My insides turned over promptly. Turtle soup—with a lot of sherry—had certain strong and private associations for me, these being connected with Jamie, feverish delirium, and the way in which a heaving ship assists sexual intercourse. Contemplation of which would not assist the impending discussion in the slightest. I rubbed a finger between my brows, in hopes of dispelling the buzzing cloud of confusion gathering there. The air in the house still felt electric.
“Speaking of sherry,” I said, “or any other sort of strong spirits you might have convenient, Mrs. Figg . . .”
She looked thoughtfully at me, nodded, and reached for the decanter on the sideboard.
“Brandy is stronger,” she said, and set it in front of me.
Jenny looked at me with the same thoughtfulness and, reaching out, poured a good-sized slug of the brandy into my cup, then a similar one into her own.
“Just in case,” she said, raising one brow, and we drank for a few moments. I thought it might take something stronger than brandy-laced tea to deal with the effect of recent events on my nerves—laudanum, say, or a large slug of straight Scotch whisky—but the tea undeniably helped, hot and aromatic, settling in a soft trickling warmth amidships.
“So, then. We’re fettled, are we?” Jenny set down her own cup and looked expectant.
“It’s a start.” I took a deep breath and gave her a précis of the morning’s events.
Jenny’s eyes were disturbingly like Jamie’s. She blinked at me once, then twice, and shook her head as though to clear it, accepting what I’d just told her.
“So Jamie’s gone off wi’ your Lord John, the British army is after them, the tall lad I met on the stoop wi’ steam comin’ out of his ears is Jamie’s son—well, of course he is; a blind man could see that—and the town’s aboil wi’ British soldiers. Is that it, then?”
“He’s not exactly my Lord John,” I said. “But, yes, that’s essentially the position. I take it Jamie told you about William, then?”
“Aye, he did.” She grinned at me over the rim of her teacup. “I’m that happy for him. But what’s troubling his lad, then? He looked like he wouldna give the road to a bear.”
“What did you say?” Mrs. Figg’s voice cut in abruptly. She set down the tray she had just brought in, the silver milk jug and sugar basin rattling like castanets. “William is whose son?”
I took a fortifying gulp of tea. Mrs. Figg did know that I’d been married to—and theoretically widowed from—one James Fraser. But that was all she knew.
“Well,” I said, and paused to clear my throat. “The, um, tall gentleman with the red hair who was just here—you saw him?”
“I did.” Mrs. Figg eyed me narrowly.
“Did you get a good look at him?”
“Didn’t pay much heed to his face when he came to the door and asked where you were, but I saw his backside pretty plain when he pushed past me and ran up the stairs.”
“Possibly the resemblance is less marked from that angle.” I took another mouthful of tea. “Um . . . that gentleman is James Fraser, my . . . er . . . my—” “First husband” wasn’t accurate, and neither was “last husband”—or even, unfortunately, “most recent husband.” I settled for the simplest alternative. “My husband. And, er . . . William’s father.”
Mrs. Figg’s mouth opened, soundless for an instant. She backed up slowly and sat down on a needlework ottoman with a soft phumph.
“William know that?” she asked, after a moment’s contemplation.
“He does now,” I said, with a brief gesture toward the devastation in the stairwell, clearly visible through the door of the parlor where we were sitting.
“Merde on—I mean, Holy Lamb of God preserve us.” Mrs. Figg’s second husband was a Methodist preacher, and she strove to be a credit to him, but her first had been a French gambler. Her eyes fixed on me like gun sights.
“You his mother?”
I choked on my tea.
“No,” I said, wiping my chin with a linen napkin. “It isn’t quite that complicated.” In fact, it was more so, but I wasn’t going to explain just how Willie had come about, either to Mrs. Figg or to Jenny. Jamie had to have told Jenny who William’s mother was, but I doubted that he’d told his sister that William’s mother, Geneva Dunsany, had forced him into her bed by threatening Jenny’s family. No man of spirit likes to admit that he’s been effectively blackmailed by an eighteen-year-old girl.
“Lord John became William’s legal guardian when William’s grandfather died, and at that point, Lord John also married Lady Isobel Dunsany, Willie’s mother’s sister. She’d looked after Willie since his mother’s death in childbirth, and she and Lord John were essentially Willie’s parents since he was quite young. Isobel died when he was eleven or so.”
Mrs. Figg took this explanation in stride but wasn’t about to be distracted from the main point at issue.
“James Fraser,” she said, tapping a couple of broad fingers on her knee and looking accusingly at Jenny. “How comes he not to be dead? News was he drowned.” She cut her eyes at me. “I thought his lordship was like to throw himself in the harbor, too, when he heard it.”
I closed my own eyes with a sudden shudder, the salt-cold horror of that news washing over me in a wave of memory. Even with Jamie’s touch still joyful on my skin and the knowledge of him glowing in my heart, I relived the crushing pain of hearing that he was dead.
“Well, I can enlighten ye on that point, at least.”
I opened my eyes to see Jenny drop a lump of sugar into her fresh tea and nod at Mrs. Figg. “We were to take passage on a ship called Euterpe—my brother and myself—out o’ Brest. But the blackhearted thief of a captain sailed without us. Much good it did him,” she added, frowning.
Much good, indeed. The Euterpe had sunk in a storm in the Atlantic, lost with all hands. As I—and John Grey—had been told.
“Jamie found us another ship, but it landed us in Virginia, and we’d to make our way up the coast, partly by wagon, partly by packet boat, keepin’ out of the way of the soldiers. Those wee needles ye gave Jamie against the seasickness work a marvel,” she added, turning approvingly to me. “He showed me how to put them in for him. But when we came to Philadelphia yesterday,” she went on, returning to her tale, “we stole into the city by night, like a pair o’ thieves, and made our way to Fergus’s printshop. Lord, I thought my heart would stop a dozen times!”
She smiled at the memory, and I was struck by the change in her. The shadow of sorrow still lay on her face, and she was thin and worn by travel, but the terrible strain of her husband Ian’s long dying had lifted. There was color in her cheeks again and a brightness in her eyes that I had not seen since I had first known her thirty years before. She had found her peace, I thought, and felt a thankfulness that eased my own soul.
“. . . so Jamie taps on the door at the back, and there’s no answer, though we can see the light of a fire comin’ through the shutters. He knocks again, makin’ a wee tune of it—
” She rapped her knuckles lightly on the table, bump-ba-da-bump-ba-da-bump-bump-bump, and my heart turned over, recognizing the theme from The Lone Ranger, which Brianna had taught him.
“And after a moment,” Jenny went on, “a woman’s voice calls out fierce, ‘Who’s there?’ And Jamie says in the Gàidhlig, ‘It is your father, my daughter, and a cold, wet, and hungry man he is, too.’ For it was rainin’ hammer handles and pitchforks, and we were both soaked to the skin.”
She rocked back a little, enjoying the telling.
“The door opens then, just a crack, and there’s Marsali wi’ a horse pistol in her hand, and her two wee lasses behind her, fierce as archangels, each with a billet of wood, ready to crack a thief across his shins. They see the firelight shine on Jamie’s face then, and all three of them let out skellochs like to wake the dead and fall upon him and drag him inside and all talkin’ at once and greetin’, askin’ was he a ghost and why was he not drowned, and that was the first we learned that the Euterpe had sunk.” She crossed herself. “God rest them, poor souls,” she said, shaking her head.
I crossed myself, too, and saw Mrs. Figg look sideways at me; she hadn’t realized I was a Papist.
“I’ve come in, too, of course,” Jenny went on, “but everyone’s talkin’ at once and rushin’ to and fro in search of dry clothes and hot drinks and I’m just lookin’ about the place, for I’ve never been inside a printshop before, and the smell of the ink and the paper and lead is a wonder to me, and, sudden-like, there’s a tug at my skirt and this sweet-faced wee mannie says to me, ‘And who are you, madame? Would you like some cider?’”
“Henri-Christian,” I murmured, smiling at thought of Marsali’s youngest, and Jenny nodded.
“‘Why, I’m your grannie Janet, son,’ says I, and his eyes go round, and he lets out a shriek and grabs me round the legs and gives me such a hug as to make me lose my balance and fall down on the settle. I’ve a bruise on my bum the size of your hand,” she added out of the corner of her mouth to me.
I felt a small knot of tension that I hadn’t realized was there relax. Jenny did of course know that Henri-
Christian had been born a dwarf—but knowing and seeing are sometimes different things. Clearly they hadn’t been, for Jenny.
Mrs. Figg had been following this account with interest, but maintained her reserve. At mention of the printshop, though, this reserve hardened a bit.
“These folk—Marsali is your daughter, then, ma’am?” I could tell what she was thinking. The entire town of Philadelphia knew that Jamie was a Rebel—and, by extension, so was I. It was the threat of my imminent arrest that had caused John to insist upon my marrying him in the wake of the tumult following Jamie’s presumed death. The mention of printing in British-occupied Philadelphia was bound to raise questions as to just what was being printed, and by whom.
“No, her husband is my brother’s adopted son,” Jenny explained. “But I raised Fergus from a wee lad myself, so he’s my foster son, as well, by the Highland way of reckoning.”
Mrs. Figg blinked. She had been gamely trying to keep the cast of characters in some sort of order to this point, but now gave it up with a shake of her head that made the pink ribbons on her cap wave like antennae.
“Well, where the devil—I mean, where on earth has your brother gone with his lordship?” she demanded. “To this printshop, you think?”
Jenny and I exchanged glances.
“I doubt it,” I said. “More likely he’s gone outside the city, using John—er, his lordship, I mean—as a hostage to get past the pickets, if necessary. Probably he’ll let him go as soon as they’re far enough away for safety.”
Mrs. Figg made a deep humming noise of disapproval.
“And maybe he’ll make for Valley Forge and turn him over to the Rebels instead.”
“Oh, I shouldna think so,” Jenny said soothingly. “What would they want with him, after all?”
Mrs. Figg blinked again, taken aback at the notion that anyone might not value his lordship to the same degree that she did, but after a moment’s lip-pursing allowed as this might be so.
“He wasn’t in his uniform, was he, ma’am?” she asked me, brow furrowed. I shook my head. John didn’t hold an active commission. He was a diplomat, though technically still lieutenant colonel of his brother’s regiment, and therefore wore his uniform for purposes of ceremony or intimidation, but he was officially retired from the army, not a combatant, and in plain clothes he would be taken as citizen rather than soldier—thus of no particular interest to General Washington’s troops at Valley Forge.
I didn’t think Jamie was headed for Valley Forge in any case. I knew, with absolute certainty, that he would come back. Here. For me.
The thought bloomed low in my belly and spread upward in a wave of warmth that made me bury my nose in my teacup to hide the resulting flush.
Alive. I caressed the word, cradling it in the center of my heart. Jamie was alive. Glad as I was to see Jenny—and gladder still to see her extend an olive branch in my direction—I really wanted to go up to my room, close the door, and lean against the wall with my eyes shut tight, reliving the seconds after he’d entered the room, when he’d taken me in his arms and pressed me to the wall, kissing me, the simple, solid, warm fact of his presence so overwhelming that I might have collapsed onto the floor without that wall’s support.
Alive, I repeated silently to myself. He’s alive.
Nothing else mattered. Though I did wonder briefly what he’d done with John.
DON’T ASK QUESTIONS YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR THE ANSWERS TO
In the woods,
an hour’s ride outside Philadelphia
JOHN GREY HAD BEEN quite resigned to dying. Had expected it from the moment that he’d blurted out, “I have had carnal knowledge of your wife.” The only question in his mind had been whether Fraser would shoot him, stab him, or eviscerate him with his bare hands.
To have the injured husband regard him calmly and say merely, “Oh? Why?” was not merely unexpected but . . . infamous. Absolutely infamous.
“Why?” John Grey repeated, incredulous. “Did you say ‘Why?’”
“I did. And I should appreciate an answer.”
Now that Grey had both eyes open, he could see that Fraser’s outward calm was not quite so impervious as he’d first supposed. There was a pulse beating in Fraser’s temple, and he’d shifted his weight a little, like a man might do in the vicinity of a tavern brawl: not quite ready to commit violence but readying himself to meet it. Perversely, Grey found this sight steadying.