He forced down the rising tide of panic. It didn’t matter; it didn’t matter if it wasn’t the time he’d expected—not if Jem was here. And he must be. He must be.
“I’m sorry to disturb your family, sir,” he said, clearing his throat as he set down the glass. “But the fact is that I’ve lost my son and am in search of him.”
“Lost your son!” exclaimed Fraser, eyes widening in surprise. “Bride be with ye, sir. How did that come about?”
Just as well to tell the truth where he could, he thought, and, after all, what else could he say?
“He was kidnapped two days ago and carried away—he’s no but nine years old. I have some reason to think the man who took him comes from this area. Have ye by chance seen a tall man, lean and dark, traveling with a young red-haired lad, about so tall?” He put the edge of his hand against his own arm, about three inches above the elbow; Jem was tall for his age and even taller for this age—but, then, Brian Fraser was a tall man himself, and his son . . .
A fresh shock went through Roger with the thought: Was Jamie here? In the house? And if he was, how old might he be? How old had he been when Brian Fraser die—
Fraser was shaking his head, his face troubled.
“I have not, sir. What’s the name of the man who’s taken your lad?”
“Rob—Robert Cameron, he’s called. I dinna ken his people,” he added, falling naturally into Fraser’s stronger accent.
“Cameron . . .” Fraser murmured, tapping his fingers on the desk as he searched his memory. The motion flicked something in Roger’s memory; it was the ghost of one of Jamie’s characteristic gestures when thinking—but Jamie, with his frozen finger, did it with the fingers flat, where his father’s came down in a smooth ripple.
He picked up the glass again and took another sip, glancing as casually as he might at Fraser’s face, searching for resemblance. It was there but subtle, mostly in the c**k of the head, the set of the shoulders—and the eyes. The face was quite different, square in the jaw, broader of brow, and Brian Fraser’s eyes were a dark hazel, not blue, but the slanted shape of them, the wide mouth—that was Jamie.
“There’re nay many Camerons nearer than Lochaber.” Fraser was shaking his head. “And I’ve heard nothing of a wanderer in the district.” He gave Roger a direct look, not accusing but definitely questioning. “Why is it ye think the man came this way?”
“I—he was seen,” Roger blurted. “Near Craigh na Dun.”
That startled Fraser.
“Craigh na Dun,” he repeated, leaning back a little, his eyes gone wary. “Ah . . . and where might ye have come from yourself, sir?”
“From Inverness,” Roger replied promptly. “I followed him from there.” Close enough. He was trying hard not to recall that he’d left on his quest to find Cameron and Jem from the very spot in which he was now sitting. “I—a friend—a kinsman—came with me. I sent him toward Cranesmuir to search.”
The news that he apparently wasn’t a solitary nutter seemed to reassure Fraser, who pushed back from the desk and stood up, glancing at the window, where a big rose brier curved up gaunt and black against the fading sky.
“Mmphm. Well, bide for a bit, sir, and ye will. It’s late in the day, and ye’ll make no great distance before dark falls. Sup with us, and we’ll gie ye a bed for the night. Mayhap your friend will catch ye up with good news, or one of my tenants may ha’ seen something. I’ll send round in the morning, to ask.”
Roger’s legs were quivering with the urge to leap up, rush out, do something. But Fraser was right: it would be pointless—and dangerous—to blunder round the Highland mountains in the dark, losing his way, perhaps be caught in a killing storm this time of year. He could hear the wind picking up; the rose brier beat at the glass of the window. It was going to rain soon. And is Jem out in it?
“I—yes. I thank you, sir,” he said. “It’s most kind of ye.”
Fraser patted him on the shoulder, went out into the hallway, and called, “Janet! Janet, we’ve a guest for supper!”
He’d risen to his feet without thinking and came out of the office as the kitchen door swung open—and a small, slender shape was momentarily silhouetted against the glow of the kitchen, rubbing her hands on her apron.
“My daughter, Janet, sir,” Fraser said, drawing his daughter into the fading light. He smiled fondly at her. “This is Mr. Roger MacKenzie, Jenny. He’s lost his wee lad somewhere.”
“He has?” The girl paused, halfway through a curtsy, and her eyes went wide. “What’s happened, sir?”
Roger explained again briefly about Rob Cameron and Craigh na Dun, but all the time was consumed by the desire to ask the young woman how old she was. Fifteen? Seventeen? Twenty-one? She was remarkably beautiful, with clear white skin that bloomed from the heat of cooking, soft curly black hair tied back from her face, and a trim figure that he tried hard not to stare at—but what was most disturbing was that, despite her obvious femininity, she bore a startling resemblance to Jamie Fraser. She might be his daughter, he thought, and then brought himself up short, realizing afresh—and remembering, with a stab of the heart that nearly dropped him to his knees—who Jamie Fraser’s daughter really was.
Oh, God. Bree. Oh, Jesus, help me. Will I ever see her again?
He realized that he’d fallen silent and was staring at Janet Fraser with his mouth open. Apparently she was used to this sort of response from men, though; she gave him a demure, slant-eyed smile, said that supper would be on the table in a few moments and maybe Da should show Mr. MacKenzie the way to the necessary? Then she was walking back down the hallway, the big door swung to behind her, and he found he could breathe again.
THE SUPPER WAS plain but plentiful and well cooked, and Roger found that food restored him amazingly. No wonder—he couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten.
They ate in the kitchen, with a pair of housemaids called Annie and Senga and a man-of-all-work named Tom McTaggart sharing the table with the family. All of them were interested in Roger and, while giving him great sympathy in the matter of his missing son, were even more interested in where he might come from and what news he might bear.
Here he was at something of a loss, as he had no firm notion what year it was (Brian died—God, will die—when Jamie was nineteen, and if Jamie was born in May of 1721—or was it 1722?—and he was two years younger than Jenny . . .) and thus no idea what might have been happening in the world of late, but he delayed a bit, explaining his antecedents in some detail—that was good manners, for one thing, and for another, his birthplace in Kyle of Lochalsh was far enough away from Lallybroch that the Frasers were unlikely to have met any of his people.
Then at last he had a bit of luck, when McTaggart told about taking off his shoe to shake out a stone, then seeing one of the pigs wriggle under the fence and head for the kailyard at a trot. He rushed after the pig, of course, and succeeded in catching it—but had dragged it back to the pen only to find that the other pig had likewise wriggled out and was peacefully eating his shoe.
“This was all she left!” he said, pulling half a shredded leather sole out of his pocket and waving it at them reproachfully. “And a rare struggle I had to pull it from her jaws!”
“Why did ye bother?” Jenny asked, wrinkling her nose at the dank object. “Dinna trouble yourself, Taggie. We’ll slaughter the pigs next week, and ye can have a bit o’ the hide to make yourself a new pair of shoon.”
“And I suppose I’m to go barefoot ’til then, am I?” McTaggart asked, disgruntled. “There’s frost on the ground in the morn, aye? I could take a chill and be dead of the pleurisy before yon pig’s eaten its last bucket o’ slops, let alone been tanned.”
Brian laughed and lifted his chin toward Jenny. “Did your brother no leave a pair of his outgrown shoon behind when he left for Paris? I mind me he did, and if ye havena given them to the poor, might be as Taggie could manage wi’ them for a bit.”
Paris. Roger’s mind worked furiously, calculating. Jamie had spent not quite two years in Paris at the université and had come back . . . when? When he was eighteen, he thought. Jamie would have been—will be—eighteen in May of 1739. So it was now 1737, 1738, or 1739.
The narrowing of uncertainty calmed him a little, and he managed to put his mind to thinking of historical events that had occurred in that gap that he might offer as current news in conversation: absurdly, the first thing that came to mind was that the bottle opener had been invented in 1738. The second was that there had been an enormous earthquake in Bombay in 1737.
His audience was initially more interested by the bottle opener, which he was obliged to describe in detail—inventing wildly, as he had no notion what the thing actually looked like, though there were sympathetic murmurs regarding the residents of Bombay and a brief prayer for the souls of those crushed under falling houses and the like.
“But where is Bombay?” asked the younger of the housemaids, wrinkling her brow and looking from one face to another.
“India,” said Jenny promptly, and pushed back her chair. “Senga, fetch the cranachan, aye? I’ll show ye where India is.”
She vanished through the swinging door, and the bustle of removing dishes left Roger with a few moments’ breathing space. He was beginning to feel a little easier, getting his bearings, though still agonized with worry for Jem. He did spare a moment’s thought for William Buccleigh and how Buck might take the news of the date of their arrival.
Seventeen thirty-something . . . Jesus, Buck himself hadn’t even been born yet! But, after all, what difference did that make? he asked himself. He hadn’t been born yet, either, and had lived quite happily in a time prior to his birth before. . . . Could their proximity to the beginning of Buck’s life have something to do with it, though?
He did know—or thought he knew—that you couldn’t go back to a time during your own lifetime. Trying to exist physically at the same time as yourself just wasn’t on. It had just about killed him once; maybe they’d got too close to Buck’s original lifeline, and Buck had somehow recoiled, taking Roger with him?
Before he could explore the implications of that unsettling thought, Jenny returned, carrying a large, thin book. This proved to be a hand-colored atlas, with maps—surprisingly accurate maps, in many cases—and descriptions of “The Nations of the World.”
“My brother sent it to me from Paris,” Jenny told him proudly, opening the book to a double-page spread of the Continent of India, where the starred circle indicating Bombay was surrounded by small drawings of palm trees, elephants, and something that upon close scrutiny turned out to be a tea plant. “He’s at the université there.”
“Really?” Roger smiled, being sure to look impressed. He was, the more so at realization of the effort and expense involved in going from this remote mountain wilderness to Paris. “How long has he been there?”
“Oh, almost two years now,” Brian answered. He put out a hand and touched the page gently. “We do miss the lad cruelly, but he writes often. And he sends us books.”
“He’ll be back soon,” Jenny said, though with an air of conviction that seemed somewhat forced. “He said he’d come back.”
Brian smiled, though this too was a little forced.
“Aye. I’m sure I hope so, a nighean. But ye ken he may have found opportunities that keep him abroad for a time.”
“Opportunities? Ye mean that de Marillac woman?” Jenny asked, a distinct edge in her voice. “I dinna like the way he writes about her. Not one bit.”
“He could do worse for a wife, lass.” Brian lifted one shoulder. “She’s from a good family.”
Jenny made a very complicated sound in her throat, indicating sufficient respect for her father as to prevent her expressing a fuller opinion of “that woman” while still making that opinion plain. Her father laughed.
“Your brother’s no a complete fool,” he assured her. “I doubt he’d marry a simpleton or a—a—” He’d obviously thought better of saying “whore”—his lips had begun to shape the word—but couldn’t think of a substitute in time.
“He would,” Jenny snapped. “He’d walk straight into a cob’s web wi’ his eyes wide open, if the cob had a pretty face and a round arse.”
“Janet!” Her father tried to look shocked but failed utterly. McTaggart guffawed openly, and Annie and Senga giggled behind their hands. Jenny glowered at them but then drew herself up with dignity and addressed herself to their guest.
“So, then, Mr. MacKenzie. Is your own wife living, I hope? And is she your wean’s mother?”
“Is she—” He felt the question like a blow in the chest but then remembered when he was. The odds of a woman surviving childbirth were no more than even in many places. “Yes. Yes, she’s—in Inverness, with our daughter.”
Mandy. Oh, my sweet baby. Mandy. Bree. Jem. All at once, the enormity of it struck him. He’d managed so far to ignore it by concentrating on the need to find Jem, but now a cold wind whistled through the holes in his heart left by hurtling odds. The odds were that he would never see any of them again. And they would never know what had happened to him.
“Oh, sir.” Jenny whispered it, leaning forward to lay a hand on his arm, her eyes wide with horror at what she’d provoked. “Oh, sir, I’m sorry! I didna mean to—”
“It’s all right,” he managed, forcing the words through his mangled larynx in a croak. “I’m—” He waved a hand in blind apology and stumbled out. He went straight out through the mudroom at the back of the house and found himself in the night outside.