It was a good, solid door; Hal flung himself at it shoulder-first and rebounded as though made of India rubber. Barely pausing, he raised his foot and slammed the flat of his boot sole against the panel, which obligingly splintered but didn’t break inward.
Wiping his face on his sleeve, he eyed the door and, catching the flicker of movement through the splintered paneling, called out, “Young woman! We have come to rescue you! Stand well away from the door!
“Pistol, please,” he said, turning to John with his hand out.
“I’ll do it,” John said, resigned. “You haven’t any practice with doorknobs.”
Whereupon, with an air of assumed casualness, he drew the pistol from his belt, aimed carefully, and shot the doorknob to pieces. The boom of the gun evidently startled the room’s inhabitants, for a dead silence fell. He gently pushed the stem of the shattered knob through the door; the remnants of the knob thunked to the floor on the other side, and he pushed the door cautiously open.
Hal, nodding his thanks, stepped forward through the wisps of smoke.
It was a small room, rather grimy, and furnished with no more than a bedstead, dresser, stool, and washstand. The stool was particularly noticeable, as it was being brandished by a wild-eyed young woman, clutching a baby to her breast with her other hand.
An ammoniac reek came from a basket in the corner, piled with dirty clouts; a folded quilt in a pulled-out drawer showed where the baby had been sleeping, and the young woman was less kempt than her mother would have liked to see, her cap askew and her pinny stained. Hal disregarded all matters of circumstance and bowed to her.
“Do I address Miss Amaranthus Cowden?” he said politely. “Or is it Mrs. Grey?”
John gave his brother a disparaging look and turned a cordial smile on the young woman.
“Viscountess Grey,” he said, and made a leg in courtly style. “Your most humble servant, Lady Grey.”
The young woman looked wildly from one man to the other, stool still raised, clearly unable to make head or tail of this invasion, and finally settled on John as the best—if still dubious—source of information.
“Who are you?” she asked, pressing her back against the wall. “Hush, darling.” For the baby, recovered from shock, had decided to grizzle.
John cleared his throat.
“Well . . . this is Harold, Duke of Pardloe, and I am his brother, Lord John Grey. If our information is correct, I believe we are, respectively, your father-in-law and your uncle by marriage. And, after all,” he remarked, turning to Hal, “how many people in the colonies do you think there could possibly be named Amaranthus Cowden?”
“She hasn’t yet said she is Amaranthus Cowden,” Hal pointed out. He did, however, smile at the young woman, who reacted as most women did, staring at him with her mouth slightly open.
“May I?” John reached forward and took the stool gently from her unresisting hand, setting it on the floor and gesturing her to take a seat. “What sort of name is Amaranthus, may I ask?”
She swallowed, blinked, and sat down, clutching the baby.
“It’s a flower,” she said, sounding rather dazed. “My grandfather’s a botanist. It could have been worse,” she added more sharply, seeing John smile. “It might have been Ampelopsis or Petunia.”
“Amaranthus is a very beautiful name, my dear—if I may call you so?” Hal said, with grave courtesy. He wiggled a forefinger at the baby, who had stopped grizzling and was staring at him warily. Hal pulled his officer’s gorget off over his head and dangled the shiny object, close enough for the child to grab—which he did.
“It’s too large to choke him,” Hal assured Amaranthus. “His father—and his father’s brothers—all teethed on it. So did I, come to that.” He smiled at her again. She was still white-faced but gave him a wary nod in response.
“What is the little fellow’s name, my dear?” John asked.
“Trevor,” she said, taking a firmer hold on the child, now completely engrossed in trying to get the demilune gorget—half the size of his head—into his mouth. “Trevor Grey.” She looked back and forth between the Grey brothers, a frown puckering her brows. Then she lifted her chin and said, enunciating clearly, “Trevor . . . Wattiswade . . . Grey. Your Grace.”
“So you are Ben’s wife.” A little of the tension left Hal’s shoulders. “Do you know where Ben is, my dear?”
Her face went stiff, and she clutched the baby tighter.
“Benjamin is dead, Your Grace,” she said. “But this is his son, and if you don’t mind . . . we should quite like to come with you.”
WILLIAM SHOVED his way through the crowds in the City Market, oblivious to the complaints of those rebounding from his impact.
He knew where he was going and what he meant to do when he got there. It was the only thing left to do before leaving Savannah. After that . . . it didn’t matter.
His head throbbed like an inflamed boil. Everything throbbed. His hand—he’d probably broken something, but he didn’t care. His heart, pounding and sore inside his chest. He hadn’t slept since they’d buried Jane; would likely never sleep again and didn’t care.
He remembered where the warehouse was. The place was almost empty; doubtless the soldiers had taken everything the owner hadn’t had time to move out of reach. Three men were lounging by the far wall, sitting on the few remaining casks of salt fish and smoking their pipes; the smell of tobacco reached him, a small comfort in the echoing cold fishiness of the building.
“James Fraser?” he said to one of the loungers, and the man pointed with the stem of his pipe toward a small office, a sort of shed attached to the far wall of the warehouse.
The door was open; Fraser was seated at a table covered with papers, writing something by the light that fell through a tiny barred window behind him. He looked up at the sound of William’s footsteps and, seeing him, put down his quill and rose slowly to his feet. William came forward, facing him across the table.
“I have come to take my farewell,” William said, very formally. His voice was less firm than he liked, and he cleared his throat hard.
“Aye? Where is it that ye mean to go?” Fraser was wearing his plaid, the faded colors muted further by the dimness of the light, but what light there was sparked suddenly from his hair as he moved his head.
“I don’t know,” William said, gruff. “It doesn’t matter.” He took a deep breath. “I—wished to thank you. For what you did. Even though—” His throat closed tight; try as he might, he couldn’t keep Jane’s small white hand out of his thoughts.
Fraser made a slight dismissive motion and said softly, “God rest her, poor wee lass.”
“Even so,” William said, and cleared his throat again. “But there is one further favor that I wished to ask of you.”
Fraser’s head came up; he looked surprised but nodded.
“Aye, of course,” he said. “If I can.”
William turned and pulled the door shut, then turned to face the man again.
“Tell me how I came to be.”
The whites of Fraser’s eyes flashed in brief astonishment, then disappeared as his eyes narrowed.
“I want to know what happened,” William said. “When you lay with my mother. What happened that night? If it was night,” he added, and then felt foolish for doing so.
Fraser eyed him for a moment.
“Ye want to tell me what it was like, the first time ye lay with a woman?”
William felt the blood rush into his head, but before he could speak, the Scot went on.
“Aye, exactly. A decent man doesna speak of such things. Ye dinna tell your friends such things, do ye? No, of course not. So much less would ye tell your . . . father, or a father his . . .”
The hesitation before “father” was brief, but William caught it, no trouble. Fraser’s mouth was firm, though, and his eyes direct.
“I wouldna tell ye, no matter who ye were. But being who ye are—”
“Being who I am, I think I have a right to know!”
Fraser looked at him for a moment, expressionless. He closed his eyes for an instant and sighed. Then opened them and drew himself up, straightening his shoulders.
“No, ye haven’t. But that’s not what ye want to know, in any case,” he said. “Ye want to know, did I force your mother. I did not. Ye want to know, did I love your mother. I did not.”
William let that lie there for a moment, controlling his breathing ’til he was sure his voice would be steady.
“Did she love you?” It would have been easy to love him. The thought came to him unbidden—and unwelcome—but with it, his own memories of Mac the groom. Something he shared with his mother.
Fraser’s eyes were cast down, watching a trail of tiny ants running along the scuffed floorboards.
“She was verra young,” he said softly. “I was twice her age. It was my fault.”
There was a brief silence, broken only by their breathing and the distant shouts of men working on the river.
“I’ve seen the portraits,” William said abruptly. “Of my—of the eighth earl. Her husband. Have you?”
Fraser’s mouth twisted a little, but he shook his head.
“You know, though—knew. He was fifty years older than she was.”
Fraser’s maimed hand twitched, fingers tapping lightly against his thigh. Yes, he’d known. How could he not have known? He dipped his head, not quite a nod.
“I’m not stupid, you know,” William said, louder than he’d intended.
“Didna think ye were,” Fraser muttered, but didn’t look at him.
“I can count,” William went on, through his teeth. “You lay with her just before her wedding. Or was it just after?”
That went home; Fraser’s head jerked up and there was a flash of dark-blue anger.
“I wouldna deceive another man in his marriage. Believe that of me, at least.”
Oddly enough, he did. And in spite of the anger he still struggled to keep in check, he began to think he perhaps understood how it might have been.
“She was reckless.” He made it a statement, not a question, and saw Fraser blink. It wasn’t a nod, but he thought it was acknowledgment and went on, more confident.
“Everyone says that—everyone who knew her. She was reckless, beautiful, careless . . . she took chances . . .”
“She had courage.” It was said softly, the words dropped like pebbles in water, and the ripples spread through the tiny room. Fraser was still looking straight at him. “Did they tell ye that, then? Her family, the folk who kent her?”
“No,” William said, and felt the word sharp as a stone in his throat. For just an instant, he’d seen her in those words. He’d seen her, and the knowledge of the immensity of his loss struck through his anger like a lightning bolt. He drove his fist into the table, striking it once, twice, hammering it ’til the wood shook and the legs juddered over the floor, papers flying and the inkwell falling over.
He stopped as suddenly as he’d started, and the racket ceased.
“Are you sorry?” he said, and made no effort to keep his voice from shaking. “Are you sorry for it, damn you?”
Fraser had turned away; now he turned sharply to face William but didn’t speak at once. When he did, his voice was low and firm.
“She died because of it, and I shall sorrow for her death and do penance for my part in it until my own dying day. But—” He compressed his lips for an instant, and then, too fast for William to back away, came round the table and, raising his hand, cupped William’s cheek, the touch light and fierce.
“No,” he whispered. “No! I am not sorry.” Then he whirled on his heel, threw open the door, and was gone, kilt flying.
“Thig crioch air an t-saoghal ach mairidh ceol agus gaol.”
“The world may come to an end, but love and music will endure.”
IN THE WILDERNESS A LODGING PLACE
ICOULDN’T STOP BREATHING. From the moment we left the salt-marsh miasma of Savannah, with its constant fog of rice paddies, mud, and decaying crustaceans, the air had grown clearer, the scents cleaner—well, putting aside the Wilmington mudflats, redolent with their memories of crocodiles and dead pirates—spicier, and more distinct. And as we reached the summit of the final pass, I thought I might explode from simple joy at the scent of the late-spring woods, an intoxicating mix of pine and balsam fir, oaks mingling the spice of fresh green leaves with the must of the winter’s fallen acorns, and the nutty sweetness of chestnut mast under a layer of wet dead leaves, so thick that it made the air seem buoyant, bearing me up. I couldn’t get enough of it into my lungs.
“If ye keep gasping like that, Sassenach, ye’re like to pass out,” Jamie said, smiling as he came up beside me. “How’s the new knife, then?”
“Wonderful! Look, I found a huge ginseng root, and a birch gall and—”
He stopped this with a kiss, and I dropped the soggy gunnysack full of plants on the path and kissed him back. He’d been eating wild spring onions and watercress plucked dripping from a creek and he smelled of his own male scent, pine sap, and the bloody tang of the two dead rabbits hanging at his belt; it was like kissing the wilderness itself, and it went on for a bit, interrupted only by a discreet cough a few feet away.
We let go of each other at once, and I took an automatic step back behind Jamie even as he stepped in front of me, hand hovering within reach of his dirk. A split second later, he’d taken a huge stride forward and engulfed Mr. Wemyss in an enormous hug.
“Joseph! A charaid! Ciamar a tha thu?”
Mr. Wemyss, a small, slight, elderly man, was swept literally off his feet; I could see a shoe dangling loose from the toes of one stockinged foot as he groped for traction. Smiling at this, I glanced round to see if Rachel and Ian had come into sight yet and spotted instead a small, round-faced boy on the path. He was perhaps four or five, with long fair hair, this flying loose around his shoulders.