“In, out, in, out.”
“Rotate your hips, honey; you’ve got this!”
“It’s okay, right, you’re okay? You are okay, aren’t you? God, Laurel, why isn’t she answering me? I need you to blink once if you’re okay, Bella. You’re freaking me out.”
“Hush, Rose! She can’t talk through that right now. Wait for it to die down again!”
“Will it die down?!? It doesn’t seem like it’s going to die down Laurel, oh my God, what is that?!”
“Ladies!” The third voice interjected, talking over Laurel and Rose Whittaker with such authority that it was impossible to ignore.
Bella loved that voice. She was half-convinced that was why she had chosen her for her midwife out of all of the others that had recently come to town with the new population boom. Carol Burnette just had a way about her, gentle and yet commanding.
Bella needed that.
She could see Ambrose’s shadow from under the crack in the door, pacing back and forth in worry to every new spike in loudness from the room, to every shout and every whisper.
It was why Bella wasn’t talking.
She knew if she opened her mouth, the pain would spill out, and she knew that her husband was worried enough as it was. He had already tried to come into the room three separate times, insisting that he didn’t know why it needed to only be a female-only space.
So Bella breathed.
She breathed through each new contraction, her lips contorted in silent pain, but her heart happy as she looked out around the room surrounding her. Her two sisters, both in heart and name these past two years, worrying over her and trying to help.
Laurel ran a cloth over Bella’s brow, keeping her cool. Rose held Bella’s hand, giving just as much pressure back as Bella gave her without once flinching away from the pain. These were her people.
And now she was bringing another life into that fold, adding to their family.
It was just more painful than anything else she had ever before experienced. Even the scar still etched into her cheek that Laurel’s fingers brushed over as she wet more of Bella’s face with that cloth.
Carol had told her to focus on love during her birth. She had told her to think about everything that made what she was going through worth it, everything that had carried her through to that point. So Bella was. One foot in front of the other, only figuratively this time.
She was thinking about arriving in Creek, Arizona, and going looking for the man she thought she would be spending the rest of her life with. She was thinking about all the pain, growth, and suffering that she and the Whittakers had been forced to do before they had been able to have their happy coming together.
She thought about Donnie, the first man she ever met that made her think that maybe marriage wasn’t worth it. She thought about the scars Laurel bore from him even then and how she had hidden them beneath long sleeves and side-swept hair. She thought about that day that Laurel had been made to face him, and she thought about the fact that Laurel was currently in a short sleeve dress with her hair swept all the way up and not at all flinching away from it.
It was because of Laurel that she could wear the scar on her cheek so easily. The two of them were bound in so many ways beyond just their shared last name.
Bella thought about Rose and how in everyone’s face, she had been at any moment on any day, for any reason. That hadn’t changed entirely, but it was no longer defensive or in search of something, but rather to protect something, or multiple someones.
Bella thought about Randy and how desperate Rose had been to love him. Willing to throw her whole life away if only to get to know what it was like… and how Rose hadn’t professed to be in love with one single person in her life since. Bella thought about how Rose had grown and matured, how she had blossomed under the lack of searching for things that she now said she wasn’t ready for.
Bella thought about her husband.
She thought a lot about Ambrose.
He had taught her so much over their two years of marriage, proving to her that devotion and keeping one’s word were not always the same thing.
He broke his word all the time. He would say he would be home at a certain hour and then show up two hours later than that bearing the evidence of having stopped to help someone change their wagon wheel or birth their breech cow. Ambrose would show up late after having stopped by the ranch to check on his sisters before he came home.
Bella thought about how Ambrose had spent a full year using all of his knowledge and connections to finally secure that divorce decree for Laurel and the look on Laurel’s face when she had it handed to her.
Bella thought so much that she almost forgot to breathe, the not so gentle reminders coming from those around her as she ebbed and flowed through her memories and her thoughts.
Her wedding had been the first day of her forever like her husband liked to say. The way he had looked at her had made her feel as if she were some kind of fairytale creature come to life. It made her feel safe, warm, and special all at once. It made her feel loved.
It was that love that came out of her body twofold as she finally sank back into the bed, the tears and smiles around her evidence of what they had accomplished.
“Ambrose,” Laurel called softly, opening the door.
Bella sat back against the pillows behind her, the small bundle in her arms moving and wiggling softly.
Ambrose came into the room, his worried eyes scanning every face before settling on Bella, his lips twitching as he saw the little blonde bundle that she held. Bella watched him approach the bed slowly, her mind still floating somewhere above herself as he reached out a gentle hand to touch the top of the baby’s head.
“Ambrose,” Bella whispered. “Meet Alana Whittaker. Alana, meet your daddy.”
The cry from the corner of the room stayed Ambrose’s hand immediately, though.
Bella’s laugh was dry, her joy bubbling out of the noise as she pushed the tips of her fingers into his mouth, watching her husband whirl around on the spot. She couldn’t get over the expression of bewilderment and surprise on his features as he stared at Rose, wrapping up a second baby.
“Whaaa-” he mumbled, making Bella giggle more.
“Ambrose, meet Lisa Whittaker,” Bella explained, her smile near feeling as if it were going to split her face in half. “Lisa, meet your daddy.”
Rose carried the second girl over to Ambrose carefully, passing her into her brother’s arms and watching as he held her close to his chest, crooning and smiling down at her.
Bella had thought that she could never love anything as much as looking at Ambrose looking at her. Seeing him stare at their daughters, she decided that she had been wrong.
“Two,” Ambrose whispered, as if afraid that his voice would startle the babies.
He leaned down, pressing his lips affectionately into the top of Bella’s forehead, and she felt herself relax even further back into the pillows. “Twins,” she acknowledged sleepily.
“That’s why it took so long?” he checked, looking between all of the women in the room in confusion.
Carol laughed, snorting as she went to start the clean-up process.
“Well, there was an extra baby,” Rose joked.
“An extra blessing,” Ambrose corrected, beaming with pride as he looked between his three main girls.
“I don’t know if I will ever call having babies a miracle again,” Rose muttered, shaking her head. “I mean, maybe if you have more than one, but the miracle is that you wanted to have a second after the first in the first place!”
Bella chuckled in response, laughing even harder for how Laurel stared at her sister almost in horror.
“How can you think that was anything but a miracle?” Laurel asked in shock, her eyes wide. “How could you be in here and not… feel connected to it? Not want to start your own family?”
The room grew quiet, everyone staring at Laurel with varying expressions covering their face.
Since Bella had been around, it was the first time that Laurel had expressed a desire to have a family of her own.
“Well, for one, you have to have a husband for that,” Rose said through a scrunched nose.
“You don’t want one at all anymore? Laurel asked in disbelief.
“You want another one now?” Rose asked, sounding just as shocked.
Bella couldn’t withhold her giggles at their back and forth, covering her face with her hand and pulling Alana up higher on her chest so that she could get her to latch.
“You know, I think I might be ready to give it another try, actually,” Laurel said seriously, obviously having thought about it.
Bella felt like her grin was going to split her face.
No one got a chance to comment on it, though, Lisa opened her little mouth, and a wail came out as she rooted around uselessly on Ambrose’s chest. Ambrose quickly bent to help get Lisa supported and held onto Bella as well.
“No,” Rose muttered, shaking her head with a playful smile. “I think I’m okay not trying for a few years and just being an aunt instead. When they cry, I can just hand them back this way.”
The room dissolved into laughter, Bella’s heart beating steadily as she looked around her.
These were her people. This was her family.
A family that, if Laurel had anything to say, would soon be boasting one or more new members. Bella was just waiting on Ambrose to mention how ready Deputy Marks was to apply for that position.
Laurel didn’t disagree with her sister, but Bella could see her leaning into where she held her newly born daughters, staring at them with a kind of speculative love. It was as if she was trying to figure out exactly what she wanted while also being overwhelmed with love for her nieces in front of her.
Bella could understand that. Her own heart felt as if it were expanding and contracting all at once. There was so much love in this one room, with still the possibility of that much more… Her eyes misted, tears gathering in the corners as she thought about it, and before she could so much as blink the tears away, a heavy, warm hand encompassed her shoulder.
She looked up at her husband, smiling softly to try and ease the worry in his eyes.
They weren’t sad tears, she wanted to tell him, but the words were stuck.
The past two years had taught them how to communicate without words, though, and he seemed to understand, his own eyes misting and his thumb brushing softly against the rounded top of her shoulder in reassurance.
“That’s what I want,” Laurel whispered, her words causing both Ambrose’s and Bella’s attention to jerk back to her.
She stared at the two of them with awed wonder, a covetous want deep in the recesses of her dark eyes and a sad smile on her lips.
“I didn’t have that with Donnie,” she admitted, her voice hitching somewhat. Laurel had come so far, so very far that sometimes it still took Bella by surprise, but saying his name still sometimes got to her. “The love the two of you have… the love your daughters will get to experience growing up in your house. You give me… hope,” she explained, floundering for her words in a way that was very much unlike her.
“They give me a toothache,” Rose laughed, lightening the mood only somewhat before she herself sobered. “It’s like the two of you are some fairy tale ending,” she mused, the right side of her lips twitching as she shook her head at them.
“Fairy tale ending?!” Bella exclaimed, laughing herself. “I guess everyone misses my shouting at you when I come in with muddy boots after I’ve cleaned the floors all day.”
“Or lived with you when you have a cold,” Ambrose teased back, his voice still pitched softly. Even teasing her, he couldn’t hide the abject adoration in his tone as he bent over Bella, Lisa, and Alana, though. He was everywhere at once, pushing their babies’ soft down curls back from their foreheads and arranging Bella’s blankets to be more comfortable in the same breath that he joked with her in.
Attentive and present, just as he had always been. Bella didn’t, now that she thought of it, remember a time when he wasn’t looking out for her and making sure that she was taken care of.
“We don’t miss your arguments,” Laurel stated with clear amusement in her tone. “I don’t think anyone who lives within twenty miles of the two of you misses some of your arguments, but that’s just that… they’re only arguments.”
Even Rose seemed to look at Laurel in confusion, her brow furrowing as she too waited to hear Laurel’s explanation.
“I’ve never seen a couple better suited,” Laurel said after another moment, snorting. “You argue, you disagree, but you always work it out. Not only that, but you work it out fairly, and then you lay it to rest. You don’t hold grudges, you don’t just ignore it and bring it up later, you just… handle it.”
“Together,” Rose added again, nodding as she obviously agreed with what Laurel was saying. “She’s right. You solve the problem, whatever it is, as a team. Honestly, it was one of the first things that made me see just how ill-suited Randy and I were all of those years ago.”
“All of those years ago,” Ambrose chuckled, shaking his own head and lowering himself slowly onto the bed beside Bella, putting his arm sweetly around her shoulders. “Like it wasn’t only two years ago.”
Bella leaned into Ambrose’s chest, resting her head on the front of his shoulder as she looked at her sisters with a soft smile. Hearing them talk of hers and Ambrose’s relationship was soothing to her, making her feel as if at least they got something right.
It didn’t always feel like that.
Even though they were joking, there was a grain of truth behind her surprise. The past two years hadn’t been the happily ever after, with no bumps in the road that everyone else seemed to see. They’d been hard, especially reframing their lives around one another and learning to live as a married couple. They’d had rows that had made her feel as if acid had settled in her stomach and was eating away at their love.
But Laurel was right. She and Ambrose worked all of it out, which made their relationship just that much stronger and sweeter for it.
“What’re you going to do?” Rose ignored her brother’s teasing entirely, turning to question Laurel instead. “Put in for a mail-order-bride ad. Because I hate to be the one to bring it up, but the track record of those we know applying to those ads…” She trailed off suggestively, glancing tellingly at Bella.
“Hey now!” Bella began to argue, cutting off as Lisa startled at her raised voice, smiling as Ambrose immediately leaned forward to soothe the baby before she could. “I think it worked quite well for me,” she finished lamely in a near whisper.
“I don’t know,” Laurel admitted as her smile from Bella’s response fell from her lips. “Honestly, it isn’t like there’s a whole wealth of choice here in town. Most people still don’t even see past my scars and my past. The divorce papers are just another blight on my name.”
She spoke matter-of-factly, but the truth in her words hurt even Bella just to listen to.
“Not in everyone’s eyes,” Ambrose argued, taking Alana stretched with a big yawn cracking her small, pink lips. “I can think of someone who considers none of those things when he looks at you.”
His honest, unfocused statement was met with surprise from all but Bella.
Bella was more focused on staring at the way that her husband held their first bord, his hand cradling her scalp and making her head seem tiny in comparison. His eyes were alight with love as he swayed from side to side, staring at her as if he couldn’t quite bear to tear his gaze away.
“Well, that’s informative,” Rose snorted, cleaning up around the room slowly and chuckling at her brother. “That was so much of an ‘I know something you don’t know.’ How are you going to tell a woman you know she has an admirer and then not name him?”
Laurel didn’t say anything at all, but Bella could see the silent agreement in her sister-in-law’s expression.
“You’ve never noticed?” Bella asked, cutting Ambrose off as she lifted Lisa to rest against her chest as she too started to stretch and yawn. She bounced her softly against her, patting her tiny bum with such careful pats due to her fear of how tiny both of her girls were. She had so little experience with babies before this, and yet it felt as natural as breathing…
“Never noticed what?” Laurel demanded finally, looking both anticipatory and worried all at once.
“Deputy Marks!” Ambrose exclaimed laughingly.
“The way he stares at her, the way he’s always right there to help her lift anything heavy or move whatever is in her way-” Bella started only to be cut off by Rose’s sudden laugh.
“Oh!” she exclaimed in sudden realization, “Is that why he’s always tripping over himself to get into the church pew on Sunday mornings in time?!”
There was no time to answer before the door suddenly burst open, the object of their conversation panting and red in the face as he hung off of the door frame with wide, excited eyes. “Did I miss it?” Deputy Marks exclaimed, stopping suddenly as he took in the scene before him. “There’s two,” he muttered in wonderment and joy, trailing off and straightening slowly as he stared at the girls with a slowly burgeoning smile.
Bella couldn’t help but think it was fitting, him showing up so suddenly like he had, the blush rising in Laurel’s cheeks and giving Bella hope that maybe, just maybe, that interest may not be as one-sided as Ambrose had been so sure of.
The air was alight with love, her heart alight with love as she leaned further into her husband and thanked God and whatever fates besides had allowed her this moment and all of those that came before it.
In the midst of all of the laughter and wonder, it was as if Bella could see just how far they had all come and how much farther yet was left to go, and the prospect of that was exciting… at least with her new family, and most importantly Ambrose, by her side.