Tyves 13, 1013
Ever since Erin had moved into her very own home, with her very own things, doing her very own cooking all of the time, it never ceased to amaze her to see just how dirty a stove could get.
She scrubbed with the rag, her elbows already aching and weary from the effort. Part of her knew damned well why her stove got so dirty. When she was at Marigold’s, the girls had had long, leisurely afternoons in which to get the cleaning done, since business didn’t tend to pick up until nightfall. Erin could clean the stove a little every day in less than five minutes. The same for the counters and other food-preparation services — not that there was even that much food preparation going on. She, Wei Li, and Tambu tended to have liquid suppers, which cut one meal out of the running. Marigold and Mirelle didn’t eat at all. And Marigold’s garden produced so much fresh fruit and vegetables that she tended to trade it with the owner of the Onion for a hot meal or two a week brought across the lane for them. Sometimes Marigold used to grumble that it was the least the Onion could do for them, since it was thanks to her that they got so much business anyway — first of all, for founding her house right across the lane from them, and secondly, from giving them her fruits and vegetables to make such good food with.
But now that Erin lived on her own, it was different.
She had a growing boy to care for, a lad who needed a hot meal or two every day with no exceptions. She had so much less time. Wulf was a little whirlwind, dashing through her life and strewing a mess in his wake. It was hard enough just to keep up with him. And she had her job, too — rehearsals and actual performances, all of which took up more time than she was ever led to expect. It was what kept food in Wulf’s tummy and hers and kept a roof over both of their heads, so Erin wouldn’t complain. But she didn’t always have off work when Wulf had off school, so she made sure those days were special, spent doing fun things. When Wulf was at school and Erin wasn’t at work, that was the time for cleaning.
And if she hurried, she could get this done by the time Wulf came home, and they could both walk to the market —
Now who can that be? Erin wondered as she walked over to the door. Maybe it was Nicole. She had cajoled her friends into coming for one of Erin’s performances at the theater just two days ago, and Erin had persuaded Master Henslowe to let the women come around backstage. All of them had been thrilled — even Master Henslowe, who, if Erin recognized that look in his eyes, was probably trying to think of a way to turn this into a new revenue stream — but Nicole and Erin hadn’t really gotten a chance to talk. Maybe if she was coming over …
It wasn’t Nicole.
“Good–Goodman Chevaux?” Erin asked, trying to keep her voice from squeaking. And why should it squeak? What had she — that is, what had Widow Shepherd, respectable Widow Shepherd, to fear from this man? He was a good man, a kindly one; everyone agreed about that. Erin swallowed, set her chin, and tried to remember that.
Edmond Chevaux smiled in reply, the same gentle, kindly smile she was sure he gave to everyone. “Hello, Widow Shepherd. I — I hope I ain’t disturbin’ ye.”
“No, not at all,” Erin lied. But she did not invite him in. Instead, she slipped out, though she left the door open behind her. Only a fool blocked off her easiest escape route when dealing with a strange and potentially dangerous man. “Can … can I be helpin’ ye at all?”
His brows puckered, but the look in his eyes was as much concern as it was confusion. “I don’t mean ye no harm, ye know.”
Erin’s heart dropped into her stomach. Good Lord — he knew!
He knew! She had not seen him for almost a year — not since Nicole’s wedding! — but he knew!
“Oh, blast, that were the wrong thing ter say, weren’t it?” he asked. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like — like ye would’ve heard it. I jest wanted …” He sighed. “Well, never mind that. I shouldn’t’ve come. Not if it were gonna rattle ye so. I’m sorry. I’ll — I’ll be off, then, an’ never ye mind me.”
Erin blinked. She had never heard — she wondered if anyone had ever heard — Edmond speak so quickly, his words running into each other and toppling over each other. And she had never seen him look at any other Sim like he was looking at her — half-pleading, half-terrified, shuffling his feet and pulling at his forelock. She always thought him calm, serene, unflappable even.
What could possibly be making him so nervous? It wasn’t … it wasn’t her, was it? It could be. Cerise Chevaux had had red hair in her youth, or so Erin had been told. If that was all it was …
“Wait, sir. What — what is it ye were wantin’ ter talk about?” Erin asked.
Edmond’s eyes dropped to the floorboards, then they returned just as quickly to meet hers, with no lingering on anything in between. And his answer was just one word, but it said it all.
Erin couldn’t help her gasp.
“It were the name,” he said, once again in his usual slow, deliberate manner of speaking. But there was something else there, something like the manner of a man speaking slowly and calmly to a wounded and frightened animal, seeking to calm and soothe so he could help it. “Wulf. An’ Erin. It’s … it’s a small kingdom. I never fergot those names. I thought … I thought ter meself, what’re the odds? How many other women named Erin out there with a son called Wulf?”
Erin swallowed. “Won’t — won’t ye come in?”
“Not if ye don’t want me ter. Like I said, I don’t mean ye no harm.”
Did it matter if he meant harm or not? He could cause harm. You didn’t piss off men who could harm you.
“Please come in,” Erin answered, slipping into the house and waving him in after her. “Ye — ye hungry? I can fix a late lunch. I didn’t eat meself, so it won’t be no trouble.”
“Only if ye want ter, Widow Shepherd.”
Odd — he ought to know that she was no widow. But he still addressed her as if she was. Why? It couldn’t just be politeness …
“It’s no trouble,” Erin said again, rooting around in the larder for what she would need. She would make — let’s see — a salad. Something quick and easy, and it took advantage of the first fruits from Marigold’s garden, too. Yes. That would do it.
She’d even have a perfectly innocent reason to have a knife in her hands, in case … well. Just in case.
“Well, I’ll be thankin’ ye, an’ that’s no lie,” Edmond replied. He didn’t speak after that, not while Erin kept gathering her vegetables.
Then he did. “He — he looks like Pierre, don’t ye think?”
Erin almost stiffened. It was only her acting job that gave her the ability to stay loose. “Dunno. All I know is, he don’t look like me.”
“He looked enough like Pierre fer ye ter claim Pierre fer his father.”
Well … there was no lying about that. “He did. He did indeed.”
“An’ he still do, ter me mind.”
There was no reply Erin could make to that other than a nod. If she’d ever had feelings for Pierre other than those of mild gratitude for a john who wasn’t rough or stingy, looking at Wulf’s face might have caused her no end of pain. But when she looked at Wulf, she could just see Wulf and not care a fig for who sired him.
At least, she used to. Now … now it wasn’t going to be that simple, was it?
“Widow …” Edmond sighed. “I … I don’t see no point in beatin’ round the bush much. Ye ain’t comfortable with me, I can see that. An’ I dunno what more ter say ter ye ter … ter help ye get comfortable. I don’t mean ye no harm, an’ I mean it. I ain’t about ter tell anyone what, well, what I guessed. I figure, that’s yer business — who ye are, who ye been — it ain’t none o’ mine. An’ Lord knows I’d never say nothin’ ter get that Brother Tuck anywhere near ye again.”
“Ye don’t like ‘im?” Erin asked, pausing in her chopping of the different vegetables.
She couldn’t see his face, but she could almost hear his eyebrows going up. “I wouldn’t think ye’d be one ter have nothin’ against Brother Tuck. I know yer wife …”
Silence for a moment. Erin watched the knife fly under her fingertips, slicing and dicing with a speed that showed just how nervous she was. Then Edmond asked, quietly, “What … what about me wife?”
“Ye hear things,” she replied.
Erin pondered, then shrugged. “Such as, she didn’t speak ter yer daughter — an’ her children — fer years, on account o’ the man what gave them ter her.”
Edmond sighed. “There ain’t a day that goes by when I don’t wonder if maybe Cerise were right …”
Erin’s knife slipped.
“Though not on account o’ the reasons ye’re probably thinkin’,” Edmond replied, a hint of dryness in his drawl. “Hell, maybe not even fer the reasons Cerise had. An’ I ain’t sayin’ she were right ter cut Rosette off … I’ll never say that. But I will … well, never mind. Ye don’t care none about that.” He hesitated. “… Do ye?”
Erin took a deep breath, checked her finger again for blood — there wasn’t any — and shrugged. It was a genuine enough shrug, all things considered. Rosette Chevaux’s problems were no business of hers, and they weren’t of much interest to Erin, either. “Not particularly.” She cast a glance over her shoulder at Edmond, narrowed her eyes, and fired her barb. “I’m more interested in why ye are here, an’ what it is ye want with me son.”
“He’s me grandson.”
Erin swept the vegetables into a bowl, fished a wooden spoon out of the drawer, and started mixing.
“An’ I know ye’re thinkin’ it’s awful greedy o’ me,” Edmond went on, even though Erin hadn’t been thinking any such thing. “I’ve got thirteen grandchildren ter me name, fer all that the Lord’s taken two o’ ’em back, with one more on the way, too.”
His count was off by one, if Erin’s memories of Jean’s baby face were any guide. But still she said nothing.
“But …” Edmond sighed. “There’s this friend Basil’s made — Niven. Niven Ruskin. His family came over from Glasonland-way, driven out by the war. He lost both o’ his parents on the same day. I watch that kid … an’ I saw his sister, his eldest sister, when she came ter fetch him one afternoon. I seen his brother, too. An’ I think ter meself … here are these kids, who need someone ter take care o’ ’em, someone ter love ’em. How many more kids out there need that? I can’t help ’em all …” His voice dropped. “But there’s one I know about … one I can help.”
Erin paused. Without a word, she dumped the contents of the bowl onto two small plates, handed one to Edmond, and led the way to the table. Edmond followed.
Still not speaking, Erin began to eat.
Edmond cleared his throat. “Er … did I say somethin’ ter offend ye, Widow Shepherd?”
Erin chewed. She swallowed. She took a deep breath. And when she felt utterly in command of herself, she allowed herself to turn to Edmond. “Wulf don’t need no help.”
Edmond blinked, then he bowed his head. “I’m sorry, Widow Shepherd. I didn’t mean it like that. O’ course, ye’re a great ma ter yer son, an’ he don’t want fer nothin’ ye can give him. But what I mean … what I was tryin’ ter say … a boy needs a man in his life, Widow Shepherd. One who can show him what’s what, help him ter grow up ter be the best man he can be.”
“Plenty of good men have grown up without fathers,” Erin answered, tossing her head as she hadn’t done since she was a girl.
“That’s so, that’s so. Plenty o’ good women out there, raisin’ good sons ter be good men. I don’t doubt but yer one o’ ’em. But Widow Shepherd … all o’ those boys, I’d reckon, have some kind o’ man in their lives, ter help show ’em the way. An uncle, a good friend o’ their mas … maybe even a grandfather …”
“Ye’ve got thirteen–fourteen–twelve–however many other grandchildren ye talked about. How much time would ye even be able ter give ter Wulf, eh?” Erin challenged.
Edmond blinked. “What — what d’ye mean?”
Erin stabbed a bit of lettuce with her fork. “I don’t want ter be bringin’ no more people inter his life just fer him ter watch ’em get ripped away. He’s had enough o’ that.”
“Aye. He has,” Edmond agreed.
Erin gaped at him.
“What, Widow Shepherd? Ye think I’d disagree? No. I remember … I remember the way ye looked, ye sounded, after he were taken from ye. I can’t help but imagine he were worse. But … but let me axe ye this, Widow Shepherd. What’s life, if not watchin’ people come inter yer life an’ havin’ ter say goodbye ter them again?”
Damn the man. When he put it like that …
Erin shook her head. “An’ what would we say ter him, hmm? Ter explain why ye’re takin’ an interest?”
“Widow Shepherd, Wulf’s only … six, I think. Kids that age … they don’t necessarily go axin’ the same questions an adult would.”
There were plenty of adults on the square. They would go asking. And some … some might even note the resemblance. Wulf had her eye color, but there was no denying that other than that, he had Edmond’s eyes.
“Besides, if it worries ye, well, when I do things with me other grandkids, I can jest axe him ter tag along. He’ll get ter meet a lot o’ other kids that way.”
“All twelve o’ yer other grandkids?” Erin asked, smiling a little in spite of herself.
“Well, maybe not all o’ ’em, not all at once,” Edmond replied, chuckling. “I wouldn’t take all o’ em out fishin’. Lisette and Jemmy, now, they’d crawl right inter the water. An’ I’m afraid Katie an’ Nora have enough o’ fish, fer all that Paddy an’ Sean can still stand it now an’ again.”
“Fishin’,” Erin mused. There was a stream right behind the house … and the landlord kept some rods in the storeroom that anyone was welcome to use, provided they put them back … Wulf was always asking her if he could do some fishing …
“Maybe we can start small?” Edmond asked — or pleaded. “A little bit o’ fishin’? Every now an’ again?”
Erin narrowed her eyes. She thought. And then she asked the question on which everything else — if she was honest — depended.
“What about Pierre?” And more importantly — what about his wife?
“Ah.” Edmond nodded the slow nods of a man deep in thought. “I weren’t plannin’ on lettin’ him know …” He sighed. “He an’ Meg are doin’ so well. I weren’t gonna run the risk o’ ruinin’ that.”
“But if he were ter find out?”
Edmond stared at her and shrugged. “What are ye axin’, Widow Shepherd?”
“If ye want ter be anywhere near Wulf,” Erin replied, “ye can’t let yer daughter-in-law get wind o’ it. Ever. I can’t be takin’ those kind o’ risks with him.” After all, who was more likely than an injured wife to tell Brother Tuck what kind of trick had been played on him, and moreover, where the people who played that trick were hiding?
Edmond blinked. “Widow Shepherd, I can tell ye right now that Meg wouldn’t –”
“So ye think. So ye think. I don’t care what ye think. That woman could destroy everythin’ I worked so hard ter build. An’ some would say she has good reason ter do it. I ain’t takin’ that risk. If ye go anywhere near Wulf, she can’t know. An’ that’s the last word I’ll say on it, Goodman Chevaux.”
She watched Edmond’s brows furrow in thought. “I’ll do all I can ter keep ‘er from findin’ out.” He sighed. “That’s all I can promise, Widow Thatcher. I hope it’s –”
“Mama!” The door was pushed open, and in hopped Wulf. “Mama, I’m home!”
Erin froze. So did Edmond.
With both of them in front of her, there was no denying the resemblance. Wulf’s eyes stared at her twice — one pair confused, the other faintly pleading. Erin swallowed.
Wulf scratched his head — or rather his hat, since he hadn’t bothered to take it off yet. “Um … hello, sir?” Wulf glanced at Erin, smiling the smile of the child who isn’t sure he’s doing right but wants to get points for trying.
Edmond looked to Erin, too.
Erin took a deep breath. “Wulf, I want ye ter meet a … a friend o’ mine. This is Goodman Chevaux. Ye remember him? From Nicole’s weddin’?”
Wulf narrowed his eyes and tilted his head, staring at Edmond for a long moment. Edmond smiled back. Then Wulf blushed and scuffed the floor. “Sorry, sir. I don’t ‘member ye.”
“Well, that’s no worry, Wulf,” replied Edmond, rising only to crouch down to Wulf’s level. He stuck his hand out to Wulf. “I remember ye right well enough.”
Wulf grinned and shook his hand. “Thank’ee, sir!”
Erin gulped and smoothed her dress. “We were jest havin’ a late lunch, Wulf. Ye hungry? I can fix somethin’ fer ye.”
“No, thank’ee, Mama, I’m good!”
Erin snorted. Sure, he said that now, but give him an hour …
“So’s, ye two are friends?” Wulf asked, curiosity lighting his face. “Mama don’t have a lot o’ men friends. Jest women.”
Erin had to duck and turn her head — it was the only way not to burst out into laughter.
“Mama?” Wulf called.
“Nothin’ — nothin’, sweetheart. Jest somethin’ went down the wrong–pipe …”
“Say, Wulf,” said Edmond — of the men to come to her rescue! “Ye wouldn’t happen ter know any little boys around these parts who like ter fish, d’ye?”
“Fishin’?” Wulf blinked. “I always wanted ter go fishin’! But Mama ain’t sure how … an’ there’s no one else ter take me …”
“Is there? Well, maybe … someday …” Edmond turned to Erin; Erin slowly nodded. “Maybe someday, if yer ma is all right with it, I’ll take ye.”
“Could we go now?” Wulf asked. “There’s a stream! An’ there’s rods an’ stuff in the storeroom! Oh, can we go, Goodman Chevaux? Can we, can we?”
Goodman Chevaux blinked, then he turned to Erin. “If it’s all right with yer ma …”
Erin hesitated. “How much homework ye got, Wulf?”
“Not a lot!”
“What’s that mean, eh?”
“… It won’t take me long ter finish it?” Wulf replied, that pleading smile plastered on his face. And Edmond’s face was pleading, too.
How could Erin say no?
So she didn’t. “All right, be off with ye two. Have fun now. But Wulf, soon as ye’re done, ye’re doin’ yer homework.”
“Yay!” Wulf grabbed Edmond’s hand and dragged him out the door.
As for Erin, she sat at the table.
Her son was going fishing. With his grandfather. She was making an old man happy — and her little boy besides. With any luck, Meg Chevaux wouldn’t find out …
With any luck … nothing would go wrong.