Willie squealed and pulled on Jamie’s hair but didn’t jerk away, and after a moment, urged on by his grandfather, put out a hand and ventured a hasty pat. “Deke,” he said, and laughed, charmed. “Deke!”
Jamie was careful to visit only those horses of age and temperament to deal well with a two-year-old child, but he was pleased—as was Lord Dunsany—to see that William wasn’t afraid of the enormous animals. Jamie kept as careful an eye on the old man as he did on the child; his lordship’s color was bad, his hands skeletal, and Jamie could hear the air whistle in his lungs when he breathed. In spite of everything, he rather liked Dunsany and hoped the baronet wasn’t about to die in the stable aisle.
“Oh, there’s my lovely Phil,” said Dunsany, breaking into a smile as they came up to one of the loose boxes. At his voice, Philemon, a beautiful eight-year-old dark bay, lifted his head and gazed at them for a moment with a soft-lashed, open look before putting his head down again, nibbling up some spilled oats from the floor.
Dunsany fumbled with the latch, and Jamie hastily reached to open the door. The horse didn’t object to their coming into the box, merely shifting his huge rump a bit to one side, tail swishing.
“Now, ye must never go behind a horse,” Jamie told William. “If ye startle them, they might kick, aye?” The little boy’s soft chestnut hair whorled up in a cowlick at his crown. He nodded solemnly but then struggled to get down.
Jamie glanced at Dunsany, who nodded, then he set William carefully on the floor, ready to snatch him up again if he shrieked or made a rumpus. But William stood stock still, mouth a little open, watching in fascination as the huge head came close to him, soft lips nibbling at the grain, and with the oddest sense of dislocation, Jamie suddenly felt himself on the floor of a stable, hearing the deep slobbering crunch of a horse’s chewing just beside him, seeing the huge, glassy hooves, smelling hay and oats and the wonderful pungent scent of the horse’s warm hide. There had been the feeling of someone behind him, he’d been aware of the man’s big legs in their woolen hose and he heard his father laugh and say something above him, but all he’d had eyes for was the horse, that massive, beautiful, gentle creature, so amazing that he’d wanted to embrace it.
William did embrace it. Entranced, he toddled forward and hugged Philemon’s head in an access of pure love. The horse’s long-lashed eyes widened in surprise and he blew out air through his nose, ruffling the child’s clothes, but did no more than bob his head a bit, lifting Willie a few inches into the air, then setting him gently down as he resumed his eating.
William laughed, a giggle of pure delight, and Jamie and Lord Dunsany looked at each other and smiled, then glanced aside, each embarrassed.
Later, Jamie watched them go, William insisting upon walking, his grandfather limping behind the sturdy little form like an aged black crane, leaning heavily on his walking stick, the two of them washed in the pale gold of the soft spring sun.
Does Dunsany know? he wondered. He was nearly sure that Lady Isobel did. Betty, quite possibly. If Lady Dunsany knew, though, she kept her own counsel, and he doubted that she would tell her husband, not wishing to shock or grieve him.
Still, the auld gentleman’s no a fool. And Dunsany had been in that drawing room at Ellesmere, the day after his grandson’s birth and his daughter’s death, when Geneva’s husband, the old Earl of Ellesmere, had raged that the child was a bastard—and Geneva Dunsany a whore—and had threatened to drop tiny William from a window onto the paving stones thirty feet below.
Jamie had seized a loaded pistol from Jeffries—the coachman, summoned with Jamie to help calm the earl—and had shot Ellesmere. Aye, well. It did calm the auld fiend, and may he burn in hell.
Nothing had been said to Jamie. Nothing. In the aftermath of the explosion, when Jamie had stood shaking on the hearth rug, the rescued infant in his arms—his shot had gone through the baby’s draperies, missing William by an inch—Lord Dunsany had bent calmly over Ellesmere’s body, pressing his fingers to the slack, fleshy throat. Then, satisfied, had come and taken the boy from Jamie’s arms and told Jeffries to take Jamie to the kitchen and get him some brandy.
In the staggeringly practical way of the English, Lord Dunsany had then sent word to the local coroner that Lord Ellesmere had suffered a sad accident, to which Jeffries testified. Jamie had neither been named nor called. A few days later, the old earl and his very young wife, Geneva, had been buried together, and a week after that, Jeffries took his leave, pensioned off to County Sligo.
All the servants knew what had happened, of course. If anything, it made them even more afraid of Jamie, but they said nothing to him—or to anyone else—about the matter. It was the business of the family, and no one else. There would be no scandal.
Lord Dunsany had never said a word to Jamie, and presumably never would. Yet there was an odd sense of … not friendship—it could never be anything like that—but of regard between them.
Jamie toyed for an instant with the notion of telling Dunsany about Isobel and the lawyer Wilberforce. Were it his daughter, he should certainly want to know. He dismissed it, though, and turned back to his work. It was the business of the family, and no one else.
JAMIE WAS STILL IN a good humor as he bridled the horses for exercise the next morning, mind filled with a pleasant muddle of memories past and of present content. There was a fuzzy bank of cloud above the fells, betokening later rain, but no wind, and for the moment the air was cold but still and the horses bright but not frenetic, tossing their heads with anticipation of a gallop.
“MacKenzie.” He hadn’t heard the man’s footsteps on the sawdust of the paddock, and turned, a little startled. More startled to see George Roberts, one of the footmen. It was usually Sam Morgan who came to tell him to saddle a horse or hitch up the carriage; Roberts was a senior footman, and such errands were beneath him.
“I want to talk to you.” Roberts was in his livery breeches but wore a shapeless loose jacket over his shirt. His hands hung half curled at his sides, and something in his face and voice made Jamie draw himself up a little.
“I’m about my work now,” Jamie said, courteous. He gestured at the four horses he had on leading reins and at Augustus, still waiting to be saddled. “Come just after dinner, if ye like. I’ll have time then.”
“You’ll have time now,” said Roberts, in an odd, half-strangled voice. “It won’t take long.”
Jamie nearly took the punch, not expecting it. But the man gave clear notice, falling back on his heel and pulling back his fist as though he meant to hurl a stone, and Jamie dodged by reflex. Roberts shot past, unbalanced, and came up with a thud, catching himself on the fence. The horses who were tied to it all shied, stamping and snorting, not liking this kind of nonsense so early in the day.
“What the devil d’ye think you’re doing?” Jamie asked, more in a tone of curiosity than hostility. “Or, more to the point, what d’ye think I’ve done?”
Roberts pushed away from the fence, his face congested. He was not quite as tall as Jamie but heavier in the body.
“You know damned well what you’ve done, you Scotch bugger!”
Jamie eyed the man and lifted one brow.
“A guessing game, is it? Aye, well, then. Someone pissed in your shoes this morning, and the bootboy said it was me?”
Surprise lifted Roberts’s scowl for an instant.
“Or someone’s gone off wi’ his lordship’s sealing wax?” He reached into the pocket of his breeches and drew out the stub of black wax. “He gave it to me; ye can ask him.”
Fresh blood crimsoned Roberts’s cheeks; the household staff objected very much to Jamie being allowed to write letters and did as much as they dared to obstruct him. To Roberts’s credit, though, he swallowed his choler and, after breathing heavily for a moment, said, “Betty. That name ring a bell?”
It rang a whole carillon. What had the gagging wee bitch been saying?
“I ken the woman, aye.” He spoke warily, keeping an eye on Roberts’s feet and a hand on Augustus’s bridle.
Roberts’s lip curled. He was good-looking, in a heavy-featured way, but the sneer didn’t flatter him.
“You ken the woman, do you, cully? You’ve bloody interfered with her!”
“I’ll tell,” she’d said, thrusting out her chin at him. She hadn’t said who she’d tell—nor that she’d tell the truth.
“No,” he said calmly, and, wrapping Augustus’s rein neatly round the fence rail, he stepped away from the horses and turned to face Roberts squarely. “I haven’t. Did ye ask her where and when? For I’m reasonably sure I havena been out of sight o’ the stables in a month, save for takin’ the horses out.” He nodded toward the waiting string, not taking his eyes off the footman. “And she canna have left the house to meet me on the fells.”
Roberts hesitated, and Jamie took the chance to press back.
“Ye might ask yourself, man, why she’d say such a thing to you.”
“What? Why shouldn’t she say it to me?” The footman drew his chin into his heavy neck, the better to glower.
“If she wanted me arrested or whipped or gaoled, she’d ha’ complained to his lordship or the constable,” Jamie pointed out, his tone still civil. “If she wanted me beaten to a pudding, she’d have told Morgan and Billings, as well, because—meaning nay disrespect—I dinna think ye can manage that on your own.”
The beginnings of doubt were flickering over Roberts’s heavy countenance.
“So either she thought she’d put a flea in your ear about me and there’d be a punch-up that would do neither of us any good—or she didna think ye’d come to me but that ye’d maybe be roused on her behalf.”
“Roused?” Roberts sounded confused.
Jamie drew breath, aware for the first time that his heart was pounding.
“Aye,” he said. “The lass didna say I’d raped her, now, did she? No, of course not.”
“Noo …” Roberts had gone from confusion to open doubt now. “She said you’d been a-cupping of her, toying with her breasts and the like.”
“Well, there ye are,” Jamie said, with a small wave toward the house. “She was only meaning to make ye jealous, in hopes that ye’d be moved to do something o’ the kind yourself. That,” he added helpfully, “or she meant to get ye into trouble. I hope the lass hasna got anything against ye.”
Roberts’s brow darkened, but with an inward thought. He glanced up at Jamie.
“I hadn’t had it in mind to strike you,” he said, with a certain formality. “I only meant to tell you to keep away from her.”
“Verra reasonable,” Jamie assured him. His shirt was damp with sweat, despite the cold day. “I dinna mean to have anything to do with the lass. Ye can tell her she’s safe from me,” he added, as solemnly as he could manage.
Roberts inclined his head in a professional way and offered his hand. Jamie shook it, feeling very odd, and watched the man go off toward the house, straightening his shoulders as he went.
JAMIE HEARD at breakfast next day that his lordship was ill again and had taken to his bed. He felt a stab of disappointment at the news; he had hoped the old man would bring William to the stable again.
To his surprise, he did see William at the stable again, proud as Lucifer in his first pair of breeches and this time in the company of the under-nursemaid, Peggy. The young, stout woman told him that Nanny Elspeth and Lord and Lady Dunsany were all suffering from la grippe (which she pronounced in the local way, as “lah gerp”) but that William had made such a nuisance of himself, wanting to see the horses again, that Lady Isobel told Peggy to bring him.
“Are ye quite well yourself, ma’am?” He could see that she wasn’t. She was pale as green cheese, with much the same clammy look to her skin, and hunched a little, as though she wanted to clutch her belly.
“I … yes. Of course,” she said, a little faintly. Then she took a grip on herself and straightened. “Willie, I think we must go back to the house.”
“Mo!” Willie at once ran down the aisle, tiny boots clattering on the bricks.
“MO!” Willie screamed, turning to face her, his face going red. “Mo, mo, mo!”
Peggy breathed heavily, clearly torn between her own illness and the need to chase the wee reprobate. A drop of sweat ran down her plump throat and made a small dark spot on her kerchief.
“Ma’am,” Jamie said respectfully. “Had ye not best go and sit down for a bit? Perhaps put cold water on your wrists? I can watch the lad; he’ll come to nay harm.”
Without waiting for an answer, he turned and called to Willie.
“Ye’ll come with me, lad. Ye can help me with the mash.”
Willie’s small face went instantly from a stubborn clench to a radiant joy, and he clattered back, beaming. Jamie bent and scooped him up, setting him on his shoulders. Willie shrieked with pleasure and grabbed Jamie’s hair. Jamie smiled at Mrs. Peggy.
“I … I really … well … all right,” she said weakly. “Just … just for a bit.” Turning, she shuffled hastily off.
Looking after her, he murmured, “Poor woman.” At the same time, he hoped that her difficulties would detain her for some while, and asked a quick forgiveness from God for the thought.
“Poo ooman,” Willie echoed solemnly, and pressed his knees to Jamie’s ears. “Go!”