“I’m sorry.” Tabitha Eckles dared not look Harlan Wilkins in the eye. If she witnessed even a flicker of grief, the floodgates of her own tears would spring open and drown her good sense in a moment when she needed all of it. “I did everything I could to save your wife.”
“I’m sure you did.” Wilkins’s tone held no emotion. He stood next to the dining room sideboard with the rigidity of a porch pillar. Candlelight played across the lower half of his
face, sparkling in the crystal glass he held to his lips without drinking, without speaking further.
“The baby came too soon…” Tabitha needed to say something more to a husband who had just lost his young bride of only six months, as well as their son. “After the accident --- ”
“Did she regain consciousness?” Wilkins lashed out the words. The amber contents of his glass sloshed, sending the sharp scent of spirits wafting around him.
Tabitha jumped. “No. I mean, yes. That is --- ” She took a breath to steady her racing heart and give herself a moment to think of a safe answer. “She mumbled a lot of nonsense.” At least Tabitha hoped it was nonsense, the ravings of a woman in terrible pain.
“The blow to her head must have made her crazed,” she added for good measure.
Wilkins’s posture relaxed, and he drained the liquid from his glass. “Thank you for trying. You may collect your fee from my manservant.”
“Shall I send the pastor?” As much as she wanted to, simply taking her fee for attending a lying-in and leaving Wilkins alone unsettled her as much as had the disastrous night. “I pass his house --- ”
“Just go.” The whiplash tone again, an order to depart with haste.
Tabitha spun on her heel and trotted from the room. The door slammed behind her. A moment later, an object thudded against the panel. The tinkle of broken glass followed.
So his wife’s death moved Harlan Wilkins after all.
Trembling, Tabitha collected her cloak from a cowering maid and her payment from a stony-faced manservant. She struggled for words of comfort over the death of their mistress, but her throat closed and her eyes burned. With no more than a brusque nod, she fled into the dawn.
Mist swirled around her, smelling of the sea and the tang of freshly turned earth, muffling the click of her heels on cobblestone and brick pavement. Trees appeared out of the gloom like stiff-spined sentries guarding her way along the route she had taken since she was sixteen and her mother had deemed her old enough to begin learning the family business of midwifery. The trees would shelter her journey if she turned left off of the village square and headed home past the houses of the townspeople.
She hesitated, then continued straight toward the sea. She needed the tang of salty mist on her lips, the peace of the beach at low tide, the extra walk home to calm her spirit, before facing Patience --- her friend, her companion, her maid of all work --- and admitting she’d failed to save a patient’s life.