I heard him draw breath, his chest rattling faintly, and clear his throat.
“And you still decline to tell me where he is.”
I lifted one shoulder and let it fall; it seemed pointless to repeat that I didn’t know, even though that was the truth. Instead, I took up a comb from the table and began to deal slowly with my hair, untangling and smoothing the unruly mass, enjoying the cool feel of it in my hands. After we had bathed Hal and got him put to bed, I’d taken a quarter hour for a somewhat more leisurely wash of my own and had rinsed the sweat and dust from my hair, despite knowing it would take hours to dry in the humid air.
“The bargain I had in mind was not for my own life,” he said after a bit. “As such.”
“I’m sure John isn’t going to die, either, if that’s what you—”
“Not John. My son. My daughter. And my grandson. You have grandchildren, I collect? I believe I heard that rather stalwart young man call you ‘Grannie’ this afternoon, did I not?” His voice held a trace of amusement.
“You did, and I do. You mean Dorothea? Is something the matter with her?” A stab of alarm made me set down the comb. I’d seen Dottie only a few days before, at the house where her brother Henry was staying.
“Aside from the fact that she appears to be on the verge of marrying a Rebel and declares her intent to accompany the man onto battlefields and to live with him under the most insalubrious conditions imaginable?”
He sat up in bed and spoke with evident passion, but I couldn’t help smiling at his mode of expression; evidently the Grey brothers shared the same habit of speech. I coughed to hide this, though, and replied as tactfully as possible.
“Um . . . you’ve seen Dottie, then?”
“Yes, I have,” he said shortly. “She was with Henry when I arrived yesterday, and wearing the most extraordinary garment. Evidently the man to whom she considers herself affianced is a Quaker, and she declares that she has become one, as well!”
“So I understand,” I murmured. “You . . . er . . . hadn’t heard about it?”
“No, I had not! And I have a few things to say to John regarding both his cowardice in not telling me about it and his son’s unpardonable machi . . . machinations . . .” The choler in this speech literally choked him, and he had to stop and cough, wrapping his arms round his knees to steady himself against the racking spasms.
I took up the fan I’d left on the table earlier and wafted a bit of smoke from the brazier into his face. He gasped, coughed harder for a moment, and then subsided, wheezing.
“I’d tell you not to excite yourself, if I thought there was the slightest chance of you listening,” I remarked, handing him a cup of the boiled tincture of Ephedra in coffee. “Drink that. Slowly.
“As for John,” I went on, watching him make faces over the bitter taste, “he considered writing to you when he found out what Dottie intended. He didn’t, because at the time he thought it might be nothing more than a passing whim and that once she’d seen the reality of Denny’s—er, that’s her fiancé, Dr. Hunter—of his life, she might think better of it. And if she did, there was no need to alarm you and your wife. He never expected you to turn up here.”
Hal coughed once, then drew breath in a tentative fashion.
“I didn’t, either,” he said, and, putting the cup aside, coughed again and lay back against the heaped pillows. “The War Office decided to send my regiment to support Clinton when the new strategy was decided upon; there wasn’t time to write.”
“Which new strategy is this?” I asked, only mildly interested.
“To sever the southern colonies from the north, suppress the rebellion there, and thus starve the north into submission. Keep the bloody French out of the West Indies, too,” he added as an afterthought. “You think Dottie might change her mind?” He sounded dubious but hopeful.
“Actually, no,” I said. I stretched and ran my fingers through my damp hair, which had settled softly on my neck and shoulders, curling light and tickling round my face. “I wondered whether it was you or your wife she took after in terms of willfulness, but the instant I met you, it was clear.”
He gave me a narrow look but had the grace to smile.
“She does,” he admitted. “So does Benjamin—my eldest son. Henry and Adam are both like my wife in terms of temperament. Which does not mean that they aren’t capable of seeking their own way,” he added thoughtfully. “Only that they’re rather more diplomatic about it.”
“I’d like to meet your wife,” I said, smiling, too. “Her name is Minnie, John said?”
“Minerva,” he said, his smile growing more genuine. “Minerva Cunnegunda, to be exact. Couldn’t call her ‘Cunny,’ could I?”
“Probably not in public, no.”
“Wouldn’t try it in private, either,” he assured me. “She’s very demure—to look at.”
I laughed, and darted a glance at the brazier. I hadn’t thought the active principle in ganja would be very strong, burned as an atmospheric rather than smoked directly. Still, it was obviously having a beneficial effect on Hal’s mood as well as his asthma, and I was conscious of a slight feeling of well-being beginning to creep into my own outlook. I was still worried about Jamie—and John—but the worry had lifted from my shoulders and seemed to be floating a little way above my head: still visible, and a dull purple-gray in color, but floating. Like a lead balloon, I thought, and gave a small, amused snort.
Hal was lying back, eyes half lidded, watching me with a sort of detached interest.
“You’re a beautiful woman,” he said, sounding faintly surprised. “Not demure, though,” he added, and made a low chuckling noise. “What could John have been thinking?”
I knew what John had been thinking but didn’t want to talk about it—for assorted reasons.
“What did you mean earlier,” I asked curiously, “about making bargains with God?”
“Ah.” His eyelids closed slowly. “When I arrived at General Clinton’s office this morning—God, was that only this morning?—he had rather bad news for me—and a letter. Sent some weeks ago from New Jersey, forwarded eventually to him through the army post.
“My eldest son, Benjamin, was captured by the Rebels at the Brandywine,” he said, almost dispassionately. Almost; there was enough light for me to see the bulge of his jaw muscle. “There is at present no agreement with the Americans involving the exchange of prisoners, so he remains in captivity.”
“Where?” I asked, disturbed at the news.
“I don’t know that,” he said shortly. “Yet. But I shall discover his whereabouts as quickly as possible.”
“Godspeed,” I said sincerely. “Was the letter from Benjamin?”
“No.” His jaw tightened a little further.
The letter had been from a young woman named Amaranthus Cowden, who informed His Grace the Duke of Pardloe that she was the wife of his son Benjamin—and the mother of Benjamin’s son, Trevor Wattiswade Grey, aged three months. Born after Benjamin was captured, I thought, and wondered whether Benjamin knew about the baby.
The young Mrs. Grey found herself in difficult circumstances, she wrote, owing to her husband’s sad absence, and therefore proposed to go to her relatives in Charleston. She felt some delicacy in approaching His Grace for assistance, but her state was such that she felt she had little choice in the matter and hoped that he would forgive her forwardness and look kindly upon her plea. She enclosed a lock of her son’s hair, feeling that His Grace might like to have such a keepsake of his grandson.
“Dear me,” I said. I hesitated for a moment, but the same thought must surely have occurred to him. “Do you think she’s telling the truth?”
He sighed, a mixture of anxiety and aggravation.
“Almost certainly she is. My wife’s maiden name was Wattiswade, but no one outside the family would know that.” He nodded toward the wardrobe where Mrs. Figg had hung his uniform. “The letter is in my coat, should you wish to read it.”
I waved a hand in polite dismissal.
“I see what you meant about making bargains with God. You want to live to see your grandchild—and your son, of course.”
He sighed again, his lean body seeming to diminish slightly. Mrs. Figg had undone his queue—much against his will—brushed out his hair, and tied it in a loose tail that now fell over his shoulder, a soft dark brown shot with streaks of white that glinted red and gold in the fire glow.
“Not precisely. I do want that, of course, but—” He groped for words, quite unlike his earlier elegant loquacity. “You’d die for them, happily. Your family. But at the same time you think, Christ, I can’t die! What might happen to them if I weren’t here?” He gave me a wry and rueful smile. “And you know bloody well that you mostly can’t help them anyway; they’ve got to do it—or not—themselves.”
“Unfortunately, yes.” A draft of air moved the muslin curtains and stirred the hanging pall of smoke. “Not the grandchildren, though. You can help them.” And I suddenly missed Henri-Christian’s soft weight, his solid head against my shoulder; I’d saved his life by removing his tonsils and adenoids, and I thanked God that I’d been in time to do it. And Mandy . . . God, take care of her, I prayed fiercely. I’d been able to tell Bree what was wrong and that it could be fixed—but I couldn’t fix her heart defect, and I regretted that lack every day of my life. If I could have done the necessary surgery in this time, they’d all still be here. . . .
The curtains moved again, and the heavy atmosphere drew a clean, sudden breath. I inhaled deeply, catching the faint, sharp scent of ozone. “Rain,” I said. “Rain’s coming.”
The duke didn’t reply but turned, lifting his face toward the window. I got up and raised the sash higher, gratefully letting in a cool breeze. I looked out into the night again; clouds were drifting fast across the moon, so the light seemed to pulse rather than flicker, like the beat of a palpitating heart. The streets were dark, with no more than the occasional glow of a moving lantern to mark the muted agitation of the city.
Rain might damp the movement, both of fleeing Loyalists and the army readying itself to depart. Would the cover of the storm make it easier for Jamie to come into the city? A bad storm might hamper him, turning the roads to mud. How far away was he?
The lead balloon had come down on my head. My mood had taken a plunge, whether from fatigue, the oncoming storm, or merely as a natural effect of cannabinol, I didn’t know. I shivered, though the air was still hot, unable to keep my brain from projecting vivid images of all the dire possibilities that could befall a man caught between two armies, alone in the night.
Maybe alone. What had he done with John? Surely he wouldn’t have—
“I was twenty-one when my father died,” Hal remarked out of the blue. “Grown. Had my own life, had a wife—” He broke off abruptly, his mouth twisting. “Didn’t think I needed him at all, until he suddenly wasn’t there.”
“What could he have done for you?” I asked, sitting down again. I was curious—but also anxious to avoid my own racing thoughts.
Hal lifted one slender shoulder. The neck of the nightshirt was unbuttoned, both because of the heat and so I could more easily see the pulse in his neck. It fell open, the cloth limp with moisture, and his clavicle showed, high-arched and clean, shadowed sharp against his skin.
“Been there,” he said simply. “Listened. Perhaps . . . approved of what I was doing.” The last few words came low, barely audible. “Or maybe not. But . . . been there.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, more to myself than to him. I’d been lucky; I was very young when my parents died, and my uncle had stepped promptly into my life, to be there for me. And casual as his own life had been—he always was there. I’d felt his loss acutely when he died, but I’d been married then—a spasm of guilt seized me out of nowhere, thinking of Frank. And another, worse, thinking of Brianna. I’d left her, once—and then she had left me.
That unleashed a jumble of morbid thoughts: of Laoghaire, abandoned by both daughters, unlikely ever to see her grandchildren, now mine. Of Jem and Mandy . . . and Jamie.
Where was he? And why wasn’t he here? Surely, whatever John might have told him . . .
“Oh, dear,” I said hopelessly, under my breath. I could feel the tears prick and well, pressing up against the dam of my determination.
“Do you know, I’m most remarkably hungry,” Hal said, sounding surprised. “Is there any food in the house?”
JAMIE’S STOMACH GROWLED, and he coughed to cover the sound, but there was no need. The little girls were curled up like a pair of capped hedgehogs under a tattered quilt by the hearth, back to back and snoring like drunken bumblebees. Mrs. Hardman was on the settle, singing to the baby under her breath. He couldn’t make out the words, so he couldn’t tell what song it was, but imagined it to be a lullaby. On the other hand, he’d heard Highland women sing their babes asleep often enough with things like “Nighean Nan Geug,” which dealt with severed heads and blood-soaked ground. But Mrs. Hardman was a Friend; presumably she’d have no truck with that sort of lullaby. Maybe “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry,” he thought, beginning to relax. Clearly Friends had no objection to carnal relations as such . . .
That reminded him of bloody John Grey, and he grimaced, then stifled a grunt as his back sent a warning shot down his leg, indicating that even that much movement wouldn’t be tolerated.
The song was no more music to him than the snoring, but both were gentle sounds, and he eased himself cautiously, checked that knife and pistol were easily to hand, and shut his eyes. He was tired to the bone but doubted he’d sleep. He couldn’t even shift himself in the bed without white stabs of pain jabbing him in the backside like the devil’s pitchfork.