We spent the remaining few weeks of the journey camping, for the most part. There were a few inns and taverns along the way, as we were on the main road, where we managed to purchase enough food to supply us until the next stop.
I was always nervous about entering these establishments, in case Leslie and Charles had made our conflict public knowledge. If they were smart, which they were assuredly not, they would keep their lips sealed. So far, it seemed that they had. None of the innkeepers or fellow travelers seemed suspicious of us. I could only hope that, if they did break the news, we would be able to make it to London before it caught up to us. There, we would have the protection of Hal and Minnie.
We were currently seated in the taproom of an inn about three days ride from London. Graham was attempting to feed Klara some mashed up concoction provided by the servant maid. “She shouldna even be eatin’ that yet,” the young woman scoffed as she set down the bowl. “She’s no’ but a wein.”
“I appreciate your concern, Miss, but she will be just fine.”
The maid rolled her eyes and scurried away in a plumage of skirts. Graham pinched the bridge of his nose. “I need coffee.”
“There are plenty of coffee houses in London. For now, tea is the best you’re going to get.”
Graham took a sip from his cup and wrinkled his nose. “I suppose now’s as good a time as ever to finally conquer my caffeine addiction,” he said, placing the cup back on the saucer and pushing it away.
“You know, when we get to Hal and Minnie’s, people will find your aversion to tea odd,” I noted, sipping from my own cup. It wasn’t the best brew I’d ever had, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as Graham made it out to be.
He took another sip, trying not to make a face. “It tastes like grass.”
“I assure you, it does not.”
“Really? Have you ever tried grass?”
I shook my head, “Well, no. But I don’t suppose you have either.”
“Well you suppose wrong, Mr. Grey.”
“It’s ‘Lord’ Grey- or ‘Lord John’- whichever you prefer. And why on Earth would you do such a thing?”
“There’s no way I am calling you ‘Lord’ anything. And if you’ve never eaten grass, I’m sorry to tell you that your childhood sucked.”
I chuckled. “You’re going to have to call me that in front of my family and friends. Tell me, why does eating horse-food make one’s childhood superior?”
“Fine, ‘Lord John,’” Graham rolled his eyes, “Are you telling me you’ve never played pretend?”
I pondered his question, “I suppose I have. Hal and I used to pretend to be knights battling a dragon. And I’d play similar nursery games with my nephews when they were children. It didn’t require us to eat grass, though.”
Graham scoffed playfully. “Knights? That’s a yawn and a half compared to my childhood antics.”
I raised a brow. “Really? Well, please indulge me.”
“Well, in true only-child fashion, I’d play with my dog.”
“I believe you mean ‘oh yes,’ John. Sorry, ‘Lord’ John. I would get down on my hands and knees, wiggle my backside, and dig holes in the yard with Buddy.”
“Oh, of course. Please, continue.”
“Thank you. I also barked on occasion, but that’s where my parents drew the line.”
“Thank God for them. And I’m missing the part where eating grass is relevant.”
“Well, I was five years old. I thought all animals ate grass. I was a method actor.” Graham looked down at Klara, who had nodded off in his lap. “Do you need us to get a dog so you can have a friend to play with?”
“Dear God, no,” I laughed. “Anyways, she’ll have Mandy.”
“Ah yes, and they can eat grass in the yard with our dog *together*”
I sighed in defeat. Graham hadn’t been his usual scamp-self lately, so I couldn’t help but smile at his antics. His moods had oscillated between peaks of aloofness and valleys of anxiety. I took the changes as they came, being all too familiar with the transition into a new world myself. I only hoped that, after the events of September, he would still be able to adjust. He had told me he just needed me to be there for him, and that was precisely what I planned on doing.
I rolled over in my sleep, my arm reaching instinctively to wrap around Graham beside me. To my surprise, my hand came down into the grass. I felt the panic surge through me and my eyes shot open. Klara was still sleeping soundly on Graham’s coat, but he was nowhere to be found.
I sat up, and scanned the darkness around us. “Graham?” I whispered into the empty space. Standing, I looked around again. Still no sign of him. His horse was still here, but I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.
I closed my eyes, listening for any noises indicative of Graham being hauled away by bandits or thumping hoofbeats. I heard none, but there was a faint noise. I could barely hear it under the chirping of crickets and the bellowing of bullfrogs from the nearby pond. I felt a pang in my chest, recognizing it instantly. Graham was nearby, and he was crying.
I carefully scooped up Klara, not having the desire to risk her disappearance too. She stirred, but didn’t bother to wake up. I walked towards the pond, Graham’s sobs getting louder and more painful to hear with each step. Eventually, I came across him seated on a rock by the water’s edge, half-hidden by reeds.
“Graham, sweetheart,” I whispered, coming up behind him cautiously. He scooted over and I sat next to him. His face was still in his knees, curled up in a fetal pose. I pulled my knees up to my chest, resting Klara on my thighs so I had a free arm to wrap over Graham’s shoulder. The sight of him sent another pang through me.
He made an attempt to stifle his sobs a bit. “I’m sorry,” he rasped, “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Nonsense. Do you want to talk about it?” I whispered.
He looked up, the blotches and tear stains around his eyes and cheeks noticeable even in the pale moonlight. “I’ve just been having nightmares. I try not to wake you when it happens since you’re always so tired when we go to sleep.”
Another pang dug into my heart. “Oh Graham, you can always wake me up. How many times has this happened?”
“Every night since I- you know…”
I rubbed my hand under the loose neckline of his nightshirt, rubbing away the tension in his shoulders. “I presume such events are the subject of your nightmares?”
He nodded. “It keep seeing myself shove the blade into his back and the blood spurting onto my hands. It just replays over and over and I can’t make it stop.” Another sob escaped his lungs.
“May I ask why you felt the need to hide it from me? Was it only to let me sleep?”
“No,” he shook his head, looking out into the still water of the pond, “I knew that you would want to talk about it, and I’m scared of that.”
“You can tell me anything, Graham. No matter how dark or frightening, it will not scare me away.” I wanted so badly for him to look at me, but his gaze remained fixed on the pond.
“I’m a murderer, John.”
I had to do a double take at his declaration. “Your actions were clearly a product of self-defense-”
“-He’s dead because of me. That means I killed him. I’m a murderer.” Graham buried his head in his knees again and I rubbed his back.
“If he was dead as a result of your actions, your logic might hold. But he is dead because of his own decisions. He held the gun to my head. He tried to disarm me. None of that was caused by you.”
Graham made a face as if he were about to yell something, but his eyes flicked towards Klara. He settled for bawling his fists instead. “I could have reasoned with him. Why did I have to stab him? I fucking stabbed him!”
“He would have woken the other men, who would have killed you on the spot. Perhaps Klara and I would have lived solely because of my value to them and her innocence, but you would have been killed. We were outnumbered and I was close to becoming disarmed.”
His fists remained tight, his knuckles turning white.
I sighed. “Had you not done what you did, you would be dead. An act of self-preservation in an instance of danger does not make a man a murderer.”
Graham’s fists loosened and he turned his head. Finally, he was looking at me.
“I have no doubt that you’re right John. But I still killed him. That is a fact that I have no idea how to cope with. I need you.”
Pang. Dear God, if only had awoken several nights before. I squeezed his arm, offering a reassuring look. “I’m here,” I said. “What do you need?”
Graham’s features relaxed and he leaned into me. “Some goddamn sleep.”
“I feel like I’m on a movie set,” Graham said as we walked through the bustling streets. He was smiling like a child in a sweets shop.
“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying it thus far. But remember, you have to look sad when we get to the house. That way, Hal and Minnie will be more likely to take you under their protection.”
Graham nodded, “My wife is dead. Someone tried to kill me.” He wiped the grin from his face.
“That should suffice.”
We walked the last couple of blocks, eventually coming to a stop in front of the familiar facade. It was odd to see the ducal residency, a place that had always provided safety and security, and feel unsettled. Still, my legs carried me down the familiar carriage path instinctively.
“Good afternoo-” the butler who answered the door froze, his mouth hanging open. “My- my Lord.” He stepped aside, allowing us into the foyer. “I shall call on the Duke and Duchess at once.”
I held up a hand, stopping him mid-turn. “Thank you, but that will not be necessary. Is the Duke in his study?”
The butler nodded.
“Take us to him.”
Hal was bent over his desk, piles of paperwork and ledgers spread haphazardly. He did not look up when the butler entered.
“Has the post arrived yet, Dwight?”
“I’m afraid not, Your Grace. But some unexpected guests have arrived. Shall I send them in?”
Hal tensed. “I’m not in the mood to accept visitors. Tell them I’m indisposed.”
I stepped into the doorframe. “I suppose I could just come back at a more opportune time then.”
Hal’s head shot up and he stared at me blankly for a moment. “My God, brother.” He stood and made his way towards me. His eyes moved over me, a grin slowly appearing on his face. “What have you done to your hair?”
I ran a hand over my head, having not thought about my cropped locks until now. I must have looked quite odd indeed. “It has been too long since we’ve seen each other, Hal.”
He smiled, pulling me into an embrace. “You have a lot of explaining to do. We thought you were dead.” He glanced over my shoulder into the hallway. “Who is this?”
I stepped aside, “This, brother, is Mr. Graham Nowak and his daughter Klara. The story of our circumstances is quite long, but the crux is that we are indebted to each other. I am planning on traveling with him the rest of the way back to the colonies.”
“Good afternoon, Your Grace,” Graham removed his hat and bowed politely, just as I had taught him.
Hal nodded to him. “Welcome, Mr. Nowak.” He then turned to Dwight, “Fetch the Duchess and instruct the kitchen staff to bring tea to the parlor.”
“Right away, Your Grace.” Dwight hurried off,
“Please, join me in the parlor. I intend to hear a viable explanation for your absence this past year.”
He was angry. I would have to thank Graham later for his presence. Had there not been company, Hal probably would have started yelling the second I stepped over the threshold.
Minnie was pacing in the parlor when we entered, turning excitedly as we entered. “Oh, John!” She flung herself into my arms, holding on for a bit longer than was considered polite for such an introduction. Hal coughed and she let go, sending a subtle glare to her husband. “I have been worried sick about you.
“My sincere apologies, Minnie. Allow me to introduce Mr. Graham Nowak and his daughter.”
Graham bowed one again. Minnie ignored it through, instead reaching for Klara. Graham gave her a nod and she plucked her from his arms. “Oh, what a sweet thing. What is her name?”
“Klara Maria, Your Grace,” Graham said. He glanced nervously at me.
“What a beautiful name for a beautiful girl. May I ask, what inspired the name Maria? It is of Spanish origin, is it not?”
“It was a name from her late mother. She had Spanish ties herself.”
“Oh, well that explains her big brown eyes then.” Minnie smiled at Klara. She really did have Alyssa’s eyes.
I could see Hal twitching impatiently. Minnie noticed it too. “Well,” she said, “If you would like, we would be happy to have one of the servants help Klara to get settled. She must be tired after all that travel.”
I could tell that the last thing Graham wanted to do was surrender Klara to a stranger. He hesitated, glancing at me.
“Mr. Nowak has not been away from his daughter since the passing of his wife.” Neither had I, but I knew Minnie’s maidstaff was more than capable. I hoped that my calm demeanor would reassure Graham.
Minnie gave Graham a sympathetic look. “I assure you, she will be in good hands.”
Graham relaxed slightly. “Of course, Your Grace. I appreciate your hospitality.”
Minnie waved to the servant who had accompanied her to the parlor. The girl gleefully took Klara from Minnie and whisked her out of the room.
Despite being grateful that Klara would have proper tending to, her absence caused unease. Minnie and Hal didn’t think twice of it, however, and moved on to what they considered to be more important matters.
“So, Mr. Nowak, tell me how you came to know my brother.”
Hal had a shrewd knack for conversational interrogation. It was clear that Graham was the less socially advantaged of the two of us, and Hal seemed to pick up on it instantly.
“Of course, Your Grace.” Graham explained the story we had concocted about the thieves in the Highlands and our all-too-real kidnapping. Hal’s eyebrows shot up in surprise when Graham mentioned the men’s plan to murder him.
“How ever did you escape?”
“Luckily, the men were idiots,” I jumped in. “We managed to secure our valuables and daggers so we could free ourselves from their knots.”
“And no one was injured, I presume?”
I shook my head. “The driver held me at gunpoint. Gr- Mr. Nowak defended me valiantly.”
Hal sighed. I could tell he was convinced of our story, but he was still wary. “I see you two are indebted to each other indeed. Mr. Nowak, you and your daughter are welcome to stay here until it comes time for your departure to the colonies. I’ll have the servants direct you to your quarters so you can recover from your journey.”
I moved to follow them out of the room, but was stopped by Hal. “Just a moment, John.”
We were left alone in the parlor. “Is there something you would like to discuss further?”
Hal crossed his arms. “Why were you in the Highlands? The letter you left with the Frasers indicated you were in Boston.”
I tried not to look nervous about Hal’s interrogation. “I needed to leave Boston, but the only ships allowed through the barricade at the time of my departure were heading to Scotland.”
Hal seemed to ponder this. “There has been a notable decrease in ships heading to England from the colonies since the war broke out.”
“Indeed. Are we quite finished? I would prefer to freshen up if you are amenable.”
Hal nodded, but he still glared at me questionably. I was being too dismissive, I knew. But I also couldn’t allow him to interrogate me much further.
“It would be best to set this matter aside for now, yes. I am glad to have you home.”
The last part was genuine, despite the mystery of my disappearance remaining unresolved. “I am glad to be here.”
Graham and I had separate rooms, the doors of which were across from each other in a small alcove in the guest wing. Klara was most likely on the third floor, where the more familial chambers and nurseries were. The boys had long since found their own place in the world, and Dottie was apparently spending the week with some friends from finishing school (accompanied by the proper chaperone, I was assured). I hoped to see them soon, as I missed them dearly.
For the first time since coming through the stones, I bathed and dressed on my own. It was odd to have no one to talk to. I found myself muttering under my breath as I went about my business, voicing thoughts that would usually have been relayed to Graham.
“Talking to ourselves now, aren’t we?”
I started and turned to the doorway, where Minnie stood in an almost smug manner.
“It would have been more proper for you to knock, wouldn’t you agree?”
Minnie laughed and invited herself into the room. She sat in the armchair by the window. “Perhaps, but you know as much as I do that ‘proper’ and I are hardly acquainted outside the judgemental walls of social gatherings.”
“Well, even if you decided to discard propriety altogether, you are still a duchess. You may do as you please without having to worry about being judged or questioned.”
“At least not to my face,” Minnie laughed. “Speaking of…”
I pulled my attention away from the buttons on my waistcoat and eyed her suspiciously. “Speaking of what?”
“Improper discourse behind closed doors,” she raised a brow. “Putting on a front in the face of my proprietary eyes- namely my husband.”
“And so I repeat myself. There is nothing to discuss.”
Minnie rested an elbow on the arm of the chair, looking out the window as she spoke. “Alright then. Consider the matter dropped.”
“Ha! The day you discard suspicions, albeit ludicrous ones, that easily I swear I shall drop dead on the spot. So unless you would like to start discussing flower arrangements and eulogies with my mother, I suggest you refrain from playing games of the mind with me.”
She continued to casually stare out the window. “You know, when William informed us of your unusual letter, I couldn’t help but wonder why you made no effort to send correspondence using an alias or at least a cipher of some sort. That’s why I decided to write to some contacts in the colonies.”
“What sorts of contacts?” I felt my stomach drop, but managed not to let it show.
“People I met before I married your brother.”
Ah, so she was referring to spies and private investigators. But she was making no attempt to hide her suspicions of my alibi.
“I’m sure you came up with nothing, then. I made myself quite scarce whilst I was there. It would have been dangerous.”
“That’s the funny thing, John. They searched every inch of that city for you. Knocked on every door, checked every house.”
“Why on Earth would they do that?”
“When someone such as yourself disappears without a trace except a single letter, it is often a result of foul play. We were worried you had been kidnapped for political purposes and that the letter had been falsified somehow. But it seemed we were wrong.”
“If you mean to imply that I am lying about my whereabouts, then I’m afraid you are still wrong,” I said, eyeing her.
“Well, there is no proof that I am incorrect. Only that you are hiding something.”
“There is proof. The Frasers in Philadelphia would vouch for me, I assure you.”
Minnie glared at me. “They were the ones who gave William the letter. They are lucky not to have been arrested.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Minnie, I am here. I am well. I am telling you there was no foul play. I apologize for worrying you, but I’m afraid there is nothing more to tell.”
Minnie stood, “There is, and we both know it. You haven’t even begun to explain what that man and his daughter are doing here. You know as much as I do how unwise it is to allow him anywhere near Hal.”
I furrowed my brow. “I beg your pardon?”
She stepped closer. “I have an eye for these things. The sideways glances, your familiarity with each other-”
“We were kidnapped together.”
“There’s more than that. You don’t have to pretend with me. Only God can judge you, so it’s not my place to alter my opinion of you. I can try and keep Hal from picking up on it. But he is almost as perceptive as I am, and you know that. And he won’t be as forgiving.”
Memories of George Everett flashed through my mind. “I have no idea what you are talking about, Minnie,” I said calmly. “Now if you don’t mind, I have some business to attend to.”