And despite our weariness from travel, the afternoon passed pleasantly. Much later that night, we shared a dinner that met Cook Nutmeg’s standards, and a jot of brandy that exceeded mine. We had retired to the estate study, where Nettle had refused to look at my careful bookkeeping, saying she was certain all was well. Nettle had insisted she must leave in the morning. Molly had tried to dissuade her to no avail. I was nearly dozing in a chair by the fire when Nettle spoke softly from her corner of a settee. “Seeing it is much worse than hearing about it.” She sighed heavily. “It’s real. We are losing her.”
I opened my eyes. Molly had left us, saying she wished to see if there was any of that pale sharp cheese left in the larder, as she suddenly fancied it. She’d put her desire for it down to her pregnancy and, Molly-like, had disdained the idea of ringing for a servant at such a late hour. She was beloved by our servants simply because she spared them such thoughtless abuse.
I looked at the place where Molly had been sitting. The imprint of her body was still on the cushions, and her scent lingered in the air. I spoke softly. “She’s slowly sliding away from me. Today was not too bad. There are days when she is so focused on this ‘baby’ that she speaks of nothing else.”
“She makes it seem so real,” Nettle said, her words faltering away between wistfulness and dread.
“I know. It’s hard. I’ve tried to tell her it’s impossible. And when I do, I feel like I’m being cruel. But today, playing along … that feels crueler now. As if I’ve given up on her.” I stared at the dying fire. “I’ve had to ask the maidservants to indulge her. I’d seen them rolling their eyes after she’d passed by. I rebuked them for it, but I think it only—”
Angry sparks sprang in Nettle’s eyes. She sat up straight. “I don’t care if my mother is mad as a hatter! They must be made to treat her with respect. You can’t indulge them in any smirking ‘tolerance’! She is my mother and your wife. Lady Molly!”
“I’m not sure how to deal with it without making it worse,” I confided to her. “Molly has always taken care of the running of the household. If I step in and start rebuking the servants, she may resent me usurping her authority. And what can I say to them? We both know your mother’s not pregnant! How long must I order them to maintain this pretense? Where does it end? With the birth of an imaginary child?”
Nettle’s face went pale at my words. For a moment the planes of her face were white and stark like the frozen flanks of a mountain under snow. Then she abruptly dropped her face into her hands. I looked at the pale parting in her gleaming dark hair. She spoke through her fingers. “We’re losing her, Tom. It’s only going to get worse. We know that. What will you do when she no longer knows you? When she cannot take care of herself anymore? What will become of her?”
She lifted her face. Silent tears gleamed in streaks down her cheek.
I crossed the room and took her hand. “I promise this. I will take care of her. Always. I will love her. Always.” I steeled my will. “And I will speak to the servants privately, and tell them that regardless of how long they have worked here, if they value their positions, they will treat Lady Molly as befits the mistress of this household. No matter what they may think of her requests.”
Nettle sniffed and drew her hands free of mine, to wipe the backs of her wrists across her eyes. “I know I’m not a child anymore. But just the thought of losing her …”
She let her words trail away, her voice stilling before she uttered the words we both knew welled up in her. She still mourned Burrich, the only real father she’d ever known. She did not want to lose her mother as well, and even worse would be to have Molly look at her and not know her.
“I’ll take care of her,” I promised again. And you, I thought to myself. And wondered if she would ever let me step into that role. “Even if it means pretending for her that I believe she has a child growing inside her. Though it makes me feel false to her when I do so. Today …” I faltered, guilt welling up in me. I had behaved as if Molly were truly pregnant, indulging her as if she were a fanciful child. Or a madwoman.
“You were being kind,” Nettle said quietly. “I know my mother. You won’t convince her to give up this delusion. Her mind is unsettled. You may as well be—”
Molly set down the tray with a solid clack on the table. We both jumped guiltily. Molly stared at me, her eyes black. She folded her lips tightly, and at first I thought she would yet again ignore our disagreement. But Nettle was right. She stood her ground and spoke plainly. “You both think me mad. Well. This is fine, then. But I will tell you plainly that I feel the child move within me and my breasts have begun to swell with milk. The time is not far when you will both have to beg my pardon.”