all right with –“
Berach and Joyce jumped and looked at each other. “Were ye expectin’ anyone?” Joyce asked.
“Not — not me!” Oh, bloody hell! A knock after dark, in winter — that could mean nothing good. Berach hurried to the door and threw it open.
And he was right. After all — nothing good generally happened when one’s lord was standing on the other side of the threshold.
“Berach,” Lord Pellinore said, smiling in his usual friendly manner as he took Berach’s limp and stunned hand and shook it. “I hope I’m not disturbing your little girls’ sleep?”
“Oh — oh, no, m’lord, they’re still up an’ raisin’–” He bit back on that; he could cheerfully tell his brother or his sister, or any of Joyce’s family, or Simon, that his girls were “raising hell,” but he could not tell that to his lord. “They’re still up. Er — er, won’t ye come in?”
“I would be glad to.” Berach remembered to back away from the door just in time to give Lord Pellinore room to come inside. “Good evening, Goodwife Brogan!”
Poor Joyce stood there looking rather like Berach felt — jaw loose on its hinges and no small amount of concern in her eyes. “M’lord! Er — good evenin’!” She hurried over. “Here — here, let me get yer cloak …”
“I thank you,” Lord Pellinore replied, after he took off his cloak and handed it to Joyce to hang up. “And of course there is little Leah,” Leah hurried to her feet and managed a clumsy curtsey, “Greetings, my dear. And –” Lord Pellinore broke off, his eyes wide. “Goodness! Is that Baby Lilibeth?”
“Aye, m’lord,” Berach answered as Lord Pellinore made his way to the baby, “that’s our littlest lass.”
“My goodness,” Lord Pellinore replied as he knelt close to Lilibeth, “she’s gotten so big since the last time I saw her! Hello, Lilibeth!”
The good thing about Lilibeth was that she wasn’t shy. She liked everybody. And if she had a baby’s assurance that the world revolved around her, well, on her it was adorable. She grinned at Lord Pellinore and sent up a winning, ringing laugh.
Lord Pellinore grinned back down at her, and Berach felt himself relax. After all, any lord who could play with a peasant baby with such obvious enjoyment couldn’t be all bad. And Lord Pellinore had always been like that, as far as Berach could remember. Peasant children may be terrified of him — he was their lord — but other than simply being who he was, he never did anything to earn it. Sometimes he would even have a sweet or a pat on the head for the littlest ones. And after he had become a grandfather, Lord Pellinore had become even more of a softie where children were concerned.
He slowly straightened, dusting off his tunic and smiling at Berach. “You have two lovely daughters, Berach.”
“Thank’ee, sir. I’m a lucky man.”
“Indeed,” Lord Pellinore agreed softly, but with the complete sincerity of a man … well, a man with a few daughters of his own. “But as pleasant as it would be, I did not come merely to compliment you on your progeny. I have a … well, a proposition to discuss.”
A proposition? At least that didn’t sound like bad news. “All … all right, sir. Would ye have a seat?”
“Thank you.” Lord Pellinore sat, and Joyce hurriedly swooped in to pick up Lilibeth and hustle Leah to wash up and then to bed.
Berach couldn’t help but notice that Lord Pellinore watched both of the little girls as they went in their separate ways. He caught Berach watching him and smiled a little ruefully. “Forgive me — but it’s been a long time since my girls were so little.” He sighed. “And now they are all grown up, or at least they think they are. Dilys’s marriage plans are set, Delyth has a sweetheart, and Dindrane …” He shook his head. “Enjoy these days, Berach. You will miss them terribly once they are gone.”
Berach only nodded. Now, he thought, would not be the time to point out that Lord Pellinore had one granddaughter and could easily have more in the coming years — plenty of time for him to get to have little girls in his life again. And it seemed unnecessary for Berach to say that he was indeed enjoying his time with his girls.
“But as I said, I did not come here for that. I came here because … well, Berach, I have been looking over my tax records, in light of … recent events. You have done better and better with each passing year.”
“Thank’ee, m’lord.” However, how much of that was due to Berach and how much to Joyce was an open question. Certainly Joyce being able to watch Leah a few days a week, back before they had been married, had relieved an enormous strain from his finances. And now that they were married, there were Joyce’s wages, and there was Joyce’s household management. That woman could stretch a copper until it twanged.
“I congratulate you. You have managed to turn yourself quite, quite around. And to continue that turn around after a marriage and after having a child — that is no mean feat, I assure you.”
Berach nodded. It didn’t seem polite to point out that he had already figured that out for himself, having accomplished the “no mean feat” and all.
“That is why,” Lord Pellinore continued, “I feel perfectly confident in offering you your late father’s old home, if you should want it.”
Berach’s jaw fell. He blinked.
“C-come again, m’lord?”
“Your late father’s old home. It is yours, if you would like to purchase it.”
Berach leaned back. He gulped. Can we afford that? He remembered what had happened the last time he had owned a house all on his own …
But perhaps this would be different. He had Joyce now. And he didn’t need to hire those horrible old women — he and Joyce could take care of the children without help. The Church had given him a death benefit for both Lilé and for Finley, too. He had been saving that, but —
He had been saving that for the tavern.
“W-well, m’lord, that’s — that’s right generous o’ ye,” Berach said slowly, “but I ain’t so sure if I …”
“Well! That’s the girls put ter bed.” Joyce pushed out her chair and sat down with a thump. “Did I miss anythin’, m’lord, Berach?”
Lord Pellinore did not say anything — instead he looked at Berach with a faint smile and a fainter tilt of his head. Tell her, he seemed to be saying. At least Lord Pellinore was letting him do that much.
Berach pushed his hair back with one hand. A house — a real house — and best of all, it was a house that didn’t come with his drunken father. And Lord Pellinore thought he could afford it. And Berach did have money saved up …
But the tavern. That money was for the tavern. And Joyce knew that was for the tavern. But this was a house! A real house, and a farm, of his very own. A house with plenty of room for all of them. There were woods on the property, too, Berach could cut down a tree or two, make a real bed for himself … for Leah … for Lilibeth, once she got a bit older.
How could he deny that to Joyce, to the children? He gulped. “Joyce — Lord Pellinore jest said — he thinks we can afford me da’s old place. An’ he’s willin’ ter — ter sell it to us.”
He expected Joyce to — well, he wasn’t sure what, exactly, it was that he expected, but he expected joy. Excitement. Maybe even a squeal or two. What he wasn’t expecting was for Joyce to say, “Oh, is that so?” as if Berach had commented on nothing more momentous than the weather.
And then she — she did the unthinkable. She turned to Lord Pellinore. “How much room is there ter expand, m’lord?”
Lord Pellinore blinked. “Er — I beg your pardon?”
“Ter expand — er — ter add more on to the house. Is there room for that?”
Lord Pellinore looked quizzically at Berach, who could only shrug. “Joyce,” he said, “I don’t think — that is, Grady an’ Toinette an’ their kids, an’ me parents, we all fit in there right snug. I don’t think we’d need to do no expandin’?”
“We would if we wanted ter fit a tavern in,” Joyce pointed out. “So, m’lord, if ye don’t mind me axin’, how much room is there?”
Lord Pellinore, however, had his eyes narrowed as he looked between the two of them. “I … cannot say outright, however, I do know that Master Brogan was able to build a shop on the property. Unfortunately, your father — your late father, Berach — had it torn down after Master Brogan bought out his indenture and moved away. He sold all the wood and nails he salvaged from the structure, too. There’s nothing left of it now.”
“I know,” Berach murmured. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen the house — and the rather noticeable lack of a shop — not even a fortnight ago.
“Hmm,” Joyce murmured. “I seen Grady’s shop. It were good enough fer a shop, but it weren’t big enough fer a tavern. I don’t know, Berach, I think maybe we ought ter wait. See if we can get somethin’ bigger later on.”
Berach’s eyes almost bugged out of his head. She wanted to wait? Wait for what? They wouldn’t get anything bigger unless Lord Pellinore was willing to build it! It was one thing to save up for the dream tavern — but they all knew that dream might never come true. While this was a house and farm, available to them now! With no Finley in it!
“I — I am afraid I do not follow this conversation as closely as I ought,” Lord Pellinore remarked. “A tavern? What — what tavern?”
Berach felt himself begin to flush. He pushed his hair back, only to feel it flop into his face again. “It’s — er — it’s a goal o’ mine. Open up a tavern. Been wantin’ ter do that fer years.”
And there would go his dream. No way Lord Pellinore would let him do it now. Look what had happened the last time he let a Brogan follow any dream of commercial success or betterment! He had lost the biggest family in his shire!
“I see. I see,” was the only reply Lord Pellinore would make. Trust a lawyer to be cagey, even if he did a fancier title than just “lawyer.”
But that was that, as far as Berach was concerned. His dream was dead. He might as well take the house, give a good shelter to his wife and daughters, and be —
“Ye know,” Joyce remarked, cutting right across his despair, “didn’t ye say, Berach, that the house weren’t in no good shape, last ye saw it? That yer da, may he rest in peace, let it go ter rack an’ ruin?”
“Er …” Why was she saying this? Did she want to upset the lord?
Joyce clucked her tongue and shook her head, as sure and certain as if he had indeed answered her. “See, Berach, the more I think on this, the less sure I am. We’d have ter spend a lot o’ money ter get the place fixed up an’ nice. We’d be better off stayin’ here an’ –“
“I would be willing to make a certain amount of capital improvements,” Lord Pellinore broke in. “Free — that is to say, I would not ask for more money for the house after they were completed. You are quite right, Goodwife Brogan,” he nodded at Joyce, “the house is not in the best repair. I would not want to move my daughters anywhere unless I was quite certain that the place in question was well-repaired and safe.”
Berach began to blink. Joyce — Joyce had just gotten Lord Pellinore to fix the place up for free … and by the smirk on her lips, that was exactly what she had been trying to do.
What was she playing at?
“But the tavern, Berach,” Joyce said, shaking her head and clucking her tongue. “We can’t add a tavern on there. An’ the taxes will be higher, too, so it’d be harder ter save. I don’t know, this still don’t seem like a good idea ter me.”
Then Joyce turned back to Lord Pellinore. “I mean, I know ye want the house occupied an’ all, Lord Pellinore,” she said, almost apologetically. “Seein’ as it’s harder to keep an eye on the property if ye don’t have no family livin’ in there. An’ nobody around ter make repairs fer all the little things that go wrong … the place will go ter rack an’ ruin if ye don’t have no one livin’ there. I understand, an’ I know Berach understands. But …” She shrugged. “I’m a selfish woman, Lord Pellinore. I want ter do what’s best fer me family, an’ I ain’t sure this is what’s best fer our family. However …” She patted Berach’s knee and smiled fondly at him. “It’s Berach’s decision, it is, an’ he might think different.”
Aye, right. Berach was no fool. He wouldn’t be thinking any differently as long as he knew what was good for him.
Lord Pellinore looked between the two of them, a smile playing at the corner of his lips. “It seems,” he said, “that I want the house occupied more than either of you two care to occupy it … and you both are well aware of this fact.” Well, Berach was now. “That being said,” Lord Pellinore continued, “is there anything I could do to, er, sweeten the deal?”
Berach didn’t even try to answer that one. He just looked to Joyce.
And Joyce smirked at Lord Pellinore. “Well, m’lord … ye know, taverns an’ kiddies don’t mix. If we could build a small one, say, across the lane or right next ter the farmhouse …”
“It is not at all customary for indentured men to own commercial real estate — indeed, even the farmhouse would be a lease in perpetuam, not a true transfer of ownership.”
“But, m’lord, it’s all yer land,” Joyce replied, blinking innocently. “If ye gave us a larger plot, after a few years went by an’ we saved enough … after all, Grady’s shop weren’t connected right ter the house …”
Lord Pellinore smiled. He glanced at Berach. “Berach, if you do not mind me saying so, your wife drives a very hard bargain.”
“M’lord, if ye don’t mind me sayin’ so, ye ain’t got the least idea.”
Lord Pellinore chuckled. “I shall take your word for it. Very well. We shall add into the lease a clause stating that, upon you earning enough money, you may come to me and enlarge your plot and build any commercial or residential structure you like upon it. After all,” he added to Joyce, “this may take some time, and I am not as young as I used to. My son would honor any clause I put into the least.”
“That’s sensible, I think. Don’t ye think, Berach?” Joyce asked.
Don’t I think, Berach snorted. Where had what he thought played any part in this conversation?
But thanks to Joyce … he could have a house … and someday, a tavern …
“Aye,” Berach answered. “I think that’s very sensible. An’ — an’ I think ye fer yer kind offer, Lord Pellinore. I think … I think we’ll be acceptin’ it.”