Osgary 16, 1014
“Well, if your sweetheart is dark-haired and dark-eyed, sir, I’d suggest going with the red,” said Rosette. “A bold red on a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman is always very striking. I can assure you that every eye in the room will be going to her — in a good way.”
Rosette folded her hands before her and waited, smiling patiently. She could have said more — she could have brought up how a red would match the guard’s uniform, making the two of them an exceptionally well-matched couple when they went out together. Or she might have suggested pairing the red with a bit of green. She knew that Katie would have said something like that if Katie had the sole charge of this sale. But Rosette was not Katie, and Rosette found it best not to lay it on too thick.
“But …” the guard began.
“Yes, sir?” Rosette asked, smiling as firmly as she could manage.
“She don’t like colors that are bold and rich. She likes lighter ones.”
“Pastels?” asked Rosette, her stomach starting to sink.
“Aye! That’s the word!”
Why didn’t you tell me this? Rosette wondered. And more importantly — why had the guard been looking at the fabrics dyed in the boldest, richest colors she had? If his sweetheart liked pastels …
Then again, Rosette had been in business less than a year, and she had already learned that expecting logic and sense out of customers was expecting far too much. So she took a deep breath, plastered that smile back on her face, and tried to come up with some suggestions.
The shop door opened, the little bell Rosette had installed tinkling merrily. Rosette looked up automatically.
She gasped. “Mordred!”
And there he was. She hadn’t been expecting him today — certainly not during her normal business hours! He usually stayed away on purpose then, saying he understood that she needed to work.
But he was here now, and he was grinning at her. The only thing Rosette didn’t understand was why the guard was staring at Mordred, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down and his mouth opening and closing. Mordred only cast him half a glance before striding to Rosette.
He didn’t even say hello before catching her in his arms, sweeping her off her feet, and kissing her soundly.
When he finally let her up — perhaps a good five seconds after Rosette’s feet started to scrabble at the floor, just when she found she couldn’t breathe — he was grinning. “Good afternoon, lovely. How are you today?”
“Well — well!” Rosette panted. “My goodness!” she laughed. “You — you seem in a good mood.”
“And why should I not be?” asked Mordred. He caught her hand in his and brought it up to his lips for a quick kiss. “The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and I am in the company of the most beautiful woman in Albion. Tell me, Rosette, if that does not make me smile, what would?”
Well, when he put it like that … Rosette only smiled and shook her head, knowing from long experience that protesting that her beauty was nothing much to write home about would only prompt shocked repetitions of the compliment. “I’m happy you’re happy, then. Is there anything I can get you? Something to eat, something to drink?”
“Just a few moments of your time, my dear,” replied Mordred.
“Oh … certainly!” After all, it wouldn’t do to tell Mordred she had to work — not when he still paid for the majority of her upkeep. Not when he had done so much for her. “Katie — can you handle things for a few moments?”
Katie only nodded at Rosette. She rarely spoke on the rare occasions that she and Mordred crossed paths, and she could barely bring herself to look at him. Rosette would not have pegged Katie as a shy one — but Katie was only thirteen, and Mordred was a handsome, dashing man, and a duke to boot. What thirteen-year-old girl wouldn’t be shy around him?
“Come on,” Rosette said, taking Mordred by the hand and leading him into the back, the part of the house where she and the children actually lived.
He didn’t even wait for the door to close before he pounced on her again.
At least this time, though he pinned her arms to her sides and held her with a tightness that was just shy of painful, he didn’t put her off-balance. At least he let her go before she thought she might start to see stars. And at least when he did so, he was smiling, and the door — mercifully — had managed to shut.
Rosette laughed as she tried to catch her breath. The difficulty made the laugh sound forced and perhaps a little fake. “Goodness — you truly are in a good mood!”
“And why should I be otherwise?” Mordred asked, tucking his fingers under her chin and grinning at her.
Well … there was always his brother-in-law to consider. It hadn’t been so long since poor Sir Lamorak was found. Rosette tried not to shiver and definitely did not plumbbob herself. She always sought not to do those kinds of gestures around Mordred, at least, not when they weren’t a result of something that had passed in the conversation. Mordred tended to dismiss those gestures as silly superstition, and he generally liked to ask what it was that was bothering her. It was only concern on his part, but … well …
It was just easier to avoid the conversation.
So Rosette answered, “I don’t know — there probably isn’t a reason.” She laughed. This was definitely forced. “Do you want to … go upstairs?”
“Well, if you’re wanting to go upstairs, I certainly shan’t complain … however, since I think our bedroom is directly above the shop …”
“Oh my!” Rosette’s cheeks started to burn. She knew that this shop was supposed to be a move up for her in terms of respectability and stature, but thinking of that … she’d never felt so dirty, so sinful before. Lovemaking in the middle of the afternoon … when she had a shop full of customers directly below, who would hear every last sigh and moan … somehow it felt more taboo than merely having an affair with a married man, a nobleman, living in sin with him and bearing his children.
“So that is out, then,” Mordred replied. His thumb stroked Rosette’s cheek. “But cheer up, my dear — as soon as the customers are gone, why, then we shall have all the fun we please.”
“The children may be home by then,” Rosette couldn’t help but point out.
“Surely they can play with their toys for a half-an-hour or so while Mama and Papa get some alone time?” Mordred winked.
At least he said half-an-hour. Some men might have said “fifteen minutes,” or an even cruder “five.” But Mordred was never quick with his lovemaking, or at least, he was never quick when he was in a good mood. In a very good mood — and if the children were all asleep, or at school — this could take hours.
Unfortunately, the children were due home rather sooner than that.
“However …” Mordred went on; Rosette’s ears perked up. “I fear I have a favor to ask you, concerning the children, that you will perhaps not be so eager to grant me.”
Rosette blinked. “Huh?”
“Shall we sit?” he asked, gesturing to the bench.
“Oh … of course.” Rosette kicked herself for not having suggested that herself. But Mordred had paid for the bench, had he not, all those years ago? If there was anyone who came to her home who had the right to suggest they sit, surely it was Mordred.
So they sat. And Mordred turned to Rosette and said in his most wheedling voice, “So … you see, Rosette — I should very much like to borrow the children this coming Saturday.”
“Oh!” Rosette laughed. “You think that will upset me? Of course you can take them out. They’ll love having a treat.”
“Er … I don’t doubt that, Rosette, but … I was not intending to take them out.”
Rosette blinked, turning her head to one side. “You … weren’t.” She could start to guess where this might be going. She tried not to.
“No–I was hoping to bring them to Lothian. To my home.”
Rosette swallowed. That in and of itself was no cause for alarm — they had gone there dozens of times. They usually had a grand time playing there, especially with Agravaine. “Oh …”
“My other children will be there.”
That would be the catch.
“Oh, Mordred –” Rosette caught her lip between her teeth. “Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Wise? Rosette — it’s necessary.”
Was it? Was it really? It was not quite a year since Mordred had last tried to forcibly bring his children together. That attempt had been best termed a disaster. The boys had been fine, but Aimée had been all-but-rejected by her sister, and it was only Lady Garnet’s quick thinking that had saved the day. Besides, bringing her children to Lady Dindrane’s home … the idea had been a terrible one at the face of it, and if Mordred hadn’t brought it up to the children at the same time he brought it up to her, making sure to tell the children about the cake and the cookies and how their brothers and sister would just love to see them, Rosette would have …
Well, she certainly would have protested a great deal more than she had.
Now, however, the children were not here. “Is it? Mordred, you told the boys to stay away from your other sons — don’t you remember?”
Mordred shook his head. He wasn’t about to deny saying that, was he?
He didn’t. “I did say that, Rosette — but that was a different time.”
“Lord Pellinore was still alive,” Mordred shrugged. “He would have … made things difficult. But now … no more.”
“But — but that doesn’t make it any less …” She couldn’t say rude, or insulting. “Fraught!”
“For the children? No, I will admit that much — although you know we’re already halfway there. Nimue and the boys–”
“With — with all due respect, Mordred, Nimue and the boys are the least of the–the–issue!” Rosette interrupted. “It’s — it’s how the boys will get along with the boys that I worry about.” And, too, how Nimue would get along with Aimée. Was she a terrible mother to want to keep her baby from getting hurt again? She’d told Aimée to stay away from Nimue at school, trying to avoid another episode.
“That is true,” Mordred agreed. “And that is why I want to bring them together. And I want it to be someplace safe for all of them — my home. They all have a right, more or less, to that home, Rosette. Perhaps I was wrong to force the issue at Lady Dindrane’s house. But all of my children are welcome at my home at any time, and I want that to be clear to all of them.”
Rosette should have rejoiced to hear that. It should have meant that her children were protected, now and forever. Instead, it made her heart sink. Why?
Because Lady Dindrane won’t like it, whispered the voice of … conscience, perhaps? But why should she care about what Lady Dindrane would like?
She’s still a noblewoman, pointed out the voice of pragmatism. A duchess, the aunt of an earl. She could make things difficult … and she has the rest of the nobility on her side …
Why was she relieved when she realized that? Rosette did not examine that question. Instead, she tried to give voice to her concerns. “Mordred — I — I can’t help but worry. You — we both know that Lady Dindrane will be angry when she finds this out. And — and while I know you can take care of yourself,” she stumbled on as his face grew blacker and blacker, “and I know you’ll do everything you can for the children — I don’t want to court the anger of a woman like that more than necessary. I know that this will sound so silly to you, Mordred, but … but I’m afraid.”
There. Those were the magic words. She could say much of what was on her mind, if she made it clear that fear was the reason why she said it. And most of the time, it was even true to say so.
And as she watched, the stormclouds on Mordred’s face blew away, replaced by glorious sunshine. “Ah, Rosie, my darling …” He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and kissed her cheek. “Do you think I would let anything happen to you? To the children?”
“Mordred …” Rosette shifted. “You’re not a woman …”
“I should hope not,” Mordred murmured. “That would make things between you and I very difficult, my love.”
Rosette obligingly chuckled. “I know, but — well — a woman scorned –”
“Please don’t feed me that tired cliché about ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.'” Mordred removed his arm and rolled his eyes.
“I wasn’t going to say that,” Rosette answered honestly. “What I was going to say is that angry women have a great deal of subtle ways to cause pain — ways that you might not understand to guard against. And maybe you don’t think they’d be very serious. But … I’d like to avoid them if I could. And at the end of the day …”
Rosette shifted — squirmed, really — and couldn’t bring herself to look Mordred in the eye. “She’s still your wife …”
Mordred did not ask her what she meant by that. Instead, he scowled. “She is indeed.”
“Mordred — I don’t mean to upset you –”
“I know you don’t, Rosie.” Mordred patted her knee, and for a moment he smiled and he was the same boy she’d fallen in love with all those years ago. “That is not what I meant. What I mean is — thanks to the Church’s obstinacy, she is still my wife. And she is happy enough to avail herself of the privileges of that position, while carrying out none of the duties. Until now, I have … well, I may as well be frank. Lady Dindrane held the whip hand, in the fact that she had the protection of her father and brother, and that she had public opinion on her side. However, now she no longer has that protection. And she will be made to see that she cannot claim the privileges of being my wife without shouldering some of the duties.”
Rosette felt the blood drain from her face. “Mordred … what are you …”
“Don’t look so frightened, Rosie!” Mordred reassured her. “What I mean is — she thinks that, though she chooses to live apart from me, though she by her own free will refuses to take up the proper duties of a duchess and chatelaine, she is still owed the same respect and consideration that a woman who stays by her husband and is his helpmeet and companion is owed. She is not. I assure you, if Lady Dindrane were still a resident of my home, I would never dream of bringing your children and my children together there. I would not so expose her to ridicule. But now that she has exposed me to ridicule by quitting my house and calling me, essentially, a beast and a brute before the whole kingdom?” Mordred shook his head. “No. She forfeited the right to object to who comes into my home the moment she quit it.”
Rosette swallowed. She was treading dangerous ground here, but this needed to be said. “But …”
Mordred stared at her, as if he could not believe that another “but” had been forthcoming.
“They’re still her children, Mordred,” Rosette murmured. “She certainly has the right to –”
Rosette stopped, startled.
“They are my children,” Mordred continued. “And while I live, my word on their upbringing and discipline is final. Again — had Lady Dindrane not abdicated her duties as my wife, I would not be forced to take this line. She would have her fair say and, indeed, more than that. We would be a team. But, Rosette … you don’t understand. She poisons the minds of my children against me. And she poisons them against you, too — and what is even more unforgivable, she poisons them against our children! Whatever men can say about us, Rosie, surely they must agree that our children are innocents in all this. Lady Dindrane is hurting all of my children through her selfishness and intransigence, and as their father, I must do my best to stop it.”
Rosette leaned back. She still didn’t like this. Not one bit. But … what could she say?
She sighed. “How … how long do you want them on Saturday?”
“Not so very long. Only for a few hours. I think it would be best to acclimate all of the children to each other in small doses.”
Rosette nodded. “But … I still want our boys to stay away from your boys in school. And … I’d like Aimée to stay away from Nimue, too.” Before Mordred could protest in Aimée’s case, Rosette added, “I don’t want her to get hurt.”
He couldn’t argue with that. And he didn’t.
Besides, the time for arguments had ceased — as was proven by a sudden violent ringing of the shop bell. “Mama!” came a familiar voice. “We’re home!”
Rosette plastered that smile back on her face — she couldn’t show the children she was upset — and called to the front. “Children! I’m back here! And I have,” she winked at Mordred, “a surprise for you!”
There was nothing that got her children running faster than the news of a surprise did. And when they piled into the parlor, their reactions did not disappoint.
They piled onto him like a litter of squirmy puppies, each seeking a kiss or a hug or a caress. And when they asked if he was going to stay for dinner, he said yes. And when they asked if he was going to stay the whole evening, he said yes. And when they asked if he was going to stay long enough to tuck them into bed that night, he said yes. And when Aimée asked if he would dance with her, he said yes.
To say that the children were overjoyed would be an understatement. Rosette leaned back, letting Mordred have his moment, knowing that when dinner came, or some other quiet moment, he would tell them all about the marvelous treat he had planned for them this weekend, about all the fun they would have, about how their brothers and their sister would be so happy to see them.
And they would believe him, and they would be overjoyed again.
Rosette just prayed it would last.