“Ye want to help stir?” He held out the big worn paddle—which was roughly as tall as Willie—and they stirred the mash, Willie clinging earnestly to the lower part of the handle, Jamie to the upper. The mix was stiff, though, and Willie gave up after a moment, leaving Jamie to finish the job.
He’d just about finished ladling the mash into buckets for distribution to the mangers when he noticed that William had something in his mouth.
“What’s that ye’ve got in your mouth?”
Willie opened his mouth and picked out a wet horseshoe nail, which he regarded with interest. Jamie imagined in a split second what would have happened if the lad had swallowed it, and panic made him speak more roughly than he might have.
“Give it here!”
“Mo!” Willie jerked his hand away and glowered at Jamie under wispy brows that nonetheless were well marked.
“Nnnnn,” Jamie said, leaning down close and glowering in his turn. “Nnnnno.”
Willie looked suspicious and uncertain.
“Mo,” he repeated, but with less surety.
“It’s ‘no,’ believe me,” Jamie assured him, straightening up and pulling the bucket of mash closer. “Ye’ve heard your auntie Isobel say it, have ye not?” He hoped Isobel—or someone—said it to Willie on occasion. Not often enough, he was sure of that.
Willie appeared to be thinking this over and, in the process, absently raised the nail to his mouth again and began licking it. Jamie cast a wary look toward the door, but no one was watching.
“Does it taste well?” he asked casually. The question of taste appeared not to have occurred to Willie, who looked startled and frowned at the nail, as though wondering where it had come from.
“Es,” he said, but uncertainly.
“Give me a taste, then.” He leaned toward the child, putting out his tongue, and Willie blinked once, then obligingly reached the nail up. Jamie folded his hand very gently around Willie’s fist and drew his tongue delicately up the length of the nail. It tasted, naturally enough, of iron and horse hoof, but he had to admit that it wasn’t a bad taste at all.
“It’s no bad,” he said, drawing back—but keeping his hand round Willie’s. “Think it would break your teeth, though, if ye chewed it.”
Willie giggled at the idea.
“It would break the horses’ teeth, too, see? That’s why we dinna leave such things lyin’ about in the stable.” He gestured through the open door of the tack room toward the row of stalls, where two or three equine heads were poking out, inquisitive as to the whereabouts of their dinner.
“Horsie,” Willie said, very clearly.
“Horse, indeed,” Jamie said, and smiled at him.
“Horsie eat dis?” Willie leaned curiously over the mash tub, sniffing loudly.
“Aye, they do. That’s good food—not like nails. No one eats nails.”
Willie had clearly forgotten the nail, though he was still holding it. He glanced at it and dropped it, whereupon Jamie picked it up and tucked it into his breeches. Willie promptly stuck a small hand into the mash and, liking the sticky feel of it, laughed and slapped his hand a couple of times on the quivering surface of the molasses-laced grain. Jamie reached out and took him by the wrist.
“Now, then,” he said. “Ye wouldna like it if Deke put his hoof into your dinner, would ye?”
“Well, then. Here, wipe your hand and ye can help me put the mash out.” He pulled a relatively clean handkerchief from his shirtsleeve, but Willie ignored it, instead licking the sweet, sticky stuff from his fingers with every evidence of enjoyment.
Well, he had told the lad it was food, and it was wholesome enough—though he sincerely hoped Mrs. Peggy wasn’t about to reappear, or they’d both be for it.
Peggy didn’t reappear, and they spent a companionable quarter hour pouring mash, then forking fresh hay from the stack outside into a wheelbarrow and trundling it into the stable. On the way back, they met Mr. Lowens, looking satisfied. Whatever haggling he’d been doing with Grieves, he thought he’d got the best of it.
“MacKenzie,” he said, with a cordial nod. He smiled at William, who, Jamie noticed with some dismay, had molasses down his shirt and a good deal of hay sticking out of his hair. “That your lad, is it?”
For an instant, he thought his heart would leap straight out of his mouth. He took a quick gulp of air, though, and answered calmly, “No, sir. This would be the young earl. The Earl of Ellesmere.”
“Oh, aye?” Lowens laughed and squatted down to speak to Willie directly. “Knew your father, I did. Randy old bugger,” he remarked to Jamie. “But he knew his horses, old Earl did. Going to be a good horseman, too, are you?” he said, returning his attention to Willie.
“Good lad, good lad.” He reached out and ruffled Willie’s hair. Willie glowered at him. “Breeched already? You’re young for that.” He affected to sniff deeply. “Smell a bit ripe. You’ve not shit yourself, have you, my lord?” He chuckled fatly, amused at his own wit.
William’s eyes narrowed, in a way that reminded Jamie vividly of his own sister about to go berserk. He thanked God again that the boy’s features were rounded and snub, and prepared to grab him if he tried to kick Mr. Lowens in the shins.
Instead, though, the young earl merely glared up at the farmer and said loudly and distinctly, “NNNNNNO!”
“Oh!” said Lowens, laughing. “My mistake. My apologies, my lord.”
“We must be going, sir,” Jamie said hastily, before William could execute any of the thoughts that were clearly going through his mind. He swung the boy off his feet and held him upside down by the ankles. “It’s time for his lordship’s tea.”
PEGGY NEVER DID COME BACK. JAMIE CARRIED WILLIAM—now right side up—back to the house and delivered him to one of the kitchen maids, who told him that Peggy was “took bad” but that she would bring his little lordship along to Lady Isobel.
Willie objected vociferously to this proposal—so vociferously that Isobel herself appeared—and was pacified only by the promise that he could visit the stable again tomorrow. Jamie carefully avoided Isobel’s hard eye and absented himself as quickly as he could.
He wondered whether William would come back. Isobel wouldn’t bring him, he was sure of that. But if Peggy felt better, and if William insisted—William struck him as being singularly stubborn, even for a child of two. He smiled at the thought.
Can’t think where he gets that, he thought, and quite suddenly wondered whether his other son was the same. Claire’s son.
Lord, he thought automatically, as he did whenever thought of them came to his mind, that she might be safe. She and the child.
How old would his first child be now? He swallowed a thickness in his throat but continued doggedly in his train of thought. Claire had been two months gone with child when she’d stepped through the stones and back to Frank.
“God bless you, ye bloody English bastard,” he said through his teeth. It was his customary prayer when Frank Randall came to his mind—something he tried to avoid happening, but now and then … “Mind them well!”
Two months gone, and that had been April the 16, Anno Domini 1746. Now it was April again, and 1760. If time went on in a normal fashion—and he saw no reason why it should not—then the child would be almost fourteen.
“Christ, he’s nearly a man,” he whispered, and his hand closed tight on the fence rail, so tight he felt the grain of the wood.
As with Frank Randall, Jamie tried to keep from thinking too much or too specifically of Claire or of the unknown child. It hurt too much, brought home to him too vividly what he had had, and what he had lost.
He hadn’t been able to avoid thinking of them, living in the cave on his own estate at Lallybroch, during the first years after Culloden. There was too little to occupy his mind, and they had crept in, his family, glimmering in the smoke when he sat by his wee fire—when he’d felt safe enough to have one—shining in the starlight when he sat outside the cave at night watching the heavens, seeing the same stars that they must see, taking comfort in the everlasting light that lay softly on him and his.
Then he’d imagined his son and holding a small, solid body on his knee, the child’s heart beating against his own—and his hands curved without his willing it, remembering now what Willie felt like in his arms.
HE WAS CARRYING a huge basket of rotted manure up to the kitchen garden next morning when Morgan, one of the footmen, appeared from behind a wall and hailed him.
“Hoy, MacKenzie! You’re wanted!”
He was surprised; it was mid-morning, not a usual time for visiting or errands. He’d have to catch that wee bitch Venus, presently enjoying herself in the back pasture. And the thought of driving the pony trap, with Lady Isobel’s slitted eyes burning holes in his flesh, was less than appealing. It wasn’t as though he had a choice, though, and he set the basket down, safely off the path, then straightened up, dusting his hands against his thighs.
“Aye, I’ll have the trap round in a quarter hour.”
“Not the trap,” Morgan said, impatient. “I said you’re wanted.”
He glanced at the man, startled.
“Who wants me?”
“Not me, I assure you.” Morgan had a long nose, and he wrinkled it ostentatiously, looking at the greenish-brown crumbles and smears on Jamie’s clothes. “If there was time, I’d make you change your shirt, but there’s not. He said at once, and he meant it.”
“Lord Dunsany?” Jamie asked, ignoring the footman’s barb.
“Who else?” Morgan was already turning away. He looked back over his shoulder and jerked his head. “Come on, then!”
HE FELT STRANGE. The polished wood floor echoed under his tread and the air smelled of hearth ash, books, and flowers. He smelled of horses, horseshit, and his own bitter sweat. Since the day he’d come to Helwater, he’d only twice been farther into the house than the kitchen where he took his meals.
Lord Dunsany had received John Grey and him in the study on that first day, and now the butler—back stiff with disapproval—led him down the corridor to the same door. The wooden panels were carved with small rosettes; he had noticed them so intensely on his first visit that seeing them again recalled his emotions on that day—and gave him now a feeling as though he had missed the bottom step of a flight of stairs.
His immediate assumption on hearing the summons was that Isobel had seen him outside Wilberforce’s house and decided to eliminate the possibility of his telling on her by informing her father of the truth of William’s paternity, and his heart was in his throat, his mind filled with half-formed notions between outright panic and … something else. Would Dunsany cast the boy out? If he did.… A faint, breathtaking vision of himself walking away from Helwater, his son in his arms, came to him—but vanished at once as the door opened.