A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 98

   

Lord John turned his head slightly, and caught sight of her. His eyes bulged and a look of absolute horror blanched his features. He made a feeble flapping motion with one hand, trying to stop her coming nearer, but he might as well have tried to stop the Cornish Express.

“Hello there!” she said brightly. “Fancy meeting you here, Lord John!”

Lord John made a faint quacking noise, like a stepped-on duck, but she wasn’t paying attention. The young man turned to face her, smiling cordially.

Holy God, he had her father’s eyes, too. Dark-lashed, and so young the skin near them was fresh and clear, completely unlined—but the same slanted blue Fraser cat eyes. Just like hers.

Her heart was hammering so hard in her chest she was sure they could hear it. The young man seemed to find nothing amiss, though; he bowed to her, smiling, but very correct.

“Your servant, ma’am,” he said. He glanced at Lord John, plainly expecting an introduction.

Lord John pulled himself together with an obvious effort, and made her a leg.

“My dear. How . . . delightful to encounter you again. I had no idea. . . .”

Yeah, I bet you didn’t, she thought, but went on smiling pleasantly. She could feel Roger beside her, nodding and saying something in response to his Lordship’s greeting, trying his best not to stare.

“My son,” Lord John was saying. “William, Lord Ellesmere.” He eyed her narrowly, as though daring her to say anything. “Might I present Mr. Roger MacKenzie, William? And his wife.”

“Sir. Mrs. MacKenzie.” The young man took her hand before she realized what he meant to do, and bowed low over it, planting a small formal kiss upon her knuckles.

She nearly gasped at the unexpected touch of his breath on her skin, but instead gripped his hand, much harder than she’d meant to. He looked momentarily disconcerted, but extricated himself with reasonable grace. He was much younger than she’d thought at first glance; it was the uniform and the air of self-possession that made him seem older. He was looking at her with a slight frown on his clear-cut features, as though trying to place her.

“I think . . .” he began, hesitant. “Have we met, Mrs. MacKenzie?”

“No,” she said, astonished to hear her voice emerge sounding normal. “No, I’m afraid not. I would have remembered.” She darted a daggerlike glance at Lord John, who had gone slightly green around the gills.

Lord John had been a soldier, too, though. He pulled himself together with a visible effort, putting a hand on William’s arm.

“You’d best go and see to your men, William,” he said. “Shall we dine together later?”

“I am engaged to the Colonel for supper, Father,” William said. “But I am sure he would not object, was you to join us. It may be quite late, though,” he added. “I understand there is to be an execution in the morning, and my troops are asked to be at the ready, in case of disturbance in the town. It will take some time to settle and organize everything.”

“Disturbance.” Lord John was eyeing her over William’s shoulder. “Is a disturbance expected, then?”

William shrugged.

“I cannot say, Papa. Apparently it is not a political matter, though, but only a pirate. I shouldn’t think there would be any trouble.”

“These days everything is a political matter, Willie,” his father said, rather sharply. “Never forget that. And it’s always wiser to expect trouble than to meet it unprepared.”

The young man flushed slightly, but kept his countenance.

“Quite,” he said in clipped tones. “I am sure you have a familiarity with the local conditions which I lack. I am obliged to you for your advice, Father.” He relaxed slightly, and turned to bow to Brianna.

“Pleased to have your acquaintance, Mrs. MacKenzie. Your servant, sir.” He nodded to Roger, turned, and strode off down the quay, adjusting his tricorne to the proper angle of authority.

Brianna inhaled deeply, hoping that by the time she let her breath out, she would have words to go with it. Lord John beat her to it.

“Yes,” he said simply. “Of course he is.”

Amid the logjam of thoughts, reactions, and emotions that clogged her brain, she seized on the one that seemed momentarily most important.

“Does my mother know?”

“Does Jamie know?” Roger asked at the same instant. She looked at him in surprise, and he raised one eyebrow at her. Yes, a man could certainly father a child without realizing it. He had.

Lord John sighed. With William’s departure, he had relaxed somewhat, and the natural color was coming back to his face. He had been a soldier long enough to recognize the inevitable when he saw it.

“They both know, yes.”

“How old is he?” Roger asked abruptly. Lord John shot him a sharp glance.

“Eighteen. And to save your counting backward, it was 1758. In a place called Helwater, in the Lake District.”

Brianna took another breath, finding this one came a little easier.

“Okay. So it—he—it was before my mother . . . came back.”

“Yes. From France, supposedly. Where, I gather, you were born and raised.” He gave her a gimlet look; he knew she spoke no more than bastard French.

She could feel the blood rushing to her face.

“This is no time for secrets,” she said. “If you want to know about my mother and me, I’ll tell you—but you’re going to tell me about him.” She jerked her head angrily backward, toward the tavern. “About my brother!”

Lord John pursed his lips, regarding her through narrowed eyes as he thought. Finally he nodded.

“I see no help for it. One thing, though—are your parents here, in Wilmington?”

“Yes. In fact . . .” She looked upward, trying to make out the position of the sun through the thin coastal haze. It hung just above the horizon, a disc of burning gold. “We were going to meet them for supper.”

“Here?”

“Yes.”

Lord John swung round to Roger.

“Mr. MacKenzie. You will very much oblige me, sir, if you will go at once to find your father-in-law, and apprise him of the presence of the ninth Earl of Ellesmere. Tell him that I trust his good judgment will dictate an immediate removal from Wilmington upon receipt of this news.”

Roger stared at him for a moment, brows quirked in interest.

“The Earl of Ellesmere? How the hell did he manage that?”

Lord John had recovered all his natural color, and a bit more. He was distinctly pink in the face.

“Never mind! Will you go? Jamie must leave the town, at once, before they meet by inadvertence—or before someone sees the two of them separately and begins to speculate aloud.”

“I doubt Jamie will leave,” Roger said, looking at Lord John with a certain degree of speculation himself. “Not before tomorrow, in any case.”

“Why not?” Lord John demanded, looking from one to the other. “Why are you all here in the first place? It isn’t the exe—oh, good Lord, don’t tell me.” He clapped a hand to his face, and dragged it slowly down, glaring through his fingers with the expression of a man tried beyond bearing.

Brianna bit her lower lip. When she spotted Lord John, she had been not only pleased but relieved of a small bit of her burden of worry, counting on him to help in her plan. With this new complication, though, she felt torn in two, unable to cope with either situation, or even to think about them coherently. She looked over at Roger, seeking advice.

He met her eyes in one of those long, unspoken marital exchanges. Then he nodded, making the decision for her.

“I’ll go find Jamie. You have a bit of a chat with his Lordship, eh?”

He bent and kissed her, hard, then turned and strode away down the dock, walking in a way that made people draw unconsciously aside, avoiding the touch of his garments.

Lord John had closed his eyes, and appeared to be praying—presumably for strength. She gripped him by the arm and his eyes sprang open, startled as though he had been bitten by a horse.

“Is it as striking as I think?” she said. “Him and me?” The word felt funny on her tongue. Him.

Lord John looked at her, fair brow furrowed in troubled concentration as he searched her face, feature by feature.

“I think so,” he said slowly. “To me, certainly. To a casual observer, perhaps much less so. There is the difference of coloring, to be sure, and of sex; his uniform . . . but, my dear, you know that your own appearance is so striking—” So freakish, he meant. She sighed, taking his meaning.

“People stare at me anyway,” she finished for him. She pulled down the brim of her hat, drawing it far enough forward to hide not only hair but face, as well, and glowered at him from its shadow. “Then we’d better go where no one who knows him will see me, hadn’t we?”

THE QUAY AND THE market streets were thronged. Every public house in town—and not a few private ones—would soon be full of quartered soldiers. Her father and Jem were with Alexander Lillington, her mother and Mandy at Dr. Fentiman’s, both places centers of business and gossip, and she had declared that she possessed no intention of going near either parent in any case—not until she knew all there was to know. Lord John thought that might be rather more than he was himself prepared to tell her, but this was not a time for quibbles.

Still, the exigencies of privacy left them a choice of graveyard or the deserted racetrack, and Brianna said—a marked edge in her voice—that under the circumstances, she wanted no heavy-handed reminders of mortality.

“These mortal circumstances,” he said carefully, leading her around a large puddle. “You refer to tomorrow’s execution? It is Stephen Bonnet, I collect?”

“Yes,” she said, distracted. “That can wait, though. You aren’t engaged for supper, are you?”

“No. But—”

“William,” she said, eyes on her shoes as they paced slowly round the sandy oval. “William, ninth Earl of Ellesmere, you said?”

“William Clarence Henry George,” Lord John agreed. “Viscount Ashness, Master of Helwater, Baron Derwent, and, yes, ninth Earl of Ellesmere.”

She pursed her lips.

“Which would sort of indicate that the world at large thinks his father is somebody else. Not Jamie Fraser, I mean.”

“Was somebody else,” he corrected. “One Ludovic, eighth Earl of Ellesmere, to be precise. I understand that the eighth earl unfortunately died on the day his . . . er . . . his heir was born.”

“Died of what? Shock?” She was clearly in a dangerous mood; he was interested to note both her father’s manner of controlled ferocity and her mother’s sharp tongue at work—the combination was both fascinating and alarming. He hadn’t any intention of allowing her to run this interview on her own terms, though.

“Gunshot,” he said with affected cheerfulness. “Your father shot him.”

She made a small choking noise and stopped dead.

“That is not, by the way, common knowledge,” he said, affecting not to notice her reaction. “The coroner’s court returned a verdict of death by misadventure—which was not incorrect, I believe.”

“Not incorrect,” she murmured, sounding a trifle dazed. “I guess being shot is pretty misadventurous, all right.”

“Of course there was talk,” he said, offhanded, taking her arm and urging her forward again. “But the only witness, aside from William’s grandparents, was an Irish coachman, who was rather quickly pensioned off to County Sligo, following the incident. The child’s mother having also died that day, gossip was inclined to consider his lordship’s death as—”

“His mother’s dead, too?” She didn’t stop this time, but turned to give him a penetrating glance from those deep blue eyes. Lord John had had sufficient practice in withstanding Fraser cat looks, though, and was not discomposed.

“Her name was Geneva Dunsany. She died shortly after William’s birth—of an entirely natural hemorrhage,” he assured her.

“Entirely natural,” she muttered, half under her breath. She shot him another look. “This Geneva—she was married to the earl? When she and Da . . .” The words seemed to stick in her throat; he could see doubt and repugnance struggling with her memories of William’s undeniable face—and her knowledge of her father’s character.

“He has not told me, and I would in no circumstance ask him,” he said firmly. She gave him another of those looks, which he returned with interest. “Whatever the nature of Jamie’s relations with Geneva Dunsany, I cannot conceive of his committing an act of such dishonor as to deceive another man in his marriage.”

She relaxed fractionally, though her grip on his arm remained.

“Neither can I,” she said, rather grudgingly. “But—” Her lips compressed, relaxed. “Was he in love with her, do you think?” she blurted.

What startled him was not the question, but the realization that it had never once occurred to him to ask it—certainly not of Jamie, but not even of himself. Why not? he wondered. He had no right to jealousy, and if he was fool enough to suffer it, it would have been considerably ex post facto in the case of Geneva Dunsany; he had had no inkling of William’s origins until several years after the girl’s death.

“I have no idea,” he said shortly.

Brianna’s fingers drummed restlessly on his arm; she would have pulled free, but he put a hand on hers to still her.

“Damn,” she muttered, but ceased fidgeting, and walked on, matching the length of his shorter stride. Weeds had sprung up in the oval, were sprouting through the sand of the track. She kicked at a clump of wild rye grass, sending a spray of dry seeds flying.

“If they were in love, why didn’t he marry her?” she asked at last.

He laughed, in sheer incredulity at the notion.

“Marry her! My dear girl, he was the family groom!”

A look of puzzlement flashed in her eye—he would have sworn that if she had spoken, the word would have been “So?”

“Where in the name of God were you raised?” he demanded, stopping dead.

He could see things moving in her eyes; she had Jamie’s trick of keeping her face a mask, but her mother’s transparency still shone from within. He saw the decision in her eyes, a moment before the slow smile touched her lips.

“Boston,” she said. “I’m an American. But you knew I was a barbarian already, didn’t you?”

He grunted in response.

“That does go some distance toward explaining your remarkably republican attitudes,” he replied very dryly. “Though I would strongly suggest that you disguise these dangerous sentiments, for the sake of your family. Your father is in sufficient trouble on his own account. However, you may accept my assurance that it would not be possible for the daughter of a baronet to marry a groom, no matter how exigent the nature of their emotions.”

Her turn to grunt at that; a highly expressive, if totally unfeminine sound. He sighed, and took her hand again, tucking it in the curve of his elbow for safekeeping.

“He was a paroled prisoner, too—a Jacobite, a traitor. Believe me, marriage would not have occurred to either of them.”

The damp air was misting on her skin, clinging to the down hairs on her cheeks.

“But that was in another country,” she quoted softly. “And besides, the wench is dead.”

“Very true,” he said quietly.

They scuffed silently through the damp sand for a few moments, each alone in thought. At last Brianna heaved a sigh, deep enough that he felt as well as heard it.

“Well, she’s dead, anyway, and the earl—do you know why Da killed him? Did he tell you that?”

“Your father has never spoken of the matter—of Geneva, of the earl, or even directly of William’s parentage—to me.” He spoke precisely, eyes fixed on a pair of gulls probing the sand near a clump of saw grass. “But I know, yes.”

He glanced at her.

“William is my son, after all. In the sense of common usage, at least.” In a great deal more than that, but that was not a matter he chose to discuss with Jamie’s daughter.

Her eyebrows rose.

“Yes. How did that happen?”

“As I told you, both of William’s parents—his putative parents—died on the day of his birth. His father—the earl, I mean—had no close kin, so the boy was left to the guardianship of his grandfather, Lord Dunsany. Geneva’s sister, Isobel, became William’s mother in all but fact. And I—” He shrugged, nonchalant. “I married Isobel. I became William’s guardian, with Dunsany’s consent, and he has regarded me as his stepfather since he was six years old—he is my son.”

“You? You married?” She was goggling down at him, with an air of incredulity that he found offensive.

“You have the most peculiar notions concerning marriage,” he said crossly. “It was an eminently suitable match.”

One red eyebrow went up in a gesture that was Jamie to the life.

“Did your wife think so?” she asked, in an uncanny echo of her mother’s voice, asking the same question. When her mother had asked it, he had been nonplussed. This time, he was prepared.

“That,” he said tersely, “was in another country. And Isobel . . .” As he had hoped, that silenced her.

A fire was burning at the far end of the sandy oval, where travelers had made a rough camp. People come downriver to see the execution, he wondered? Men seeking to enlist in the rebel militias? A figure moved, dimly seen through the haze of smoke, and he turned, leading Brianna back along the way they had come. This conversation was sufficiently awkward, without the risk of interruption.

“You asked about Ellesmere,” he said, taking control of the conversation once more. “The story given to the coroner’s court by Lord Dunsany was that Ellesmere had been showing him a new pistol, which discharged by accident. It was the sort of story that is told in order to be disbelieved—giving the impression that in reality the earl had shot himself, doubtless from grief at the death of his wife, but that the Dunsanys wished to avoid the stigma of suicide, for the sake of the child. The coroner naturally perceived both the falsity of the story and the wisdom of allowing it to stand.”

“That’s not what I asked,” she said, a noticeable edge in her voice. “I asked why my father shot him.”

He sighed. She could have found gainful employment with the Spanish Inquisition, he thought ruefully; no chance of escape or evasion.

“I understand that his Lordship, apprehending that the newborn infant was in fact not of his blood, intended to expunge the stain upon his honor by dropping the child out of the window, onto the slates in the courtyard thirty feet below,” he said bluntly.

Her face had paled perceptibly.

“How did he find out?” she demanded. “And if Da was a groom, why was he there? Did the earl know he was—responsible?” She shuddered, plainly envisioning a scene in which Jamie was summoned to the earl’s presence, to witness the death of his illegitimate offspring before facing a similar fate himself. John had no difficulty in discerning her imagination; he had envisioned such a scene himself, more than once.

“An acute choice of words,” he replied dryly. “Jamie Fraser is ‘responsible’ for more than any man I know. As to the rest, I have no idea. I know the essentials of what happened, because Isobel knew; her mother was present and presumably told her only the briefest outline of the incident.”

“Huh.” She kicked a small stone, deliberately. It skittered across the packed sand in front of her, ending a few feet away. “And you never asked Da about it?”

The stone lay in his line of march; he kicked it neatly as he walked, rolling it back into her path.

“I have never spoken to your father regarding Geneva, Ellesmere, or William himself—save to inform him of my marriage to Isobel and to assure him that I would fulfill my responsibilities as William’s guardian to the best of my ability.”

She set her foot on the stone, driving it into the soft sand, and stopped.

“You never said anything to him? What did he say to you?” she demanded.

“Nothing.” He returned her stare.

“Why did you marry Isobel?”

He sighed, but there was no point in evasion.

“In order to take care of William.”

The thick red brows nearly touched her hairline.

“So you got married, in spite of—I mean, you turned your whole life upside down, just to take care of Jamie Fraser’s illegitimate son? And neither one of you ever talked about it?”

“No,” he said, baffled. “Of course not.”

Slowly, the brows came down again, and she shook her head.

“Men,” she said cryptically. She glanced back toward the town. The air was calm, and a haze from the chimneys of Wilmington lay heavy above the trees. No roofs showed; it might have been a dragon that lay sleeping on the shore, for all that could be seen. The low, rumbling noise was not a reptilian snore, though; a small but constant stream of people had been passing by the track, headed for the town, and the reverberations of an increasing crowd were clearly audible, whenever the wind was right.

“It’s nearly dark. I have to go back.” She turned toward the lane that led into town, and he followed, relieved for the moment, but under no illusion that the inquisition was over.

She had only one more question, though.

“When are you going to tell him?” she asked, turning to look at him as she reached the edge of the trees.

“Tell who what?” he replied, startled.

“Him.” She frowned at him, irritated. “William. My brother.” The irritation faded as she tasted the word. She was still pale, but a sort of excitement had begun to glow beneath her skin. Lord John felt as though he had eaten something that violently disagreed with him. A cold sweat broke out along his jaw, and his guts clenched into fistlike knots. His knees turned to water.

“Are you quite mad?” He grasped at her arm, as much to keep from stumbling as to prevent her going off.

“I gather he doesn’t know who his father really is,” she said with a bit of asperity. “Given that you and Da never talked to each other about it, you probably didn’t see any point talking to him, either. But he’s grown up now—he has a right to know, surely.”

Lord John closed his eyes with a low moan.

“Are you all right?” she asked. He felt her bending close to inspect him. “You don’t look very good.”

“Sit.” He sat himself, back to a tree, and pulled her down beside him on the ground. He breathed deeply, keeping his eyes closed while his mind raced. Surely she was joking? Surely not, his cynically observant self assured him. She had a marked sense of humor, but it wasn’t in evidence at the moment.

She couldn’t. He couldn’t let her. It was inconceivable that she—but how could he stop her? If she wouldn’t listen to him, perhaps Jamie or her mother . . .

A hand touched his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I didn’t stop to think.”

Relief filled him. He felt his bowels begin to uncramp, and opened his eyes to see her gazing at him with a peculiar sort of limpid sympathy that he didn’t understand at all. His bowels promptly convulsed again, making him fear that he was about to suffer an embarrassing attack of flatulence on the spot.

His bowels had read her better than he had.

“I should have thought,” she reproached herself. “I should have known how you’d feel about it. You said it yourself—he’s your son. You’ve raised him all this time, I can see how much you love him. It must make you feel terrible to think of William finding out about Da and maybe blaming you for not telling him sooner.” Her hand was massaging his collarbone in what he assumed was meant to be a soothing gesture. If that was her intent, the movement had singularly failed.

“But—” he began, but she had taken his hand in both hers and was squeezing it earnestly, her blue eyes shimmering with tears.

“He won’t,” she assured him. “William would never stop loving you. Believe me. It was the same for me—when I found out about Da. I didn’t want to believe it at first; I had a father, and I loved him, and I didn’t want another one. But then I met Da, and it was—he was . . . who he is—” She shrugged slightly, and lifted one hand to wipe her eyes on the lace at her wrist.

“But I haven’t forgotten my other father,” she said very softly. “I never will. Never.”

Touched despite the general seriousness of the situation, Lord John cleared his throat.

“Yes. Well. I am sure your sentiments do you great credit, my dear. And while I hope that I likewise enjoy William’s affectionate regard at present and will continue to do so in future, that is really not the point I was endeavoring to make.”

“It’s not?” She looked up, wide-eyed, tears clumping her lashes into dark spikes. She was really a lovely young woman, and he felt a small twinge of tenderness.

“No,” he said, quite gently under the circumstances. “Look, my love. I told you who William is—or who he thinks he is.”

“Viscount Whatnot, you mean?”

He sighed deeply.

“Quite. The five people who know of his true parentage have expended considerable effort for the last eighteeen years, to the end that no one—William included—should ever have cause to doubt that he is the ninth Earl of Ellesmere.”

She looked down at that, her thick brows knitted, lips compressed. Christ, he hoped that her husband had succeeded in locating Jamie Fraser in time. Jamie Fraser was the only person who had a hope of being more effectually stubborn than his daughter.

“You don’t understand,” she said finally. She looked up, and he saw that she had come to some decision.

“We’re leaving,” she said abruptly. “Roger and I and the—the children.”

“Oh?” he said cautiously. This might be good news—on several counts. “Where do you propose to go? Will you remove to England? Or Scotland? If England or Canada, I have several social connexions who might be of—”

“No. Not there. Not anywhere you have ‘connexions.’” She smiled painfully at him, then swallowed before continuing.

“But you see—we’ll be gone. For—for good. I won’t—I don’t think I’ll ever see you again.” That realization had just dawned on her; he saw it on her face, and despite the strength of the pang it gave him, he was deeply moved by her obvious distress at the thought.

“I will miss you very much, Brianna,” he said gently. He had been a soldier most of his life, and then a diplomat. He had learned to live with separation and absence, with the occasional death of friends left behind. But the notion of never seeing this odd girl again caused him a most unexpected degree of grief. Almost, he thought with surprise, as though she were his own daughter.

But he had a son, as well, and her next words snapped him back to full alertness.

“So you see,” she said, leaning toward him with an intentness that he would otherwise have found charming, “I have to talk to William, and tell him. We’ll never have another chance.” Then her face changed, and she put a hand to her bosom.

“I have to go,” she said abruptly. “Mandy—Amanda, my daughter—she needs to be fed.”

And with that, she was up and gone, scudding across the sand of the racetrack like a storm cloud, leaving the threat of destruction and upheaval in her wake.

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