"Christ, you’ve the devil’s own nerve. Robbery, was it?" he asked softly. Against my will, I could feel the rage rising in my cheeks.
"No," I said, clipping the word between my teeth.
"Ah." He sat back against the coach’s squabs, still looking at me. "Ye’ll have taken no harm, though?" I glanced aside, at the passing street, but could feel his eyes, prying at the neck of my gown, sliding over the curve of my hips.
"Not me," I said. "But my friend…"
"I see." He was quiet for a moment, then said meditatively, "Ever heard of ‘Les Disciples,’ have you?"
I jerked my head back around to him. He lounged in the corner like a crouching cat, watching me through eyes narrowed against the sun.
"No. What are they?" I demanded.
He shrugged and sat upright, peering past me at the approaching bulk of the Quai des Orfèvres, hovering gray and dreary above the glitter of the Seine.
"A society—of a sort. Young men of family, with an interest in things…unwholesome, shall we say?"
"Let’s," I said. "And just what do you know about Les Disciples?"
"Only what I heard in a tavern in the Cité," he said. "That the society demands a good deal from its members, and the price of initiation is high…by some standards."
"That being?" I dared him with my eyes. He smiled rather grimly before replying.
"A maidenhead, for one thing. The n**ples of a married woman, for another." He shot a quick glance at my bosom. "Your friend’s a virgin, is she? Or was?"
I felt hot and cold by turns. I wiped my face with the handkerchief and tucked it into the pocket of my cloak. I had to try twice, for my hand trembled.
"She was. What else have you heard? Do you know who’s involved with Les Disciples?"
Dougal shook his head. There were threads of silver in the russet hair over his temples, that caught the light of the afternoon.
"Only rumors. The Vicomte de Busca, the youngest of the Charmisse sons—perhaps. The Comte St. Germain. Eh! Are ye all right, lass?"
He leaned forward in some consternation, peering at me.
"Fine," I said, breathing deeply through my nose. "Bloody fine." I pulled out the handkerchief and wiped the cold sweat off my brow.
"We mean you no harm, mesdames." The ironic voice echoed in the dark of my memory. The green-shirted man was medium-height and dark, slim and narrow-shouldered. If that description fit Jonathan Randall, it also fit the Comte St. Germain. Would I have recognized his voice, though? Could any normal man conceivably have sat across from me at dinner, eating salmon mousse and making genteel conversation, barely two hours after the incident in the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré?
Considered logically, though, why not? I had, after all. And I had no particular reason for supposing the Comte to be a normal man—by my standards—if rumor were true.
The coach was drawing to a halt, and there was little time for contemplation. Was I about to ensure that the man responsible for Mary’s violation went free, while I also ensured the safety of Jamie’s most loathed enemy? I took a deep, quivering breath. Damn little choice about it, I thought. Life was paramount; justice would just have to wait its turn.
The coachman had alighted and was reaching for the door handle. I bit my lip and glanced at Dougal MacKenzie. He met my gaze with a slight shrug. What did I want of him?
"Will you back my story?" I asked abruptly.
He looked up at the towering bulk of the Quai des Orfèvres. Brilliant afternoon light blazed through the open door.
"You’re sure?" he asked.
"Yes." My mouth was dry.
He slid across the seat and extended a hand to me.
"Pray God we dinna both end in a cell, then," he said.
An hour later, we stepped into the empty street outside the commissariat de police. I had sent the coach home, lest anyone who knew us should see it standing outside the Quai des Orfèvres. Dougal offered me an arm, and I took it perforce. The ground here was muddy underfoot, and the cobbles in the street made uncertain going in high-heeled slippers.
"Les Disciples," I said as we made our way slowly along the banks of the Seine toward the towers of Notre Dame. "Do you really think the Comte St. Germain might have been one of the men who…who stopped us in the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré?" I was beginning to tremble with reaction and fatigue—and with hunger; I had had nothing since breakfast, and the lack was making itself felt. Sheer nerve had kept me going through the interview with the police. Now the need to think was passing, and with it, the ability to do so.
Dougal’s arm was hard under my hand, but I couldn’t look up at him; I needed all my attention to keep my footing. We had turned into the Rue Elise and the cobbles were shiny with damp and smeared with various kinds of filth. A porter lugging a crate paused in our path to clear his throat and hawk noisily into the street at my feet. The greenish glob clung to the curve of a stone, finally slipping off to float sluggishly onto the surface of a small mud puddle that lay in the hollow of a missing cobble.
"Mphm." Dougal was looking up and down the street for a carriage, brow creased in thought. "I canna say; I’ve heard worse than that of the man, but I havena had the honor of meeting him." He glanced down at me.
"You’ve managed brawly so far," he said. "They’ll have Jack Randall in the Bastille within the hour. But they’ll have to let the man go sooner or later, and I wouldna wager much on the chances of Jamie’s temper cooling in the meantime. D’ye want me to speak to him—convince him to do nothing foolish?"
"No! For God’s sake, stay out of it!" The thunder of carriage wheels was loud on the cobbles, but my voice was rose high enough to make Dougal brows lift in surprise.
"All right, then," he said, mildly. "I’ll leave it to you to manage him. He’s stubborn as a stone…but I suppose you have your ways, no?" This was said with a sidelong glance and knowing smirk.
"I’ll manage." I would. I would have to. For everything I had told Dougal was true. All true. And yet so far from the truth. For I would send Charles Stuart and his father’s cause to the devil gladly, sacrifice any hope of stopping his headlong dash to folly, even risk the chance of Jamie’s imprisonment, for the sake of healing the breach Randall’s resurrection had opened in Jamie’s mind. I would help him to kill Randall, and feel only joy in the doing of it, except for the one thing. The one consideration strong enough to outweigh Jamie’s pride, loom larger than his sense of manhood, than his threatened soul’s peace. Frank.
That was the single idea that had driven me through this day, sustained me well past the point where I would have welcomed collapse. For months I had thought Randall dead and childless, and feared for Frank’s life. But for those same months I had been comforted by the presence of the plain gold ring on the fourth finger of my left hand.
The twin of Jamie’s silver ring upon my right, it was a talisman in the dark hours of the night, when doubts came on the heels of dreams. If I wore his ring still, then the man who had given it to me would live. I had told myself that a thousand times. No matter that I didn’t know how a man dead without issue could sire a line of descent that led to Frank; the ring was there, and Frank would live.
Now I knew why the ring still shone on my hand, metal chilly as my own cold finger. Randall was alive, could still marry, could still father the child who would pass life on to Frank. Unless Jamie killed him first.
I had taken what steps I could for the moment, but the fact I had faced in the Duke’s corridor remained. The price of Frank’s life was Jamie’s soul, and how was I to choose between them?
The oncoming fiacre, ignoring Dougal’s hail, barreled past without stopping, wheels passing close enough to splash muddy water on Dougal’s silk hose and the hem of my gown.
Desisting from a volley of heartfelt Gaelic, Dougal shook a fist after the retreating coach.
"Well, and now what?" he demanded rhetorically.
The blob of mucus-streaked spittle floated on the puddle at my feet, reflecting gray light. I could feel its cold slime viscid on my tongue. I put out a hand and grasped Dougal’s arm, hard as a smooth-skinned sycamore branch. Hard, but it seemed to be swaying dizzily, swinging me far out over the cold and glittering, fish-smelling, slimy water nearby. Black spots floated before my eyes.
"Now," I said, "I’m going to be sick."
It was nearly sunset when I returned to the Rue Tremoulins. My knees trembled, and it was an effort to put one foot in front of the other on the stairs. I went directly to the bedroom to shed my cloak, wondering whether Jamie had returned yet.
He had. I stopped dead in the doorway, surveying the room. My medicine box lay open on the table. The scissors I used for cutting bandages lay half-open on my dressing table. They were fanciful things, given to me by a knifemaker who worked now and then at L’Hôpital des Anges; the handles were gilt, worked in the shape of storks’ heads, with the long bills forming the silver blades of the scissors. They gleamed in the rays of the setting sun, lying amid a cloud of reddish gold silk threads.
I took several steps toward the dressing table, and the silky, shimmering strands lifted in the disturbed air of my movement, drifting across the tabletop.
"Jesus bloody Christ," I breathed. He had been here, all right, and now he was gone. So was his sword.
The hair lay in thick, gleaming strands where it had fallen, littering dressing table, stool and floor. I plucked a shorn lock from the table and held it, feeling the fine, soft hairs separate between my fingers like the threads of embroidery silk. I felt a cold panic that started somewhere between my shoulder blades and prickled down my spine. I remembered Jamie, sitting on the fountain behind the Rohans’ house, telling me how he had fought his first duel in Paris.
"The lace that held my hair back broke, and the wind whipped it into my face so I could scarcely see what I was doing."
He was taking no chance of that happening again. Seeing the evidence left behind, feeling the lock of hair in my hand, soft and alive-feeling still, I could imagine the cold deliberation with which he had done it; the snick of metal blades against his skull as he cut away all softness that might obscure his vision. Nothing would stand between him and the killing of Jonathan Randall.
Nothing but me. Still holding the lock of his hair, I went to the window and stared out, as though hoping to see him in the street. But the Rue Tremoulins was quiet, nothing moving but the flickering shadows of the poplar trees by the gates and the small movement of a servant, standing at the gate of the house to the left, talking to a watchman who brandished his pipe to emphasize a point.
The house hummed quietly around me, with dinner preparations taking place belowstairs. No company was expected tonight, so the usual bustle was subdued; we ate simply when alone.
I sat down on the bed and closed my eyes, folding my hands across my swelling stomach, the lock of hair gripped tight, as though I could keep him safe, so long as I didn’t let go.
Had I been in time? Had the police found Jack Randall before Jamie did? What if they had arrived concurrently, or just in time to find Jamie challenging Randall to a formal duel? I rubbed the lock of hair between thumb and forefinger, splaying the cut ends in a small spray of roan and amber. Well, if so, at least they would both be safe. In prison, perhaps, but that was a minor consideration by contrast to other dangers.
And if Jamie had found Randall first? I glanced outside; the light was fading fast. Duels were traditionally fought at dawn, but I didn’t know whether Jamie would have waited for morning. They might at this moment be facing each other, somewhere in seclusion, where the clash of steel and the cry of mortal wounding would attract no attention.
For a mortal fight it would be. What lay between those two men would be settled only by death. And whose death would it be? Jamie’s? Or Randall’s—and with him, Frank’s? Jamie was likely the better swordsman, but as the challenged, Randall would have the choice of weapons. And success with pistols lay less with the skill of the user than with his fortune; only the best-made pistols aimed true, and even those were prone to misfire or other accidents. I had a sudden vision of Jamie, limp and quiet on the grass, blood welling from an empty eye socket, and the smell of black powder strong among the scents of spring in the Boìs de Boulogne.
"What in hell are you doing, Claire?"
My head snapped up, so hard I bit my tongue. Both his eyes were present and in their correct positions, staring at me from either side of the knife-edged nose. I had never seen him with his hair so close-clipped before. It made him look like a stranger, the strong bones of his face stark beneath the skin and the dome of his skull visible under the short, thick turf of his hair.
"What am I doing?" I echoed. I swallowed, working some moisture back into my dry mouth. "What am I doing? I’m sitting here with a lock of your hair in my hand, wondering whether you were dead or not! That’s what I’m doing!"
"I’m not dead." He crossed to the armoire and opened it. He wore his sword, but had changed clothes since our visit to Sandringham’s house; now he was dressed in his old coat—the one that allowed him free movement of his arms.
"Yes, I noticed," I said. "Thoughtful of you to come tell me."
"I came to fetch my clothes." He pulled out two shirts and his full-length cloak and laid them across a stool while he went to rummage in the chest of drawers for clean linen.
"Your clothes? Where on earth are you going?" I hadn’t known what to expect when I saw him again, but I certainly hadn’t expected this.
"To an inn." He glanced at me, then apparently decided I deserved more than a three-word explanation. He turned and looked at me, his eyes blue and opaque as azurite.
"When I sent ye home in the coach, I walked for a bit, until I had a grip on myself once more. Then I came home to fetch my sword, and returned to the Duke’s house to give Randall a formal challenge. The butler told me Randall had been arrested."
His gaze rested on me, remote as the ocean depths. I swallowed once more.
"I went to the Bastille. They told me you’d sworn to an accusation against Randall, saying he’d attacked you and Mary Hawkins the other night. Why, Claire?"
My hands were shaking, and I dropped the lock of hair I had been holding. Its cohesion disturbed by handling, it disintegrated, and the fine red hairs spilled loose across my lap.
"Jamie," I said, and my voice was shaking, too, "Jamie, you can’t kill Jack Randall."
One corner of his mouth twitched, very slightly.
"I dinna ken whether to be touched at your concern for my safety, or to be offended at your lack of confidence. But in either case, you needna worry. I can kill him. Easily." The last word was spoken quietly, with an underlying tone that mingled venom with satisfaction.
"That isn’t what I mean! Jamie—"
"Fortunately," he went on, as though not hearing me, "Randall has proof that he was at the Duke’s residence all during the evening of the rape. As soon as the police finish interviewing the guests who were present, and satisfy themselves that Randall is innocent—of that charge, at least—then he’ll be let go. I shall stay at the inn until he’s free. And then I shall find him." His eyes were fixed on the wardrobe, but plainly he was seeing something else. "He’ll be waiting for me," he said softly.
He stuffed the shirts and linen into a traveling-bag and slung his cloak over his arm. He was turning to go through the door when I sprang up from the bed and caught him by the sleeve.
"Jamie! For God’s sake, Jamie, listen to me! You can’t kill Jack Randall because I won’t let you!"
He stared down at me in utter astonishment.
"Because of Frank," I said. I let go of his sleeve and stepped back.
"Frank," he repeated, shaking his head slightly as though to clear a buzzing in his ears. "Frank."
"Yes," I said. "If you kill Jack Randall now, then Frank…he won’t exist. He won’t be born. Jamie, you can’t kill an innocent man!"
His face, normally a pale, ruddy bronze, had faded to a blotchy white as I spoke. Now the red began to rise again, burning the tips of his ears and flaming in his cheeks.
"An innocent man?"
"Frank is an innocent man! I don’t care about Jack Randall—"
"Well, I do!" He snatched up the bag and strode toward the door, cloak streaming over one arm. "Jesus God, Claire! You’d try to stop me taking my vengeance on the man who made me play whore to him? Who forced me to my knees and made me suck his cock, smeared with my own blood? Christ, Claire!" He flung the door open with a crash and was in the hallway by the time I could reach him.
It had grown dark by now, but the servants had lit the candles, and the hallway was aglow with soft light. I grasped him by the arm and yanked at him.
He jerked his arm impatiently out of my grasp. I was almost crying, but held back the tears. I caught the bag and pulled it out of his hand.
"Please, Jamie! Wait, just for a year! The child—Randall’s—it will be conceived next December. After that, it won’t matter. But please—for my sake, Jamie—wait that long!"
The candelabra on the gilt-edged table threw his shadow huge and wavering against the far wall. He stared up at it, hands clenched, as though facing a giant, blank-faced and menacing, that towered above him.
"Aye," he whispered, as though to himself, "I’m a big chap. Big and strong. I can stand a lot. Yes, I can stand it." He whirled on me, shouting.
"I can stand a lot! But just because I can, does that mean I must? Do I have to bear everyone’s weakness? Can I not have my own?"
He began to pace up and down the hall, the shadow following in silent frenzy.
"You cannot ask it of me! You, you of all people! You, who know what…what…" He choked, speechless with rage.
He hit the stone wall of the passage repeatedly as he walked, smashing the side of his fist viciously into the limestone wall. The stone swallowed each blow in soundless violence.
He turned back and came to a halt facing me, breathing heavily. I stood stock-still, afraid to move or speak. He nodded once or twice, rapidly, as though making up his mind about something, then drew the dirk from his belt with a hiss and held it in front of my nose. With a visible effort, he spoke calmly.
"You may have your choice, Claire. Him, or me." The candle flames danced in the polished metal as he turned the knife slowly. "I cannot live while he lives. If ye wilna have me kill him, then kill me now, yourself!" He grabbed my hand and forced my fingers around the handle of the dirk. Ripping the lacy jabot open, he bared his throat and yanked my hand upward, fingers hard around my own.