The heart that is soonest awake to the flowers
Is always the first to be touch’d by the thorns.
I will never leave you.
Leana McBride sat up in bed, disoriented, grasping at the threads of her dream. She’d been sitting under the yew tree on the edge of Auchengray’s garden, cradling her infant son to her breast, brushing her fingers through his silky hair, singing softly as he nursed.
Baloo, baloo, my wee, wee thing.
Ian’s warm scent seemed to permeate the air of her aunt’s tiny cottage in Twyneholm. The recalled softness of his cheek felt more real than the linen nightgown beneath her fingertips, the memory of his small, hungry mouth more tangible than the rough sheets against her bare skin.
She gripped the edges of the bed as grief pierced her heart anew. Aunt Meg had insisted the pain would ease with time. Leana glanced over her shoulder at the older woman, still fast asleep. Her aunt meant well, but two months had not diminished the potent memories of her son that haunted her dreams and clouded her thoughts.
By the hour she’d contemplated going home to Auchengray. Only two dozen miles, yet “a world away,” as Aunt Meg had once said. Leana had pictured herself running up the stair to the nursery, gathering Ian in her arms, and holding him for days on end. She would have done it. She would have. If somehow she could have seen Ian yet not seen Jamie.
Oh, my dear Jamie.
Aye, she missed him as well, desperately so. In a different way, yet the same. Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. The smooth planes of his face, the dark slash of his brows, his generous mouth and strong chin rose before her like a portrait painted by a master artist. She had loved Jamie McKie from the first moment he walked across Auchengray’s lawn one bright October afternoon. Though it was more than a year before he returned that love, when he did, Jamie had given her his whole heart.
But now that heart belonged to her sister. To Rose.
Leana turned her head on the pillow, imagining Jamie beside her. Did he love her still, as she loved him? Did he think of her at all? Did he suffer as she did? She was ashamed of her thoughts, but they would not be silenced.
This much she knew: No letter had arrived begging her to return. No carriage or mount had come clattering up to Burnside’s door, prepared to carry her home. She had left Auchengray of her own free will on the day of Rose’s wedding, intending to stay at Aunt Meg’s long enough to mend her shattered heart. And long enough for Rose to mend Jamie’s, as much as it grieved Leana to think of it.
It was nearly June. With the spring lambing ended at Auchengray, surely they’d left for Jamie’s ancestral home in the glen of Loch Trool, taking her precious Ian with them. “We will wipe the dust of Auchen-gray off our feet come May,” Jamie had promised her in February. Instead, it was Rose who’d traveled to Glentrool.
Would her sister write once they settled in? Describe how Ian was growing? Declare he looked more like his father every day? Though such news might wound her, Leana preferred it to no word at all. Not a single post bearing Rose’s kenspeckle script had arrived at Burnside Cottage. Nor was there one from her father. But thoughtful Neda Has-tings, Auchengray’s housekeeper, had sent a long letter last month, brimming with details of Ian’s progress.
There was no mention of Jamie. The man who was once her husband. The man who’d blessed her womb with Ian. The man now married to her sister.
“Be thou my strong rock,” Leana whispered into the darkness. Drawing the Almighty’s comforting presence round her like a thick plaid, she rose from the hurlie bed. Meg had trundled it out from beneath her own bed the March night her niece had arrived. Low to the floor and narrow, it was much like the one Leana had slept in at home in the nursery. With Ian.
Her gaze fell on the small nightgown draped over her sewing bag. She’d pieced it together from remnants of soft cotton, intending to embroider the sleeves and hem with purple thistles. By the time she completed it, Ian would be nine months old and in need of a new sleeping gown. If she could not see him, she could at least sew for him. Holding the fabric in her hands brought him closer to her. Imagining her stitches brushing against his tender skin gave her a small measure of comfort.
While her aunt snored soundly, Leana bathed her hands and face in a warm bowl by the hearth. She slipped on her plain green gown, then swung a kettle over the coal grate to boil water for their tea, ever aware that her days in Twyneholm were numbered. Her aunt could ill afford a houseguest much longer. And Leana missed home.
She lit one of the beeswax candles made from Meg’s own hives, then collected the tools for her baking—a wooden spurtle for stirring, a notched rolling pin, and a heart-shaped iron spade to move the oatcakes about—recalling the many times she and Neda had worked side by side in Auchengray’s spacious kitchen.
A handful of meal, a pinch of soda, a dash of salt, a spoonful of goose fat from last night’s supper, and the first oatcake took shape beneath her hands. She sprinkled the board with meal as she went, added hot water sparingly, and kneaded the small lump of dough with her knuckles. Neda’s voice echoed in her head. Spread it oot evenly. Keep yer hands movin’. Leana rolled the dough as thin as she could and pinched the edges with her fingers before the first oatcake went onto the girdle over the fire, and the process started all over again.
A faint light spread across the room as she worked. Soon a cock’s crow from a neighboring farm announced the break of day.
“I’ve ne’er seen a finer pair of hands at a baking board.”
She looked up to find Margaret Halliday beaming at her from across the room, a threadbare wrapper tied round her waist. Leana managed a wan smile in return. “Good morning, Auntie.”
“You’ll spoil me yet, lass. Preparing my breakfast for me. Weeding my kitchen garden. Filling my coal pail.”
“’Tis the least I can do.” Leana kept an eye on the oatcakes. When the edges curled up, they were done. “My hands are full of meal, or I’d pour your tea.”
“Och. I’ll see to that.”
The women moved round to accommodate each other in the small cooking space and soon were seated at table, their breakfast on a crockery plate. Leana nibbled a piece of oatcake but put it down half-eaten, her appetite vanished.
Aunt Meg reached across the table and turned Leana’s chin toward the window, eying her. “You’ve grown thinner since you came. This morn in particular, you’ve a dwiny look about you.”
“My stomach does feel a bit queasy.” Leana swallowed the disagreeable taste in her mouth, then pressed a hand to her forehead. “But my skin is cool.”
“We’ve not had an epidemic in the parish for nigh to thirty years. Ague, it was. Terrible fevers and chills.” Aunt Meg peered at her more closely. “Did my roasted goose not sit well on your stomach? I thought it a pleasant change from mutton and fish.”
“I ate too much of it, I fear. I’ll go for a walk shortly, which should help.” She stared down at her teacup as if the dark liquid contained the strength she needed to say what must be said. “Auntie, it’s time I went home to Auchengray.”
“Oh, my dear niece.” The disappointment in Meg’s voice was obvious.
Leana looked up and touched her aunt’s wrinkled cheek. “I’ve stayed far too long already. Nearly two months.”
Meg’s eyes watered. “When you came to my door that rainy Sabbath eve, I was happy to make room for you. And I’d gladly share Burnside Cottage with you for all of my days, if you wouldn’t mind an auld woman’s company.”
“You are far from old, and I cherish your company.” Leana tenderly brushed away Meg’s tears. “But you cannot afford to feed and clothe me. And I have duties to attend to at home. With Rose gone, Auchengray has no mistress. The gardens will suffer, and the wool won’t be spun.” She squeezed Meg’s bony hands. “Do forgive me, dearie. You knew this time would come.”
“Aye, though I hoped it might not.” Her aunt regarded her at length, compassion shining in her blue gray eyes. “Will you write Willie and ask him to bring the chaise?”
“Nae,” Leana said firmly. She could not involve Willie, Auchengray’s orraman, without her father’s permission. Not again. “This must be my own doing. My own silver. A hired chaise.”
Her aunt’s mouth fell open. “But you have no silver.”
“A predicament I shall remedy shortly.” Leana tried to sound confident, though she had yet to think of a means of securing such a sum. “Mr. Crosbie at the tollgate said a chaise and driver would cost me fifteen shillings.” A fortune for a woman with mere pennies in her purse.
Meg propped her chin on her hand. “Would that I had the silver to give you.”
“You’ve done more than enough, Auntie. Suppose I go for that walk and see if some clever notion doesn’t present itself.” Leana stood, feeling lightheaded for a moment, then slipped on her cloak and prayed the brisk morning air would calm her stomach. One of her aunt’s two collies bounded through the doorway ahead of her and shook itself awake from ears to tail, then turned round, waiting for her to follow.
Leana pulled Burnside’s red wooden door closed, then absently scratched the dog’s silky head. Twyneholm was not a proper village, merely a cluster of two-room cottages—some with thatched roofs, like Meg’s, others with slate—built along the military road. Reverend Scott, the parish minister, insisted that a great and ancient battle, fought nigh to the kirk, had left a king slain and his vanquished men staggering home in a winding direction—hence the name tae wyne hame. Aunt Meg scoffed at his romantic notion. “’Tis a low patch of land, or holm, that lies ’tween the Tarff Water and the Corraford Burn.”
Leana only knew that Twyneholm had served her well. A quiet refuge for a heart torn in two. In a handful of days, when the month of June arrived, she would look to the north, to Auchengray, and pray for the means—and the strength—to return home.
She no longer had a child to mother or a husband to love. But she did have faith in the One who had not forsaken her. I will never leave you. Words the Almighty had spoken to Jamie in a dream. Words she had whispered to Jamie when their future was certain. Words Leana still held close to her heart.