“Once a man’s grown and has a wife to do for him, and a lad of his own to mind the sheep, he maybe doesna make his own stockings anymore,” Ian had said, deftly executing the turn of a heel before handing me back the stocking, “but even wee laddies ken how, Auntie.”
I cast an eye at my current project, some ten inches of a wooly shawl, which lay in a small crumpled heap at the bottom of the basket. I had learned the basics, but knitting for me was still a pitched battle with knotted thread and slippery needles, not the soothing, dreamy exercise that Jamie and Ian made of it, needles clicketing away in their big hands by the fire, comforting as the sound of crickets on the hearth.
Not tonight, I thought. I wasn’t up to it. Something mindless, like winding up the balls of yarn. That I could do. I laid aside a half-finished pair of stockings Jamie was making for himself—striped, the show-off—and pulled out a heavy skein of fresh-dyed blue wool, still redolent with the heavy scents of its dyeing.
Normally I liked the smell of fresh yarn, with its faint oily whiff of sheep, the earthy smell of indigo, and the sharp tang of the vinegar used to set the dye. Tonight it seemed smothering, added as it was to woodsmoke and candle wax, to the close, acrid smells of male bodies and the reek of illness—a mingled scent of sweaty sheets and used chamber pots—all trapped together in the room’s stale air.
I let the skein lie on my lap, and closed my eyes for a moment. I wanted nothing so much as to undress and sponge myself with cool water, then slip nak*d between the clean linen sheets of my bed and lie still, letting the fresh cool air blow through the open window across my face while I floated into oblivion.
But there was a sweating Englishman in one of my beds, and a filthy dog in the other, to say nothing of a teenage boy who was obviously in for a hard night. The sheets had not been washed in days, and when they were, it would be a backbreaking business of boiling, lifting and wringing. My bed for the night—assuming that I got to sleep in it—would be a pallet made of a folded quilt, with my pillow a sack of carded wool. I would breathe sheep all night.
Nursing is hard work, and all of a sudden I was bloody tired of it. For a moment of intense longing, I wanted them all just to go away. I opened my eyes, looking at Lord John with resentment. My little burst of self-pity faded, though, as I looked at him. He lay on his back, one arm behind his head, gazing somberly up at the ceiling. It might have been only a trick of the fire, but his face seemed marked by anxiety and grief, eyes shadowed with dark loss.
At once I felt ashamed of my ill temper. Granted, I hadn’t wanted him here. I was annoyed at his intrusion into my life and the burden of obligation his illness had placed upon me. His very presence made me uneasy—to say nothing of William’s. But they would go, soon. Jamie would be home, Ian would recover, and I would have back my peace, my happiness, and my clean sheets. What had happened to him was permanent.
John Grey had lost a wife—however he might have regarded her. It had taken courage of more than one kind to bring William here, and to send him off with Jamie. And I didn’t suppose the bloody man could help having caught the measles.
I laid the wool aside for the moment and got up to put the kettle on. A nice cup of tea all round seemed called for. As I straightened up from the hearth, I saw Lord John turn his head, my movement drawing his attention from his inward thoughts.
“Tea,” I said, embarrassed to meet his eyes after my uncharitable thoughts. I made a small, awkward gesture of interrogation toward the kettle.
He smiled faintly and nodded.
“I thank you, Mrs. Fraser.”
I took down the tea box from the cupboard, and laid out two cups and spoons, adding the sugar bowl as an afterthought; no molasses tonight.
When I had got the tea made, I sat down near the bed to drink it. We sipped in silence for a few moments, an odd air of shyness hovering between us.
At last, I set down my cup and cleared my throat.
“I’m sorry; I had meant to offer you my condolences on the loss of your wife,” I said, rather formally.
He looked surprised for a moment, then bowed his head in acknowledgment, matching my formality.
“It is a coincidence that you should say so at the moment,” he said. “I had just been thinking of her.”
Used as I was to having other people take one look at my face and discern instantly what I was thinking, it was oddly gratifying to be able to do it to someone else.
“Do you miss her greatly—your wife?” I felt a bit hesitant about asking, but he didn’t seem to find the question intrusive. I might almost have thought that he had been asking it himself, for he answered readily, if thoughtfully.
“I don’t really know,” he said. He glanced at me, one eyebrow raised. “Does that sound unfeeling?”
“I couldn’t say,” I said, a little tartly. “Surely you’d know better than I whether you had feelings for her or not.”
“I did, yes.” He let his head fall back on the pillow, his thick fair hair loose about his shoulders. “Or I do, perhaps. That’s why I came, do you see?”
“No, I can’t say that I do.”
I heard Ian cough, and rose to look, but he had only turned over in his sleep; he lay on his stomach, one long arm drooping from the trundle bed. I picked up his hand—it was still hot, but not dangerously so—and put it on the pillow near his face. His hair had fallen in his eyes; I brushed it gently back.
“You are very good with him; have you children of your own?”
Startled, I looked up to see Lord John watching me, chin propped on his fist.
“I—we—have a daughter,” I said.
His eyes widened.
“We?” he said sharply. “The girl is Jamie’s?”
“Don’t call her ‘the girl,’ ” I said, unreasonably irritated. “Her name is Brianna, and yes, she’s Jamie’s.”
“My apologies,” he said, rather stiffly.
“I meant no offense,” he added a moment later, in a softer tone. “I was surprised.”
I looked at him directly. I was too tired to be tactful.
“And a bit jealous, perhaps?”
He had a diplomat’s face; almost anything could have been going on behind that facade of handsome amiability. I went on staring at him, though, and he let the mask drop—a flash of knowledge lit the light blue eyes, tinged with grudging humor.
“So. One more thing that we have in common.” I was startled by his acuity, though I shouldn’t have been. It’s always discomfiting to find that feelings you thought safely hidden are in fact sitting out in the open for anyone to look at.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t think of that when you decided to come here.” The tea was finished; I set the cup aside and took up my skein of wool again.
He studied me for a moment, eyes narrowed.
“I thought of it, yes,” he said finally. He let his head fall back on the pillow, eyes fixed on the low beamed ceiling. “Still, if I was human enough—or petty enough—to consider that I might offend you by bringing William here, I would ask you to believe that such offense was not my motive in coming.”
I laid the finished ball of yarn in the basket and took up another skein, stretching it across the back of a split-willow chair.
“I believe you,” I said, my eyes fixed on the skein. “If only because it seems rather a lot of trouble to go to. What was your motive, though?”
I sensed the movement as he shrugged, rustling the sheets.
“The obvious—to allow Jamie to see the boy.”
“And the other obvious—to allow you to see Jamie.”
There was a marked silence from the bed. I kept my eyes on the yarn, turning the ball as I wrapped the strand, over and under, back and forth, an intricate crisscross that would in the end yield a perfect sphere.
“You are a rather remarkable woman,” he said at last, in a level tone.
“Indeed,” I said, not looking up. “In what way?”
He leaned back; I heard the rustle of his bedding.
“You are neither circumspect nor circuitous. In fact, I don’t believe I have ever met anyone more devastatingly straightforward—male or female.”
“Well, it’s not by choice,” I said. I came to the end of the thread and tucked it neatly into the ball. “I was born that way.”
“So was I,” he said, very softly.
I didn’t answer; I didn’t think he had spoken to be heard.
I rose and went to the cupboard. I took down three jars: catmint, valerian, and wild ginger. I took down the marble mortar and tipped the dried leaves and root chunks into it. A drop of water fell from the kettle, hissing into steam.
“What are you doing?” Lord John asked.
“Making an infusion for Ian,” I said, with a nod toward the trundle. “The same I gave you four days ago.”
“Ah. We heard of you as we traveled from Wilmington,” Grey said. His voice was casual now, making conversation. “You are well known in the countryside for your skills, it would appear.”
“Mm.” I pounded and ground, and the deep, musky smell of wild ginger filled the room.
“They say you are a conjure-woman. What is that, do you know?”
“Anything from a midwife to a physician to a caster of spells or a fortune-teller,” I said. “Depending on who’s talking.”
He made a sound that might have been a laugh, and then was silent for a bit.
“You think they will be safe.” It was a statement, but he was asking.
“Yes. Jamie wouldn’t have taken the boy if he thought there’d be any danger. Surely you know that, if you know him at all?” I added, glancing at him.
“I know him,” he said.
“Do you indeed,” I said.
He was quiet for a moment, bar the sound of scratching.
“I know him well enough—or think I do—to risk sending William away with him, alone. And to be sure he will not tell William the truth.”
I poured the green and yellow powder into a small square of cotton gauze and tied it neatly into a tiny bag.
“No, he won’t, you’re right about that.”
I looked up, startled.
“You really think I would?” He studied my face carefully for a moment, then smiled.
“No,” he said quietly. “Thank you.”
I snorted briefly and dropped the medicine bag into the teapot. I put back the jars of herbs, and sat down with my blasted wool again.
“It was generous of you—to let Willie go with Jamie. Rather brave,” I added, somewhat grudgingly. I looked up; he was staring at the dark oblong of the hide-covered window, as though he could look beyond it to see the two figures, side by side in the forest.
“Jamie has held my life in his hands for a good many years now,” he answered softly. “I will trust him with William’s.”
“And what if Willie remembers a groom named MacKenzie better than you think? Or happens to take a good look at his own face and Jamie’s?”
“Twelve-year-old boys are not remarkable for their acute perception,” Grey said dryly. “And I think that if a boy has lived all his life in the secure belief that he is the ninth Earl of Ellesmere, the notion that he might actually be the illegitimate offspring of a Scottish groom is not one that would enter his head—or be long entertained there, if it did.”