Jamie Ford leaned against the frame of the solid pocket door and tried to focus on something other than the vision of his beautiful wife dozing on the chaise in the library of their historic 1870’s Victorian home. The beeping pulse of her Left Ventricular Assist Device indicated she was still alive, but its steady rhythm matched the tick-tock of the antique wall clock that stole each minute away.
He sighed and dragged a shaky hand over his face, wincing as he encountered three days’ worth of stubble. He must look like hell. It couldn’t be helped. He’d managed to grab a quick shower, but shaving took more time and energy than he had at the moment.
Sophie’s condition was deteriorating and he coveted every minute of each day God saw fit to give them. He’d sold his Internet company a year ago, and although he still held a seat on the Board, his CEO days were behind him.
Sophie mumbled, drawing his gaze. He swallowed hard, sending up another silent prayer that a heart would be found in time. Crossing the library’s thick oriental rug, he pulled a chair close and sat next to her. Weight loss and shortness of breath were the only external indications she was sick, and his eyes swept over her once-voluptuous body. Lifting her hair, he stroked a golden curl. The myriad of colors, much like the ribbons of caramel taffy, slid through his fingers. Sophie let out a quiet sigh and turned her head in her sleep. “Jamie?”
Sophie smiled and fluttered her eyes open. “Hovering?”
Jamie inhaled deeply, relishing the sound of her voice as he leaned over and kissed her forehead, a subtle attempt to check her temperature. “How are you feeling?”
“Hmmm...how am I feeling? Give me a dose of Dilaudid and ask me then.”
“Are you in pain?” Jamie’s voice shook as he stood.
Sophie grabbed his forearm. “A joke, sweetheart. I’m sorry. No pain, just a bit groggy—and thirsty.”
Jamie poured a glass of water and handed it to her. “Are you hungry at all? Do you think you could try to eat something? Alex cooked again.”
Their closest friends, Lucas and Alexandria, were daily companions at the Ford house. They cooked, cleaned, and did anything they could to take the pressure off Jamie. The help allowed him to spend every available moment with Sophie.
“Is she still here?”
“No, Luke picked her up about an hour ago. She’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
Sophie rubbed her forehead. “Where’s Emma?”
“Out with Hannah. She’ll be back in a couple of hours.” Truth be told, Jamie practically had to force Sophie’s sister out the door.
“Ooh, so we have the house to ourselves?” Sophie raised her eyebrow.
Jamie chuckled. “Yes we do.”
Sophie dragged her legs over the side of the couch and stood. Jamie wrapped an arm around her waist. “Careful.”
“Jamie, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Sophie rolled her eyes. “Yes. I’m sure. I would really love a shower.”
“All right, sweetheart, I’ll take you upstairs.”
Jamie disconnected her portable monitor and lifted her in his arms. Carrying her up the narrow stairs and to their bedroom, he set her on her feet in the adjoining bathroom. He started the shower and waited for her to undress and step inside.
“I’m perfectly capable of showering without you, love. Geez, you'd think I was dying or something.” She gently pushed him away and pulled the glass door closed.
Jamie left the bathroom, but didn’t go far. He was gathering clean clothes when he heard Sophie’s soft cry. He rushed into the bathroom to find her sitting on the floor of the shower, her knees drawn up to her chin. “What happened?”
“I felt a bit light-headed.”
Turning off the water, he grabbed a towel and reached in to lift her into his arms.
“You’re gonna get wet,” she whispered as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
“There are worse things in life than getting wet holding a beautiful woman in my arms after she’s showered.” Sophie burst into tears. He pulled her closer. “Baby, what?”
Sophie wiped the back of her hand across her eyes and muttered, “I’m useless. I can’t even shower without feeling like I’m going to pass out. I can’t believe you’re going to have to do everything for me. You didn’t sign up for this. I think you should just leave me. I don’t want you to have to deal with me wasting away.”
Setting her on her feet, Jamie wrapped the towel around her and then cradled her face in his hands. “Sophie Jane, who peed in your cereal this morning?”
She glared at him, fire lighting her dark blue eyes. “Apparently, the same person who gave you your sense of humor.”
Jamie chuckled. “With your temper, you’d think you were born a redhead.”
“Oh, you’re funny.”
“I think we need to set some ground rules here.”
“Ground rules?” she asked.
“First of all, I’m not going to leave you. You don’t get to make that decision for me.” She tried to interrupt but he held up his hand. “Second, you are not useless. Third, I love you, so you don’t get to escape. Not that you could. If you can’t take a shower without me, then it’s a sure bet you can’t run away from me.”
Sophie let out a quiet snort.
“I can’t believe you’d even think that I wouldn’t want to be here. No matter what happens, I’m here, with you and for you. Leaving you would be like losing my right arm. I couldn’t do it. Got it?”
Sophie nodded. “Are you sure, Jamie? Because I’d totally understand.”
“In sickness and in health. I took my vows seriously, did you?” Jamie lifted her chin. “It’s all encompassing. Your sickness and mine.” He smiled gently and kissed her nose. “You’re my ten-cow woman. Even at your worst, there’s nobody better for me than you. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me until the very end—and even if you die before me, I’ll figure out a way to find you. Don’t ever doubt it.”
Sophie patted his chest. “Okay, ok, no need to get so melodramatic.”
“Let’s get you dressed and I’ll check your monitor so we can eat.”
Sophie nodded and let him fuss over her. By the time he settled her into their king-sized bed, she slumped against the pillows and waved away his offering for food. “You need to eat, Sophie.”
“I’m too hot to eat.”
Jamie stroked her cheek. Her skin was beaded with sweat. “I’m calling Chrystal.”
Their neighbor, Chrystal Gornitzka, was a registered nurse who’d been a wealth of information and comfort since Sophie’s diagnosis. Jamie picked up the phone and dialed her number. “Hi, Chrystal, it’s Jamie. Sophie’s fever seems to have spiked again. I’m not sure what to do.”
“I just pulled into the driveway. I’ll grab my bag and be over in few.”
Jamie let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks, I really appreciate it. The door’s unlocked—just come on in.” After hanging up the phone, he poured a glass of water for Sophie. “Drink this, baby.”
She took the glass from him and sipped. “I probably just need some Tylenol.”
“Perhaps. Let’s wait for Chrystal and then go from there.”
Sophie groaned. “That poor woman must have a life outside of me, Jamie.”
“Well, I don’t.” He forced a smile. “So humor me.”
Before she could protest further, they heard the slam of the front door and then footsteps on the stairs. “Yoo-hoo.”
“Up here, Chrystal,” Jamie called.
Chrystal walked through the door, her shoulder-length brunette hair slipping over her cheeks as she set her bag on the bed. “Hi. Does someone have a fever?”
Jamie saw Sophie’s eyes flash with mischief as she smiled. “Next you’ll be asking me how we’re feeling.”
Chrystal opened her bag and pulled out a blood pressure cuff and thermometer. “How are we feeling?”
“Everyone’s a comedian today.”
“You know the drill.” Chrystal pushed the thermometer between Sophie’s lips and then wrapped her bicep with the blood pressure cuff as Sophie mumbled something.
“Ten-Cow, shhh,” Jamie admonished at Sophie’s attempt to talk.
Chrystal glanced at Jamie as she checked Sophie’s pulse. “She’s doing fine. And you should probably stop calling her a cow. She’s well below her normal body weight.” She pulled the thermometer from Sophie’s mouth.
Sophie met his eyes, a sweetness in them that could always render his heart liquid in his chest. “Oh, he can call me Ten-Cow.” She winked at him.
“It’s a romantic story of undying love,” Sophie said. “Tell her, Jamie.”
“Undying love, huh? Does that even exist?” Chrystal’s arched brow popped in question.
“I’m going to be sick.” Sophie sat up suddenly.
Jamie grabbed a bowl and held it under her chin.
“Give her some Tylenol and then call the doctor.” Chrystal’s eyebrows puckered.
Jamie felt the color leave his face. “Is it serious?”
Chrystal shook her head with a gentle smile. “Honestly, I think it’s just the flu, like the doctor said yesterday. Her blood pressure hasn’t changed and her pulse, although not ideal, is fine. The LVAD is doing its job, so her lethargy is because of the fever. The antibiotics will kick in soon and she’ll probably feel better in the next day or two.”
Jamie stroked Sophie’s cheek.
“I’m fine, baby.” Sophie turned to Chrystal. “Thanks for checking on me.”
Chrystal patted her hand. “It’s my pleasure, Sophie. Call me if you need me. Even if it’s the middle of the night. You can tell me the story later.” Jamie stood but Chrystal held her hand up. “I’ll let myself out. Tylenol, cold compresses, doctor, and she should be good as new.”
Jamie nodded. “Thanks.”
Once Chrystal left, Jamie gathered the Tylenol and a cool washcloth. He waited until Sophie took the pills and then sat beside her.
“Jamie? You need to stop worrying. The LVAD is doing its job.”
He frowned. “Sophie, your immune system is lowered and you’re weak. I can’t help but worry.”
She squeezed his arm. “Okay. I can’t make you not worry, but there are people who live for years with this device. I would have been dead within weeks without it, and now I’m at the top of the transplant list, guaranteed the next heart.”
“If your flu goes away.”
Sophie sighed. “It will.”
He slid off the bed and reached for his guitar.
Sophie chuckled. “Ah, yes, the other woman. Will you play me a lullaby—provided she doesn’t mind, of course.” She smoothed her blankets and gazed at him.
“Well, Ten-Cow, that depends on you.” He paused, the hollow sound echoing through the chamber of the guitar as he tapped his hand against it. “One song for two bites of food, that’s the deal.”
Sophie sighed through tight lips. “I’ll take a bit of the orange.”
Handing her a wedge, he waited for her to eat it, and started to play quietly. Sophie hummed along with the melody, and Jamie paused, mid-strum. “I miss your voice.”
Sophie smiled. “I miss singing.”
Jamie reached over to the nightstand and opened the drawer.
“What are you doing?”
Jamie grinned. “I’m reminiscing.” He pulled out an old playbill from the production of Grease she’d starred in. “You were the perfect Sandy.”
Sophie chuckled. “If only you could have been my Danny.”
Jamie snorted. “I’m not going to justify that statement with a remark.”
Sophie rolled over and wrinkled her nose. “Well, you would have been better than Justice Wright.”
Jamie shrugged. “He seemed okay. He played the role well.”
“You try kissing a gay man and make it look real.”
Jamie laughed. He leaned over and kissed her quickly, before handing her another wedge of orange. “That should settle your stomach enough to eat something substantial.” Sophie rolled her eyes and Jamie responded with a raised eyebrow in challenge. “You’re gonna eat, Ten-Cow.”
Sophie scrunched her nose up in disgust. “I’m not hungry.”
“You have to strengthen your body in order to fight—”
“—the infection that will tax my failing heart even more,” she interrupted and slid further under the blankets. “I know, Jamie but my heart’s gonna stop whether I eat or not. Daddy’s did and I couldn’t make him live.”
Jamie froze, a quiet hiss escaping between his teeth.
“Sorry, baby,” Sophie whispered. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
Jamie shook his head. “It’s fine.”
Sophie smiled. “I just remembered a weird dream I had about one of our reenactments.”
“Do you remember the haunted house?”
Jamie laughed. “Not haunted, simply a case of faulty wiring.”
“Right. Go with that.”
Three years ago Sophie had taken part in a Civil War event that was filled with mishaps. Little things like a power surge that caused a television, hidden behind an antique painting, to turn on. “Your team had fun explaining the noise coming from behind the artwork. Didn’t one of the old ladies faint?” Cradling the guitar on his knees, Jamie picked up the fork again, speared a small piece of potato, and lifted it to her mouth.
She shook her head. “That was Miss Olive. I personally thought it was a stroke of pure genius on her part to fake a swoon. She distracted people until we could shut off the breaker.”
“Sophie, you need to eat.”
“I’m too hot to eat.” She pushed the blankets away from her body.
Jamie helped pull the blankets further down the bed. “Imagine you in the nineteenth-century without air conditioning. God forbid the temperature went above seventy degrees and you’re stuck in a gown like Mary Lincoln’s.” Jamie leaned over her and settled his palm on her forehead. Sophie winced and let out a quiet moan. “Are you in pain?”
“No, just feel sick. And hot.” Sophie reached for his hand. “I’m fine, Jamie. Really. I just need to sleep.”
Jamie watched her eyes close and her breathing grow even. Taking Sophie’s frail hand in his, he stroked her arm. “Remember when we met? The frat party. I will never forget the moment I saw you. You were yelling at some frat guy who’d just slapped your butt, and you were explaining the pitfalls of displaying chauvinism in your presence. I wondered if you were a law student.”
He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed the inside of her wrist, drawing in her scent, hearing only the beep of her monitor. “I couldn’t take my eyes off you. You were pissed, and it made me hot. I’d never seen anyone put someone in their place the way you did that guy.”
The headlights of a car flashed through the window as it drove by, illuminating the room and drawing shadows across the wall. “I knew I had to meet you.” Jamie squeezed her hand. “When we talked, I felt like my life had just started and there was no way you weren’t going to be in it. I knew you would be mine—forever.” He couldn’t continue. Tears escaped as he laid his head down, her hand still in his, and closed his eyes.
* * *
Sophie’s eyelids felt like lead weights. She wanted to wake up, needed to. The bedroom grew cold, despite the roaring fire in the corner. Sophie tried to get her bearings, forcing her eyes open. Her gaze fell on the shelf that held her favorite Lincoln biography, and she stared in disbelief. The wood grain faded away, becoming the trunk of a very large tree. Beyond the tree, all she saw was an expanse of snow and forest.
Sophie squeezed her eyes shut and then looked again. The books and shelves were back. Sophie’s focus pulled back to Jamie, but as she stared down at him, the sheets melted away, becoming a mound of fresh snow. Her body frozen, Sophie shivered, and then the bed was back. She tried to force her body to move again, but couldn’t reach the blankets. Sophie’s head fell back onto the pillow.
The ceiling disappeared. White sky met her gaze; drops of cold water feathered her face. She shivered again and glanced back down at Jamie. He lay still next to her, his hand covering hers. Her vision blurred.
I’m hallucinating. This must be what happens with a raging fever.
Sophie’s heart stuttered and pain coursed through her chest.
No, not hallucinating. Dying! Am I dying?
The snow returned and she tried to reach out to the strange vision. Before she could do anything else, the room spun, and her world went black.
* * *
Jamie jerked awake at Sophie’s shiver. Leaning over the bed, he put his hand to her mouth, then her cheek, and relief slicked through him as heat bloomed against his skin.
“Sophie? Honey, wake up.” His voice shook as he whispered her name again. Her shaking worsened, and he pulled the covers to her shoulders, just as he heard the front door slam.
“Jamie!” Emma called from the foyer. “I’m home.”
Jamie jogged down the hall and peered down from the landing. “Up here.”
Emma’s straight blonde hair slid behind her shoulders as she lifted her head. Deep blue eyes so much like her sister’s narrowed in concern as she peered up at him. “You sound weird, what’s wrong?”
“Sophie’s fever spiked, and now she’s shaking. She’s freezing.”
Emma took the stairs two at a time. “Did you give her anything?”
“Yes, Tylenol. I don’t know if it’s helping though.”
Emma ran to the bedroom as Jamie grabbed a couple of blankets from the hallway closet and followed her.
“Emma?” Jamie scanned the room and found her standing over the empty bed holding Sophie’s LVAD wires. Wait—empty? His heart raced.
“Where is she?” Jamie moved to the side of the bed and ran his hands over the sheets.
Emma dropped the wires. “I don’t know, Jamie. Did you see her leave the room?”
“It would have been impossible.”
Emma grasped his shoulders and turned him to face her. “Did you check the bathroom? She probably just went to splash water on her face.”
Jamie pushed her hands away. “Emma, check downstairs.” Without waiting for her to agree, he ran through the upper floor, yelling Sophie’s name. He lingered in each room just in case she might appear at his call.
Emma met him back in his bedroom. “She’s not downstairs, Jamie, or in the basement.”
Jamie pulled at the sheets on the empty bed and dropped to his knees, shaking hands digging into his scalp. “Where is she? Where is my wife?”