Jamie and I had already made love for what we thought was the last time over forty years ago. We had worked in the dark, using our other senses in an attempt to imprint each other on ourselves forever. We were young, desperate, clinging to each other until we could no longer. And then I had left him, thinking he would be dead within hours, and I would never see him again.
I had gone back to a life I no longer fit in, lived my life as a ghost for twenty years. I had gone through every stage of grief several times over. At night, he would come to me in my dreams, and I would relive that last time over and over again.
But it hadn't been the last time. I had been granted another 25 years with him. All those years ago, we'd been able to experience all of our first-times again, relishing the excitement of learning each other's bodies again, noting what was the same, what was different.
The second time I thought I had lost Jamie was all the more devastating because I hadn't been prepared. I couldn't conjure any of our lasts; he'd been ripped from me with no preamble, our story cut short -- or so I believed at the time -- by a devastating twist of fate. I'd sunk into a dark hole that time, unable to conjure the will to move on without him.
Even after losing him twice, I hadn't prepared myself for experiencing the last times again. Foolishly, I'd let myself believe that I would never again have to suffer that grief. I never anticipated that it would cut me deeper than both times before. I hadn't thought there was a pain that could be worse than the other times I had lost him.
This time, it was different. The end was near; I knew the lasts were coming, but I couldn't be sure when. Jamie's health was on a rapid decline, but he still had enough good days to keep me hopeful. There were still evenings where he would rouse when I came to bed, take me in his arms and worship my body as he had thousands of times before. I never denied him, even on the days that I was bone weary and wanted nothing more but to curl up and go to sleep.
Each time we made love after that day on the mountain (our last picnic, though I hadn't known it then), I tried to savor it as I had all those years ago, far away in a cabin outside Inverness. I paid attention more keenly than I ever had; I granted all his requests, shocked to find that even at seventy, he was still imagining new ways for us to please each other.
Still, the last time had eluded me. It had been an unusually warm spring day and I had been bombarded with patient after patient. It never failed that every year, as soon as the tenants got busy with preparing their fields for planting, I would have a slew of patients sporting various occupational injuries.
At the end of my workday, I was pleased to find that supper was already prepared, the family sitting down to eat. Jamie's seat was empty. "Did you call your father down?" I asked Bree.
She nodded. "He said he wasn't hungry."
"Stubborn bloody Scot," I mumbled putting together a plate for him. My own meal would have to wait.
As I ascended the stairs, my fingers traced along the railing, hand carved with the most intricate of designs. Jamie had made it, of course. His blood and sweat were in every inch of this house, our third (and last) that we could call our own.
I entered the room with the dinner tray and was surprised to see Jamie sitting up in bed, reading. He often slept in the late afternoon and early evening now, waking only when called to supper, if at all. Some nights he would join us downstairs, presiding over the dinner as he always had. Other nights were like this, a tray eaten sitting up in bed, just the two of us sitting quietly together, a sharp contrast to the boisterous noise at the table downstairs.
"Brianna said you weren't hungry."
"Aye, I did. Was yer solution to that information bringing me food, Sassenach? I think ye may be getting addled in yer old age."
I made my own version of a Scottish grunt in the back of my throat and brought the tray over to him. "You have to eat," I said, plucking the book out of his hands and placing the tray across his legs in its place.
He grabbed my hand as I turned away and pulled me down until our faces were almost touching. "I'd rather have you for dinner."
"That would be nice," I replied. His lips were irresistible, and I gave him a soft kiss. "But I'm afraid that won't do much for keeping your strength up." I tried to pull away, but his grip on me was firm and his lips met mine again, urgently. "I need tae touch ye, Sassenach. I promise I'll eat a few bites after ye work my appetite up a bit, aye?"
How could I say no when he was looking at me with that want in his eyes? Despite my fatigue and worry, I wanted him to touch me, wanted to feel him inside me. I put the tray aside and crawled on top of him, kissing him gently. "No mo nighean donn," he pleaded. "I want tae see ye, feel all of ye pressed against me when ye take me inside of ye."
I smiled at him and stood, making quick work of undressing. He struggled to get his own clothes off and when I finished with mine, I helped him. I teased him as I lifted the shirt over his head, tweaking his nipples and placing languid kisses on his neck. I pulled down his breeks and when I crawled back on top of him, I stopped with my mouth at his cock, half hard. I took him in my mouth and worked him, sucking and licking until he was rigid and erect. He had his hands in my hair, and he groaned. "Use yer teeth on me, Sassenach, like ye did on our wedding night."
I obliged, dragging my teeth gently up his length, locking eyes with him as I did so. He raised one of his eyebrows at me and I moved further up his body, kissing him all the way. When I reached his mouth, I placed my lips on his, probing slowly with my tongue. He pulled away gently, holding a fistful of my hair in his hand. "Sassenach, stop treatin' me like I'll break. I want ye tae use me hard. Dinna make me feel like an auld man."
He gave me a wicked smile, that I returned, and I leaned over and bit his bottom lip before taking his mouth fiercely in my own, plunging my tongue deep, as our moans drowned within each other. I let my breasts hang over his head, so he could take each one in his mouth, worshipping them with his tongue as he had a million times before.
And when I adjusted my body over him, sinking down onto his erection, I answered his fervent thrusts with my own rhythm. I rode him hard, using the friction of the position to bring me to the brink. When he felt me begin to quiver around him, he sat up so that we were face to face and shot his seed into me as he tasted my lips. I came apart around him and we both fell, him backward, me forward on top of him. We lay panting, our bodies pressed together, and I could see that he was already starting to fall asleep. I kissed both his eyelids and laid my head on his shoulder, keeping my face pressed against his. We both drifted off, the supper forgotten. I thought to myself that if he could still conjure that amount of energy for me, maybe his body wasn't failing as quickly as I had thought.
I was wrong, of course. It hadn’t been renewed energy that had urged on his lovemaking, but a sense that he should grasp on to the last of his stamina and use it before it slipped away. He had known it would be the last time, even if I hadn't.
The next day, he never left the bed, and he slept more hours than he was awake. He'd always said I'd be the death of him one day, and I worried that I had worn him out completely, that our lovemaking would be the end of him.
It wasn’t. He continued to have good and bad days, but the bad days increased, creeping in on the good. On some of the worst days now, he never left the bed. He would hold court with his tenants in the bedroom, and they soon learned that if they didn't find their Laird outside or in his study, they should go directly upstairs.
I don't remember when the bad days started coming more frequently than the good. I couldn't say which day was the last he sat outside, the last he came down to his study or ate a meal with us. One day, I realized that he hadn't been downstairs in at least a week and I sobbed by myself at the kitchen table, staring at his empty chair.
Roger started using Jamie's study for his own meetings with the tenants. At first, many of them would slip past him, preferring to meet with Jamie. Eventually, I started seeing them stopping in with Roger more and more, going upstairs to pay their respects to Jamie only after business matters had been settled with his son-in-law.
My patients still came in droves. I had been training Mandy to be my assistant, and I found her to be very capable of handling most minor ailments and injuries. I retreated to our bedroom and spent my days caring for my most important patient.
One morning he woke and asked me to take him to the window seat. I got him comfortable, opening the window and placing a blanket around his shoulders despite the warm weather. When he was settled, I started puttering about the room, but he reached a hand out to me. "Will ye sit wi' me, Sassenach?"
I settled myself between his legs, my back pressed against his chest, and he wrapped the blanket around my shoulders enveloping me in his familiar warmth. "Do ye remember, Sassenach?" He whispered into my hair. "Our first night together?"
"You mean our wedding night?"
"No, our verra first night together, after ye mended me for the first time? Dougal threw ye on that horse with me and I wrapped ye in my plaid?" His arms squeezed me tighter. They were thinner now, had lost much of their tone, but they still felt like him.
"How could I forget? I was so scared and confused."
"Aye," he whispered.
"But when you wrapped me in your plaid, and I leaned back into you, I felt safe. I couldn't explain it if you asked me to. You were a total stranger and I was trapped between your legs on a horse surrounded by a band of rough men, but you made me feel safe. You always have."
"I was so nervous tae have ye there; I knew I couldna help myself getting a cockstand with that round arse pressed against it." He chuckled. "Ye never seemed to notice though."
"Oh, I noticed. It would have been impossible not to." We both laughed then, and I felt the vibrations of his chest thrumming against my back.
He played with my hair, tucking the white and grey ringlets behind my ear. "I've loved ye for so long, Sassenach, I dinna remember what it was like to not love ye. It seems now that all that time before I met ye, I must have been walking around wi' a hole in my heart."
"And what will I do when you're gone, Jamie?" I asked him quietly. "What will I do with the hole in my heart?"
"Why would there be a hole, Sassenach? Do ye intend to stop loving me after I leave ye?"
I twisted my head so that I could look in his eyes. "Of course not. I'll always love you."
He licked his lips and kissed me, a slow lingering kiss that sent shivers through me. "The hole will no' be in yer heart, mo chridhe. Yer heart will be just as full as ever. When I leave ye on this earth, ye'll still hold my heart and my soul in yer hands and I'll still hold yers. The hole yer worrit about is only physical, Sassenach. An empty place in yer bed, a hand that ye'll reach for that won't be there."
I started crying and he gently rocked me back and forth whispering Gaelic in my ear. In all the years we had been together, I still had not picked up enough Gaelic to know what he was saying to me during those moments, and I wondered if it was really Gaelic at all. Perhaps it was a language he had made up, just for us.
"I ken ye think wi' yer body, Sassenach, and the thought of no' being able to feel me next tae ye pains ye. It's a cruel fate, aye? But yer heart and soul will remain full, and ye have to hold on to that when the pain of missing me feels too great to bear."
I used the blanket to dry my tears and nodded against his chest. Neither of us said anything for a long while; at our age, words were no longer necessary for conveying feelings. We could have an entire conversation without saying anything.
I don't remember how long we sat there, but eventually I crawled out from under the blanket and disentangled myself from his arms. I helped him back to the bed (it would be the last time we sat in that window seat together), and tucked him in. His eyes were closed as soon as his head hit the pillow and I kissed him gently on the forehead, pausing to memorize each of the deep lines on his face.
His decline came rapidly after that day. Each day it seemed a new system began failing him. He stopped being able to tolerate any food save for a few sips of clear broth and water. His kidneys began to fail soon thereafter. His body was wracked with pain and I begged him to let me give him laudanum, coaxing small doses into him when he would finally acquiesce to my pleading.
Lord John arrived in his final weeks; I'd sent him word of Jamie's illness once I'd accepted there was nothing I could do to fix him. William soon followed with his wife and children, and the downstairs of the house exploded with life. Cousins chased each other, women stumbled over each other in the kitchen. Laughter rang up the stairs during mealtimes, bringing a smile to Jamie's face when he was awake to hear it.
Germain and his wife arrived, a small bundle in her arms, and I scolded them both for traveling so far with a baby so small. I took our first great-grandchild up to Jamie and laid her on his chest, keeping a hand on her back in case his strength failed him. He kissed the top of her head and said Gaelic prayers over her, tears running down his face. "She's a blessing, is she no'?" he said to me before drifting off to sleep again.
One morning, he stubbornly refused any laudanum and demanded he see each of his children and grandchildren one by one. I emerged from our room and spent more time downstairs than I had in weeks, playing with the grandchildren while my daughter and daughters-in-law doted on me. I tried to enjoy myself, despite my worry that Jamie would leave me while I wasn't with him.
He was exhausted that night and he easily took the dose of laudanum I offered. I kissed him and looked in his eyes, before curling my body against his. I placed my hand on his chest to feel it rise and fall. "Good night, Sassenach," he mumbled as he drifted off. "I love ye."
"I love you too," I whispered back, not sure if he even heard me.
His chest was still rising and falling the next morning, but his eyes did not open. They did not open at all that day or the next, and I wept into his chest as I tried to remember what his eyes had looked like the last time I looked into them.
His breaths came further and further apart, and I kept bracing myself for the last one. In the end, I missed it. Exhausted by my constant vigil, I could no longer keep my eyes open and I fell asleep against him. I woke sometime after midnight, sitting up straight in the bed with a gasp, trying to figure out what was wrong. Then I realized; he had stopped breathing while I slept. His chest no longer rose and fell. I checked his pulse on his wrist and then on his neck and felt nothing. I foolishly kissed his lips, as if this were a fairy tale and I could bring him back to me. They were cold and lifeless.
I don't know how long I laid next to his body, crying quietly so as not to wake the whole house. At some point I covered him with the blanket and slowly washed and dressed myself. I left the room, quietly closing the door behind me. I tiptoed down the stairs. Tying on an apron, I set water on to boil for coffee.
When my coffee was ready, I crept into the study and sat at his desk, pulling out a piece of paper and wetting a quill. I made a list of all the things that would need to be done that day and the next and the next.
My lists complete, I stood and rose, walking to the front door. I wrapped myself in his leather coat and stepped outside, watching the sun creep over the horizon, rising on my first day as a widow, for the last time.