There was nothing quite like coming home after a hard day’s work. Mark could feel the tension and cares slipping from his shoulders with every step he took up the front walk. Of course new ones would come to rest soon — they always did — but this moment of bliss was worth savoring all the same.
“Looks like we won’t be getting snow for another few days,” Joshua remarked, scanning the sky. They had had a bit of a warm spell, melting all of the snow of the late snowstorm. Unfortunately that meant that the roads had turned to mud, which could be bad for business … or good, if people were desperate to get to one place or another and needed a steady horse or mule to get them there.
“Does it?” Mark scanned the sky himself. “Isn’t it the other way around?”
“Er … isn’t what the other way around?”
“You know — that rhyme Richard is always saying. ‘Red sky at night …'”
“Are you sure?”
“Dad, it rhymes.”
Mark considered that. “You know, son, you do bring up a good point.”
Joshua snickered as the two of them entered the house. They hung up their cloaks on the rack. Then Joshua called out. “Mother? Darius? Baby–”
The door to the nursery flew open. “PAPA!”
For a moment Mark’s heart smote him. Once upon a time, he had been Papa. He had been the one the kids all ran for, laughing and shouting. Josh would be at the head, because he was the biggest, with the longest legs. He was also the loudest shouter, too. Heloise would be next, usually waving a book in the air and asking — nay, demanding — that Mark read the passage that had just sparked her interest. Babette would toddle on Heloise’s heels, smiling her baby smile. Rob would bring up the rear, usually with paint on his hands or dust in his hair, because he was the only one of the kids with anything that could be remotely called patience.
Still, Mark had to remember that he was still blessed. For, even though Baby Belle clamored for her father’s attention first, she quickly hurried to Mark and demanded, “Up!”
It was a demand that Mark was only too happy to obey.
“Papa, Papa! Guess what happened in school today?”
“What happened, scamp?” Josh asked, ruffling Darius’s hair.
“Melehan and Melou started a food fight!”
“A food fight? Good Lord, what kind of school am I sending you to?”
“I don’t know,” replied Darius, literal as ever. He grabbed Joshua’s hands and started to jump from side to side. “But Papa, it was such fun! We threw our peas everywhere!”
“We? Who’s this we, young man?”
“Well …” Darius squirmed. “Maybe I did throw a little bit of food …”
“Oh, did you?”
“But it wasn’t that much! And it was only after I got some thrown at me!”
“So you’re pleading self-defense, is that it?”
Joshua laughed. “Good man.” Darius squealed, as he always did whenever someone called him a “man” of any stripe. Joshua glanced at Mark. “Anything to add, Grandpa?”
“Just a bit of sage advice,” Mark replied. “Remember, Darius — we Wesleyans never start fights.”
“But, Grandpa! I didn’t start it!”
“I know, lad, but I’m not finished. Now, as I was saying — we don’t start fights, but we most certainly do finish them!”
Darius laughed and danced, Joshua laughed too and let Darius drag his arms from side to side. Then Joshua’s eyes narrowed. “Darius, what’s in your hair?”
“Oh, that’s the peas. Or the pea-juice. Ah!” He laughed. “Pea juice!”
“It’s still in there? Didn’t your grandmother give you a bath when you got home?” Joshua asked. He leaned closer. “Egads! It’s all clumped and matted! Darius, why didn’t you tell your grandmother about this?”
“She said she was tired.”
“You still should have told her!”
“But she looked so sad!”
Mark shifted Baby Belle on his hip. “Sad?”
“Aye!” Darius glanced at him. “She looked really sad.” Darius’s lips started to quiver. “Papa, why is Grandma sad?”
Mark was wondering the very same question, and Joshua seemed to have no better an answer than he did. “I don’t know, son.” He glanced at Mark.
And suddenly Mark was the father again, not just the indulgent grandfather who could let his grandson get away with fighting as long as he was finishing them, not starting them. His boy looked nervous. “Darius, where’s Grandma?” he asked.
“Upstairs, in your room.” Darius started to bite his lip. “She’s been up there since I got home. I had to help Baby Belle get out of her crib all by myself!”
There was pride in that for Darius — but there was more than a bit of panic in that for Joshua, judging by the way he grabbed Baby Belle and started checking her for injury. Baby Belle giggled.
She was the only one giggling. Mark patted Joshua’s shoulder. “I’ll go check on her. Darius, thanks for telling us.”
Darius had been taught to say “you’re welcome,” but now he wasn’t. His lips began to quiver. “Papa?”
“Don’t worry about it, scamp.” Joshua ruffled Darius’s pea-juice ridden hair. “Grandpa will figure it out.”
As for Grandpa, he just hoped he could.
For this was not like Helena, not like her at all. Mark cast his mind back for times when she had ever been so despondent that she had gone into her bedroom and completely forgotten about anyone and everyone. He couldn’t think of any. Helena had always had a certain zest, a joie de vivre. She didn’t get sad, she got mad. Even when they had gotten news from Glasonland that her father had died, she hadn’t retreated into their bedroom and cried — no, she had gone about her day as normal, letting her anger bubble and boil, then she had laid into Mark for bringing her to this thrice-forsaken kingdom and keeping her from ever seeing her father again.
Mark hesitated at the head of the stairs. Bad news from Glasonland — could that be it? Helena still had two brothers living. If something had happened to one of them … of course she would be sad, withdrawn. And it would explain why she hadn’t gone to the stables to fetch him or Joshua. Maybe she just wanted to be alone.
He hurried into their bedroom all the same and found Helena there, just as Darius said she would be. Now she sat up on the edge of their bed, staring out the windows.
Mark scratched his head. “Helena?”
She glanced at him. “Oh. Hello, Mark.” Her voice echoed, distant, as if at the wrong end of a very long tunnel.
Mark sighed. So, this was how it was going to be, eh? He barely even rated a glance. At least she wasn’t angry with him this time around. Or was she only biding her time? Mark slowly crossed to Helena’s side. “The children are worried about you, you know.”
Good Lord, it could have been twenty years past. The children … How many times had Mark hidden behind the children to express to Helena how he was feeling? The children are worried, the children are sad, the children are angry … But it was so easy. He could get what he wanted — most of the time — without exposing himself to hurt. Helena would do just about anything for the children, and the grandchildren.
As she proved now. “The child–” She sat up. “Baby Belle!”
“She’s fine. Darius got her out of her crib all by himself,” Mark replied. “And Josh didn’t seem to find any sign of an injury.”
Helena’s concern melted away. “That’s good.” She smiled, or tried to. It was odd. Mark had seen Helena glue on fake smiles before, but they were usually the kind of smile that tried to fool onlookers with their brilliance. They were never as soft and fleeting and wistful as this one was. “He must have been very proud of himself.”
“He was.” Mark placed one hand on his hip, waiting for Helena to do or say something. To blink, even.
She finally did say something. “It was a lovely sunset tonight. Did you notice?”
“Er — no. I had other things on my mind.” Other things like closing up the stables, getting home, seeing to the children. “Did you notice that Darius had pea juice in his hair?”
At least that got half of a reaction out of her. “Aye. Pea juice. Apparently there was a food fight at school this afternoon. Helena, why didn’t you get him cleaned up?”
“I didn’t notice the pea juice. I’m sorry.” She looked again to the window. “But it shouldn’t be too hard to get out. A little bit of water as you comb it out ought to do it.”
As you comb it out. Well, there was no doubting the tone there. Mark barely bit back a sigh as he ran his hand through his hair. “Helena, is everything all right?”
She didn’t even look at him.
“You just … don’t seem yourself,” he hedged. “Is there something the matter? Something you want to talk about? Something –”
“Sit with me?”
Mark blinked. And Helena shrugged. “It’s been so long since we just sat together — don’t you think?”
Of course it had been a long time. He and Helena barely got along at the best of times, these days. Keeping Joshua sane after Isabel’s death was all that had brought them together for a while. And now that Joshua was back on an even keel … well, they had nothing to bring them together. Not even Babette or Rob or Heloise, not really. Even Babette’s little scandal hadn’t lasted long enough to bring them together again.
They still shared a bed — in the most chaste sense only — a hearth, a home, a table, a family. But they didn’t share a life. They hadn’t shared a life in years.
“Please?” Helena asked.
Mark sat — he more fell to the bed with a thump. Please? When was the last time Helena said please to him? And not a worthless please, like, “Pass the salt, please,” but a real please?
A man could be forgiven for just going along with the woman who finally told him please.
“It’s been so long since I just looked at a sunset,” Helena murmured, turning again to the window. “I don’t remember the last time. Goodness. I must have been a child.”
“Maybe when we were courting,” Mark muttered.
“Do you think?”
“It’s the sort of thing courting couples do, don’t you think?” Mark asked. Not that he ever remembered doing such a thing with Helena. Most of their courtship had consisted of Mark trying to get her attention from her hordes of admirers. Well, Helena had been a very beautiful woman — she still was, really. It was no wonder that every man in the city had been falling over himself to one sparkling glance from those violet eyes.
“And yet neither of us remember if we did,” Helena replied. “How … how very sad is that.”
“I suppose,” Mark shrugged. He, personally, preferred not to remember times when he made an unmitigated ass of himself.
Or maybe he ought to be a bit more fair. Helena might have fitted a nice pair of horns on him, but she also gave him three — four — wonderful children. And she had always been a good mother to them, no matter what a wife she was to him. Plenty of men didn’t even get that much. Look, for instance, at Joshua, who only ever had two children with his beloved wife, and now was trying to raise them all on his own.
“I’m sorry, by the way,” Helena said suddenly, her voice dropping into the quiet like a stone into a still lake. “For … for everything. The way I treated you. I should have been a better wife to you.”
Mark turned to her with jaw hanging off its hinges.
“I should have been so much better. At everything,” she whispered to her skirt. “And now … now it’s too late.”
He wanted to tell her that it wasn’t too late, it was never too late. They were still alive, weren’t they? They still had time to patch things up, make things right, enjoy their twilight years.
Except they didn’t. The hole Helena had drilled in his heart had long since scabbed over, healed even. There was nothing left but a scar. He wouldn’t be opening that heart up to Helena again. He’d found a new woman to open it up to. Even if some might say she was worse than Helena … at least Wei Li was honest about what she was.
But Mark was not a cruel enough man to bring that up when she had just apologized to him. “Well, it could have been worse,” he replied, shrugging. “We got Babette out of it, didn’t we?”
“You still think of her as yours,” Helena replied, her eyes filling up with wetness.
“Well, aye,” Mark replied. He shrugged. “Whose else would she be? Ban du Lac isn’t around to claim her. I was always the one she called ‘papa.’ And …” He sighed. He loved Heloise with all of his heart, he truly did, but his daughter had always been fiercely independent. He’d gotten more hugs and snuggles out of Rob and Joshua individually than he ever got out of Heloise. It was Babette who used to crawl up onto his lap of an evening as Baby Belle would do now with Joshua; it was Babette who would kiss his cheek and snuggle against his arm. Babette was still his little girl. Why would he give that up?
“You are a better man than I ever deserved.”
“Helena?” That wasn’t like the Helena he knew. The Helena he knew was the type to toss her head like the proudest filly in his stables, stamp her hoof — er, foot — and do whatever she wanted no matter what her nominal master or rider thought of the matter. Life’s too short, she would say to him whenever Mark complained about a new dress or her offering free rides to all her friends. Do you want to get to the end of your life and find you haven’t really lived?
“Helena, what’s going on?” Mark asked.
“Don’t you ever regret things?” Helena asked. “Anything?”
“Of course I do. But that didn’t answer my question.”
“Like what?” Helena asked. “Like me? I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
“I –” Mark started, but he stopped. No, he didn’t regret Helena, not when he added up both sides of the ledger and found himself comfortably in the black. He’d won more than he lost by her. Even if she had humiliated him, she had been discreet about it, and nobody but the two of them — and Joshua and Rob — knew about Babette’s parentage. There were other men, Mark knew that … but he also didn’t know their names, and other than Helena and the men in question, Mark didn’t think anyone else did. “No. No, Helena, I don’t regret you. Now, what is going on?”
“You said that so dismissively,” Helena said. “So … so abruptly. Like you don’t even care.”
“I’m sorry, a minute ago you said you wouldn’t blame me if I regretted marrying you, now you’re upset because I don’t?”
“At least regret is something. A feeling. I would like know that I’ve inspired — something,” Helena sighed. “It would mean that my whole life wasn’t completely empty.”
“Empty? Helena, in what world could your life be considered empty? You had four wonderful — well, most of the time — kids! You’re one of the most prosperous housewives in the kingdom! And you — well — you never denied yourself anything, I’ll guess. You can’t call that kind of life empty.”
“But now –”
“What’s now? What about now? Helena, for the third time, what is going on?”
“I went to the doctor today,” Helena changed the subject. “And –”
She stopped, the words seeming to choke her. She turned away, her hand covering her mouth, a sob barely held back.
“… Helena?” Mark whispered.
Without a word she undid the front of her gown. She grabbed his hand and put it on her left breast. “Feel,” she said. “Just — feel.”
Mark did as he was told. It had been years since Helena had allowed him this liberty, but he still knew his way around a woman’s breast all the same. Wei Li …
But he wouldn’t think about Wei Li now. Indeed, there was hardly a point of comparison. This was the least sensual feeling up he’d ever gotten. Even a suckling babe probably felt more–
He stopped. There was something hard and knotted under his prodding fingertips. “What’s that?”
“A — a what?”
Helena turned away from him and laced up the front of her gown again. “The doctor says that most women who — who have these last six months. Maybe a year. But she has some mixtures, and she –” Helena laughed mirthlessly. “She says there’s no reason to give up hope!”
“Give up — Helena, are you trying to tell me that you’re dying?”
“Six months,” she repeated. “Maybe a –”
“That’s madness!” Mark exploded. “Helena! You’re perfectly healthy! That — that lump could be anything! Go talk to another doctor — that Brother Andy, for one! I’m sure he knows what the hell he’s talking about, and won’t go scaring women for no good–”
“Mark, my grandmother, my father’s mother, had a lump like that,” Helena replied. “She died of it.”
“So? My father had weak lungs! And I’m still here!”
“This isn’t the same as weak lungs. This …” Helena turned to the windows again, ashen-faced. “She told me what to look for. She told both my mother and me. So we — she said — in case we –”
“So what? Helena, you cannot just — just give up! Come on! This isn’t the Helena I know!” Mark jumped up from the bed. “You think you’re just going to lay down and die without fighting this thing? When you have your kids, your grandkids, to go on fighting for?”
“But Mark,” Helena whispered, “I’m frightened.”
“That was never a reason to stop fighting!”
Helena’s jaw quivered. So Mark grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up, letting her chin rest against his shoulder as it hadn’t in years. “Come now. This is no time to be giving up. Tomorrow morning, first thing, I’m taking you down to the monastery and we’ll have Brother Andy have a look at you.”
“He’ll say the same thing.”
“He might not. You don’t know that. And if he does …” Mark held her closer, squeezed his eyes shut. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it. But for now — we can’t lose hope. If we lose hope … we’ll lose everything.”