"I dinna like it, Sassenach. We keep hearing rumors at the print shop of the British abandoning Philadelphia.” He sat in the rocking chair he'd just finished just that afternoon, Alexandra in his arms. She was getting bigger and stronger every day, and Jamie often found himself mesmerized as he watched her grow and change.
Claire put down the book she'd been reading and asked, "What happens then?"
"The loyalists will be evacuated; John will likely have tae go back tae England," Jamie sighed, "And the Continental Army is no' likely tae just let the Redcoats march off quietly. There'll most certainly be a battle."
"What do you propose we do?"
"I think it's time tae finally go home, tae the Ridge."
"Are you insane?" Claire stood and started pacing in the room. "We have three tiny babies; they aren't even a month old. And what about Aileen?"
Jamie stood and set Alexandra in her cradle. He walked over to Claire and put his arms around her. "Do ye trust me, Claire?"
She looked in his eyes and nodded. "With my life."
"Good," he answered, kissing her forehead. "Dinna fash; I'll make sure everything works out. I'll have tae go see Fergus tomorrow and find out if he and Marsali will want tae come along. Then I have tae make some alterations tae the wagon. We’ll leave in a fortnight. Dinna tell anyone yet, Sassenach. I dinna want anyone to be alarmed; I’ll have everything all worked out before we let them know.”
Claire gave him a questioning look but just shook her head. "I'll leave it to you then, Soldier."
Ever since their middle of the night meeting, William and Aileen had started taking nightly walks after all the babies had been settled to sleep and Tadgh tucked into bed. William waited patiently each night while Aileen finished her duties, giving her his arm to take as soon as she was ready to go.
They walked up and down the streets of the city telling each other of their pasts and getting to know each other. Aileen, born a member of the Stewart clan, had grown up on a small croft in the Highlands. Her parents had both died of the morbid sore throat when she was young, and she'd been raised by her grandparents.
At fifteen, she'd met Lucas MacIntyre, a young man of eighteen. They fell in love and were married when Aileen was sixteen. She became pregnant with Tadgh soon after. A year and a half later they were setting sail for a new life in the Colonies. The voyage was treacherous and took much longer than expected. One night, during a storm, Aileen couldn’t feed Tadgh because she was so malnourished and dehydrated. Lucas got up in the night to see if there was any fresh water to be had. The days of rain had left a layer of murky water below deck that was teeming with the filth of all the passengers. He tripped in the dark and cut his leg on the side of a wooden crate; it was a minor wound that should have healed quickly, but it quickly became inflamed and he was dead of infection in five days.
“He was a good man,” she told William, “And I did love him very much.”
“I understand,” he answered, reaching his free hand across and squeezing her arm.
“What about you? Have you ever been in love?”
“I thought I was once, but I know now it was not the real thing,” he answered honestly, thankful that they were walking so that he could speak without looking her in the eyes. It was easier to tell her his feelings when they were both moving forward and didn’t have to see the other’s reaction.
Very quietly, she asked, “How do you know that?”
Even more faintly, he answered, “Because I know what real love feels like now.”
Aileen didn’t respond, but William could hear her breath quicken and she moved her body closer to his as they continued their walk.
When they reached the front door, they turned to face each other. William had not yet gotten up the nerve to kiss her, especially with the constant threat of one of his family members seeing them. He wasn’t keeping his affection for Aileen secret, but that didn’t mean he was ready to be teased incessantly by Brianna or be subject to an inquisition by either of his fathers. Once they went back into the house, they maintained a respectable distance. Aside from a few stolen glances, their interactions remained mostly about the babies or Tadgh.
William took Aileen’s hands in his. “Good night, Aileen.”
Aileen squeezed his hands back, and before he knew what was happening, she was on her tiptoes kissing him. It was only a soft, closed-mouth kiss, but William felt as if tiny explosions were going off throughout his entire body. He closed his eyes and kissed her back, slipping his arm around her waist and pulling her in closer. He could feel his face flushing with shock and furor and passion.
Then, as quickly as it had started, it was over. She pulled away, whispering, “Good night,” and quietly slipped into the house. William was left rooted to his spot on the front steps, trying to control his breath and make his limbs start working again.
The next day, Jamie went to see Fergus and Marsali about the family’s imminent departure. He arrived to the usual eager greetings of his grandchildren, except for Germain who sat sullenly in a chair in the sitting room. “What’s wrong wi’ the lad?” he asked Marsali as she poured him a cup of tea.
“Och,” Marsali said, waving him off. “He’s just mad because I willna let him go out today. I caught him pickpocketing yesterday and he’s bein’ punished.”
Jamie turned and gave Germain a stern look, causing the boy to shrink further into his seat. “I dinna ken what tae do wi’ him, Jamie. Of course, what can I say when his own father teaches him how tae do it?” She gestured toward Fergus who was just coming in from the print shop to join them.
“I just taught him for fun!” he said, throwing his hands up in innocence. “How was I supposed to know he would actually go out and steal from people!”
Jamie gave Fergus a look similar to that he had just given Germain, and Fergus clamped his mouth shut and sat at the table, looking down at his hands. “Well,” Jamie started, “As much as I’d like tae tan both yer hides fer bein’ sae foolish, I came here tae talk of something rather urgent, and I dinna want the lad tae hear. Can ye send him to mind the shop?”
Fergus looked over and spoke to Germain quickly in French. Germain slid out of his chair and sprinted out of the room, eager to break free of his prison. “What is happening, Milord?” Fergus asked. Marsali sat down with them, her brow furrowed with concern.
“Ye dinna have tae fash yerselves,” Jamie began, “Everyone is fine at home. But I’m worried about what will happen here if the British do decide to abandon Philadelphia. Ye ken I’m in a precarious position with my son having just left the British Army and John being a loyalist. If John has tae leave, we’ll have nowhere tae stay, and I willna risk William getting caught up in things again.”
“What are you saying, Milord?” Fergus asked.
“We’ll be leaving Philadelphia in little less than a fortnight; we’re going back tae the Ridge. I wanted tae let ye ken and ask if ye’d like tae come back with us.”
Marsali and Fergus exchanged a look but didn’t respond. Jamie looked back and forth between the two of them and cleared his throat emphatically. Finally, Fergus spoke up. “We need to stay. The print shop is doing well, and you know there isn’t anything for me to do on the Ridge anyway.”
“We’ve been talking, though,” Marsali chimed in, “And we kent ye’d be heading back to the Ridge at some point, and, well, with Germain constantly getting intae trouble here, we thought maybe the Ridge would be a better place for him. There’s so much temptation here in the city.”
Jamie chuckled, “Aye, there’s fewer pockets tae pick on the Ridge and even fewer that have any coin in them. If ye’re askin’ me tae take the lad wi’ me, I’d be happy tae. He’s a braw laddie and the farm work will do him good. Between Germain and William, I’ll have plenty o’ help tae get the houses built we’ll need.”
“Thank ye, Jamie,” Marsali said. She exchanged another glance with Fergus, who remained quiet.
“What is it, mon fils?” Jamie asked.
“We have something else to ask that is perhaps a bit more of a delicate matter,” Fergus looked at Marsali with a question in his eyes and she gave a slight nod. “Henri-Christian is not doing well here. He can’t go outside without being stared at or heckled. The children in the neighborhood will not play with him. We are in constant fear that he will be beaten or worse.”
“We wouldna ask ye if we werena frightened for his life, Jamie,” Marsali chimed in. Her face was painted with fear and heartache.
Jamie reached out a hand and placed it over Marsali’s. “Lass, ye ken I’d do anything fer the wee lad. Of course we’ll take him wi’ us.”
A sob escaped Marsali’s lips and she lowered her head over their clasped hands. “Thank ye, Jamie.”
“Yes, thank you, Milord,” Fergus said.
“Are we done, or are ye going tae ask me tae take the hell-kittens too?” Jamie teased.
Marsali sniffed but her mouth curled up in a smile. “No, we’ll keep the two o’ them here,” she responded. “And the one that’s on the way.” She patted her belly and broke into a genuine smile.
“Another bairn?” Jamie asked, his eyes wide with surprise.
Fergus got up from his seat and stood behind Marsali, placing his hands on her shoulder. “Yes, Milord. We’re very pleased.”
Jamie stood and clapped Fergus on the back. “Well, congratulations to ye both. I’m verra happy fer ye. Next summer, I’ll expect ye out at the Ridge for a visit with the new bairn.”
“We’ll try, Milord,” Fergus answered.
“I have tae go now; I’ve got my own bairn tae look after now.” He couldn’t stop the proud smile that came to his face every time he spoke of Alexandra. “I’ll let ye ken the exact date we’re leaving, but have their trunks ready by the end of next week, aye? And ye can tell the bairns, but I havena told anyone else but you and Claire, so please dinna say anything if ye see yer brother and sister.”
Marsali and Fergus nodded in agreement, and Jamie took his leave. He hurried home to see the bairns and continue working on his plans.
The next morning William came downstairs to find Tadgh curled up on the settee. "What's wrong, little man?" he asked.
Tadgh looked up at him with flushed cheeks and a glazed over eyes. "Throat hurts," he squeaked out.
William moved closer and put a hand on Tadgh's forehead. "You're burning up," he said in surprise, "Let me go get Mother Claire." Tadgh closed his eyes.
"Mother Claire!" William called, heading up the stairs. "Mother Claire!" In his panic, he threw open the bedroom door without knocking.
Claire's was on the bed with her legs draped over Jamie’s shoulders, covering his ears, Jamie's face buried between her legs. Claire’s eyes were closed, and she was moaning loudly, her hand slapping at the headboard. A choking sound escaped William's mouth before he could stop it and Claire’s eyes flew open and she started kicking at Jamie, trying to scramble up to a sitting position.
William backed out of the doorway, tripping over his feet and falling toward the floor. He grasped for the door handle in an attempt to stay on his feet as he heard Jamie shout, "Iffrin!" Half hanging from the door handle, William flung himself out of the room and kicked the door shut.
William scrambled back to his feet and ran into his room. He slammed the door and stood with his back leaning against it. His entire body was flushed with mortification and he wondered if he would ever be able to face Mother Claire again.
"Dammit!" He slapped his hand to his forehead, remembering what had brought him to their room to begin with. He took a deep breath and turned around to open the door; he crept out into the hallway only to find Claire standing out there in her robe. He cried out and jumped back.
"William," Claire said calmly, reaching out a hand to place on his shoulder. "It's alright; just tell me what's got you so worked up."
He took a deep, steadying breath. "It's Tadgh," he told her. "He says his throat is sore and it feels like he has a fever."
"Where is he?" Claire asked.
William pointed toward the stairs and Claire turned and hurried down with William at her heels. Tadgh was asleep on the settee where William had left him. Claire placed her hand on his forehead and pulled it back immediately. "Go get a cool rag," Claire commanded.
William ran out of the room and through the kitchen into the backyard. He raced to the well, pulled up a fresh bucket of cold water, and then walked back to the house as quickly as he could. He found a clean rag in the kitchen and dipped the rag in before returning to the sitting room with both the rag and bucket.
Claire had stripped Tadgh's shirt off; his entire torso was covered in an angry, red rash. William gasped and stared wide-eyed at the little boy. When Claire reached out to take the rag from his hand, William put the bucket down and dropped to his knees beside him. "It's alright, Tadgh," he whispered, running the cool rag over his forehead. His chest was seized with panic, but he kept his voice calm and steady. "What is it?" he asked, never taking his eyes off Tadgh.
"I think it's Scarlet Fever," Claire told him. "We really should get him upstairs. He needs to be isolated, so he doesn't get anyone else sick."
William nodded and scooped him up. "I'll take him to his room."
Just then, Aileen appeared on the stairs. "Stay back!" Claire ordered. She moved closer to Aileen and gave her a sympathetic look. "Tadgh is sick. You can't risk being near him; you could spread it to the babies even if you don't get sick yourself."
Aileen shook her head vehemently. "No! If my son is sick, I have tae take care of him!" She tried to dodge around Claire, but Claire moved to block her way.
"Aileen," William said with calm authority, "I've got him. I won't let anything happen to him. You have my word."
Aileen swallowed back a sob and looked William in the eye from her perch on the stairs. She nodded and told him, "Aye, I trust ye William." She turned around and dashed back up the stairs.
"I'll take him to my room," William told Claire. "Once I get him comfortable, I'll fetch the bucket of water. Is there anything I can do for him?"
"I'll get some medicines together and prepare some ointment for his rash." William nodded and turned to go up the stairs, but Claire stopped him with a hand on his arm. "I'm really proud of you, William," she said. William could hear the motherly pride in her voice and his heart filled with love and gratitude for her. He was finally starting to realize, in a small way, what it meant to be a parent and how blood relation often had nothing to do with it.
It was a good hour before he had Tadgh settled in his bed and sleeping fitfully. Plans for Tadgh’s care had been made through the closed door: Jamie would keep the fresh cold water coming; Claire would deliver medicines regularly; Mrs. Figg would bring up their meals. Everything was to be left outside the door for William to retrieve. Brianna brought him some books and thanked him profusely for his sacrifice to keep the babies safe.
When things finally quieted down, he heard a quiet knock on the door. “Yes?” he called to the visitor.
“Hi, it’s me,” Aileen’s voice came from the other side.
William stood from the chair he was sitting in and sprang across the room. “Hi,” he said, leaning against the door.
“Is he alright?” she asked.
“Yes,” William replied. “He’s sleeping and his fever hasn’t gotten any worse. I’ll try to get him to eat some broth at lunch.”
“Thank you again, William. This is much more than I would expect a person to do for the hired help.”
Dear god, doesn’t she know? Have I not made it plain? He reached his palm up and placed it against the door, as if he could make her feel his touch. “Aileen,” he said hoarsely, “Don’t you realize you’re so much more than that to me?”
He heard a sharp intake of breath and then there was a charged silence between them. Finally, she stammered, “Yes, well…thank you again.” Then, he heard her footsteps walking away.
William took a deep breath and walked over to the bed to check on Tadgh. His fever didn’t feel any worse and his breathing seemed normal, both things that Claire had told him to look for as she’d given instructions through the closed door.
Mrs. Figg brought them lunch at noon; when Tadgh woke up, William sat the boy up and tried to coax some broth into him, but Tadgh just shook his head pitifully and croaked, “It hurts.”
“Come on Tadgh,” William urged. “You have to get something in your belly. Just a few more sips for me?” Tadgh managed a few spoonfuls and some sips of water before falling back to sleep.
William paced the room, nervous energy boiling at the surface. He wanted to run until his legs collapsed, hit something until his fists bled, scream until his voice gave out. He couldn’t bear seeing Tadgh so sick, and even worse was the thought of how much Aileen must be worried about her son, fighting every instinct within her to not run to him.
It struck him, the level of trust that she must have in him to have allowed herself to be separated from Tadgh. He’d only known Tadgh for less than a month, but William couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else besides himself or Aileen taking care of him. She had placed the most precious thing in her life into his hands. The thought actually terrified him. What if something went wrong? What if…? No, no. I won’t think about that.
There was another knock on the door, and William answered eagerly, hoping it was Aileen again. Instead, it was his Papa. “William are you alright in there?” he asked, concern apparent in his voice.
“Yes, Papa, I’m fine.”
“I don’t want you getting sick, too.”
“I’ll be fine, Papa. There’s nobody else who can do this,” William insisted.
John sighed. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to let me help you?”
“No, Papa,” William said firmly, “I promised Aileen I would keep Tadgh safe. It’s my responsibility.”
“I understand. I’m proud of you William.”
William thanked his Papa, who then took his leave, leaving William wondering, why is everybody so proud of me for doing something that I had to do? Volunteering to care for Tadgh hadn’t even been a question in his mind. He wasn’t doing it to be heroic or to impress Aileen or out of obligation. He couldn’t quite explain why it felt so natural for him to pick the sick boy up and take care of him, but it wasn’t a choice he had made consciously.
He dipped the cold rag into the bucket and dabbed it on Tadgh’s fevered head, brushing the boy’s sweaty hair away from his eyes. “I promise,” he whispered, “Nothing will happen to you as long as I am here.”
Five days passed, and there was no change in Tadgh’s condition. He hadn’t gotten any worse, but he was showing no signs of getting any better. William was haggard; he hadn’t bathed properly in days and he slept lightly through the nights, waking often to check Tadgh’s temperature and ensure his comfort. He was also lonely and missed Aileen terribly, their quick meetings with a solid door between them not enough to sate William’s need to be in her presence.
On the sixth night, William fell asleep on the pallet he had made for himself on the floor. He dreamed of Aileen, of taking her in his arms, feeling her small body wrapped in his. She smelled of vanilla and fresh grass, with a hint of sour milk and he buried his face in her thick copper hair as his hands traced the delicate curves of her body.
Suddenly, he was distracted by a rustling sound and he had the distinct sensation of something shaking nearby. Slowly, he roused unsatisfied from his dream and realized that the sound had not been part of the dream at all. He shot up from the floor and looked at the bed; Tadgh’s entire body was shaking. “Tadgh!” he yelled. “Tadgh, can you hear me?” He reached out to grab the boy’s shoulders to still him or wake him or both. They were hot to the touch, much hotter than he’d felt in the many days he’d been caring for him.
Claire burst in the door, “William, what’s…” She looked at Tadgh and then turned to William, “Right,” she said curtly, straightening her spine and putting her hands on her hips. “He’s having a febrile seizure. They can be harmless if we can get his temperature down quickly. William, you’ll have to fill the tub with cool water as quickly as possible. Perhaps you can get John to help you. I’m just going to my room to grab the fever medicines for him.”
William was frozen, unsure if he should leave Tadgh, even for a second, in his current state. “Go!” Claire commanded with such authority that he practically ran into the half-opened door trying to move as quickly as possible.
He pounded on his Papa’s door explaining quickly what needed to be done. The two men bounded down the stairs together. William pulled the tub out and carried it into the yard where they worked in tandem to fill it. When it was finally filled, they each took one handle and carried it together through the yard, into the kitchen, up the stairs, and into William’s room. John bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath, but William felt like he could go on forever if only it meant saving Tadgh.
Tadgh’s seizure had ended but his fever was still dangerously high. William pushed past Claire and picked Tadgh up. Claire had already stripped him in an attempt to cool him down, so he placed the boy directly in the tub. Kneeling next to it, William scooped water in his hands and poured it over Tadgh’s head and torso. He mumbled soft reassurances and even quieter pleas, not even noticing that his tears were dripping into the tub.
When Tadgh started to shiver, William pulled him out and wrapped him in a blanket. He crawled onto the bed with Tadgh in his arms and leaned back against the headboard. He felt so small and fragile in William’s arms that William was afraid to let go of him lest he slip away. Instead, he held the boy to his chest and rubbed his back. When he leaned his head down to kiss Tadgh’s forehead, he gasped. “He’s not hot anymore,” he whispered to Claire and John.
They both smiled at him and Claire patted him on the shoulder. “You’ve done an excellent job, William.” She put her hand on Tadgh’s forehead and gave William a reassuring nod. “He may be through the worst of it now.”
“Come along, my dear,” John said to Claire, ushering her out the door. “I suppose we’ll have to find a place to quarantine ourselves now for a few days.”
William heard Claire murmuring to someone out in the hallway, and a few moments later, Aileen popped her head into the doorway. In all the chaos, William hadn’t even noticed that a small crowd had congregated out in the hallway. “Is he…”
“He’ll be alright, Aileen,” William reassured her. “I told you that you have my word.” She breathed a sigh of relief and slipped back out through the door.
The next morning, William woke up to the sound of a small, hoarse voice saying, “Thirsty.” He had fallen asleep half sitting up with Tadgh still cradled in his arms. He looked down and saw that Tadgh’s eyes were wide open and had lost the glassy, vacant look they’d carried during the worst of his sickness. William touched his hand to Tadgh’s forehead and smiled. The fever had finally broken.
He gave Tadgh a quick squeeze and then laid him gently on the bed, still bundled in a blanket, to fetch him some water. Tadgh sat up eagerly and drank. When he was finished, William asked him, “How does your throat feel?”
“Better,” he managed to croak.
He opened the door and called for assistance with fresh blankets and clothing. Aileen arrived with them and handed them through the crack in the door. It was the first time William had seen her face in six days and his heart jumped into his throat. “Claire told me what happened last night. She said you were keeping him safe. It’s the only reason I didn’t come bursting through this door. He’s alright now?”
“Yes, Aileen, he’s doing well. Please tell Claire to come check on him today. I think he’ll be up and around in no time.”
“William, I…” Her words were cut off by a sob.
William longed to reach out and touch her, pull her close and whisper assurances in her ear, tell her that he would always keep them both safe. Instead, he simply said, “I know. You don’t have to say it.”
Jamie slipped out of the house with Alexandra close to his chest in the sling Claire had helped him fashion. She was staying awake for longer periods and was more aware of her surroundings, picking her head up and looking around curiously, and he’d taken to bringing her with him whenever he was doing work outside. He talked to her endlessly, explaining what he was doing and telling her about what life would be like on the Ridge.
“I ken it doesna matter tae ye now because ye canna even crawl yet, but ye’ll be grateful for all the land when ye’re older, Sawny. You and the twins will have room tae run, trees to climb, places to hide. Ye’re going tae be so happy there, a leeanan; I promise ye.”
He had obtained an additional wagon to carry their belongings and supplies, and a cover for the one they had traveled in all those months ago. Near the front of the wagon, just behind the wagon seat, he had built in three small compartments lined with soft hay. When they left, he would add some blankets on top and there the weans would ride snugly and securely. He’d also added a wide bench secured to the wagon with strong rope. They could sit on it during the day and the ropes could be untied at night to make more room for sleeping on the floor of the wagon. He’d have Brianna and Claire sleep in there so that they could tend to the babies and Henri-Christian during the night. And if all went according to his plans, Aileen and Tadgh would be joining them as well. With luck, the weather would be fine and the men, along with Germain, could sleep outside.
The trip would take about two months, he estimated, and they would be safely at the ridge by mid-August, just in time to help with the harvest. His first order of business would be adding a loft in the cabin and perhaps even getting an addition on if he had the time. It was one room, and that on the small side, since it had only been himself and Ian in the past. Once the loft was built, they’d have a little space to spread out, and with any luck, Fergus and Marsali’s cabin would still be uninhabited.
That, he had special plans for. Plans that had been delayed due to Tadgh’s illness. But now that the boy was through the worst of it, he would speak to William as soon as Claire said it was safe. There wouldn’t be much time, but he was confident that he could work everything out as long as his pig-headed son didn’t decide to contradict Jamie on principle.
“Aye, Sawny,” he whispered, “We are ready to go home.”
The next day William and Tadgh were both given clean bills of health by Claire. The rash still lingered a bit on Tadhg’s skin, but otherwise he seemed to have made a full recovery. As soon as they were given the all clear, Aileen came into William’s room and swooped Tadgh into her arms. She stopped briefly to put a hand on William’s arm and thank him again, before taking her little boy to their own room.
William tried not to be hurt; Aileen had been without her son for seven days, and he knew how much she missed him and needed to spend time with him. Just the same, he had missed her terribly and his body ached to be near her. He scolded himself for being selfish and started about the task of straightening up his room. I need a bath and a shave, too, he thought, noticing his disheveled state in the mirror.
He was almost finished filling the tub when Jamie knocked on his door. William couldn’t help but chuckle at seeing the great warrior Red Jamie walking about the house with a baby strapped to his chest like an Indian carrying a papoose. “Can I see her for a moment?” William asked.
Jamie pulled her out of her bundle and handed Alexandra to William, who sat on the bed and cooed at his little sister. It felt as though she’d changed so much, but it had only been a week since he’d last seen her.
“Ye did a good thing, William,” Jamie told him. “I’m proud o’ ye.”
“I did it because I had to,” he murmured. His face flushed and he didn’t take his eyes of Alexandra.
“Aye, I ken,” Jamie assured him. “Now, give me the wean. I see ye’re getting ready to bathe. Come see me when ye’re done. I’ve got a verra important matter tae discuss wi’ ye.”
An hour later, William was dressed and shaved, feeling much more like himself than he had in days. Aileen was nowhere to be found, so he went downstairs to find Jamie. “He’s outside,” Mrs. Figg told him, “Over by the stables.”
When William found Jamie, he was still carrying Alexandra in her sling, checking out the wheels of the wagon, which had obtained a cover since William had last seen it. “Looks good,” William called out to him as he approached.
“Aye,” Jamie responded with a proud grin on his face. “Let me show ye the inside.”
They both climbed in and sat on the hanging bench. It was much more comfortable than the narrow benches often built into wagons and they both stretched their legs out. Even though he’d been with Jamie everyday over the past six months, it still shocked him sometimes when he noticed their resemblance. In a way, he’d grown accustomed to it, but at other times, the similarities would strike him so suddenly that he was taken aback.
“This is rather nice,” William told him, “Much more pleasant than just a bare wagon floor.” He pointed to the three boxes filled with hay. “What are those for?”
“Those are fer the bairns tae sleep in,” Jamie said cautiously. He took a deep breath before going on. “The British Army is likely to leave Philadelphia soon. I’ve heard they’ve already started evacuating some of the wealthy loyalists. It willna be safe for ye or John here. I canna risk the family’s safety. We must leave for North Carolina.”
“When?” William asked, his head already spinning with questions.
“Day after tomorrow if all goes as planned.”
“What about Aileen and Tadgh?” Panic was swelling in his chest and it took great effort to keep his voice calm and steady.
“I spoke tae her yesterday, told her she was welcome tae come wi’ us. The lass was a wee bit hesitant though. I canna blame her. Once she’s no longer needed for our bairns, there willna be much opportunity for a wet nurse on the Ridge.”
William clenched his fists as his panic threatened to turn to an all consuming rage. “I will not leave her,” he told Jamie through clenched teeth.
“I ken that,” Jamie said. “But I was thinkin’ there is a simple solution tae all of this.”
“And what’s that?”
“Weeeeeel....it hasna gone unnoticed that ye’re completely smitten wi’ the lass.” Jamie was trying to hide his amusement, but William could see the glint of mischief in his father’s eyes, plain as day.
“I suppose I am,” William said nonchalantly. “What does that have to do with this though?
Jamie shrugged casually. “I was thinkin’ that if ye were to marry the lass, she wouldna need tae worry about finding work again.”
“Marry her?” William sputtered. He knew his reaction should be shock and even anger at Jamie for meddling in his personal life. Instead, he felt a nervous energy building, a mixture of desire and need and gratefulness for his father for suggesting he do exactly what he’d been wanting to do since the moment he’d laid eyes on her. Still, he wasn’t even sure of what Aileen’s feelings for him were. There were moments when he was sure she loved him, and yet others when he wondered if she just thought of him as a benevolent employer. With this doubt in mind, he told Jamie, “I can’t possibly ask her to marry me. We’ve known each other only a month. I don’t even know if she feels the same way. I can’t rip her away from her life here.”
Jamie put up a hand to stop William’s spiraling. “Enough,” he said gently. “Do ye love the lass, son?”
Tears stung at the back of William’s eyes as he nodded and said quietly, “I do.”
“Then just ask her,” Jamie shrugged. “Ye canna ken how she feels unless ye do.”
Williams' hands were shaking and he couldn’t explain why tears were dripping from his eyes. He tried to shrink away from Jamie and cover his face in embarrassment, but Jamie reached out and pulled William close. For once he allowed himself to relax into Jamie’s affectionate nature; he was so bloody tired of fighting it from Jamie and from within himself. He was sick of always trying to be proper and do things the right way. It was as if Aileen’s presence in his life had cracked through a protective layer he had grown around his heart, and everything inside of him was exposed. And it felt good; he felt lighter. “Alright, Father,” he said finally, returning Jamie’s embrace, “I will.”
That night, William waited impatiently until all the children were asleep. When Aileen came down the stairs, he stood eagerly from his chair in the sitting room and approached her. They hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since their brief encounter that morning and he had to fight through his nerves. Without thinking, he reached out and grabbed her hand. To his relief, she did not pull away. “Would you like to go on a walk, Aileen?”
She smiled and nodded. “Just let me take this apron off and I’ll be right wi’ ye.”
“I missed this,” he told her once they were out of the house and away from prying eyes. He boldly looped his hand around her waist and pulled her closer.
“I did too,” she said quietly. “I will miss it when ye’ve gone.”
“You could come with us, you know.”
“I ken, but I have tae think of Tadgh and how I’m tae make a living after. It’s no’ easy being a widow wi’ a wee bairn, ye ken?” Her voice was shaking and William chanced a sideways glance.
In the moonlight, he could see the tears on her cheeks. Setting aside every pretense of propriety, he stopped in his tracks and pulled her close to him, stroking her copper locks. She let her head fall against his chest as she tried to steady herself.
When she had quieted, William pushed her away just far enough so that he could see her face. “You needn’t worry about any of that,” he started nervously, “if you were married again.”
“Aye,” she said, “there are plenty o’ men lookin’ for a poor widowed wet nurse.” She rolled her eyes and looked away from him.
He put his hand under her chin and moved her head back, tilting it up so that he could hold her gaze. He paused as goosebumps spread over his arms in the warm evening air. “They would all have to go through me first. I love you Aileen, and I won’t be parted from you. If you say, I stay, whether you agree to marry me or not. But I do hope you’ll go with us, as my wife.”
She shook her head slowly, searching Wiliam’s eyes. “William, ye’re the Ninth Earl of Ellesmere. Ye can likely have any woman ye want. Why would ye choose me?”
“I’ve loved you since the minute I laid eyes on you. Marrying you isn’t a matter of choice. It’s the only thing I can do.” They stared each other in the eyes silently until William smiled nervously and said, “Will you, Aileen? Will you be my wife?”
She shook her head as if she’d forgotten where she was. “Aye,” she replied as her plump lips spread into the biggest smile William had ever seen on her. “Aye, I’ll be yer wife, William.”
William bent down and kissed her until both their lips were swollen and they’d attracted a crowd of onlookers. He hadn’t even noticed that he had lifted her off her feet in his enthusiasm. They both laughed as he gently put her down and kissed her forehead. “Let’s go home,” he said. “We have a wedding to plan.”