He had seen this coming, but hadn’t wanted to believe the resemblance was sufficiently pronounced as to be visible to anyone but himself. Willie as a baby had been fat and pudding-faced, and resembled no one at all. As he had grown, though, the pudginess had vanished from cheeks and chin, and while his nose was still the soft snub of childhood, the hint of high, broad cheekbones was apparent, and the slaty-blue eyes of babyhood had grown dark blue and clear, thickly fringed with sooty lashes, and slightly slanted in appearance.
Once the ladies had gone into the house, and he could be sure no one was watching, Jamie passed a hand furtively over his own features. Was the resemblance truly that great? Willie’s hair was a soft middle brown, with just a tinge of his mother’s chestnut gleam. And those large, translucent ears—surely his own didn’t stick out like that?
The trouble was that Jamie Fraser had not actually seen himself clearly for several years. Grooms did not have looking glasses, and he had sedulously avoided the company of the maids, who might have provided him with one.
Moving to the watering trough, he bent over it, casually, as though inspecting one of the water striders that skated over its surface. Beneath the wavering surface, flecked with floating bits of hay and crisscrossed by the dimpling striders, his own face stared up at him.
He swallowed, and saw the reflection’s throat move. It was by no means a complete resemblance, but it was definitely there. More in the set and shape of the head and shoulders, as Lady Grozier had observed—but most definitely the eyes as well. Fraser eyes; his father, Brian, had had them, and his sister, Jenny, as well. Let the boy’s bones go on pressing through his skin; let the child-snub nose grow long and straight, and the cheekbones still broader—and anyone would be able to see it.
The reflection in the trough vanished as he straightened up, and stood, staring blindly at the stable that had been home for the last several years. It was July and the sun was hot, but it made no impression on the chill that numbed his fingers and sent a shiver up his back.
It was time to speak to Lady Dunsany.
By the middle of September, everything had been arranged. The pardon had been procured; John Grey had brought it the day before. Jamie had a small amount of money saved, enough for traveling expenses, and Lady Dunsany had given him a decent horse. The only thing that remained was to bid farewell to his acquaintances at Helwater—and Willie.
“I shall be leaving tomorrow.” Jamie spoke matter-of-factly, not taking his eyes off the bay mare’s fetlock. The horny growth he was filing flaked away, leaving a dust of coarse black shavings on the stable floor.
“Where are you going? To Derwentwater? Can I come with you?” William, Viscount Dunsany, ninth Earl of Ellesmere, hopped down from the edge of the box stall, landing with a thump that made the bay mare start and snort.
“Don’t do that,” Jamie said automatically. “Have I not told ye to move quiet near Milly? She’s skittish.”
“You’d be skittish, too, if I squeezed your knee.” One big hand darted out and pinched the muscle just above the boy’s knee. Willie squeaked and jerked back, giggling.
“Can I ride Millyflower when you’re done, Mac?”
“No,” Jamie answered patiently, for the dozenth time that day. “I’ve told ye a thousand times, she’s too big for ye yet.”
“But I want to ride her!”
Jamie sighed but didn’t answer, instead moving around to the other side of Milles Fleurs and picking up the left hoof.
“I said I want to ride Milly!”
“I heard ye.”
“Then saddle her for me! Right now!”
The ninth Earl of Ellesmere had his chin thrust out as far as it would go, but the defiant look in his eye was tempered with a certain doubt as he intercepted Jamie’s cold blue gaze. Jamie set the horse’s hoof down slowly, just as slowly stood up, and drawing himself to his full height of six feet four, put his hands on his hips, looked down at the Earl, three feet six, and said, very softly, “No.”
“Yes!” Willie stamped his foot on the hay-strewn floor. “You have to do what I tell you!”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do!”
“No, I…” Shaking his head hard enough to make the red hair fly about his ears, Jamie pressed his lips tight together, then squatted down in front of the boy.
“See here,” he said, “I havena got to do what ye say, for I’m no longer going to be groom here. I told ye, I shall be leaving tomorrow.”
Willie’s face went quite blank with shock, and the freckles on his nose stood out dark against the fair skin.
“You can’t!” he said. “You can’t leave.”
“I have to.”
“No!” The small Earl clenched his jaw, which gave him a truly startling resemblance to his paternal great-grandfather. Jamie thanked his stars that no one at Helwater had likely ever seen Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat. “I won’t let you go!”
“For once, my lord, ye have nothing to say about it,” Jamie replied firmly, his distress at leaving tempered somewhat by finally being allowed to speak his mind to the boy.
“If you leave…” Willie looked around helplessly for a threat, and spotted one easily to hand. “If you leave,” he repeated more confidently, “I’ll scream and shout and scare all the horses, so there!”
“Make a peep, ye little fiend, and I’ll smack ye a good one!” Freed from his usual reserve, and alarmed at the thought of this spoiled brat upsetting the highly-strung and valuable horses, Jamie glared at the boy.
The Earl’s eyes bulged with rage, and his face went red. He took a deep breath, then whirled and ran down the length of the stable, shrieking and waving his arms.
Milles Fleurs, already on edge from having her hoofs fiddled with, reared and plunged, neighing loudly. Her distress was echoed by kicks and high-pitched whinnying from the box stalls nearby, where Willie was roaring out all the bad words he knew—no small store—and kicking frenziedly at the doors of the stalls.
Jamie succeeded in catching Milles Fleurs’s lead-rope and with considerable effort, managed to get the mare outside without damage to himself or the horse. He tied her to the paddock fence, and then strode back into the stable to deal with Willie.
“Damn, damn, damn!” the Earl was shrieking. “Sluire! Quim! Shit! Swive!”
Without a word, Jamie grabbed the boy by the collar, lifted him off his feet and carried him, kicking and squirming, to the farrier’s stool he had been using. Here he sat down, flipped the Earl over his knee, and smacked his bu**ocks five or six times, hard. Then he jerked the boy up and set him on his feet.
“I hate you!” The Viscount’s tear-smudged face was bright red and his fists trembled with rage.
“Well, I’m no verra fond of you either, ye little bastard!” Jamie snapped.
Willie drew himself up, fists clenched, purple in the face.
“I’m not a bastard!” he shrieked. “I’m not, I’m not! Take it back! Nobody can say that to me! Take it back, I said!”
Jamie stared at the boy in shock. There had been talk, then, and Willie had heard it. He had delayed his going too long.
He drew a deep breath, and then another, and hoped that his voice would not tremble.
“I take it back,” he said softly. “I shouldna have used the word, my lord.”
He wanted to kneel and embrace the boy, or pick him up and comfort him against his shoulder—but that was not a gesture a groom might make to an earl, even a young one. The palm of his left hand stung, and he curled his fingers tight over the only fatherly caress he was ever likely to give his son.
Willie knew how an earl should behave; he was making a masterful effort to subdue his tears, sniffing ferociously and swiping at his face with a sleeve.
“Allow me, my lord.” Jamie did kneel then, and wiped the little boy’s face gently with his own coarse handkerchief. Willie’s eyes looked at him over the cotton folds, red-rimmed and woeful.
“Have you really got to go, Mac?” he asked, in a very small voice.
“Aye, I have.” He looked into the dark blue eyes, so heartbreakingly like his own, and suddenly didn’t give a damn what was right or who saw. He pulled the boy roughly to him, hugging him tight against his heart, holding the boy’s face close to his shoulder, that Willie might not see the quick tears that fell into his thick, soft hair.
Willie’s arms went around his neck and clung tight. He could feel the small, sturdy body shake against him with the force of suppressed sobbing. He patted the flat little back, and smoothed Willie’s hair, and murmured things in Gaelic that he hoped the boy would not understand.
At length, he took the boy’s arms from his neck and put him gently away.
“Come wi’ me to my room, Willie; I shall give ye something to keep.”
He had long since moved from the hayloft, taking over Hughes’s snuggery beside the tack room when the elderly head groom retired. It was a small room, and very plainly furnished, but it had the twin virtues of warmth and privacy.
Besides the bed, the stool, and a chamber pot, there was a small table, on which stood the few books that he owned, a large candle in a pottery candlestick, and a smaller candle, thick and squat, that stood to one side before a small statue of the Virgin. It was a cheap wooden carving that Jenny had sent him, but it had been made in France, and was not without artistry.
“What’s that little candle for?” Willie asked. “Grannie says only stinking Papists burn candles in front of heathen images.”
“Well, I am a stinking Papist,” Jamie said, with a wry twist of his mouth. “It’s no a heathen image, though; it’s a statue of the Blessed Mother.”
“You are?” Clearly this revelation only added to the boy’s fascination. “Why do Papists burn candles before statues, then?”
Jamie rubbed a hand through his hair. “Aye, well. It’s…maybe a way of praying—and remembering. Ye light the candle, and say a prayer and think of people ye care for. And while it burns, the flame remembers them for ye.”
“Who do you remember?” Willie glanced up at him. His hair was standing on end, rumpled by his earlier distress, but his blue eyes were clear with interest.
“Oh, a good many people. My family in the Highlands—my sister and her family. Friends. My wife.” And sometimes the candle burned in memory of a young and reckless girl named Geneva, but he did not say that.
Willie frowned. “You haven’t got a wife.”
“No. Not anymore. But I remember her always.”
Willie put out a stubby forefinger and cautiously touched the little statue. The woman’s hands were spread in welcome, a tender maternity engraved on the lovely face.
“I want to be a stinking Papist, too,” Willie said firmly.
“Ye canna do that!” Jamie exclaimed, half-amused, half-touched at the notion. “Your grandmama and your auntie would go mad.”
“Would they froth at the mouth, like that mad fox you killed?” Willie brightened.