Isobel was seated next to Grey, her small, cold, black-gloved hand held in his for support. She was no longer weeping; he thought she had simply passed the point of being able to.
Not a one of the Dunsany family had so much as glanced at Fraser, though most of the congregation had gawked openly, and many were still darting looks at him where he sat on the bench, upright and menacing as a corpse candle.
Yes, there was evidence. But his knowledge of James Fraser was evidence, as well—and he found it inconceivable that Fraser could or would have seduced a young girl, no matter what the circumstances. Let alone the daughter of his employer.
His eyes settled on the pair of coffins at the front of the church, identical beneath their white shrouds. So tragic, so…solidly marital.
Yes, and you bloody knew Geneva, too, he thought.
The rain had turned to snow. It wouldn’t stick, sodden as the ground was, but the wind drove it against the windows, bursts of hard, dry pellets that struck the glass like bird shot.
Snowflake upon snowflake, silently accumulating into a drift of what seemed like certainty—but, he reminded himself, could as easily be pure illusion.
He was light-headed from lack of sleep, and the snow-darkened windows lent the church a mournful dimness. He’d sat through the predawn hours in the freezing chapel, watching the flicker of the candle flames, and thinking.
Was his refusal to believe it purely the product of his own pride, his own guilt? Not only his belief in Jamie Fraser’s honor, a refusal to believe he could be so mistaken in the man—but the knowledge that if it were true, he himself must bear a good part of the blame. He had introduced Fraser into the Dunsany household, his own honor surety for Fraser’s.
He hadn’t eaten this morning, too chilled and exhausted to think of food after his vigil in the chapel.
“Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice.”
Fraser had closed his eyes, quite suddenly, as though unable to bear what he saw. What did he see? Grey wondered. The Scot’s face remained blank as granite, but he saw the big hands curl slowly, gathering fabric and flesh together, fingers digging so hard into the muscle of his thigh that they must leave bruises.
Was it Geneva he mourned—or his dead wife? The trouble with funerals was that they reminded one of loss. He had not seen his father’s funeral, and yet had never sat through one without thought of his father, the wound of his loss healing, growing smaller through the years, but always reopened.
And if ever I saw a man bleeding internally… he thought, watching Fraser.
“Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope, in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love.”
Well, that expectation would be a comfort, to be sure. He had no such expectation himself—only something too vague to be called hope—but he did have one certainty to anchor himself in this fog of grief and indecision. The certainty that he would get at least one answer from Jamie Fraser. Maybe two.
It was only four o’clock, but the winter sun had set, leaving a thin slice of pale light above the fells. The temperature had dropped and the snow had thickened; already the highest rocks showed a rime of white, and large, wet flakes struck Grey’s coat and stuck melting to his hair and lashes as he made his way to the stables.
He had seen the other two grooms helping to bring round horses and harness teams for those nearby funeral guests who were departing today, but there had been no sign of Fraser. Not surprising; Lord Dunsany preferred “MacKenzie” to remain out of sight when there was company. His size, his aspect, and, above all, his Highland speech tended to unnerve some people. Grey had heard some comments regarding the tall, red-haired servant who bore Ellesmere’s coffin, but most did not realize that he was Dunsany’s servant, rather than that of the Earl of Ellesmere—and few, so far as he knew, had realized that the man was Scottish, let alone a paroled Jacobite.
Sure enough, he discovered Fraser in the stable block, pitching feed for the stalled horses, and came up beside him.
“May I speak with you, Mr. Fraser?”
The Scot didn’t turn, but lifted one shoulder.
“I dinna see any way of preventing ye, Major,” he said. Despite the words, this did not sound unfriendly; only wary.
“I would ask you a question, sir.”
He was watching Fraser’s face closely, in the glow of the single lantern, and saw the wide mouth tighten a little. Fraser only nodded, though, and dug his fork into the waiting mound of hay.
“Regarding some gentlemen intimately connected with the Stuart cause,” Grey said, and received a sudden startled look—mingled with an undeniable impression of relief.
“The Stuart cause?” Fraser repeated, and turned his back on Grey, shoulders bunching as he dug the fork into a pile of hay. “To which…gentlemen…do ye refer, Major?”
Grey was conscious of his heart beating heavily in his chest, and took especial care that his voice might be under his control at this delicate juncture.
“I understand that you were an intimate friend to—” he nearly said, “to the Young Pretender,” but bit that off and said instead, “to Charles Stuart.”
“That—” Fraser began, but stopped as suddenly as he had begun. He deposited the forkload of hay neatly into one manger, and moved to pick up another. “I knew him,” he said, voice colorless.
“Quite. Am I to understand also that you knew the names of some important supporters of the Pretender in England?”
Fraser glanced at him, face inscrutable in the lantern light.
“Many of them,” he said quietly. He looked back to the fork in his hands, drove it down into the hay. “Does it matter now?”
Not to Fraser, surely. Nor to Hector, or the other dead of Culloden. But to the living…
“If any of them are still alive, I imagine it matters,” he said. “Those who did not declare themselves at the time would scarcely wish their connexions exposed, even now.”
Fraser made a noise of soft derision through his nose.
“Oh, aye. I shall denounce them, I suppose, and thus gain pardon from your king?”
“Your king, as well,” Grey said pointedly. “It is possible that you could.” More than possible. The anti-Jacobite hysteria of the years before the Rising had eased somewhat—but treason was a crime whose stain did not fade; he had good reason to know it.
Fraser straightened. He let go of the fork and looked directly at him, his eyes so dark a blue that they reminded Grey of cathedral slates—darkened by age and the tread of feet, nearly black in the pooling shadows, but so enduring as to long outlast the feet that trampled them.
“If I would trade honor for my life—or for freedom—would I not have done it at my trial?”
“Perhaps you could not, then; you would have lain in danger from those Jacobites still at large.”
This attempt to goad Fraser was in vain; the Scot merely looked at him, with the expression of one regarding a turd in the street.
“Or perhaps you realized that such information as you possessed was not of sufficient value to interest anyone,” Grey suggested, unwilling—or unable—to give up. Fraser would have been compelled to swear an oath of loyalty to King George when he was given his life following Culloden, but Grey knew better than to try an appeal to that.
“I have said nothing regarding it, Major,” Fraser replied coolly. “If what I ken has value to anyone, it is to yourself, I should say.”
“What makes you say that?” Grey’s heart was hammering against his ribs, but he strove to match Fraser’s even tone.
“It is a dozen years past the death of the Stuart cause,” Fraser pointed out. “And I havena been besieged by persons desiring to discover my knowledge of those affairs connected with it. They asked at my trial, aye—but even then, without great interest in my answer.”
The dark blue gaze roved over him, detached and cynical.
“Do your own fortunes fare so badly, then, that ye seek to mend them wi’ the bones of the dead?”
“With the—” Belatedly, he realized that Fraser spoke poetically, rather than literally.
“This has nothing to do with my own fortunes,” he said. “But as to the dead—yes. I have no concern for those Jacobites still alive. If there are any left, they may go to the devil or the Pope as they please.”
He felt rather like a boy he had once seen at a zoological garden in Paris, who had poked a stick into a dozing tiger’s cage. The beast had not snarled, nor thrown himself at the bars, but the slanted eyes had opened slowly, fixing upon the child in such a manner that the benighted urchin had dropped his stick and stood frozen, until his mother had dragged him away.
“The dead,” Fraser repeated, eyes fixed on Grey’s face in that intent, unnerving fashion. “What is it that ye seek from the dead, then?”
“A name. Just one.”
Grey felt a sense of dread come over him that paralyzed his limbs and dried his tongue. And yet it must be asked.
“Grey,” he said hoarsely. “Gerard Grey. Duke. Duke of Pardloe. Was he—” Saliva failed him; he tried to swallow, but could not.
Fraser’s gaze had sharpened; the dark blue eyes were brilliant, narrowed in the dimness.
“A duke,” he said. “Your father?”
Grey could only nod, despising himself for his weakness.
Fraser grunted; impossible to tell if it was with surprise—or satisfaction. He thought for a moment, eyes hooded, then shook his head.
“You will not tell me?”
It was surprise. Fraser frowned a little at him, puzzled.
“I mean the answer is no. I have never seen that name written among those of King James’s supporters, nor have I ever heard it spoken.”
He was regarding Grey with considerable interest—as well he might, Grey thought. He could see unspoken questions moving in the Scot’s eyes, but knew they would remain unspoken—as would his own, regarding Geneva Dunsany.
He himself felt something between vast relief and crushing disappointment. He had steeled himself to know the worst, and met only a blank wall. He longed to press Fraser further, but that would be pointless. Whatever else Fraser might be, Grey had no doubt of his honesty. He might have refused to answer, but answer he had, and Grey was compelled to accept it at face value.
That the answer still left room for doubt—perhaps Fraser had not been sufficiently intimate with the inner councils of the Jacobite cause as to be told such an important name, perhaps the duke had died too long before Fraser joined the cause—or perhaps the duke had been clever enough to remain successfully hidden from everyone save the Stuarts themselves…
“The Stuart court leaks like a sieve, Major.” The voice came quietly from the shadows. Fraser had turned his back again, resuming his work. “If your father had any connexion whatever with the Stuarts and remained unknown—he was a verra clever man.”
“Yes,” Grey said bleakly. “Yes, he was. I thank you, Mr. Fraser.”
He received no answer save the rustle of hay, and left the stable, followed by the whickering of horses and Fraser’s tuneless whistle. Outside, the world had turned a soft, featureless white.
The fact that Fraser had answered him reinforced Grey’s suspicions regarding Geneva. The encounter in the chapel was not mentioned, but the memory of it was clear between them. His honor would not permit him to mention it, lest it be taken as a threat—but the threat was implied. Had he made it explicit, Fraser’s honor—and his temper—would likely have caused him to throw it back in Grey’s face, stubbornly refusing to say a word and daring him to take action.
So he had something. It wasn’t proof, either of Fraser’s relationship with Geneva or of his own father’s innocence—but food for thought, nonetheless.
He kept thinking, and while he did not see Fraser again before his departure, those thoughts moved him to one final trial of curiosity.
“Might I pay my respects to the new earl before I go?” he asked, hoping that he sounded as though he were jesting.
Lady Dunsany looked startled, but Isobel of course found nothing odd in his request, assuming that naturally the world shared in her admiration for her new nephew, and led him happily up to the nursery.
The sun was shining—a pale and watery winter sun, but still sun—and the nursery seemed peaceful and calm. The curtains hung motionless in the schoolroom, and Isobel did not glance at the window where he had shown her how to break things.
The ninth Earl of Ellesmere was lying in a basket, swaddled to the chin in blankets, a woolly cap pulled snugly down over his ears. The child was awake, though; it thoughtfully inserted a fist in its mouth, round eyes fixed on Grey—or possibly on the ceiling; it was difficult to tell.
“May I?” Without waiting for the nurse’s permission, Grey scooped the child carefully up into his arms. He was noticeably heavy. He said as much, which caused both Isobel and the nurse to go off into raptures regarding the infant’s voraciousness, capacity, and various other revolting details not suitable for discussion in mixed company, in Grey’s opinion.
Still, he let them chatter, interjecting the occasional, “Ah?” of interest, and looking covertly into the child’s face. It looked like a pudding, slightly wet and glistening. It had eyes, to be sure—and he thought them blue, but his cousin Olivia had informed him that all children’s eyes were blue at birth. Its other features appeared negligible at best.
The woolly cap had strings, tied beneath the infant’s chin, and he nudged these with a thumb, thinking that he might be able to pry them up over the chin and thus dislodge the cap for a moment.