Brianna held her breath, trying not to breathe. Bonnet was moving fast, despite Grey’s weight. She could barely keep up, burdened with gun and lantern, but she didn’t mean to give up either one, just yet. Her belly tightened again, another of those breathless moments.
“Not yet, I said!” she muttered through gritted teeth.
She had had to stop for a moment; Bonnet had disappeared into the haze ahead. Evidently he’d noticed the fading of the lantern light, though—she heard him bellow, from somewhere up ahead.
“I’m coming!” she called, and hurried as fast as she could, waddling, discarding any pretense of grace. The smoke was much thicker, and she could hear a faint crackle, somewhere in the distance—overhead? Before them?
She was breathing heavily, in spite of the smoke. She drew in a ragged gulp of air, and smelled water. Damp and mud, dead leaves and fresh air, slicing through the smoky murk like a knife.
A faint glow shone through the smoke and grew as they hurried toward it, dwarfing the light of her lantern. Then a dark square loomed ahead. Bonnet turned and seized her arm, dragging her out into the air.
They were under the wharf, she realized; dark water lapped ahead of them, brightness dancing on it. Reflection; the brightness came from up above, and so did the crackle of flame. Bonnet didn’t stop or let go of her arm; he pulled her to one side, into the long, dank grass and mud of the bank. He let go within a few steps, but she followed, gasping for breath, slipping and sliding, tripping on the soggy edges of her skirts.
At last he stopped, in the shadow of the trees. He bent, and let Grey’s body slide to the ground. He stayed bent for a moment, chest heaving, trying to get his breath back.
Brianna realized that she could see both men plainly; could see every bud on the twigs of the tree. She turned and looked back, to see the warehouse lighted like a jack-o’-lantern, flames licking through cracks in the wooden walls. The huge double doors had been left ajar; as she watched, the blast of hot air forced one open, and small tongues of fire began to creep across the dock, deceptively small and playful-looking.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, and whirled, looking up into Bonnet’s face.
“I’ve a ship waiting,” he said. “A little way upriver. Will you come with me, then?”
She shook her head. She still held the gun, but didn’t need it now. He was no threat to her.
Still he didn’t go, but lingered, staring down at her, a small frown between his brows. His face was gaunt, hollowed and shadowed by the distant fire. The surface of the river was aflame now, small tongues of fire flickering from the dark water as a slick of turpentine spread across it.
“Is it true?” he asked abruptly. He asked no permission, but set his hands on her belly. It tightened at his touch, rounding in another of those breathless, painless squeezes, and a look of astonishment crossed his face.
She jerked away from his touch, pulling her cloak together, and nodded, unable to speak.
He seized her chin in his hand and peered into her face—assessing her truthfulness, perhaps? Then he let go, and stuck a finger into his mouth, groping in the recesses of his cheek.
He took her hand, and put something wet and hard in her palm.
“For his maintenance, then,” he said, and grinned at her. “Take care of him, sweetheart!”
And then he was gone, bounding long-legged up the riverbank, silhouetted like a demon in the flickering light. The turpentine flowing into the water had caught fire, and roiling billows of scarlet light shot upward, floating pillars of fire that lit the riverbank bright as day.
She half raised the musket, finger on the trigger. He was no more than twenty yards away, a perfect shot. Not by your hand. She lowered the gun, and let him go.
The warehouse was fully ablaze by now; the heat from it beat against her cheeks and blew the hair back from her face.
“I have a ship upriver,” he’d said. She squinted into the glare. The fire had nearly filled the river, a great floating slick that bloomed from bank to bank in a fiery garden of unfolding flames. Nothing could come through that blinding wall of light.
Her other fist was still closed around the object he had given her. She opened her hand and looked down at the wet black diamond that gleamed in her palm, the fire glowing red and bloody in its facets.
River Run, May 1770
That is the most stubborn woman I have ever met!” Brianna huffed into the room like a ship in full sail, and subsided onto the love seat by the bed, billowing.
Lord John Grey opened one eye, bloodshot under his turban of bandages.
“You have a looking glass in your room, do you not?” His mouth curved, and after a reluctant moment, so did hers.
“It’s her bloody will. I told her I don’t want River Run, I can’t own slaves—but she won’t change it! She just smiles as though I were a six-year-old having a tantrum and says by the time it happens, I’ll be glad of it. Glad of it!” She snorted and flounced into a more comfortable position. “What am I going to do?”
“Nothing?” She turned the force of her displeasure on him. “How can I do nothing?”
“To begin with, I should be extremely surprised if your aunt were not immortal, several of that particular race of Scots seem to be. However”—he waved a hand in dismissal—“should this prove untrue, and should she persist in her delusions that you would prove a good mistress to River Run—”
“What makes you think I wouldn’t?” she said, pride stung.
“You cannot run a plantation of this size without slaves, and you decline to own them for reasons of conscience, or so I was given to understand. Though a less likely Quaker I have never seen.” He narrowed his open eye, indicating the immense tent of purple-striped muslin in which she was swathed. “Returning to the point at issue—or one of them—should you find yourself the unwilling recipient of a number of slaves, arrangements can undoubtedly be made to free them.”
“Not in North Carolina. The Assembly—”
“No, not in North Carolina,” he agreed patiently. “If the occasion should arise, and you find yourself in possession of slaves, you will simply sell them to me.”
“And I will take them to Virginia, where manumission is much less stringently controlled. Once they are freed, you will return my money. At this point, you will be totally destitute and lacking in property, which appears to be your chief desire, second only to preventing any possibility of personal happiness by ensuring that you cannot marry the man you love.”
She pleated a handful of muslin between her fingers, frowning at the big sapphire that shone on her hand.
“I promised I’d listen to him first.” She cast a narrow eye at Lord John. “Though I still say it’s emotional blackmail.”
“So much more effective than any other kind,” he agreed. “Almost worth a cracked pate, to finally hold the whip hand on a Fraser.”
She ignored this.
“And I only said I’d listen. I still think when he knows everything, he’ll—he can’t.” She put a hand on her enormous belly. “You couldn’t, could you? Care—really care, I mean—for a child that wasn’t yours?”
He moved higher on the pillow, grimacing slightly.
“For the sake of its parent? I expect I could.” He opened both eyes and looked at her, smiling. “Indeed, I was under the impression that I had been doing so for some time.”
She looked momentarily blank, before a tide of pink flowed up from the scooped neck of her bodice. She was charming when she blushed.
“You mean me? Well, yes, but—I mean—I’m not a baby, and you’re not having to claim me as your own.” She gave him a direct blue look, at odds with the lingering pinkness of her cheeks. “And I did hope it wasn’t all for my father’s sake.”
He was quiet for a moment, then reached out and squeezed her hand.
“No, it wasn’t,” he said gruffly. He let go, and lay back with a small groan.
“Are you feeling worse?” she asked anxiously. “Shall I get you something? Some tea? A poultice?”
“No, it’s only the blasted headache,” he said. “The light makes it throb.” He shut his eyes again.
“Tell me,” he said without opening them, “why is it that you seem so convinced that a man could not care for a child unless it were the fruit of his loins? As it is, my dear, I did not mean to refer to you when I said I had been doing such a thing myself. My son—my stepson—is in fact the son of my late wife’s sister. By tragic accident, both of his parents died within a day of each other, and my wife Isobel and her parents raised him from babyhood. I married Isobel when Willie was six or so. So you see, there is no blood between us at all—and yet were any man to impugn my affection for him, or to say he is not my son, I would call him out on the instant for it.”
“I see,” she said, after a moment. “I didn’t know that.” He cracked an eyelid; she was still twisting her ring, looking pensive.
“I think…” she began, and glanced at him. “I think I’m not so worried about Roger and the baby. If I’m honest—”
“Heaven forfend you should be otherwise,” he murmured.
“If I’m honest,” she went on, glowering at him, “I think I’m worried more about how it would be between us—between Roger and me.” She hesitated, then took the plunge.
“I didn’t know Jamie Fraser was my father,” she said. “Not all the time I was growing up. After the Rising, my parents were separated; they each thought the other was dead. And so my mother married again. I thought Frank Randall was my father. I didn’t find out otherwise until after he died.”
“Ah.” He viewed her with increased interest. “And was this Randall cruel to you?”
“No! He was…wonderful.” Her voice broke slightly, and she cleared her throat, embarrassed. “No. He was the best father I could have had. It’s just that I thought my parents had a good marriage. They cared for each other, they respected each other, they—well, I thought everything was fine.”
Lord John scratched at his bandages. The doctor had shaved his head, a condition which, in addition to affronting his vanity, itched abominably.
“I fail to see the difficulty, as applied to your present situation.”
She heaved a huge sigh.
“Then my father died, and…we found out that Jamie Fraser was still alive. My mother went to join him, and then I came. And—it was different. I saw how they looked at each other. I never saw her look at Frank Randall that way—or him at her.”
“Ah, yes.” A small gust of bleakness swept through him. He’d seen that look once or twice; the first time, he had wanted desperately to put a knife through Claire Randall’s heart.