Never wedding, ever wooing,
Still a lovelorn heart pursuing,
Read you not the wrong you’re doing
In my cheek’s pale hue?
Newabbey Parish Manse
Rose McBride pressed her back against the paneled wall, her gaze fixed on the man kneeling by her sister’s bedside. She could not see Jamie McKie’s face at that late hour. Only his sleek brown hair, tied at the nape of his neck, and his favorite blue waistcoat, crumpled from a long day of waiting for his son to be born. Moments after the child had made his entrance into the world, Jamie had appeared in the birthing room and sent her heart spinning.
He’d not come to see her, but Rose would see her fill of him. Aye, she would.
A peat fire burned low in the grate, barely warming the chilly room.
The minister’s spence served as a parlor during the day and as a bedroom and study in the evening. ’Twas the last place her sister had expected to give birth; when her labor had started in the middle of services, Leana had had little choice. Though Rose’s knees ached from crouching in the same position for several minutes, she dared not move and risk discovery.
Her beloved Jamie had yet to spy her hiding behind the high-backed chair in the darkest corner. She intended to keep it that way.
Now he was leaning toward her sister, Leana. Touching her hand, then caressing his son’s wee head. The catch in his voice said more than his words. “Leana, will you forgive me?”
Nae! Rose bit down on her lower lip, fighting tears. ’Tis Leana’s fault, not yours, Jamie. She could not hear the whispered words that followed, but her eyes told her more than she wanted to know. Leana brushed aside her damp blond hair and put the babe to her breast while Jamie stood gazing down at her, his growing fondness for Leana palpable even from a distance.
Rose averted her gaze, though the tender image lingered. Why, oh, why hadn’t she left the room with the others?
All at once they both laughed, and Leana’s voice carried across the room. “One has found a way to come between us.”
Rose swallowed hard. Did Leana mean the babe…or her?
“Nothing will come between us again,” Jamie said firmly.
He means me. Rose clutched the back of the chair, feeling faint.
Why would he say such a thing? You love me, Jamie. You ken you do.
Jamie entreated her sister with words no woman could resist. “Will you give me a chance to prove myself to you?”
Prove yourself ? Oh, Jamie. Rose sank to the floor on her knees, not caring if they heard her, not caring if she drew another breath. Jamie, the handsome cousin who had kissed her that very morning, was prepared to put her aside like a dish of half-eaten pudding.
“We shall begin again,” she heard her sister say. “Now then, tell me about your dream.”
“So I will.” A chair scraped against the wooden floor.
Much as Rose tried to resist, Jamie’s voice, low and familiar, drew her like smoke to a flue. He spun a far-fetched story about the night he left his home in Glentrool and slept on a stony cairn among the crushed berries of a leafy Jacob’s ladder plant. Then he dreamed of a mountain, he said, taller than any in Galloway and bright as a full moon in a midnight sky. Winged creatures moved up and down the mountainsides like stairsteps, and a voice roared like the sea.
“What did this…this voice tell you?” Leana asked.
When Jamie did not respond, Rose shifted to see him better, her curiosity aroused. In a twelvemonth, Jamie had not mentioned such a dream to her.
“Leana, it was a voice like no other. Wondrous. And frichtsome. The words clapped like thunder: ‘Behold, I am with you wherever you go. I will never leave you.’ ”
Leana gasped. “But, Jamie—”
“Aye, lass. The same words you whispered to me on our wedding night.”
Nae! Rose pressed her hands to her ears at the very moment a sharp knock sounded at the door. Startled, she fell forward with a soft cry, her hiding place forgotten.
Leana’s voice floated across the room. “Who’s there, behind the chair?”
Rose drew back, her heart pounding beneath her stays. But it was too late. Taking a long, slow breath, she stood to her feet and did her best to look penitent.
The peat fire lit Jamie’s astonished face. “Rose?”
Shame burned her cheeks. Before she could find words to explain herself, the door creaked open, and the coppery head of their housekeeper, Neda Hastings, appeared.
“Leana, I’ve come tae see ye get some rest…” Neda’s words faded as she caught sight of Rose. “There ye are, lass! I thocht ye’d wandered off tae the kitchen.”
“Nae.” She could not look at Jamie. “I…I wanted to see…the baby.”
“Come, dearie,” Leana murmured, stretching out her hand. “You had only to ask.”
Gathering her skirts and her courage about her, Rose crossed the wooden floor to Leana’s bedside, barely noticing the others as her gaze fell on the tiny bundle in Leana’s arms. “Isn’t he a dear thing?” While Leana held back the linen blanket, Rose smoothed her hand across Ian’s downy hair, as rich a brown as Jamie’s own. “ ’Tis so soft,” she whispered.
Had she ever touched anything more precious? His little head fit perfectly within the cup of her hand.
“Would you like to hold him, Rose?”
Her breath caught. “Might I?” She bent down, surprised to find her arms were shaking. She’d held babies before, but not this one. Not Jamie’s. “Ohh,” she said when Leana placed the babe in the crook of her arm. “How warm he is!”
Rose held Ian close and bent her head over his, breathing in the scent of his skin, marveling at how pink he was. And how small. Deep inside her a longing stirred to life, as if some unnamed desire had waited for this moment to arrive. All of her sixteen years Rose had feared motherhood; the miracle in her arms put such foolish concerns to rest. Her mother had died in childbirth, yet Leana had lived, and so had her babe.
“My own nephew,” Rose said gently, stroking his cheek. “Ian James McKie.”
No wonder Jamie was enchanted. Leana was not the one who’d stolen Jamie’s heart this night; it was Ian, his newborn son.
Neda came up behind her, resting her hands on Rose’s shoulders, peering round her to look at the babe. “Ye’ll make a fine mither someday.
Suppose ye gie Ian back tae yer sister afore he starts to greet.”
“Aye.” Rose did as she was told, chagrined at how cool and empty her arms felt.
“The auld wives say,” Neda cooed, tucking Leana’s bedcovers in place, “the child that’s born on the Sabbath day is blithe and bonny and good and gay. Isn’t that so, Mr. McKie?”
Jamie smiled down at his son. “Ian is all those things.”
When Jamie lifted his head, Rose looked into his eyes, hoping she might find his love for her reflected there. “I’m sorry, Jamie. For hiding in the corner.”
“No harm was done, Rose.” His steady gaze confused her. Was he glad she was there? Or eager for her to leave?
Neda picked up the candle by the bed and waved it toward the door. “Go along, lass. And ye as well, Mr. McKie. Leana needs a bit mair care and a guid deal o’ sleep. We’ll bring yer wife and babe hame tae Auchengray soon.”
Rose took her leave, pretending not to notice as Jamie bent down to kiss her sister’s hand, then her brow, then her mouth, where he tarried longer than duty required. Oh, Jamie. Had his affections shifted so quickly? In a day? In an hour? Rose closed the door behind her, shutting out the worst of it. Her empty stomach squeezed itself into a hard knot, even as her chin began to wobble. She would not cry. She would not.
The hall was pitch-black, the last of the candles snuffed out by the thrifty minister’s wife, who’d shooed her household off to bed an hour ago. Rose halted, unsure of her way in the darkness. Was that her green cloak hanging near the door or someone else’s? She would need its thick woolen folds for the journey home.
Behind her the spence door shut with a faint click of the latch.
Jamie. She could not bring herself to answer him, though she sensed him closing the distance between them, his footsteps echoing in the empty hall. His hand touched her waist. “Rose, you must understand…”
“I do understand.” Her voice remained steady while the rest of her trembled. “Now that she has given you a healthy son, Leana is the one you love.”
“Nae, Rose.” Jamie grasped her elbow and spun her about. The heat of his fingers penetrated the fabric of her gown, and his eyes bored into hers. “To my shame, I do not love Leana. Not yet.” He lowered his voice, tightening his grip on her arm. “But I will learn to love your sister.
By all that’s holy, I must, Rose. She is my wife, the mother of my son, and—”
“And she loves you.”
He dared not disagree, for they both knew it was true. “Aye, she does.”
“Well, so do I.” Swallowing her pride, Rose reached up to caress his face, reveling at the rough feel of his unshaven skin. “And you love me, Jamie. You told me so again this morning, you said—”
“Things I should not have said on this or any other Sabbath.” Jamie turned away, releasing his hold on her. “Something happened this day, Rose.”
“Aye. Your son was born—”
“Before that, I mean. I had a discussion with Duncan.” He hung his head. “More like a confession.”
“Duncan, you say?” Neda’s husband, the overseer of Auchengray, was a good man and kind. But unbending when it came to certain matters. “Whatever did you confess to him?”
“The truth.” The relief on Jamie’s face was visible even in the dim entrance hall. “I promised Duncan…nae, I promised God that I would be a good husband to Leana and a good father to Ian. I must keep that promise now. You ken I must.” He stared down at the flagstone floor, his voice strained. “Let me go, Rose. Please.”
“Let you go?” Her throat tightened. “But, Jamie, I love you. After all we’ve been through, how can you ask such a thing of me?”
“Because you love your sister.”
She cringed at the reminder. “Not as much as I love you.”
Jamie looked up. “You’ve loved her longer though. Every day of your life.”
“Not this day,” Rose protested, though they both knew she didn’t mean it. Hour after hour she’d held Leana’s hand, pleading with her not to die, praying for her with Neda and the others. Aye, she loved her sister. But she loved Jamie as well. How could she possibly let him go?
He took her hand and led her toward the hall bench, pulling her down onto the wooden seat next to him. “Rose…” His voice was as tender as she’d ever heard it. “I saw you with Ian. You were born to be a mother. And someday you will surely be one. But first you must find a husband of your own.”
“Please, Jamie!” Did he not understand? Did he not see? “You should have been my husband. And Ian my son—”
“Nae!”He fell back against the wall with a groan. “I beg you, do not say such things, Rose. ’Tis too late for all of that. God in his mercy has forgiven my unfaithful heart, and I will not disappoint him—or Leana—again.”
Her heart sank. “Instead you will disappoint me.”
“Aye, it seems I must.” Jamie turned toward her, his face a handbreadth away. “Forgive me, darling Rose. You were my first love; I cannot deny it.”
His first love. But not his last. She closed her eyes. He was too near.
“I may never care for Leana as I have for you. But I must try. Don’t you see?”
“I…” She could hold back her tears no longer. “I only see that you don’t want me.”
“As my cousin, always. But not as my wife.” His grip tightened.
“You must let me go, Rose. For Ian’s sake.”
She stood, tugging her hands free to wipe her cheeks, looking away lest he see the sorrow in her eyes. “You ask too much of me, Jamie. You ask…too much.” She fled for the front door, stopping long enough to fling her cloak over her shoulders before disappearing into the fogshrouded night.