The Gypsy - Tinnean
Detailed notes are found at the end of story.
"You're a lucky dog, Brother!"
"Why do you say that, Steven?" The man who stood before the mirror affected to study his reflection, hoping the boredom in his tone would cause his brother to drop the subject.
"You'll be wedding Lady Carolyn! Any man would be lucky to call the lady 'wife'!"
"Do you think so?" Captain Lord James Ellison shrugged and added carelessly, "I was ever one for the petticoat line." He thought of his Cyprians, of his opera dancers and various bits of muslin. There had been many, although none had lived under his protection for very long. He plucked at a piece of lint on his sleeve. "I agreed to be legshackled simply because Father insists on it, and I must get an heir."
"I could just as well give him an heir!" Steven growled under his breath.
"Indeed you could, and if you think Father would permit it- "
"Deuce take it, James! I dislike when you do that! How can you hear what I've said?"
James shrugged again, to all outward appearances indifferent. "You spoke aloud, Steven. How could I fail to hear what you said?" Inwardly he cursed himself for that slip. He'd schooled himself to ignore sights and sounds he should not be able to see or hear, but on occasion they became so overpowering that he was unable to avoid it. That had not been so in this instance. Did he want his oddity to be discovered?
"Well, it's deuced disconcerting!"
"I shall endeavor in future to avoid... er... disconcerting you."
Steven cuffed his shoulder. "Dolt." Then he sighed. "When is the wedding to be?"
"Not for some time. Lady Carolyn's guardian insists we wait until he himself has wed his heiress so he can have a proper hostess for the do. Meanwhile Caro's to have one more Season."
"Aren't you afraid someone else will catch her eye?"
"Why should I be? She is the affianced wife of the Marquis of Cascade. Do you think any of the fops who linger in Town would dare poach on my territory?"
"There's Tops-o'-the-Trees in Town as well, and she's an heiress in her own right, James. For the fortune she would bring a man, many might dare."
Truthfully, James wished someone might, although he didn't say as much to his brother. He really had no desire to wed, and as pleasant as Lady Carolyn might be, he knew that within eighteen months he'd be bored with her.
However, he would do whatever must be done to keep Rainier and all its people safe.
It was time to change the topic. "My regiment has been called up, and I leave for the Peninsula at week's end."
"I won't tell you to keep your head down, James, but I will say 'be safe.' I've no wish to step into your shoes."
"Thank you." The conversation was making him ill at ease. "I believe I'll take Incacha for a gallop."
"You have deuced queer names for your cattle." Steven waited until his brother had his hand on the latch. "James. I do wish you happy, you know."
"I know, Steven." James also knew that his brother loved him.
How would Steven feel, though, if he ever realized that instead of the very feminine curves of Lady Carolyn, his brother would have much preferred the lean, hard body of another male? He'd come to understand that of himself only recently, although he hadn't acted upon it. He wanted to think it was simply because he'd never met anyone who could tempt him, and not because he was a cold fish, as some of his bits of muslin had complained. When... if he did-
James pushed such thoughts from his mind - he had got quite good at that - and made his way to the stable, where the black stallion he'd acquired while in South America was impatiently awaiting him.
~Eighteen Months Later~
It had been raining earlier, but now the sun was struggling to make its way through the clouds, sparkling on the odd raindrop that trickled down the windowpane.
William Ellison, Duke of Rainier, stared at the figure in the chair before the window. James neither spoke nor blinked, unaware that he was not alone in his chamber.
This was what his eldest son had come to?
"I'm sorry, your Grace. This is not one of his good days."
"So he at least has good days?"
The man before him bit his lip and glanced away. "I regret to disillusion you, but they grow fewer and fewer."
The Duke's lips tightened. "It's been six months now."
"I'm doing the best that I can, your Grace! If you wish to replace me... "
"No, no, Stoddard. I depend on you." The man had come to him highly recommended, after all. "It's just that I had hoped- Pray continue, and inform me of any changes."
"Yes, your Grace." Stoddard saw his employer down to the Great Hall and out into the chill air of the Cheviot autumn. He closed the door then, and stood there, rubbing his hands briskly together.
Everything was falling neatly into place.
It had been so simple to have that fool of a doctor recommend him to a frantic father. Who would have thought that the Duke of Rainier, of all people, would care so much for his sons?
It was something to bear in mind.
Soon, he thought. Soon his master - his real master - would bring down the mighty Duke of Rainier's dreams of wedding his heir to Lady Carolyn Plummer. Earl Kincaid would be the winner in the stakes for the hand of the lady in question, and he, Eli Stoddard, would be well compensated for his part in it.
At home once more at Rainier, the Duke sent for his majordomo.
Simon entered the study, cast a knowledgeable eye on his Grace, and went to the sideboard, where he poured out a healthy measure of brandy. More than just the duke's majordomo, he also saw to the safety and wellbeing of the family.
His family had been tied to the Ellisons from the time of the third Crusade, and he and the present duke had been raised together.
Taking the glass gratefully, the Duke downed it in one gulp.
"A brandy of that vintage deserves to be treated with more appreciation, your Grace, not swilled like so much cat-lap!" He refilled the glass.
The Duke ignored the sally and raised tired eyes. "Send for the Gypsy woman, Simon."
"Your Grace, is this wise?"
"I don't see that there is any choice. Stoddard is of little or no use, and James grows worse by the day. Added to that, Lady Carolyn's guardian is on the verge of having her cry off. If she does... "
"Can we not persuade her to accept Steven's suit?"
"Steven will not become Duke of Rainier."
"And that is what the lady wishes, to become Duchess of Rainier?"
"That is what her guardian wishes for her, and can one blame him? As for Carolyn, she accepted James' offer before he left for the Peninsula, and has been most patient waiting for his return."
"Yet when they were children, she seemed to favor Steven."
"They are children no longer, Simon."
"No, your Grace." He fiddled with the stopper on the decanter. "I wish I knew why Earl Kincaid was so in favor of the alliance. There was never any love lost between you." The matter of a woman when they were younger, as Simon well knew.
"As well he never had a feather to fly with. What was Lord Plummer thinking to make Kincaid guardian to his only child? And now, since the heiress he had in his eye has eloped with that subaltern, his prospects are less than promising. He scarce dares show his face at Boodle's, and White's and Brooks' have already refused him entrance."
"It wasn't a wise choice to accept the connection."
"It seemed like it at the time. Once Carolyn and James wed, Kincaid would no longer be in the picture. And James... " His Grace's lips tightened.
It all came back to his elder son, who'd had that strange fancy of seeing and hearing things as a youth, and which now seemed to be returning. Damn the French for their abuse of him! Well, something must needs be done.
This time he sipped more slowly at his brandy. "The Gypsy woman, Simon?"
"I feared it might come to this, your Grace." Simon nodded, looking grim. "I took the liberty of sending for the woman. She's waiting in the Great Hall."
The Duke clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Ever reliable, Simon." He left his study, knowing Simon was at his heels.
William's footsteps faltered as he espied the woman warming herself before the fire in the great hearth.
"Good day, your Grace." She curtseyed gracefully.
"But- but... "
"You were expecting the Chovihano, the Gypsy healer, were you not? I am she."
"You always did have a way with herbs and potions, even when you were a girl. Is that what you did all those years ago, ran away to be with the Gypsies?"
"What did my father put about?"
"Simply that you had gone to stay with an elderly relative of his in Wales."
"In Wales, true enough, although there was no elderly relative."
"Why did you go?"
She smiled wryly. "You would not accept that I did not love you."
"You could have grown to love me." He'd been at such pains not to touch her, fearing to frighten her with his ardor. Perhaps if he had loosed some of that fire...
"Mayhap, but I'd already given my... heart to another."
William didn't appear to notice the slight pause.
"At any rate, you didn't pine for me for very long."
"I needed to find a mother for my son." Lady Grace, his first wife, had died shortly after young James had got out of leading strings.
"Which you did. And now you have two sons."
"Lord, I'm sorry, Naomi." He overlooked her mention of Steven. His younger son was a man who was eager to learn all he could about the land, but while he cared deeply for Rainier, he wasn't the heir. "If I'd had the least inkling that you cared for someone else - "
"Don't say you wouldn't have made a push for my hand, for I won't believe you."
"Yes, but to cause you to run off like that... I truly regret it."
She shrugged. "The past is past, your Grace. Tell me, why did you send for me?"
"Allow me to offer you a dish of tea, my dear. Simon?"
"Aye, your Grace. In the blue salon?"
"Your Grace, it is hardly convenable to share the amenities with a Gypsy."
"Devil take what is proper! First and foremost, you are the daughter of a gentleman!" He ushered her into the salon Sally, his second wife, had caused to be decorated in shades of blue.
Naomi studied it. "A very charming room, your Grace."
"Tare an' ounds, Naomi! You once called me 'William!'"
"Those days are long gone."
William studied her broodingly. "I am a widower once again. I always thought you would make a charming duchess."
"I have no desire to rejoin that world. Shall I pour?" Simon had entered with the tea tray.
"If you please?" He noted she still had an elegant turn of wrist as she raised the dainty teapot.
She cast a watchful gaze over Simon, who had gone to stand behind William, his expression uncompromising.
"You may speak freely in front of Simon," William assured her when it appeared she would say nothing.
"Very well." She took a sip of tea and set the cup down. "I ask again, your Grace, why have you sent for me?"
"It's my son, James."
"You must be very proud of him, William. Even in the hinterland we've heard of the adventures of Lord James, how the Spaniards feared him and the French were wary of him, and how he was finally captured when his horse was shot out from under him in battle."
"At the Siege of Badajos. We were... are proud of him. For the longest time after his capture we had no word of him, but yet I was certain he could not be dead. I would have felt it, Naomi!"
She leaned forward and rested her hand on his.
He drew a deep breath and continued. "Eventually there was made mention in dispatches that he'd been located. A prisoner exchange was to be effected, and once he'd given his parole, he was to be returned to us."
"You must have been relieved."
"I was, at first. But whatever those demmed Frogs did to him... James was no longer himself. He could no longer tolerate being about in polite society. He swore he heard conversations even when he was alone, cringed at the least sound, complained of the dimmest light, was overcome by odors no one else could detect. Truthfully, Naomi, I feared... I fear for his sanity."
"Has he been seen by physicians?"
"Of course. Even Prinny's own sawbones. The officious fool recommended confining James to St. Mary's of Bethlehem!"
He gave a short bark of laughter at Naomi's look of horror. "They had to pull me off the man." And while Prinny had been sympathetic, he'd banished William from Court for the nonce.
His hand was still beneath hers, and she tightened her grip on it. The duke she had once known would have consigned an inconvenient wife to Bedlam with no second thoughts. How much less an inconvenient son? That he now refused to even consider it said much for his growth over the years spanning their last meeting.
Or had he, perhaps, always been like this, and she too headstrong and youthful to pay it any mind?
"What would you have me do?"
"Whatever you will! Brew up a concoction that would give me my son back! I have no doubt you have the skills to do that!" When she didn't refuse him outright, he began to feel a measure of hope. "I have an estate on Windy Gyle in the Cheviot Hills, near the Scottish border."
"Yes! It's quiet there, and I had hopes that perhaps James would... But more is needed! Naomi, I would see you have whatever you might require; restore my son, and I will give you whatever sum you care to name!"
"You insult me, your Grace."
Was she as shaken as he by the desperate need he exhibited? He gripped the arms of his chair. Indeed, he must not be the William she remembered at all.
She rose and turned away from him, and he would have protested, but it was merely to take a turn about the room while she gathered her thoughts.
Finally, she said, "I cannot help you, William." She raised a hand to forestall his protests. "I cannot be away from my people for the length of time it would require to aid your son."
"You could cure my son, and yet you refuse?"
"Allow me to finish. I cannot, but I know of one who can. A... Gypsy boy."
He reared up out of his seat, furious. "You would have me trust my heir to a dirty, ignorant - "
"Your Grace, Blair is neither dirty nor ignorant! He is clever and widely traveled, and knows much, not only of the world but of its many mysteries!"
"I'm uncertain, Naomi."
"If you were willing to trust your son to my care, can you not be willing to trust my judgment in this matter?
"I will need to see this Blair, meet with him."
"Of course. He is at Abergavenny just now, but I will send word to him, asking him to come to me at once."
"I do not want word of why he is to come here to be put in writing."
"As you wish, your Grace. I will simply tell him I have need of him here."
"And this young man will obey your bidding unquestioningly?"
"What is he to you? Your lover?" William was surprised at the twinge of jealousy, even after all these years. She was no longer the young chit of a girl she'd once been, but then again, neither was he the young duke who'd fancied himself in love with her.
"Although it is none of your affair, I will tell you that Blair is my son."
"Your son? How old is he?" William pictured a tot, but knew that had to be incorrect if she was putting his son's wellbeing into her son's hands.
"He was twenty-seven on his last birthday."
And she had left home a little shy of twenty-eight years before. "You... you loved another, and married him? Was that why you didn't wish to wed me?"
"We've been over this before, your Grace. My choices had nothing to do with you. Now, if you'll give me leave, I will return to my caravan. I must see about writing that letter to my son."
Stoddard glanced at the clock on his mantel. The house was enveloped in silence, the servants long since abed. He picked up a branch of candles, slipped out of his chamber, and made his way to the Great Hall, where he unbolted the door.
"It took you long enough!" The booted and great-coated figure of Earl Kincaid brushed past him and stalked in. "I like to have perished from the cold!"
"I beg your pardon, but I had to be sure the other servants had retired. Reeves would natter on and on!"
"Hmmph. Why could not Rainier have had Cascade built in a more felicitous district in the south, such as I would have done?"
Stoddard knew his master well enough to know that a reply would have resulted in him being struck for his pains, so he didn't respond to that. Instead, he said, "I had not anticipated a visit, my lord. To what may I accord this honor?"
"I hadn't heard from you and was concerned that perhaps Lord James was... recovering."
"You needn't have feared." Stoddard permitted a prim smile on his lips. "If anything, he grows worse!"
"That is all well and good." He worried his eyebrow. "I still wish to see him!"
"Very well. However, please keep your voice down. Reeves awakens if one of the serving girls but tiptoes past his door bent on an assignation. If he should wake, there is no way I could explain your presence here! Now, if you'll follow me?"
Stoddard led the way to the second floor. The other servants had been appalled when he'd insisted Lord James be moved to one of the tiny bedrooms under the eaves, but he'd overridden their objections easily. Hadn't he the Duke's utmost trust?
And he'd further assured them the solitude would be good for the Marquis.
Of course, that simply made it easier to keep Lord James under his control. How opportune that he'd discovered a bright, spinning object sent him into a stupor where he saw and heard nothing, where he was unable to speak!
He unlocked the door and triumphantly threw it open, to step aside for his master to enter.
Kincaid approached the bed, then shied back. "He sees- "
"Nothing, my lord! When he is in this state, he sees and hears nothing!"
A cruel smile twisted Earl Kincaid's lips. "Indeed." His fingers flexed, and he reached for the unknowing man, a tawdry fantasy enacting in his imagination.
He started at the sound of Stoddard's voice, as if he'd forgotten he wasn't alone in the room. He dropped his hands and stepped back.
"It will not be long, I swear, my lord, before the Duke has no choice but to consign his son to Bedlam. And then Lady Carolyn will be yours!" A necessity, as Stoddard knew, especially now that within a matter of months she would reach her majority and Earl Kincaid would no longer have access to her fortune.
Or be bound by the constraints of his guardianship of her.
Kincaid spun on his heel, and with a swirl of the many capes of his driving-coat, left the room.
Stoddard breathed a sigh of relief and looked down at the figure on the bed. The pale blue eyes stared fixedly at the crystal that hung from the ceiling. Stoddard set it to gently spinning.
"Pleasant dreams, Lord James."
He hurried after his master, to see him safely from the house.
"Are you certain this is a good idea, Naomi?"
"At this point, I'm not certain of anything, my son, beyond that his Grace has pleaded for my help."
"And in spite of everything, you're giving it to him."
"Actually, I'm giving him your help. Blair." Lightly she touched his arm. "It's his son."
"His heir, you mean, and his sole hope for pulling the Ellison family fortunes from Dun territory. I may have been in Abergavenny for the past several months," he said drolly, "but the news still traveled. If it turns out that Lord James is indeed queer in his attic, Lady Carolyn Plummer will put an end to their engagement, and things will be in a sad state for the Duke."
"There is Lord Steven, his younger son."
"And would Lady Carolyn consent to be passed from the one to the other, like a parcel of land?"
"She will do as her guardian wills."
"That is hardly fair, Naomi."
And who knew that better than she? However, "Be that as it may, Lord James doesn't deserve to be sent away to Bedlam."
"Bedlam? Truly?" She was not surprised to see her son was as appalled as she had been. "But he's a war hero!"
"He's hearing and seeing things. That's all anyone will remember, not his gallantry or his bravery- "
"Hearing and seeing what things?" Blair asked sharply.
"Oh... " Naomi waved her hand vaguely and hid her smile. She knew her son. He had journeyed the world, and when he'd returned, he'd been bubbling with enthusiasm over the peoples and the cultures he'd come into contact with, most especially in South America, where certain members of the tribe with keen eyesight and hearing were assigned to keep watch for game or enemies or even a change in the weather.
"What things, Mother?" He was truly ensnared now.
"That I couldn't say, as I haven't had the opportunity to meet with Lord James, although Duke William spoke of his son hearing conversations when he was alone, of seeing a leaf fall from a tree a league from Rainier Court."
Blair tugged on his lower lip. "In that case, I suppose I'll have to go. Cascade, you say?"
"Yes. His Grace says it's on Windy Gyle. Very isolated."
"Hmmm. That might be just the thing Lord James needs. Come. I'll need to make a list of supplies, and then I want to meet your Duke."
"Not mine, sweetling."
"Forgive me, Mother, I misspoke." But he grinned at her.
She rose and shook out her skirts, pretending not to see. William was devilish attractive, but she was no longer a green girl to be taken in by striking masculine looks.
James slowly roused to his senses. It was late night, that he could tell, even though the shutters were closed and the curtains drawn. Still, he was able to trace the spot where a stray moonbeam managed to slip through.
His shoulders slumped. He'd had another... spell, for want of a better word, and - his nose wrinkled - this had been a long one. He was odiferous, to say the least.
The spells were coming closer together and lasting longer. His stomach knotted. As well, he was barely able to get a bite into his mouth for the sharp taste of the food, and he wondered now if hunger was what had successfully roused him this time.
He thought of how he had been before he'd wakened in a French prison - his arrogance and cocksure certainty that nothing could best him. Now, he was confined to this room, unable to do anything for himself, not even bathe, for fear he would succumb to a spell and drown in the bath.
He pushed back the bedclothes and staggered to the chamber pot, managing to relieve himself before he disgraced himself.
Did he really want to continue on in this manner, a disappointment to his father, a hindrance to his brother?
For Steven loved Carolyn, and she loved him.
James castigated himself for not realizing it sooner. Earl Kincaid, Carolyn's guardian, had pushed for the union between James and Carolyn, wanting a duke's son for his ward. Carolyn was pretty enough and biddable enough, and since James had to marry one day anyway, he had seen no reason why it shouldn't be to her. Her behavior with him had always been proper and demur and all that was appropriate, and fool that he was, he'd seen it as nothing more than that of a well brought up young lady.
It was only after he'd arrived in Spain that he'd discovered the truth, and in a manner more suited to a farce than a romance. By stupid chance, the letter meant for Steven had come to him, and he'd read with growing consternation of his brother's and his fiancee's passion for each other.
After that, he knew he could not wed her, but before he could formulate a plan to have her cry off, his regiment was ordered to Badajos, and then...
He heard the sound of footsteps approaching, and got back into bed. Stoddard had explained that he would be less likely to do himself an injury here, in this tiny room, and at the time, James had felt so wretched he hadn't the determination to protest. He would have to insist he was well enough to return to his own chambers.
The door opened, and Stoddard entered. "Ah, Lord James. You're with us once more. I've brought you some dinner in hopes that you were." The manservant set the tray that bore a bowl of soup and a heel of buttered bread beside him.
"Thank you, Stoddard." The words came out almost a croak. His throat was so dry. There was a pitcher of water on the stand near his bed; it smelled foul to him, although Stoddard assured him it was changed daily.
James pushed himself into a sitting position. He was still Marquis of Cascade, after all. He seized the bowl of soup and swallowed half of it before the saltiness could register on his tongue.
"Too salty!" In his attempt to replace it on the tray, he missed and would have spilled it over the bedclothes if Stoddard hadn't caught it in time.
"Indeed not, my lord! You know Mrs. Sullivan has a delicate hand with her spices!"
Was he indeed going mad? But no, the taste of salt lingered on his tongue. "How... how long?"
He was grateful when the man who was seeing to his care didn't pretend to misunderstand him.
Stoddard sighed gustily. "All the day and the night before, I'm afraid, my lord."
"Here, my lord. Let me help you." He retrieved the soup spoon.
"I can feed myself, Stoddard!" Although no matter what the man said, James knew the soup was too salty!
"Of course. I was simply trying to assist you." He set down the spoon and would have turned to leave, but paused. "Oh, my! Would you look at this?!"
Involuntarily, James' gaze rose. The spinning, glittering crystal, each facet discernible to his gaze, seemed to grow and swell until it filled his universe, and with a soundless cry, he tumbled head first into it.
"Cure my son, Gypsy, and anything you request will be yours!" The Duke peered at the youth standing beside the woman he'd once desired to make his wife. Yes, he could see the resemblance to Naomi, the russet hair that curled despite being restrained in a queue, the astonishingly blue eyes. This young man could have been his, had the fates deemed otherwise. His hands fisted into knots at his side. "Anything that is in my power to bestow, you will have simply to name it!"
"Indeed that is not necessary. I cannot promise, but I will do everything I can."
His Grace stared into the deep blue eyes, and for some reason was reassured.
"Do you understand your tasks?" Simon asked slowly and loudly.
"I'm Rom, Mr. Banks, not lack-witted."
"Hmmph. This is a grave responsibility the Duke is bestowing upon you."
"Indeed." Blair frowned at him and stated pompously, "Any man's wellbeing is a grave responsibility." He sighed when he realized Simon didn't recognize that he was funning him.
"Yes, well, the supplies you've requested have already been procured." Simon scowled down at him. The Duke himself had seen to it, although he'd been confused by the numerous articles of clothing made from linen, silk, and wool, and sheets made of softest cotton. At least he was able to assure the young Gypsy that, "Cascade is amply supplied with chickens, sheep, and cows, and while it's too late in the year for the farms to be yielding the fresh vegetables you requested, Rainier will provide for Prospect Hall."
"Excellent!" Blair was all but bouncing on his toes.
Simon was still uncertain how this would benefit Lord James in any way, but if his Grace was bent upon this folly, who was he to gainsay him? "If you'll come with me, I'll take you to the wagons."
Blair was pleased with the progress being made, but not with the lack of information he was given.
"Stoddard can give you all the details. He is the man who is seeing to my son's care."
"Very well, your Grace." He was interested in hearing what the man had to say concerning Lord James' condition. If it proved to be what he thought...
The herbs he would need were stored carefully in a saddlebag. He could afford to lose his books and clothes, but not those herbs. They went with him.
As for his belongings, the cases they were in were placed in the lead wagon.
He sent the wagons on ahead under the authority of Taggert, another of the Duke's men, large and swarthy and not one with whom to trifle.
Meanwhile, Blair was going to take himself to Spitalfields, where Henry Brown, Lord James' batman, was still recuperating from wounds incurred during the Battle of Badajos.
He found him in a back room of a squalid inn called Old Hookey, in honor of Lord Wellington.
"Only reason why I took the room," Brown grumbled as he gazed into the deep blue eyes of the young man seated across from him.
Perhaps that was why the name had been changed, to draw in soldiers returning from the Peninsula. Blair knew the inn had once been called Hobbs' Choice.
"Drop of Blue Ruin, young sir?" Brown held the jug above a second glass.
"Thank you, just a drop." Blair smiled ruefully when Brown filled the glass almost to the brim. He raised it in a toast and tapped it against Brown's glass. "To your health."
"Ain't much good these days. No call for a one-legged soldier. And soldiering is all I know." Brown rubbed the stump of his left leg and took a healthy swallow of his gin. "What can I do for you, young sir?"
"I need some information about Captain Lord James Ellison."
"Good man, was the Captain. Wasn't nothing the men under him wouldn't do if he but asked. Would have charged the gates of hell for him!"
Blair wasn't surprised that the former batman was opening up to him. He'd had that effect on people from the time he was a young boy. Naomi had told him it was a gift of his father's people.
"Badajos was bad." Brown gnawed his lip and shook his head. "I could see that from behind the lines. Being Captain Ellison's batman, I didn't have to fight. But that day something told me to keep close to him. I was making my way to him when I saw his horse go down." He frowned. "I reached him before the Frenchies did, and found him pinned 'neath his horse, firing his pistol. I couldn't get him free, and so I stood over him, firing as well, until I ran out of shot, keeping those bastards away from him."
He fell silent, and Blair watched the expressions chase across his face, worry, determination, and finally despair. Blair said nothing, waiting until the man could continue on his own, which he did, after another gulp of gin.
"It felt as if we was there forever, but it couldn't have been more than a handful of minutes. That was when the ground felt like it was heaving up under us, and next thing I knew... " He touched his stump. "I was being rolled off the battlefield on a caisson, my leg shattered, and the Captain nowhere to be found. A good man, was the Captain. One of the Come-ons, if you take my meaning."
"Not exactly." In spite of himself, Blair was intrigued.
"There are two kinds of officers, young sir, the Go-ons and the - "
"Ah. I see. Why do you keep speaking of Captain Ellison as if he were dead?"
"Well, he might just as well be, mightn't he? Touched in his upper works now, and good for naught. Just ain't fair."
Blair didn't tell him if there was one thing he had learned in his twenty-seven years, it was that life wasn't fair. "Is there anything more you can tell me?"
"That's all I know. The Colonel might know more, though. Colonel Pendergrast."
Blair's heart sank. Fighting was still ongoing in the Peninsula, and there was no way a civilian, even if that civilian was a Rom who had ways, would be permitted access to such an area.
Aside from that, he didn't have the time, nor did he think his Grace would advance him the funds to make such a trip.
Nevertheless, he must needs ask. He drew out a notebook and prepared to take down the Colonel's direction. "Where might he be found?"
"I hear he's at Shorncliffe, training up a new batch of officers."
"Ay, off the Kentish coast. 'Tis the home of the 95th."
"Thank you, Brown." Blair rose to take his leave. He was about to slip half a crown into Brown's pocket - it was obvious the former soldier needed it more than he did - when Brown touched his sleeve.
"Please, sir. If you're going to Captain Ellison, please let me go with you. He was always good to his men, and if there's aught I can do to help him, even if it's the least little thing, then please- "
"You'd be willing to leave all this?" Blair waved a droll hand around the small, shabby room.
"There's nothing here for me."
"Can you ride?"
Brown looked down to where his left leg ended just above the knee, and sighed. "Never mind, sir. It was a foolish notion at best."
"No. If you can't ride, then we'll just hire a carriage. Pack your belongings. I'll be back within the hour."
"Why are you doing this, sir, taking me with you? If I may make so bold? "
"I think Lord James will need a familiar face." He didn't say he thought Brown was as much in need. He touched the man's shoulder and strode out.
Enqueri, the small, brown stallion Naomi had traded her healing skills for and had then given to Blair, waited patiently outside the inn. Blair swung himself up into the saddle and rode off.
True to his word, he was back within the hour, driving a curricle and pair and with Enqueri tied to the boot behind. He waited patiently while Brown stowed his belongings in the boot next to the saddle and saddlebag with its precious contents, then assisted him up to the box.
After Blair settled himself beside Brown, he handed him the reins.
"You want me to drive, young sir?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Brown, I should have asked if you could drive."
"Well... well of course I can. But... "
"You've lost a leg, not a hand."
"That's right. I haven't." Brown flicked the reins lightly, and the pair began to move forward at a brisk trot.
They were on their way to Shorncliffe.
Fortunately the weather held, for it was a long day's drive, and they had to change horses a number of times. It was just past tea time when they rolled into the camp.
"That's Captain Rafe, Colonel Pendergrast's ADC," Brown exclaimed with a touch of excitement, then called out, "Captain Rafe, sir!"
The green-jacketed officer turned around. "Yes? Oh, I say! Brown, isn't it? Captain Ellison's batman."
"Yes, sir. Thank you for remembering me."
"Not at all. How is Captain Ellison? How are you?"
Brown gestured toward his missing limb, then worried his lower lip. "As to Captain Ellison, sir, I'm afraid I can't say."
"He's recovering from his treatment at the hands of the French," Blair said at the same time.
"Who're you?" Captain Rafe's words were challenging.
"Well, Mr. Blair, what have you to say about anything?" The Captain gave him a hard stare.
Blair was used to this reaction. It was something he'd gotten from the time he was a child.
"The Duke of Rainier has employed me to see to his son's recovery." He gazed thoughtfully into Captain Rafe's eyes.
The Captain blinked but appeared to relax. "Ah. In that case... What can I do for you, Mr. Blair?"
Blair didn't smile. He was also used to that reaction. "Please, it's just Blair. If it's at all possible, I must speak with Colonel Pendergrast. I understand Captain Ellison's release was effected by him."
"Indeed, yes! For the longest time we despaired of ever seeing James alive again."
Blair frowned. He did not like to hear this handsome man speaking so familiarly of his future charge. Startled by this unexpected emotion - in all his twenty-seven years, he'd never been close to anyone save his mother and the woman he called Grandmother - Blair set it aside for future contemplation.
"May I speak with Colonel Pendergrast?"
"Of course! I beg your pardon!" Captain Rafe appeared flustered. "Allow me to... " He hurried off.
"Shall I find a place to rack up for the night, young sir?"
"Yes, if you please. I believe there's a nice little inn on Cheriton High Street, the Broom. Even if Colonel Pendergrast can see me this evening, we're going to need to bait the horses."
Brown nodded, and Blair stepped down off the box. He untied Enqueri, removed his saddle from the boot, and watched as Brown drove toward the small town.
He had just finished saddling his horse when Captain Rafe reappeared. "The Colonel will see you now, Blair."
"Thank you." He followed him to the Colonel's accommodations. The big, bluff man was seated behind his desk.
"What can I do for you, young man?" he asked, inspecting Blair's clothing and bearing intently.
"I'm looking for any information you can give me on Captain Lord James Ellison."
"Captain Rafe has told me as much. Why are you interested in Captain Ellison?"
"His father has asked me to see to his care, and the more I know of how he came to be in the state he's in, the better I'll know how to treat him." Blair met his eyes.
"Ah. Sawbones, eh?" The Colonel relaxed and offered him a sherry. "Never yet knew a sawbones who dressed with any sense of style. Well, well. I'll tell you what I know. I can't say it will help, but then again, I can't say that it won't. I was there, you see."
Blair made an encouraging sound, and the Colonel sighed.
''James Ellison was our best shooter. Oh, I'll grant you it isn't the normal course of things for our officers to carry rifles, but Captain Ellison... The man was a wonder. Took out one of Soult's aides at what later measured out to be almost eight hundred yards. And to prove it wasn't by chance, he did it again when another officer came galloping up to try to help his fallen comrade. Captain Ellison's men had the fewest casualties in spite of the fact they were often in the thickest of battle." Colonel Pendergrast looked sad. "Those demmed Frenchies actually had a bounty on him. Once they got him, they locked him away in some hellhole. It took the better part of a year to learn his whereabouts. When we were finally able to arrange an exchange for him, he was good for nothing more than to be sent home. That is where he is now. And I'm afraid that's all I can tell you, young man."
Blair rose and extended his hand. "Thank you, Colonel. And thank you for taking the time to see me."
"You're welcome." He shook Blair's hand. "Captain Ellison's presence on the battlefield has been sorely missed. I hope you can do something for him."
"As do I, sir. As do I."
It took two days for Blair to catch up with the wagons. He'd tried to spare Brown the rigors of the journey; the batman's wound, although healed for the most part, still tended to pain him.
"Why don't I spell you for a time, Brown?"
"Thank you, young sir." Brown turned over the ribbons to him with alacrity, and they'd trotted on.
It was early afternoon on the second day when they spotted the wagons. Two men rode in each one, and an additional two rode along side with Brown Besses at the ready in the event highwaymen should attempt to waylay them.
Taggert raised his arm and hailed them. "We were beginning to think you'd got lost."
"Devil a bit!" Blair responded cheerfully. "I never get lost! This is Brown. He was Lord Ellison's batman. Brown, this is Mr. Taggert, who'll see we get safely to Cascade."
"Mr. Brown." Taggert's eyes dropped to the stump. "That curricle doesn't look too comfortable. You can ride in one of the wagons if you like."
"Thank you, Mr. Taggert. I'm feeling it in my back. A body wouldn't think missing a leg would do that." It was more than that, Blair knew. Brown had been silent and tight-lipped the last few miles of their journey, a combination of fatigue and pain.
"No, I reckon not." Taggert looked over the young man who was assisting Brown down from the curricle. "I'll help him."
"As you will." Blair was used to the unease people usually showed around him, not that it ever grew easier to bear. "Is there a fairly large town nearby? I want to make arrangements for the curricle to be returned to London."
"None that would be large enough, I fear. However, now that you're with us, we can spare one of the men to take it, if you wish?
"Thank you, yes. That would be ideal."
"Aye, Mr. Taggert?"
"You're to take this curricle back to London. Blair will give you the direction."
"Aye, but will you be safe enough? He's a Gypsy. He's not even armed!"
A knife appeared suddenly in Blair's hand, and the man paled and backed away a step.
"Simply because I prefer to talk my way out of a difficulty doesn't mean I'm not prepared to battle my way out."
"Uh... " Lash swallowed heavily. "Aye, sir. As you say, sir."
As if by magic, the knife disappeared. Blair handed the man the ribbons and a pouch containing some coins, told him the best way to return to the livery stable in Brick Lane, then saddled Enqueri, fastened the saddlebag behind, and mounted with fluid grace.
Lash scrambled onto the seat, snatched up the whip, and whisked away.
"Very well, then," Taggert called out. "Let's be off!"
The following day they reached Cascade Ad Fines, the hamlet closest to Cascade. It was small, boasting little more than an inn, a blacksmith's forge, a tiny church and vicarage, and perhaps a double handful of cottages.
"And still there's miles to go, young sir," Taggert told him as Blair pulled Enqueri up beside them. He appeared to have picked up the habit of calling him 'young sir' from Brown.
The townsfolk spilled out of their homes to watch with interest as the three laden wagons rolled on through.
He shivered as he observed their dress, the men in breeches and waistcoats and with their sleeves rolled up, the women in aprons and neck handkerchiefs, their forearms also bare, and with nary a shawl in sight. Perhaps, to them, this was early autumn, but to him it felt like winter. He shivered again and burrowed into his woolen greatcoat.
"How much further, Mr. Taggert?"
"We've another two hours before we get to the start of his Grace's lands."
"Another two hours?" Blair gnawed his lip nervously. Since daylight the urge to move faster, to reach their destination as soon as might be, had been growing within him.
"Aye. And from there another hour to reach the manor itself."
"The Duke of Rainier's lands are so vast?"
"Mr. Taggert, if you wish to bait the horses, I'll ride on ahead." The little brown stallion danced under him.
There were few enough posting houses to change the horses, but they were fresh enough, having been grained and watered earlier in the day, and Taggert had kept the pace easy. Now, however, he could see Blair was anxious to reach journey's end.
At first Taggert had put Blair's growing tension down to the constant state of vigilance he'd perforce needed to keep, due to the barely veiled distrust of the men he traveled with.
Truth to say, Taggert hadn't much trusted the young Gypsy himself to begin with. He was dressed as a gentleman, but if one looked carefully, one could see the 'Gypsy' about him.
Taggert had studied those blue eyes, though, and after a time...
Oddly enough, the men also seemed more at ease with him, so that he and Mr. Brown no longer needed to stay close to him.
So what now had him in such a state that Enqueri - odd name for a horse, but then no one had asked Taggert - pawed the ground and shook his head, setting the bells on his bridle to jingling?
Might aught be amiss with Lord James, more so than what they already knew? Perhaps, Taggert mused, perhaps there was some truth in the belief that Gypsies had some sort of second sight.
"No need, young sir. We'll travel on." He glanced over his shoulder, ready to quell the least sign of rebellion, not that he expected any. The men were just as eager to arrive at Prospect Hall as the Gypsy.
Ten minutes after they started down the long drive that led to the manor, Blair espied the sprawling, three story pile and caught his breath in wonder.
The yellow of its stone facade had faded to a soft buff, and its leaded windows reflected back the afternoon sun. Mature trees graced the home park, and the flower beds were covered in straw, preparatory for winter.
Blair found himself looking forward to the spring, when he'd see them bloom in riotous profusion. That thought gave him pause. Would he still be at Cascade then? Well, there would be time to think about it after he'd met with Lord James. During the journey, he'd become more and more certain that Lord James was what he'd been searching for.
Hopefully Lord James would feel the same.
"We'll go around to the rear, young sir." Taggert smiled apologetically at him. "Mr. Reeves, the butler, would insist."
"Very well." Blair touched his heels to Enqueri's sides and led the wagons to a broad courtyard at the back of the house.
"That door opens into the kitchen." Taggert nodded toward the door. "I'll have the men start unloading the wagons."
"Yes, if you please." Blair turned in his saddle. "The sooner these get to Lord James, the sooner I can see to his getting well." He dismounted and stroked a hand over Enqueri's neck. Hidden beneath the dark mane was a small patch of white hairs that formed the shape of the animal the natives of Upper Peru had called El Tigre. He murmured a few soft words, then unfastened his saddlebag and draped it over his arm. Enqueri would remain standing in this spot until Blair returned for him. "Will the men remain here or return to Rainier with you when you leave?"
"They'll return home, young sir, but I'll be staying." Taggert stepped down from the box and went around to help Brown off the wagon bed. "His Grace's orders." He glanced at Brown from the corner of his eye, then went to the door and knocked briskly.
"Indeed." Before Blair could pursue that, the kitchen door opened.
"Yes?" The woman who stood there was plump and pink-cheeked. Her eyes widened when she saw the men and wagons. "God bless my soul! What is all this?"
"His Grace has sent supplies for Lord James."
"Mr. Taggert, is that you?" She smiled warmly. "It's good to see you again!"
"It's good to see you, too, Mrs. Sullivan. How is Lord James?"
"Poor lad." She sighed and shook her head. "Poor, poor lad. He's not doing well at all."
"We can but hope these things we've brought will make a difference." Taggert nodded and the men began carrying the boxes and bales into the house. "Where is Mr. Reeves? I thought sure he'd be in the kitchen with you this time of day."
Mrs. Sullivan blushed but smiled, the dimples in her plump cheeks becoming noticeable. "Indeed he would, but he's been called away. He should return by week's end, if not sooner."
"I'll look forward to seeing him then." He drew Brown forward carefully. "This is Mr. Brown, who was Lord James' batman in the Peninsula. We're hoping his presence will help his lordship."
"Mr. Brown." She smiled, but it was obvious from her hastily averted eyes that his lack of a limb distressed her. "And who is this?" she asked, finally turning her attention to Blair.
"This is Blair. His Grace has sent him to try his hand at curing Lord James."
"Oh, dearie me! Mr. Stoddard will not be pleased to hear this!"
"Why not?" Taggert's surprise was evident.
"He's been quite zealous in his care of Lord James. Won't allow anyone else to assist him in seeing to his lordship!"
"Would he gainsay his Grace's orders?"
She gasped. "He wouldn't dare!"
"Very well, then," Blair said briskly. "If you'll tell me where to find Lord James' chambers?"
"They're at the front of the house on the first floor, young sir. Quite commodious, as I'm sure you'll find, and there's a dressing room should you feel the need to remain close to his lordship."
"Oh, I will!"
"Mrs. Sullivan will show you- "
"Oh, no, Mr. Taggert! Lord James has been moved to a smaller room on the second floor."
"What?!" Taggert exclaimed, and she shied away from him.
"Indeed, Mr. Taggert! Mr. Stoddard felt it would be best for Lord James. It's quiet, and... and there's less there for him to come to hurt."
"And his own apartment could not have been made- "
"Mrs. Sullivan, what is the reason for all those boxes that are cluttering up the landing on the first floor?" A gaunt man of medium height came bustling into the kitchen. He stumbled to a halt at the sight of the men surrounding the housekeeper. "What is the meaning of this?"
"Who are you?" Blair asked coolly.
A gimlet eye raked over his frame, glowering at him. "I am Eli Stoddard, if that is any of your concern."
"Ah. Stoddard. As it turns out, it is my concern. I've been sent by the Duke of Rainier."
Stoddard's eyes widened until they were completely surrounded by the whites. "For what purpose? Why was I not informed?"
Blair raised an eyebrow but withdrew an envelope from his pocket. "With his Grace's compliments."
Stoddard snatched at the missive, and while he was perusing the words the Duke had penned, Blair turned back to the housekeeper.
"Mrs. Sullivan, if you'll take me to Lord James?"
"This is a forgery!" Stoddard's words rang out. "I absolutely forbid this man from approaching his lordship!"
"The devil you say!" Blue eyes bored into his, and Stoddard's Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed heavily.
"I was there when his Grace gave it to him," Taggert said, his words encased in ice. He hadn't cared for Stoddard the time or two he'd seen him before, and now he liked him even less.
"I- That is to say- Perhaps I misspoke, but Lord James has had a very disturbed night. I had to give him a powder, and he's finally managed to fall asleep!"
"You did what? What kind of powder?"
"A simple sleeping draught. Really!" He attempted to peer down his nose at Blair, difficult since they were both much the same height. "I cannot permit you to question my treatment of him, nor to disrupt his much-needed rest!"
"If Lord James isn't sleeping well, then there's all the more reason for this young man to see him!" Taggert glowered at Stoddard. "On the second floor, I believe you said, Mrs. Sullivan?"
"I'll show you the way, Mr. Taggert!"
"Come, young sir." Taggert spared a final glare at Stoddard before striding after her.
Blair lingered for a moment, although the urge to go to Lord James had grown so strong he could barely stand fast. "After I've seen his lordship, I'd like to have a word with you about your care of him, Stoddard."
"As you say." Blair's blue eyes were decidedly cool, and Stoddard backed away involuntarily.
"Who are you?"
"I'm the man who's going to succeed where you failed." Blair left the room. He just hoped that whatever damage Stoddard had managed to inflict was reversible. His apprehension mounted, and by the time he reached the grand staircase, he was running.
He found the two servants standing before a door under the eaves.
"Really, Mrs. Sullivan!" Taggert was dismayed. "An attic room? How could you or Mr. Reeves permit this?"
"Really, Mr. Taggert!" She drew herself up and folded her arms across her ample bosom. "What say do you think we had in the matter? His Grace told us that we were to aid Mr. Stoddard in all he requested, and that is precisely what we did! And as I said, Mr. Stoddard informed us that this would be the best, the safest room for Lord James."
Blair put his hand on the latch, but it refused to turn. "Why is this door locked?"
Mrs. Sullivan gaped at him, then reached for the key ring at her waist. She turned pale when none of the keys fit and gazed at Taggert with frightened eyes.
"Stand aside." Taggert backed away a few steps, preparing to ram the door with his shoulder.
"Hold. You'll simply injure your shoulder and perhaps startle Lord James." Blair withdrew his knife, and in a matter of moments the lock surrendered to him. He threw open the door and started to enter, stumbling to an abrupt halt as he was assailed by the odor in the room, close and musty and a body a stranger to soap and water.
"Dear god, what has been done to him?"
Taggert growled and spun on his heel. "I think Stoddard has much to answer for!"
"Mrs. Sullivan, please, would you see Lord James' former rooms are prepared for him? Also see to it the box marked 'cottons' is brought to his rooms. There are bed linens in it, and I would ask you to make up his bed with them. They should ease his distress somewhat." Blair was unsure if the woman would obey his request, but she was so devastated by the sight of his lordship lying upon the filthy pallet that she did so unquestioningly.
He dropped his saddlebag to the floor, crossed to the window, and threw up the sash and flung open the shutters, letting in the late afternoon sunlight as well as the breeze with its bite of autumn. After a moment's hesitation, he decided the room was less in need of a brief airing and Lord James more in need of not catching a chill; he closed it again.
Although Lord James would not long be in here.
He went to the bed where the unmoving figure lay. Hanging above the bed was a crystal that swung gently on the breeze that had blown in. Lord James' eyes were open, fixed on it.
Blair spat a word in Rom that would have seen his grandmother boxing his ears, and tore it down, flinging it into a corner.
He stared down at the Marquis. Always he'd been a constant wanderer, restless even for the Rom. Now it was as if everything that had come before had led him here, to this moment, this man, and settled comfortably in place.
He brushed the lank and greasy hair back off Lord James' forehead. No one, despite assurances to the contrary, had been caring for him.
"My lord." He rested a palm gently against the bewhiskered cheek. "Oh, my lord!"
A shudder rippled through Lord James' body, and his lashes lowered, concealing the cool blue of his eyes, then lifted, meeting Blair's. He nestled into the touch of Blair's hand on his face.
"What- " His voice was hoarse and raspy. "Thirsty."
"I imagine you are." A final brush of his fingertips over Lord James' cheek, and then he straightened and withdrew his hand.
"No! Where are you going?" Lord James tried to rise.
"Not far, my lord. Just here to get you some water." Blair stroked his shoulders and pressed him back down to the flimsy bed. At one time he would have been concerned by the apparent overreaction from someone who hadn't met him before, but knowing how desperate he himself had grown to reach this man, now he accepted it readily.
There was a pitcher on the bedside table, and Blair peered into it and sniffed. There was no odor. He dipped a finger into it and cautiously touched his tongue to his finger.
His lip curled, and he searched for the chamber pot in which to empty the pitcher's contents.
"Devil take it!" It was under the bed but apparently hadn't been emptied in some time, adding to the malodorous condition of the tiny room.
Stoddard would indeed have much to answer for!
Blair withdrew a flask from a deep pocket of his greatcoat, took a small packet of herbs from his saddlebag, and added a pinch to the water.
"Come, my lord." Blair helped him to sit up, bracing him with an arm about his shoulders. "Take a sip of this."
Lord James did so, cautiously at first, his action telling Blair more about what his treatment had led him to expect than words might reveal. After the first tentative sip, however, he would have rapidly gulped down the rest.
"Gently, my lord, or you'll cast it back up." Blair allowed him only a few sips, then took the flask away.
"Soon, my lord. I promise you."
Content to accept Blair's word, Lord James seemed to turn his thoughts to something else. "What day is this?"
Blair frowned. Not what time, but what day? Nevertheless, he told him, and Lord James' lips tightened in a grim line.
"Three days." Unconsciously he leaned against the young man who had roused him so effortlessly from such a long spell, the longest he'd suffered so far. "Why didn't the French just put a period to my existance and be done with it, instead of letting me live to die by inches?"
Blair's arm tightened around him."My lord- " Uncertain as to how to respond to that, he offered the flask once again, allowing the handsome Marquis to take a few more sips of water. For in spite of his drawn and haggard appearance, Lord James was quite the most handsome man that Blair had ever seen.
However, the man was his patient, and he must put such thoughts from his mind.
"Thank you. I'm better now."
Before Blair could remark that he sincerely doubted that, Mrs. Sullivan appeared in the doorway.
Unbeknownst, she echoed his lordship's sentiments. "Oh! He's better!"
"No, he's not better, but he will be. I'll see to that. Mrs. Sullivan, Lord James is in need of a bath. See to it that one is drawn for him, if you please?"
"Oh, but Mr. Stoddard informed us it would be most injurious to his lordship!"
"Lord James is no longer in Stoddard's care." And Blair intended to have a discussion with the man, one from which Stoddard would emerge not unscathed. "Please do as I ask." Such was the authority in his voice that she bobbed a curtsey and scurried to obey him.
"Nicely done. One would think you in the habit of command."
"I won't beg your pardon if it seems I've overstepped the bounds."
"Indeed? Who are you?"
Blair had been wondering when the question would arise. "I'm Rom, my lord. Your father has charged me with your care."
"A Gypsy? Things must indeed be desperate if his Grace has gone to such a length. But what of Stoddard?"
"He has no say in the matter." Lord James seemed pleased by that. "I take it you have no liking for him?"
"Indeed. If I had been feeling more the thing I'd have been tempted to kick him down the stairs. You're to care for me, you say? Do you have any idea what's wrong with me?"
"I have a suspicion, my lord. If it proves true- "
"Then you... you won't be long with me."
"Quite the contrary. I'll be with you as long as you have need of me."
"Forever? Forgive me, I'm unsure why I said that." There was something about this young man, something in his blue eyes that drew him, more than ever he'd been drawn to a woman, but James couldn't permit anything to come of it. He forced the words out. "I'm... I'm not right in my mind."
"Of course you are! Whyever would you say such an idiotish thing?"
"But they'll tell you - Stoddard and my father and any number of the physicians who've examined me- "
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio... " Blair quoted. "And why should I take their word on it, these men who have never been beyond England's shores?"
James marveled at a Gypsy who was familiar with Shakespeare, and in spite of himself, he smiled. "And you have?"
"Of course, my lord. I'm Rom!"
"Ah. I see. And yet you're familiar with Shakespeare." There was amusement in the voice, but also a touch of wonder that in all the world, the only person to see that the Marquis of Cascade might need defending as much as any other was this young man.
"Because I'm Rom does not mean I wasn't educated!"
"Indeed, I beg your pardon."
Blair frowned at him, unsure if Lord James was making sport of him, but the smile his lordship gifted him with banished that thought, leaving him slightly flustered as well.
"May I have more water?"
"Oh, yes! Of course, my lord."
A few more swallows, and this time he didn't protest when the Gypsy took the flask away. James rested his head against the strong shoulder and drew in a relieved breath, noting with pleasure that the young man carried with him the crisp scent of Cascade in the autumn. Beneath that he could detect a unique odor, surprised to discover it not only intriguing but arousing as well. Unlike the scents members of the Ton had been known to douse themselves with, it didn't tend to leave his eyes watering and his nose twitching in an effort to stave off violent sneezes.
He breathed in again, this time detecting his own less than fragrant odor, and was reminded he truly was in need of a bath.
"Of all that's occurred since I returned to England," he murmured, "I've most disliked being unable to bathe. I don't know how you can bear my stench."
"There are things I cannot bear, my lord, but a little honest sweat is the least of them." The Gypsy stroked his palm up and down Lord James' arm.
"Truly?" James continued to lean against him. He thought about the days and months spent in that French prison, when he would have sold his soul for such a... a grounding touch.
"Young sir, Lord James' bath has been drawn." Taggert came to an abrupt halt, his eyes widening. "My-my lord?"
"Taggert! You here?" And while pleased to see the man who had put him up on his first pony, he regretted the interruption of the conversation.
"Aye, my lord." He looked away, and James realized something was disturbing him.
"What's wrong, Taggert?"
"It's not the thing, my lord. Is it? Men embracing?"
James frowned, but Blair gave as easy smile. "I was simply propping up his lordship."
"Oh, aye! Of course!" Taggert returned his smile, apparently relieved by that simple explanation. "Can you stand, my lord?"
"I don't know. It seems an age since I was last on my feet." James rose cautiously. He found to his dismay that he was distinctly unsteady. He was pleased the Gypsy kept an arm around him, and frowned when the young man started to release him. "You will not leave!"
"No, my lord. I will not leave. But the three of us can't fit through this door." He stoppered and pocketed the flask, then stooped to retrieve his saddlebag.
James grunted and let Taggert slide an arm around him and aid him from the room, bearing more of his weight than James liked.
Once out of the tiny room, Blair again went to his side, and he and Taggert assisted the debilitated Marquis to negotiate the stairs down to his apartment on the first floor.
The room they entered was nothing like the one they'd just left. In spite of the bed large enough to accommodate a man the Marquis' size, a pair of night tables, numerous chairs surrounding a card table, and a daybed placed so whoever reclined upon it could gaze out the windows in comfort, it was a spacious room.
A hip bath with the clawed feet favored by an earlier generation of Ellisons was in front of the fireplace. The water within the bath was steaming gently, as was the contents of a number of pitchers on the hearth.
"Excellent!" Blair murmured. "That will be just the thing!"
Just then Lord James' stomach rumbled, and he grinned wryly. "Lord, I'm so famished, I swear I could eat Incacha!"
Taggert released his lordship, waiting to see if he was able to maintain his balance. When he did, Taggert nodded and said, "Mrs. Sullivan has a pot of chicken soup on the hob. I'll see she prepares you a bowl."
James wrinkled his nose. "Not soup, if you please. I don't understand how Mrs. Sullivan's hand could grow so heavy with the spices. Every time Stoddard would bring me a bowl, it would be so salty as to be uneatable."
"I fear it must needs be soup, my lord." Once again Blair's hand was on his arm, and James delighted in it, almost missing the rest of what Blair said. "Until I see how you go on, the fare must be kept light. However, some bread toasted on the fire might go well in it."
Lord James pouted, for all the world like a boy denied his favorite treat, and Blair swallowed a smile, stroking his arm.
And then he frowned. "Mr. Taggert, remain in the kitchen while Mrs. Sullivan prepares his lordship's meal, and above all else, don't allow anyone other than yourself to bring it here."
Taggert's eyebrows rose, but he nodded and left the room.
"Who is Incacha, my lord?"
"My horse." His expression became saddened. "I lost him at the Siege of Badajos."
"Ah. So he was the horse who was shot out from under you."
"Yes. How did you... " His eyes widened as Blair stripped off his greatcoat, dropping it to lie across the daybed, and rolled up his sleeves. James admired the firm, trim body that was revealed.
"There's a packet in my saddlebag- Ah, here it is!" Blair emptied the contents into the bath, and its gentle fragrance, like grass newly mown, wafted up. James inhaled it with pleasure. "I will see to his replacement."
"That's very kind in you, but why would you do that?"
Blair frowned at him. Why would he not do that? After all, Lord James was his.
Shaken by the thought, Blair moistened his lips and spoke at random. "I... Having something to look forward to will speed your recovery. Now come, my lord. Let's get you out of your nightshirt and into your bath."
"I feel we should be formally introduced, since shortly you'll be seeing me naked."
"How do you do, my lord? I am Blair." He held out his hand, uncertain if his lordship would take it. He'd often come into contact with men so high in the instep that they wouldn't deign to shake hands with a Rom.
"And I am James." Blue eyes stared into blue, and hands remained clasped for an unknowing length of time
Finally, Blair sighed. "If you'll release my hand, my lord?"
"Of course. I beg your pardon."
"There's no need. I... I like... " He colored up. "That is to say, you've a strong touch."
"Did I hurt you? I beg your pardon! I detest men who think hurting others demonstrates their own strength."
"Not at all, my lord. You've a very comforting grasp. But if you wish to bathe before you dine?"
"Yes. It feels like forever since I've been clean."
"Do you need some help, my lord? You were unsteady earlier."
"A momentary lapse!" As if to prove it, he started to yank the nightshirt off over his head, giving Blair an unobstructed view of his arse. Deliberately? Surely not.
Blair was reluctant to think Lord James sought simply to toy with him, for he was drawn to the man. He permitted himself a moment to admire the firmly-muscled globes. They were perfectly shaped, and he bit back a moan, wanting nothing so much as to fill his hands with them.
He was not unfamiliar with the pleasure a man could find with a maid, or even with another man, having lain with either a time or two - there were country lasses, and lads as well, who were curious as to what a Rom might have in his breeches - but the emotion that surged through him at that moment was like nothing he'd ever felt before in its power and intensity. He wanted to rub his cheek against the curve of Lord James' arse, wanted to nuzzle the spot where thigh and cheek joined, wanted to turn the man who stood there all unknowing and lick the length of his fine cock, for Blair had no doubt Lord James would be the proud possessor of a very fine cock indeed.
But Blair knew that even if he had been so inclined, Lord James would not dally with a Rom. He was a Marquis, after all, heir to a dukedom. The nobility seldom paid heed to those they deemed beneath them, and although Blair was a prince among his own people, the gadje would not see him as such. Reluctantly, he raised his eyes, determined to get his wayward thoughts under control.
And then all thoughts of what might or might not be vanished, and he gasped at the sight of Lord James' back. "Oh, my lord!" he moaned. "What did they do to you?"
James stiffened. He'd been enjoying the feel of Blair's gaze on his buttocks. How could he have forgotten? He started to lower the nightshirt, intending to hide the wealth of thin, white scars.
"No!" Blair tugged the nightshirt over his head and tossed it aside. Fingers as gentle as a lover's caress feathered over each long mark.
"You're... not repulsed by the sight of them?"
"Should I be, my lord?"
"Everyone else was."
"I'm not everyone else, my- "
"Oh, for the love of god, stop calling me 'my lord!' My name is James!"
His name was like a sigh, and he shivered at the sound of it, but he wouldn't permit himself to view the possibility of salvation in it. "Don't you want to know what they did?"
"They flogged you. I can see that."
James made a disgusted sound. "Do you think that was what... what broke me, had me crying out? I'm- I was an officer in His Majesty's 95th Rifles. I should have had more fortitude!"
He couldn't bear the disappointment he knew would be in the young man's eyes. Unmindful of his nudity, he walked to the window, staring out unseeing.
"I woke in that dark, dank cell, and for day upon day there was nothing for me to see or hear." Nothing save for the rats in the wall. He shuddered. His greatest fear had been that they would gnaw their way through to his cell, and attack him in the vast numbers he could tell there were.
"Didn't someone come in when they fed you?"
He gave a bitter laugh. "There was a hinged panel in the door. It would open, and the light, as faint as it was, was like fiery needles in my eyes. By the time it subsided, a bowl of swill would have been left just inside the door. At first I refused to eat it, knowing- imagining what was in it. But eventually, if I wished to survive, I had no recourse but to eat it. Even that I refused to let break me. I diverted myself by imagining conversations that were going on beyond those walls, the captain of the guard in the vilest of moods because he was unable to seduce the innkeeper's lovely wife, his sergeant pleased as punch because he was bedding the woman, right under his nose. I even imagined the two lovers twined about each other, he thrusting into her willing body, she soft and accepting- "
"How did you know she was lovely, my- James?"
"What? Why, what a thing to ask! Aren't all innkeeper's wives lovely?"
"None that I've ever encountered."
"Ah, Blair, you disappoint me. I thought sure as a Gypsy you were a romantic."
"No, my- James. As Rom, I am above all things a realist."
That was the second time Blair had erred and nearly called James 'my lord.'
Or had he not erred? Was he in truth calling James 'his'? Oddly enough, James liked the idea, found he wanted to embrace it wholeheartedly.
"Why do you believe they caused you to break?" The question was asked so softly James didn't think twice about answering it.
"They dragged me out into the courtyard. It had been so silent in my cell- " Except for the rats. "I was inundated by a wall of sound, and all but blinded by the pain to my eyes... They slashed the shirt from my back and shackled me to a wall. I could hear the whip as it was unfurled, as it whistled through the air, as it cut my back, and it was as if that caused me to feel it the more intensely as it sliced through each layer of muscle. I turned my head and bit my shoulder in an effort to keep from howling." He touched his shoulder, tracing the invisible scars that act had left behind. "Then I prayed I'd lose consciousness." His eyes closed against the weak tears burning in them, he forced himself to say, "Then I screamed."
"You could not have withstood that, James. Can you not see? Your senses were opened to their fullest. That you managed to endure for as long as you did is a miracle of itself."
"You don't think me a coward?" With his eyes still closed, it was as if his other senses had become all the more acute, as if he could hear the faint sound of the Gypsy's footsteps as he drew closer, smell his clean, forest-y scent.
"Foolish, foolish lord." A handsbreadth seemed to be all that possibly separated them.
James anticipated gentle hands that would encircle him from behind, pet his chest from the hollow at his throat down to his loins where the hair grew in tight curls, warm lips that would brush over his spine. His nerves stretched tight, his cock swollen hard and proud, he would have leaned into the elusive caress...
Thereby making a complete and utter fool of himself, for of course the Gypsy would not be anywhere near to him, and this was naught but an idle fancy.
He whirled to see a blushing housemaid standing in the open doorway, seeming unable to tear her eyes from his body.
And Blair, not two footsteps away from him.
Blair stepped in front of him to shield him from her gaze. "What did you want?" he demanded curtly.
Did Blair not approve of someone else gazing upon him? James found he liked that notion. He smiled at Jane, the housemaid who stood there.
"Oh, sir, I beg your pardon! But the door was open!"
"What. Did. You. Want?" Blair repeated, and it was obvious that he quite expected his words to be heeded. What manner of man was this young Gypsy?
"Mr. Taggert said to inform you that Mrs. Sullivan was making a fresh pot of soup," the girl gasped out, "and his lordship's dinner will be delayed, seeing as how she needs to kill and dress the bird."
"Thank you. You've informed us. Now go. Stay! Have Mr. Taggert bring up some bread and cheese for his lordship in the meantime, and a flagon of ale."
"Yes, sir!" She began backing away, now unable to take her eyes from Blair, who stalked toward her. She gave a little squeak and fled from the room.
He closed the door and threw the bolt. "I beg your pardon, my- James. I thought Taggert had shut the door." Under his breath he muttered, "This is what comes of it when I allow myself to become distracted. I damned well should have made sure it was shut and bolted it!"
James laughed. "Unnecessary. If the door were closed, none of my servants would dare enter without permission."
Blair, who was coming toward him, jerked to a standstill. "You heard me, my lord?"
"I- " He turned and went to the bath, falling back on what he'd often said. "You were speaking aloud, Gypsy. How could I fail to hear you?"
Silence filled the room like an oppressive pall, and James wanted to cry out in protest, 'I didn't mean it! Don't leave me!'
Of course he didn't. He was the Marquis of Cascade, after all.
And then Blair asked, "In that case you'll also hear me when I say that I could come to desire you above all others?"
"What?" James spun around to stare openmouthed at Blair. He felt the color drain from his face as he realized that Blair was standing as far from him as was possible and still be in the same room. He also realized that the words Blair had spoken had been barely above a whisper and that from that distance he shouldn't have been able to hear them. "I... " His shoulders slumped. What could he say? It was a freakish thing, this ability to hear and see things that others couldn't, and he... was a freak. Why would anyone desire him?
"Into the bath with you before the water grows cold."
Numb, James obeyed him.
The warmth of the water eased the tension in his muscles and chased the chill from his flesh, and in spite of himself, he groaned with pleasure.
Blair lit the candles and drew the curtains over the windows, shutting out the advance of evening, then approached with a cloth and a cake of soap. He set the cloth aside, wet the soap, and lathered his hands.
"Lean back, James, and close your eyes." Gently, he ran his hands over James' face, tracing the arch of his brows, his cheekbones and nose, the strong line of his jaw. "I'll need to shave you as well, unless you're intent on growing whiskers and a moustache?"
"No, I prefer to be smooth-shaven. I've been weak as a cat of late and unable to shave myself."
"And Stoddard didn't offer to do it for you? Duck your head, if you please."
James obeyed him, rinsing the soap from his face, and then blinking to clear the water from his eyes.
"And once more. I intend to wash your hair."
"I'm quite able, you know."
"You're also, as you said, weak as a cat. Please allow me to do this for you." He lathered his hands again and began to knead his fingers through James' hair.
James tipped his head back and all but lost track of the conversation. The feeling of those fingers on his scalp was voluptuous, and his cock began to rise in response to it, something that hadn't happened since before Badajos, something he'd feared might never happen again. He colored up. Although he was sure Blair was unaware, he casually covered his nether regions with his hands.
As for Blair saying he desired him, James convinced himself that Blair had meant nothing of the sort, was simply trying to jolt him out of his shocking self-pity. It should have left him relieved- It did leave him relieved.
A pitcher of warm water rinsing his hair and Blair's next words brought him back to the present. "It surprises me that Stoddard didn't offer to do this for you."
"Oh, he offered to shave me, but I had sense enough not to let him near me with a razor."
"'Sense enough?' Do you truly think he would have sought to harm you?"
"Surely that's the sign of a madman?" James hedged. He had wanted to talk to his father about it, but the fear of being thought mad, much like the old King, led him to hold his tongue. And then the opportunity was lost, for after that first visit, when he'd been brought home to Prospect Hall, his Grace never returned, no doubt ashamed of his firstborn son. Now, just when he thought it might be safe to reveal his innermost concerns... "The man has my best interests at heart- "
"Do not put words in my mouth, my lord," Blair said sharply. "I neither think you mad, nor do I think Stoddard has any love for you at all."
"Are your attics indeed to let, my lord?"
"I beg your pardon." James laughed, almost giddy that this young man, whom he'd never seen before a scant pair of hours ago, and yet who had already come to mean much to him, didn't think him mad.
"Now, I have a single question for you."
"Just a single question? Very well. Ask away!"
"Will you allow me to shave you?"
"Is that all?" He stared into those blue eyes. "Indeed, I will!"
James was clean once more. His hair, no longer lank and greasy, fell in waves to curl at the nape of his neck, the remains of the Brutus his father had insisted he get before meeting with Prinny's physicians long gone. His cheeks were no longer covered by stubble that itched, and the nightshirt Blair had produced from one of the boxes on the landing was so soft against his skin that he'd feared he'd completely lose his composure and disgrace himself like a stripling.
The scrape scrape scrape of the razor as Blair had shaved him had sent him into an unexpected spell; he fell into the place where he only could hear that sound, but Blair's warm hand on his cheek and the quiet words he'd murmured had brought him out of it quickly. James was so grateful he could have wept. But he was also distressed.
"What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing, my- James. Into bed with you now."
James settled himself on sheets so soft he almost moaned, and pulled blankets equally soft to his waist. "Then why- "
"Attend me, my lord." Blair began to explain about the men of certain tribes in South America, men who'd keep watch for enemies or game, who put the welfare of the tribe above all things. "These... sentries for want of a better word, have the ability to see and hear things that others can't. They can actually predict weather changes by tasting rain in the air or - "
"I was in South America in '06. Why didn't I hear of these peoples?"
"Ah. But this was in Upper Peru. You were further south, I believe."
Blair couldn't know of James' involvement in the invasion of the Rio de la Plata. His mission in the Argentine had been of the utmost secrecy, and beyond the Prince Regent and Sir Arthur, no others were aware of how vital, and eventually how futile, it had been.
"Tell me about these people."
"They called themselves Chopec." Blair settled himself comfortably on the bed beside James' hip, his warmth seeming to cross the small space that separated them. "Certain young men would leave their village and go into the jungle to commune there in solitude accompanied only by their spirit guide."
Blair nodded. "The bird or animal that would guide them on their vision quest." He warmed to his subject, his mobile features alight with enthusiasm. "If the gods favored them, they would return with their sight and hearing enhanced beyond that of the rest of their tribe."
"And if the gods didn't favor them?"
Blair shrugged. "They returned, if they returned, as ordinary men."
"How could these sentries manage their senses, though? For there must be a way to manage them, else surely it would drive them mad!"
"There were other members of the tribe who looked after them, guided them, brought them back when they fell too deeply into their visions. Sometimes the guide was a young woman, and they would... I imagine the closest equivalent in English would be 'wed.'" James was surprised to see color mount the young Rom's cheeks. "But sometimes the guide also was male."
"Were there no female sentries?"
"None of which I'd heard. It was a patriarchal society, you see."
"In that case, I imagine it must have been difficult for both men."
"Actually, no, my lord. They lived together in much the same manner as the male and female pairs."
"As man and wife?"
Blair hesitated a moment, worrying his lower lip, then said, "Yes. Does that shock you?"
Entranced by the way those white teeth left indentations on Blair's lush lower lip, James almost lost track of the conversation once again.
"My lord? Have I succeeded in shocking you?"
"Indeed, no." He wasn't inclined to make mention that the idea of a male guide wouldn't be repugnant to him only if by chance that guide should prove to be Blair. However, he recalled Blair's blush, and was reluctant to alienate the only person who had given him a glimmer of hope that he might not be a fit candidate for Bedlam. "What you're telling me is that I am one of these sentries? That the French confining me to that dungeon is what caused my senses to... to sharpen?"
"Yes!" Blair was pleased to see him so quickly understand.
"How do I manage them, then? I have no guide- " A green and yellow melancholy descended upon him at the thought of dealing with this alone.
"I know the way of it, and if you've no objection, then I will pass on my knowledge to you."
"You will?" James closed his eyes and sent a silent 'thank you' to his maker. Blair would not be leaving him, not soon at any rate. "Does that mean you'll... you'll live with me as a married couple might?" He scowled, disliking the idea that Blair might have done this before. His scowl darkened at the unexpected twinge of jealousy. He'd never been the jealous sort, and yet now he found himself resentful of the fact that another might have known Blair in the Biblical sense. "Have you... "
"What I have or have not done is immaterial, my lord." Blair's expression became closed off, shutting him out. "My past can hardly be of interest to a man of your lordship's breeding."
"I beg your pardon," James said stiffly. "You're correct. Your past is your past, and I've no right to question you. Although you offend me by insinuating my breeding has anything to do with... with anything. I beg your pardon," he repeated, awash in misery. He was succeeding in alienating the one person who had offered him a glimmer of hope.
"You're being idiotish again, my lord." Blair's fingers were gentle on his cheek. "Now if you will permit me to continue?"
James opened his mouth to protest but then he was snared by Blair's startlingly blue eyes and decided it was unimportant; he'd pursue it another time.
"Now then, as I was saying, when I told the Chopecs- "
"You were able to communicate with them?"
Blair's expression became one of mild exasperation. "But of course, James. We would never have got anywhere otherwise."
"I'm assuming you had quite a number of men on this expedition. Wasn't there an interpreter among them?"
"No, my lord. I was there alone. You might say I was on a vision quest of my own."
Alone? Recalling his time in South America, James was horrified. Any number of things, all of them deadly, could have occurred, and the result would have been he would never have met Blair. Of course he couldn't say as much. He'd always been one to give his bits of muslin their conge if they ever showed any indication of clinging to him. Therefore, he would conceal his dismay. "Ah, I see. And you were with them long enough to learn their language?"
"Not very long, no, but it wasn't difficult. I know any number of languages. You see, we Rom speak the language of the country we're in, using our own language only when we're with another of our people."
James lay his hand upon Blair's, which rested, apparently unknowing, on his knee. "You appear distressed, my friend."
"Not at all."
"Still, something has disturbed you."
"And you're able to tell?" Blair gave him a quizzical look, then shook his head and smiled to himself. "'Heaven and earth, Horatio,'" he murmured. "They wanted me to stay. The chief's son was in need of a guide. There were others of the tribe who would gladly have accepted that honor, but he wanted me."
James felt another flare of jealousy as he pictured Blair and this unknown man twined about each other under the swollen South American moon. The thought of his affianced wife dallying with someone in his absence had not affected him a quarter as much. "Did something happen to him?"
"No, my lord. Why would you think so?"
"You are here and not there."
"I couldn't stay. He was not my Orinda." Blair spoke the word in a language unfamiliar to James, and then he colored up and looked away. "As well my own people had need of me."
"And your people must always come first." James knew well the responsibility of having others depending on him. How foolish of him to think even for a moment Blair would be staying with him, would even want to. Still, he had to ask. "How... how long will you remain here at Cascade then?"
"But I told you, James. For as long as you have need of me."
"And you'll teach me the way of managing my senses?" When Blair seemed to hesitate, he rushed into speech. "I will give you whatever you desire if you will but- "
"Your father said much the same thing, my lord. It is not wise to promise so rashly."
James' mouth was set in a firm line. "If you can help me, then whatever price you name will be well worth it."
"Indeed? Well, we shall see. But remember your words, my lord, if on my naming it, you deem the... the cost too high." Was there a touch of melancholy in Blair's words?
No, it must be James' fancy, for there was a faint smile on the Gypsy's lips. James couldn't tear his eyes from those lips, the curve of the upper, the lush fullness of the lower.
In an effort to avoid a spell, he forced himself to look away and said the first thing that came to mind. "You say my father promised you whatever you chose to name?"
"Why do you appear surprised? He cares greatly about you."
"So greatly, in fact, that he's never come to see how I go on?" He should have been ashamed at how sulky he sounded, but in truth, he was hurt his Grace had never made a single attempt to come to Cascade.
"Mr. Taggert told me his Grace has been here a number of times. He would hardly lie, I think."
James frowned. "This must be more of Stoddard's doing!"
"He actually told you his Grace hadn't come to see you? But what could he hope to gain?"
"Not in so many words, but his attitude all but cried it out. As to what he hoped to gain... " He shrugged, but he intended to give it more thought. "Now, you were going to teach me?"
"Let us begin. Imagine, if you will, the face of your pocket watch."
James closed his eyes, and fingertips ghosted over his forehead. He concentrated so intently on them that it was as if he could feel each ridge and swirl.
"Gently, James. Now, imagine the sense that is most distressing to you is set at twelve sharp. Wind the hands of the watch backwards until you find an hour where you're no longer distressed."
James opened his eyes and stared at him in wonderment. "So simple?" But then he frowned. "Those primitive people didn't have pocket watches!"
Blair laughed. "No, indeed they didn't. They used what methods were familiar to them." A tap on the door prevented Blair from explaining further.
James couldn't resist giving him a triumphant smile.
"Very well, my lord, I concede. They would not enter if the door were closed." He rose to unbolt it, and Taggert entered with a tray bearing bread and cheese enough for two, and two tankards of ale. "Mr. Taggert!"
He met Blair's concerned eyes. "No need to worry, young sir. Mr. Brown is in the kitchen keeping an eye on things."
"Thank you! I'd completely forgot when I asked for you to bring something for Lord James."
"Forgot what?" James demanded. And then, "Brown? My batman, Brown?"
"Aye, my lord. Blair found him in Spitalfields and brought him along."
"What was Brown doing in Spitalfields?"
"He'd been injured the day you were taken, my lord, and had taken up residence in an inn there. When he learned I was coming to Cascade, he asked to come as well, and I saw no reason to leave him behind."
"Injured? I was unaware!"
"Isn't likely you would be aware, my lord, seeing as how you were knocked senseless when the shell exploded nearby." Taggert looked around for a place to set down the tray. "He told me about it on our journey here. It... it cost him his leg, and if your lordship is unable to find a position for him here at Cascade- "
"You wound me, Taggert. Of course I'll find a place for him here!"
"Thank you." He cleared his throat. "If I may say, you're looking much better, my lord."
"However not so much better that he can be nattering on when we all know very well he's fagged to death." Blair took the tray from Taggert and placed it on the night table beside James. He sliced off a piece of the cheese and tasted it before offering another piece to James.
James was tempted to encourage Blair to feed him with his fingers but knew that would shock Taggert, so contented himself with taking it in his own fingers. "You didn't answer my question when I asked what you'd forgot, Blair." He arched an eyebrow and bit into the cheese, pleased to note it was one of the milder varieties.
"The young sir wanted me to keep an eye on the preparation of your food, my lord."
"You said your soup was constantly over-salted. I found that troublesome."
"Yes, that was worrying to me as well, since Mrs. Sullivan has known since I was a child that I couldn't abide heavily spiced meals."
Blair frowned, a surprisingly grim expression, and exchanged glances with Taggert. "If you'll excuse me, my lord, I must... see to my horse."
"Of course." If there was one thing a soldier knew and accepted without question, it was the importance of his mount being groomed, fed, and watered.
Still, he regarded the door somewhat wistfully after Blair departed.
"I like him, my lord, in spite of him being a Gypsy."
"Aye. There was none of that Gypsy humbug about him on the journey. I feared at first the men might be wary of traveling with him, but after a bit it was like he was any Englishman."
"Hmmm." James was pleased that the men had seemed to get along with Blair. If he persuaded Blair to remain with him, it would be good if his people liked him, or at least were comfortable around him.
He worried his lower lip. Would he be able to persuade Blair to remain with him? Given the slight pause when Blair had warned him he might regret promising to give Blair whatever he might name, did he dare hope the price would be remaining at James' side? He didn't think it likely he'd be able to accord the young man all the delights of the Ton, for even if he could manage his senses, he'd never taken much pleasure from the overcrowded, overheated ballrooms or the gaming hells, but perhaps, since Blair was a Gypsy, residing at Cascade would suit him?
Of course the Duke would not be best pleased with James, and he'd no doubt have to relinquish all rights to the dukedom. Would his father also make him leave Cascade? He loved this land, indeed had been born in this very house.
He became aware of Taggert lingering beside his bed. "Was there something else, Taggert?"
"Begging your pardon, my lord, but Stoddard is demanding to speak with you."
"'Demanding,' you say?" Damme, the man had his nerve! He was certain there was more to this than met the eye, and waited to hear what else Taggert might say.
"Well, you see... I've locked him in his room. If I've overstepped my bounds, Lord James... "
James waved that consideration aside. After all, he'd known Taggert forever, and trusted him, while Stoddard had only come to his father's employ within the last six months. "I'll see him after I've dined."
"Mrs. Sullivan said it will be some time before your dinner is ready."
James smiled, his resemblance to his Grace suddenly very evident. "That will be fine, as I have much to discuss with Blair. Oh, and Taggert? I seem to recall Stoddard having no great liking for pig's cheek. If it should prove that is all there is left for him to dine upon... "
"Aye, my lord. I take your meaning. I'll leave you for now." Smiling grimly, Taggert gave a short bow and let himself out of the room.
Where was Blair? Surely it wasn't taking him all this time to stable his mount?
James frowned. If turning back the hands of his 'watch' brought his senses under rein, then loosing them...
He wanted to hear, so carefully he extended his hearing. There was the housemaid Jane, flirting with one of the footmen, giggling and protesting as the man stole a kiss.
In the kitchen, Brown spoke to Taggert of their time in the Peninsula, when Lord James had ridden alongside the column of his men in a torrential Portuguese rainstorm, damning their eyes, but keeping them from falling out.
You will tell me why you were willing to endanger the Marquis of Cascade.
I haven't done any such thing! And besides, why should I tell you anything? You're naught but a Gypsy!
Yes, I am a Gypsy, and you would do well to remember that. You've no doubt heard tales of what we can do.
Banbury tales made up to frighten children! Well, I'm not a child, and I'm not frightened!
No? Then you're a fool, for you should be!
What... What are you doing?
James winced as Stoddard's shriek hurt his ears, and he started to 'unwind' his 'watch,' then paused. That shriek wasn't one of pain - he knew only too well what that sounded like, not least of all because he'd heard his men as they'd fallen that day at Badajos. No, it was more a sound of fright.
What the deuce was Blair doing?
He caught the whisper of Blair's voice, and wound his 'watch' again.
... slice the skin from your body as if I were dressing my prey.
Wait! WAIT! I'll tell you whatever you want to know!
Of course you will, but do you know? I don't think I want to wait.
There was another shriek, and this time it was of pain. James extended his sense of smell. There was a coppery tang about the man, but nothing to indicate Stoddard was in imminent danger of bleeding to death. James had no intention of reaching for the bell pull that hung from the wall beside his bed. He didn't think Blair would truly hurt the man, and at any rate, he wanted to hear what Stoddard had to say.
Oh, god! Oh, god! I'm dying!
You're chicken-livered, d'you know that, Stoddard? I've barely scratched you! Now, I believe you were going to talk to me? James was stunned by the cold steel in Blair's voice. It was the last thing he would have expected from the young Rom.
It... it was all Earl Kincaid's doing! He's punting on the River Tick, and he desperately needs the ready. The heiress he'd planned to wed eloped with another man, and his creditors were starting to hound him. There was no way he could get Lady Carolyn to end the engagement, not without bringing the disapproval of the Ton down on him, but when Lord James returned from the Peninsula... incapacitated, it seemed to be perfect.
And so you thought to prey upon his lordship's inability to bear bright lights or loud noises.
Yes. NO! It was all the Earl's doing, I swear! And the Duke didn't have to hire me! There were any number of men he could just as well have taken on!
And yet he chose you. Why was that, I wonder?
NO! Keep that knife away from me, I pray you! It was a... a letter from a trusted friend!
Whose trusted friend?
His Grace's... There was a long pause, and then another cry.
I grow weary of your nonsense.
No, please! Not my John Thomas!
Then you will be truthful with me. The Duke of Rainier may be a hard man, but his friends are loyal to a fault.
Yes, but he was desperate. And... James could hear the resignation in Stoddard's voice. Earl Kincaid ever had a way with copying the hand of others.
And of course his Grace would have no reason to think it aught than a concerned friend endeavoring to come to his aid.
No. What... what are you going to do to me?
I? Nothing. I believe I'll leave that to his Grace.
A moan and sobs followed Blair as he left the room and closed and locked the door behind him.
So that was the way of it. Fiendish clever of Earl Kincaid. Things had been bad before Stoddard had arrived on the scene, but afterwards, they'd grown even worse. James didn't doubt that if Blair hadn't come to him, the distress of his unmanageable senses would have left him with no recourse but to put a bullet in his brain.
He clenched his hands into fists, feeling the blunt nails gouge the flesh of his palms, and deliberately loosed them. No matter what the law, he'd challenge Kincaid to pistols at dawn.
As for Stoddard...
James thought of the times Stoddard had come to that miserable room under the eaves, ostensibly to see to his care, but somehow afterwards, James always felt the worse.
He thought of the sour odor of Stoddard's body and his breath as he leaned over James. And he recalled all too well Stoddard drawing his attention to that crystal above his bed.
It would not do for anything to happen to Stoddard before he could be questioned by James himself.
James relaxed back against the pillows and reached for a piece of the cheese Blair had sliced for him, and waited for Blair to return.
Watered and fed, Enqueri had settled nicely into the box stall Sarris, the head groom, had shown him. "I think we could be very happy here, al meu frumos baiat. What do you think?"
Enqueri raised his head from the manger where he'd been sampling the hay. He nickered softly, rubbed his head against Blair's chest, then went back to his meal.
Blair laughed and patted his stallion's neck. "Yes, there are many lovely mares here," he murmured in Rom. "Perhaps Lord James will permit you to mate with them. You would get many fine colts and fillies, Enqueri." And perhaps Lord James would mate with him? He knew the gadje looked askance upon such actions, but he'd sensed his lordship's interest. Would he be willing to go against the beliefs of his people?
With a final tug on Enqueri's mane, Blair left the stable. It was growing late, past the time he normally dined, and he was hungry. He was also hungry to see his lordship again.
He entered the house and sauntered up the stairs.
"Ah, young sir. I was just about to send to the stables for you. I've brought dinner to Lord James, and he requests that you dine with him."
"Thank you, Mr. Taggert. I fear I need to freshen up a bit first. Can you tell me where my room is?"
"Oh, you'll be staying in the dressing room off Lord James' chamber. Your boxes have been brought there, as well as water so you can have a wash."
Blair smiled, pleased that he would be close to Lord James. His grandmother had promised him that one day he would find his orinda, and now here it seemed that he had.
"Er... you might wish to change into clothes more suitable."
"More suitable for what? Lord James will be dining en dishabille."
"We've had word that his Grace will be arriving shortly."
"Indeed?" Didn't the Duke believe he could entrust his son's welfare to him? "Very well."
Taggert touched his arm. "Thank you, young sir, for giving us back Lord James."
"There is still much that needs to be done, for Stoddard has tried to cause a deal of damage."
"Tried, but not succeeded?"
"No. His lordship is much stronger than either Stoddard or his master anticipated."
"Aye, but even the strongest of men can be beaten down in time. It was well done that his Grace sent you to Lord James."
Taggert bowed and took himself off, and Blair continued to Lord James' apartments.
The door was closed. He raised his hand to knock, then paused, smiled, and went in.
The Duke of Rainier, boots and greatcoat bespattered with the mud of a hard journey, strode into Prospect Hall, Simon hard on his heels.
Reeves, the butler who oversaw the manor house, followed after, panting as he tried to keep up.
Taggert was just coming down the stairs. "Your Grace! We did not expect you quite so soon!"
"How is my son?"
"In fine fettle, your Grace!"
"Thank god! And Stoddard?"
"Locked in his room."
"Even better! I'll speak with him after I've seen my son and refreshed myself."
"I'll inform Mrs. Sullivan that you're here." Reeves straightened himself, brushing fretfully at the mud on his coat. This was his domain, after all. "Shall I have her prepare a light repast for you, your Grace?"
"If you will, Reeves."
Taggert chuckled. "It seems Stoddard will have to wait even longer for his dinner." He went on to explain, "Lord James ordered pig's cheek to be brought to him after everyone else had dined."
Reeves looked startled. "But Mr. Stoddard detests pig's cheek!"
Taggert clapped him on the back, nearly knocking him to the floor.
The Duke smiled to himself. It seemed his son had inherited some of his own deviousness.
Removing his greatcoat, he handed it to Reeves. "Thank you."
"Your... your Grace?"
"For being concerned enough to write me about what was occurring here."
Reeves puffed out his narrow chest and bowed. "I but did my duty, your Grace."
"You will find me most grateful for that." The Duke turned and strode toward the stairs.
"I... thank you, your Grace," Reeves called after him. "I'll see about your repast."
His Grace took the stairs two at a time to his son's chambers. With the most perfunctory of knocks, he opened the door and entered, then came to an abrupt halt at the sight that met his eyes.
On the bed was not only his son but Naomi's son as well.
James, for all the world like a great cat, lay back on his pillows, while Blair fed him with his fingers.
"My- my lord? The door was closed!" Blair scrambled off the bed and stared at the Duke, his dismay obvious.
"Well, indeed you could hardly expect his Grace the Duke of Rainier to be stopped by a closed door." James smiled ruefully at the Gypsy. "And it's quite your own fault, you know, that I didn't hear him coming. I was so lost in your beaux yeux that I paid no heed to what was going on elsewhere in the Hall." He met his father's eyes. "Good evening, Father."
"James. I'm pleased to see you give every appearance of being on the mend, unlike the last time I was here."
"You here, sir? I wasn't aware."
"Of course I'd be here! Damme, you're my son!"
"Thank you, sir."
"Taggert informed me Stoddard is locked in his room. I should like to have a talk with him. I've already had a... talk with Earl Kincaid." The Duke smiled in grim pleasure, recalling Kincaid's shock as he'd informed him his seconds would call on him in the morning. Even greater was his pleasure at the sight of Kincaid lying dead not twelve yards from him. His Grace was an excellent shot, and at that distance there was no doubt he would miss.
James felt his jaw drop, and Blair closed it with gentle fingers. "He awaits your pleasure, your Grace."
"You knew, sir? But how could you know?" his son demanded.
"That was Reeves' doing. He didn't care for the way Stoddard appeared to be taking over the household. He took the liberty of writing to me about it, and came to Rainier when I sent for him for clarification. I made some inquiries, and learned the truth of the matter." And at this point, that was all he intended to tell his son. "You're well-loved by your people, James. I'm pleased to see that."
"You taught me well, sir."
The Duke cleared his throat gruffly. Ellisons were never ones to wear their emotions on their sleeves, not least of all with family.
"I... I have to tell you, sir, that I cannot marry Carolyn. She loves my brother, and I couldn't stand in Steven's way."
"I see. May I ask what your plans are?"
"If... if you permit, sir, I'll remain here at Cascade for a time. But I must tell you Blair will be staying with me."
"You did say I could name my own price, your Grace."
"My price is your son."
"And you, apparently, agree with this, James?"
"I do, sir."
"Hmm. I'll need to give this some thought."
"Whatever you decide, your Grace, be assured that I will not leave Lord James' side."
"Father, you did promise- "
"I know very well what I promised, James." He eyed the two younger men, then turned on his heel. "I will give you my decision in the morning."
The Duke stood watching as the happy couple made their way down the aisle. He'd never seen his son look so pleased, and Lady Carolyn, a radiant smile on her face, was beautiful enough to steal any man's breath.
Well, perhaps any man's whose breath hadn't already been stolen away. He smiled down at the woman who stood at his side. "I have much to thank you for, Naomi."
"Even though this did not end quite the way you'd planned?"
"Isn't the saying 'man plans, and god... ' does something or other?"
She laughed, a trill of sound that left him happy, and yet also saddened, for shortly she would be leaving.
"I'll return soon, I promise, William. The Rom have been good to me, and for them to lose both me and my son... They need time to find a new Chovihano."
He took her hands and kissed first one and then the other.
"Father, we must take our leave."
"James. Has it become too much for you?"
"Devil a bit!" James smiled at his father, and William was amazed at the change six months had wrought. The gray cast was gone from his skin, and he'd put on weight. There was also an aura of content about him that the Duke could not remember seeing. "We've the spring planting to see to, as well as the new crop of foals."
Steven came to him. "Thank you, James."
"For what, brother? I've given you nothing."
"On the contrary. You've given me Carolyn." He beamed at his bride and drew her close. "And you've promised Rainier to our children."
James shrugged. "Rainier needs an Ellison, and since it can't be me, who better than you?"
"I'll thank you young pups to recall I haven't cocked up my toes yet!"
"No, Father, and god willing, not for a very long time." James turned to bid his brother and new sister farewell, and then shook hands with his father. "Be well, sir. And... and thank you."
"You're my son, James. Could I do any less for you?"
"No, sir. I mean for sending me Blair."
His Grace smiled and repeated, "Could I do any less for you?" It had proved not as devastating a denouement as it might have been, for William had wrestled with the fact that his eldest son might not survive to become Duke of Rainier. If being in the company of the Gypsy kept James not only alive but sane as well, then he was satisfied.
James did something he'd never done. He embraced his father.
The Duke accepted the embrace, then stepped back, clearing his throat. "Where's Blair?"
"Here, your Grace." He approached, leading Enqueri, his brown stallion, and the horse he'd promised James, a dish-faced gray James had also named Incacha.
"Naomi." Blair went to his mother, embracing her and kissing her cheek. "We'll see you soon?"
"Oh, yes, my son."
"Are you ready?" Blair's lips formed the words 'my- James,' but although no sound issued from those perfect lips, although no one else heard them, James did.
"Yes, my orinda." James came to him and gripped his hand. "Let's go home."
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Note: This is a Regency, and as such, is completely and utterly AU. I've brought in any number of The Sentinel cast. Some good I've made bad, some bad I've made good, and some just had no redeeming qualities, so in any century bad was all they could hope to be. Windy Gyle is a hill in the Cheviot Hills on the English-Scottish border. Needless to say, there is no estate there called Cascade. Prinny is what the Prince Regent was called. Also, Badajos is the British spelling. Upper Peru is what Bolivia was called at the time Blair would have been there. For those who might be upset by what I did to Brown, keep in mind that before Lister, only 2 soldiers out of 100 survived battlefield injuries. The Brutus was a classically inspired haircut of the period, clipped quite short on the back and sides, with the curls at the front combed forward. Gadje is anyone not Rom. Orinda is Romanian for fate or destiny. Al meu frumos baiat, which Blair calls his horse, is also Romanian and translates roughly to 'my handsome lad.' The horse Blair gave James was an Arabian, and the dish face is a characteristic of the breed. Thanks to Patt for asking me to trib to this anniversary zine, and to the fantastic people who helped make sure this all tied together: Wolfsbride, who's willing to answer the strangest questions, Tim Mead, who looked it over with a professor's eye, Drew Hunt who cast a British eye over it, Cathy, who made sure things were consistent for that period, and as always, to Gail, beta par excellence.