“Really. I hope it isn’t catching. Well, he was so ill he couldn’t stand, and sank down on the ground near us, making the most horrid noises. The little one—yes, I know he’s Zebedee, thank you—was beside himself, half-weeping with confusion. My sister is a most tenderhearted creature,” she said, rather apologetically. “She went to help, and I followed.” She shrugged.
“We got Colenso into the wood far enough to get his britches down in time, and I gave him a little water.” She touched a small wooden canteen that hung from her shoulder, and he wondered briefly where she’d got it. She hadn’t had it when he’d met the girls by the creek yesterday.
“I am much obliged to you, ma’am,” he said formally. “Now—why is it, exactly, that you did not then take the boys in to see the surgeons?”
For the first time, her composure showed signs of cracking. She turned a little away from him, and he noticed the last rays of the sun polishing the smooth crown of her head with a faint, familiar gleam of chestnut. The sight of it brought back memory of his first meeting with her with the force of a thunderclap—and, with it, the memory of his mingled shame and arousal. Especially the latter.
“Answer me,” he said, more roughly than he’d intended, and she turned on him, eyes narrowed at his tone.
“There was a finger lying on the ground by the surgeon’s tent,” she snapped. “It frightened my sister, and the boys took fright from her.”
William rubbed a knuckle down the bridge of his nose, eyeing her.
“A finger.” He had himself seen piles of amputated limbs outside the surgeons’ tents at Saratoga, and aside from a quick prayer of gratitude that none of the disconnected arms and legs was his, had experienced no particular qualms. “Whose was it?”
“How should I know? I was too much occupied in keeping your orderly from shitting himself to ask.”
“Ah. Yes. Thank you,” he said, rather formally. He glanced toward the shelter again and was surprised to see that Fanny had come out and was hovering a little way from her sister, a wary look on her lovely face. Did he look threatening? he wondered. Just in case, he relaxed his posture a bit and smiled at Fanny. She didn’t change expression, but continued to stare at him suspiciously.
He cleared his throat and took the sack off his shoulder, holding it out to Jane. “I thought you might have missed your supper. Have the boys—well, Zeb, at least—eaten anything?”
Jane nodded and took the bag with a celerity suggesting that it had been some time since the girls had had a meal. “He ate with the other grooms, he said.”
“All right, then. I’ll take him in to have his arm seen to and perhaps get a dose for Colenso, while you and your sister refresh yourselves. Then, madam, we can discuss your own situation.”
He’d been intensely aware of her physical presence for some moments, but when he said that, she turned the full effect of her eyes on him—cider, he thought vaguely, or sherry wine?—and seemed somehow to flow, shifting in some indefinable way. He hadn’t seen her move, but suddenly she was standing near enough to touch, and he smelled the odor of her hair and imagined he felt the warmth of her skin through her clothes. She took his hand briefly, and her thumb moved across the palm, slowly. The palm tingled and the hairs on his arm rippled.
“I’m sure we can come to a reasonable accommodation, my lord,” she said, very grave, and let him go.
He dragged Zeb into the surgeon’s tent like a recalcitrant colt and stood by, only half-attending, as a young Scottish surgeon with freckles swabbed the boy’s wound clean of dirt. Arabella–Jane didn’t smell of the whorish scent she’d worn at the brothel, but, by Christ, she smelled good.
“We should cauterize the wound, sir,” the young doctor’s voice was saying. “It will stop an abscess forming, aye?”
“No!” Zeb jerked away from the doctor and made a dash for the door, knocking into people and sending one woman flying with a shriek. Jolted out of his random thoughts, William made a reflexive dive and knocked the boy flat.
“Come on, Zeb,” he said, hauling Zeb to his feet and propelling him firmly back to Dr. MacFreckles. “It won’t be that bad. Just a moment or two, and then it’s all over.”
Zeb appearing patently unconvinced by this, William deposited him firmly on a stool and pulled up his own right cuff.
“Look,” he said, displaying the long, comet-shaped scar on his forearm. “That’s what happens when you get an abscess.”
Both Zeb and the doctor peered at the scar, impressed. It had been a splinter wound, he told them, caused by a lightning-struck tree.
“Wandered round the Great Dismal Swamp for three days in a fever,” he said. “Some . . . Indians found me and got me to a doctor. I nearly died, and”—he lowered his brows and gave Zeb a piercing look—“the doctor was just about to cut off my arm, when the abscess burst and he cauterized it. You might not be so lucky, hey?”
Zeb still looked unhappy, but reluctantly agreed. William gripped him by the shoulders and said encouraging things while the iron was heating, but his own heart was beating as fast as it might have had he been awaiting cautery himself.
Indians. One, in particular. He’d thought he’d exhausted his anger, but there it bloody was again, bursting into bright fresh flame like an ember smashed open with a poker.
Bloody f**king Ian Murray. Fucking Scot and sometime Mohawk. His bloody f**king cousin, which made it all that much worse.
And then there was Rachel. . . . Murray had taken him to Dr. Hunter and Rachel. He drew a deep, ragged breath, remembering her worn indigo gown, hanging on its peg in the Hunters’ house. Grabbing a handful of the cloth and pressing it to his face, breathing in her scent as though starved of air.
That was where Murray had met Rachel himself. And now she was betrothed to that—
“Ow!” Zeb writhed, and William realized belatedly that he was digging his fingers into the boy’s shoulder, just like—he let go as though Zeb were a hot potato, feeling the memory of James Fraser’s iron grip on his arm and the agonizing pain that had numbed him from shoulder to fingertip.
“Sorry,” he said, voice shaking a little with the effort to hide his fury. “Sorry, Zeb.” The surgeon was ready with the glowing iron; William took Zeb’s arm, as gently as he could, and held it still while the thing was done. Rachel had held his own.
He’d been right; it was quick. The surgeon pressed the hot iron to the wound and counted five, slowly, then took it away. Zeb went stiff as a tent pole and sucked in enough breath to supply three people, but didn’t scream.
“It’s done,” the doctor said, taking the iron away and smiling at Zeb. “Here, I’ll put a bit of sweet oil on and bandage it. Ye did well, laddie.”
Zeb’s eyes were watering, but he wasn’t crying. He sniffed deeply and wiped the back of his hand across his face, looking up at William.
“Well done, Zeb,” William said, squeezing his shoulder gently, and Zeb managed a tiny smile in return.
By the time they’d returned to the girls and Colenso, William had managed to tamp down the rage—again. Was he never going to be able to get rid of it? Not ’til you make up your mind what to do about things, he thought grimly. But there wasn’t anything that could be done right now, so he squashed all the sparks in his head firmly into one dense red ball and rolled it to the back of his mind.
“Here, let Fanny do it. He trusts her.” Jane took the vial containing the dose Dr. MacFreckles had made up for Colenso and gave it to her sister. Fanny promptly sat down beside Colenso, who was pretending as hard as he could to be asleep, and began stroking his head, murmuring something to him.
William nodded and, gesturing to Jane to accompany him, withdrew far enough to be out of earshot. Rather to his surprise, part of his brain had apparently been analyzing the problem and coming to conclusions while the rest was occupied, for he had a rough plan.
“What I suggest is this,” he said, without preamble. “I will make provision for you and your sister to receive regular army rations, as camp followers, and to travel under my protection. Once in New York, I will give you five pounds, and you’re on your own. In return . . .”
She didn’t quite smile, but a dimple showed in one cheek.
“In return,” he repeated more firmly, “you will mind my orderly and my groom, tend their ills, and make sure they’re reasonably cared for. You will also be my laundress.”
“Your laundress?!” The dimple had disappeared abruptly, replaced by an expression of sheer astonishment.
“Laundress,” he repeated doggedly. He knew what she’d been expecting him to propose and was rather surprised himself that he hadn’t, but there it was. He couldn’t, not with his thoughts of Rachel and of Anne Endicott so fresh in his mind. Not with the deep, smothered rage fueled by the thought that he deserved no woman but a whore.
“But I don’t know how to do laundry!”
“How hard can it be?” he asked, as patiently as he could. “You wash my clothes. Don’t put starch in my drawers. That’s about it, isn’t it?”
“But—but—” She looked aghast. “One needs a . . . a kettle! A fork, a paddle, something to stir with . . . Soap! I haven’t any soap!”
“Oh.” That hadn’t occurred to him. “Well . . .” He dug in his pocket, found it empty, and tried the other, which held a guinea, tuppence, and a florin. He handed her the guinea. “Buy what you need, then.”
She looked at the golden coin in her palm, her face utterly blank. She opened her mouth, then closed it again.
“What’s the matter?” he asked impatiently. She didn’t answer, but a soft voice behind him did.
“The duffent know how.”
He whirled to find Fanny looking up at him from under her cap, her delicate cheeks flushed red by the sunset.
“What did you say?”
Fanny’s soft mouth pressed tight and her cheeks grew redder, but she repeated it, dogged. “The . . . duffent . . . know how.”
Jane reached Fanny in two steps, putting an arm around her sister’s shoulders and glaring at William.
“My sister’s tongue-tied,” she said, daring him to say anything. “That’s why she’s afraid of the surgeons. She thinks they will amputate her tongue if they find out.”
He drew a deep, slow breath.
“I see. And what she said to me . . . ‘She doesn’t know how’? She means you, I collect? What is it, pray, that you don’t know how?”
“Muddy,” whispered Fanny, now staring at the ground.
“Mud—money?” He stared at Jane. “You don’t know how to—”
“I’ve never had any money!” she snapped, and threw the guinea on the ground at his feet. “I know the names of the coins, but I don’t know what you can buy with them, except—except—what you can buy in a brothel! My cunt is worth six shillings, all right? My mouth is three. And my arse is a pound. But if someone gave me three shillings, I wouldn’t know if I could buy a loaf of bread or a horse with them! I’ve never bought anything!”
“You—you mean—” He was so flabbergasted, he couldn’t string words into a sentence. “But you have wages. You said—”
“I’ve been a brothel whore since I was ten years old!” Her fists clenched, knuckles sharp under the skin. “I never see my wages! Mrs. Abbott spends them—she says—for my—our—food and clothes. I’ve never had a penny to my name, let alone spent one. And now you hand me . . . that”—she stamped her foot on the guinea, driving it into the ground—“and tell me to buy a kettle?!? Where? How? From whom?!”
Her voice shook and her face was a deal redder than the setting sun could make it. She was furious, but also very near to tears. He wanted to take her in his arms and soothe her, but thought that might be a good way to lose a finger.
“How old is Fanny?” he asked instead. She jerked her head up, panting.
“Fanny?” she said blankly.
“I’m e-lev-en,” Fanny’s voice said behind him. “You weve her awone!”
He turned to see the girl glaring up at him, a stick clutched in her hand. He might have laughed, if not for the expression on her face—and if not for what he’d just realized. He took a step back, so as to see both girls at once, and like magnet and iron, they came together and clung, both staring distrustfully at him.
“How much is her maidenhead worth?” he asked Jane baldly, with a nod at Fanny.
“Ten pounth,” Fanny answered automatically, just as Jane shouted, “She’s not for sale! To you or any other bugger!” She pressed Fanny fiercely closer, daring him to make a move toward the girl.
“I don’t want her,” he said through his teeth. “I don’t fornicate with children, for God’s sake!”
Jane’s hard expression didn’t alter, and she didn’t loosen her grip on her sister.
“Then why did you ask?”
“To verify my suppositions regarding your presence here.”
Jane snorted. “Those being?”
“That you ran away. Presumably because your sister has now reached an age where . . . ?” He raised an eyebrow, nodding at Fanny. Jane’s lips compressed, but she gave him a tiny, grudging nod.
“Captain Harkness?” he asked. It was a shot in the dark, but well aimed. Harkness hadn’t been pleased at being deprived of his prey and, unable to come at William, might well have decided to take his revenge elsewhere.
The light bathed everything in tones of gold and lavender, but he could see Jane’s face go pale, nonetheless, and felt a tightening in his loins. If he found Harkness . . . He resolved to go looking tomorrow. The man might be in Philadelphia, as she’d said—but he might not. It would be a welcome focus for his rage.