And yet… would he choose not to have known what he now knew? Never to have lived in the past, met Jamie Fraser, seen the side of Claire that existed only in Jamie’s company?
It wasn’t the tree of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, after all; it was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge might be a poisoned gift—but it was still a gift, and few people would voluntarily give it back. Which was just as well, he supposed, since they couldn’t give it back. And that had been his point in the discussion.
“We don’t know what harm it could do,” he’d argued. “But we don’t know it couldn’t do harm, and serious harm. And what would be the benefit to the man, to know his mother was insane, a sorceress, or both, certainly a multiple murderess, and his father an adulterer and at the least an attempted murderer? It was enough of a shock to me when your mother told me about Geillis Duncan, and she’s eight generations removed from me. And before you ask, yes, I could have lived without knowing that.”
She’d bitten her lip at that and nodded, reluctant.
“It’s just—I keep thinking about Willie,” Bree had said at last, giving up. “Not William Buccleigh, I don’t mean—my brother.” She flushed a little, as she always did, self-conscious at speaking the word. “I really wanted him to know. But Da and Lord John… they so didn’t want him to know, and maybe they were right. He has a life, a good one. And they said he couldn’t keep on having that life if I told him.”
“They were right,” Roger had said bluntly. “To tell him—if he believed it—would force him to live in a state of deceit and denial, which would eat him alive, or to openly acknowledge that he’s the bastard son of a Scottish criminal. Which is Just. Not. On. Not in eighteenth-century culture.”
“They wouldn’t take his title away,” Bree had argued. “Da said that by British law, a child born in wedlock is the legal offspring of the husband, no matter whether the husband was the real father or not.”
“No, but imagine living with a title ye don’t think you’re entitled to, knowing the blood in your veins isn’t the blue ye’ve always thought it was. Having people call ye ‘Lord So-and-So’ and knowing what they’d call ye if they knew the truth.” He’d shaken her gently, trying to make her see.
“Either way, it would destroy the life he has, as surely as if you’d set him on a keg of gunpowder and lit the fuse. You wouldn’t know when the bang would come, but come it would.”
“Mmphm,” she’d said, and the argument ended there. But it hadn’t been a sound of agreement, and he knew the argument wasn’t over.
By now he had checked all the doors and windows on the ground floor, ending in his study.
He flipped on the light and came into the room. He was wide awake, nerves on edge. Why? he wondered. Was the house trying to tell him something? He snorted a little. Hard not to have fancies, in the middle of the night in an old house, with the wind rattling the windowpanes. And yet he usually felt very comfortable in this room, felt it was his place. What was wrong?
He glanced quickly over the desk, the deep windowsill with the small pot of yellow chrysanthemums that Bree had put there, the shelves—
He stopped dead, heart thumping in his chest. The snake wasn’t there. No, no, it was—his roving eye fixed on it. It was in the wrong place, though. It wasn’t in front of the wooden box that held Claire and Jamie’s letters but sitting in front of the books two shelves below it.
He picked it up, automatically stroking the old polished cherrywood with his thumb. Perhaps Annie MacDonald had moved it? No. She did dust and sweep in the study, but she never moved anything from its place. Never moved anything anywhere, for that matter; he’d seen her pick up a pair of galoshes carelessly left in the middle of the mudroom, sweep carefully under them, and set them back in the same place, mud splashes and all. She would never have moved the snake.
Still less would Brianna have moved it. He knew—without knowing how he knew it—that she felt as he did about it; Willie Fraser’s snake guarded his brother’s treasure.
He was lifting down the box before his train of conscious thought had reached its logical conclusion.
Alarm bells were going off right and left. The contents of the box had been disturbed; the little books were on top of the letters at one end of the box, not underneath. He took out the letters, cursing himself for never having counted them. How would he know if one was missing?
He sorted them quickly, read and unread, and thought the unread pile was about the same; whoever had been in the box hadn’t opened them, that was something. But whoever it was had probably wanted to avoid detection, too.
He thumbed hastily through the opened letters and became aware at once that one was missing: the one written on Brianna’s handmade paper with the embedded flowers. The first one. Jesus, what had it said? We are alive. He remembered that much. And then Claire had told all about the explosion and the burning of the Big House. Had she said in that one they were going to Scotland? Maybe so. But why in bloody hell should—
Two floors above, Mandy sat up in bed and screamed like a ban-sidhe.
HE MADE IT TO Amanda’s room a half step before Brianna and scooped the child out of her bed, cradling her against his pounding heart.
“Jemmy, Jemmy!” she sobbed. “He’s gone, he’s gone. He’s GONE!!” This last was shrieked as she stiffened in Roger’s arms, digging her feet hard into his belly.
“Hey, hey,” he soothed, trying to rearrange her and pet her into calm. “It’s okay, Jemmy’s fine. He’s fine, he’s only gone to visit Bobby overnight. He’ll be home tomorrow.”
“He’s GONE!” She squirmed like an eel, not trying to get away but merely possessed by a paroxysm of frantic grief. “He’s not here, he’s not here!”
“Aye, like I said, he’s at Bobby’s house, he—”
“Not here,” she said urgently, and thumped the palm of her hand repeatedly on the top of her head. “Not here wif me!”
“Here, baby, come here,” Bree said urgently, taking the tear-streaked child from him.
“Mama, Mama! Jemmy’s GONE!” She clung to Bree, staring desperately, still thumping her head. “He’s not wif me!”
Bree frowned at Mandy, puzzled, a hand running over her, checking for temperature, swollen glands, tender tummy…
“Not with you,” she repeated, speaking intently, trying to get Mandy out of her panic. “Tell Mummy what you mean, sweetheart.”
“Not here!” In utter desperation, Mandy lowered her head and butted her mother in the chest.
The door at the end of the hall opened, and William Buccleigh came out, wearing Roger’s woolen dressing gown.
“What in the name of the Blessed Virgin’s all this riot?” he inquired.
“He took him, he took him!” Mandy shrieked, and buried her head in Brianna’s shoulder.
Despite himself, Roger was feeling infected by Amanda’s fear, irrationally convinced that something terrible had happened.
“Do you know where Jem is?” he snapped at Buccleigh.
“I do not.” Buccleigh frowned at him. “Is he not in his bed?”
“No, he isn’t!” Brianna snapped. “You saw him leave, for heaven’s sake.” She forced her way between the men. “Quit it right now, both of you! Roger, take Mandy. I’m going to phone Martina Hurragh.” She thrust Amanda, moaning around the thumb in her mouth, into his arms and hurried for the stairs, her hastily acquired nightclothes rustling like leaves.
He rocked Amanda, distracted, alarmed, nearly overcome by her sense of panic. She emitted fright and grief like a radio broadcasting tower, and his own breath came short and his hands were wet with sweat where he clutched her Winnie-the-Pooh nightie.
“Hush, a chuisle,” he said, pitching his voice as calmly as he could. “Hush, now. We’ll fix it. You tell Daddy what waked you up, and I’ll fix it, promise.”
She obediently tried to stifle her sobs, rubbing chubby fists into her eyes.
“Jemmy,” she moaned. “I want Jemmy!”
“We’ll get him back straightaway,” Roger promised. “Tell me, what made you wake up? Did you have a bad dream?”
“Uh-huh.” She clutched him tighter, her face full of fear. “Was big wocks, big wocks. They scweamed at me!”
Ice water ran straight through his veins. Jesus, oh, Jesus. Maybe she did remember her trip through the stones.
“Aye, I see,” he said, patting her as soothingly as he could, for the ferment in his own breast. He did see. In memory he saw those stones, felt and heard them again. And, turning a little, saw the pallor of William Buccleigh’s face and knew he heard the ring of truth in Mandy’s voice, too.
“What happened then, a leannan? Did you go close to the big rocks?”
“Not me; Jem! That man took him and the wocks ate him!” At this, she collapsed in tears again, sobbing inconsolably.
“That man,” Roger said slowly, and turned a little more, so that William Buccleigh was in her field of view. “Do you mean this man, sweetheart? Uncle Buck?”
“No, nonononononono, a other man!” She straightened up, staring into his face with huge, tear-filled eyes, straining to make him understand. “Bobby’s daddy!”
He heard Brianna coming upstairs. Fast, but unevenly; it sounded as though she was bumping against the walls of the staircase, losing her balance as she hurried.
She stumbled into view at the top of the stair, and Roger felt every hair on his body stand up at the sight of her white, staring face.
“He’s gone,” she said, hoarse. “Martina says he’s not with Bobby, she didn’t expect him tonight at all. I made her go outside and look—Rob lives three houses down. She says his truck is gone.”
ROGER’S HANDS were numb with cold, and the steering wheel was slippery with their sweat. He took the turn off the highway at such speed that the off-wheels lifted slightly and the car tilted. William Buccleigh’s head thumped the window.
“Sorry,” Roger muttered mechanically, and received a grunt of acceptance in reply.
“Mind yourself,” Buccleigh said, rubbing his temple. “Ye’ll have us over in a ditch, and then what?”
Then what, indeed. With great effort, he eased his foot back on the gas. It was near moonset, and a wan quarter moon did little to light the landscape, black as pitch around them. The headlights of the little Morris barely dented the darkness, and the frail beams swung to and fro as they bounced crazily on the dirt road that led near Craigh na Dun.
“Why the devil should this trusdair take your son?” Buccleigh rolled down his window and stuck his head out, vainly trying to see farther than the view through the dust-coated windshield. “And why, for the sake of all holy, bring him here?”
“How do I know?” Roger said through his teeth. “Maybe he thinks he needs blood to open the stones. Christ, why did I write that?” He pounded a fist on the wheel in frustration.
Buccleigh blinked, very startled, but his gaze sharpened at once.
“Is that it?” he said, urgent. “Is that how ye do it? Blood?”
“No, dammit!” Roger said. “It’s the time of year, and gemstones. We think.”
“But ye wrote down blood, with a query mark next it.”
“Yes, but—what do you mean? Did you read my notebook, too, you cunt?”
“Language, son,” said William Buccleigh, grim but cool. “Of course I did. I read everything in your study I could get my hands on—and so would you, in my place.”
Roger throttled back the panic that gripped him, enough to manage a curt nod.
“Aye, maybe I would. And if you’d taken Jem—I’d kill ye once I found you, but I’d maybe understand why. But this f**ker! What does he think he’s doing, for God’s sake?”
“Calm yourself,” Buccleigh advised him briefly. “Ye’ll do your wean no good if ye lose the heid. This Cameron—is he one like us?”
“I don’t know. I don’t bloody know.”
“There are others, though? It’s not just in the family?”
“I don’t know—I think there are others, but I don’t know for sure.” Roger struggled to think, struggled to keep the car rolling at a low enough speed to handle the curves of the road, half overgrown with creeping gorse.
He was trying to pray but managing nothing but a terror-stricken, incoherent Lord, please! He wished Bree was with him, but they couldn’t have brought Mandy anywhere near the rocks, and if they should be in time to catch Cameron … if Cameron was even here… Buccleigh would help him, he was fairly sure of that.
The back of his mind harbored a forlorn hope that there was some misunderstanding, that Cameron had mistaken the night and, realizing it, was bringing Jem back home, even as Roger and his bloody five times greatgrandfather tore over a rocky moor in the dark, headed straight for the most terrible thing either of them knew.
“Cameron—he read the notebook, too,” Roger blurted, unable to bear his own thoughts. “By accident. He pretended to think it was all a—a—fiction, something I’d made up for fun. Jesus, what have I done?”
“Look out!” Buccleigh threw his arms over his face and Roger stood on the brake, swerving off the road and into a large rock—barely missing the old blue truck that stood on the road, dark and empty.
HE SCRAMBLED UP the hill, scrabbling for handholds in the dark, rocks rolling under his feet, gorse prickles piercing his palms, now and then stabbing under his nails, making him swear. Far below, he could hear William Buccleigh following. Slowly—but following.