When William at last arrived home to the house on Chestnut Street, he was soaked to the bone, shivering, and the aches were starting to settle in. His intention was to quietly procure himself a bath and fresh clothes, maybe a bowl of soup from the kitchen, and some time to himself to figure out what the bloody hell to do next.
No such luck, of course. Mother Claire caught him just as his boot landed on the lowest stair to go to his rooms. "Willie!" she exclaimed, and for a split second he seriously considered denying his own identity.
Willie suppressed a sigh and faced his step mother. "You weren't meant to see me like this," he said, trying to keep his swollen left eye open all the way.
"Oh was I not?" Mother Claire was on him then, inspecting every visible cut, gash, and bruise. "You are your father’s son," she muttered, giving him a displeased eye and not specifying which father she meant. "Were you trampled by a horse? For God's sake, come into the surgery, let's get you cleaned up."
Willie considered fleeing up the stairs—she couldn't catch him and physically drag him down by the ear, could she? But she gave him the Indisputable Glare and stared up at him expectantly. He did sigh then and trudged back down the hall and across the foyer to the drawing room she'd converted to a surgery, leaving wet boot prints in his wake.
Mother Claire pulled out a chair next to an alcohol lamp, which she lit. "Sit."
Willie sat. "I'm fine, truly."
"You're not, now tell me what happened." Mother Claire brought a bowl of clean water and a fresh cloth, which she moistened.
"I was trampled by a horse," he grumbled, stubbornly fixing his gaze on Claire's face.
“Is that so?” Mother Claire sized him up, squinting at him with those whisky cask eyes that noticed everything. Then the skepticism vanished, replaced by an expression of profound disinterest. Setting the bowl of water down on a table next to Willie's chair, she picked up an amber glass bottle, and splashed some of the contents onto her cloth. She touched his chin with the graceful fingers of her left hand and tilted his face up into the light, assessing him carefully. “Do you think I am a complete idiot?”
Willie frowned, grunting when the expression pulled on a cut on his cheek. “No—ow! That stings.”
Mother Claire dabbed the cloth on that same cut, with even, gentle pressure, her thumb coming down to pinch his chin between her fingers, holding him steady. “Yes it does. Hold still please, except to explain why you’re going to need sutures in your forehead and your eye is swollen nearly shut. Shit, I hope you’ve not fractured your orbital bone.” She swabbed his battered face more, and it stung each time.
"I'm fairly certain it's just a standard-issue black eye." Willie didn't want to talk about it. It didn't matter whether she believed he'd been trampled by a horse or if she realized he'd been in a fight.
"I see. And who issued it?" Mother Claire asked, but Willie didn’t answer. She pressed a dry bit of linen to his temple, starting to scowl. "Hold this, apply pressure. You're still bleeding." She turned away from him and fussed with her jars of herbs and potions, pouring, measuring, mixing. "What was the fight about? And did you win?"
Willie gaped at her, his pride wounded. “Are you implying that I’ve been brawling like an insolent schoolboy?”
Mother Claire arched a dark eyebrow at him, her lips tight and holding back laughter. “Are you implying that you were not?” She approached him again with a dish of some concoction or another that smelled of honey and God knew what else. “You didn’t answer either of my questions, Willie.” She took the linen from him and smeared a glob of the sticky whatever-it-was on the gash. "Did. You. Win."
"Of course I won." Willie hissed as Mother Claire poked and prodded him.
"God, you're as bad as your father. Both of them. Hold still."
Willie swallowed hard and locked down his expression. That was more or less what the fight had been about. But Mother Claire didn't need to worry over that, so he kept still and silent and let her do her doctoring. A soft knock on the door precluded the housekeepers arrival to build up the fire for the evening. Still shivering from the rain, Willie was grateful and murmured his thanks, trying not to move as he spoke.
The housekeeper had disappeared again before Mother Claire spoke. “So. How many were there?” She extracted a needle and a length of thread from a little jar of alcohol, setting it aside.
“How many what?” He was being intentionally obstinate. His Papa would be right to box his ears for it, regardless that he was one and twenty and nine inches taller than he was.
“Horses.” Mother Claire cleaned a cut on his forehead, the one she’d said needed suturing, the alcohol on her rag burning like hellfire.
Willie sucked in a sharp breath through his nose, suppressing a hiss of pain and holding still. “Three.”
“Three?” Shaking her head, she picked up her needle and pierced his skin. He grunted but held still. It wasn’t all that bad. His bloody knuckles hurt worse. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, Willie, you might have been killed. Stop scowling or I’ll sew that wrinkle into your forehead permanently.”
“I’m fine. I told you I won the damn fight.”
It was only a couple of sutures, and then Mother Claire snipped her thread and dropped the needle into a dish. She held out her hand, palm up. “Let me see your hands. What the devil possessed you to dive directly into fisticuffs? With no detours for reason or rationality, I’d wager. It doesn’t look like you were trying to break up a fight.”
Willie really didn’t want to tell her. She would worry, or it would upset her. Best to be vague and hope she lost interest. “I handled it and now it’s over. I appreciate your concern, but please stop pestering me.”
Scoffing, Mother Claire scrubbed the blood off his hands. “You bloody Scots.”
“I am not!” Willie didn’t mean to raise his voice and instantly felt wretched for it. That sense of betrayal had mostly faded, but sometimes the pain came back. A childish hurt that he’d been lied to, despite knowing it was the best his fathers knew to do for him. The sudden realization that he’d missed an entire life of family and heritage, a heritage that he should have been ashamed of. Plenty of people in London society would gnash their teeth for the scandalous gossip that William Ransom, Ninth Earl of Ellesmere was half Scottish, born of Jacobite blood no less. John Grey had not raised him to feel this animosity toward Scots, or any people for that matter. Quite the opposite. When Willie had first looked Jamie Fraser in the eye and seen his reflection, he’d been disgusted, enraged, true enough. But now, their odd family building itself into something unique and wonderful, the sorrow he felt was for all the years with these wonderful people that he and Papa had missed out on.
“I am sorry,” Willie said softly. “I should not have yelled.” He let out a heavy sigh, bone tired, cold, hungry, and aching. What he’d meant was I don’t know what it means to be a Scot.
Mother Claire put her warm hands on either side of his face, gently, drawing his attention. “You, my dear lad, are most definitely your fathers’ son. If we colored your hair red and put you in a kilt, you could easily play the part of Jamie Fraser in the stage production of his life. It’s very much like looking back in time to look at you. You are, without a doubt, all of the best parts of him. You are gentle and kind or a terrifying force of nature, depending on what’s called for. You’re brilliant and stubborn as an ox. Like it or not, you are a Fraser.
“But you are also a Grey, aren’t you? Gentle and kind, or a terrifying force of nature. Brilliant. Stubborn.” She smiled, the light from the alcohol lamp and the hearth dazzling in the silver streaks in her hair. “You’re all the best parts of your Papa too.” Then she stepped away, retrieved a blanket from a basket near the fire, and wrapped this around his shoulders, rubbing her hands briskly over his arms to warm him up. It felt good, the mothering. With a pang, Willie thought of his mother, Isobel, and how she used to do that when she put him to bed as a boy.
“In my time, we have a phrase for you.” Mother Claire didn’t speak to him much of the future. He knew about it, of course. Papa had relayed the story to him, he and Claire had discussed it a few times, but she rarely brought it up like this. “Nature versus nurture. In other words, are you a product of your birth alone or of your upbringing? Personally, I think it’s split down the middle. And when I look at you, that’s precisely what I see, equal parts Jamie and equal parts John.” She extinguished the alcohol lamp, the delicate work done, and dragged a chair to sit across from him. “Now, would you like to tell me what’s going on with you?”
Willie sighed and rubbed his palms together, studying the motion to avoid looking at his stepmother. There was no one else on the planet he could confide in about this. Ian, perhaps, but no. "A handful of men recognized me in the street. One knew me for my own sake, the other two recognized me as Jamie's son." He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the rest of it. The recognition wasn’t that bad, and there was only so long they could keep up the facade that he and Jamie weren’t related.
Willie cast a pleading glance at Mother Claire. "Will you promise not to tell Papa and Father? I handled it, as I said. But it concerns them."
A gentle distress or regret pinched Claire's expression and she shook her head. "I can't promise that. Given all that's happened in the past months, your fathers and I can't keep secrets from each other. But I may be able to help."
Well, he couldn't argue with that logic. Drawing his back straighter, Willie plunged in. "The men—petty bastards—implied that… Well, I can't make their words fit for my stepmother's ears. But they suggested that Papa and Father are… that they're lovers." The words fell like lead to the floor between them.
“Willie…” Mother Claire began, voice low and gentle. “You know that they are.”
"Of course I know that!" His temper flared and he leapt to his feet, pacing out his agitation. "But those fucking bastards didn't have to say a goddamn thing about it, did they?" Willie braced his hands against the mantle and blew out his angry breath, lowering his voice to a respectful volume again. "And it doesn't bother me at all, that Papa and Father are lovers, nor that you're a part of it. Anyone who knows them, who knows the three of you, would think it makes perfect sense. But goddamn them, they don't know a thing about it!"
The soft rustle of Mother Claire's skirts signaled her rising and moving about the surgery. Willie couldn't look at her, couldn't risk that she'd read in his eyes what they'd called her. Trollop. Whore. Worse. The ugly, cruel words that William could not have allowed to go unanswered.
Glass clinked against glass behind him, then Mother Claire pressed a drink into his hand. It was a generous pour of brandy and Willie took a long pull, let the burn of it wash away his anger. Well, it helped him to feel a little less like smashing things, but he was still angry. "Don't know a thing about any of it," Willie muttered again, taking another drink. "What I don't know is how anyone found out about it."
"Is it possible…" Mother Claire began, cautiously, "that no one has found out about it, but your reaction confirmed a rumor?"
"That may have been their goal, yes." Willie turned around to face Claire finally. "But I didn't react to the rumors and the slander about Papa and Father. The things they said…" He shook his head, fingers tight on the heavy crystal glass. "But no, I held my tongue when those sons of bitches called them—" Willie broke off, unwilling to repeat it, fury still burning in his chest, directed as much to the men as to himself."Well, it doesn't matter exactly what they said, the point is, it was vulgar, uncouth, and unforgivable, and I didn't respond to it so that I wouldn't give credence to the rumors." Had that been the right thing to do? It had seemed so at the time, but Willie had been second-guessing himself since he’d left those three arseholes to their friends.
Mother Claire gave him a puzzled look. "Pardon me for being very dense, but if you didn't react to the rumors, how did you come to have your face beat halfway in?"
Willie sighed, resigning himself to his fate. “Father and Papa can fight their own battles, and generally prefer it, regardless of my feelings on the matter. But when those… goddamn… fucking lobcocks spoke ill of you, I could not just let it go. They’re fortunate their friends came along—” Willie broke off, coughing into his hand. The rain had been very cold, soaked him to the bone, and he was still dripping and shivering despite the blanket. He coughed again and groaned.
Claire was on him in an instant, cool hand on his forehead, concern creasing her brow. “Alright, that’s enough. You need to be dry and warm. Let’s get you cleaned up and some hot food and tea in your belly, and then see you to bed before you catch your death.”
His instinct was to protest, but Mother Claire would hear none of it, steering Willie to his rooms as if he didn’t know the way.
Grey, Jamie, and Claire took a quiet, intimate supper at home. A couple days each week, the entirety of their little clan joined them, loud and boisterous and bursting with life and the youthful vitality of children running amuck. Other days, one or two would join them at a time. Jenny, Ian, and Rachel frequently popped in, and Willie of course. Willie was conspicuously absent tonight though, and Grey said so.
"Yes, about that," Claire said, and relayed Willie's misadventure. "He wouldn't tell me who the other men were or what precisely they said to provoke him, other than some nasty things about the nature of our relationship." She gestured in the air with one swirling finger, indicating their triad. "He was adamant that he did nothing to lend credit to the rumors about you two, but that the fight was in defense of me." She set her fork on her empty plate and sat back in her chair. Claire was neither stranger to nor lover of the ugly gossip that seemed to follow an educated, free-spirited woman wherever she went, but she was also not keen on people she loved getting hurt because of them.
Jamie met Grey's eyes across the table, ruddy brows raised. "I told ye it got back to me that Richardson had said something of the kind."
Grey nodded. "You did. And we've yet to decide on a course of action for dealing with it. He's a dog with a bone, he won't back off just because we said please."
"But what could he possibly expect to gain from this?" Claire asked. "Does he think he'll goad you both into getting yourselves—or Willie—killed in a bar fight? Seems awfully circuitous, doesn’t it?”
“Well, he is, first and foremost, a spy,” Grey said. “Direct assault wouldn’t be in his nature.”
“My assumption is that he means to discredit us,” Jamie added. “Possibly in retribution for our brief stint as thieves. Information is currency to men like Richardson, and we robbed him blind.”
“And rumors of this sort, while not likely to result in any serious… criminal charges,” Grey said, swallowing hard around a rush of very unpleasant memories and lifelong fears, pushing them away. “It would certainly render both ourselves and our known associates persona non grata to anyone of even modest influence.”
Claire took a drink of her wine, mulling it over in her mind. Grey thought he saw the possibility of murder pass behind her eyes, but she didn’t mention it. Grey smiled to himself, oddly proud of her for it.
“Well, then, what’s to be done?” she asked, eying first Jamie, then Grey.
For an instant, it was almost fifteen years in the past, and Grey’s brother Hal was arguing with Jamie about whether or not he would get to duel Twelvetrees, while Grey sat back, smug in the knowledge that Twelvetrees had already accepted his own challenge.
Jamie waffled about something, Claire arched an eyebrow at him, and he took a bracing pull of his wine. “I challenged him to a duel.”
“You… what?” Claire squawked. “Why in God’s name would you do such a foolhardy thing?”
Grey blinked, replayed Jamie's words in his mind, and shook his head to clear the cluttered thoughts. "Jamie," he said, reproachful. "We talked about this."
"Aye," Jamie said, nodding slowly and looking beautiful and stubborn. "And that's what we said we'd do."
"We said that was an option. Are you completely mad?" Grey asked.
Claire held up a hand. "Wait. Just… wait." Her fierce gaze shifted from Jamie to John. "What do you mean, you said it was an option? What are you bloody men up to?"
"Nothing, Sassenach," Jamie said. "He hasnae even accepted my challenge yet."
"You listen to me good, James Fraser," Claire said, pressing the fingers of one hand into the tabletop until her fingertips went white. "There will be no dueling. Your shoulder is still healing from being shot, or have you forgotten that you nearly died?"
"But I didna," Jamie argued. "I can wield a sword or a pistol just fine. Ye ken I can fight wi' both my hands."
Claire shook her head. "No. I refuse to watch you get yourself killed with your stubborn pride."
"I'll no' let Richardson win," Jamie said, growing defensive.
Grey drained the wine in his glass, waiting for his moment. The argument would turn on him soon enough. Christ, it was just like Twelvetrees all those years ago.
"Do you think I enjoy putting you back together?" Claire asked, her tone agitated. "That I get some sick thrill from finding you in pieces and hoping that you've not yet become clever enough to outwit my abilities to fix you?" It was the anger of fierce protectiveness, love in her voice rather than malice.
Grey reached for her and took her hand, stroking her knuckles with his thumb. "It's not going to come to that, my dear." Claire gave him a heartbreakingly earnest look that said but how do you know? Grey brought her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. "I also issued Richardson a challenge. He hasn't accepted my demand for satisfaction yet either."
Claire snatched her hand away from his grasp and Jamie sputtered. "John! Nay, we agreed that—"
"No, we didn't," Grey said evenly. "We discussed it, but we didn't decide on anything. Nonetheless, I knew you would call Richardson out. And I knew it would upset your wife, to say nothing of my feelings on the matter.”
“And how do ye suppose I feel about ye dueling, John?” Jamie asked. “Do ye think I’ve forgotten how I carried yer broken body off the field in London? I dinnae have the strength to do it again, not now. Losing ye now… I cannae do it."
"Not to mention I'd be devastated," Claire added. Then she took a long breath and sat back in her chair again. "I don't suppose you could just… kill him outright?"
Jamie did not look nearly as shocked as Grey felt, despite the hint of it he'd seen behind her eyes earlier. “If all else fails, aye, we could. But it wouldna make the rumors stop.”
Grey held up a hand, shaking his head. “Wait. Wait. What happened to your oath to do no harm?”
Claire shrugged and brought her wine glass to her lips, eyes alight with mischief. “I didn’t say that I would be doing the killing, now did I?”
For a long moment, Grey stared at Claire, blinking in shock. Then Jamie’s lips spread into a wide grin and Grey couldn’t suppress the odd thrill of pride at their wife’s ruthlessness. “Perhaps as a last resort,” Grey agreed, smiling despite himself.
Claire shrugged, and Jamie shook his head. “Aye. I expect we’ll hear Richardson’s answer on the morrow. There’s naught to do now.”
Claire nodded, and Grey rose. Propelled by the urge to touch her, he took Claire’s hand and drew her to her feet and into his arms. She came willingly, throwing her arms haphazardly around his neck and kissing him hard on the mouth. Her lips tasted of wine and rich herbs from their dinner, and Grey let his hands roam her body just for the joy of feeling her.
Big hands came around Grey’s waist from behind, and Jamie kissed the side of his neck, his muscular arms encircling him and Claire, pulling them close together.
The odd urge to explain his actions bubbled up in Grey’s chest, but died on his lips when Jamie whispered in his ear, “Let’s to bed, aye? We cannae do a thing about it till the morning.”
There was neither reason nor expectation to explain his desires, Grey reminded himself. He could kiss Jamie simply because he wished it. He could embrace Claire for the sole purpose of feeling her soft curves against his body. They could tumble into bed together, two or three at a time just because and everything was fine.
The housekeeper would collect the dinner dishes and put out the lights. They need only climb the stairs to their rooms.
Claire pulled away from Grey’s kiss with a wet smack and she flashed them both an impish grin. “Definitely to bed.” She fixed her gaze on Jamie over Grey’s shoulder. “Not to sleep.”
Grey released Claire and they turned to leave the dining room, Jamie giving them both a simultaneous swat on the rear, sparking twin burst of breathy, hushed laughter
They laughed and shushed their way up the stairs, touching, kissing, enraptured in each other. Grey barely stopped himself from picking Claire up and slinging her over his shoulder. He did not stop himself from giving Jamie's prick a squeeze through his breeches, making him gasp and yank Grey hard against him, growling, "I want that arse, John Grey." Which was fine with Grey.
Claire shut the bedroom door behind them, wincing and laughing when it banged louder than she'd meant it to. Jamie grabbed her wrist with a ferocious grin and tugged her into his arms. Grey came up behind her, surrounding her. Working together, the men made quick work of her gown and stays, stripping her bare between stolen kisses and tender caresses that went three ways. They went on, taking it in turns by some unspoken agreement that two undress one, devoting all the attentions to each other, one at a time.
Sometimes, they spoke plainly about their wants and needs. Sometimes, it was less explicit, guiding each other in gentle touches and whispered requests. And it wasn't always ménage a trois, as Claire had explained the phrase to mean it in her time. Sometimes, Claire wanted only Jamie; sometimes Jamie wanted only John. And on rare occasions, Grey only wanted Claire. Not always, but occasionally, the odd one out watched from an unobtrusive corner of the room. That had been Jamie's idea, the brilliant devil. Whatever the permutation, they always slept in the same bed. That had been Claire's request.
This evening was shaping up to be one of the less conversational ones. Jamie's kisses were rough and demanding on Grey's mouth, Claire's slender arms soft and delicate around his waist. Her hand wasn't large enough to close fully around both of their hard pricks at once, but she tried, drawing a shudder from both men. Sighs and the sound of lips on flesh filled their private sanctuary, hot desire and delicious sensation flooding Grey's body, driving him to steer Claire toward the bed.
The first time that Grey had wanted to make love to Claire—for her own sake and not out of grief or her connection to Jamie—had been startling, confusing. That had faded though, and he’d mostly stopped questioning it. For all its strangeness, there was something special and irrevocably intimate in learning each other's bodies and preferences. Claire liked it rough with Jamie, to be tossed about and manhandled, teeth and nails. With Grey, she preferred it slow and sensual, lips and featherlight touches that made her shiver. When it was just Grey and Jamie, it was still exploration and experimentation, exciting and new. Dreamlike and wonderful, always.
Claire nibbled playfully at Grey’s ear, sucking and licking until he squirmed and pushed her back onto the bed. He kissed down her neck, sucked a nipple into his mouth, kneading the supple flesh of her breast with one hand. She let out a low moan, arching under him. Jamie had sunk a couple fingers into her, looking most pleased with himself as she writhed. She whimpered when Jamie pulled away, then sighed in relief as Grey took his place, his prick filling her easily.
Jamie’s hand on Grey’s back kept him from thrusting into Claire, even though she rolled her hips up to him, urging him. One finger slid inside of him, slippery, Grey realized with an erotic thrill, from Claire. Then Jamie added a second finger, and he would have had to tie Grey down to keep him still. Jamie’s lips were warm on the back of his shoulder, one strong arm around him, squeezing Claire’s breast with his free hand.
Surrounded. John was absolutely surrounded. He would drown in this and oh, God, what a sweet death. A brief moment of emptiness, and then Jamie’s well-oiled cock breached him, filling him with one smooth stroke.
“Sweet Jesus,” Grey gasped.
“More, John,” Claire begged. Never one to refuse a lady, he sought out a rhythm.
“Christ, John,” Jamie moaned against his back. “It’s heaven inside ye.”
It only took a few awkward moments of fumbling before they found it, the motion that worked. Claire enveloping him, Jamie claiming him. An endless barrage of decadent ecstasy.
Claire cried out first, Jamie’s name, then John’s. Her pleasure dragged Grey over the edge right behind her with a wordless shout. He clutched her close to his chest. Then Jamie thrust hard into him one last time, muffling his cry into the back of Grey’s neck.
They collapsed in a heap, Grey barely managing to keep an elbow under him to avoid crushing Claire. After they had time to catch their breath, Jamie lay down next to Claire, letting Grey roll onto his back on the other side of her.
Like a magnet, they both wrapped her in their arms, holding her tight. Jamie kissed her, languid and deep, brushing the wild curls from her smiling, sated face. “Get ye some sleep, mo nighean donn. We’ll all feel better in the morning, aye?”
Claire nodded, yawning, and made her way to her pillow in the center of the bed. “I’m still annoyed with you both though. This helped, but don’t think we won’t talk about the duel again.” There was no heat in her tone at all.
Grey pulled Jamie in for a kiss, tasting Claire on his lips and not minding in the slightest.