The day that would end up changing Cressida’s life completely started out normally enough. She got up, washed, and dressed; she scrambled with her mother and her sister to get the children fed and hustled off to school. Then, as soon as all four of them were out from underfoot, the shop opened. The morning was passing by in a blurry haze of work: shelves to be stocked, customers to be seen to, sales to be tallied and cashed.
Cressida was, in fact, taking inventory when the visit came. Later on, she wouldn’t remember what she had been thinking of. Then again, she had probably been concentrating too much on the wares in front of her. The three of them were desperately trying to Geoff up to some kind of speed when it came to managing customers, stocking shelves, and getting good prices for their wares. And they were trying to teach him to make chausses. He was making quite a few as he tried to learn … except they weren’t very good. Unsellable, really. He was only twelve. He’d get more skilled as he grew some. Blanche knew that, Cressida knew it too. It was only Pamela who needed to be convinced.
But that couldn’t have been what she was thinking of. She was probably thinking of how they were running out of sample pairs of chausses. They’d had to sell them, since they could scarcely keep up with customer demand when you factored in all the time spent training Geoff. She was probably trying to sort out where they would find time to make more sample chausses on top of everything else.
With all that to keep her occupied, it was hardly a surprise that she didn’t even notice the shop-bell tinkle when the door opened, though Cressida did firmly remember the cold wind that shouldered its way in and scurried to the back of the store for a look up her skirts.
She would always remember the way Joshua called her name, though.
Hearing that — she turned around in a hurry. She knew the sound of a Joshua in distress by now, none better. They talked at least once a week, if not more — as often as he could come to Port Finessa or Cressida could sneak into Camelot for a Young Mother’s Club meeting. He’d had so much to worry about over the past few months. First his mother’s illness, and then his mother’s death. All the joy and sorrow that came from starting a new business venture in the thick of it, too. Sometimes she thought that the new “bank” was all that was keeping him sane — that and his kids.
And sometimes, Cressida thought, maybe her too. Maybe. For all that they talked a great deal, and about everything and anything … they weren’t just talking, and they hadn’t been just talking for months.
He jogged up to her, panting faintly. His hands shuddered and shook, and his body shivered. And … he wasn’t wearing a cloak. “Josh?” Cressida gasped. “Are you all right?”
Joshua tried a cocksure grin, but it was belied by his beseeching eyes. “Can we … talk?”
“I … er …” Cressida glanced around the shop. The customers seemed to be doing their best to not stare, but … well, their best wasn’t very good. And Blanche and Pamela? They weren’t even trying. Blanche wore a look of long-suffering. After all, when the Cap’n came by the shop, which was sometimes more to antagonize Pamela, Cressida thought, than just to see Blanche, when it was open for business, he always bought something before he left. Joshua … Joshua, Cressida suspected, simply didn’t think of it. He was a man, and a businessman, and businessmen didn’t spend money where it wasn’t needed.
But Pamela, she was grinning openly. “Oh, go on, Cressida!” she laughed, shooing them both forward. “We can spare you for a few minutes!”
Cressida tried her best not to roll her eyes. She didn’t quite succeed. But with any luck, she made up for that in Joshua’s eyes by grabbing his hand and pulling him towards the door from the shop into the house. “Come on,” she whispered as she pulled him through the door, “we can –”
She let go with a little yelp when she crossed the threshold. “Josh! Your hands are like ice!”
“Heh,” Joshua murmured, rubbing them together. “Rode … I rode a bit of a way to get here.”
“With no cloak,” Cressida murmured, “and …” She reached out and took Joshua’s hand. It was red and raw and chapped. She could see the fresh marks where the reins had dug into his old callouses. “Josh! You need to sit down — let me get you something warm to drink. And … will you need dry clothes?”
“I didn’t know it was snowing here,” Joshua murmured, glancing out the window. “I … would have thought to bring a cloak if I had.”
Cressida forced a shrug. Normally the weather on the coasts was milder than it was even a few miles inland, but sometimes a storm blew in off the sea … and, well, you got what you got. “Let me get you something. A blanket, at least.”
“No — no. I … we need to talk, Cressida. Here — you have a seat,” he gestured to the table, “and I’ll — I’ll join you.”
“At least we’ll sit by the fire,” Cressida replied. She led him over to the sofa, still warmed by the fire’s dying embers, and sat, patting the cushion beside her.
Joshua didn’t come. Instead he stood before the fireplace, staring down at the logs, saying not a word.
Well, if he wanted to take a minute to warm up, Cressida wouldn’t stop him. She leaned back against the sofa, wincing as she arched her aching back. She hadn’t had a chance to get off her feet since breakfast. Sometimes she wondered if this was how she felt during a hard day’s work now — when she was as strong and hardy as she would ever get — how would she manage at Pamela’s age? For that matter, how did Pamela manage at Pamela’s age?
The crack’s of Cressida’s bones were louder than she intended them to be; Joshua turned around. “Are — are you –?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Cressida smiled. “Just — relaxing.”
“Relaxing,” Joshua murmured.
“Yes,” she replied with an arch smile. “It’s generally what one does, when one has a chance to get off one’s feet after being on them for an extended period.”
“Ah. Ah, yes! Of course. Relaxing.” Joshua grimaced, though Cressida was rather certain he was trying for a grin. Then, without a further word, he turned around and stared again at the fireplace. He crossed his arms in front of him, one leg stretched out to the side, giving Cressida the perfect opportunity to admire the well-turned leg in its black hosen … and, perhaps, to enjoy the view afforded a bit higher up.
“Cressida, have you ever –” Joshua started, then stopped, turning around again.
“Have I ever?” Cressida asked.
“Have you ever considered … after Edward … the possibility — I mean — after knowing that kind of happiness — and having it ripped away …” He turned around again. “It — it can’t be easy to — to want to take the risk again. And — and part of you must — must have, that is — wondered — what’s the point? You — you can’t replace what’s gone … but all the same, a man, a woman, has … needs …”
And then Cressida realized what he was trying to do — what he had ridden here all the way in the snow for, what was so urgent that he had forgotten a cloak. He was going to propose!
She felt her color rising and her breath coming faster even as he dithered and stammered and tried to talk in hypotheticals. But she needed to — to think. She hadn’t thought when Edward asked her that first time. In fact, if she remembered it correctly, she hadn’t even really been asked. She’d merely been told that he was joining Sir Dustin’s army, they were leaving soon, and he wanted to marry her before he left. “Just in case,” he had said mournfully, his hand over his heart. It was all so touchingly romantic, she had thought at the time, even though they both knew he would be coming back crowned in glory.
And then … he hadn’t.
But now — Cressida couldn’t just say yes. Not without thinking it over first, even if she had to squeeze that thinking in as Joshua stammered and hemmed and hawed. What would be best for Ned? For the family? For her?
She knew Pamela’s answer would be, “Marry him! Marry him now!” But Pamela’s answer had never been good enough for Cressida. If she had, she would have married the first of the red-faced merchants Pamela had presented to her. She wanted more than that. She wanted — she wanted —
“Oh, to hell with it!” Joshua suddenly snapped, sending Cressida straightening up. “I — I’m sorry. I just –”
“Spit it out, Josh,” Cressida replied. It was probably the least romantic way to invite a marriage proposal … but that would make it a great story to tell the grandchildren, wouldn’t it? Surely Granny would have thought so.
“I have — a proposition for you, Cressida.” Joshua’s eyes bulged after a moment, and he stammered, “A — a business proposition!”
A — business proposition? She would tell no one but Dannie, Cressida decided, but … by the way her heart sank, she would have more readily welcomed the other kind.
“Yes. Yes. A business proposition,” Joshua continued, gulping in air. “The way I see it …”
And all of a sudden, the nervousness vanished, replaced by an unruffled urbanity that was doubtless reassuring to the customers of his bank. “The way I see it, Widow Tabard, we — we both have needs, gaps, that the other can fill.”
Did he just call me Widow Tabard?
“I, for instance,” Joshua took another deep breath, “I find myself in the market for … for a female presence. I have young children, and they will need a mother … they already need a mother. And you, you have a young son who needs a father. As you see — here, you have a need, and I have a need. And we can fulfill each other’s needs.”
She couldn’t possibly be hearing this.
“And of course, there are other facets of the problem to consider. Other gaps, other needs. I — I, well, I need more than one son. A man like me, a man trying to build a business, can’t rest all of his hopes on one boy, as much as he would like to. And you have a son, which means that you should be able to have more. As for you, well, you want everything for your son, don’t you? I can give him everything. A fine education, even Camford if he has the ability and the inclination, once he gets old enough — a business to get him started — a …”
He was another red-faced merchant, Cressida began to realize as her heart sank within her. A red-faced, corpulent merchant, twenty years young and in a hell of a lot more attractive package. But below the wrapping, they were the same, weren’t they? They saw the world in terms of profits and losses. They always acted to secure “market advantage,” whatever the hell that was. The worth of a woman, of a life, to them, was nothing more than how many coins found their way onto the right side of the ledger, and how many found their way to the wrong side.
But wasn’t Joshua better than this? The man who so sincerely mourned his wife, who had clearly prized her above any rubies she might have brought in her dowry? The one who loved his children and chased after them and worried after them for their own sweet selves, not for any future profits they might bring him? The one who had been shattered, nearly, by the impending death of his mother? The man who kissed and caressed her sometimes so hesitantly, and sometimes so hungrily? Who held her close and sighed deeply into her hair, shaking with the force of words he could not yet make himself say?
Everything had been going so well … but if this, in the end, was how he saw her, what he thought of her …
“Are. You,” Cressida snarled. “Joking?”
Joshua stumbled, visibly — and spacially — taken aback. “I’m — sorry? No, this isn’t a joke, I’m not trying to –”
“Then that’s all you want — that’s all your thinking of? A business proposition? Am I being interviewed for a live-in housekeeper position?”
“What? No, of course not!”
“Then what do you want?” Cressida leapt to her feet. “What is it that you’re asking, Master Wesleyan?”
“I –” He began to turn red. “I’m asking you to marry me!”
So he was. A bird of excitement — of hope — began to rise in her breast. But Cressida swatted it down. “And so you’re offering me a business proposition?”
“Well, that’s what it is, isn’t it?” Joshua asked. Cressida did not flinch — but her soul could not have stung more fiercely if he had slapped her. “You have needs, and I have needs, and we both have wants, and with a simple bargain we could solve our –”
“What?” Joshua gasped.
“No! I’m not making a bargain with you! I’m not — I’m not going to be entered in as an asset on one side of your ledger sheet! No, no, no!”
“So — you won’t … marry me?” It was the first time, Cressida realized, he had said the words.
“No. Not like this.”
“Not like what?” Joshua protested.
“As a business proposition!” Cressida snapped. “As a — a bargain like any other! I had love when I married Edward, Josh! I’m not settling for anything less than what I had with him!”
Joshua reeled. “I’m — marrying me is settling? I can offer you a thousand times more than what he could have!” His face began to grow red, just like those other merchants, and his fists to shake. “He took advantage of you, damn it! He married you when he couldn’t do a damn thing for you! And then he left you with a baby and went and got himself killed! Leaving you alone with a baby, and no one to help you, no one to take care of you and your son! And then I come along, and I offer to help you, take good care of you, and I’m settling?”
“Yes! Yes, you are, if you’d marry for anything less than what you had with Isabel!” Cressida shouted back.
“She didn’t have much of a dowry, either! She –”
“Damn it, Josh! I’m not talking about that! I’m talking about what’s in your — your heart, not what’s in your purse!”
“My heart! My heart is none of your business. I’m offering you a simple –”
“And I am telling you — no! If I can’t find the same kind of love I had with Edward, or a — a better kind, then I am not marrying again. That’s my answer, Josh — Joshua.” She couldn’t help her voice growing softer. “I had — not it all. But I had all I wanted. And I lost it, and it almost killed me. And now …” She tried to smile. “Can’t you see, Josh, that I’m not going to take the risk of losing it again if I’m not going to get love again?”
Joshua flinched. He stepped back. “Then …” His voice creaked and stretched, trying to hide … something. “Then I suppose we have nothing more to discuss.”
“If that’s how you want to see it.”
“How else am I supposed to see it?” he snapped, then pushed past her. He called over his shoulder, “Good day, madam!”
“Good day, sir!”
But he couldn’t just leave it at that. She could hear him stepping way — thud, thud, thud — but his boots paused just beside the door. “You know,” he yelled back, “you’re a terrible tease! The way — the way you acted these last few months — I thought you liked me!”
“I do like you!” Cressida called back.
“Ha! You’ve got a funny way of showing it!” The wind blew in again as he threw the door open.
“By not allowing you to make the biggest mistake of your life? Is that what you’re referring to?”
“What would you know about the biggest mistakes of my life?”
“Marrying a woman who cares like hell for you — while you see her as nothing more than a piece of meat or a bolt of cloth to be haggled over — that would be the biggest mistake of your life!”
Cressida winced. The thud reverberated through the house. Knickknacks trembled — the shelves vibrated — and she was pretty sure that rolling sound was snow finding its way off the roof. She hoped it landed on Joshua’s head.
“We would have both been miserable, Joshua,” she whispered, even though she knew he couldn’t hear her. “Sims can’t live like that, with one person loving and the other … refusing … to even think about it.” She hugged her chest, closed her eyes, and stared at her shoes.
“Or at least,” she whispered, “I can’t live like that.”
It was a week before she heard from him again. It was not a good week — Pamela had been aghast to hear that Cressida had turned Joshua down, and wouldn’t stop talking about it. But Blanche had patted her shoulder and told her she’d done the right thing. At least Cressida had that much support.
But still, only a week and he was willing to speak to her again. She must have not made her message clear enough.
So she did her best to ignore him as she cashed Goodman Pelles out. Joshua stood by the side of the counter, waiting — for once in his life, she was suspecting — rather patiently. And as soon as she was done …
“Cressida,” he asked, “can we talk?”
“Well, I’m standing right here, and so are you,” Cressida replied. “I suppose you might say something, if you so desired.”
“Would it help if I admitted you were … maybe … right?” Joshua murmured.
That made Cressida look up. “Are you admitting that I’m right?”
Joshua sighed. “Is this how we’re going to try to make up after every fight?”
“That depends. Do you see a lot more fights in our future?”
“If … I hope so,” Joshua replied. “Because … if we don’t, then you probably won’t be speaking to me. And … I want you in my life still, Cressida, if that means anything to you.”
So, he was willing to apologize. That was … something. Not what she wanted, but you didn’t live a life like Cressida’s without realizing that sometimes, you had to take you could get.
“I want you … in my life, that is. Too,” Cressida replied.
Joshua flashed her a smile — the biggest smile she had ever seen on him. Then it faded. “You said .. you said you cared like — like hell about me.”
“Do you — still?”
You didn’t get anywhere in this world if you didn’t have an open heart. You had to leave it open — else, where would you be? Cressida knew. You’d be like Pamela. Always on the make, out for what you could get, never opening up once to experience something that couldn’t be counted in your hand or noted down on a ledger. So — Cressida nodded. “Aye.” She added a bit wryly, “It’d hardly be ‘caring like hell’ if one fight killed it stone dead.”
Joshua stared at her — then he threw his head back and laughed. “I haven’t slept in a week!” he admitted. “And do you know — with everything that could be keeping me up — do you know what it was? Hearing you say you cared like hell about me! And that I … I saw you like a … a bolt of cloth or piece of meat or …”
“I don’t see you like that, Cressida! I swear to Wright, I don’t! I — I …” He stared at her. “But I still love Isabel. That hasn’t … I can’t let that leave …”
She laid a hand on his sleeve. “And I still love Edward. But … she’s not here. He’s not here. And we are here.”
“Do — do you think they would — will forgive us?”
Cressida snorted. “They had damn well better.”
Once again, that smile blossomed and lit up Joshua’s face. And this time, it didn’t fade. “That’s — that’s just what Isabel would have said.”
“You always said she was a smart …” Cressida’s voice trailed away as Joshua’s hand slipped into his purse, and he pulled out a box.
He couldn’t —
He wouldn’t —
He must have said some words. They may have even been pretty ones. Joshua could be quite a glib spokesman, as long as his head was in a position to be listening to his heart. But Cressida could never remember what they were, and she was always too embarrassed to ask Blanche later.
She wasn’t even listening to what he was saying. She was trying to steal those desperate moments to think. When he opened the box — what to do? What to say? What was best for Ned, for her family? What did she want?
But when Joshua opened the box — and more importantly, when she looked over the delicately engraved silver ring, over the lid of the box, to Joshua’s face — she had to stop thinking. Just as with Edward — she knew.
And that was the best reason she could imagine to accept.