“Aye, milady?” Jeffries had been called to give evidence. MacKenzie had not. So far as the coroner’s court was concerned, the groom MacKenzie had never set foot on Ellesmere.
Lady Dunsany’s eyes met his, straight on. They were a pale bluish-green, like her daughter Isobel’s, but the blond hair that glowed on Isobel was faded on her mother, touched with white strands that shone silver in the sun from the open door of the stable.
“We are grateful to you, MacKenzie,” she said quietly.
“Thank ye, milady.”
“Very grateful,” she repeated, still gazing at him intently. “MacKenzie isn’t your real name, is it?” she said suddenly.
“No, milady.” A sliver of ice ran down his spine, despite the warmth of the afternoon sun on his shoulders. How much had the Lady Geneva told her mother before her death?
She seemed to feel his stiffening, for the edge of her mouth lifted in what he thought was meant as a smile of reassurance.
“I think I need not ask what it is, just yet,” she said. “But I do have a question for you. MacKenzie—do you want to go home?”
“Home?” He repeated the word blankly.
“To Scotland.” She was watching him intently. “I know who you are,” she said. “Not your name, but that you’re one of John’s Jacobite prisoners. My husband told me.”
Jamie watched her warily, but she didn’t seem upset; no more so than would be natural in a woman who has just lost a daughter and gained a grandson, at least.
“I hope you will forgive the deception, milady,” he said. “His Lordship—”
“Wished to save me distress,” Lady Dunsany finished for him. “Yes, I know. William worries too much.” Still, the deep line between her brows relaxed a bit at the thought of her husband’s concern. The sight, with its underlying echo of marital devotion, gave him a faint and unexpected pang.
“We are not rich—you will have gathered that from Ellesmere’s remarks,” Lady Dunsany went on. “Helwater is rather heavily in debt. My grandson, however, is now the possessor of one of the largest fortunes in the county.”
There seemed nothing to say to this but “Aye, milady?” though it made him feel rather like the parrot who lived in the main salon. He had seen it as he crept stealthily through the flowerbeds at sunset the day before, taking the chance of approaching the house while the family were dressing for dinner, in an attempt to catch a glimpse through a window of the new Earl of Ellesmere.
“We are very retired here,” she went on. “We seldom visit London, and my husband has little influence in high circles. But—”
“Aye, milady?” He had some inkling by now of where her ladyship was heading with this roundabout conversation, and a feeling of sudden excitement hollowed the space beneath his ribs.
“John—Lord John Grey, that is—comes from a family with considerable influence. His stepfather is—well, that’s of no consequence.” She shrugged, the small black-linen shoulders dismissing the details.
“The point is that it might be possible to exert sufficient influence on your behalf to have you released from the conditions of your parole, so that you might return to Scotland. So I have come to ask you—do you want to go home, MacKenzie?”
He felt quite breathless, as though someone had punched him very hard in the stomach.
Scotland. To go away from this damp, spongy atmosphere, set foot on that forbidden road and walk it with a free, long stride, up into the crags and along the deer trails, to feel the air clearing and sharpening with the scent of gorse and heather. To go home!
To be a stranger no longer. To go away from hostility and loneliness, come down into Lallybroch, and see his sister’s face light with joy at the sight of him, feel her arms around his waist, Ian’s hug about his shoulders and the pummeling, grasping clutch of the children’s hands, tugging at his clothes.
To go away, and never to see or hear of his own child again. He stared at Lady Dunsany, his face quite blank, so that she should not guess at the turmoil her offer had caused within him.
He had, at last, found the baby yesterday, lying asleep in a basket near the nursery window on the second floor. Perched precariously on the branch of a huge Norway spruce, he had strained his eyes to see through the screen of needles that hid him.
The child’s face had been visible only in profile, one fat cheek resting on its ruffled shoulder. Its cap had slipped awry, so he could see the smooth, arching curve of the tiny skull, lightly dusted with a pale gold fuzz.
“Thank God it isn’t red,” had been his first thought, and he had crossed himself in reflexive thanksgiving.
“God, he’s so small!” had been his second, coupled with an overwhelming urge to step through the window and pick the boy up. The smooth, beautifully shaped head would just fit, resting in the palm of his hand, and he could feel in memory the small squirming body that he had held so briefly to his heart.
“You’re a strong laddie,” he had whispered. “Strong and braw and bonny. But my God, you are so small!”
Lady Dunsany was waiting patiently. He bowed his head respectfully to her, not knowing whether he was making a terrible mistake, but unable to do otherwise.
“I thank ye, milady, but—I think I shall not go…just yet.”
One pale eyebrow quivered slightly, but she inclined her head to him with equal grace.
“As you wish, MacKenzie. You have only to ask.”
She turned like a tiny clockwork figure and left, going back to the world of Helwater, a thousand times more his prison now than it had ever been.
To his extreme surprise, the next few years were in many ways among the happiest of Jamie Fraser’s life, aside from the years of his marriage.
Relieved of responsibility for tenants, followers, or anyone at all beyond himself and the horses in his charge, life was relatively simple. While the coroner’s court had taken no notice of him, Jeffries had let slip enough about the death of Ellesmere that the other servants treated him with distant respect, but did not presume on his company.
He had enough to eat, sufficient clothes to keep warm and decent, and the occasional discreet letter from the Highlands reassured him that similar conditions obtained there.
One unexpected benefit of the quiet life at Helwater was that he had somehow resumed his odd half-friendship with Lord John Grey. The Major had, as promised, appeared once each quarter, staying each time for a few days to visit with the Dunsanys. He had made no attempt to gloat, though, or even to speak with Jamie, beyond the barest formal inquiry.
Very slowly, Jamie had realized all that Lady Dunsany had implied, in her offer to have him released. “John—Lord John Grey, that is—comes from a family with considerable influence. His stepfather is—well, that’s of no consequence,” she had said. It was of consequence, though. It had not been His Majesty’s pleasure that had brought him here, rather than condemning him to the perilous ocean crossing and near-slavery in America; it had been John Grey’s influence.
And he had not done it for revenge or from indecent motives, for he never gloated, made no advances; never said anything beyond the most commonplace civilities. No, he had brought Jamie here because it was the best he could do; unable simply to release him at the time, Grey had done his best to ease the conditions of captivity—by giving him air, and light, and horses.
It took some effort, but he did it. When Grey next appeared in the stableyard on his quarterly visit, Jamie had waited until the Major was alone, admiring the conformation of a big sorrel gelding. He had come to stand beside Grey, leaning on the fence. They watched the horse in silence for several minutes.
“King’s pawn to king four,” Jamie said quietly at last, not looking at the man beside him.
He felt the other’s start of surprise, and felt Grey’s eyes on him, but didn’t turn his head. Then he felt the creak of the wood beneath his forearm as Grey turned back, leaning on the fence again.
“Queen’s knight to queen bishop three,” Grey replied, his voice a little huskier than usual.
Since then, Grey had come to the stables during each visit, to spend an evening perched on Jamie’s crude stool, talking. They had no chessboard and seldom played verbally, but the late-night conversations continued—Jamie’s only connection with the world beyond Helwater, and a small pleasure to which both of them looked forward once each quarter.
Above everything else, he had Willie. Helwater was dedicated to horses; even before the boy could stand solidly on his feet, his grandfather had him propped on a pony to be led round the paddock. By the time Willie was three, he was riding by himself—under the watchful eye of MacKenzie, the groom.
Willie was a strong, courageous, bonny little lad. He had a blinding smile, and could charm birds from the trees if he liked. He was also remarkably spoilt. As the ninth Earl of Ellesmere and the only heir to both Ellesmere and Helwater, with neither mother nor father to keep him under control, he ran roughshod over his doting grandparents, his young aunt, and every servant in the place—except MacKenzie.
And that was a near thing. So far, threats of not allowing the boy to help him with the horses had sufficed to quash Willie’s worst excesses in the stables, but sooner or later, threats alone were not going to be sufficient, and MacKenzie the groom found himself wondering just what was going to happen when he finally lost his own control and clouted the wee fiend.
As a lad, he would himself have been beaten senseless by the nearest male relative within earshot, had he ever dared to address a woman the way he had heard Willie speak to his aunt and the maidservants, and the impulse to haul Willie into a deserted box stall and attempt to correct his manners was increasingly frequent.
Still, for the most part, he had nothing but joy in Willie. The boy adored MacKenzie, and as he grew older would spend hours in his company, riding on the huge draft horses as they pulled the heavy roller through the high fields, and perched precariously on the hay wagons as they came down from the upper pastures in summer.
There was a threat to this peaceful existence, though, which grew greater with each passing month. Ironically, the threat came from Willie himself, and was one he could not help.
“What a handsome little lad he is, to be sure! And such a lovely little rider!” It was Lady Grozier who spoke, standing on the veranda with Lady Dunsany to admire Willie’s peregrinations on his pony around the edge of the lawn.
Willie’s grandmother laughed, eyeing the boy fondly. “Oh, yes. He loves his pony. We have a terrible time getting him even to come indoors for meals. And he’s even more fond of his groom. We joke sometimes that he spends so much time with MacKenzie that he’s even starting to look like MacKenzie!”
Lady Grozier, who had of course paid no attention to a groom, now glanced in MacKenzie’s direction.
“Why, you’re right!” she exclaimed, much amused. “Just look; Willie’s got just that same c**k to his head, and the same set to his shoulders! How funny!”
Jamie bowed respectfully to the ladies, but felt cold sweat pop out on his face.