Jamie couldn’t bring himself to go back up to the house but he couldn’t bear the thought that he might miss her passing—that he wouldn’t be there with her at the last. He told himself that as long as he stayed away—as long as he didn’t go to see her—then she couldn’t die; she wouldn’t go without him there for a last goodbye. He knew it was irrational but the alternative was too unbearable, so instead of walking in the direction of the house, he walked out towards the barn, the storage sheds, and the fields beyond.
He needed to be doing something productive—it was the only time he had a hope of slipping into that thoughtless state where his body acted while his mind quieted. It was nearing harvest time and there were many things that needed doing in preparation. The cooper was supposed to deliver the barrels for the whisky and to store apples—or had he already delivered them?
Claire loved harvesting the apples from the orchard. Brianna too—nothing reminded them of their years in Boston the way the scent of warm apples baking did, and they had a fondness for cider too. He pushed aside the thought of Claire with Brianna, Lizzy, and Mrs. Bug at work in the kitchen on a slew of pies.
The hay would need to be cut soon too. He moved to the barn to locate the scythes they would need and to assess their condition—they would almost certainly need to be sharpened and that was precisely the kind of repetitive task he needed. Locating the whetstone, he grabbed up the tools and moved outside the barn to a bench to work. Laying the scythes on one side, he swung his leg over and straddled the bench as he took up the first blade and began to sharpen it.
The sun gleamed off the blade as he twisted it to see if there were any obvious nicks he should focus on first.
He had noticed the whetstone on the kitchen table the afternoon when he’d come in to check on Claire. Mrs. Bug and Malva had both been absent from the kitchen, which had struck him as odd until he remembered that Brianna had sought Lizzy’s assistance with something. But still, it didn’t take both of them to sit with Claire keeping an eye on her fever and trying to get her to swallow a bit of water or broth in her delirium. He had climbed the stairs quickly as his heart began to pound.
The door to their room had been open so he could see what they were about as soon as he approached. And he’d flown into a fury. Claire’s curls littered the floor, the tendrils drifting over the boards as they were caught in a draft. She didn’t appear to be conscious and that was the first moment when he had truly worried for her life—if she had any strength, any awareness, anything of herself there, she would have torn into those two misguided women for taking a pair of freshly sharpened scissors to her wild mane.
Malva and Mrs. Bug couldn’t understand his objections but they fled the scene immediately, grabbing up what they could of the mess their efforts had made. He slammed the bedroom door shut behind them and leaned against it fuming until he realized he was sobbing. Bending to retrieve the stray curls they had missed, he clenched them tightly in his fist before moving to sit beside Claire on the bed. He heard Brianna scolding the pair of women upon learning what had happened and knew she came to see for herself but he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off of Claire. The sweat continued to bead on her forehead; her chest continued to rise and fall though the rhythm was unpredictable.
If she passed now, she wouldn’t even look like his Claire. If he was going to lose her, he did not want his final memories of her to be of her like this, stripped of everything that made her Claire—the stubborn strength of her, the untamable mane she took such pride in wielding in defiance of custom and compliance…
There were things about his father’s seemingly frantic actions following his mother’s death that Jamie finally understood as he sat at Claire’s bedside holding a few of her severed curls.
Finishing a pass with the whetstone on the scythe, Jamie ran his thumb lightly along the curving blade to judge its sharpness. If he pressed a little harder, he knew it would easily split the skin across the pad of his thumb—he could so easily slice down to the bone. The impulse to do so was surprisingly strong. It was the kind of injury that would have Claire up in arms, lecturing him and scolding him as she cleaned and bandaged it, inserting stitches if she thought them necessary. Would he even feel the pain of the cut in his current state? He’d lain on a battlefield with a broken nose and bayonet wound to the thigh for hours and it hadn’t compared to losing Claire to time—hadn’t even taken the edge off of that pain. Now he faced the prospect of losing her to death—a simple cut thumb would likely register as an annoyance akin to a mosquito bite.
But if Claire were… she would shake her head with gentle sympathy at the thought of what he sought behind such thoughts and then she would pull his head down to her soft, warm breast so he could rest while she ran her fingers through his hair until he fell asleep. Lord, what was he going to do without her?
Somehow Jamie doubted it was Brianna who had encouraged Roger to seek him out following the incident with Claire’s hair. The lad’s calling and place both in the family and on the Ridge had been inspiring him to step up and speak in circumstances where he wouldn’t have before—even to his father-in-law. If it had been anyone other than Roger, Jamie might have used him to vent some of his grief and frustration.
“Ye must prepare yerself,” Roger had warned cautiously. “Not that there’s much anyone can do along those lines, I expect,” he’d immediately added, stepping back from his advice. “I suppose… ye must find comfort where ye can. It is a… a natural… way to go—that is… she’s not being taken by violent means.”
“Ye dinna see anything violent in what she’s going through, do ye?” Jamie snapped. “She… she is suffering,” his voice broke. “And there’s naught I can do to help her, to ease her pain or… I canna do anything but watch and wait.”
“Well… and if she does… ye know… then at least her pain will end,” Roger tried to point out but Jamie just shook his head and blinked back against tears. “Do ye no think she’d be comforted by the fact that she will have… that it’s been in service to her profession?” Roger asked carefully. “God made her a healer and it’s in doing what she loves—in helping and healing the people of the Ridge that she’s…” But the resentful look on Jamie’s face stopped him continuing his thought. “We must have faith that it’s all part of God’s plan,” he finally murmured as a closing remark.
“God’s plan,” Jamie muttered with disgust. “Aye. God’s plan. Well, I pray that God is willing to change His plan for once if takin’ Claire is what He’s thinking for He knows how often He’s forced me—forced us—to change our plans.”
Roger said nothing to Jamie’s outburst but the wary expression he wore urged Jamie to take a deep breath and realize what it was that he had said. He felt the shame of having spoken so carelessly against the Almighty, but the fear and anger refused to fade as he pictured Claire wasting away in their bed.
“He brought her to me and for that… there’ll never be enough I could do to thank Him for the gift of her,” Jamie said quietly. “But He’s taken so much from us already. Faith… everything we lost in the Rising… twenty years together… I wasna there for Claire or for Brianna—I couldna watch my daughter sleep nor hold her hand as she took her first steps… But He did restore Claire to me and we’ve had… and now with Bree here and you and Jem…” Jamie had sighed and rubbed his hands over his face.
Roger had reached out and put a hand to Jamie’s arm then, squeezing in sympathetic understanding.
“I’m no ready to lose her again,” Jamie whispered. “Please, God, dinna take her from me yet.”
Roger had slipped away as Jamie continued to pray for Claire’s deliverance. The two hadn’t discussed the incident in the few days since but Jamie had been quieter, resigned.
Jamie decided the blade of the scythe was sharp enough. He set it aside and took up another. This one had more obvious nicks in the blade and would take a while to wear them down. He weighed the whetstone in his hand for a moment before bringing it back to the blade and resuming the hypnotizing movements. The strokes with the whetstone marked the passing time.
He heard Roger call his name and his grip on the stone tightened reflexively and he carefully set the scythe aside before rising and turning toward the sound.
Roger’s voice was frantic and desperate and it made Jamie’s knees tremble. Claire. She was gone—or going. If he was lucky, he would have a few more minutes with her to say his goodbyes… to tell her he loved her and that she needn’t hold on if she was ready to go.
“Jamie,” Roger panted as he reached his father-in-law. “It’s Claire,” he gasped, pressing at a stitch in his side.
Jamie tried to steel himself for the blow; he heard his pulse pounding in his ears, listening for the moment he would hear his heart break—he could feel it cracking already.
“She’s awake,” Roger exclaimed with excitement, his smile bright with his own shock and disbelief. “Her fever broke and she’s awake.”
Jamie’s knees buckled and he crashed to the ground with a strangled sob startling Roger. Jamie buried his face in his hands and cried with relief. His voice was rough with emotion and he switched too rapidly between languages for Roger to pick out more than just the basic sense that Jamie was thanking, praising, and apologizing to the Lord—his own English and Gaelic were in fine shape but Roger didn’t use Latin frequently enough to translate it when spoken.
“She’s asking for ye,” Roger finally spoke up, eager to return to the house himself. Brianna was up with Claire now trying to encourage her mother to eat something.
Jamie suddenly stopped speaking and pushed himself to his feet, brushing past Roger in his haste to reach the house.
Jamie paused in the doorway, his eyes going directly to where Claire lay in their bed. Her eyes were closed but he didn’t think she was actually sleeping. Given the quiet argument that appeared to be taking place between Brianna and Mrs. Bug, he suspected she might be feigning sleep in the hopes she would be left in peace.
As soon as Brianna and Mrs. Bug spotted Jamie, though, their chatter quieted and at the sudden silence, Claire’s eyelids fluttered open.
It only took her a moment to find him in the doorway but when he could see the recognition in her face all the breath left his body. He staggered toward the bed, Brianna catching him by his arm to help steady him as he moved to kneel beside Claire.
“Claire,” he whispered as tears threatened to choke him. The corner of her mouth ticked up in a tired smile.
He didn’t hear the others leave the room; only the door closing behind them registered as Claire breathed his name. She suddenly looked agitated and her weak hands fought to free themselves from the bedclothes as she tried to burrow her shorn head deeper into the cover of the pillows.
Jamie pulled the blanket down and retrieved her chilled hands, calming her as he brought first one and then the other to his lips. Placing them back on top of the bedclothes, he caressed her face between his palms rubbing his thumbs along her protruding cheekbones.
“Mo nighean donn,” he whispered before lifting her head so he could press a kiss to the sparse crown of her head. He felt her tremble with weak laughter and turned his face to rub his cheek in the dark fuzz, then he gently lay her head back against the pillow.
He shifted from his kneeling position—his knees cracking loudly as he did so—and moved to sit at the edge of the bed.
“I love you, Claire,” he said quietly, taking her hand in his. She lightly squeezed his hand and murmured, “I love you, too,” in response. He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her dry lips, thrilling at the slight pressure of her lips responding to his.
“Ye’re… ye’re no going to leave me,” he muttered, half-question, half-statement.
“No,” she answered. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He nodded and tried to smile but as the tension of fear began to seep from his body, he lost hold of what had been keeping him from completely collapsing in on himself so far.
“Jamie,” she whispered, eyeing the empty space in the bed beside her—his space. “Rest with me.”
He managed to slip his dirty boots from his feet before sliding under the covers beside her, taking extra care not to jostle her too much. Claire’s weakened arms slipped around him loosely and guided him so that he repositioned himself with his arm draped over her and his cheek pressed to her sternum. She had lost a bit of weight and a lot of her soft curves along with it, but his ear still fitted comfortably against her chest so that he could hear the steady strength of her heartbeat as her hand rested soothingly at the nape of his neck. He felt his own heartbeat calming to match the rhythm of hers as his eyes closed and he drifted off to sleep with Claire watching over him.