That made Murray’s mouth twitch, reluctantly.
“Fortunes of war,” he said hoarsely, and sat down at the open tailboard of the wagon. He was breathing like a winded ox, but had possession of himself. He gave William a brief glance.
“What are ye doing here, a fang Sassunaich?”
“None of your business, but a good job I was,” William replied, just as briefly. He turned to Rachel, having made up his mind on the moment.
“Take the wagon and see the girls somewhere safe.”
“That—” Rachel began, but then looked round, startled, as Jane and Fanny ran past her, crossed the road, and dived into the wood. “Where are they going?”
“Oh, bloody hell,” William said, already striding across the road. “Wait here.”
THEY COULDN’T outrun him, and they had nothing in the way of woodcraft that would enable them to lie hidden. He caught Fanny—again the slower of the two—by the back of her pinafore as she was scrambling over a log. To his astonishment, she squirmed round in his grasp and launched herself at him, scratching at his face and screaming, “Wun, Janie, wun!”
“Will you bloody stop that?” he said crossly, holding her at arm’s length. “Ow!” For she had sunk her teeth into his wrist, and he dropped her.
She eeled over the log and bounded away like a rabbit, still screaming her head off. He started to follow her, and then thought better. On the one hand, he had a strong impulse to abandon them, but on the other . . . He remembered Mac telling him about plovers one day as they sat near Watendlath Tarn, eating bread and cheese, watching the birds.
“Bugger off, Mac,” he said under his breath, and shoved thought of both Helwater and the groom ruthlessly away. But remembered, whether he wanted to or not.
“They run about and call out as though wounded, see?” Mac’s arm had been round him, keeping him from going too close to the fluttering bird. “But it’s to draw ye away from their nest, lest ye crush the eggs or damage the young. Look canny, though, and ye’ll see them.”
William stood quite still, calming his own breath and looking round, slow and careful, barely moving his head. And there indeed was the plover’s nest: alas for Jane, she had worn her pink calico today, and her rosy bu**ocks rounded smoothly up out of the grass ten feet away, quite like a pair of eggs in a nest, at that.
He walked quietly, without haste. Nobly resisting the strong urge to smack her beguilingly curved behind, he instead laid a hand flat on her back.
“Tag,” he said. “You’re it.”
She wriggled out from under his hand and shot up onto her feet.
“What?” she said. “What the bloody hell do you mean?” She was wild-eyed and nervy, but cross, as well.
“You’ve never played tag?” he asked, feeling foolish even as he said it.
“Oh,” she said, and let out her breath a little. “It’s a game. I see. Yes, but not for a long time.”
He supposed one didn’t play tag in a brothel.
“Look,” she said tersely, “we want to go. I—I appreciate what you’ve done for me—for us. But—”
“Sit down,” he said, and compelled her to do so, leading her to the log over which her sister had escaped and pressing on her shoulder until she reluctantly sat. He then sat down beside her and took her hand in his. It was very small, cold and damp from the grass where she’d hidden.
“Look,” he said, firmly but not—he hoped—unkindly, “I’m not letting you run off. That’s flat. If you want to go to New York with the army, I’ll take you; I’ve already said so. If you want to return to Philadelphia—”
“No!” Her terror at the thought was clear now. She pulled desperately at her hand, but he wouldn’t let go.
“Is it because of Captain Harkness? Because—”
She gave a cry that might have come from the throat of a wild bird caught in a trap, and he tightened his grip on her wrist. It was fine-boned and slender, but she was surprisingly strong.
“I know you stole the gorget back” he said. “It’s all right. No one’s going to find out. And Harkness won’t touch you again; I promise you that.”
She made a small bubbling noise that might have been a laugh or a sob.
“Colonel Tarleton—you know, the green dragoon that made advances to you?—he told me that Harkness was absent without leave, hasn’t come back to his regiment. Do you know anything about that?”
“No,” she said. “Let me go. Please!”
Before he could answer this, a small, clear voice piped up from the trees a few yards away.
“You’d best tew him, Janie.”
“Fanny!” Jane swung round toward her sister, momentarily forgetting that she was pinioned. “Don’t!”
Fanny stepped out of the shadows, wary but curiously composed.
“If you don’t, I wiw,” she said, her big brown eyes fixed on William’s face. “He won’t thtop.” She came a little closer, cautious but not afraid. “If I tew you,” she said, “do you pwomise not to take us back?”
“To Phiwadelphia,” she said. “Or the army.”
He sighed, exasperated, but short of torturing the answer out of one of the girls, clearly no progress would be made unless he agreed. And he was beginning to have a cold feeling under the ribs about just what the answer might be.
“I promise,” he said, but Fanny hung back, distrustful.
“Sweaw,” she said, folding her arms.
“Sw—oh. Bloody hell. All right, then—I swear on my honor.”
Jane made a small, dreary noise that was still a laugh. That stung.
“Do you think I haven’t got any?” he demanded, turning on her.
“How would I know?” she countered, sticking out her chin. It wobbled, but she stuck it out. “What does honor look like?”
“For your sake, you’d better hope it looks a lot like me,” he told her, but then turned to Fanny. “What do you want me to swear on?”
“Your mudder’s head,” she said promptly.
“My mother’s dead.”
“Your favver, den.”
He drew a long, deep breath. Which one?
“I swear on my father’s head,” he said evenly.
And so they told him.
“I KNEW HE’D come back,” Jane said. She was sitting on the log, hands clasped between her thighs and eyes on her feet. “They always do. The bad ones.” She spoke with a sort of dull resignation, but her lips tightened at the memory. “They can’t stand to think you’ve got away without . . . without. I thought it would be me, though.”
Fanny was sitting beside her sister, as close as she could get, and now she put her arms around Jane and hugged her, her face in Jane’s calico shoulder.
“I’m sowwy,” she whispered.
“I know, lovie,” Jane said, and patted Fanny’s leg. A fierce look came into her face, though. “It’s not your fault, and don’t ever—ever—think so.”
William’s throat felt thick with disgust at the thought. That beautiful, flower-faced little girl, taken by—
“Her maidenhead’s worth ten pound,” Jane reminded him. “Mrs. Abbott was saving her, waiting for a rich man with a taste for new-hatched chicks. Captain Harkness offered her twenty.” She looked directly at William for the first time. “I wasn’t having that,” she said simply. “So I asked Mrs. Abbott to send us up together; I said I could help keep Fanny from making a fuss. I knew what he was like, see,” she said, and pressed her lips involuntarily together for an instant. “He wasn’t the sort to plow you like a bull and have it done. He’d play with you, making you undress a bit at a time and—and do things—while he told you all about what he meant to do.”
And so it had been easy to come behind him while he was watching Fanny, with the knife she’d taken from the kitchen hidden in the folds of her petticoats.
“I meant to stab him in the back,” she said, looking down again. “I saw a man stabbed that way once. But he saw on Fanny’s face what I—it wasn’t her fault, she couldn’t help it showing,” she added quickly. “But he turned round quick and there wasn’t any choice.”
She’d plunged the knife into Harkness’s throat and wrenched it free, intending to stab again. But that hadn’t been necessary. “There was blood everywhere.” She’d gone pale in the telling, her hands wrapped in her apron.
“I frew up,” Fanny added matter-of-factly. “It was a mess.”
“I expect it was,” William said dryly. He was trying not to envision the scene—the candlelight, the spraying blood, the panicked girls—with remarkably little success. “How did you get away?”
Jane shrugged. “It was my room, and he’d bolted the door. And nobody was surprised when Fanny started screaming,” she added, with a trace of bitterness.
There was a basin and pitcher of water, the usual rags for mess; they’d washed themselves hastily, changed clothes, and climbed out the window.
“We found a ride on a farmer’s wagon, and . . . you know the rest.” She closed her eyes for a moment, as though reliving “the rest,” and then opened them and looked up at him, her gaze dark as shadowed water.
“Now what?” she asked.
WILLIAM HAD BEEN asking himself that question for the last several moments of Jane’s story. Having met Harkness himself, he had considerable sympathy for Jane’s action, but—
“You planned it,” he said, giving her a sharp look. Her head was bent, her unbound hair hiding her face. “You took the knife, you had clothes to change into, you knew how to get down from the window and get away.”
“Tho?” said Fanny, in a remarkably cold voice for a girl of her age.
“So why kill him?” he asked, transferring his attention to Fanny, but keeping a wary eye on Jane. “You were going to leave anyway. Why not just escape before he came?”
Jane raised her head and turned it, looking him directly in the eye.
“I wanted to kill him,” she said, in a perfectly reasonable voice that chilled him despite the warmth of the day.
“I . . . see.”
He saw more than the vision of Jane, with her delicate white wrists, plunging a knife into Captain Harkness’s thick red throat while her little sister screamed. He saw Rachel’s face, pale among the leaves, six feet away. From her expression, it was apparent that she had heard everything.
He cleared his throat.
“Is, um, Mr. Murray all right?” he asked politely. Jane and Fanny whirled, wide-eyed.
“He fainted,” Rachel replied. She was eyeing the younger girls in much the same way that they were looking at her, with a gaze of fascinated horror. “His shoulder is badly inflamed. I came to see if thee had any brandy.”
He fumbled in his pocket and withdrew a small silver flask with the Grey family arms engraved upon it.
“Whisky do for you?” he asked, handing it over. Rachel looked surprised; whisky wasn’t a popular drink, but Lord John had always had a taste for it and William had taken to it himself—though now, knowing the truth about his disgraceful taint of Scottish blood, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to drink the stuff again.
“It will, I thank thee.” She stood holding it for a moment, clearly wanting to go to Murray but also hesitant to leave. He felt rather grateful to her for that hesitancy; he would as soon not be alone with Jane and Fanny—or, rather, he didn’t want to be alone with the decision as to what the devil to do about them.
Rachel appeared to correctly interpret this feeling, for with a brief “I’ll bring it right back,” she disappeared in the direction of the road.
No one spoke. After that one direct look, Jane had bent her head again and sat quietly, though one hand restlessly smoothed the fabric of her skirt across one round thigh, over and over.
Fanny ran a hand over the crown of Jane’s head in a protective gesture, while staring at William with a complete lack of expression. He found it unnerving.
What was he to do with them? Of course they couldn’t go back to Philadelphia. And he dismissed as unworthy the impulse simply to abandon them to their own devices. But—
“Why not go to New York with the army?” he asked, his voice seeming unnaturally loud, harsh to his own ears. “What made you run yesterday?”
“Oh.” Jane looked up slowly, her eyes a little unfocused, as though she had been dreaming. “I saw him again. The green dragoon. He’d wanted me to go with him the night before, and I wouldn’t. But I saw him again yesterday morning and thought he was looking for me.” She swallowed. “I told you—I know the ones who don’t give up.”
“Very perceptive of you,” he said, eyeing her with some respect. “He doesn’t. You misliked him on sight, then?” Because he didn’t think for an instant that his having forbidden her to ply her trade would have stopped her, had she wanted to.
“It wasn’t that,” she said, and flicked Banastre Tarleton away with the sort of abrupt gesture one uses to shoo insects. “But he’d come to the brothel before, last year. He didn’t go with me then, he chose another girl—but I knew if he spent much time with me, he’d likely remember why I seemed familiar to him. He said I did,” she added, “when he came up to me in the bread line.”
“I see.” He paused. “So you did want to go to New York—but not with the army. Is that right?”
Jane shrugged, angry. “Does it matter?”
“Why the devil shouldn’t it matter?”
“When has it ever mattered what a whore wants?” She sprang up and stamped across the clearing, leaving him staring after her in astonishment.