That evening, I went into my room to grab my nightgown and check on Derrick to find a huge, shirtless, bandaged stranger sitting where I had left him. It took me several blinks and the man’s awkward shifting for it to click.
“Wow, so you do have a face underneath all that fur?”
He gave me a soft grin and I instantly recognize Derrick in the crinkle around his dark eyes. Probably with Hal’s help, the blacksmith had shaved off his half-burnt beard and cut his hair short till it was only an inch or so longer than Gus’s silver fluff. He’d even trimmed his eyebrows, probably to make the burnt half of the right one look less stark.
I cocked my head to the side as I observed the face that had previously been hidden until Derrick broke eye contact to scratch the back of his head.
“Your face isn’t half bad,” I said. “Well, it’s at least better now. Disclaimer, I say that platonically.”
“I’m not trying to woo you. Seriously, I didn’t think you’d be this young. With all that hair you just become an ageless mountain of fuzz. Why didn’t you ever bother to shave?”
He shrugged, fidgeting to scratch at the bandages of his arm. “I, just…never had much reason too…”
I gave him a flat look. “You were lazy? Dude, you could’ve had a girl by now.” He didn’t look any older than me and Milly. Thirty at the very most.
“I don’t think it was just about my looks,” he said, and his skin, darkened by days before a hot forge, darkened yet. “I’m not…I’ve never been all that…good with women. They didn’t seem to like me all that much when I was a teenager, so I didn’t think much I did could…would make much of a difference.”
“…So you were lazy.”
“…Well, I also got busy with work and…yeah.”
“Kay. Helps me feel less sorry for your lonely ass.” I went over to the very chest at the end of my bed and pulled out my night gown. Gus would just sleep in the cleanest undershirt he could find, which was probably out on the line, since we were struggling to keep clean clothes on hand with the heat wave.
“I can sleep somewhere else,” he said.
“What are you talking about? It’s Gus’s turn for the bed tonight.”
Derrick’s face did a flustered little dance I found incredibly amusing. I wondered how much I had missed beneath all that hair.
Because his face really wasn’t all that bad. He wasn’t debonair, but he was by far not ugly. He had a strong, square jaw, sturdy features, and a flat brow, the very definition of ‘masculine.’ Nothing about his face could be said to be out of place or malformed in any stretch of the imagination.
But if he and Milly had children, they better hope for all boys. They’d be the finest line of sturdy, manly men. But I was loathe to see what their traits would do to a girl.
“Where…where do you sleep then?”
“On the floor,” I said.
He looked around himself with his eyebrows flying high in panic.
I chuckled. Lordie, his expressions were so exaggerated.
“I can sleep with Hall and Milly, calm down. What, do you think I’d rape you in your sleep or something?”
Okay, I’m a little sadistic. I’d only said that last part so I could see what his entertaining face would do.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Derrick’s look of horror, and on such solid, mature features, was comical.
I laughed so hard and loud, it hurt.
Gus came in at the sound, nose wrinkled up in his usual grumpy scowl.
“What’s so funny?”
“Derrick—Derrick—“ then I thought better of it and just left, figuring I could save the poor blacksmith the shame and figuring it wasn’t the best to joke about rape with a child.
Derrick looked like he had a hundred things to say to me, but I just winked and closed the door on him and Gus.
I slept on the floor of Hal and Milly’s room, though both tried to give me their beds (the cold floor really was the most comfortable in the hot summer, though), and in the morning I was working on bread in the kitchen with Milly while Hal took Derrick to the temple in a hired carriage. Gus was outside sweeping out chicken poop and dirty straw from the coop, but only because he’d pissed Milly off by being a smart alec. Not going to lie, it’s kind of a relief that I wasn’t the only one he was that way too. For some reason he never dared to sass Hal, though.
Milly and I talked about the neighbors she knew and gossip she’d heard from those who came to the back door to deliver. She also had some plans with some of her married girlfriends that she had had to push back to tomorrow due to Derrick’s drama. As she spoke, I watched the sheen from the morning sunlight bounce up and down her dark hair as she rocked back and forth to her kneading. It had been some time since I had healed the pox scars on her face, and whatever else I could find in her body for that matter. When we bathed together, since it was easier to prepare one tub of hot water together and we liked the girl time, I’d search her when I’d scrub her back or hair for anything I could do. Beauty was, in a major part, just health.
I was thinking about that again, probably because Derrick would be staying with us for a short time and I was remembering Hal’s words about how he had wished in the past that Derrick and Milly would end up together. Because of it, I had thought of them together too.
But I also wasn’t heartless. I knew that standing next to me wasn’t doing her any good, even if her skin was every bit as healthy as mine now, it was just…different. She had thicker skin with bigger pores, and her facial features were just too broad and…
“What’s on your mind, Lil’? You’re staring.”
I hadn’t realized till she said something how tight my throat had gotten.
“How do you not hate me?” I asked.
She frowned. “What are you talking about?”
I bit my lip. Her and I had talked about love a few times before, during our bath times. Mostly about crushes we’d had in the past. Nothing too close to the present, though she was the only one I’d ever told details of my husband about.
I gulped, wondering why I had said anything and how this could not sound bad.
“I look better than you,” I finally whispered.
Instantly, she seemed to understand. After all, Milly was a blunt, strong woman. She had no delusions about her appearance, nor did she feel sorry for herself or have any self-esteem issues about her strengths either. It was part of what made her so attractive to me, and I’ve told her that before, usually while I’m braiding her long, thick, gleaming black hair. I had wanted her to feel as beautiful as I found her, even if she had never told me she had any problems with the way she looked.
But when I whispered that, she laughed.
“Is that what’s got you ready to cry?”
Arms covered in flour engulfed me in a hug. Milly gave the best kinds of hugs. Probably had to do with the combination of her strong arms and her ample breasts. That’s probably one of the reasons guys liked boobs so much.
“You’re so much cooler than me,” I said, sniffing. “But I was just looking at your hair shining in the sunlight and thinking how pretty it is, and then I got thinking about Hal hoping Derrick would marry you and—and—Gus calls Derrick my love slave, and that made me…”
“Shh, hun, you have nothing to feel guilty for.”
“But I don’t even want to get married!”
“Then how do you expect to have all those babies you like to blather about? Sort of need a man to make those, and yes, you do, because your adoption plan sucks.”
I pushed against her like an angry toddler. “I know that, but—but—and you’d actually make a good choice in men too, you’re always so well grounded and smart and just so awesome—“
“It must be your time of month. You’re acting ridiculous, Lil.”
And now that I was thinking about it, she was right. My period should be coming around soon. But that didn’t make me feel any better.
Whatever she saw on my face made her laugh, and the warm smile she gave me was just like her dad’s. If anyone could take all the feelings of home and turn it into a smile, that’s what this would be.
“I’ve only known you for a few months and I love you to bits, Lil’, so don’t go getting weird ideas over something neither of us can control.”
So I settled down to sniffles, though I’d cried enough for Gus to notice, and he had to give his disapproving frown.
“Are you thinking about bad things again?” he asked.
“I’m just moody,” I said.
“Sounds like an excuse.”
“She’s hitting her time of month,” said Milly wryly, and the gleam in her black eyes told me she hadn’t yet forgiven Gus for his attitude earlier. “You know, when a girl bleeds from her—“
“Stop! I get it! Jeeze, it was just a question, you freak, heartless she-man.”
“Damascus!” I cried, grabbing a nearby spoon. “What is wrong with you this morning? Get your ass over here so I can whoop it for you!”
His hands actually shriveled towards his chest, like a girl seeing something gross, and his eyes widened.
“You—you can’t spank me!”
Really, it was bad timing on his part to pull that particular insult when I had just calmed down from being upset about Milly’s looks.
And so the short lived chase ensued, ending with me whapping at Gus’s thigh as he tried to use a table in the common room as a shield.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, okay!”
“Tell that to Milly, not me. You NEVER insult the hand that feeds you, you got it?”
“I’ve had some pretty nasty feeders in the past—“
“Well Milly isn’t one of them, and you know it!”
“She calls me names all the time!”
“Like what? Skinny? Boy? Whiney? Are they anything you aren’t?”
I knew exactly what he was going to say when he opened his belligerent mouth, so I swacked him hard with the spoon on the rear before he could. He jumped away with a yelp.
“Hell, woman, what I do?”
“I was stopping you from saying something you’d regret. Now march back in there and make up with Milly. If nothing else, she won’t let you eat for the rest of the day if you don’t, and you know Hal and I’ll support her.”
That did make him groan. We both knew it was true. And, if I couldn’t make him a gentleman, I could at the very least support his ‘grow up to be buff’ dream with well balanced meals.
Grumbling, and rubbing where I smacked him, he meandered back down the hall to the kitchen. As he did so, I couldn’t help but compare his height to a barrel that stood next to the hallway entrance. A memory of when he had just been starting out here cropped out.
He’s grown, I thought with a strange little jerk to my stomach. In only a few months, and quite noticeably as well.
And as I mused over that, a groggy customer came down from upstairs, rubbing the short bristles across his jaw. I did my best to smile as though I hadn’t just spanked a teenage boy in rage and offered him a chair.
“Will you be wanting breakfast, sir?”
“That would be nice.”