“What do you bloody mean, ‘Why’?” he said, suddenly irritated. “And why aren’t you f**king dead?”
“I often wonder that myself,” Fraser replied politely. “I take it ye thought I was?”
“Yes, and so did your wife! Do you have the faintest idea what the knowledge of your death did to her?”
The dark-blue eyes narrowed just a trifle.
“Are ye implying that the news of my death deranged her to such an extent that she lost her reason and took ye to her bed by force? Because,” he went on, neatly cutting off Grey’s heated reply, “unless I’ve been seriously misled regarding your own nature, it would take substantial force to compel ye to any such action. Or am I wrong?”
The eyes stayed narrow. Grey stared back at them. Then he closed his own eyes briefly and rubbed both hands hard over his face, like a man waking from a nightmare. He dropped his hands and opened his eyes again.
“You are not misled,” he said, through clenched teeth. “And you are wrong.”
Fraser’s ruddy eyebrows shot up—in genuine astonishment, Grey thought.
“Ye went to her because—from desire?” His voice rose, too. “And she let ye? I dinna believe it.”
The color was creeping up Fraser’s tanned neck, vivid as a climbing rose. Grey had seen that happen before and decided recklessly that the best—the only—defense was to lose his own temper first. It was a relief.
“We thought you were dead, you bloody arsehole!” he said, furious. “Both of us! Dead! And we—we—took too much to drink one night—very much too much . . . We spoke of you . . . and . . . Damn you, neither one of us was making love to the other—we were both f**king you!”
Fraser’s face went abruptly blank and his jaw dropped. Grey enjoyed one split second of satisfaction at the sight, before a massive fist came up hard beneath his ribs and he hurtled backward, staggered a few steps farther, and fell. He lay in the leaves, completely winded, mouth opening and closing like an automaton’s.
All right, then, he thought dimly. Bare hands it is.
The hands wrapped themselves in his shirt and jerked him to his feet. He managed to stand, and a wisp of air seeped into his lungs. Fraser’s face was an inch from his. Fraser was in fact so close that Grey couldn’t see the man’s expression—only a close-up view of two bloodshot blue eyes, both of them berserk. That was enough. He felt quite calm now. It wouldn’t take long.
“You tell me exactly what happened, ye filthy wee pervert,” Fraser whispered, his breath hot on Grey’s face and smelling of ale. He shook Grey slightly. “Every word. Every motion. Everything.”
Grey got just enough breath to answer.
“No,” he said defiantly. “Go ahead and kill me.”
FRASER SHOOK HIM violently, so that his teeth clacked painfully together and he bit his tongue. He made a strangled noise at this, and a blow he hadn’t seen coming struck him in the left eye. He fell down again, his head exploding with fractured color and black dots, the smell of leaf mold pungent in his nose. Fraser yanked him up and set him on his feet once more, but then paused, presumably deciding how best to continue the process of vivisection.
What with the blood pounding in his ears and the rasp of Fraser’s breath, Grey hadn’t heard anything, but when he cautiously opened his good eye to see where the next blow was coming from, he saw the man. A rough-looking dirty thug, in a fringed hunting shirt, gawping stupidly from under a tree.
“Jethro!” the man bellowed, taking a tighter hold on the gun he carried.
A number of men came out of the bushes. One or two had the rudiments of a uniform, but most of them were dressed in homespun, though with the addition of the bizarre “liberty” caps, tight-knitted woolen affairs that fitted over the head and ears, which through John’s watering eye gave the men the bluntly menacing aspect of animated bombshells.
The wives who had presumably made these garments had knitted such mottoes as LIBERTY or FREEDOM into the bands, though one bloodthirsty abigail had knitted the adjuration KILL! into her husband’s hat. The husband in question was, Grey noted, a small and weedy specimen wearing spectacles with one shattered lens.
Fraser had stopped at the sound of the men’s approach and now rounded on them like a bear brought to bay by hounds. The hounds stopped abruptly, at a safe distance.
Grey pressed a hand over his liver, which he thought had likely been ruptured, and panted. He was going to need what breath he could get.
“Who’re you?” one of the men demanded, jabbing pugnaciously at Jamie with the end of a long stick.
“Colonel James Fraser, Morgan’s Rifles,” Fraser replied coldly, ignoring the stick. “And you?”
The man appeared somewhat disconcerted but covered it with bluster.
“Corporal Jethro Woodbine, Dunning’s Rangers,” he said, very gruff. He jerked his head at his companions, who at once spread out in a businesslike way, surrounding the clearing.
“Who’s your prisoner, then?”
Grey felt his stomach tighten, which, given the condition of his liver, hurt. He replied through clenched teeth, not waiting for Jamie.
“I am Lord John Grey. If it’s any business of yours.” His mind was hopping like a flea, trying to calculate whether his chances of survival were better with Jamie Fraser or with this gang of yahoos. A few moments before, he had been resigned to the idea of death at Jamie’s hands, but, like many ideas, that one was more appealing in concept than in execution.
The revelation of his identity seemed to confuse the men, who squinted and murmured, glancing at him dubiously.
“He ain’t got a uniform on,” one observed to another, sotto voce. “Be he a soldier at all? We got no business with him if he ain’t, do we?”
“Yes, we do,” Woodbine declared, regaining some of his self-confidence. “And if Colonel Fraser’s taken him prisoner, I reckon he has reason?” His voice went up, reluctantly questioning. Jamie made no reply, his eyes fixed on Grey.
“He’s a soldier.” Heads swung round to see who had spoken. It was the small man with the shattered spectacles, who had adjusted these with one hand, the better to peer at Grey through his remaining lens. A watery blue eye inspected Grey, then the man nodded, more certain.
“He’s a soldier,” the man repeated. “I saw him in Philadelphia, sittin’ on the porch of a house on Chestnut Street in his uniform, large as life. He’s an officer,” he added unnecessarily.
“He is not a soldier,” Fraser said, and turned his head to fix the spectacled man with a firm eye.
“Saw him,” muttered the man. “Plain as day. Had gold braid,” he murmured almost inaudibly, dropping his eyes.
“Huh.” Jethro Woodbine approached Grey, examining him carefully. “Well, you got anything to say for yourself, Lord Grey?”
“Lord John,” Grey said crossly, and brushed a fragment of crushed leaf off his tongue. “I am not a peer; my elder brother is. Grey is my family name. As for being a soldier, I have been. I still bear rank within my regiment, but my commission is not active. Is that sufficient, or do you want to know what I had for breakfast this morning?”
He was purposely antagonizing them, some part of him having decided that he would rather go with Woodbine and bear the inspection of the Continentals than remain here to face the further inspections of Jamie Fraser. Fraser was regarding him through narrowed eyes. He fought the urge to look away.
It’s the truth, he thought defiantly. What I told you is the truth. And now you know it.
Yes, said Fraser’s black gaze. You think I will live quietly with it?
“He is not a soldier,” Fraser repeated, turning his back deliberately on Grey, switching his attention to Woodbine. “He is my prisoner because I wished to question him.”
“That is not your concern, Mr. Woodbine,” Jamie said, deep voice soft but edged with steel. Jethro Woodbine, though, was nobody’s fool and meant to make that clear.
“I’ll be judge of what’s my business. Sir,” he added, with a notable pause. “How do we know you’re who you say you are, eh? You aren’t in uniform. Any of you fellows know this man?”
The fellows, thus addressed, looked surprised. They looked uncertainly at one another; one or two heads shook in the negative.
“Well, then,” said Woodbine, emboldened. “If you can’t prove who you are, then I think we’ll take this man back to camp for questioning.” He smiled unpleasantly, another thought having evidently occurred to him. “Think we ought to take you, too?”
Fraser stood quite still for a moment, breathing slowly and regarding Woodbine as a tiger might regard a hedgehog: yes, he could eat it, but would the inconvenience of swallowing be worth it?
“Take him, then,” he said abruptly, stepping back from Grey. “I have business elsewhere.”
Woodbine had been expecting argument; he blinked, disconcerted, and half-raised his stick, but said nothing as Fraser stalked toward the far edge of the clearing. Just under the trees, Fraser turned and gave Grey a flat, dark look.
“We are not finished, sir,” he said.
Grey pulled himself upright, disregarding both the pain in his liver and the tears leaking from his damaged eye.
“At your service, sir,” he snapped. Fraser glared at him and moved into the flickering green shadows, completely ignoring Woodbine and his men. One or two of them glanced at the corporal, whose face showed his indecision. Grey didn’t share it. Just before Fraser’s tall silhouette vanished for good, he cupped his hands to his mouth.
“I’m not bloody sorry!” he bellowed.
THE PASSIONS OF YOUNG MEN
WHILE FASCINATED to hear about William and the dramatic circumstances under which he had just discovered his paternity, Jenny’s true concern was for another young man.
“D’ye ken where Young Ian is?” she asked eagerly. “And did he find his young woman, the Quaker lassie he told his da about?”
I relaxed a little at this; Young Ian and Rachel Hunter were—thank God—not on the list of fraught situations. At least not for the moment.
“He did,” I said, smiling. “As for where he is . . . I haven’t seen him for several days, but he’s often gone for longer. He scouts for the Continental army now and then, though since they’ve been in their winter quarters at Valley Forge for so long, there’s been less need for scouting. He spends quite a bit of time there, though, because Rachel does.”
Jenny blinked at that.
“She does? Why? Do Quakers not mislike wars and such?”
“Well, more or less. But her brother, Denzell, is an army surgeon—though he’s a real physician, not the usual horse-leech or quack-salver the army usually gets—and he’s been at Valley Forge since last November. Rachel comes and goes to Philadelphia—she can pass through the pickets, so she carries back food and supplies—but she works with Denny, so she’s out there, helping with patients, much more often than she is here.”
“Tell me about her,” Jenny said, leaning forward intently. “Is she a good lass? And d’ye think she loves Young Ian? From what Ian told me, the lad’s desperate in love with her but hadn’t spoken to her yet, not knowing how she’d take it—he wasna sure she could deal with him being . . . what he is.” Her quick gesture encompassed Young Ian’s history and character, from Highland lad to Mohawk warrior. “God kens weel he’ll never make a decent Quaker, and I expect Young Ian kens that, too.”
I laughed at the thought, though in fact the issue might be serious; I didn’t know what a Quaker meeting might think of such a match, but I rather thought they might view the prospect with alarm. I knew nothing about Quaker marriage, though.
“She’s a very good girl,” I assured Jenny. “Extremely sensible, very capable—and plainly in love with Ian, though I don’t think she’s told him so, either.”
“Ah. D’ye ken her parents?”
“No, they both died when she was a child. She was mostly raised by a Quaker widow and then came to keep house for her brother when she was sixteen or so.”
“That the little Quaker girl?” Mrs. Figg had come in with a vase of summer roses, smelling of myrrh and sugar. Jenny inhaled strongly and sat up straight. “Mercy Woodcock thinks the world of her. She comes by Mercy’s house every time she’s in town, to visit that young man.”
“Young man?” Jenny asked, dark brows drawing together.
“William’s cousin Henry,” I hastened to explain. “Denzell and I carried out a very serious operation on him during the winter. Rachel knows both William and Henry and is very kind about visiting to see how Henry is. Mrs. Woodcock is his landlady.”
It occurred to me that I had meant to go check on Henry today myself. There were rumors of a British withdrawal from the city, and I needed to see whether he was fit enough yet to travel. He was doing well when I’d stopped by a week before but at that point had been able to walk only a few steps, leaning on Mercy Woodcock’s arm.
And what about Mercy Woodcock? I wondered, with a small jolt at the pit of the stomach. It was clear to me, as it was to John, that there was a serious—and deepening—affection between the free black woman and her aristocratic young lodger. I had met Mercy’s husband, very badly wounded, during the exodus from Fort Ticonderoga a year before—and, lacking any communication from or about him, thought it very likely that he had died after being taken prisoner by the British.
Still, the possibility of Walter Woodcock returning miraculously from the dead—people did, after all, and a fresh bubble of joy rose under my heart at the thought—was the least of the matter. I couldn’t imagine that John’s brother, the very firm-minded Duke of Pardloe, would be delighted at hearing that his youngest son meant to marry the widow of a carpenter, whatever her color.