He breathed deeply, and laid down the paperweight. “I suppose there is.” He jerked his head abruptly at the decanter. “Will you have brandy?”
“I will,” I said promptly, “and I strongly suggest you have some, too. I expect you need it as much as I do.”
A slight smile showed briefly at the corner of his mouth.
“Is that a medical opinion, Mrs. Malcolm?” he asked dryly.
“Absolutely,” I said.
This small truce established, he sat back, rolling his beaker of brandy slowly between his hands.
“You said Jamie mentioned me to you,” he said. I must have flinched slightly at his use of Jamie’s name, for he frowned at me. “Would you prefer that I referred to him by his surname?” he said, coldly. “I should scarcely know which to use, under the circumstances.”
“No.” I waved it away, and took a sip of brandy. “Yes, he mentioned you. He said you had been the Governor of the prison at Ardsmuir, and that you were a friend—and that he could trust you,” I added reluctantly. Possibly Jamie felt he could trust Lord John Grey, but I was not so sanguine.
The smile this time was not quite so brief.
“I am glad to hear that,” Grey said softly. He looked down into the amber liquid in his cup, swirling it gently to release its heady bouquet. He took a sip, then set the cup down with decision.
“I met him at Ardsmuir, as he said,” he began. “And when the prison was shut down and the other prisoners sold to indenture in America, I arranged that Jamie should be paroled instead to a place in England, called Helwater, owned by friends of my family.” He looked at me, hesitating, then added simply, “I could not bear the thought of never seeing him again, you see.”
In a few brief words, he acquainted me with the bare facts of Geneva’s death and Willie’s birth.
“Was he in love with her?” I asked. The brandy was doing its bit to warm my hands and feet, but it didn’t touch the large cold object in my stomach.
“He has never spoken to me of Geneva,” Grey said. He gulped the last of his brandy, coughed, and reached to pour another cup. It was only when he finished this operation that he looked at me again, and added, “But I doubt it, having known her.” His mouth twisted wryly.
“He never told me about Willie, either, but there was a certain amount of gossip about Geneva and old Lord Ellesmere, and by the time the boy was four or five, the resemblance made it quite clear who his father was—to anyone who cared to look.” He took another deep swallow of brandy. “I suspect that my mother-in-law knows, but of course she would never breathe a word.”
He stared at me over the rim of his cup.
“No, would you? If it were a choice of your only grandchild being either the ninth Earl of Ellesmere, and heir to one of the wealthiest estates in England, or the penniless bastard of a Scottish criminal?”
“I see.” I drank some more of my own brandy, trying to imagine Jamie with a young English girl named Geneva—and succeeding all too well.
“Quite,” Grey said dryly. “Jamie saw, too. And very wisely arranged to leave Helwater before it became obvious to everyone.”
“And that’s where you come back into the story, is it?” I asked.
He nodded, eyes closed. The Residence was quiet, though there was a certain distant stir that made me aware that people were still about.
“That’s right,” he said. “Jamie gave the boy to me.”
The stable at Ellesmere was well-built; cozy in the winter, it was a cool haven in summer. The big bay stallion flicked its ears lazily at a passing fly, but stood stolidly content, enjoying the attentions of his groom.
“Isobel is most displeased with you,” Grey said.
“Is she?” Jamie’s voice was indifferent. There was no need any longer to worry about displeasing any of the Dunsanys.
“She said you had told Willie you were leaving, which upset him dreadfully. He’s been howling all day.”
Jamie’s face was turned away, but Grey saw the faint tightening at the side of his throat. He rocked backward, leaning against the stable wall as he watched the curry comb come down and down and down in hard, even strokes that left dark trails across the shimmering coat.
“Surely it would have been easier to say nothing to the boy?” Grey said quietly.
“I suppose it would—for Lady Isobel.” Fraser turned to put up the curry comb, and slapped a hand on the stallion’s rump in dismissal. Grey thought there was an air of finality in the gesture; tomorrow Jamie would be gone. He felt a slight thickening in his own throat, but swallowed it. He rose and followed Fraser toward the door of the stall.
“Jamie—” he said, putting his hand on Fraser’s shoulder. The Scot swung round, his features hastily readjusting themselves, but not fast enough to hide the misery in his eyes. He stood still, looking down at the Englishman.
“You’re right to go,” Grey said. Alarm flared in Fraser’s eyes, quickly supplanted by wariness.
“Am I?” he said.
“Anyone with half an eye could see it,” Grey said dryly. “If anyone ever actually looked at a groom, someone would have noticed long before now.” He glanced back at the bay stallion, and cocked one brow. “Some sires stamp their get. I have the distinct impression that any offspring of yours would be unmistakable.”
Jamie said nothing, but Grey fancied that he had grown a shade paler than usual.
“Surely you can see—well, no, perhaps not,” he corrected himself, “I don’t suppose you have a looking glass, have you?”
Jamie shook his head mechanically. “No,” he said absently. “I shave in the reflection from the trough.” He drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
“Aye, well,” he said. He glanced toward the house, where the French doors were standing open onto the lawn. Willie was accustomed to play there after lunch on fine days.
Fraser turned to him with sudden decision. “Will ye walk with me?” he said.
Not pausing for an answer, he set off past the stable, turning down the lane that led from the paddock to the lower pasture. It was nearly a quarter-mile before he came to a halt, in a sunny clearing by a clump of willows, near the edge of the mere.
Grey found himself puffing slightly from the quick pace—too much soft living in London, he chided himself. Fraser, of course, was not even sweating, despite the warmth of the day.
Without preamble, turning to face Grey, he said, “I wish to ask a favor of ye.” The slanted blue eyes were direct as the man himself.
“If you think I would tell anyone…” Grey began, then shook his head. “Surely you don’t think I could do such a thing. After all, I have known—or at least suspected—for some time.”
“No.” A faint smile lifted Jamie’s mouth. “No, I dinna think ye would. But I would ask ye…”
“Yes,” Grey said promptly. The corner of Jamie’s mouth twitched.
“Ye dinna wish to know what it is first?”
“I should imagine that I know; you wish me to look out for Willie; perhaps to send you word of his welfare.”
“Aye, that’s it.” He glanced up the slope, to where the house lay half-hidden in its nest of fiery maples. “It’s an imposition, maybe, to ask ye to come all the way from London to see him now and then.”
“Not at all,” Grey interrupted. “I came this afternoon to give you some news of my own; I am to be married.”
“Married?” The shock was plain on Fraser’s face. “To a woman?”
“I think there are not many alternatives,” Grey replied dryly. “But yes, since you ask, to a woman. To the Lady Isobel.”
“Christ, man! Ye canna do that!”
“I can,” Grey assured him. He grimaced. “I made trial of my capacity in London; be assured that I shall make her an adequate husband. You needn’t necessarily enjoy the act in order to perform it—or perhaps you were aware of that?”
There was a small reflexive twitch at the corner of Jamie’s eye; not quite a flinch, but enough for Grey to notice. Jamie opened his mouth, then closed it again and shook his head, obviously thinking better of what he had been about to say.
“Dunsany is growing too old to take a hand in the running of the estate,” Grey pointed out. “Gordon is dead, and Isobel and her mother cannot manage the place alone. Our families have known each other for decades. It is an entirely suitable match.”
“Is it, then?” The sardonic skepticism in Jamie’s voice was clear. Grey turned to him, fair skin flushing as he answered sharply.
“It is. There is more to a marriage than carnal love. A great deal more.”
Fraser swung sharply away. He strode to the edge of the mere, and stood, boots sunk in the reedy mud, looking over the ruffled waves for some time. Grey waited patiently, taking the time to unribbon his hair and reorder the thick blond mass.
At long last, Fraser came back, walking slowly, head down as though still thinking. Face-to-face with Grey he looked up again.
“You are right,” he said quietly. “I have no right to think ill of you, if ye mean no dishonor to the lady.”
“Certainly not,” Grey said. “Besides,” he added more cheerfully, “it means I will be here permanently, to see to Willie.”
“You mean to resign your commission, then?” One copper eyebrow flicked upward.
“Yes,” Grey said. He smiled, a little ruefully. “It will be a relief, in a way. I was not meant for army life, I think.”
Fraser seemed to be thinking. “I should be…grateful, then,” he said, “if you would stand as stepfather to—to my son.” He had likely never spoken the word aloud before, and the sound of it seemed to shock him. “I…would be obliged to you.” Jamie sounded as though his collar were too tight, though in fact his shirt was open at the throat. Grey looked curiously at him, and saw that his countenance was slowly turning a dark and painful red.
“In return…If you want…I mean, I would be willing to…that is…”
Grey suppressed the sudden desire to laugh. He laid a light hand on the big Scot’s arm, and saw Jamie brace himself not to flinch at the touch.
“My dear Jamie,” he said, torn between laughter and exasperation. “Are you actually offering me your body in payment for my promise to look after Willie?”
Fraser’s face was red to the roots of his hair.
“Aye, I am,” he snapped, tight-lipped. “D’ye want it, or no?”
At this, Grey did laugh, in long gasping whoops, finally having to sit down on the grassy bank in order to recover himself.
“Oh, dear God,” he said at last, wiping his eyes. “That I should live to hear an offer like that!”
Fraser stood above him, looking down, the morning light silhouetting him, lighting his hair in flames against the pale blue sky. Grey thought he could see a slight twitch of the wide mouth in the darkened face—humor, tempered with a profound relief.