“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much food in my entire life,” Harrison chuckled as he popped a blueberry in his mouth. It was late summer, which meant their table was bountiful with fresh fruit.
“You better be sure to save those for the children,” Johnnie said, a smile on his face as he watched his friend consume several more pieces of fruit. Juice coated his fingers, and the sweet smell of the berries scented the air. “Josephine gathered those for the children. Matthew is still too young to eat anything hard, and Sofia has developed my sweet tooth.”
Johnnie smiled as he thought about his two children. Sofia had been born almost nine months to the date of his wedding to Josephine, and Matthew was just a year old.
“It’s amazing how much small creatures can consume, isn’t it?” Harrison said, with a chuckle. He shook his head, and his eyes were full of incredulous wonder. “The twins are barely four, and they both eat like grown men.”
Johnnie laughed. Viola had given birth to twins right before his wedding to Josephine, and though Harrison often complained about the stress of the two boys, Johnnie knew that he adored them just as much as Johnnie adored being a father.
“Did you ever think that we would be here?” Johnnie asked his friend. The last few years had been busy and blissful. He’d married, had children, taken over the family ranch, and now, he’d printed his first book. Sometimes, Johnnie felt as though life was passing by so quickly that he didn’t have time to stop and consider his many blessings.
“I knew that I would,” Harrison said. “But I thought that you’d eventually leave the ranch.”
Johnnie wasn’t surprised. He’d spent years wanting nothing more than to leave his inheritance behind. The irony of it all was that it was his work on the ranch that inspired the very novel that he ended up printing. Apparently, there was great interest in the east and in Europe for stories of wayward ranchers, black hatters, and romance.
“I’ve learned to love the ranch,” Johnnie said. “I couldn’t imagine raising a family anywhere else.”
Harrison gave him a small smile. “Even though it means you can’t lock yourself in your study constantly.”
This time it was Johnnie’s turn to laugh. “I don’t think my wife would care for that too much. Plus, my father and Wilbur do a great deal of the running of things.”
Though Johnnie’s father had technically retired, he couldn’t quite seem to stop himself from being involved.
“How do you feel about Josephine’s mother and father living on the ranch?” Harrison asked. “I couldn’t imagine Viola’s parents living with us. Her mother came shortly after the twins were born, and well, we both know how well that went.” His friend shuddered as he recalled the time his mother-in-law and mother had been in the same space for an extended period of time.
Luckily, Johnnie didn’t have the same complications. “Your mothers don’t get along,” Johnnie reminded him. “Ours get along too well.”
Amy and his mother had struggled to rebuild their friendship at first, but by the time Sofia was born, they were thick as thieves. His father had surprisingly not taken too long to warm up to the Grahams. He felt extreme guilt over what he had allowed to happen so many years ago, so he’d been very open with Josephine and her family.
It had taken the Grahams more time to build trust with them than it had for his father to do the same.
“All those years ago,” Harrison said, drawing Johnnie’s attention back to him, “I was wrong.”
“Wrong?” Johnnie asked, unsure of what was being said.
“I thought that you were being too particular, and that you should have been happy with the life that was being planned for you.”
“But?” Johnnie asked, unsure of where his friend was going with this. He and Harrison had never spoken about the time when Josephine was the maid, and Harrison thought she should stay that way. Johnnie knew that it hadn’t been personal. Harrison and Viola had been some of the first people to congratulate him as when he’d returned home engaged with Josephine on his arm, but at the time, Harrison’s words had hurt Johnnie. After all, he was his best friend.
“But you were ultimately right to not do what your family wanted,” Harrison said. “If you had, you would have been married to Lillian and probably as miserable as you were back then.”
Johnnie laughed. “You weren’t wrong,” Johnnie said. “I was a miserable louse back then.”
Harrison laughed. “That you were,” he agreed.
The two friends shared a nice moment before Johnnie’s mother came bursting into the kitchen. “Why are you two hiding in here?” she asked, her tone stern as she spoke. “After all, it is your celebration.”
This time she turned her attention on Johnnie.
“We were simply getting things ready for the party,” Johnnie said, gesturing to the platters of fruit his wife had prepared. “Well,” he said, noting that a handful of that fruit was missing, “I was trying to save the food for Harrison.”
His mother pursed her lips in the same way that she always did when she was irritated with him.
“I’m going to take this outside,” Harrison said, grabbing the platter, “before the children begin a revolt.”
“That’s probably best,” Johnnie’s mother said. “I’d like a moment alone with my son.”
“Good luck,” Harrison mouthed as he walked backwards out of the door.
Johnnie sighed and turned to his mother. It had been a long time since she’d given him a good telling off, and he couldn’t fathom what he might have done to make her angry at him, especially at his own party.
“If you are planning to give me an earful about something, there’s no need,” he said.
His mother shook her head. These days her hair was almost completely gray, but her face was soft and wrinkled with happiness. Amy returning after so many years seemed to be a balm to her soul. Johnnie hadn’t realized how much the guilt of what Emmett had done had weighed on his mother all these years.
Part of that was because of his ignorance, the other part was because he simply didn’t know any better.
“I don’t want to give you an earful,” she said. His mother reached out and straightened his cravat as she had when he was a child. “You look very handsome today,” she said.
“Really?” he asked. “Josephine had this jacket made. She wanted it to match her new dress.” His wife was not a spendthrift like her friend Viola, but she’d come to enjoy a nice new dress over the years. He smiled as he thought about the subtle yellow gown that she had had made for the day.
“You two make a handsome couple,” his mother said. “But you also bring out the best in one another.”
Johnnie nodded. “I don’t think I could have done any of this without Josephine,” he said. “She’s put up with a lot of late evenings.”
Johnnie thought about all that Josephine had done for him. He’d been honest the day that he’d proposed the two of them could and had accomplished so much with together.
“I’m very proud of you,” his mother said.
Johnnie chuckled. “You weren’t saying that three years ago,” he told her. “You and Father were very vexed by my behavior. If I recall, you warned me to stay away from Josephine.”
His mother’s cheeks flushed at his words. He wasn’t angry at her. Now that he was a father, he understood his own parents better. They weren’t perfect. He surely wasn’t. Sometimes, he got frustrated when his children wouldn’t listen, even in their young age, and he still had visions of him and his son reading together and discussing literature.
“Your father and I have always been proud of you, as have your sisters. It’s why they all made the journey to celebrate today.”
The kitchen door opened. “Johnnie! My boy!” his father called out, as he walked into the kitchen. There was a jovial smile on his face, and he was holding a copy of Johnnie’s book in his hands.
“I need you to settle a matter between Wilbur and myself. He thinks that the character of Isaac is based on him, but I’m sure that you used my likeness.”
Johnnie laughed as he watched his mother roll her eyes at him. His father had become his biggest fan. He’d been the one to convince Johnnie to send his book out, and now, he spent his time trying to decipher which event in the novel was true and which was fiction. He gave a copy to any friend or business associate he knew was literate.
“Let’s talk outside,” Johnnie said, clasping a hand on his father’s back. “Josephine must be looking for me.”
His father nodded, a look of pride in his eyes as he walked out of the kitchen and out toward where the rest of their family was. They didn’t speak, but Johnnie knew that his father was happy with him. Their bond had grown of the last few years, and now, they were closer than ever.
For years, Johnnie had wanted to be close to his father, and now, he was.
Life was perfect.
“You really should be sitting,” Josephine said, as she tried to guide Lillian to a chair. “I truly cannot believe that you decided to make the journey from California to Colorado.”
Lillian waved her off before placing a hand on her large stomach. “This is my third child,” she said. “I’m hardly new at this. Besides, according to both my husband and my father, I am by far the most stubborn creature that they have ever met.”
Viola released a loud laugh. “They are not incorrect in their assessment. Who knew that the vicar’s daughter could be so prideful?”
Lillian rolled her eyes but took a seat in the chair that Josephine had offered. “I don’t know how you are doing it,” she told her friend. “I felt as though there were knives in my back during the entire last month of my pregnancy with Matthew. If anyone even looked at me incorrectly, I’d give them a tongue lashing.”
Viola nodded. “I don’t know how you will manage three. My two keep me exhausted. My mother constantly says that it’s reparations for what I did to her as a girl.”
This made Josephine laugh loudly as she watched Viola and Harrison’s boys run around the yard. “Harrison is teaching the two of them to ride ponies, which is most terrifying.”
Lillian nodded gravely. “Our eldest learned a year ago, and I don’t think I left the pen during a single lesson. Having children has been the most fearful experience of my life.”
Josephine understood that. Before she’d married Johnnie, she’d thought that her mother’s illness, or what had occurred with Emmett Hough would be the most terrifying moments of her life. But when her children had been placed in her arms, and she’d realized she was now in charge of these small, perfect lives, she’d felt a happiness and a fear that she’d never experienced before.
“Where are the men?” Josephine wondered aloud. Thinking of her children made her think of her husbands. “This party is in Johnnie’s honor, and I’ve not seen him since I asked him to get food for the children.”
“Shall I go find him?” Viola asked. “I’m sure that he is somewhere with my husband.”
Josephine shook her head. “I’ll go,” she said. “I don’t see my father or Perry, so I’m certain that they’ve both spirited him away somewhere. My father and Perry have been arguing all morning about Johnnie’s novel,” Josephine rolled her eyes as she spoke. She was grateful that her parents had found their placed on the ranch, but on days like today, she wanted her husband to be the focus.
“Go, go,” Viola said. “We can look after the children.”
Josephine smiled at her friends. She and Viola were closer than ever. Neither of them had been easily accepted by the town, which had bonded them further. Though Lillian had eventually moved to California, with her father’s blessing, she still returned often. Josephine was glad. In many ways, she felt as though she owed the other woman a great deal. She didn’t know what would have happened had she not proved a true friend all those years ago.
“What are you thinking?” a deep voice called out behind her. Josephine jumped as she felt lips on the back of her neck.
“I was just wondering where you might have run off to?” she asked, whirling around to see the handsome face of her husband.
The years had just made Johnnie even more handsome. A little bit of youthful fat had thinned out, and his jaw was more chiseled. There was a small smattering of dark hair on his chin as he’d taken to not shaving it every day.
“I was settling an argument between our fathers by letting them know that Oscar was the inspiration for my main character not either of the two of them.”
This made Josephine laugh loudly, even more so when she caught her father and Perry’s dour faces.
“You’ve dashed both of their dreams,” she said.
Johnnie shrugged. “Now, they’ll have to work harder to be in the next one.” Johnnie’s fingers brushed his fingers across her cheek. She sighed at the feeling of his fingers against her skin. There were hidden from their guests by the side of the house. There was a large oak tree that kept them hidden from view.
“This is nice,” Johnnie said. “I can’t recall the last time that the two of us were alone.”
Josephine sighed and laid her head on his chest. She breathed in deeply allowing his scent to envelope her. She shivered at the feeling of his hands running up and down her arms. “I’ve missed you.” Johnnie’s voice was husky, and she felt her insides clench.
“We should return back to the party,” she told him. “Everyone is going to wonder where we’ve ran off to.”
Johnnie sighed and stepped back from her slightly. “I couldn’t do any of this without you,” he told her. “You do know that, right?”
Josephine smiled. “If I didn’t, then I would be a dunce. After all, you tell me every day.” Since the day Johnnie came to her parent’s old home, he’d done everything in his power to make her feel special. Sometimes, Josephine wondered why. She suspected that it might be because he felt as though he’d been so unfair to the people in his life for so long.
Something had changed for Johnnie after Emmett. They’d never really talked about it, but Josephine suspected that all the secrets Emmett spilled had made Johnnie look at his parents differently. He’d realized that they were good people but flawed, and he’d stopped being so hard on them and himself.
“We have a wonderful life,” Josephine said. “And we are about to have one more.” She placed Johnnie’s hand on her stomach. His eyes widened as he looked at her.
“Are you certain?” Johnnie asked. “I know that you’ve had some sickness in the morning, but I’ve not said anything…”
Tears filled Josephine’s eyes. She’d been sick once before, but no child had quickened inside of her. She’d not wished to get her hopes up, nor Johnnie’s, since that time. But this time, she was certain. “I’ve been to a midwife,” she said. “She confirmed it. The child should be here before spring.”
Johnnie laughed and gathered her in his arms. He twirled her around before pressing a kiss to her. She felt herself melting into his arms. “I take it that you are happy,” she said.
Johnnie nodded. “More than happy!” he exclaimed. “This is the best gift that you could have ever given me.”
Josephine laughed. They’d both wanted a big family, and now, Josephine was happy to be able to have another child.
“Mama! Papa!” Their little girl Sofia ran through the trees and threw her arms around their legs. “Gram said that I could have cake.”
Johnnie let go of Josephine before leaning down to pick up their daughter. Sofia was the spitting image of her father with her dark curls. She loved hearing stories and often made them up for those around her. At only three, she was already extremely precocious, and Josephine knew that they were going to have their hands full with her. Not that it mattered. They both adored their children.
“I better go have a discussion with Gram since you must eat your dinner before cake.”
“Oh, no!” Sofia said. “Can’t I just have a small piece?”
Johnnie sighed, and Josephine had a feeling that their daughter would indeed be getting cake prior to her dinner. “Perhaps,” he said.
Josephine bit back a smile as she watched the two of them. Johnnie looked back at her and mouthed, “I love you,” before he walked out of their small oasis. Josephine didn’t mind. Her entire life she’d prayed for moments like these—surrounded by family with a husband she loved and children who she adored.
There was absolutely nothing that could be better.