The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 19

   

The eyes were still straight, but clouded once more with trouble.

“She would have had to choose,” she said softly, her gaze fixed on him. “To stay with us—or go to him. To Jamie.”

“To leave you behind,” Roger said, nodding, “or to stay, and live her life, knowing her Jamie was alive, maybe reachable—but out of reach. Break her vows—on purpose, this time—and abandon her child . . . or live with yearning. I can’t think that would have done your family life much good.”

“I see.” She sighed, the steam of her exhaled breath disappearing like a ghost in cold air.

“Perhaps Frank was afraid to give her the choice,” Roger said, “but he did save her—and you—from the pain of having to make it. At least then.”

Her lips drew in, pushed out, relaxed.

“I wonder what her choice would have been, if he had told her,” she said, a little bleakly. He laid his hand on hers, squeezed lightly.

“She would have stayed,” he said, with certainty. “She made the choice once, did she not? Jamie sent her back, to keep you safe, and she went. She would have known he wanted that, and she would have stayed—so long as you needed her. She wouldn’t have gone back, even when she did, save that you insisted. Ye ken that well enough, surely?”

Her face eased a bit, accepting this.

“I guess you’re right. But still . . . to know he was alive, and not try to reach him . . .”

He bit the inside of his cheek, to keep from asking. If it were your choice, Brianna? If it was the bairn or me? For how could any man force a choice like that on a woman whom he loved, even hypothetically? Whether for her sake or his own . . . he would not ask.

“But he did put that gravestone there. Why did he do that?” The line between her brows was still deep, but no longer straight; it twisted with a growing perturbation.

He hadn’t known Frank Randall, but he felt a certain empathy for the man—and not only a disinterested sympathy, either. He hadn’t fully realized why he’d felt he must tell her about the letter now, before the wedding, but his own motives were becoming clearer—and more disturbing to him—by the moment.

“I think it was obligation, as I said. Not just to Jamie or your mother—to you. If it—” he started, then stopped and squeezed her hand, hard. “Look. Take wee Jemmy. He’s mine, as much as you are—he always will be.” He took a deep breath. “But if I were the other man . . .”

“If you were Stephen Bonnet,” she said, and her lips were tight, gone white with chill.

“If I were Bonnet,” he agreed, with a qualm of distaste at the notion, “if I knew the child was mine, and yet he was being raised by a stranger—would I not want the child to know the truth, sometime?”

Her fingers convulsed in his, and her eyes went dark.

“You mustn’t tell him! Roger, for God’s sake, promise me you won’t tell him, ever!”

He stared at her in astonishment. Her nails were digging painfully into his hand, but he made no move to free himself.

“Bonnet? Christ, no! If I ever see the man again, I’ll not waste time talking!”

“Not Bonnet.” She shuddered, whether from cold or emotion, he couldn’t tell. “God, keep away from that man! No, it’s Jemmy I mean.” She swallowed hard, and gripped both his hands. “Promise me, Roger. If you love me, promise that you’ll never tell Jemmy about Bonnet, never. Even if something happens to me—”

“Nothing will happen to you!”

She looked at him, and a small, wry smile formed on her lips.

“Celibacy’s not my thing, either. It might.” She swallowed. “And if it does . . . promise me, Roger.”

“Aye, I promise,” he said, reluctantly. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure!”

“Would you not have wanted ever to know, then—about Jamie?”

She bit her lip at that, her teeth sinking deep enough to leave a purple mark in the soft pink flesh.

“Jamie Fraser is not Stephen Bonnet!”

“Agreed,” he said dryly. “But I wasna speaking of Jemmy to start with. All I meant was that if I were Bonnet, I should want to know, and—”

“He does know.” She pulled her hand from his, abruptly, and stood up, turning away.

“He what?” He caught up with her in two strides, and grabbed her by the shoulder, turning her back to face him. She flinched slightly, and he loosened his grip. He took a deep breath, fighting to keep his voice calm. “Bonnet knows about Jemmy?”

“Worse than that.” Her lips were trembling; she pressed them tightly together to stop it, then opened them just enough to let the truth escape. “He thinks Jemmy is his.”

She wouldn’t sit down with him again, but he drew her arm tightly through his and made her walk with him, walk through the falling rain and tumbled stones, past the rush of the creek and the swaying trees, until the movement calmed her enough to talk, to tell him about her days left alone at River Run, a prisoner of her pregnancy. About Lord John Grey, her father’s friend, and hers; how she had confided to Lord John her fears and struggles.

“I was afraid you were dead. All of you—Mama, Da, you.” Her hood had fallen back and she made no effort to reclaim it. Her red hair hung in dripping rattails on her shoulders, and droplets clung to her thick red brows.

“The last thing Da said to me—he didn’t say it, even, he wrote it—he had to write it, I wouldn’t talk to him. . . .” She swallowed and ran a hand beneath her nose, wiping away a pendant drop. “He said—I had to find a way to . . . to forgive him. B-Bonnet.”

“To do what?” She pulled her arm away slightly, and he realized how hard his fingers were digging into her flesh. He loosened his grip, with a small grunt of apology, and she tilted her head briefly toward him in acknowledgment.

“He knew,” she said, and stopped. She turned to face him, her feelings now in hand. “You know what happened to him—at Wentworth.”

Roger gave a short, awkward nod. In actuality, he had no clear notion what had been done to Jamie Fraser—and had no wish to know more than he did. He knew about the scars on Fraser’s back, though, and knew from the few things Claire had said that these were but a faint reminder.

“He knew,” she said steadily. “And he knew what had to be done. He told me—if I wanted to be . . . whole . . . again, I had to find a way to forgive Stephen Bonnet. So I did.”

He had Brianna’s hand in his, held so tight that he felt the small shift of her bones. She had not told him, he had not asked. The name of Stephen Bonnet had never been mentioned between them, not until now.

“You did.” He spoke gruffly, and had to stop to clear his throat. “You found him, then? You spoke to him?”

She brushed wet hair back from her face, nodding. Grey had come to her, told her that Bonnet had been taken, condemned. Awaiting transport to Wilmington and execution, he was being held in the cellar beneath the Crown warehouse in Cross Creek. It was there that she had gone to him, bearing what she hoped was absolution—for Bonnet, for herself.

“I was huge.” Her hand sketched the bulge of advanced pregnancy before her. “I told him the baby was his; he was going to die, maybe it would be some comfort to him, to think that there’d be . . . something left.”

Roger felt jealousy grip his heart, so abrupt in its attack that for a moment, he thought the pain was physical. Something left, he thought. Something of him. And what of me? If I die tomorrow—and I might, girl! Life’s chancy here for me as well as you—what will be left of me, tell me that?

He oughtn’t ask, he knew that. He’d vowed never to voice the thought that Jemmy was not his, ever. If there was a true marriage between them, then Jem was the child of it, no matter the circumstances of his birth. And yet he felt the words spill out, burning like acid.

“So you were sure the child was his?”

She stopped dead and turned to look at him, eyes wide with shock.

“No. No, of course not! If I knew that, I would have told you!”

The burning in his chest eased, just a little.

“Oh. But you told him it was—you didn’t say to him that there was doubt about it?”

“He was going to die! I wanted to give him some comfort, not tell him my life story! It wasn’t any of his goddamn business to hear about you, or our wedding night, or—damn you, Roger!” She kicked him in the shin.

He staggered with the force of it, but grabbed her arm, preventing her from running off.

“I’m sorry!” he said, before she could kick him again, or bite him, which she looked prepared to do. “I’m sorry. You’re right, it wasn’t his business—and it’s not my business, either, to be making you think of it all again.”

She drew in a deep breath through her nose, like a dragon preparing to sear him into ash. The spark of fury in her eyes lessened slightly, though her cheeks still blazed with it. She shook off his hand, but didn’t run away.

“Yes, it is,” she said. She gave him a dark, flat look. “You said there shouldn’t be secrets between us, and you were right. But when you tell a secret, sometimes there’s another one behind it, isn’t there?”

“Yeah. But it’s not— I don’t mean—”

Before he could say more, the sound of feet and conversation interrupted him. Four men came out of the mist, speaking casually in Gaelic. They carried sharpened sticks and nets, and all were barefoot, wet to the knees. Strings of fresh-caught fish gleamed dully in the rain-light.

“A Smeòraich!” One man, peering out from under the sodden brim of his slouch hat, caught sight of them and broke into a broad grin, as shrewd eyes passed over their dishevelment. “It is yourself, Thrush! And the daughter of the Red One, too? What, can you not restrain yourselves until the darkness?”

“No doubt it is sweeter to taste stolen fruit than to wait on a blessing from a shriveled priest.” Another man thrust back his bonnet on his head, and clasped himself briefly, making clear just what he meant by “shriveled.”

“Ah, no,” said the third, wiping drops from the end of his nose as he eyed Brianna, her cloak pulled tight around her. “He’s no but after singing her a wee wedding song, is he not?”

“I know the words to that song, too,” said his companion, his grin broadening enough to show a missing molar. “But I sing it still more sweetly!”

Brianna’s cheeks had begun to blaze again; her Gaelic was less fluent than Roger’s, but she was certainly able to gather the sense of crude teasing. Roger stepped in front of her, shielding her with his body. The men meant no harm, though; they winked and grinned appreciatively, but made no further comment. The first man pulled off his hat and beat it against his thigh, shedding water, then set to business.

“It’s glad I am to be meeting you thus, a Òranaiche. My mother did hear your music at the fire last night, and told it to my aunts and my cousins, how your music was making the blood dance in her feet. So now they will hear nothing but that you must come and sing for the ceilidh at Spring Creek. It is my youngest cousin will be wed, and her the only child of my uncle, who owns the flour mill.”

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