On Wilberforce’s other side, Isobel was glaring at her mother, with a look of mingled frustration and apprehension on her face. Lady Dunsany rode tranquilly, rocking a little on her sidesaddle, glancing vaguely at Wilberforce’s importunate face from time to time, with an expression that said plainly, “Oh, are you still here?”
“Why do they not like him for their daughter, then?” Jamie asked, interested despite himself. “Do they not wish her to be married?”
Betty snorted. “After what happened to Geneva?” she asked, and looked pointedly at William, then raised her face to Jamie, with a tiny smirk. He kept his own face carefully blank, despite a lurch of the innards, and did not reply.
They rode in silence for a bit, but Betty’s innate restlessness would not tolerate silence for long.
“They’d let her marry well, I s’pose,” she said, grudging. “But they don’t mean to let her throw herself away on a lawyer. And one that’s talked about, too.”
“Aye? What’s said about him?” Jamie didn’t give a fig for Wilberforce—and not much more for Lady Isobel—but the conversation took his mind off Willie’s corset.
Betty pursed her lips, with a knowing, sly sort of look.
“They say he spends a good bit of time with his clients what are ladies with no husbands—more than he needs to. And he lives beyond his means,” she added primly. “Well beyond.”
That was likely the more serious charge, Jamie reflected. He supposed that Isobel had a decent portion. She was the Dunsanys’ only remaining child, though of course William would inherit the estate.
As they climbed the path to the old shepherd’s hut, he felt a tightening of the belly, but there was no sign of anyone, and he gave a small sigh of relief and said a quick prayer for the repose of Quinn’s soul. A basket had been brought, with a roast chicken, a loaf, some good cheese and a bottle of wine. Willie, emerging from his daze, was irascible and whiny, rejecting all offers of food. Mr. Wilberforce, in an attempt at ingratiation, ruffled the boy’s hair and tried to jolly him out of his sulks, being severely bitten in the hand for his pains.
“Why, you little—” The lawyer’s face went red, but he wisely coughed and said, “You poor little child. How sorry I am that you should be so miserable!”
Jamie, his face kept carefully straight, happened to catch Lady Dunsany’s eye at this point, and they exchanged a glance of perfect understanding. Had it lasted more than an instant, one or both of them would have burst into laughter, but Lady Dunsany looked away, coughed, and reached for a napkin, which she offered to the lawyer.
“Are you bleeding, Mr. Wilberforce?” she inquired sympathetically.
“William!” said Isobel. “That is very wicked! You must apologize to Mr. Wilberforce this minute.”
“No,” said William briefly, and, plumping down on his backside, turned his attention to a passing beetle.
Isobel hovered in indecision, plainly not wanting to appear before the lawyer as anything other than the personification of womanly gentleness and not sure how to reconcile this desire with the equally plain urge to clout Willie over the ear. Mr. Wilberforce begged her to sit down and have a glass of wine, though, and Betty—with a deep sigh of resignation—went to crouch beside William and distract him with plucked blades of grass, showing him how to chivvy the hapless beetle to and fro.
Jamie had the horses hobbled, grazing on the short turf beyond the ruined hut. They needed no attention, but he took the bread and cheese Cook had given him for the journey and went to look at them, enjoying a moment’s solitude.
He must be careful not to spend too much time in watching William, lest his fascination show, and he sat down on the ruined wall, back turned to the party—though he was unable to avoid hearing the stramash that broke out when William put the doomed beetle up his nose and then shrieked at the result.
The unfortunate Betty came in for a dreadful scolding, all three of the others reproaching her at once. The clishmaclaver was made worse by William, who started roaring again, apparently wanting the beetle put back.
“Go away!” Isobel shouted at Betty. “Go right away to the house; you’re no use at all!”
Jamie’s mouth was full of bread and cheese, and he nearly choked when Betty broke away from the group and ran toward him, sobbing.
“Horse,” she said, her bosom heaving. “Get my horse!”
He rose at once and fetched her animal, swallowing the last of his meal.
“Did they—” he began, but she didn’t stay for question or comfort but put her foot in his offered hand and swung into the saddle in a furious flurry of petticoats. She lashed the startled horse across the neck with the end of the rein, and the poor beast shot down the trail as though its tail was on fire.
The others were fussing over William, who seemed to have lost his mind and had no idea what he wanted, only that he didn’t want whatever he was offered. Jamie turned round and walked up the fell, out of earshot. The wean would wear himself out soon enough—and sooner if they’d leave him be.
Up higher, there was no shelter from the wind, and its soft, high whistle drowned the noise from below. Looking down, he could see William curled up in a ball beside his auntie, with his jacket over his head, his breeches filthy, and the damned corset almost round his neck. He looked deliberately away and saw Betty, halfway across the moss. His mouth tightened. He hoped the horse wouldn’t step into one of the boggy spots and break a leg.
“Wee gomerel,” he muttered, shaking his head. Despite their history, he felt a bit sorry for Betty. He was also curious about her.
She hadn’t been friendly to him today, not quite that. But she’d spoken to him with more intimacy than she’d ever shown before. He would have expected her to ignore him, or be short with him, after what had passed between them. But no. Why was that?
“She wants to be married,” the lass had said of Isobel. Perhaps Mrs. Betty did, as well. She was the age for it, or a wee bit beyond. He’d thought—and blushed at his presumption—that she only wanted to bed him, whether out of lewdness or curiosity, he couldn’t tell. He was nearly sure that she knew about Geneva and him. But what if she’d fixed on him as a husband, in preference to George Roberts? God, had Grey said anything to her? The thought disturbed him very much.
On the face of it, he thought no woman in her right mind would consider him in that light. He’d neither money, property, nor freedom, doubted he even could wed, without the permission of Lord John Grey. Betty could be in no ignorance of his circumstances; the entire estate knew exactly what—if not exactly who—he was.
Who. Aye, who. Examining his feelings—a mixture of surprise, alarm, and a mild revulsion—he was a bit bothered to find that part of it was pride, and pride of a particularly sinful kind. Betty was a common girl, the daughter of a poor tenant of Dunsany’s—and he was both startled and discomfited to find that, in spite of present circumstance, he still thought of himself as the laird of Lallybroch.
“Well, that’s foolish,” he muttered, batting away a cloud of whining small flies that clustered round his head. He’d married Claire without a single thought of his place or hers. For all he’d known then, she was a—well, no. He smiled a little, involuntarily. He’d been an exile and an outlaw, with a price on his head. And he’d never have taken her for a slattern or peasant.
“I would have taken ye even if that was so, lass,” he said softly. “I’d have had ye, no matter if I’d known the truth from the start.”
He felt a little better, about himself, at least. That was the main root of his feeling regarding Betty, after all. Only that he could not countenance the thought of marrying again. That—
He stopped dead, catching sight of the corner of the wall where Quinn had sat, the Irishman’s strange light eyes glowing with fervor. Betty was Quinn’s sister-in-law; of course she knew who Jamie was. Had been.
The wind touched his neck with a sudden, different chill, and he turned at once, to see the fog coming down. He stood up in haste. Fogs on the fells were swift, sudden, and dangerous. He could see this one moving, a dirty great swell like a wild beast poking its head above the rocks, tendrils of mist creeping over the ground like the tentacles of an octopus.
He was running down the slope and looking to the horses, who had all stopped feeding and were standing with their heads up, looking toward the fog and switching their tails uneasily. He’d have the hobbles off in seconds—best run to the Dunsanys and make them pack up at once; he’d get the horses while they were about their business.
Thinking this, he looked for the party and found them. Counted them automatically. Three heads and a—Three. Only three. He flung himself down the hill, leaping rocks and stumbling over tussocks.
“Where’s William?” he gasped, as the three adults turned shocked faces on him. “The boy? Where is he?”
THE BOY WAS NOT quite three; he could not have gone far. He couldn’t. So Jamie told himself, trying to control the panic that was creeping into his mind as fast as the fog was covering the ground.
“Stay here, and stay together!” he said to Isobel and Lady Dunsany, both of whom blinked at him in surprise. “Call out for the lad, keep calling out—but dinna move a step. Here, hold the horses.” He thrust the bundled reins into Wilberforce’s hand, and the lawyer opened his mouth as though to protest, but Jamie didn’t stay to hear it.
“William!” he bellowed, plunging into the fog.
“Willie! Willie!” The women’s higher voices obligingly took up the call, regular as a bell on a ship’s buoy, and serving the same purpose. “Willie! Where are youuuu?”
The air had changed quite suddenly, no longer clear but soft and echoing; sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
“William!” The sound bounced off the stones and the short, leathery turf. “William!”
He was moving up the slope, Jamie could tell that much. Perhaps William had gone to explore the shepherd’s hut. Wilberforce had joined the women now in calling out but was doing it in counterpoint, rather than in unison with them.
Jamie had the feeling that he could not breathe, that the fog was choking him—but this was nonsense. Pure illusion.
His shins thumped into the fallen wall of the shepherd’s hut. He could not see more than the faintest outline of the stones but felt his way inside and crawled quickly along the walls, calling out for the boy. Nothing.
Fogs might last an hour, or a day.
Jamie gritted his teeth. If they didn’t keep quiet now and then, he couldn’t hear Willie shouting back. If the boy was capable of shouting. The footing was treacherous, the grass slippery, the ground rocky. And if he went all the way to the bottom of the slope, the moss …
He went higher, among the tumbled stones. Staggered from one to another, feeling round their bases, stubbing his toes. The fog was cold in his chest, aching. His foot came down on something soft—Willie’s jacket—and his heart leapt.
Was that a sound, a whimper? He stopped dead, trying to listen, trying to hear through the whisper of the moving fog and the distant voices, cacophonous as a ring of church bells.
And then, quite suddenly, he saw the boy curled up in a rocky hollow, the yellow of his shirt showing briefly through an eddy in the fog. He lunged and seized William before he could disappear, clutched him to his bosom, saying, “It’s all right, a chuisle, it’s all right now, dinna be troubled, we’ll go and see your grannie, aye?”
“Mac! Mac, Mac! Oh, Mac!”
Willie clung to him like a leech, trying to burrow into his chest, and he wrapped his arms tight around the boy, too overcome to speak.
To this point, he could not really have said that he loved William. Feel the terror of responsibility for him, yes. Carry thought of him like a gem in his pocket, certainly, reaching now and then to touch it, marveling. But now he felt the perfection of the tiny bones of William’s spine through his clothes, smooth as marbles under his fingers, smelled the scent of him, rich with the incense of innocence and the faint tang of shit and clean linen. And thought his heart would break with love.
GREY SAW JAMIE NOW AND THEN, MOSTLY IN THE DISTANCE as he went about his work. They had had no opportunity to speak, though—and he could not seem to invent a pretext, let alone think what he might say if he found one. He felt amazingly self-conscious, like a boy unable to say anything to an attractive girl. He’d be blushing, next thing, he thought, disgusted with himself.
Still, the fact remained that he really had nothing to say to Jamie anymore—or Jamie to him. Well, not nothing, he corrected himself. They’d always had a great deal to say to each other. But there was no excuse for conversation now.
Three days before his scheduled departure, he rose in the morning with the conviction that he must speak with Fraser, somehow. Not in the stiff manner of an interview between paroled prisoner and officer of the Crown—simply a few words, as man to man. If he could have that, he could go back to London with an easy heart, knowing that sometime, somewhere, there was the possibility that they might be friends again, even if that time and place could not be here and now.
It was no good anticipating an unknown battle. He ate his breakfast and told Tom to dress him for riding. Then he put on his hat and, heart beating a little faster than usual, went down toward the stables.
He saw Jamie from a long way off; he couldn’t be mistaken for any other man, even without the signal fire of his dark-red hair. He had it tailed today, not plaited, and the ends fluttered against the white of his shirt like tiny flames.