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‘Well!’ Gertrude Maxwell gasped. ‘I can’t believe Connor O’Brian would write after all this time. And such a letter.’
‘He must be desperate,’ Cameron agreed. Since the seizure he was not the energetic, decisive man he had once been, but his mind still functioned clearly – except when his wife administered more of the medicine than the doctor had recommended. He had a way of considering his words now, but once uttered there was no mistaking his opinion.
The letter had been addressed only to him but he knew Gertrude longed to snatch the single page and read it for herself. He and Connor were old friends; they had attended the same village school, all those years ago.
‘He must feel his end is near.’ Cameron sighed with regret for a youth long past. ‘I’ll …’ ‘We’ll ignore the letter.’
‘Gertie! You canna mean that. He needs reassurance that his lassie will have a roof over her head.’
‘I do mean it.’ Her mouth tightened into a thin line.
‘Where’s the Christian spirit you’re always preaching, woman?’
‘I’ve told you, Cameron…’
‘Oh aye? Well, I’m not finished yet. I’ll have my way over this, Gertie. We can’t see Connor’s bairn without a home, and neither kith nor kin to help her.’
She stared at him. Her mouth opened, then shut with a snap. Even in the early days, when he was fit and strong, Cameron had rarely argued, but he had always got his own way when something mattered to him.
Those days were gone. Cameron needed her to care for him now. He was dependant on her to keep the farm going, along with Meg and Willie. It was harder since the war – the Great War that had taken away her beloved Josh to fight, and to die, in the trenches. Only this week, Lloyd George had announced that Germany would have to pay for the devastation in France, but that would not bring Josh back, or the thousands of other young men.
‘The lassie can bide with us for as long as she needs a home.’ Cameron’s tone was still firm, but gentler. 'You’re always saying you need more help now that I’m not fit to work. She will help you.’
‘I have a daughter of my own to help.’
‘Aye, you have that. And fine you know Meg would be happier married to Peter Sedgeman and looking after his wee bairnies. You can give her your blessing and stop making her feel she’d be deserting us if you’ll only give Connor’s lassie a home.’
‘I will not see my only daughter waste her life slaving after another woman’s family!’
‘She loves bairns. You’ve told her often enough she’ll never have any of her own.’
‘Don’t change the subject. When I need a maid I’ll find my own. There’s folk everywhere looking for work. I don’t want a brat of Connor O’Brian’s in my home.’
‘Gertie!’ Cameron fixed her with his steady gaze. She turned away. He didn’t understand. How could he? He didn’t know the memories Connor O’Brian’s letter was awakening. She felt the old panic rising, tightening her chest. The past came flooding back. She could not bear to have the daughter of Mhairi MacLean and Connor O’Brian under her roof – a constant reminder of her rejection, her humiliation – and the horror of it.
They had all attended the same school, and later the same village dances. Gertrude had been an only child. Her mother had borne two boys before her. They had died in infancy. There had been another baby after her, but he too, had died at birth. So she had been doubly cherished and shamefully indulged.
‘My ain lassie, ye’re a survivor,’ her father had told her often. He had doted on her, buying her the smartest wee pony he could afford and teaching her to ride at an early age. When she was bossy at school it was because she was used to having her own way.
Mhairi MacLean was the daughter of a shepherd and walked three miles or more to school, and back in the afternoon. She had rarely mixed with other children and had never seen so many faces until she started school. She was dark and pretty and very shy and Cameron Maxwell and Connor O’Brian had taken her under their wing with youthful chivalry. Gertrude had been envious, until she realised that Mhairi gave everyone that same shy smile, including herself.