And then there was his daughter, Dottie, speaking of Quakers: she was betrothed to Denzell Hunter, and I did wonder what the duke would think of that. John, who liked a wager, had given me no better than even odds between Dottie and her father.
I shook my head, dismissing the dozen things I could do nothing about. During this minor reverie, Jenny and Mrs. Figg appeared to have been discussing William and his abrupt departure from the scene.
“Where would he go to, I wonder?” Mrs. Figg looked worriedly toward the wall of the stairwell, pocked with blood-smeared dents left by William’s fist.
“Gone to find a bottle, a fight, or a woman,” said Jenny, with the authority of a wife, a sister, and the mother of sons. “Maybe all three.”
IT WAS PAST midday, and the only voices in the house were the distant chitterings of women. No one was visible in the parlor as they passed, and no one appeared as the girl led William up a foot-marked staircase to her room. It gave him an odd feeling, as though he might be invisible. He found the notion a comfort; he couldn’t bear himself.
She went in before him and threw open the shutters. He wanted to tell her to close them; he felt wretchedly exposed in the flood of sunlight. But it was summer; the room was hot and airless, and he was already sweating heavily. Air swirled in, heavy with the odor of tree sap and recent rain, and the sun glowed briefly on the smooth top of her head, like the gloss on a fresh conker. She turned and smiled at him.
“First things first,” she announced briskly. “Throw off your coat and waistcoat before you suffocate.” Not waiting to see whether he would take this suggestion, she turned to reach for the basin and ewer. She filled the basin and stepped back, motioning him toward the washstand, where a towel and a much-used sliver of soap stood on worn wood.
“I’ll fetch us a drink, shall I?” And with that, she was gone, bare feet pattering busily down the stairs.
Mechanically, he began to undress. He blinked stupidly at the basin but then recalled that, in the better sort of house, sometimes a man was required to wash his parts first. He’d encountered the custom once before, but on that occasion the whore had performed the ablution for him—plying the soap to such effect that the first encounter had ended right there in the washbasin.
The memory made the blood flame up in his face again, and he ripped at his flies, popping off a button. He was still throbbing all over, but the sensation was becoming more centralized.
His hands were unsteady, and he cursed under his breath, reminded by the broken skin on his knuckles of his unceremonious exit from his father’s—no, not his bloody father’s house. Lord John’s.
“You bloody bastard!” he said under his breath. “You knew, you knew all along!” That infuriated him almost more than the horrifying revelation of his own paternity. His stepfather, whom he’d loved, whom he’d trusted more than anyone on earth—Lord John bloody Grey—had lied to him his whole life!
Everyone had lied to him.
He felt suddenly as though he’d broken through a crust of frozen snow and plunged straight down into an unsuspected river beneath. Swept away into black breathlessness beneath the ice, helpless, voiceless, a feral chill clawing at his heart.
There was a small sound behind him and he whirled by instinct, aware only when he saw the young whore’s appalled face that he was weeping savagely, tears running down his own face, and his wet, half-hard c**k flopping out of his breeches.
“Go away,” he croaked, making a frantic effort to tuck himself in.
She didn’t go away but came toward him, decanter in one hand and a pair of pewter cups in the other.
“Are you all right?” she asked, eyeing him sideways. “Here, let me pour you a drink. You can tell me all about it.”
She came on toward him, but more slowly. Through his swimming eyes, he saw the twitch of her mouth as she saw his cock.
“I meant the water for your poor hands,” she said, clearly trying not to laugh. “I will say as you’re a real gentleman, though.”
“Is it an insult to call you a gentleman?”
Overcome with fury at the word, he lashed out blindly, knocking the decanter from her hand. It burst in a spray of glass and cheap wine, and she cried out as the red soaked through her petticoat.
“You bastard!” she shrieked, and, drawing back her arm, threw the cups at his head. She didn’t hit him, and they clanged and rolled away across the floor. She was turning toward the door, crying out, “Ned! Ned!” when he lunged and caught her.
He only wanted to stop her shrieking, stop her bringing up whatever male enforcement the house employed. He got a hand on her mouth, yanking her back from the door, grappling one-handed to try to control her flailing arms.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” he kept saying. “I didn’t mean—I don’t mean—oh, bloody hell!” She caught him abruptly in the nose with her elbow and he let go, backing away with a hand to his face, blood dripping through his fingers.
Her face was marked with red where he’d held her, and her eyes were wild. She backed away, scrubbing at her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Get . . . out!” she gasped.
He didn’t need telling twice. He rushed past her, shouldered his way past a burly man charging up the stairs, and ran down the alley, realizing only when he reached the street that he was in his shirtsleeves, having left coat and waistcoat behind, and his breeches were undone.
“Ellesmere!” said an appalled voice nearby. He looked up in horror to find himself the cynosure of several English officers, including Alexander Lindsay.
“Good Christ, Ellesmere, what happened?” Sandy was by way of being a friend and was already pulling a voluminous snowy handkerchief from his sleeve. He clapped this to William’s nose, pinching his nostrils and insisting that he put his head back.
“Have you been set upon and robbed?” one of the others demanded. “God! This filthy place!”
He felt at once comforted by their company—and hideously embarrassed by it. He was not one of them, not any longer.
“Was it? Was it robbery?” another said, glaring round eagerly. “We’ll find the bastards who did it, ’pon my honor we will! We’ll get your property back and teach whoever did it a lesson!”
Blood was running down the back of his throat, harsh and iron-tasting, and he coughed but did his best to nod and shrug simultaneously. He had been robbed. But no one was ever going to give him back what he’d lost today.
UNDER MY PROTECTION
THE BELL OF THE Presbyterian church two blocks away rang for half-two, and my stomach echoed it, reminding me that—what with one thing and another—I hadn’t had any tea yet.
Jenny had had a bite with Marsali and the children but declared herself equal to dealing with an egg, if there might be one, so I sent Mrs. Figg to see whether there might, and within twenty minutes we were wallowing—in a genteel fashion—in soft-boiled eggs, fried sardines, and—for lack of cake—flapjacks with butter and honey, which Jenny had never seen before but took to with the greatest alacrity.
“Look how it soaks up the sweetness!” she exclaimed, pressing the spongy little cake with a fork, then releasing it. “Nay like a bannock at all!” She glanced over her shoulder, then leaned toward me, lowering her voice. “D’ye think her in the kitchen might show me the way of it, if I asked?”
A diffident rapping on the damaged front door interrupted her, and as I turned to look, it was shoved open and a long shadow fell across the painted canvas rug, narrowly preceding its owner. A young British subaltern peered into the parlor, looking disconcerted by the wreckage in the foyer.
“Lieutentant Colonel Grey?” he asked hopefully, glancing back and forth between Jenny and me.
“His lordship isn’t in just now,” I said, attempting to sound self-possessed. I wondered just how many more times I might have to say that—and to whom.
“Oh.” The young man looked further disconcerted. “Can you tell me where he is, mum? Colonel Graves sent a message earlier, asking Lieutenant Colonel Grey to attend General Clinton at once, and the general was, er . . . rather wondering why the lieutenant colonel hadn’t arrived yet.”
“Ah,” I said, with a sidewise glance at Jenny. “Well. I’m afraid his lordship was rather urgently called away before he received the colonel’s message.” That must have been the paper John had received moments before Jamie’s dramatic reappearance from a watery grave. He’d glanced at it but then shoved it unread into his breeches’ pocket.
The soldier heaved a small sigh at this but was undaunted.
“Yes, mum. If you’ll tell me where his lordship is, I’ll go fetch him there. I really can’t go back without him, you know.” He gave me a woeful look, though with a touch of a charming smile. I smiled back, with a small touch of panic in my midsection.
“I’m so sorry, but I really don’t know where he is right now,” I said, standing up in hopes of driving him back toward the door.
“Well, mum, if you’ll just tell me where he was heading, I shall go there and seek direction,” he said, doggedly standing his ground.
“He didn’t tell me.” I took a step toward him, but he didn’t retreat. This was escalating beyond absurdity into something more serious. I’d met General Clinton briefly at the Mischianza ball a few weeks ago—God, had it been only weeks? It seemed whole lifetimes—and while he’d been quite cordial to me, I didn’t think he’d receive a nolle prosequi from me with any sort of complaisance. Generals tended to think highly of their own consequence.
“You know, his lordship doesn’t hold an active commission,” I said, in the faint hope of putting the young man off. He looked surprised.
“Yes, he does, mum. The colonel sent notice of it with the message this morning.”
“What? He can’t do that—er, can he?” I asked, a sudden dread creeping up my backbone.
“Do what, mum?”
“Just—just tell his lordship that his commission is active?”
“Oh, no, mum,” he assured me. “The colonel of Lieutenant Colonel Grey’s regiment re-called him. The Duke of Pardloe.”
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said, sitting down. Jenny snatched up her napkin to muffle what was plainly a laugh; it had been twenty-five years since she’d heard me say that. I gave her a look, but this was no time to be picking up the threads.
“All right,” I said, turning to face the young man again and taking a deep breath. “I’d better go with you to see the general.” I got to my feet again and only at this point realized that, having been surprised whilst changing, I was still wearing nothing but my shift and dressing gown.
“I’ll help ye dress,” Jenny said, standing up hurriedly. She gave the soldier a charming smile and gestured at the table, now strewn with toast, marmalade, and a steaming dish of kippers. “Have a bite while ye wait, lad. No point wasting good food.”
JENNY POKED HER head out into the corridor and listened, but the faint sound of a fork on china and Mrs. Figg’s voice from below indicated that the soldier had accepted her suggestion. She quietly closed the door.
“I’ll go with ye,” she said. “The town’s full of soldiers; ye shouldna go out by yourself.”
“I’ll be—” I began, but then stopped, unsure. Most of the British officers in Philadelphia knew me as Lady John Grey, but that didn’t mean that rank-and-file soldiers shared either that knowledge or the sense of respect that it normally engendered. I also felt like an imposter, but that was rather beside the point; it didn’t show.
“Thank you,” I said abruptly. “I’d be glad of your company.” Unsure as I felt about everything save my conviction that Jamie was coming, I was glad of a little moral support—though I wondered whether I might need to warn Jenny of the need for circumspection when I talked to General Clinton.
“I shallna say a word myself,” she assured me, grunting slightly as she pulled my laces tight. “D’ye think ye should tell him what’s happened to Lord John?”
“No, I definitely don’t,” I said, exhaling forcefully. “That’s . . . tight enough.”
“Mmm.” She was already deep in the armoire, picking through my gowns. “What about this one? It’s got a deep décolletage, and your bosom’s still verra good.”
“I’m not meaning to seduce the man!”
“Oh, yes, ye are,” she said matter-of-factly. “Or at least distract him. If ye’re no going to tell him the truth, I mean.” One sleek black eyebrow lifted. “If I were a British general and was told that my wee colonel had been abducted by a wicked great Hieland man, I think I might take it amiss.”
I couldn’t really contradict this piece of reasoning and, with a brief shrug, wriggled my way into the amber silk, which had cream-colored piping in the seams and ruched cream ribbons outlining the edge of the bodice.
“Oh, aye, that’s good,” Jenny said, tying my laces and stepping back to eye the effect with approval. “The ribbon’s near the same color as your skin, so the neck looks even lower than it is.”
“One would think you’d spent the last thirty years running a dressmaker’s salon or a brothel, rather than a farm,” I remarked, nervousness making me rather cross. She snorted.
“I’ve got three daughters, nine granddaughters, and there’s sixteen nieces and great-nieces on Ian’s sister’s side. It’s often much the same sort o’ thing.”
That made me laugh, and she grinned at me. Then I was blinking back tears, and so was she—the thought of Brianna and of Ian, our lost ones, coming suddenly—and then we were embracing, holding hard to each other to keep grief at bay.