Imsdyn 4, 1014
Joshua could not believe that the kids were playing.
Though … perhaps he could. Darius and Baby Belle were good kids, but they were still kids. They couldn’t possibly be as anxious over the birth of their baby brother or sister as Joshua was. Neither of them remembered the last time that a new baby had come to the Wesleyan household. And Joshua … was glad of that. It meant that neither of them remembered their mother, but they had been too little then to bear the pain of that kind of loss.
Who was he kidding? They were too little now. And so was Ned.
… Where was Ned?
“Papa!” That was Baby Belle, tumbling of the twirly toy that Joshua’s shop had made and Joshua had given to the children. She danced around him, winding up closer to the house than he was. “Papa! Is the baby here yet? Can I hold her? Please?”
“Aye, Papa!” added Darius. “Is the baby here yet?”
Joshua laughed. “No, no–the baby’s not here yet. But I promise, I’ll let you know as soon as she comes. Or he!” Joshua pointed out to Baby Belle as Darius went back to playing with Velvet, the dog. “It could be a boy!”
“But I’ve been praying for a girl! Mama said I should, if that’s what I wanted!”
Mama. Baby Belle had been the first — well, other than Ned — to call Cressida “Mama.” It only made sense. They had bonded so quickly. But Joshua was always happy to hear it. It made him surer that he had done right by Darius and Baby Belle, giving them a woman they could call Mama and who would care and love for them just as their mama had.
But today he couldn’t be happy. Not when every last groan and shout that came from the bedroom reminded him of Isabel. He couldn’t even use his memories of how things had gone previously to help him gauge how they were going now. When labor had intensified for Isabel, she had started yelling in Simspanish — so now, no matter what Cressida yelled, it didn’t give him any hint of how things were going.
But he wouldn’t say that to the kids. Cressida had made him swear not to tell the children anything negative, not unless he had to. “Well, sometimes the Lord doesn’t … always listen to our prayers. Especially when he knows that giving us something else will be … better for us.” Joshua swallowed and tried to force his thoughts not to go down a dark path. “Besides! If Mama has a little boy, then you’ll still be the only princess around here! How does that sound?”
“Like I’d have another brother!”
Joshua laughed. Baby Belle could be so like her mother sometimes, especially when she took it into her head to be stubborn. She always knew just what it was that Joshua had meant, never mind what he said. The only time he’d come close to pulling one over on her had been the first time they made love …
Good Lord, part of him couldn’t wait until the children were old enough to hear that story — although in Baby Belle’s case, that would have to wait until she was married. With a few children of her own. Possibly grandchildren as well.
He wondered when Isabel would have said to that … he knew that Cressida would laugh at him and call him an old prude, even if she did agree that the story was a little too salty for a four-year-old’s ears. As soon as this was over, Joshua suddenly decided, he would tell Cressida the story of how he and Isabel decided to marry. She’d get a kick out of it.
And, Isabel — even if you’re jealous of her, even if you’re upset with me … put in a good word for me, will you? For Cressida? Don’t let this happen to your children twice.
Don’t let that happen to me twice.
“Papa?” asked Baby Belle, her adorable little lips pouting.
“What–oh, I’m sorry, Baby. I was woolgathering there.”
“Do you need me to make you happy?” Baby Belle blinked up at him. She had Isabel’s very eyes, even if they were set in the shape of his eyes. “Mama said we’d all have to be cheerful when she was having the baby, ’cause you’d be nervous.”
Oh, she did, did she? So much for only being positive in front of the kids!
“Baby Belle, you and your brothers always make me happy,” replied Joshua, reaching down for a hug.
Baby Belle clung to his neck. “Even when we’re bad?” she asked.
“You three are never bad. You may misbehave more often than I’d like,” he kissed Baby Belle’s forehead, “but you’re never bad.” He squeezed extra tight, then he let go. “But you know what you could do for me, Baby Belle?”
“Can you let me know where your brother is?”
“Darius is right there!” Baby Belle pointed.
“No–no, I meant Ned.”
“Oh!” Baby Belle frowned, chewing her lower lip. She shrugged. “I dunno! I haven’t seen him.”
“Huh. Darius?” Joshua called over his shoulder. “Have you seen Ned?”
Blast. Well, he had to be around somewhere. Joshua would just have to keep searching. “Well, if you see him — either of you — tell him to come in and see me, will you?”
Darius dropped the stick he had been throwing to Velvet. “Ned’s not in trouble, is he?”
“Oh, no, no!” Joshua demurred. “I just want to check in with him, that’s all.”
“Oh, all right!” Darius picked up the stick–well, Velvet had picked it up for him–and after Joshua kissed her forehead one last time, Baby Belle skipped back to her twirly toy.
Then Joshua went back inside.
“WRIGHT DAMN YOU, JOSHUA WESLEYAN!”
“Oh … boy,” Joshua murmured. Ned was suddenly no longer the biggest problem on his mind. He wobbled over to the nearest seat.
“Don’t worry, Josh,” said Freddy with his usual irrepressible and cheerful grin. “Some swearing is a good sign — isn’t it, Rob?”
“You would know better than I would,” Rob demurred — thanks, Rob, Joshua thought. “Since you always come with your wife to these things …”
Well, that was a point Joshua honestly hadn’t considered. It even made sense. Joshua supposed he could trust Rob for that.
Still, he wished that Rob hadn’t just passed the question off.
“Well–swearing usually is a good sign.” He turned that grin back to Joshua. “It means things are going–quickly! The baby will probably be born soon!”
Joshua glanced across the room. “Dad? Is that … what you find? Richard?”
“WHEN I GET DONE, JOSHUA, I WILL HAVE YOUR HEAD!”
Joshua looked at the door and shuddered. “So, Freddy … since you’re the expert here, on a scale of one to ten, with one being s–” No, he couldn’t say “send for the monks.” He’d been there, done that. “Er, one being ‘very bad’ and ten being ‘excellent,’ how good a sign would you rate death threats aimed at the husband and father-to-be?”
Joshua watched as Freddy gulped. “A–well, it depends on the temperament of the lady.” He looked at Rob. “How did you get out of death threats?”
“Oh, the first time, there were plenty of them,” Rob agreed. Joshua remembered that. He remembered that well. “I guess Dannie was calmer when Maude was born.”
Or she hadn’t wanted to upset Rob more than he was upset already. And maybe this was Cressida’s way of keeping Joshua calm, too. If she was threatening to tear his head off, that meant she was alive and well.
Which meant … Joshua could deal with other things, instead of sitting here with his stomach tying itself in knots. “Have any of you seen Ned?” he asked, even though he looked at Rob — Rob was the most likely to have noticed Ned out of all the men.
Rob frowned. “I didn’t see him go upstairs. Or outside. You might want to check the study.”
Joshua nodded. “Thanks. I’ll do that.” He got up and headed to the dining room.
No Ned. Joshua poked his head into the kitchen — there were, after all, much worse places to look for a small boy than a kitchen. But Ned wasn’t there either.
That only left the study … and as Joshua came closer, he could hear …
He ran forward and threw open the door. “Ned?” Joshua exclaimed. He was standing in the middle of the floor, and unless Joshua was a very, very bad judge of the back of a boy’s head, he was crying. “What’s the matter, buddy?”
Ned turned around. Did he look–of course he looked guilty. Joshua might not know why, but he knew “guilty kid” when he saw it. “What is it?” Joshua asked, being sure to make his voice as gentle as he knew how. He closed the study door — nobody else needed to see Ned losing it. “You can tell me.”
“I’m sorry!” Ned snuffled.
“Sorry? What are you sorry for?” Joshua asked. Then he heard how that sounded — at least to a child who had spent the first four years of his life with Pamela — and winced. “Sorry, buddy, that came out wrong. What I mean is … what’s wrong?”
Ned’s lip was still quivering. “Mama told me were were supposed to be happy! Because of the new baby!”
Joshua would definitely be having a talk with Cressida when this was over. He prayed he could. “A new baby is always a reason to be happy.” He hesitated, again remembering that this was a child who’d been partially raised by Pamela. “But it’s all right to be a little jealous. When my mama had her babies, I always got a little jealous — and you should hear what Auntie Heloise was like when Auntie Babette was born!”
“I’m not jealous!” Ned protested.
Sure you aren’t, Joshua thought. Then he remembered that not even a year ago, Ned had gone from being his mother’s only delight, the apple of her eye, to one of three children. He didn’t even have the dignity of being the oldest, no, he was the one stuck in the middle. Maybe Ned wasn’t jealous …
“All right,” Joshua agreed. “But then … what’s wrong, buddy?”
Ned wouldn’t meet Joshua’s eyes. “Darius t-told me what happened to his first mama …”
Joshua had expected a lot of things today. He’d stayed up nights, tossing and turning, trying not to disturb Cressida even as he obsessively tried to imagine the worst possible things that could happen. He’d imagined deformed births. He’d imagined losing Cressida. He’d imagined losing Cressida and the baby. He’d tried to convince himself that no matter what happened, no matter how things went wrong — even if Cressida insisted that they wouldn’t — he would be able to cope.
He’d never imagined this.
Ned was staring at him with huge eyes. He gulped. “I–I don’t want a new baby if it means that Mama has t-t-t-to–”
“No! No, no, no!” Joshua stopped that thought in its tracks. He couldn’t let it finish — what would he say? “Just–just because a new baby is coming–just because Darius’s mama … died when she had Baby Belle, it doesn’t mean anything about your mama. And–and lots of mamas have lots of babies, and everybody’s fine!” Joshua groped. “Think of your grandma! And my mama! Both of them had four babies, and they were all just fine!”
“But this baby will be number four!” Ned whimpered. “Darius, me, Baby Belle — and this baby!”
“No, sonny. For your mama … even though she’s got a big heart, and loves Darius and Baby Belle just the same as if they were her kids the way you’re her kid, it’s only her second baby.”
Not that that was any better. Baby Belle had been Isabel’s second baby.
At least Ned wasn’t thinking along those lines. He swallowed. “But …”
“But what, Ned?”
He scuffed at the ground. “Auntie Blanche says … says it’s always good to know the w-w-worst that could happen … then … then you know what it is, so you know what to worry about …”
That did sound like a Blanche thing to say. The poor woman had certainly lived enough of the worst, starting with … well, Joshua wouldn’t think that. Pamela had somehow managed to raise Blanche and Cressida very well. Wright only knew what the two middle sisters were like!
Joshua swallowed. “That–that’s very sound advice, Ned. You should listen to your Auntie Blanche. She’s a smart woman.” And Joshua was not only saying that because of his own series of sleepless nights.
“Noo!” Ned cried out. “I don’t wanna!”
“I don’t wanna go to the orphanage if something happens to M-M-Mama!”
Joshua’s jaw fell. “What?”
“That’s where they put all the kids that don’t have parents! The orphanage!” Ned cried. “Tor doesn’t have parents! And neither does Pasgen! And Jean doesn’t, and Jade doesn’t, and Tara doesn’t–and they’re all in the orphanage! And I don’t wanna go there!”
“Ned …” Joshua took a deep breath. “Ned, that’s not how it works.”
Ned’s breath hitched in mid-sob. “It … it isn’t?”
“No. No way, little buddy.”
Ned scratched his head. “Then how does it work?”
“Well …” Joshua stroked his chin. “What–what happens is that children who don’t have anybody to take care of them — not just parents, but aunts and uncles, or grandparents, or brothers or sisters or anybody — they go to the orphanage. Because they’re too little to take care of themselves. And then at the orphanage, they take care of the kids, and they make sure they go to school, and then when they get big enough they make sure the kids have a trade … and then, when the kids are all grown up, they can take care of themselves, and go on and get married, and have a job, and do all of the things grown-ups do.”
“But they still don’t have parents,” Ned replied. “And if I don’t …”
“Ned — I promise you, if something happened — Lord forbid! — to your mama, you would not go to the orphanage.”
“Then what would happen?” asked Ned.
Well, that was the question, wasn’t it? He and Cressida really should have discussed this — but Joshua was too terrified to raise the subject, fearful that it would bring ill-luck, and Cressida refused to look away from the bright side in any of this. But … what would happen, for sure and certain … that might not be what Ned needed right now. What he needed was reassurance.
Joshua could give him that.
“Well, buddy … I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know exactly what would happen, or where you would live, or how you would be educated … but I can bet you anything that I know what the first thing that would happen would be.”
“What’s that?” asked Ned.
“Your grandmother and I would get into the biggest fight you ever did see — and it would be over which of us would get to keep you.”
Ned’s eyes bugged out. “You–you would get into a big fight over me?”
“You doubt me?”
“You couldn’t get into the biggest fight,” Ned demurred. “Grandma’s gotten into a lot of big fights!”
And didn’t Joshua know it. “Sure we could,” he answered. “You never saw her get into a fight with me. You think it’s bad when your mama and I get into fights? Or your grandma gets into fights with anybody else? Oh boy! You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, kiddo!”
“But …” Ned bit his lip. “You’d get into a fight over me?”
“Of course we would. We love you, Ned.”
Joshua stopped then — after the words had left him. Had he ever said that yet to just Ned? He said that to all the children, but just to Ned, with just him and Ned alone …
Well, if he hadn’t, it was about damn time he started. “I love you, Ned,” Joshua repeated. “And I promise you, as long as I’m alive,” and even after I’m dead, and I don’t care if I have to drag Heloise back from Camford to make sure of this, “you will never go into the orphanage.”
Ned stared up at Joshua. “You promise?”
“From the bottom of my heart, kiddo.”
Ned’s face bloomed into a smile — for a moment, he looked just like Cressida! — but the smile vanished. “But I still don’t want Mama to –”
“Come here,” Joshua said — and he didn’t give Ned much of a choice in the matter, bending down and pulling him into a hug. “We all love Mama very much. And we’re going to pray to the Lord Wright, right now, to make sure that she stays safe and strong and has her baby nice and–”
“Yoo-hoo!” The door to the study flew open. “A little boy here wants to meet his daddy!”
Joshua couldn’t help it — he jumped. Still holding onto Ned. He let go in a hurry. “St. Robert on a llama, Dannie! Don’t you ever–”
He started to spin. He stopped.
Dannie was holding a baby …
And she was already giving that poor baby one of her looks. “Oh, boy, Paul. We better not tell Mama that the first words your daddy said to you were swear words!”
“M-Mama?” Ned whispered, peeking around Joshua.
“Ned! And you’re in here, too? Oh boy — Papa’s in a lot of trouble with Mama, if Paul and I squeal!”
“But–is Mama …” Ned’s lips were quivering again.
“Mama is just fine,” Dannie replied. “She’s very happy, now that little Paul is born, and she can’t wait to have all you kids in the same room together to show him off.” Dannie held Paul out so Ned could get a better look. “And now she’s going to be mad at me, too, because I showed Paul to you before she could!”
Ned laughed. “Oh boy! We better not tell Mama!” He waved. “Hi, Paul!”
“And even if we do tell Mama,” Joshua mumbled — even with the relief flooding through him, he couldn’t resist a tit for tat — “it’s not like she can complain about how I greeted little Paulie, given what I heard her yelling.”
“That’s different,” replied Dannie.
“How come?” asked Ned.
Dannie turned back to Ned, and for a moment Joshua had a horror-struck vision of just what she was about to say to Ned. Comments about shoving and melon-sized heads and grape-sized holes …
But he should have known better than to think Dannie would say that to Ned. “Because she’s Mama — and things are always different for Mamas.” Dannie winked at Joshua.
Joshua breathed out again. He had a lot of things to be thanking the Lord for. Starting with this little miracle in his sea-green blanket. “Mind if I have a look at my son?” Joshua asked.
Dannie didn’t even have a joke for him — she just passed Paul over.
Paul. It was the name he and Cressida had chosen, simply because Cressida had always liked it. Joshua studied his boy’s face. It was too early to pick out facial resemblances, but those were definitely Cressida’s eyes staring back at him. And Cressida’s hair in those little blonde eyebrows.
And Cressida … Cressida would be telling him in five minutes or so about every other resemblance he could possibly imagine …
The relief was almost powerful enough to knock him off his feet. Almost. He couldn’t fall down when he was holding the baby.
Joshua brought Paul to his shoulder.
“Hello, Paul,” he whispered into his ear. “Welcome to the world. You have no idea how happy we are to see you.”
And … Isabel, Joshua added in his head, if you — if you pulled any strings for us …