"You look horrid when you do that," her mother teased, tossing roots into the pot. "You look thirty with all those lines on your face."
Her mother laughed, high and bubbling, infectious. As much as Irene wanted to hold onto her gloom, her mother's laugh wouldn't allow it. She spluttered before giggling with her.
"There, much better. Tell me, dove, what is bothering you?"
Irene's shoulders slumped and she said, "Why does he have to stay with us." As soon as she'd said it, she straightened and covered her mouth. She was whining like a girl of six. Her forehead creased again. "I know I hurt him, but he is well now. Why doesn't he go?"
"You want him to go?" her mother asked, bustling around the cook fire. "I've seen the way you look at him."
She rose onto her toes, putting her inches over her mother. "What do you mean? I look at him with contempt." She sniffed and stirred again.
Her mother laughed again and shook her head. "You look at him with heat, but it isn't anger. Not all of it."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Irene said, paying more attention to the pot. "He is no better than the son of Douglass. Father just wants to sell me off."
Her mother gripped her wrist, nails digging into her skin and making Irene drop the spoon. She looked into her mother's dark eyes. They were stormy now, not laughing any longer.
"Do not disrespect your father." The grip eased and Mother took up the spoon. "He loves you as much as your brothers and indulges you more."
"Indulges me? He harries me constantly to be more lady-like. He's worse about it than you are, and you are a Lady!" Her mother had been a noble woman of the mainland before her father had stolen her in a raid. Theirs had been a rocky marriage, so Irene had heard. One wouldn't guess it now.
Mother looked into the pot, not meeting Irene's gaze. "He gave you the bow and knife that sit in the corner." Irene hadn't had a chance to return them to her hiding spot. Looking at them, she remembered hunting with her father and brothers, learning to hide, to wait. Unbidden, a smile crossed her features. She did love her family.
"He wants to marry you so you will be happy." Her mother still didn't look up. "Most women want a man to protect and provide for them. You are not most women and sometimes your father forgets that."
"You weren't looking for protection when he took you," Irene argued, spiteful.
Her mother smiled softly. She looked to Irene again. "You're right. However, he did protect me, from the rest of his men, and he gave me everything I desired though I gave him nothing but grief." She sighed and shook her head. "I shouldn't be surprised my daughter would do the same."
"I am not going to fall in love with him, or anyone else." She turned about to leave, arms crossed in defiance.
She took another step before obeying. "Yes?"
"You will fall in love one day. It is not a terrible thing. A man can be more comfort than child, sky or sea. A partner can give you more than you expect and take so little in return. Don't shun it because you seek independence. A true partner won't take that from you."
Irene huffed. "You aren't independent."
Mother smiled and bent over the cauldron again.
She didn't, did she? She always obeyed Father, in all things. Of course, he bowed to her whims as well. Maybe marriage was more complicated than she expected.
"Hello? Is there anything I might do to assist you? Take the pot down?" Owen asked, filling the entire doorway.
Irene grabbed the thick woolen pot holder as her mother answered. "Yes, it is ready."
It was heavy, enough stew for seven men and two women. Irene's arms ached to the bone as she held it steady. She took two shuffling steps before setting it on a sandy spot nearby. From there, she and her mother would fill bowls for serving. Owen's brows were raised as he watched. His lips parted and he inhaled sharply before excusing himself.
"Irene," her mother chided. "You will hurt yourself one of these days." Mother checked her hands for burns and bruises, finding neither. "You will drive that poor man to distraction," she added with a chuckle.
Irene stared at her mother in disbelief. "What-?"
"Some men desire strong women. I believe you have only made Owen more infatuated with you."
"Prefect," she said scowling while her mother dished out stew.
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