Sandra had been married for five years. She and Christopher had three children together. She’d cooked hundreds of dinners, breakfasts and lunches for him, for them, once Coralie and Jason started to eat solid foods. She knew her way around a kitchen as well as any woman.
But she had never before cooked a meal for her in-laws, her husband’s relatives. And that was making her hands shake as she spread the seasoning over her prize turkey.
Not for the first time, she told herself to calm down, that there was nothing to be worried about. It was only a dinner. If anything, Milo and his new bride ought to be the nervous ones. Tongues were still clacking all over the kingdom over that scandalous marriage. The nephew of their king, the natural son of another king, marrying a serving wench at a down-at-heel tavern! “This never would have happened in Glasonland,” was the whisper Sandra heard at the market, on the streets — even in church!
But maybe it would have. Sandra was an orphan, probably a whore’s daughter, and she had married the natural son of a king. Milo himself was the product of a king and a carpenter’s daughter. With a kingdom littered with King Vortigern’s bastards, who was to say how many “inappropriate” marriages were happening each and every day?
Seasoning done, she slipped the turkey into the oven, barely avoiding wiping her sweating hands on her dress. This was her good dress, her feast-day dress, it wouldn’t do to —
“Mama?” The door behind her flew open. “Mama, can I help?”
“Coralie!” Sandra yelped, straightening in just enough time to avoid getting her bottom whacked by the door.
Coralie stuck her little face around the door. “Oops! Sorry, Mama. I didn’t know you were standing there.”
“It’s all right.” Sandra tilted her head to one side, giving her daughter’s feast-day clothes another look. They looked just as they had when Sandra had given them a final fitting, except … “Cora? Whose idea was your hair?”
“Papa’s!” Coralie grinned. “He and me tried to braid it, but we couldn’t get it to work, so Papa stuck it all up and we put this veil on it. And guess what, Mama?”
“What?” asked Sandra warily, giving the veil a glance askance. What was that cloth? It wasn’t a veil; Sandra didn’t have any child-sized veils. Christopher wouldn’t have taken a cleaning rag. But what was it?
“Papa says that the little Princess wears her hair just like this! He said I looked just like her!”
“Do you now?” Sandra gasped, her hand fluttering over her heart. She made a mental note to check that remark with Dannie for accuracy. She knew better than anyone what the little Princess was wearing, since she made about half her wardrobe.
True or not, though, Sandra would bet her last copper that the little Princess didn’t use a circlet made from what looked like a bit of wire Christopher had scrounged up from somewhere. She would have to buy Coralie a real one next time she went to market. And a real veil, too.
Coralie nodded, bouncing from one foot to the other in excitement. “Uh huh! Isn’t it pretty, Mama?”
“It’s very pretty,” Sandra agreed. “Now, come on, sweetie, you wanted to help Mama?”
“Then help me get the living room straightened up and the table wiped down while we wait for the turkey to cook.”
While the turkey was cooking, then, they straightened up the living room, cleaned the table, gave the new baby Susanna her afternoon feed, basted the turkey when necessary, and completed the thousand and one things that had to be done before guests were due to come. And so busy was Sandra getting her home ready and trying to keep her nervousness hidden from Coralie — Coralie could sometimes get shy around strangers — that before she knew it, the scent of a well-cooked turkey was wafting through the room. She hurried to the kitchen to check on it, Coralie still tagging at her heels.
“Oh, Mama, that smells good!” Coralie gasped, sniffing with the delight of a child anticipating a good dinner.
Or one coming down with a head cold … Sandra worried. She put the turkey on the counter hurriedly, then said, “Cora, come here, honey.”
Coralie followed, obedient as ever, but made a face when Sandra felt her forehead. “Mama! I’m not getting sick!”
“Well, you were sniffling …”
“But I’m not sick! The turkey just smells good!”
Sandra smiled and bestowed a quick kiss on her daughter’s forehead. “I’m glad. And I’m just making sure.”
The kiss in its own way was just making sure, too. But Coralie’s head felt normal to both the hand and the lips. Maybe Sandra was worrying too much.
And speaking of worry … She glanced out the window, measuring the angle of the sun. Milo and his bride ought to be here any minute. Should she put the turkey out? What if they were late?
Folks who are late for dinner get their dinner cold, came the voice of a hard orphanage upbringing. That decided her. “Cora, could you help Mama put the turkey out?”
Of course, since the table was already set, “helping” mainly consisted of opening the door for Sandra and following her through, but Coralie was only four. And she had set the table all by herself. You couldn’t ask for much more than that.
Sandra glanced at Jason, merrily coloring at the little table, and then at the baby basket that held Susanna. Would Susanna be as inclined to follow her around when she reached this age as Coralie was now? And what about Jason — would he be tagging after his father as soon as he got big enough for Sandra to feel comfortable letting him out of their quarters and into the gaol proper without her supervision? Or would both of them be more intent on their own purposes?
Sandra had just enough time to ponder that, put the turkey down, and wonder what else she could possibly do when a knock came from the door and Christopher hurried out to answer it, barely sparing time for a kiss on the cheek as he passed her.
Their guests had arrived.
Marriage was agreeing with Milo, at least to judge by the way he heartily hugged Christopher and beamed for all to see. “Thanks for having us, Christopher. And thank you, too, Mis–Sandra.”
“It’s no trouble,” Sandra replied for both of them, since most of the trouble taken had been hers. She did her best to grin at Milo’s bride — Nicole.
Marriage was agreeing with her, too. Sandra had only met her once, at the wedding, and she had thought her very pretty then. She looked almost as pretty today. That, Sandra thought, was a rare feat. But what was more surprising than Nicole’s heightened prettiness was the smile she sent back to Sandra.
It was almost as nervous as her own.
Christopher quickly greeted Nicole, and Sandra followed with both Nicole and Milo. That left Coralie, hanging back behind her mother’s skirts, smiling as bravely as she could. Nicole smiled back. “Hello, Coralie,” she called, getting down closer to Coralie’s level. “It’s so nice to finally meet you!”
“Say hello to your Auntie Nicole,” Christopher murmured, patting Coralie’s shoulder — and that was all it took for Coralie to be off like a shot into Nicole’s arms.
“I never had an auntie before!” Coralie gasped, kissing Nicole on both cheeks. “Mama and Papa don’t have any sisters!”
“Then I’m happy to be your first,” laughed Nicole, kissing Coralie in turn. She then pulled back and grinned at Coralie. Sandra couldn’t see her daughter’s face, but she knew she was grinning back.
“Well! Shall we have a seat?” Christopher asked, gesturing to the table. “Let’s not let Sandra’s turkey get cold.”
“No indeed,” laughed Milo. “It smells wonderful — doesn’t it, Nicole?” he asked, glancing sidelong at his wife.
Interesting. Was he depending on her opinion for everything already? But Nicole, so far, didn’t seem to be that kind of woman …
Nicole sniffed herself. “Indeed, it does smell wonderful. Did you use …” She sniffed again. “Rosemary? And thyme?”
Sandra blinked. “Aye. I did! How on earth did you guess that?”
Nicole only smiled, while Milo put an arm around her — even as he led her to the table — and grinned at Christopher. “She’s an amazing cook. I’ve had to start training twice as hard just to stay in the same shape!”
“Milo!” laughed Nicole, blushing.
Sandra, meanwhile, saw to Jason’s dinner — which was easy, since she had prepared it ahead of time — put the remnants of the turkey in the kitchen, and hurried to her seat. The conversation barely paused for a moment while Christopher led them all in a brief prayer, and as soon as it was over, and the eating started, Nicole turned to Sandra. “This really is excellent, Sandra. Thank you so much for this.”
“Oh — oh, you’re welcome.” Sandra beamed. After all, someone who was as great a cook as Milo said Nicole was complimenting her cooking had to mean something, didn’t it? “I’d be happy to share the recipe — if, if you would like, that is.”
“I would be thrilled,” replied Nicole, flashing a quick smile at Sandra. “And of course — any time you and your husband wish, you’re welcome to our new home.”
Coralie gasped. “You have a new house? Papa!” she called down the table. “Papa, Papa, listen to this!”
“Listen to what, Cora?”
“Auntie Nicole just said we could visit her and Uncle Milo at their new house anytime we wanted! Can we visit, Papa? Can we, can we?”
“That’s up to Uncle Milo and Auntie Nicole,” replied Christopher, “and thank you for the invitation, both of you.”
“The sooner you come, the better we’ll be able to show off the new place!” laughed Milo. “I think Nicole just got everything set up the way she wants it, didn’t you, Nicole?”
“I just have,” chuckled Nicole, but it would take a far duller eye than Sandra’s to not notice how she was blushing.
“A new house?” asked Sandra. “I — forgive me, I didn’t know you had moved.”
“The — the King was kind enough to give us a home outside the fortress. He called it a — a wedding present.” Nicole tried to smile through her blush. “And Milo took it, because, well … that fortress, with all those men …” She glanced sidelong at Coralie, and so did Sandra.
Luckily Coralie didn’t seem to understand, instead barely seemed to be listening, her attention on her father and Milo instead. “Ah,” replied Sandra, to show that she understood.
And she did understand. A pretty girl with all those men … more importantly, with all of those soldiers, especially when they thought the girl in question was no better than they were? It was an invitation for harassment, especially if they thought they could get away with it. Sandra herself, the orphan maid-of-all-work who had jumped up to be the warden’s wife, had been on the receiving end of plenty of it back in Glasonland. Christopher had had to publicly sack several of the oldest, most-respected guards for the rest of them to get the hint.
Here in Albion, the guards were much more respectful. But Sandra didn’t fool herself into thinking that that was because they were Albionese. No, here in Albion she had simply always been the warden’s wife and thus never a target for lewd comments or off-color jokes. If Milo had married Nicole when he was on the run and only been introduced to the soldiers as a married man, then Nicole would not have been a target, either, no matter what her origins.
“So,” asked Sandra, picking up the thread of conversation to better weave it back into the evening, “the King — the King himself gave you that wedding present?”
“Have you met him? Really?” asked Coralie, her child’s forthrightness dragging the question that Sandra really wanted to ask out into the open.
“Aye, I have,” replied Nicole. “And he’s a very nice man.”
“Mama and Papa say I met the King. And the Queen!” Coralie answered. She frowned. “But I don’t remember it. I don’t think that’s fair — do you think it’s fair, Mama?”
“It was just after we came to Albion, and then just after Jason was born, so I think the King and Queen were very kind to call on us at all. But I agree that maybe it wasn’t very nice that you can’t remember it,” Sandra replied.
“It isn’t,” sighed Coralie. “Mama says,” she added to Nicole, “that I met the big Princesses too — both of them! But I don’t remember that, either. I wish I could meet them when I remembered them.”
“Maybe you will, someday,” replied Nicole. “Albion is a very little kingdom, and your papa is an important man.”
“And,” Milo added, “your papa is the King’s nephew, just like I am, so you would be the King’s niece — I’m sure you’ll get to meet him again. Maybe once your little sister gets a bit bigger?” This last question was addressed to Christopher.
Christopher laughed, slow and rich. “Aye, probably. The King and Queen came by to meet Jason when he was a few months old. They’ll almost certainly do the same for Susanna.”
“And then I’ll get to meet them for real?” gasped Coralie.
“Well, I doubt they’d appreciate being told you hadn’t really met them beforehand, when they both remember you so well,” laughed Christopher, “but aye, you’ll probably remember it this time.”
“Yay!” Coralie cheered, making Sandra laugh in spite of herself.
She shot a nervous glance at Nicole, sure that her parenting was about to be critiqued, but Nicole was grinning at Coralie. Sandra kicked herself. Even if Nicole had taken it ill, well, what right did Nicole have to do that? She might be one of her in-laws now, but Nicole didn’t have any children of her own that anybody had mentioned. And her waist and hips were awfully slender. Surely, if there was a child on the way — as all of the old gossips insisted there must be, if only to explain why Milo had married her — there ought to have been some sign of it by now.
Of course, if a child was on the way, Sandra might have expected Milo to mention that to Christopher — but what was the fun of accepting the obvious explanation if you could glance at another woman’s figure and draw your own conclusions?
“So,” Nicole said, smiling at Coralie, “you said that you met both of the older Princesses once? When was that? I’ve only ever met one.” Nicole winked at Sandra, and Sandra smiled back. Hopefully Nicole would be with child soon — any woman with such a knack for others’ little ones must want some of her own.
And if she was with child, then surely …
“Mama says we were with her friends — with Mistress Wesleyan — and Mistress Wesleyan is friends with both of the Princesses, so they came in and we all got to meet them!”
“Wesleyan?” murmured Nicole.
“Aye,” replied Sandra. “The father — of the whole family, I mean — he runs the livery stables. The wife of his younger son is a very good friend of mine. Dannie — she used to be a Ferreira before she got married.”
“There’s a — a daughter too, isn’t there? Milo?” Nicole turned to her husband. “Doesn’t your friend Rob have a younger sister?”
“Two of them,” Milo replied, interrupting his conversation with Christopher easily, “though the one’s in Camford, aye. Why do you ask?”
“Isn’t — isn’t the other sister Lady Gwynedd? The one who lives …?”
“Aye,” Milo sighed. “The one who lives near us.”
Sandra cast a glance at at Christopher, wondering if he knew the source of the sigh better than she did. He ought to, since he worked so closely with Lord Pellinore. But Christopher only shrugged.
Then again, perhaps that wasn’t so surprising. Lord Pellinore seemed to be a relatively private man, from what Christopher had said. He probably wouldn’t be giving thumbnail sketches of every one of his family members to the gaoler.
“I — I thought so.” Nicole turned to Sandra, her cheeks reddening. “We — we haven’t had a chance to be introduced yet, so I … I wondered, that’s all. But you say you know her sister-in-law?”
“I do,” replied Sandra. “Though I haven’t met Lady Gwynedd yet.” Or ever would, Sandra supposed, if Dannie had her way. Cressida had suggested that Lady Gwynedd join the Young Mother’s Club, since she was related to Dannie and all, but Dannie had nixed that idea. Firmly.
“Oh, hell no!” she had said. “Over my dead body — and yours, too! If we let her join, we’ll all be sticking our needles through our eyes before the first meeting is over!”
“She can’t possibly be that bad,” Sandra had answered.
“Yes, she can be. And now that she’s had Morien, she’s worse.”
“Come now,” Cressida had poked Dannie’s side, “what does your husband say to that, eh? Excluding his own sister from your club?”
“He doesn’t say anything,” Dannie had replied. “He knows what’s good for him.”
Perhaps, Sandra realized, it had been that conversation with Dannie — and others along similar lines — that had made her so nervous. But she saw now that it was a foolish nervousness. What had she to fear from in-laws, if they were like Milo and Nicole?
Indeed, what had anybody to fear?
Some time later — when dinner and dessert were both done, when the men were kicking back on the couch and the table had been cleared with Nicole’s excellent assistance, when the dishes were soaking in the sink and Coralie cuddled by Christopher’s side, her heavy lids threatening to close over her eyes at any moment — Sandra got a moment alone with Nicole.
“And this,” she said, picking up a dozing Susanna from her little basket, “this is my Susannah.”
“Oooh,” crooned Nicole, “oh, she’s adorable!”
Sandra grinned as Nicole made funny faces at Susanna and Susanna blinked at her at first. Still, it did not take much for her to giggle and grin back. Susanna was more like Jason, and indeed Christopher, than Coralie or Sandra when it came to things like that. She was only too happy to smile when another Sim smiled at her — even if that Sim was a complete stranger.
“You’re very good with babies,” Sandra remarked. “Susie loves you already, don’t you, Susie?”
“Oh, thank you!” Nicole replied, shooting a grin up at Sandra.
“Hopefully the Lord will send you some of your own soon.” There — that wasn’t too prying, was it?
If there was anything prying in it, Nicole didn’t seem to pick up on it. “Oh, I hope so.”
Interesting. A woman already expecting a baby wouldn’t sound that plaintive and hopeful. So it seemed the old gossips were wrong. But it was a disappointment — it made it much more difficult to ask her next question …
Aw, what the hell? If Dannie could start the club before she even became a young mother, then Sandra could invite Nicole to join before her first was on the way!
“Nicole,” Sandra started, “Nicole, I was wondering … you see, some of my friends and I have a, well, we call it a club, but it’s not really …”
“Oh?” Nicole asked.
“It’s — well, it’s called the Young Mother’s Club,” laughed Sandra, “but since there are only three members so far, I think we can make room for you. So I was wondering — the next time we have a meeting, might you want to come? The other two women — Dannie and Cressida, that is, Mistress Wesleyan and her cousin Widow Tabard — well, they’re very nice, and a lot of fun. Dannie in particular made me feel right at home after I came to Albion.”
“The — the Young Mother’s Club?” asked Nicole.
“Aye. I can get you in, no problem. I mean — I’m the treasurer!” Sandra laughed. “I ought to be able to get you in. But — but that said, would you be interested in coming, meeting the girls?”
Nicole blinked once. Twice. Three times.
Then she smiled. “I would love to,” she said — admittedly more to Susanna than to Sandra — but it was a start.
Soon, the membership of the Young Mother’s Club would be up to four. Or at least, it would if Sandra had anything to say about it.
She couldn’t wait.