I scooped up a handful of mud, pressed the leech gently into it and wrapped the gooey blob in wet leaves, only then noticing that my hands were trembling. The idiot! The deceitful, wicked, conniving…what in hell had made him come here? And God, what would Jamie do?
I came back to the boy, who was bent double, peering at the remaining leeches with a look of disgusted loathing. One more was close to dropping; as I knelt in front of him, it fell off, bouncing slightly on the damp ground.
“Augh!” he said.
“Where’s your stepfather?” I asked abruptly. Few things could have taken his attention off his legs, but that did. His head jerked up and he stared at me in astonishment.
It was a cool day, but a light dew of sweat shone on his face. It was narrower through cheek and temple, I thought, and the mouth was quite unlike; perhaps the resemblance was not really so pronounced as I thought.
“How do you know me?” he asked, drawing himself up with an air of hauteur that would have been extremely funny under other circumstances.
“All I know about you is that your given name is William. Am I right?” My hands curled at my sides, and I hoped I was wrong. If he was William, that wasn’t quite all I knew about him, but it was plenty to be going on with.
A hot flush rose into his cheeks, and his eyes raked over me, his attention temporarily distracted from the leeches by being so familiarly addressed by what—I suddenly realized—appeared to be a disheveled beldame with her skirts round her thighs. Either he had good manners, or the disparity between my voice and my appearance made him cautious, because he swallowed the instant retort that came to his lips.
“Yes, it is,” he said shortly, instead. “William, Viscount Ashness, ninth Earl of Ellesmere.”
“All that?” I said politely. “Gracious.” I took hold of one leech between thumb and forefinger and pulled gently. The thing stretched out like a thick rubber band, but declined to let go. The boy’s pale flesh pulled out, too, and he made a small choking sound.
“Let go!” he said. “It’ll break, you’ll break it!”
“Could do,” I admitted. I got to my feet and shook down my skirts, putting myself in better order.
“Come along,” I said, offering him a hand. “I’ll take you to the house. If I sprinkle a bit of salt on them, they’ll drop off at once.”
He refused the hand, but got to his feet, a little shakily. He glanced around, as though looking for someone.
“Papa,” he explained, seeing my expression. “We missed the way, and he told me to wait by the stream while he made sure of our direction. I shouldn’t like him to take alarm if I am not here when he returns.”
“I shouldn’t worry,” I said. “I imagine he’ll have found the house himself by this time; it isn’t far.” A fair guess, as it was the only house in some distance, and at the end of a well-marked trail. Lord John had plainly left the boy while he went ahead, to find Jamie—and warn him. Very thoughtful. My lips tightened involuntarily.
“Will that be Frasers’?” the boy asked. He took a ginger step, spraddling so as not to allow his legs to rub together. “We had come to see a James Fraser.”
“I’m Mrs. Fraser,” I said, and smiled at him. Your stepmother, I might have added—but didn’t. “Come along.”
He followed me through the scrim of trees toward the house, almost treading on my heels in his haste. I kept tripping over tree roots and half-buried stones, not watching where I was going, fighting the overwhelming urge to turn around and stare at him. If William, Viscount Ashness, ninth Earl of Ellesmere, was not the very last person I had ever expected to see in the backwoods of North Carolina, he was certainly next to the last—King George was a trifle less likely to turn up on the doorstep, I supposed.
What had possessed that…that…I groped about, trying to choose among several discreditable epithets to apply to Lord John Grey, and gave up the struggle, in favor of trying to think what in heaven’s name to do. I gave that up, too; there wasn’t a thing I could do.
William, Viscount Ashness, ninth Earl of Ellesmere. Or he thought he was. And just what do you propose to do, I thought silently and savagely toward Lord John Grey, when he finds out that he’s really the bastard son of a pardoned Scottish criminal? And more important—what’s the Scottish criminal going to do? or feel?
I stopped, causing the boy to stumble as he tried to avoid crashing into me.
“Sorry,” I murmured. “Thought I saw a snake,” and went on, the thought that had stopped me in my tracks still knotting my midsection like a dose of bitter apples. Could Lord John have brought the boy on purpose to reveal his parentage? Did he mean to leave him here, with Jamie—with us?
Alarming as I found the notion, I couldn’t reconcile it with the man I had met in Jamaica. I might have sound reasons for disliking John Grey—always difficult to feel a warm sense of goodwill toward a man with a professed homosexual passion for one’s husband, after all—but I had to admit that I had seen no trace of either recklessness or cruelty in his character. On the contrary, he had struck me as a sensitive, kindly, and honorable man—or at least he had, before I’d found out about his predilections toward Jamie.
Could something have happened? Some threat to the boy that made Lord John fear for his safety? Surely no one could have found out the truth about William—no one knew, save Lord John and Jamie. And me, of course, I added as an afterthought. Without the evidence of the resemblance—again I repressed the urge to turn round and stare at him—there was no reason for anyone ever to suspect.
But see them side by side, and—well, I shortly would see them side by side. The thought gave me a queer hollowness beneath the breastbone, half fright and half anticipation. Was it really as strong as I thought, that resemblance?
I took a deliberate quick detour, through a clump of low-hanging dogwood, making an excuse to turn and wait for him. He came through after me, ducking awkwardly to retrieve the silver-buckled shoe he had dropped.
No, I thought, watching covertly as he straightened up, face flushed from bending. It wasn’t as strong as I’d thought at first. He had the promise of Jamie’s bones, but it wasn’t all there yet—he had the outlines, but not yet the substance. He would be very tall—that was obvious—but now he was about my height, gawky and slender, his limbs very long, and thin enough to seem almost delicate.
He was much darker than Jamie, too; while his hair glinted red in the shafts of sunlight that came through the branches, it was a deep chestnut, nothing like Jamie’s bright red-gold, and his skin had turned a soft golden brown in the sun, not at all like Jamie’s half-burnt bronze.
He had the Frasers’ slanted cat-eyes, though, and there was something about the set of his head, the c*ck of the slender shoulders, that made me think of—
Bree. It hit me with a small shock, like a spark of electricity. He did look quite a bit like Jamie, but it was my memories of Brianna that had caused that jolt of instant recognition when I saw him. Only ten years her junior, the childish outlines of his face were much more similar to hers than to Jamie’s.
He had paused to disentangle a long strand of hair from a grappling dogwood branch; now he came up with me, one brow raised inquiringly.
“Is it far?” he asked. The color had come back to his face with the exertion of walking, but he still looked a trifle sick, and kept his eyes averted from his legs.
“No,” I said. I motioned toward the chestnut grove. “Just there. Look; you can see the smoke from the chimney.”
He didn’t wait to be led, but set off with dogged speed, anxious to be rid of the leeches.
I followed him quickly, not wanting him to reach the cabin ahead of me. I was prey to a mixture of the most disquieting sensations; uppermost was anxiety for Jamie, a little lower, anger at John Grey. Below that, an intense curiosity. And at the bottom, far enough down that I could almost pretend it wasn’t there, was a pang of sharp longing for my daughter, whose face I had never thought to see again.
Jamie and Lord John were sitting on the bench by the door; at the sound of our steps, Jamie rose and looked toward the wood. He’d had time to prepare himself; his glance passed casually over the boy as he turned to me.
“Oh, Claire. Ye’ve found the other of our visitors, then. I’d sent Ian down to find ye. Ye’ll recall Lord John, I expect?”
“How could I forget?” I said, giving his lordship a particularly bright smile. His mouth twitched slightly, but he kept a straight face as he bowed deeply in my direction. How did a man stay so impeccably groomed after several days on horseback, sleeping in the woods?
“Your servant, Mrs. Fraser.” He glanced at the boy, frowning slightly at his state of undress. “May I present my stepson, Lord Ellesmere? And William, as I see you have made the acquaintance of our gracious hostess, will you also make your compliments to our host, Captain Fraser?”
The boy was shifting from foot to foot, nearly dancing on his toes. At this prompting, though, he jerked a quick bow in Jamie’s direction.
“Your servant, Captain,” he said, then cast an agonized glance at me, plainly conscious of nothing but the fact that more of his blood was being sucked out by the second.
“You’ll excuse us?” I said politely, and taking the boy by the arm, led him into the cabin and shut the door firmly in the astonished faces of the men. William sat immediately on the stool I pointed out, and thrust out his legs, trembling.
“Hurry!” he said. “Oh, please, do hurry!”
There was no salt ground; I took my digging knife and chipped a piece from the block with reckless haste, dropped it into my mortar, and smashed it into granules with a few quick jabs of the pestle. Crumbling the grains between my fingers, I scattered the salt thickly on each leech.
“Rather hard on the poor old leeches,” I said, seeing the first draw itself slowly up into a ball. “Still, it does the trick.” The leech let go its grip and tumbled off William’s leg, followed in similar fashion by its fellows, who writhed in slow-motion agony on the floor.
I scooped up the tiny bodies and flung them into the fire, then knelt in front of him, tactfully keeping my head bent while he got control of his face.
“Here, let me take care of the bites.” Tiny streams of blood ran down his legs; I dabbed them with a clean cloth, then washed the small wounds with vinegar and St.-John’s-wort to stop the bleeding.
He let out a deep and tremulous sigh of relief as I dried his shins. “It’s not that I’m afraid of—of blood,” he said, in a tone of bravado that made it apparent that that was precisely what he was afraid of. “It’s only they’re such filthy creatures.”
“Nasty little things,” I agreed. I stood up, took a clean cloth, dipped it in water, and matter-of-factly wiped his smudged face. Then, without asking, I picked up my hairbrush and began to comb out the snarls of his hair.
He looked utterly startled at this familiarity, but beyond an initial stiffening of his spine, made no protest, and as I began to order his hair, he let out another small sigh, and let his shoulders slump a little.