Ezra muttered incoherently. Marina spooned chicken broth into his mouth, holding the spoon in one hand and a book in the other.
"You're dribbling, Ezra." She wiped his chin with a linen napkin. "Now I've lost my place. Where was I? Oh, here we were.
" 'Marianne's preserver, as Margaret, with more elegance than precision, styled Willoughby, called at the cottage early the next morning to make his personal inquiries. He was received by Mrs. Dashwood with more than politeness – with a kindness which Sir John's account of him and her own gratitude prompted—'** " Marina looked up from her book when she heard the knock on the door. "Excuse me, Ezra."
She hurried to the front door and found Vin Tanner waiting on the other side, a dead rabbit in his hand.
"Howdy, ma'am." He touched his hat. "Wondered if ya might be in the mood for rabbit stew?"
"That's very kind of you. Come in, please." She stepped back so the bounty hunter could step inside.
"How's Ezra doin'?" Vin walked to the kitchen to deposit the rabbit on her table.
"Nathan says he's doing as well as can be expected. I was just giving him a bit of broth, to help him keep his strength up."
"Ya don't mind m' sayin' so, ma'am, ya look plumb tuckered," Vin observed. "Ya want me to take over fer a bit, so's ya kin have a break?"
Rina hesitated a second, then agreed. "That's very kind of you."
Vin just smiled at her. "That's what fr'ens is fer." He nodded politely, then went to the bedroom to spoon broth down Ezra's unconscious throat.
Marina sat down in her husband's rocking chair, only intending to rest a moment before she went to the kitchen to begin simmering the rabbit. Her last thought before she fell asleep was that maybe Vin's grammar wouldn't be that hard to cope with, after all.
"Morning, Miz Standish. How's he doing today?" Nathan asked.
"He came to for a bit, but he just mumbled a little and then fell asleep again." She looked up at him, her hazel eyes filled with fear. "It's been three days. Shouldn't the fever have broken by now?"
Nathan shook his head. "Lung fever is a tricky thing. Heard of it taking weeks sometimes. Just gotta keep doin' what we're doing: try to keep him cool, give him lots of broth and willowbark tea, and pray."
Ezra moaned. Rina wiped his forehead, wondering if the moaning was a good sign or a bad sign. Sometimes he mumbled a few words, but usually just snippets of fever-dreams, nothing lucid.
"Don't you dare die on me, Ezra," she ordered. "I'm damned if I'll raise this baby by myself."
Sighing, Marina abandoned the dishes in the sink to go answer the door. "Just a minute, I'm coming."
JD stood at the doorway, his hat in his hand. "Hey, there, Missus Standish. Just came to see if Ezra was doing any better, or if there was anything I could do for you."
You've done quite enough, Sheriff Dunne, she thought. After a moment, she said aloud. "No change. But Nathan is hopeful."
"Is there – is there anything I can do to help?" asked the young man. He shifted his weight from his left foot to his right. He felt responsible for Ezra's predicament. He'd been the one to suggest they split up.
Rina took a deep breath. JD looked too much like a whipped puppy dog to hold a grudge. "If you wanted to read to him, the sound of your voice might comfort him." And it would give me a chance to get caught up on my housework, she thought.
"Will he – will he know I'm there?"
"Nathan's not sure, but he says it can't do any harm, and might do him some good. At least he'll know he's not alone," Marina said.
Nathan came by daily, usually twice a day. Josiah came by nearly as often, to pray with Rina or to sit with Ezra. All of her brothers-in-law stopped by, Vin with venison and a few kind words, JD and Buck eager to expunge their guilt by fetching firewood or doing other chores, Chris because regardless of what he'd said to Marina, he considered Ezra his responsibility, and he could no more shirk his responsibility than he could recite Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' speech in the middle of the town whilst dancing a jig. Rina wore herself to the bone, nursing her husband day and night. He'd wake for a few minutes, even speak intelligibly, if weakly, but the next time he awoke he'd have no memory of having woken before. And finally, early one morning, the fever broke.
Ezra opened his eyes. Once he managed to focus them, he realized in was in his own bed. His head hurt. He moaned slightly.
"Ezra!" His wife started to rush toward him, then caught herself. She proceeded with restrained dignity. "How are you feeling, Mr. Standish?"
"I've felt better," he confessed.
She poured him a glass of water and held it up to his lips. He sipped slowly at first, then downed half the glass. "Not too fast," she cautioned.
"I find myself possessed of a prodigious hunger. Might I impose on you to employ your culinary expertise and fetch me some breakfast?"
Rina smiled. Even recovering from his deathbed, Ezra had to indulge his sesquipedalian tendencies. "Barley broth and bread, sir. Nothing stronger until Nathan says so."
Ezra frowned. "I'd prefer a steak, or at least an omelette. However, if that's all Mr. Jackson will permit …."
She hurried to the kitchen without waiting for him to finish his sentence. She returned in a few minutes with a tray. "Do you need help sitting up?"
"I can manage." Ezra attempted to do so. After a moment, he conceded, "Perhaps your assistance would not go awry."
Rina sat the tray on the bedside table and assisted Ezra, as gently as possible, to a more upright position. Then she placed the tray in his lap. "Do you – " she started, then stopped herself in mid-sentence.
Ezra gave her a dirty look. "I am neither an invalid nor an infant, madam. You do not need to spoon-feed me."
"Sorry," she murmured. Nonetheless, she hovered, lest he need her after all.
"You may inform Mr. Jackson that I wish to see him at his earliest convenience. I refuse to be confined to a diet of gruel and broth," declared the green-eyed gambler.
"He should be stopping by this afternoon."
Something tickled the back of Ezra's brain. He struggled to catch the errant memory. Something about being spoon-fed like an infant… His face went pale as he remembered.
"Mrs. Standish, I distinctly remember hearing you swear whilst you were nursing me. Profanity is a sign of a limited vocabulary, and unbecoming to a lady."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Standish. I'm afraid that under the stress, I reverted to habits I picked up among the Henshaws. It won't happen again," she apologized.
"The Standishes have higher standards to maintain than the Henshaws."
"I'm not sure I remember the exact words, but I believe it was something to the effect of 'Don't you dare die on me. I'm damned if I'll raise this baby by myself'. Is there something you were neglecting to tell me? Do both of us need to see Mr. Jackson?"
"I didn't want to say anything until I was sure."
"But you suspect?"
Rina nodded. "I've been ill in the mornings, and I missed my monthlies. If I missed again this month, I was going to talk to Mary Travis."
"Don't wait. Speak to her now," Ezra directed. He shut his eyes. If she was correct in her suspicions – and from the little he knew of such matters, that sounded likely – an annulment was now completely impossible. A divorce would be more expensive, as he would now be obliged to pay alimony and child support. Assuming Judge Travis consented to a divorce, which was unlikely in the extreme.
He thought of his own childhood. Few of the memories were happy. Maude had boarded him with this relative and that, dropping him off with a quick kiss goodbye when his presence was inconvenient to her schemes, fetching him along at a moment's notice … leaving behind the few friends he'd made without a chance to say farewell … when he could be a useful accomplice to one of her scams. The occasional enrollments at various boarding schools when she had the money to pay tuition, leaving the school when the money ran out or she required his assistance. He wanted his offspring to have better. He had promised himself years ago that no child of his would go through that. "For better or for worse," he muttered. As much as he craved it, divorce was no longer an option.
Rina's heart sank as she heard his words, thinking he considered pregnancy'for worse.' She said nothing. They drifted into an awkward silence, as both remained lost in their own thoughts.
** Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, chapter 10