Lord John Grey awoke to a familiar Scottish voice. Every inch of him stung or ached or buzzed dully. His eyes were heavy, blurred, as he tried to push and keep them open. Grey failed to make out the exact words floating to his ears from the chair by his bedside, but he listened, allowing the sound to bring him private comfort. Fraser sat with a book open in his lap, big fingers gentle on worn pages, red hair plaited neatly over his ears. Was it Tom Byrd’s handiwork? It certainly looked like it was.
A smile drew the corner of John’s mouth up, and Fraser’s eyes met his. Relief softened the lines between his ruddy brows and Jamie closed the book but kept his finger between the pages to mark his place. Grey recognized it as Hal’s copy of Robinson Crusoe .
“It’s good to see you awake,” Fraser said. “Can I get you anything?”
Just stay, John thought, just keep reading to me. He cursed himself for it, then blamed whatever was in the tonic Doctor Maguire had given him. “No, no thank you, Fraser. It’s good to be awake, though the pain is considerably less when I am not.”
“Aye, I expect so.” Fraser stood and left the book on the chair. “If ye’ll let me help you to sit, I’ll gi’ ye a bit of brandy. Or one of the surgeons left some laudanum if ye dinna mind the dreams.” He held one hand out in front of Grey, the other poised to scoop under his back.
Grey’s mouth opened and shut twice before he managed to speak. “Yes, that would be... Most helpful, thank you.” He laid his hand in Fraser’s. Small, internal wings fluttered against Grey’s ribs. Fraser, as steady and sure as bedrock, helped him to sit.
Keeping hold of Grey’s hand, Jamie piled the pillows up behind him, then with his other hand firmly supporting John’s back, helped him to settle against the pillows. Only after being sure that Grey was secure under his own power did Fraser release his hand and turn away. There was the tinkling sound of a decanter and liquid being poured, and Jamie returned with a glass of brandy. “Do ye think ye can manage on yer own?” He held the glass out to Grey, close enough that he wouldn’t have to reach far.
No, Grey thought. “Yes, I believe so.” He took the glass of brandy and tipped the warm liquid back between his lips. It burned lightly on his tongue and down his throat to his belly. Grey licked away a stray droplet, then cradled the glass against his chest. “Have you happened to hear any news of Twelvetrees?”
Edward Twelvetrees was not the first man John Grey had dueled, though Grey could only hope he would be his last, especially following these atrocious injuries. Grey could only be grateful, however, that he’d managed to affect things so that it was he who had been forced to duel Twelvetrees, rather than Fraser.
Fraser blew out a long breath, retrieving the book and settling himself back into the chair. “Aye. His Grace said he died this morning.” His face bore a neutral expression, eyes fixed on Grey, patient.
Grey blinked. He should have said something, then, but what? He didn’t even know what he felt about what had happened, let alone what to say on the subject. Sure, he’d known it had only been a matter of time. Wounds such as the one Grey had inflicted upon Twelvetrees almost universally resulted in death and yet, the news of Twelvetrees’ death still sobered him. It was never an easy thing, whatever the reason, to be responsible for ending another man’s life. “Oh, well...” He frowned and took another sip of brandy. “Thank you for telling me.”
Jamie gave one of those amazingly expressive Scottish hums. “He wouldna have yielded. Surely ye ken that.”
“No. Perhaps not.” John tried a small smile and straightened up. The motion tugged on his stitches and he winced. “I’m surprised there haven’t been calls for my arrest. Reginald Twelvetrees cannot be pleased. Or have there been, and you’re simply sparing me the bad news?”
“Actually, I was sparing ye the bad news, but it wasna that.” Jamie grimaced. “Nay, news of the duel and the circumstances of it got ‘round. Everyone says ye’re a hero. For defending the Crown against an insidious threat. Or something of the kind.”
“That’s not the reason, I…” John sighed, not convinced of the wisdom in speaking more on the subject of just why he had been willing to duel the man.
Fraser settled himself back in the chair and regarded Grey, those sparkling blue cat eyes impassive. “Aye, I ken that.” He set the book on the arm rest of the chair and laced his fingers together in front of him. “But since ye bring it up, why did ye challenge him? Ye kent he had called me out, ye were there. Did ye no’ believe I could best him?”
Grey shut his eyes. How much of the truth could be said between them now? How much still belonged in the silence that kept them at arms’ length? “Whether he called you out or not, it did not matter. What he said about me, well, it was not your battle to fight.” And bested or not, I could not bear to see you hurt.
“Was it no’? What Twelvetrees said about you he also said about me by association. And do ye mean to imply, My Lord, that slander of a personal nature between men is a more serious offense than treason? I didna take ye as so prideful.”
Did Fraser honestly want the truth? Either way, he would give it to him or some version of the truth. “What’s slander to you is… well, it’s less so to me, but no, no I reckon I owe you the truth for my brother’s dragging you into this in the first place. I challenged him because, on the off chance that luck was on Twelvetrees side that day, I could not bear to watch you die.” Because I think I love you, remained unsaid.
The stomps of small feet and hushed half-whispers of young boys in the hall interrupted them. The door creaked open and a small head peeked into the room, curious eyes under a head of fluffy, fair hair.
Grey held his brandy glass out to Jamie, who hesitantly took it and set it back somewhere behind him. “Come in, Ben.”
“Uncle John!” his eldest nephew burst into the room. “You’re not dead. Mama said you were almost dead.”
“Do I look dead to you?”
Ben’s chin tilted up as if he were considering the possibility that Grey could be dead and not have any of the telltale signs. Then, his attention shifted, “Oh, hello Mr. Fraser.”
Jamie’s entire countenance changed, eyes crinkling at the edges with a smile of sincere joy, unfolding his hands and nodding at the boy. “Good day to you, Your Lordship,” he said, inclining his head in a very serious nod of respect.
Ben peeked at the cover of Fraser’s book. “You were reading Uncle John Robinson Crusoe ? I thought you were reading him Gulliver’s Travels? Or was that yesterday.” His gaze turned to Grey. “He’s been in here the whole time, Uncle. And when I wanted to come in and see you, Mama said no. So I said, ‘Well, that’s not fair. Mr. Fraser gets to stay in there all day’.”
A flush rose in Grey’s cheeks, warm as the brandy he had been drinking. He bit down on the inside of his cheek to temper the smile beckoning at his lips. “Yes, that’s… well…” Thoughtlessly, his eyes flashed to Fraser. It didn’t mean a bloody thing, Grey reminded himself. He’d been down that path with Jamie Fraser before and it had ended disastrously. Whatever strong feelings the Scot conjured up in Grey, Fraser did not return them.
“It wasna all day,” Fraser replied.
Two more heads peeked in through the door—Adam and Henry—and they rushed up to Grey’s bedside, all of them, including Ben, clamoring on beside him.
“Can we see where you were stabbed?” asked Adam.
“I suppose so.” The doctor was meant to return later to change the dressing, so there would be no harm in it. Briefly, Grey flicked his gaze to Jamie, then looked down his own chest. With his uninjured hand, he unbuttoned his nightshirt. It stung as he peeled back the bandage. His nephew's eyes all widened, small eyes filled with excited, boyish wonder.
“Whoa,” Ben said. “You did almost die!”
Grey had to admit the scar was rather impressive, longer than the wound itself would’ve been had it not been for the interference of the surgeon. Not to mention the hideous webbing of black stitches that stretched across it.
“Does it hurt really bad?”
“It’s not terrible,” Grey said. “My itching leg is far more troublesome.”
“I wanna see!” Henry started in on the bed linens, like a mole digging its burrow. When Grey’s other nephew-moles joined in, he found he’d had enough.
“Alright, alright. Just everyone calm down.” Grey threw back the covers, then lifted his nightshirt to reveal the slash across the top of his thigh.
The itching was terrible, but he was glad to have Doctor Maguire’s poultice removed, at least. Though between his three doctors, all with very different thoughts on the manner of his healing, he felt far more like a specimen than a patient.
“You’ve got a big willy, Uncle John,” Adam informed the room thoughtfully.
Fraser snorted in a most unseemly manner, no doubt the result of an effort to stifle an even more unseemly fit of laughter. It failed utterly, the big Scot bracing a fist against his closed lips as if that could physically keep it at bay. It did not. “From the mouths of babes, aye?” he muttered.
Something about the lightness in Fraser’s face encouraged him, perhaps made him a tad bit reckless. “It’s average for a grown man, I’d say, though I believe it’s given fairly general satisfaction.”
Fraser’s snickering was choked off abruptly with a coughing fit. He cleared his throat and recovered his composure. “Why don’t ye tell yer uncle about the new puppies? He hasna heard about them yet.”
“Ah, so little Lucy had her puppies, then.” Grey laughed, thankful for Fraser’s expert ability to change a subject. “How many?”
“Six!” shouted Adam, beaming.
“She had them in the linen closet,” Ben said. “I’d never seen Mrs. Weston so mad, but Cook gave her sherry. We each named one and then we let Mama name one and Mr. Fraser and we saved one for you too, Uncle.”
Grey looked over at Fraser, catching his eye. “Tell me. What did you call your pup, then?”
Jamie met his gaze, one corner of his handsome mouth turning up in the mischievous ghost of a smile. “Corriey. It’s short for Corrieyairack. She’s such a new, wee thing. Seemed fitting, ken.”
“Well, then,” Grey gave Fraser a look and matched the man’s smile. “I imagine our young Corriey shall also be a very brave and gallant protector of women endangered by large, brutish captors.”
“Oh, aye,” Fraser agreed. “She yips like a wee fiend whenever yer brother goes near her.”
The sounds of chattering children moved around John as the boys squirmed playfully in his bed, but their words had faded to the background and his focus had narrowed in on Fraser.
Grey lifted his chin, much like Ben had done. Family trait , he suddenly recognized. “Is that right? Tell me, Fraser, how has the pup taken to you?”
Jamie arched one eyebrow at Grey. “Better than she has to yer brother. She kens my scent and cries for me to pick her up. Aye, she’s a bonny wee lass. Excellent judge of character.”
Adam snuggled into Grey’s side, little chin on his shoulder. He breathed a warm, small breath on his neck. “Uncle, what are you going to name your pup?”
He tucked a loose curl back behind Adam’s tiny ear. The light from the window shone through the delicate skin, the tiny curve becoming a translucent pink. “Well, I don’t know. Is mine a boy or a girl?”
“A boy,” said Henry on his other side, five little toes tucked on Grey’s knee. “We saved you the biggest one.”
“Hmm… big, you say...” He looked to Fraser, then back to his nephews.
Adam nodded. “Uh huh, but he’s always getting in trouble. Getting into the kitchen with Cook and bothering Mrs. Weston. I hope you don’t want a gentler puppy.” A look of dreadful concern crossed Adam’s face. “You… you could have Ben’s.”
“Nuh uh.” Ben glared at his younger brother. “You can have Adam’s.”
Grey laughed, shaking his head. “No, no. It’s alright boys. I don’t mind a troublemaker. As for a name…” Fraser had named his pup after the place they’d met. Fitting, Grey figured, as without their unusual connection, he would’ve never been given a pup to name. He wouldn’t be here either, without Jamie. He thought of Lucy, the spaniel, with her ruddy, silky coat and the way it shone in an afternoon sun. Reddish and wild, despite its captivity, not unlike the plaited hair falling softly over Fraser’s strong neck. And then, Grey thought of the way it felt to look at Jamie Fraser. The way the resulting heat moved beneath his ribs and up to his scalp, down to his thighs and all the way to the bottoms of his feet. “Red,” he said, finally. “I think I’ll name him Red.”
Jamie watched Lord John with his nephews, the boys prattling on with hardly a pause for breath between them. Grey listened as attentively as he could, responding to their rapid fire questions and asking some of his own. Occasionally, one of the boys—Henry usually—would forget to sit still and jostle the bed, causing Grey to wince and press his lips together in a grim line. The first time this had happened, Jamie had made to rise, intending to expel the lads on the spot. But Grey had waved him off, so Jamie settled for clearing his throat in a significant tone and giving the children a hard eye from under a raised brow. The look quelled them immediately, and the shadow of pain passed from John’s face, leaving in its wake only the joy of their company.
The tranquil smile never left Grey’s eyes and he seemed to have forgotten all about his wounds, so long as the boys were still and cuddled up beside him. Jamie’s mind drifted to Lallybroch, to his own nephews and nieces, to the simple and easy joy of children that could seep into a man’s bones. Lord John Grey was not immune to this effect, Jamie was pleased to see. The boys’ chattering faded into the background of Jamie’s attention and his own children came to mind with a pang of longing. He sent up a silent prayer, for Willie’s well-being in his absence, and for the safety of the child Claire had carried with her. Jamie’s heart ached for her and the bairn. But here in this haven of domestic quiet, watching the happiness and love flow freely between his friend and his nephews, his own pain was eased. It wasn’t a cure by any means, but it cooled the burning on his soul.
Fraser rested his chin on his hand, concealing his smile behind his fist. Grey was his friend, and the fear and worry that had been knotted in his guts since Grey had taken that first saber slash to his thigh was finally beginning to relax. The relief of it made Jamie’s eyes burn with tears. It was as if he hadn’t drawn breath at all since John had collapsed in Jamie’s arms and now air filled his lungs for the first time. That would probably warrant some scrutiny in the near future, he thought. In the future, aye, but not now. For now, Jamie would enjoy the simpler pleasure of John’s happiness.
The duchess came through the open door with a rustle of skirts and Fraser rose respectfully. Her Grace planted her fists on her hips as she surveyed the scene on the sickbed. “What are you doing to your poor Uncle John? Out of here at once, the lot of you,” she said to the boys, making shooing motions with her hands. The children bid their uncle farewell and scampered away. Her gaze followed them out the door before she turned her attention to Jamie, still standing. “Oh, do sit down, Captain Fraser,” she said, easing herself onto the mattress next to Grey.
Jamie nodded and returned to his seat.
“What do you have in your hand?” Grey asked.
“Oh these.” Minnie said softly, rifling through a stack of letters. “ Billets-doux . It seems, John, that you have a great many admirers.”
“Oh…” Grey fidgeted beneath the linens. “Oh dear. Why ?”
“You cannot expect to fight so gallantly and not attract the attention of young and excitable women who would simply love the chance to—”
“I can and I most certainly did,” Grey protested. “This didn’t happen after my duel with Nicholls over Caroline Woodward.”
He did what ? Jamie thought. The first time he’d met Lord John, he’d been little more than a lad intent on fighting the infamous Red Jamie for the safety and honor of a woman. Had he not learned his lesson?
The duchess gave Grey a deeply skeptical look, one thin eyebrow arching high. “Yes, it did. But you ran off to Canada so fast that you never had the chance to see them. Hal said not to bother forwarding them but I read them all, of course.”
Jamie couldn’t take the not knowing. “I beg your pardon, Your Grace.” She nodded and Jamie turned his attention to Grey. “Has dueling become so much of a habit for ye, My Lord? Do ye have a death wish I should ken about?”
“I reckon you know quite well, Fraser, of my penchant for defending the honor of innocent women.” He gave Jamie a pointed look beneath a lifted eyebrow. “And not so innocent women. Besides…” He took one of the letters, seal already broken, and flipped it open, clearing his throat. “... this woman seems to find herself quite besotted with me, after all, and who are you, sir, to argue with… ah, yes, Miss Emma Blakely of Hampshire.”
"That depends," Fraser said, returning John's look with interest. "Do ye ken Miss Emma Blakely of Hampshire personally?"
“No, but I assume anyone this intrigued by me must be an excellent judge of character. Hand me another, Minnie.”
She gave Jamie a conspiratory look, then rifled through the letters as if she were in search of one in particular. She handed it to John.
He began to read it aloud. “ I have heard marvelous tales of your gallantry, and even more marvelous tales of your— Christ.” The blush on Grey’s cheeks now was nearly as deep a color as wine. He clutched the letter to his chest as if to protect it from anyone else who may want to indulge themselves in the contents. “Dear God, you didn’t read these, Minnie? Did you?”
She graced Jamie with another playful look, then returned her gaze to her brother-in-law. “Quite, and I considered framing some of them, but as you can see. Most are not appropriate for polite company.”
Grey’s jaw set. “For any company, for that matter. Burn the lot.”
"Nay, dinna stop on my account," Jamie said, a surge of wicked mischief—and a few less savory emotions—rushing through him, making him reckless. "Marvelous tales of what, hmm? Would that be, um… oh aye. Fairly general satisfaction?"
The duchess covered her mouth, shoulders shaking with undisguised laughter.
Grey worried his lip, much the way he would before deciding on a chess move. “Yes, well, what can I say. Tales of greatness do follow the great. It cannot be helped. No matter how humble one tries to be.”
Fraser was saved from answering by the entrance of a footman carrying a large tray laden with two plates and a pot of fragrant coffee. It was just as well, there was no reply that wouldn’t end in disaster. Checkmate.
“Thank you,” the duchess said, taking one of the plates for Grey. “Hal thought you could both benefit from a proper meal.”
The footman offered the second plate to Jamie, who opened his mouth to protest, but Minnie cut him off. “Nonsense, Captain Fraser,” she said. “You have hardly eaten since John came home. And when was the last time you slept somewhere other than that chair, hmm? I insist.”
Jamie accepted the plate with a sheepish nod to the duchess and muttered thanks to the servant.
As they ate their dinners, Minnie chimed back in, “I almost forgot. There was another letter. I didn’t open this one. It looked like business.” She held it out to Grey and he took it. Something unnameable changed his face, though the expression disappeared quickly enough Jamie doubted it had ever been there. Grey handed the letter back to the duchess. “Destroy that one too.”