Hybel 25, 1013
Mark hadn’t been this nervous since … since …
Good Lord, when had he been this nervous last?
It had to be when he was courting Helena. Yes — that was the last time he had flirted seriously with the possibility of rejection. He had never been all that afraid that Wei Li might reject his advances. Mark Wesleyan was a fairly wealthy man, well able to afford Wei Li’s attentions whenever he wanted them. She wouldn’t turn down his coin, so he always had that failsafe.
But tonight … tonight she might reject him. Or worse, she might accept him for all the wrong reasons.
And that wasn’t even counting everything else that had gone wrong today …
However, what he was doing tonight was more than enough to make Mark nervous, and so he would focus on that. For Mark was not a fool. He knew he was courting public snickers and ridicule, bringing a woman like Wei Li to a nice place like this. And the tongues would clack twice as loudly since it hadn’t even been a year since Helena’s death. They would say that he was moving on too soon, or that he was disrespecting her memory.
Mark, however, had known Helena rather better than the tongue-clackers. And despite all of their problems, he knew one thing. Helena wouldn’t want him to wait. Not on her account. Life was too short.
That was the thought he clung to as Wei Li made her way through the door to the restaurant, silhouetted in the last rays of the setting sun.
She looked almost as nervous as he felt, wringing her hands in and out of each other! But what cause could she have to be nervous? She wasn’t the one running the risk of …
She was a — lady of the night. In a nice restaurant. Being seen in public with one of the wealthier merchants of the kingdom. The tongue-clackers could get to her, too. And they might be able to make her suffer more than they would make him.
Still, at least … well, at least they had each other? At least Mark had some idea of how to comfort a nervous woman. “Wei Li!” He smiled and stepped closer, kissing her on both cheeks. “You look beautiful tonight.”
Wei Li laughed. “I look just as I do every night.”
“Well–if that isn’t so!” Mark laughed as carelessly as he could. Damn it! He’d managed to mess up within the first half-dozen words! He had intelligence, he had to — where did it go when he talked to Wei Li?
“But if you think I look beautiful tonight, then you must think I look the same every night — and that, Mark, is the kind of compliment, sincerely given, that most women would gladly trade every last jewel to hear.” She smiled gently at him, dark eyes sparkling. She was a treasure. Why hadn’t anybody married her? There had to have been a time before she became what she was, a time when even a coward like him would have been throwing himself at her feet and begging for her hand.
“But enough complimenting of me,” Wei Li went on. “How are you, Mark? How was your day?”
Oh, Lord. He did not want to go into that.
“Mark?” Wei Li asked in some alarm.
“Eh …” He tried to laugh. “That can wait until we’re seated. Don’t you think?” he asked, almost pleaded. Even better, they wouldn’t discuss this at all, and he could forget the morning he had had —
No, that wouldn’t do. She’d hear about it soon enough — everybody would — and it would be wrong and cruel to keep the knowledge from her out of some childish desire for a perfect evening. If he wanted something — something more than the relationship between whore and client, then he needed to take the first steps toward that himself.
However, in the meantime, he could busy himself by talking to the hostess and procuring them a table.
At least the hostess didn’t do anything in word or deed to suggest that there was something amiss with Mark and his female companion. She must have been some kind of paragon. Or, more likely, she didn’t care who her patrons brought with them, as long as they behaved themselves, ordered expensively, and came with enough money to pay the reckoning.
The hostess led the way to a fine little table tucked neatly into an alcove. And as soon as they were seated, a young waiter made his way over to their table with bills of fare. Mark couldn’t help but watch the waiter and Wei Li. Had he … Had she …?
Well, if either of them had, they didn’t show it. Wei Li began to peruse the bill as Mark placed an order for a flagon of Reman white wine. “Order whatever you like,” he said as the waiter disappeared to fetch the wine.
Her eyebrows rose. “You are certain?”
“Of course I’m certain. What — you think I can’t afford to take a nice lady out to a dinner as nice as she is?” Mark laughed. But the hollowness of it rang and echoed through the restaurant, to his ears. Oh, he could afford this. There was no question of that. But … how, given what he and Joshua had discovered this morning?
Wei Li heard the hollowness, too. Delicate black brows furrowed. “Mark? Is something wrong?”
Mark tried to laugh it off again. “Ask questions like that, my dear, and any well-meaning gentleman might be excused for thinking that you have your doubts about the depth of his purse.”
Wei Li tilted her head to one side. “But you know that is not what worries me.”
… Damn. She was too smart by half, that one.
“Can it wait until the wine comes?” Mark finally settled for pleading.
She blinked, but she nodded. And, mercifully, before more than a few awkward seconds had passed, the waiter came with their flagon.
And of course, once the wine came, they had to order. Wei Li requested prawns seared with lime, Mark chose the more pedestrian fried chicken. There was something to be said for comfort food, after all.
Before Wei Li could ask again, Mark lifted his goblet. “A toast?”
Wei Li’s eyebrows rose, but she nodded and lifted her glass. “To …”
“To friendship,” Mark answered. “And to more than friendship. And to — seizing the day, and the night, because we never know what tomorrow will bring.”
“Carpe diem?” Wei Li asked, raising her glass.
Mark blinked. “You know Reman?”
Half a smile poked at one corner of Wei Li’s mouth. “I … spent some time in Reme.”
“Truly? You’ve never mentioned that before.”
Her eyes dropped. “It … was not a happy time in my life. I prefer not to dwell on it.”
Mark blinked. “Oh …” Well, a gentleman wouldn’t press. He smiled, wan, and raised his glass. “To carpe diem.”
“To carpe diem,” Wei Li repeated. They clinked goblets and drank.
Though as Wei Li brought the goblet down, there was a little frown on her lips. Mark panicked. Was the wine too sweet? Too dry? Did she not like white wines?
“You know,” she mused, “I am not sure that was entirely grammatical.”
“To carpe diem. You see, carpe is a verb, and even though diem is a noun …”
Mark laughed. “Goodness! Ah, Wei Li, talk to my Heloise — talk even to my Rob — about grammar and all that … stuff, but don’t talk to me! I can’t tell a verb from a hole in the ground.”
“Mark! Of course you could.”
“Well, maybe I could, if I wanted,” he chuckled, “but I don’t really want to.” He sighed, but it was a contented sigh. “I–truly I don’t know where Rob and Heloise get it from. Helena was never much interested in book-learning. And Lord knows that I wasn’t, either.”
“Perhaps there was a grandparent?” Wei Li asked. “That kind of interest can sometimes skip generations.”
Mark considered that. “It’s … it’s possible. I never met Helena’s mother. And my own mother was very devout. I remember her reading the Book of Wright all the time.” He paused. “It was the only book we had.”
Wei Li looked about to reply, but their food came, forestalling her. As soon as the waiter was gone, though, she leaned forward. “And … you have more books, now?”
“Do we ever!” Mark laughed. “Some fathers worry about their children eating them out of house and home. I always worried about mine reading me out of house and home!”
“Oh, I don’t think that is possible.”
“You haven’t met Rob and Heloise! Heloise especially. She never saw a book but she wanted to read it cover to cover and dissect every argument in it. I knew before she was seven that I’d have to be sending her to Camford, too, along with her brothers — I’d never forgive myself, otherwise.”
“That is very good of you, to invest so much in a girl’s education. Most fathers wouldn’t.” Wei Li smiled. “Is she married now?”
“No–no. She joined the Sisters of St. Allegra. In Camford. When she writes — well, she sounds happy.” Mark sighed.
“Is that … bad?” Wei Li asked.
“Well–it’s not what you want for your children, is it?” Mark asked, then kicked himself. How would Wei Li know? She didn’t have any–
She did have children. He remembered her pregnancies. But she never spoke about what happened to the children that resulted from the pregnancies. They must have been at the orphanage. Mark flinched. How could she do that? He could have never held his own child in his arms and then given him up. He couldn’t even hold another man’s child in his arms and give her up.
“I–I mean,” Mark hedged, “you want — you want your children to have everything. Every kind of happiness there is. I wish she could have had a family along with her studies.”
Wei Li shook her head. “I do not see why she should have to choose.”
“Well, in Camford, they won’t let you teach unless–”
Wei Li shook her head. “No, no, I understand — your Camford. Your religion.”
“What I do not understand is why your Church insists that those with the best minds should serve it, and why they should not have families. In Smina, those who have the best minds, those who choose to become scholars, they are encouraged to have families. Where else is the next generation of scholars to come from?”
Mark blinked. “Er … I never thought of it that way.”
Wei Li smiled and took a sip of her wine. “People here never do.”
Mark wondered what else he and his compatriots had never thought of.
“So,” Wei Li asked, still looking at him archly over the rim of her goblet, “are you ready to talk about … what it is that is bothering you?”
He stared at her. He had gone — how long? — without even thinking about that! But now Wei Li had brought it all back …
Mark could do nothing but slip into the last refuge of a Wesleyan man in distress: laughter, of a kind. As lightly as he could, he replied, “Well, we were robbed this morning!”
Wei Li dropped her goblet. “What?”
Women never seemed to take that kind of humor well.
“Well, burgled, technically,” Mark went on, trying to reassure her as best he could. “And it was the stables. Not the house.” He wouldn’t be able to joke if it had been the house — with him sleeping in it, with Joshua and Cressida sleeping in it, with the children sleeping in it. “And–and, don’t look like that, Wei Li! Would I be this calm if I was standing on the brink of disaster?”
“You were robbed …” Wei Li repeated through white lips.
“Burgled. And all that was taken was a pair of old nags — Flossie and Walnut — barely worth more than what the tanner would pay for their hides. We lost more money because we couldn’t do business today because of … well.”
Mark still couldn’t believe that was all that was taken. The robbers — burglars — whatever could have taken Marcellus, their prize stallion. They could have taken the whole bloody stables! And they could have taken all the silver, all the property deeds Joshua had collected for his bank and kept in the office. The office was the first place Joshua had run to after they realized the theft, but the lock on the door hadn’t even been touched, and not so much as a copper coin was out of place.
Who would risk running their neck into a noose for horse thievery just to take some old nags?
“And old Matthias should be fine,” Mark went on. “Brother Andy says it wasn’t that bad a tap on the head. He should be right as rain in a few days.”
“Our night watchman,” Mark answered. Who they would shortly be pensioning off. Twenty years ago, a single night watchman had been more than enough for the stables. Now … well, no more.
Besides, twenty years ago, old Matthias had been thirty.
Wei Li continued to stare at him. “How … how can you be so calm? So jovial? You were — you were robbed!”
“Burgled,” Mark corrected. “And … well, it could have been worse. A lot worse.” The robbers, whoever they were, hadn’t gone near the house. They hadn’t gone after Joshua’s bank, all the money that didn’t technically belong to Joshua but was his responsibility to keep safe. What had they been thinking, keeping it in the stables with only old Matthias to guard it at nights?
“And …” Mark looked at his plate and shrugged, unable to meet Wei Li’s eyes. “It’s what Josh and I will be discussing, nonstop, for the next … Lord only knows. Until we find a solution. Lord help me, I just want a break.”
Wei Li didn’t answer at first. Mark looked up, wondering what he had said that was wrong.
He found her smiling at him almost impishly. “And a break you will have.” She blew him a kiss.
As if on cue, suddenly the delicate strains of the harp filled the restaurant. Wei Li looked behind her, trying to find the source of the sound. Then she turned back to Mark. “Dance?”
Mark’s mouth opened. He hadn’t danced — really danced in … in years …
Aw, what the hell?
“I would be delighted,” he replied. He stood and extended a hand to Wei Li. “Shall we?”
“I believe we should.” She giggled, carefree as a girl, as she rose.
He led her closer to the harp, remembering only at the last moment that dancing had never been his strong suit. The most he could manage was to hold his girl and sway mostly in time to the music. Helena had always been impatient with that. But Wei Li — even with the added awkwardness of Mark not quite knowing where to put his hand, given the enormous bow she wore on her back — didn’t seem to mind. She even smiled.
Mark pressed her a little closer and smiled back.
This — this was happiness that he hadn’t known in a long, long time. He had the most beautiful woman in the establishment in his arms. And unlike those days years and years ago, when it had been Helena there, this most beautiful woman in the room seemed to like being there. She wasn’t looking around, searching for a better prospect. She seemed happy where she was. And Mark was happy with her there.
He had to wonder — what else did he need?
He leaned closer, tested a teasing kiss. When he pulled away, Wei Li was smiling. Bolder, he leaned in and kissed her again. She was warm, inviting, responsive.
That was what decided him. Because there was a voice niggling at the back of his head — if he didn’t ask her now, when would he next get the courage? As Helena would point out, you only lived once, and you never knew when your time would be up. The monks would say that was why you had to be penitent and self-denying all the time. But Helena would say that was why you needed to live.
He pulled away. “Wei Li … I have a question. And–and I don’t want an answer now. I want you to think about it.” If he was going to be rejected, he didn’t want it to be tonight. And if he was going to be accepted for the wrong reasons, he didn’t want it to be tonight.
Her eyebrows arched. “Very well …”
Mark let her go and stepped back. “Wei Li … have you ever thought about … about it just being you and me? I could support you, you know. Not as well as — well, not as well as some could. But I could keep you comfortable. And happy, I hope.”
Wei Li blinked. “Mark … Mark, are you suggesting …”
“I don’t — I don’t know what you’d call it. But — but I could get you someplace to live. Someplace nice. And an allowance, for dresses and food and … and whatever else you might like to spend it on. And — and it would just be you and me.”
Wei Li kept blinking. She brought a hand to her lips and gasped. “This — this is not just business to you, is it? Or even pleasure?”
Mark shrugged, aware though he was of the flush creeping up his cheeks. “I don’t think there’s any secret in that.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Wei Li whispered. “I don’t –” She bit her lip. “My friends …”
“You don’t have to — to say anything, yet. Please, don’t.” Mark tried to smile. “Think about it. And, when you have an answer …”
He reached forward and took her hand, brought it to his lips, and kissed it. “Well — you know where to find me.”