I pulled back with all my strength, but he forced the tip of the blade against the soft hollow above the collarbone, just below the livid cicatrice that Randall’s own knife had left there years before.
"Jamie! Stop it! Stop it right now!" I brought my other hand down on his wrist as hard as I could, jarring his grip enough to jerk my fingers free. The knife clattered to the floor, bouncing from the stones to a quiet landing on a corner of the leafy Aubusson carpet. With that clarity of vision for small details that afflicts life’s most awful moments, I saw that the blade lay stark across the curling stem of a bunch of fat green grapes, as though about to sever it and cut them free of the weft to roll at our feet.
He stood frozen before me, face white as bone, eyes burning. I gripped his arm, hard as wood beneath my fingers.
"Please believe me, please. I wouldn’t do this if there were any other way." I took a deep, quivering breath to quell the leaping pulse beneath my ribs.
"You owe me your life, Jamie. Not once, twice over. I saved you from hanging at Wentworth, and when you had fever at the Abbey. You owe me a life, Jamie!"
He stared down at me for a long moment before answering. When he did, his voice was quiet again, with an edge of bitterness.
"I see. And ye’ll claim your debt now?" His eyes burned with the clear, deep blue that burns in the heart of a flame.
"I have to! I can’t make you see reason any other way!"
"Reason. Ah, reason. No, I canna say that reason is anything I see just now." He folded his arms behind his back, gripping the stiff fingers of his right hand with the curled ones of his left. He walked slowly away from me, down the endless hall, head bowed.
The passage was lined with paintings, some lighted from below by torchere or candelabra, some from above by the gilded sconces; a few less favored, skulked in the darkness between. Jamie walked slowly between them, glancing up now and again as though in converse with the wigged and painted gallery.
The hall ran the length of the second floor, carpeted and tapestried, with enormous stained-glass windows set into the walls at either end of the corridor. He walked all the way to the far end, then, wheeling with the precision of a soldier on parade, all the way back, still at a slow and formal pace. Down and back, down and back, again and again.
My legs trembling, I subsided into a fauteuil near the end of the passage. Once one of the omnipresent servants approached obsequiously to ask if Madame required wine, or perhaps a biscuit? I waved him away with what politeness I could muster, and waited.
At last he came to a halt before me, feet planted wide apart in silver-buckled shoes, hands still clasped behind his back. He waited for me to look up at him before he spoke. His face was set, with no twitch of agitation to betray him, though the lines near his eyes were deep with strain.
"A year, then" was all he said. He turned at once and was several feet away by the time I struggled out of the deep green-velvet chair. I had barely gained my feet when he suddenly whirled back past me, reached the huge stained-glass window in three strides, and smashed his right hand through it.
The window was made up of thousands of tiny colored panes, held in place by strips of melted lead. Though the entire window, a mythological scene of the Judgment of Paris, shuddered in its frame, the leading held most of the panes intact; in spite of the crash and tinkle, only a jagged hole at the feet of Aphrodite let in the soft spring air.
Jamie stood a moment, pressing both hands tight into his midriff. A dark red stain grew on the frilled cuff, lacy as a bridal shirt. He brushed past me once again as I moved toward him, and stalked away unspeaking.
I collapsed once more into the armchair, hard enough to make a small puff of dust rise from the plush. I lay there limp, eyes closed, feeling the cool night breeze wash over me. The hair was damp at my temples, and I could feel my pulse, quick as a bird’s, racing at the base of my throat.
Would he ever forgive me? My heart clenched like a fist at the memory of the knowledge of betrayal in his eyes. "How could you ask it?" he had said. "You, you who know…" Yes, I knew, and I thought the knowing might tear me from Jamie as I had been torn from Frank.
But whether Jamie could forgive me or not, I could never forgive myself, if I condemned an innocent man—and one I had once loved.
"The sins of the fathers," I murmured to myself. "The sins of the fathers shall not be visited upon the children."
I jumped, opening my eyes to find an equally startled chambermaid backing away. I put a hand to my pounding heart, gasping for air.
"Madame, you are unwell? Shall I fetch—"
"No," I said, as firmly as I could. "I am quite well. I wish to sit here for a time. Please go away."
The girl seemed only too anxious to oblige. "Qui, Madame!" she said, and vanished down the corridor, leaving me gazing blankly at a scene of amorous love in a garden, hanging on the opposite wall. Suddenly cold, I drew up the folds of the cloak I had had no time to shed, and closed my eyes again.
It was past midnight when I went at last to our bedroom. Jamie was there, seated before a small table, apparently watching a pair of lacewings fluttering dangerously around the single candlestick which was all the light there was in the room. I dropped my cape on the floor and went toward him.
"Don’t touch me," he said. "Go to bed." He spoke almost abstractedly, but I halted in my tracks.
"But your hand—" I started.
"It doesn’t matter. Go to bed," he repeated.
The knuckles of his right hand were laced with blood, and the cuff of his shirt was stiff with it, but I would not have dared touch him then had he had a knife stuck in his belly. I left him staring at the death-dance of the lacewings and went to bed.
I woke sometime near dawn, with the first light of the coming day fuzzing the outlines of the furniture in the room. Through the double doors to the anteroom, I could see Jamie as I had left him, still seated at the table. Now the candle was burnt out, the lacewings gone, and he sat with his head in his hands, fingers furrowed in the brutally cropped hair. The light stole all color from the room; even the hair spiking up like flames between his fingers was quenched to the color of ashes.
I slid out of bed, cold in the thin embroidered nightdress. He didn’t turn as I came up behind him, but he knew I was there. When I touched his hand he let it drop to the table, and allowed his head to fall back until it rested just below my br**sts. He sighed deeply as I rubbed it, and I felt the tension begin to go out of him. My hands worked their way down over neck and shoulders, feeling the chill of his flesh through the thin linen. Finally I came around in front of him. He reached up and grasped me around the waist, pulling me to him and burying his head in my nightdress, just above the round swell of the unborn child.
"I’m cold," I said at last, very softly. "Will you come and warm me?"
After a moment, he nodded, and stumbled blindly to his feet. I led him to bed, stripped him as he sat unresisting, and tucked him under the quilts. I lay in the curve of his arm, pressed tight against him, until the chill of his skin had faded and we lay ensconced in a pocket of soft warmth.
Tentatively, I laid a hand on his chest, stroking lightly back and forth until the nipple stood up, a tiny nub of desire. He laid his hand over mine, stilling it. I was afraid he would push me away, and he did, but only so that he could roll toward me.
The light was growing stronger, and he spent a long time just looking down at my face, stroking it from temple to chin, drawing his thumb down the line of my throat and out along the wing of my collarbone.
"God, I do love you," he whispered, as though to himself. He kissed me, preventing response, and circling one breast with his maimed right hand, prepared to take me.
"But your hand—" I said, for the second time that night.
"It doesn’t matter," he said, for the second time that night.
THE ROYAL STUD
The coach bumped slowly over a particularly bad stretch of road, one left pitted and holed by the winter freeze and the beating of spring rains. It had been a wet year; even now, in early summer, there were moist, boggy patches under the lush growth of gooseberry bushes by the sides of the road.
Jamie sat beside me on the narrow, padded bench that formed one seat of the coach. Fergus sprawled in the corner of the other bench, asleep, and the motion of the coach made his head rock and sway like the head of a mechanical doll with a spring for its neck. The air in the coach was warm, and dust came through the windows in small golden spurts whenever we hit a patch of dry earth.
We had talked desultorily at first of the surrounding countryside, of the Royal stables at Argentan for which we were headed, of the small bits of gossip that composed the daily fare of conversation in Court and business circles. I might have slept, too, lulled by the coach’s rhythm and the warmth of the day, but the changing contours of my body made sitting in one position uncomfortable, and my back ached from the jolting. The baby was becoming increasingly active, too, and the small flutters of the first movements had developed into definite small pokes and proddings; pleasant in their own fashion, but distracting.
"Perhaps ye should have stayed at home, Sassenach," Jamie said, frowning slightly as I twisted, adjusting my position yet again.
"I’m all right," I said with a smile. "Just twitchy. And it would have been a shame to miss all this." I waved at the coach window, where the broad sweep of fields shone green as emeralds between the windbreak rows of dark, straight poplars. Dusty or not, the fresh air of the countryside was rich and intoxicating after the close, fetid smells of the city and the medicinal stenches of L’Hôpital des Anges.
Louis had agreed, as a gesture of cautious amity toward the English diplomatic overtures, to allow the Duke of Sandringham to purchase four Percheron broodmares from the Royal stud at Argentan, with which to improve the bloodlines of the small herd of draft horses which His Grace maintained in England. His Grace was therefore visiting Argentan today, and had invited Jamie along to give advice on which mares should be chosen. The invitation was given at an evening party, and one thing leading to another, the visit had ended up as a full-scale picnic expedition, involving four coaches and several of the ladies and gentlemen of the Court.
"It’s a good sign, don’t you think?" I asked, with a cautious glance to be sure our companions were indeed fast asleep. "Louis giving the Duke permission to buy horses, I mean. If he’s making gestures toward the English, then he’s presumably not inclined to be sympathetic to James Stuart—at least not openly."
Jamie shook his head. He declined absolutely to wear a wig, and the bold, clean shape of his polled head had occasioned no little excitement at Court. It had its advantages at the present moment; while a faint sheen of perspiration glowed on the bridge of his long, straight nose, he wasn’t nearly as wilted as I.
"No, I’m fairly sure now that Louis means to have nothing to do with the Stuarts—at least so far as any move toward restoration goes. Monsieur Duverney assures me that the Council is entirely opposed to any such thing; while Louis may eventually yield to the Pope’s urgings so far as to make Charles a small allowance, he isna disposed to bring the Stuarts into any kind of prominence in France, wi’ Geordie of England looking over his shoulder." He wore his plaid today pinned with a brooch at the shoulder—a beautiful thing his sister had sent him from Scotland, made in the shape of two running stags, bodies bent so that they joined in a circle, heads and tails touching. He pulled up a fold of the plaid and wiped his face with it.
"I think I’ve spoken with every banker in Paris of any substance over the last months, and they’re united in basic disinterest." He smiled wryly. "Money’s none so plentiful that anyone wants to back a dicey proposition like the Stuart restoration."
"And that," I said, stretching my back with a groan, "leaves Spain."
Jamie nodded. "It does. And Dougal MacKenzie." He looked smug, and I sat up, intrigued.
"Have you heard from him?" Despite an initial wariness, Dougal had accepted Jamie as a devoted fellow Jacobite, and the usual crop of coded letters had been augmented by a series of discreet communications sent by Dougal from Spain, meant to be read by Jamie and passed on to Charles Stuart.
"I have indeed." I could tell from his expression that it was good news, and it was—though not for the Stuarts.
"Philip has declined to lend any assistance to the Stuarts," Jamie said. "He’s had word from the papal office, ye ken; he’s to keep awa’ from the whole question of the Scottish throne."
"Do we know why?" The latest interception from a papal messenger had contained several letters, but as these were all addressed to James or Charles Stuart, they might well contain no reference to His Holiness’s conversations with Spain.
"Dougal thinks he knows." Jamie laughed. "He’s fair disgusted, is Dougal. Said he’d been kept cooling his heels in Toledo for nearly a month, and sent awa’ at last with no more than a vague promise of aid ‘in the fullness of time, Deo volente.’ " His deep voice captured a pious intonation perfectly, and I laughed myself.
"Benedict wants to avoid friction between Spain and France; he doesna want Philip and Louis wasting money that he might have a use for, ye ken," he added cynically. "It’s hardly fitting for a pope to say so, but Benedict has his doubts as to whether a Catholic king could hold England anymore. Scotland’s got its Catholic chiefs among the Highland clans, but it’s some time since England owned a Catholic king—likely to be the hell of a lot longer before they do again—Deo volente," he added, grinning.
He scratched his head, ruffling the short red-gold hair above his temple. "It looks verra dim for the Stuarts, Sassenach, and that’s good news. No, there’ll be no aid from the Bourbon monarchs. The only thing that concerns me now is this investment Charles Stuart’s made with the Comte St. Germain."
"You don’t think it’s just a business arrangement, then?"
"Well, it is," he said, frowning, "and yet there’s more behind it. I’ve heard talk, aye?"
While the banking families of Paris were not inclined to take the Young Pretender to the throne of Scotland with any seriousness, that situation might easily change, were Charles Stuart suddenly to have money to invest.
"His Highness tells me he’s been talking to the Gobelins," Jamie said. "St. Germain introduced him; otherwise they’d not give him the time o’ day. And old Gobelin thinks him a wastrel and a fool, and so does one of the Gobelin sons. The other, though—he says that he’ll wait and see; if Charles succeeds with this venture, then perhaps he can put other opportunities in his way."
"Not at all good," I observed.
Jamie shook his head. "No. Money breeds money, ye ken. Let him succeed at one or two large ventures, and the bankers will begin to listen to him. The man’s no great thinker," he said, with a wry twist of his mouth, "but he’s verra charming in person; he can persuade people into things against their better judgment. Even so, he’ll make no headway without a small bit of capital to his name—but he’ll have that, if this investment succeeds."
"Mm." I shifted my position once more, wriggling my toes in their hot leather prison. The shoes had fit when made for me, but my feet were beginning to swell a bit, and my silk stockings were damp with sweat. "Is there anything we can do about it?"
Jamie shrugged, with a lopsided smile. "Pray for bad weather off Portugal, I suppose. Beyond the ship sinking, I dinna see much way for the venture to fail, truth be told. St. Germain has contracts already for the sale of the entire cargo. Both he and Charles Stuart stand to triple their money."
I shivered briefly at the mention of the Comte. I couldn’t help recalling Dougal’s speculations. I had not told Jamie about Dougal’s visit, nor about his speculations as to the Comte’s nocturnal activities. I didn’t like keeping secrets from him, but Dougal had demanded my silence as his price for helping me in the matter of Jonathan Randall, and I had had little choice but to agree.
Jamie smiled suddenly at me, and stretched out a hand.
"I’ll think of something, Sassenach. For now, give me your feet. Jenny said it helped to have me rub her feet when she was wi’ child."
I didn’t argue, but slipped my feet out of the hot shoes and swung them up onto his lap with a sigh of relief as the air from the window cooled the damp silk over my toes.
His hands were big, and his fingers at once strong and gentle. He rubbed his knuckles down the arch of my foot and I leaned back with a soft moan. We rode silently for several minutes, while I relaxed into a state of mindless bliss.
Head bent over my green silk toes, Jamie remarked casually, "It wasna really a debt, ye ken."
"What wasn’t?" Fogged as I was by warm sun and foot massage, I hadn’t any idea what he meant.
Not stopping his rubbing, he looked up at me. His expression was serious, though the hint of a smile lit his eyes.
"You said that I owed ye a life, Sassenach, because you’d saved mine for me." He took hold of one big toe and wiggled it. "But I’ve been reckoning, and I’m none so sure that’s true. Seems to me that it’s nearly even, taken all in all."
"What you do mean, even?" I tried to pull my foot loose, but he held tight.
"If you’ve saved my life—and ye have—well, I’ve saved yours as well, and at least as often. I saved ye from Jack Randall at Fort William, you’ll recall—and I took ye from the mob at Cranesmuir, no?"
"Yes," I said cautiously. I had no idea where he was going, but he wasn’t just making idle conversation. "I’m grateful for it, of course."
He made a small Scottish noise of dismissal, deep in his throat. "It isna a matter for gratitude, Sassenach, on your part or mine—my point is only that it’s no a matter of obligation, either." The smile had vanished from his eyes, and he was entirely serious.
"I didna give ye Randall’s life as an exchange for my own—it wouldna be a fair trade, for one thing. Close your mouth, Sassenach," he added practically, "flies will get in." There were in fact a number of the insects present; three were resting on the Fergus’s shirtfront, undisturbed by its constant rise and fall.
"Why did you agree, then?" I stopped struggling, and he wrapped both hands around my feet, running his thumbs slowly over the curves of my heels.
"Well, it wasna for any of the reasons you tried to make me see. As for Frank," he said, "well, it’s true enough that I’ve taken his wife, and I do pity him for it—more sometimes than others," he added, with an impudent quirk of one eyebrow. "Still, is it any different than if he were my rival here? You had free choice between us, and you chose me—even with such luxuries as hot baths thrown in on his side. Oof!" I jerked one foot loose and drove it into his ribs. He straightened up and grabbed it, in time to prevent me repeating the blow.