“Oskar,” Peyton said in a dead voice. “It was Oskar.”
She nodded. “He left me just after I went through my needing. I thought we’d been careful, but obviously…it was about three weeks afterward when I didn’t bleed and then I knew. I kept it a secret. I moved out of my family’s house, telling my parents it was because I needed space—they didn’t know until later what Sophy had done. That Oskar had gone with her.”
“Here. Take this.”
She stared at what he was holding out to her, not understanding what it was—oh, a Kleenex box. She snapped free some tissues and tucked the rest under her arm.
Her nose sounded like a foghorn as she blew it.
“I was eight months along when the pains started. About two weeks later, I was in this house I’d rented…I started bleeding and…” She blew her nose again and pressed the tissue wad to her eyes as the pain came back. “I lost the young. She came out of me…and she was so tiny, so perfect. My daughter…”
The image of the young was carved into her brain, deep as a ravine, never to lose its contours no matter how many times she recalled it or how many years passed.
All of a sudden, she felt a warmth around her, a body against hers.
The sobbing came back and she gave herself to it, fisting the thick robe he had on, hanging on as her legs went out from under her.
“I got you…” he said. “I have you.”
“I never told him. He’d guessed I was pregnant…but I never told him what happened…” Abruptly, she looked up. “He called me tonight and asked me to come see him. He wanted to…vent about Sophy. He thought I had an abortion.”
Peyton’s brows tightened. “Wait a minute…he knew? That you were pregnant with his young? And he went with your sister?”
“When he was talking tonight…” She pulled back and then had to pace around. “He asked me where I went to have the abortion. I didn’t tell him I miscarried.” She looked down at her flat belly. “I buried the young by myself. Out in the field behind the house. While I was still bleeding. I…covered the grave with stones, and planted a stupid little bush because I didn’t want her not to have a headstone or any marking.” She shook her head. “He doesn’t deserve to know what happened. That is my life, my private pain. He didn’t want her and he didn’t want me. And I don’t think he deserves…he doesn’t deserve either of us.”
Novo closed her eyes. “She’s still with me, you see. She died before she knew anything of the world—but I keep her here.” She touched over her heart. “She is here with me. Always.”
Abruptly, she looked at him. “And you are the only one who knows.”
There were so many different ways to say “I love you.”
As Peyton went back over to Novo and pulled her against him once more, he reflected that those three words were certainly the most common transmission of the sacred emotion between two souls. But there were other ways. Gestures, gifts, the rebuilding of a barn after a fire, the shoveling of a walkway, even something as simple as carrying groceries in from the car.
Novo was telling him she loved him by sharing this terrible truth, a loss so great that he couldn’t fathom how she had made it through the tragedy or why she had kept going afterward: By inviting him to play witness to her history, her pain, by opening herself up to him in this way, as she had done with no other, she was proclaiming she had love for him.
“I have hurt for so long,” she said when she had calmed a little. “Held this in for so long.”
He imagined her somewhere by herself, in a medical emergency, with no one to hold her hand or ease her in any way. And then she had buried the young—
He squeezed his eyes shut as he imagined what that had taken out of her.
“Come with me,” he said as he took her hand and brought her into the bedroom. “Lie down. Let me hold you.”
She crawled onto his monogrammed duvet as if she hurt all over. And when he joined her, he put his arm around her and ran into the corners of the Kleenex box, which she clutched like a child did a toy for comfort. As she shivered, he brought himself closer to her.
“What was her name?” he heard himself say.
Novo jerked against him as she looked up. “I…I did not name her.”
He stroked wisps of her hair back from her hot, red face. “You should name her. And you should go back and bring her a proper marker. She lived inside of you. She existed.”
“I thought maybe…”
“What did you think?” he whispered as he brushed her hair away. “Tell me.”
“I wondered if I should give her a name. But I wasn’t sure…I feel like I didn’t deserve to. Mahmens give names to their young. I couldn’t keep mine…I let her down, I killed her—so I am no one’s mother to give any name.”
“Stop,” he croaked out. “You did nothing wrong.” With a surge of hostility, he tacked on, “Which is more than I can say for others. And you should name her. You keep her in your heart, you are a mahmen—and that innocent little soul is up in the Fade, watching over you. Your daughter is an angel, and you should name her if only so you can address her when you’re talking to her in your head.”
“How did you know?” Novo asked roughly. “That I talk to her?”
He traced her face with his eyes and wished he could hold all of her pain for her, take it as burden out of her tired arms and carry it for the rest of their lives.
“How can you not? She is your daughter.”
Fresh tears welled and he took a Kleenex from the box and dried them one by one. When they stopped, she whispered, “I am so tired all of a sudden.”
He ran his fingertips down her cheek. “Sleep. I will watch over you. You will not have any nightmares tonight.”
“Promise?” she said.
“I promise.” He closed her lids. “I won’t leave you. And no nightmares. Just rest.”
Novo’s strong body released its tension with a shudder. And then she cuddled into him.
“If I could sing, I would give you a lullaby,” he said softly. “About a place where there is no pain and loss. No worry. But I can’t carry a tune.”
“Thought that counts,” she mumbled.
Not long thereafter, her breathing became slow and steady, little twitches of a hand or a foot signaling she was deep, deep, deep at rest.
Staring at her in his arms, he knew that he would lay his life down for hers without regret. He would slay dragons and move mountains for her. He would conquer whole worlds at her command and starve to skin and bones just to ensure she had food. She was not his sun or moon, but his galaxy.
“I love you, too,” he said by her ear. “Forever and always.”
Novo woke up ten hours later. She knew this by the clock on the bed stand, which, naturally, wasn’t some digital POS you could get from Amazon, but an antique Cartier thing that seemed to be made of marble and had hands with diamonds on them.
She had turned away from Peyton in her sleep, but they were far from separated. He was tucked in tight to her back, that robe of his still on, the pair of them on top of the duvet instead of in between those incredibly soft sheets of his.
Man, she had to pee.
Okay, that was hardly the most important thing on her mind, comparatively speaking, but in terms of urgency? And the fact that it was a simple walk to the bathroom to take care of it?
As she moved carefully out of Peyton’s arms, he surfaced briefly from his rest to mumble something that sounded like “Where going?”
“Bathroom,” she said quietly. “You go back to sleep.”
He nodded against the pillow and let out a mutter of affirmation.
Standing over him, she wanted to smooth his tousled blond hair and erase the black circles under his closed eyes. She was willing to bet that he had stayed up most of the day to watch over her, and she hated the position she had put him in.
But she was glad, too. She was…relieved, kind of the way you would be after you excised an infection. It hurt like hell to get the boil cleaned out, but afterward? Clean was like bright sunshine in what had been a dark, damp place.