“Oh,” she said, and the suspicion faded slightly, replaced by a reluctant acknowledgment of his right to ask. “We’re well . . . the both of us. And my husband, too,” she added pointedly.
“I’m pleased to hear it,” he assured her. “Very pleased.” He groped for something else to say, feeling awkward. “I—had thought of you now and then . . . wondered whether—whether everything was all right. When I saw you just now . . . well, I thought I’d ask, that’s all.”
“Oh, aye. Aye, I see. Well, I do thank ye, Mr. MacKenzie.” She looked up and met his eyes directly as she said it, her own gaze brown and earnest. “I ken what ye did for us. I’ll not forget; ye’re in my prayers each night.”
“Oh.” Roger felt as though some soft weight had struck him in the breast. “Ahh . . . thank you.” He had wondered, now and then, if she ever thought of him. Did she remember the kiss he had given her, there in the hold, seeking the spark of her warmth as some shield against the chill of loneliness? He cleared his throat, flushing at the memory.
She shook her head, and some thought, some memory, tightened her mouth.
“We did, but now—well, that’s no matter.” She turned, suddenly business-like, and began to take her wet clothes from the bush, shaking each one before folding it. “I do thank ye for your concern, Mr. MacKenzie.”
He was clearly dismissed. He wiped his hands down his breeks and shifted his feet, not wanting to leave. He must tell her—but having found her again, he was oddly reluctant simply to warn her and leave; curiosity bubbled in him—curiosity and a peculiar sense of connection.
Perhaps not so peculiar; this small brown woman was his relative, his own family—the only person of his own blood he had known since the death of his parents. At the same time, it was very peculiar, he realized, even as his hand reached out and curved around her arm. She was his many-times great-grandmother, after all.
She stiffened, tried to pull away, but he kept hold of her forearm. Her skin was cold from the water, but he felt her pulse throb under his fingers.
“Wait,” he said. “Please. Just a moment. I—I need to tell you . . . things.”
“No, ye don’t. I’d rather ye didn’t.” She pulled harder, and her hand slid through his, pulled free.
“Your husband. Where is he?” Belated realizations were forming in his brain. If she did not live nearby, then she was what he had first thought when he saw the women—a camp-follower. She was not a whore, he would stake his life on that; so she followed her husband, which meant—
“He is very nearby!” She backed up a step, eyeing the distance between herself and the remnants of her laundry. Roger stood between her and the bush; she would have to pass near him in order to retrieve her petticoats and stockings.
Realizing suddenly that she was slightly afraid of him, he turned hastily, grabbing a handful of things at random.
“I’m sorry. Your laundry . . . here.” He thrust them at her, and she reached to take them by reflex. Something fell—a baby’s gown—and both ducked to reach for it, cracking foreheads with a solid smack.
“Oh! Oh! Mary and Bride!” Morag clutched her head, though she still clasped the wet clothes against her bosom with one hand.
“Christ, are you all right? Morag—Mrs. MacKenzie—are you all right? I’m very sorry!” Roger touched her shoulder, squinting at her through eyes that watered with pain. He stooped to pick up the tiny gown that had fallen to the ground between them, and made a vain effort to wipe the smears of mud off the wet cloth. She blinked, eyes similarly watering, and laughed at his expression of dismay.
The collision had somehow broken the tension between them; she stepped back, but seemed not to feel threatened now.
“Aye, I’m fine.” She sniffed and wiped her eyes, then touched the spot on her forehead gingerly. “I’ve got a thick skull, my Mam always said. Are you all right yourself, then?”
“Aye, fine.” Roger touched his own forehead, suddenly and tinglingly aware that the curve of the browbone under his fingers was precisely echoed on the face before him. Hers was smaller, lighter—but just the same.
“I’ve a thick skull, too.” He grinned at her, feeling ridiculously happy. “It runs in my family.”
He handed her the mud-stained shirt, carefully.
“I am sorry,” he said, apologizing again—and not only for the ruined laundry. “Your husband. I asked about him because—is he one of the Regulators, then?”
She looked at him curiously, one brow lifted.
“Of course. Are ye not with the Regulation yourself?”
Of course. Here on this side of Alamance, what else? Tryon’s troops were drawn up in good military order on the field beyond the creek; over here, the Regulators swarmed like bees, without leadership or direction, an angry mass buzzing with random violence.
“No,” he said. “I’ve come with the militia.” He waved toward the distant smudge, where the smoke of Tryon’s campfires hung, far beyond the creek. Her eyes grew wary again, but not frightened; he was only one man.
“That’s the thing I wanted to tell you,” he said. “To warn you, and your husband. The Governor is serious this time; he’s brought organized troops, he’s brought cannon. Lots of troops, all armed.” He leaned toward her, holding out the rest of the wet stockings. She reached out a hand to take them, but kept her eyes on his, waiting.
“He means to put down this rebellion, by any means necessary. He has given orders to kill, if there is resistance. Do you understand? You must tell your husband, make him leave before—before anything happens.”
She paled, and her hand went reflexively to her belly. The wet from the clothes had soaked through her muslin dress, and he saw the small swelling that had been hidden there, round and smooth as a melon under the damp cloth. He felt the jolt of her fear go through him, as though the wet stockings she held conducted electricity.
“We did, but not now . . .” she had said, when he asked whether they lived nearby. She might mean only that they had moved to some new place, but . . . there were baby’s things in her wash; her son was with her here. Her husband was somewhere in this boiling of men.
A single man might pick up his gun and join a mob, for no reason beyond drink or boredom; a married man with a child would not. That spoke of serious disaffection, consequential grievance. And to bring both wife and child to war suggested that he had no safe place to leave them.
Roger thought it likely that Morag and her husband had no home at all now, and he understood her fear perfectly. If her husband should be maimed or killed, how was she to provide for Jemmy, for the new baby swelling under her skirt? She had no one, no family here to turn to.
Except that she did, though she did not know it. He gripped her hand hard, pulling her toward him, overcome with the need somehow to protect her and her children. He had saved them once; he could do it again.
“Morag,” he said. “Hear me. If anything should happen—anything—come to me. If you are in need of anything at all. I’ll take care of you.”
She made no effort to pull away, but searched his face, her eyes brown and serious, a small frown between those curving brows. He had an irresistible urge to make some physical connection between them—this time for her sake, as much as his. He leaned forward and kissed her, very gently.
He opened his eyes then, and lifted his head, to find himself looking over her shoulder, into the disbelieving face of his many-times great-grandfather.
“GET AWAY FROM MY WIFE.” William Buccleigh MacKenzie emerged from the shrubbery with a great rustling of leaves and a look of sinister intent upon his face. He was a tall man, close to Roger’s own height, and burly through the shoulders. Further personal details seemed inconsequent, given that he also had a knife. It was still sheathed at his belt, but his hand rested on the hilt in a significant manner.
Roger resisted his original impulse, which had been to say, “It’s not what you think.” It wasn’t, but there weren’t any plausible alternatives to suggest.
“I meant her no disrespect,” he said, instead, straightening up slowly. He felt it would be unwise to make any quick moves. “My apologies.”
“No? And just what the hell d’ye mean by it, then?” MacKenzie put a possessive hand on his wife’s shoulder, glowering at Roger. She flinched; her husband’s fingers were digging into her flesh. Roger would have liked to knock the hand away, but that was likely to cause more trouble than he had already.
“I met your wife—and you—” he added, “on board the Gloriana, a year or two ago. When I recognized her here, I thought to inquire as to the family’s welfare. That’s all.”
“He meant nay harm, William.” Morag touched her husband’s hand, and the painful grip lessened. “It’s right, what he says. Do ye not ken the man? It was him that found me and Jemmy in the hold when we hid there—he brought us food and water.”
“You asked me to care for them,” Roger added pointedly. “During the fight, that night when the sailors threw the sick ones into the sea.”
“Oh, aye?” MacKenzie’s features relaxed a trifle. “It was you, was it? I didna see your face, in the dark.”
“I didn’t see yours, either.” He could see it clearly now, and despite the awkwardness of the present circumstances, couldn’t help studying it with interest.
So this was the son—unacknowledged—of Dougal MacKenzie, erstwhile war chief of the MacKenzies of Leoch. He looked it. His was a rougher, squarer, fairer version of the family face, but looking carefully, Roger could easily spot the broad cheekbones and high forehead that Jamie Fraser had inherited from his mother’s clan. That and the family height; MacKenzie stood over six feet tall, nearly eye to eye with Roger himself.
The man turned slightly at a sound in the brush, and the sun lit those eyes with a flash of bright moss-green. Roger had a sudden urge to shut his own eyes, lest MacKenzie feel the same bolt of recognition.
MacKenzie had other concerns, though. Two men emerged from the bushes, wary-eyed and grimy with long camping. One held a musket; the other was armed with nothing but a rough club cut from a fallen limb.
“Who’s this, then, Buck?” the man with the gun asked, eyeing Roger with some suspicion.
“That’s what I mean to be finding out.” The momentary softening had disappeared, leaving MacKenzie’s face grimly set. He turned his wife away from him and gave her a small push. “Go ye back to the women, Morag. I’ll deal with this fellow.”
“But, William—” Morag glanced from Roger to her husband, face drawn in distress. “He hasna done anything—”
“Oh, ye think it’s nothing, do you, that a man should cheek up to ye in public, like a common radge?” William turned a black look on her, and she blushed suddenly crimson, evidently recalling the kiss, but stumbled on.