“So I was thinking,” Pamela was saying as Cressida sat at the table, “what do you think of that Mason fellow? You know, Richard’s clerk. He strikes me as a nice man, don’t you think?”
Cressida looked between Pamela and Blanche — and then the children, too — wondering what it was that she had missed. Did any of them know Master Mason from Bob? Did any of them care?
Blanche seemed to sense where this was going, however, for she let her kasha dribble back into her bowl. “I suppose he’s nice enough.”
“We ought to have him over for dinner one of these nights,” Pamela pronounced, pointing her spoon at Blanche before sending it diving into the bowl. “Poor single man, he probably never gets a good home-cooked meal. This is delicious, by the way, Cressida. Thank you.”
“Thank you. And Mother,” Cressida replied, watching Blanche’s face — the careful blankness, the glassy eyes — “I’m sure Master Mason gets good meals all the time. Uncle Richard probably invites Master Mason over to his house, and I’m sure he gets all he can eat there.”
“Oh, that’s not at all the same thing!” Pamela laughed. “Why, that fancy stuff — it’ll turn your stomach sooner or later, it will. I can’t imagine how Richard and Bianca manage to live on it as well was they do.”
“Probably because it’s really good, Grandma!” piped up little Pippa. “Don’t you remember that cake we had last time we went over?”
Keep going, Pippa, keep going, keep going! As for Cressida, she took advantage of her mother’s inattention by glancing at Blanche. But Blanche … well, Blanche didn’t even look up at her. She sat silent, sullen, and withdrawn. Just as she always did when Pamela started talking about eligible men and having them over for dinner.
Because this was about the Cap’n; it always was. Pamela had taken one look at Cap’n Andavri and had gone on the warpath, or, worse, the match-making path. The Cap’n had a great deal of free time on his hands, he told interesting stories, he — this was most important — made Blanche laugh and blush as she hadn’t since John died. Hell, Cressida wasn’t sure that John had ever made Blanche laugh and blush like the Cap’n did. For that alone, Cressida would have been the Cap’n’s biggest fan.
But the Cap’n was a charming rogue, and Pamela had no use for rogues. Charming ones were, in her book, even worse. No, in Pamela’s world, men were to be valued only insofar as they were sober, industrious, and honest. The Cap’n tended to sail three sheets to the wind, he lived off his son’s industry, and many of his stories were told with a knowing twinkle in his eye. None of that mattered to Cressida, as long as Blanche liked him. But all of it mattered to Pamela, because in Pamela’s world there was no such thing as a good single woman — and all of Pamela’s daughters, should they happen to be single, would be good single women whether they liked it or not — who simply liked a man and might want to have some fun with him. No, in Pamela’s world, good single women placed all men in one of two categories: potential husband material, or not potential husband material. The first they chased and sought to trap — that really was the only word for it — insofar as it was proper. The second they avoided. Pamela placed the Cap’n firmly in the second category.
“Aunt Bianca said that the recipe was Granny’s,” Geoff said, continuing Pippa’s line of conversation, “didn’t she, Grandma?”
Good boy, Geoff! Nothing got past that boy, and he also seemed to know just the right time to bring up something he had remembered. Cressida hoped Blanche was paying attention. Not only did her kids like the Cap’n — and his grandkids — Geoff was jumping to her defense. He had to be. He wouldn’t be smiling like that at Blanche if he didn’t know just what Pamela was doing, and was trying to stop it.
“Yes,” Blanche replied, clearly grateful, “yes, it was. Granny made the best cakes, didn’t she, Mother?”
Nice way to blow it, Blanche! It was all Cressida could do to avoid smacking her forehead openly.
Or maybe it wasn’t blowing it. Maybe it would keep Pamela off the track …
“Yes, yes, she did,” Pamela sighed. “I wish I had gotten some of her recipes.”
“I’m sure Aunt Bianca would give you any recipes you wanted,” Cressida replied.
“Or she’ll just send me to her bakery.”
“That’s even better!” Henry called. “‘Cause then we get the cake, but we don’t have to cook it!”
“What,” Cressida teased, “you don’t like making cake? Cracking the eggs? Mixing everything? Licking the spoon at the end of it?”
“Oh, I like that,” replied Henry. “It’s the washing-up I don’t like!”
“Stupid! You still have to wash up the plates when you eat the cake!”
“Pippa, don’t call your brother stupid,” Blanche scolded — if it could even be called that — it was hard to scold when your tone gave every indication that the words came automatically, without bothering to stop in at the brain.
“But Mama! He is!”
Cressida snorted into her kasha and thanked the good Lord that Ned had already been put to bed and wasn’t able to see what his mama let the other kids get away with.
“I am not! There’s less washing-up to do when you don’t make the cake —stupid!”
“Henry!” Blanche snapped.
“But there is!”
“Mum,” asked Geoff, probably because the sibling squabbles were far more amusing when they weren’t your younger siblings, “why don’t we invite the Cap’n over for dinner sometime, him and his family?”
If Cressida could have done so, she would have gotten out of her chair and danced. Yes! Geoff had cast his die in support of the Cap’n, in a way that could not possibly be misconstrued! Maybe, if Blanche didn’t know how to stand up against Pamela for herself, seeing her children rally behind her would give her the courage to tell Pamela to butt out.
Except, of course, Pamela jumped all over that, “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said. “Captain Andavri, his son, his daughter-in-law, all their children — why, where would we put them all, Geoff? The table hasn’t room!”
“We could do what the Andavris did when we went to their house!” Henry chimed in. “The kids ate first, and then the grown-ups ate while the kids played!”
“Aye, I like that idea!” Pippa added. “Can we, Grandma, please? I want to see Banana again!”
“And Jack has the best ideas!” Henry called out, to which Geoff nodded. “And Benji can play with Ned, and Cherry and Auntie Cressida can talk together!”
“And the Cap’n can tell us all stories!” Pippa exclaimed. “And –”
“No,” Pamela said.
“What?” Geoff asked.
“Why?” Pippa moaned.
“That’s not fair!” Henry whined.
And for once, Cressida was in full agreement with the children, and she would have let her mother know it — except a knocking at the door stayed her. “I’ll get it!” she called out.
Please be the Cap’n, she thought, fingers crossed under her apron, please be the Cap’n, because that would be perfect, that would keep Mother quiet for a few minutes! She threw open the door —
It wasn’t the Cap’n.
He smiled — he tried to smile — but the smile was thin and hollow, the brittle smile of the grief-struck man she had met nearly two years ago. “Hello — I — I’m sorry to be disturbing your supper –”
“Master Wesleyan?” Pamela was half out of her chair already. “Come in, come in! Would you like something to eat? We have plenty for everybody! Blanche, get another bowl for Master Wesleyan, would you?”
Joshua turned a beseeching glance to Cressida, and that decided what had been a nebulous, half-formed thought that she never thought she would have the courage to go through with. She grabbed her cloak from the rack, threw it over her shoulders, hurried outside and shut the door behind her with a click.
She could still hear Pamela squawking, but she paid that no mind. “What’s wrong?”
“I needed to talk to somebody,” he mumbled. “Somebody who wasn’t — involved — somebody who wasn’t … I must have been crazy!” He laughed, the despairing laugh of the damned. “What am I thinking? It’s late, you’re eating — I’ll go. I’ll –”
“Stop.” Cressida laid her hand on his arm. She was well used to the frisson that rose up when she did so. She wondered, as she often did, if Joshua felt the same thing. “You needed somebody. And frankly, I needed that interruption.”
“Oh, I doubt it,” Joshua muttered into his beard.
“Don’t. You probably just saved me from committing matricide.”
Joshua shuddered, and the look he shot her was so horror-struck, so disbelieving —
“Cressida!” came the muffled shout from inside. “You and Master Wesleyan come inside right now!”
Cressida grabbed Joshua’s arm and dragged him down the stairs. “Come on. There’s a bench out back. We can talk there.”
Joshua did not answer at first; he was looking over his shoulder at the door. “The matricide comment was not at all funny,” he murmured, “but I begin to see how it might be justified.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
They hurried into the backyard. The winter night was chill; even the insects were silent, gone to ground to wait out the cold season. But it was not, Cressida thought, so cold that they would be chased inside before they got a chance to talk.
The ground was rougher than what Cressida remembered from the summer and fall. Joshua had to grab her arm on more than one occasion to prevent her stumbling. Cressida shot him a wan smile each time. Joshua replied with a smile just as wan.
If she had been younger … before Edward, before Ned … she would have, on at least one of those occasions, contrived to stumble against him. And even now she was half-tempted. It would be good to feel a man’s strong arms around her, if only for a moment — it would be better to feel Joshua’s. But it would be wrong to trick him into it. It would be especially wrong to trick him into it now, when she felt his hand tremble every time he caught her.
Could something be wrong with one of his children? No, that was impossible. He wouldn’t be here if one of his children was sick or injured. He would be with his child.
She sat down on the corner of one of the benches. Even through her cloak and skirts she could feel the chill, but all the same, it wasn’t as cold as she feared. She expected Joshua to take the corner of the bench opposite, as he often did.
Instead, he sat by her side.
He leaned as far back as he could, his eyes squeezed shut. There was only moonlight to be had, but it reflected off the tears gathered in the corner of his eyes as surely as it would reflect off the ocean. “What’s wrong?” Cressida asked.
Joshua gulped. He gulped twice. Cressida took his hand in hers and was hardly surprised when he squeezed it so tightly that her bones rubbed together.
His voice was thick and rough, and Cressida could hear how the words had to shuffle and squeeze past the lump in his throat. “My mother is dying.”
Cressida gasped. And she had just spoken so offhandedly about killing her mother!
“She has a — a canker. In her breast. Lady Clarice diagnosed it. And — and today, my father dragged her to the monastery, and Brother Andy confirmed it.” Joshua’s hand started to shake, and Cressida stroked it, clucking under her tongue as she did so. “Brother Andy said she should make her peace with the Lord. Lady Clarice has all sorts of ideas for treating her, but even she admits that women with — with that kind of disease often don’t last out the year.”
“Oh, Josh! I’m so sorry!”
“I don’t know what to do,” Josh muttered, collapsing into himself, head in his hands. “I don’t know — I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to think — how do you do that?” he wondered. “Tell someone they have only a year — not even a year, six months! — to live?”
“Probably because it’s better than the alternative,” Cressida answered. “If you only had that long, wouldn’t you want to know?”
“Maybe I wouldn’t,” Joshua muttered.
“Then let me put it another way. If you knew — had certain knowledge, or as certain knowledge as you could have, that somebody else had only a year to live, wouldn’t it be wrong not to tell them?”
“What if they wouldn’t want to know? My mother — I’ve never seen her like that before! She was — depressed, defeated even! She’s never defeated! When — when Isabel died, she and my father were all that were holding me together!”
And your love for your children, Cressida thought, but didn’t say. Maybe she couldn’t judge, not having known Joshua before he was widowed, but she always thought he was stronger than he gave himself credit for. He had the strength to laugh even in the face of despair, even after he’d been kicked by a mule.
Cressida sensed that he had gotten that strength from his mother.
“Joshua, your mother only had it confirmed today,” Cressida said, as gently as she could. “Give it some time.”
“We don’t have time!”
“Yes, you do,” Cressida answered. “You have six months, maybe a year. And now that you know that, you can make the most of it. Would your rather have your mother getting sicker and sicker, and nobody knowing why, or would you rather she have enough knowledge of what’s ahead to be able to say her goodbyes, make her peace with the Lord, and enjoy what time she has left?”
Joshua’s shrug was every bit as helpless and heartbreaking as the wail of an abandoned babe.
So Cressida changed the subject. “How are your children taking it?”
“We haven’t told them yet,” Joshua replied, half-sobbing. “Lord! How the hell do you say that to a child?”
“You tell them that Grandma is very sick,” Cressida replied, “and the Lord might want to call her to Heaven soon. But while she’s here, she loves them very much and wants to spend as much time with them as she can.”
“How do you know that?”
“Granny,” Cressida replied simply.
“Oh,” Joshua murmured. “I — I –”
“I know,” Cressida answered. “I know. Don’t worry about it.” She began to rub his back.
“We can’t tell the kids — not just yet,” Joshua continued. “We — we haven’t even told Rob yet! Dad wouldn’t hear of it until Mother saw Brother Andy! And — and there’s Heloise, and Babette … good Lord, how could you put that kind of news in a letter?”
Now it was Cressida’s turn to shrug.
“But the kids …” Joshua rubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes. “They’re going to pick up on it. How can they not pick up on it? How can we not tell them?”
“Josh, Josh! One thing at a time. One problem at a time.” Cressida took his hand. “One day at a time. Tell your brother. Tell your sister Babette. Try to see if you can get your sister Heloise home to tell her in person. If you can’t, then you’ll have to tell her by letter. That’s all.”
“Joshua, from everything you’ve told me about your sister Heloise, she’d rather know the worst at once than be left in the dark to spare her feelings.”
“She would,” Joshua muttered.
“So tell her in person if you can, but if you can’t, know that you’re doing what she would want her to do. Then … then tell your children. Or even just Darius. Baby Belle might be too little to understand.”
“She’ll notice, though. She’ll see that things are … are not right.”
“Then tell her as much as you think she will understand. One day at a time, Josh. One day at a time.”
“One day at a time,” Joshua repeated. “One day at a time.” He turned to Cressida with half of a smile. And he thinks he’s not strong. “And just when did you get so wise?”
“Oh, I’ve always been this wise.”
“That I doubt.”
“Really? Tell me, Joshua Wesleyan, was there ever a time when you knew me and I was not this wise?”
Joshua’s mouth opened and shut. His eyes seemed fixed on her hair, then her eyes. “No-o …”
“Then, as far as you can tell, I always was.”
“It was your husband,” Joshua murmured, “wasn’t it?”
He snorted, shaking his head. “I wish … I wish, if anything could have come from Isabel, it could have made me half as wise as you.”
“Josh, Josh, don’t be silly. First of all,” she leaped to her feet and dragged him with her, both of his hands clasped in hers and smiling as winsomely as she dared, “I am a woman, so try as you might, you will never be as wise as me.”
“Oh, really? Now, I’m not as much for the books as some Sims, but I’ve got an expensive Camford education, my lass, and I can tell you that you’ve just contradicted about half the books in their library. And most of the other half don’t mention women at all!”
“Bah! All of those books were written by men — and monks too, probably. What do they know about women, or women’s wisdom?”
“Hopefully … not very much.”
“So we can ignore them. Now, as for the rest …” Cressida frowned, the mood to tease flying away from her as swiftly as it had flown into her. “Don’t think it was losing Edward that made me wise, Josh. I was as selfish and childish as I could be when I lost Edward. All I wanted to be was weak. It was … it was losing John, and coming here, and all of us having to stand or fall on our own two feet that made me wise, if anything did.
“And more importantly,” Cressida continued, “you know what, Josh? Even if losing Isabel didn’t make you wise — it made you strong. And sometimes … sometimes I don’t think there’s much of a difference between strong and wise in things like these. Sometimes … sometimes you have to take whatever you have and use it to your advantage. And I know you will, Josh. You and your family — you’ll get through this, somehow.”
She leaned closer to Joshua. She meant to kiss him on the cheek, as a friend would to a friend. But either her aim was off, after all this time, or he turned his head, or —
It was not his cheek, but his lips that she met.
They were — soft, that was her first impression. Except for the beard that bristled against her skin. Edward had been clean-shaven. And Edward had always been hungry and passionate, and so had she.
But this was … different. Tender and sweet, not hard and heated. She felt Joshua’s hand on her back tighten reflexively, and for a moment, the warm rush that flooded her was just as good — maybe even better — than the lightening that used to course through her when she and Edward would kiss.
Then they drew apart. It wasn’t a breaking or a pulling — just a drawing, as slow and sweet as the dawn. Joshua licked his lips, his tongue pink and shy in the moonlight. His hand came up, and Cressida thought he meant to play with her hair or stroke her cheek.
She was wrong.
And there was the passion, there was the hunger — but it was different. So different! Because what had she and Edward been but boy and girl together? Whereas Joshua was a man, a man who knew what he wanted out of life, and who wanted more than lips and tongues meeting, than hands fumbling under clothes, than bodies fumbling under the bedclothes. He wanted love and companionship and pleasure, and he wanted a woman with whom to share his life …
And Cressida was a woman, and she knew she wanted so much more now than Edward’s fumbling and their giggling infatuation with each other. She wanted —
Joshua pulled away — this was a pull — with a gasp. “Cressida —
“Don’t you dare apologize. Don’t you dare.”
Joshua’s mouth opened; it shut. He smiled. “As my lady wishes.”
“Good answer.” Cressida smiled and stroked Joshua’s cheek. “And don’t you dare give up or despair, either. No matter what happens, you are strong enough to get through it. You are strong enough to pull yourself and your whole family through, if you have to. And if you ever feel that you can’t do it all by yourself …”
Now it was Cressida’s turn to smile. “Well. You know where to find me.”