“Ain’t second babies not supposed ter take so long?” fretted Simon, casting a longing glance at the closed bedroom door.
He wished he could get in there, that room that was usually just a place to crash but today was a sanctum of femininity. He wished he could know what the hell was going on. Surely he was man enough to handle what was going on in there.
But who was he kidding? Simon wasn’t even man enough to handle the glare of his twelve-year-old brother-in-law without quailing. He’d never be man enough to handle a birthing chamber.
So he kept pacing. He knew exactly how many steps it was between one wall — the wall where Marie’s crib used to be — and the ladder. He knew just how many heartbeats the journey took. He knew just how far apart Roma’s groans and moans were. He was sure they should be coming faster by now — or was it just that his heartbeats, and his footsteps, were growing faster with every pace?
And as he paced, Billy watched his every move.
“Lad,” said Edmond in his syrupy voice, usually so rich and soothing. Simon wondered what was wrong, that it could sound the same today and yet not sooth at all. “The little one will come when he comes. Yer pacin’ ain’t gonna make it go no faster. Have a seat, calm down a bit.”
Simon only shook his head. From the corner of his eye he watched the bedroom door. Kata had hung up a curtain in front of the little window as soon as she came, but maybe if he got the right angle, he could begin to see inside …
He couldn’t. But he could see Edmond purse his lips together, glance at the back of Cerise’s head — she was washing dishes for the fifth time since she had arrived — take a deep breath and plunge into whatever it was he wanted to say. “Might I make a suggestion, Simon?”
No! But he forced a grunt noncommittal enough to not offend.
“Ye might want a bit o’ ale. Jest somethin’ ter settle yer stomach and yer nerves. I know ye don’t want nothin’ stronger now, but –”
“Oh, stop, Simon,” called Cerise from the wash basin. “A little bit o’ ale won’t hurt ye. An’ yer pa’s right, ye know. It’ll probably be jest the thing ter help ye settle.”
Simon froze. But there was no earthquake that came. No bolt of lightning. No rending open of the roof to let the Lord Wright and his llamas come down from heaven and land on Simon’s kitchen table.
His mother had just spoken in favor of drinking, on an occasion as momentous as this, and the world was somehow not coming to an end.
There was only one reasonable response to that: to stumble over to the table as if he had drunk not the ale his parents were advising but a tankard full of straight whiskey and sit on the first chair that presented itself to him. He leaned his head on his hands, trying to force some sense into his whirling thoughts.
“That’s a good boy,” Cerise said, smiling at him over her shoulder. “Billy, will ye be a dear an’ get a tankard fer Si–”
“No!” Simon snapped, saving Billy from the trouble. “No, thank ye, Ma! I don’t want none!”
And he didn’t. He truly didn’t. He had sworn to himself that he wouldn’t drink today. He had gotten himself drunk as a lord the day Marie was born. His first memories of his girl were behind a film of alcoholic haze. He couldn’t remember much of how she had looked, other than red and squalling. He couldn’t remember the first time his baby girl had looked at him, what color her new-baby eyes had been. All he could remember was being very, very reluctant to hold her — and no wonder, it was amazing he had enough sobriety to realize that he was too drunk to hold a newborn babe — and that he had been initially disappointed that she wasn’t a boy.
Simon would not make the same mistake again. He would greet this baby as sober as the baby him- or herself was. And he would not be disappointed in a girl this time. A girl, he thought, would be just the ticket.
A girl would give him a chance to try again.
“Leave him be, Cerise,” said Edmon. “Simon’s a grown man now, an’ he knows what’s best fer himself.” He nudged Simon. “Eh, lad?”
Simon looked up. “Eh? Aye. Aye. I know what’s best fer me.” He swept his hair away from his face, unsure whether the dampness he felt came from sweating palms or a sweating face. “I don’t need nothin’, Ma.”
“Hmph,” Cerise murmured, shaking her head as she fumbled for a dry towel. She managed to find one only mildly damp to dry her hands upon. “Ain’t natural, a man sittin’ out a birth without a drop o’ drink in ‘im.”
Simon blinked. Truly, the wait was beginning to get to him; he must be losing his mind. “Pa, did Ma jest say …”
“Yes, yes, lad, she did.” Edmond patted his shoulder. “Think nothin’ o’ it. Ye know, one thing she did whenever she felt her time was gettin’ close with ye kids was make sure there was lots o’ ale in the house fer me.”
“Indeed I did!” laughed Cerise. She snapped the towel dry and hung it back on the cabinet door handle. “Couldn’t have ye toddlin’ off ter the pub an’ not hearin’ all the abuse I was heapin’ on yer poor head, could I?”
“I never minded the abuse,” Edmond smiled. “Some might o’ even said I deserved it.”
“Aye, me, back then! But o’ course it were all worth it as soon as the babe was born.” Cerise grinned and took a seat at the long table. “At least, everythin’ I went through were worth it. Ye’ll have ter axe yer pa if it were worth it fer him.”
“Every minute o’ it,” replied Edmond. He ruffled Simon’s hair even though it had been years since Simon’s head was at an easy ruffling height. “Ye’ll see,” he added in a lower voice, presumably for Simon’s benefit and Simon’s benefit alone.
Simon groaned and leaned forward. His stomach twisted itself into a hard and painful ball. A tankard of ale, or something stronger, was sounding more and more tempting …
But no. He had promised himself that he would see this babe into the world sober. He owed it to the babe. To Roma.
To Marie, too.
“Aww, Simon, buck up, me lad.” Cerise patted his cheek. “All will come right soon enough. Ye’ll see.”
“Easy fer ye ter say.”
Simon’s head jerked up. That was exactly what he had been thinking — but he hadn’t said it, had he? His voice surely hadn’t been that fluting in years. Since his head was at ruffling height, at the very least.
Wait … that hadn’t been him.
Simon turned his head just a bit to the left — and there he was. Billy. Still glaring at him, though now the glare had grown large enough to encompass Cerise.
Cerise had a scowl in return for Billy. “Now, young — ouch!”
The table shook a bit, but that was nothing compared to the scowl Cerise shot to Edmond. “Edmond!”
Edmond only shook his head.
“Well, of all the –”
“Cerise.” It was a quiet reproof — but a reproof all the same. “The lad has a put. Our apologies, Billy.”
“Thank’ee, sir,” Billy mumbled. Cerise shot him another glare, but a warning lift of Edmond’s eyebrow kept her silent.
At least, it kept her from speaking to Billy directly. “Well!” she huffed, both of her hands landing flat on the table with a dull thwack, “I only think, there’s no point in focusin’ on the bad. All will come right in the end, Lord willin’. Best ter keep cheerful rather than wallowin’ in doom an’ gloom.”
Easy fer her ter say.
And that was enough for Simon. He pushed back, chair screeching in his wake.
“Simon?!” Cerise half-yelped.
“Pigs need feedin’, Ma,” Simon replied, hurrying to the peg to collect his cloak. And it was true — well, as an existential statement. The pigs, perhaps, did not feeding right at this second.
But Simon needed to get out of there, and he supposed the pigs would better bear his company than any Sims would.
“Oh, let yer pa an’ Billy take care o’ that! Edmond, go help him.” Cerise made vague shooing motions at Edmond.
“They don’t know where the stuff is, Ma. Easier if I jest do it.” Simon shrugged the cloak on. “Be back in a jiffy.”
He didn’t plan on being back in a jiffy, of course, but he wasn’t going far. Surely a father-to-be had to do something to stay sane in the long interval between the first pangs and the cry of the baby. If he wasn’t allowed to drink, a bit of time outside, alone, would be just the ticket.
But even as Simon opened the door, there was a pair of boots clomping after him. And soon, a voice: “Oh, thank’ee, Billy! That’s right helpful o’ ye!”
Simon ignored the feet following him down the steps and into the pig yard, the shadow cast on the ground that seemed to gain more and more on Simon’s own shadow with every step. He kept his eyes ahead and his mind as far away as possible. He would start by kneeling in front of Spots, the friendliest pig, and giving her a nice scratch behind the ears. She liked that.
“I thought ye said,” Billy finally snarled, “that the pigs needed feedin’.”
Spots’s sniffing nose gave Simon enough reason to ignore Billy for a few heartbeats. But it couldn’t last forever. He gave the pig one last pat, stood up and shrugged. “I lied.”
“I’m sure ye did,” Billy spat. He strode toward Simon with long steps, shoulders back, head held high. Trying to look like a man, he only succeeded in looking more like a boy than ever before.
Until you looked in his eyes. Those were most definitely the eyes of a man, an angry man, one driven to stupidity in trying to protect the one he loved. Simon didn’t gulp — he was too practiced a scoundrel to show that kind of weakness in the face of an enemy — but all the same, he wished for a minute that he were the boy and Billy the man, so he could get his hiding and get it over with.
As it was, Simon could only turn what clumsy weapons he had against Billy’s righteous anger. “Look, Bill …” He shrugged. “What is it ye want from me, eh? A pound o’ me hide, fer dishonorin’ yer sister?”
“Fer me sisters, ye mean,” Billy snapped. “Ye were at Marigold’s that night!”
Simon gaped — and blinked. “Bill Thatcher, are ye truly tellin’ me that ye don’t know what yer sister does fer a livin’?”
“Bah! O’ course I know that! I don’t mean — that! But think about it — use yer damned head!” Billy threw his arms into the air. “How d’ye think Marigold feels, watchin’ ye come in an’ knowin’ Roma is sleepin’ cold an’ alone?”
Simon tossed his head back. It was just too absurd — what could he do other than laugh?
So he did.
“Ye think that’s funny?” Billy snarled. He advanced a step, fist upraised and trembling.
Well, at least somebody — Jeremiah, perhaps, before he died — had shown the boy how to make a proper fist. And the way his shoulders were set, his feet planted — he knew how to throw a punch. Simon was half-tempted to let him try, see what this twelve-year-old had up his sleeve. Maybe a brawl was just what he needed to work away the knot in his stomach.
Except … he couldn’t hurt Roma by getting into it with her brother when she was putting her life at risk to give birth to his child. “Look,” Simon sighed, “jest tell me what it is ye’re wantin’ from me, so’s we can get this over with an’ can both go back ter worryin’ about the person we’re both here fer — aye?”
“Here fer? When have ye ever been anywhere Roma needed ye ter be?” Billy spat. “Did ye ever bother ter care fer her at all, or did ye jest marry her ter get yer ma off yer back?”
“What–” Simon started.
“I know our mas set ye two up!” Billy snapped. “I ain’t no fool! So did ye ever care fer her, eh? Or do ye jest –”
“Did I ever care fer her? Bill! Ye stupid kid! I love her!”
“Ye’ve got a funny way of showin’ it,” Billy snorted, tossing his head and hair back from his face, like a warhorse raring for the fight.
“What?” Simon laughed. “Because I went ter Marigold’s jest once in our married life, as far as ye know?”
“It weren’t jest once.”
Simon blinked. How in the hell did the kid know that? He’d been discreet —
“Ha! See! I knew it!” Billy crowed. “Ye’ve been there heaps o’ times, ain’t ye? Liar! Bastard!”
Oh, fer the love o’ Wright.
Simon shook his head, fighting the urge to tear his own hair out by the roots — or better yet, to tear that damn kid’s hair out. “Kid,” he settled for snarling, “let me axe ye somethin’: ye ever kissed a girl, other than yer mother or yer sisters?”
Simon barely avoided recoiling in surprise. Then he remembered some of his own playground adventures, back when he was too young to be falling in love or even in lust, but was curious as anything to see what all the fuss was about. There had been a whole string of girls when he was about eight or so … He let his ring and little fingers part, giving a space just large enough for him to look out of. “Recently?”
Billy huffed and kicked the ground, and that was all the answer Simon needed.
“Then let me tell ye somethin’, Bill Thatcher,” Simon said. “Until ye know a damned thing about lust or love … don’t go pretendin’ ye can teach men a decade yer senior about it. Aye?”
“Maybe I don’t know much about love,” Billy snapped, lunging as far forward as he could without his feet leaving the ground, “but I know about respect! An’ I know how a real man goes about treatin’ his woman! An’ I know –”
Simon’s head whipped to stare. Kata!
At any other time, he would have been quailing, wishing for the ground to leap up and swallow him whole. There was no way Cerise Chevaux’s son could be be immune to the sight of a mother annoyed. But now … “Roma?” Simon croaked.
Kata barely spared a glance for him; she was too busy glaring politeness back into her son. But after a moment, she seemed to remember Simon’s presence.
And she smiled. “She’s fine, lad. Jest delivered of a healthy babe. A boy.”
Simon whooped, and if he was wearing a hat he would have tossed it into the air. As it was, he contented himself with running into the house, pushing past Kata and racing by his parents and Ella, who had come out to share the table with them. He threw the door open and skidded inside. “Roma!”
“Hallo, Simon.” Roma smiled the smile of the thoroughly exhausted. Had she looked so tired after giving birth to Marie? Blast, why did he have to get so drunk?
“How are ye doin’?” he asked, but he couldn’t help it — he was craning all around the room, looking for the —
Marie’s crib was occupied again. Simon’s heart leapt into his throat.
“He’s right over there,” Roma said. He heard the thunk of her head leaning against the wall. “In the basket. Why … why don’t ye go over an’ make yerself acquainted?”
Simon did not need to be told twice.
“Why, hello there, little man,” he crooned, bending over the basket. The little red-faced babe blinked up at him.
Gently, as he had learned to do with Marie — amazing how it all came back when it was needed — he reached in and lifted the baby out. The baby kept blinking at him. Good — it meant he was awake and alert, and if he wasn’t crying, then Simon clearly must be holding him right.
First he counted the fingers, then the toes. His hand ran all over the baby’s soft skin. Then — finally — he allowed himself to look into his new son’s face.
He was rubbish at trying to find resemblances in a new baby’s face, so he didn’t boether to try. Besides, he had noticed that Marie’s face had been a bit squished and oddly pointed for the first few weeks of her life; she hadn’t really grown into it for a month or more. But Simon could look into his baby’s eyes. They were blue, but not blue like Roma’s. Blue like Kata’s, or Billy’s.
Blast. Ah, well, me lad, ye’ll wear ’em better than Bill ever did, that’s sure an’ certain.
And the little eyebrows …
“He’s got brown hair!” gasped Simon. “Like –”
“Like me pa,” Roma murmured.
Aye, that was true. Jeremiah Thatcher had had brown hair, back before it went all gray. So ye look like me, an’ like both yer grandpas. How d’ye like that, my man? Eh? Eh?
“Oh, Roma,” Simon gushed, lifting the baby as high as he dared, the better to get a look at him. “He’s the handsomest babe I ever saw. Good Lord! Will ye look at ‘im!”
“He’s a fine one,” Roma agreed. If Simon hadn’t been so engrossed in the new baby, he would have shot his wife a quizzical look. She barely sounded present, let along as ecstatic as a new or new-again mother was supposed to sound. “I were hopin’ …”
“Aye?” Simon asked, bringing the baby to his shoulder, reveling in the feeling of him nestling and rooting against his skin.
“Ter name him fer me da?” Roma asked, biting her lower lip.
“Fer yer da? Sure! Roma, after givin’ me this fine boy, I think I’d let ye name him Sue if that’s what ye really wanted!” He wiggled the baby’s foot. “So — young Jeremiah!”
“Jeremy, I were hopin’?” Roma murmured.
“Jeremy, then! Welcome ter the world, Jeremy!”
Simon bounced the baby, and was on cloud nine. His Roma was safely delivered, fine and healthy. And so was the baby — his son! His own little Jeremy! It couldn’t get any better than this.
And best of all … Simon could finally be secure in the knowledge that he was doing this right.