He had held onto her for God only knows how long in the water and had managed to drag her ashore, away from the ocean’s pull. But now that he finally had a safe place to bring her, Jamie was too weak to carry her. He had to let go and watch as two strangers lifted Claire’s limp, wet, barely clothed body and carried her up the path from the beach to the closest house. He had to lean on a third stranger as he followed on legs too weary and frightened to carry him safely on their own.
He wouldn’t let them shuffle him to another room to eat and rest while the local physician tended to Claire. She wouldn’t want to be alone with some “quack,” least of all when she wasn’t conscious to tell him what he was doing wrong. She needed Jamie to do it for her. He accepted a glass of fresh water, rinsed his mouth, spat it out and then took another to drink before going into the room where Claire had been laid on the bed and drew a chair up beside it.
Her hand was warmer now and he could hear her breathing. Thank Christ.
He held her hand as the physician conducted a cursory examination, hesitating here and there under Jamie’s stern gaze. When the time came to set Claire’s broken leg, Jamie clung to her hand and looked away. There was nothing he could do to block the sound unless he was prepared to relinquish his hold on her again.
She didn’t even flinch.
Surely the pain of that should have been enough to rouse her, however briefly—should have elicited some reaction from her.
But as the physician packed himself up to leave, the only difference Jamie could see in Claire was that she was drier than before. Her hair had begun to curl about her face with sand caked in streaks here and there.
The lady of the house tapped Jamie’s shoulder to get his attention and suggested Claire should be gotten out of her wet things, that Claire would rest easier in the bedclothes or a borrowed shift; she would wash and salvage what she could of their clothes in the meantime and Jamie could borrow something from her husband.
Jamie nodded but when the woman moved to pull Claire’s arm from her sleeve, Jamie stopped her. “No… I’ll do it.”
The woman opened her mouth to object but closed it when she saw the fear of impending grief in Jamie’s eyes as they remained fixed on Claire’s face, relaxed and pale in unconsciousness.
“I’ll go see what my husband might have to fit you,” she remarked as she left the room and closed the door.
Jamie reached out to brush a stray curl aside that had flattened against Claire’s forehead and dried. His hand lingered on her cheek. It was also warmer than before. He trailed his fingers down along her jaw and then to the faint pulse at her throat. It was reassuringly strong but he wouldn’t be able to breathe freely until she opened her eyes and looked at him.
The storm and raging sea had torn both shoes from her feet and he’d rid her of the weight of her skirt when it became clear she’d otherwise sink. The stocking on her injured leg had been cut free by the physician. The laces of her bodice had broken and her stomacher was lost but the string held in enough places to keep the front panels from flapping freely.
Jamie pulled at one of the threads, finding it stiff with salt. It crackled and broke as he pulled the bodice open. Her arms were limp in his hands as he maneuvered them through the sleeves. The skin of her hands and limbs wasn’t just soft but had been buffed raw by the battering sea and drying sand of the beach where they’d lain until found.
He wasn’t in much better condition. His hands were torn and bloody from the strength of his grip on the debris he’d clung to for so long. Peeling the salty clothes from Claire’s body made his cuts sting but he wouldn’t trust this task to anyone else. He could—and had—removed Claire’s clothes with his eyes closed. There had been a few times when he’d taken this level of care with her too, but never with her so entirely unresponsive. Even as his hand brushed her breast as he eased her shift up to get it past her head, there was no response—no tell-tale flush across her chest, or trail of goosebumps, not even a slight puckering of her nipple.
He removed her other stocking and laid her beneath the bedclothes. The reset leg was a bit swollen and looked badly bruised from the impact of whatever had struck her and broken it in the first place.
Tucking the sheets over her bare and battered body helped. She was well and truly sleeping now and no longer appeared half dead. But the fear still gripped his belly. What if this was the time she didn’t wake up? On so many mornings, hoping for her to stay asleep just a few minutes longer so he could memorize that quiet smile, the pattern of freckles across her nose, the sound of her breathing when she was just on the edge of snoring. Now, he silently begged her to open her eyes and look at him.
The woman hadn’t returned yet, so he resumed his seat at Claire’s bedside and leaned on his elbows against the mattress. He took her hand and held it between his own. The silver of the ring he gave her glistened in the light from the window.
“Please,” he prayed quietly, “please dinna take her from me now. Or if it’s what Ye will… take me too. I only want us to be together, wherever that may be.”
Claire groaned loudly and if he hadn’t been so relieved, he might have laughed, for it sounded like her groan might have been indicative of her thoughts on what he’d said.
Her eyes squeezed tight against the daylight then one slowly peeked open to search for him.
Jamie beamed down at her with tears in his eyes and a prayer of thanks in his heart.