“Aye, I ken fine what it’s just,” he said, and, setting the candle and pot on the floor, lay down on the bed beside me, balancing precariously on the edge.
“Ye’re hurt, a nighean,” he said softly, smoothing my hair off my wet cheeks. “And fevered and starved and worn to a shadow. There’s no much of ye left, is there, poor wee thing?”
I shook my head and clung to him. “There’s not much of you left, either,” I managed to say, mumbling wetly into the front of his shirt.
He made a small amused noise and rubbed my back, very gently. “Enough, Sassenach,” he said. “I’m enough. For now.”
I sighed and fumbled under the pillow for a hankie to blow my nose.
“Better?” he asked, sitting up.
“Yes. Don’t go, though.” I put a hand on his leg, hard and warm under my hand. “Can you lie with me a minute? I’m awfully cold.” I was, though I realized from the damp and salt on his skin that the room was quite hot. But loss of so much blood had left me chilled and gasping; I couldn’t get through a sentence without stopping to breathe, and my arms were permanently goose-pimpled.
“Aye. Dinna move; I’ll go round.” He came round the bed and edged carefully in behind me. It was a narrow bed, barely wide enough to hold us closely pressed together.
I exhaled gingerly and relaxed against him in slow motion, reveling in the feel of his warmth and the solid comfort of his body.
“Elephants,” I said, drawing the shallowest possible breath compatible with speaking. “When a female elephant is dying, sometimes a male will try to mate with her.”
There was a marked silence behind me, and then a big hand came round and rested assessingly on my forehead.
“Either ye’re fevered again, Sassenach,” he said in my ear, “or ye have verra perverse fancies. Ye dinna really want me to—”
“No,” I said hastily. “Not right this minute, no. And I’m not dying, either. The thought just came to me.”
He made an amused Scottish noise and, lifting the hair off my neck, kissed my nape.
“Since ye’re no dying,” he said, “maybe that will do for the moment?”
I took his hand and placed it on my breast. Slowly I grew warmer, and my chilly feet, pressed against his shins, relaxed. The window now was filled with stars, hazy with the moistness of the summer night, and I suddenly missed the cool, clear, black-velvet nights of the mountains, the stars blazing huge, close enough to touch from the highest ridge.
“Jamie?” I whispered. “Can we go home? Please?”
“Aye,” he said softly. He held my hand and the silence filled the room like moonlight, both of us wondering where home might be.
A WHIFF OF ROQUEFORT
I HADN’T SEEN ANY of the previous day’s flock of visitors, though Jamie had told me about them. This day, though, brought one for me. Mrs. Macken brought him up the stairs, in spite of her advanced state of pregnancy, and showed him into my tiny room with great respect.
He wasn’t in uniform and was—for him—quite subfusc, in a coat and breeches of the dull gray that was referred to (with accuracy) as “sad-colored,” though he had taken the trouble to wear a dove-gray waistcoat with it that flattered his coloring.
“How are you, my dear?” he asked, taking off his hat. Not waiting for an answer, he came down on one knee by the bed, took my hand, and kissed it lightly. His blond hair had been washed, I saw—I smelled his bergamot soap—and trimmed to a uniform length. As that length was roughly an inch, the overall effect reminded me irresistibly of a fuzzy duckling. I laughed, then gasped and pressed a hand to my side.
“Dinna make her laugh!” Jamie said, glowering at John. His tone was cold, but I saw him take in John’s aspect, and the corner of his own mouth twitched.
“I know,” John said ruefully to me, passing a hand over his head and ignoring Jamie completely. “Isn’t it dreadful? I ought really to wear a wig for the sake of public decency, but I couldn’t bear it in the heat.”
“Don’t know that I blame you,” I told him, and ran a hand through the damp mass of my own hair, drying on my shoulders. “Though I haven’t yet got to the point of wanting to shave my head,” I added pointedly, not quite turning my head toward Jamie.
“Don’t. It wouldn’t suit you at all,” John assured me.
“How is your eye?” I asked, gingerly trying to raise myself on the pillow. “Let me have a look at it.”
“Stay there,” he said, and, leaning over me, opened both eyes wide. “I think it’s quite good. It’s still a bit tender to the touch and gets the odd twinge when I move it too far up or to the right, but—do you smell French cheese?” He sounded slightly startled.
“Mmm.” I was gently prodding the flesh around the orbit, which showed only a slight residual swelling. The sclera was still quite bloodshot, but the bruising was much better. I thumbed down the lower lid to inspect the conjunctiva: a nice slippery pink, no sign of infection. “Does it water?”
“Only in strong sunlight, and not very much,” he assured me, straightening up. He smiled at me. “Thank you, my dear.”
Jamie didn’t say anything, but the way he breathed had a distinctly edgy feel about it. I ignored him. If he chose to make a fuss, I couldn’t bloody stop him.
“What are ye doing here?” he asked abruptly. John looked up at him, one brow raised, as though surprised to see him looming on the other side of my bed. John rose slowly to his feet, holding Jamie’s eyes with his own.
“What do you think I’m doing?” he asked quietly. There was no hint of challenge in the question, and I could see Jamie suddenly check his own hostility, frowning slightly as he looked John over, considering.
One side of John’s mouth turned up a little.
“Do you think I’ve come to fight you for the favors of this lady? Or to seduce her from your side?”
Jamie didn’t laugh, but the line between his brows smoothed out.
“I don’t,” he said dryly. “And as ye dinna seem to be much damaged, I doubt ye’ve come to be doctored.”
John gave an amiable bob of the head, indicating that this line of reasoning was correct.
“And I doubt, as well,” Jamie continued, an edge creeping into his voice, “that ye’ve come to continue our previous discussion.”
John inhaled slowly, and exhaled even slower, regarding Jamie with a level gaze. “Is it your opinion that anything remains to be said, regarding any part of that discussion?”
There was a marked silence. I glanced from one to the other, Jamie’s eyes narrowed and John’s eyes wide, both with fixed blue stares. All it lacked was growling and the slow lashing of tails.
“Are you armed, John?” I inquired pleasantly.
He glanced at me, startled. “No.”
“Good,” I said, grunting slightly as I struggled to sit up. “Then you obviously aren’t going to kill him”—I nodded at Jamie, standing over me with fists half curled—“and if he didn’t break your neck the first time, he isn’t going to do it now. Are you?” I inquired, arching a brow at Jamie.
He looked down his nose at me, but I saw the slight relaxation of his mouth. And his hands. “Probably not.”
“Well, then.” I brushed the hair back from my face. “No point in hitting each other. And harsh language would detract from the pleasant nature of this visit, wouldn’t it?”
Neither of them chose to answer this.
“That was not actually a rhetorical question,” I said. “But let that go.” I turned to John, folding my hands in my lap. “Flattered as I am by the attention, I don’t think you came solely to inquire after my well-being. So if you’ll pardon my vulgar curiosity . . . why are you here?”
He finally relaxed and, at my nod, took the stool, linking his fingers round his knee.
“I’ve come to ask your help,” he said directly to Jamie. “But also”—it was slight, but I noticed the hesitation—“to make you an offer. Not as quid pro quo,” he added. “The offer is not contingent on your assistance.”
Jamie made a Scottish noise indicating deep skepticism but willingness to listen.
John nodded and took a breath before continuing. “You once mentioned to me, my dear, that—”
“Dinna be calling her that.”
“Mrs. Fraser,” John amended, and, with a polite bow to me, turned his attention to Jamie, “once mentioned that she—and you, I would imagine—had some acquaintance with General Arnold.”
Jamie and I exchanged puzzled looks. He shrugged and folded his arms.
“Aye, we do.”
“Good. What I—and my brother”—I felt, rather than saw, Jamie’s start at mention of Hal—“would ask of you is a note of introduction to Arnold, with your personal request that the general allow us official entrance into the city—and whatever aid he might find it convenient to give us—for the purpose of making a search for my son.”
John let out the rest of his breath and sat, head down, not moving. Nobody moved.
At last, Jamie let out a long sigh and sat down on the room’s other stool.
“Tell me,” he said, resigned. “What’s the wee bastard done now?”
THE STORY FINISHED, John inhaled, made to rub his bad eye, and luckily stopped in time.
“I’ll put a bit more honey in that before you leave,” I told him. “It will ease the grittiness.” This non sequitur helped to bridge the awkward gap in the conversation left by Jamie’s being struck momentarily speechless.
“Jesus,” he said, and rubbed a hand hard over his face. He was still wearing the bloodstained shirt and breeches in which he’d fought; he hadn’t shaved in three days, had barely slept or eaten, and looked like something you wouldn’t want to meet in broad daylight, let alone a dark alley. He took a deep breath and shook his head like a dog shedding water.
“So ye think the two of them have gone to Philadelphia—William and this Richardson?”
“Probably not together—or at least not to begin with,” John said. “William’s groom said he left to find a couple of . . . er . . . girls who had gone from the camp. But we strongly suspect that this was a ploy by Richardson, to decoy William out of camp and intercept him on the road.”
Jamie made an irascible noise.
“I should like to think the lad’s no such a fat-heided gomerel as to go off wi’ this Richardson. Not after the man sent him into the Great Dismal last year and nearly killed him.”
“He told you that?”
“Oh. He didna tell ye that?” Jamie’s voice might possibly have held a shade of scorn, had one been listening closely.
“I’m damned sure he didn’t tell you anything,” John replied, with an edge. “He hadn’t seen you for years before he met you at Chestnut Street, I’d bet money he hasn’t seen you since, and I’m reasonably sure I would have noticed had he mentioned Richardson in the hallway there.”
“No,” Jamie said briefly. “He told my nephew, Ian Murray. Or at least,” he amended, “Ian got it from what he said, raving wi’ fever when Ian got him out of the swamp. Richardson sent him wi’ a message for some men in Dismal Town—men he said were Loyalists. But half the men in Dismal Town are named Washington.”
John’s appearance of pugnacity had vanished. He looked pale, and the fading bruises stood out like leprosy against his skin. He took a deep breath, glanced round the room, and, seeing a half-empty bottle of claret on the table, picked it up and drank a quarter of it without stopping.
He set it down, stifled a belch, rose with a brief nod and a “wait a moment,” and went out, leaving Jamie and me staring at each other in bafflement.
This was not significantly assuaged by the reappearance of John, followed by the Duke of Pardloe. Jamie said something remarkably creative in Gàidhlig, and I gave him a look of startled appreciation.
“And a good day to you, too, General Fraser,” Hal said, with a correct bow. Like John, he was dressed in civvies, though with a rather loud mulberry striped waistcoat, and I did wonder where he’d got it from.
“I have resigned my commission,” Jamie said coldly. “ ‘Mr. Fraser’ will do. May I ask to what we owe the honor of your presence, Your Grace?”
Hal’s lips pressed tight together, but, with a glance at his brother, he obliged with a brief précis of his personal concern with Captain Richardson.
“And I do, of course, wish to retrieve my nephew, William—should he in fact be with Richardson. My brother informs me that you have doubts as to the probability of this being the case?”
“I do,” Jamie said shortly. “My son is not a fool, nor a weakling.” I caught the faint emphasis on “my son,” and so did both Greys, who stiffened slightly. “He wouldna go off on some feeble pretext, nor would he allow someone of whom he was suspicious to take him captive.”
“You have a bloody lot of faith in a boy you haven’t seen since he was six,” Hal observed conversationally.
Jamie smiled, with considerable rue.
“I had the making of him until he was six,” he said, and turned his gaze on John. “I ken what he’s made of. And I ken who shaped him after that. Tell me I’m wrong, my lord.”
There was a marked silence, broken only by Lieutenant Macken’s voice below, calling plaintively to his wife about the location of his clean stockings.
“Well, then,” Hal said with a sigh. “Where do you think William’s gone, if he’s not with Richardson?”
“He’s gone after the girls he spoke of,” Jamie said, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “He told his groom so, did he not? D’ye ken who these lassies are?”