Two Years Later
“Bridget! Patrick! Come on, supper’s ready!” Martha called. She heard distant muffled giggling but nothing that indicated that her children were approaching.
Rolling her eyes, Martha turned back to the kitchen stove. It wasn’t a surprise that their small cabin needed to be extended. She and Spencer now shared the master bedroom, and the children had their own room at the back of the house, a large and comfortable room. No doubt more extensions would come, but for now, Martha was pleased with their house. It suited them.
Aged seven and three years old respectively, Bridget and Patrick were orphans. They were brother and sister and had missed out on several opportunities to be adopted due to their refusal to be separated. The orphanage had been in the process of forcing Bridget into an adoption that would leave her as a thinly veiled servant, unpaid, of course, and also leaving her little brother behind.
Then Martha and Spencer arrived, looking for children to bring into their home, and the Mahoney family—Dot, in particular—leaned gently on the orphanage until they agreed.
It would be a lie to say that it was all plain sailing. It wasn’t. Bridget was a clever young girl, with a deeply entrenched suspicion of adults, and Patrick had not yet been taught how to behave in public and still believed that all adults were ready to beat him at a moment’s notice.
But they were making progress, as evidenced by the clatter of approaching footsteps. Bridget burst into the kitchen, beaming, followed by Patrick, looking up at his sister with adoring eyes.
Bridget’s once-lanky brown hair was now thick and clean, wound back in a neat plait. Her thin face was filling out with regular, hearty meals, and the color was returning to her cheeks. Patrick was growing at a rapid pace now that he was eating enough, and he was losing his constant, cringing fear of punishment.
“I’m starving,” Bridget announced. “Can I eat some bread?”
“No, you’ll spoil your dinner,” Martha chuckled. “We’re eating in just a few moments, as soon as Pa comes home. Bridge, could you set the table?”
“Yes, Mama,” Bridget said, hurrying to the cupboard to take out plates, knives, and forks.
It sent a little thrill through Martha every time Bridget and Patrick called her Mama. Perhaps she and Spencer would have their very own children, but that wouldn’t change how much she loved the children she already had. There was no sign of a baby just yet, but Martha didn’t mind if she never gave birth to her own child. Somehow, it didn’t seem very important. She had missed her last monthly course, which was interesting. If it was a boy, Martha would have a name all planned.
Ralph, of course.
“Are Aunt Iris and Uncle Rupert coming?” Bridget enquired, laying the table with quick, efficient movements.
“Yes, they are. And the baby—are you excited to see the baby?”
“Yes, very much,” Bridget replied, grinning.
Outside, Martha heard the tell-tale squeak and rattle of the cart approaching, hauled up the steep slope of the hill by their ever-faithful horse. She peered out of the window and saw three figures hunched up on the seat, one holding a bundle to her chest.
“They’re here!” she called.
Bridget and Patrick gave hoots of delight, racing out into the courtyard. Martha stood in the doorway, watching with a smile.
Spencer leaped down from the cart, grinning. He’d grown a full beard since they were married, and it suited him. He never seemed to frown these days, and Martha liked that. He swept up the children easily, one under each arm, and cackled when they squealed with delight.
“Welcome home, Spence,” Martha said, smiling. Spencer hurried towards her, the children still tucked under each arm, and bent down to kiss her.
“I brought flowers,” he murmured, “But only a small posy. Check my breast pocket.”
Chuckling, Martha reached into his pocket and drew out a tiny posy of seasonal wildflowers secured with a tie of twine.
“They’re lovely. Thank you.”
“Lovely flowers for a lovely woman. Now, what shall I do to help with the food?”
“Nothing, everything is ready. Get the children to wash their hands, and we’ll sit down to eat.”
Spencer nodded approvingly and set the children down on their feet.
“Go on, Patrick, Bridget. Let’s see who can wash their hands the cleanest!” he said earnestly, and the children nodded furiously, racing off towards the wash bucket.
Martha rolled her eyes. “They never do that for me. It’s a fight to keep them clean.”
“You just don’t have the knack. Oh, I almost forgot, a letter came for us today from out of town.”
He withdrew a neat, square envelope from his pocket and handed it to Martha.
She smiled, recognizing the handwriting.
“I know who this is.”
“Well, you read it while Rupert and I put away the cart.”
Martha nodded. “Sure.”
She tore open the envelope and began to read eagerly.
My Dear Martha and Spencer,
New York is wonderful, just like you said it would be. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss Abel’s Hollow, and I know that Harvey does. Sometimes I can’t really believe that I’m a married woman. I never thought I would be, and Ma and Pa told me so often that I’d stay and look after them for the rest of my life that I started to believe it.
Speaking of which, they send me a lot of letters. Mostly angry letters, telling me that I need to come home and help them with the children and everything, and that I’m being selfish. I hear that Ma is having another baby, and her letters are getting increasingly more frantic. I think she’s finally realized that I’m not coming back, and she’s going to have to raise her children herself.
Oh, I don’t mean that. We haven’t decided. It was so kind of Mr. Mahoney to promise to hold the job for Harvey, and I know he loves working on the ranch. Your father, Mr. Rowland, even offered him a position as the foreman on the Littlefoot Ranch. Sorry, I mean the Rowland Ranch. I keep forgetting.
But I’m sure you understand why neither Harvey or I want to come back—at least not yet. Sometimes, Harvey and I talk about everything that happened—you getting kidnapped, Eugene’s death, the missing money—and it seems surreal. I don’t know if Harvey will ever get over it. I understand why he had to leave.
For me, you know my reasons. Ma and Pa just wouldn’t leave me alone. I’m sure you remember how upset I was when Pa wouldn’t give me and Harvey his blessing to marry. We married anyway, of course, and I remember how they changed their tune a week before the wedding—finally realizing that it was going to happen, I suppose—and started trying to convince us to move in with them.
I thought when I moved out, I could put distance between us. I was wrong. Between the unexpected visits, the whole family turning up to eat dinner with us without warning, and being expected to spend my days taking care of the children anyway, I soon realized that it would all be the same.
I don’t think I ever told you this, but there was one particular incident that made me realize that we had to leave.
Ma and Pa had asked me to watch the children one Saturday, so they could visit friends in the next town over. I said no, as Harvey and I had planned a day out at the lake, just the two of us. We argued, but I stood firm. Then, on Saturday morning, Ma and Pa came by in a cart, unloaded the children at the door, and drove off without saying a word. We couldn’t just leave them, so of course, we had to cancel our plans.
So, there you have it. Perhaps people in town think I’m an undutiful daughter, but I’ve never been happy. Except for missing you, of course.
Let me know all the news, and I can’t wait to hear how Bridget and Patrick are doing. Give them my love!
Your devoted friends,
Pearl and Harvey
Martha finished the letter with a smile, folding it up and slipping it into her apron pocket. She’d seen Pearl’s harassed parents at church, trying and failing to wrangle their numerous offspring and loudly talking about how undutiful their selfish daughter had become.
She didn’t have any sympathy for them.
“Hello, Martha,” came a soft voice at the door. Iris stood there, clutching her baby to her chest, smiling gently. “It’s good to see you.”
Martha smiled back. “And you, Iris. How’s little Edmund?”
“It’s going to be Teddy,” Iris said, smiling shyly. “Would you like to hold him?”
“Oh, I would.”
The two women stood in the kitchen, admiring the sleeping baby and exchanging gossip.
Iris and Rupert had arrived back in town a month after all the trouble had passed. They were not well-received. In their absence, town gossip had twisted Rupert into some sort of cruel, undutiful man who’d seduced an innocent maid. Iris, conversely, was depicted as a woman who’d stolen another woman’s fiancé.
It didn’t matter that he and Iris were in love or that Martha was deeply relieved to have avoided marrying Rupert. It was taking time for Iris and Rupert to settle back into town, but it was clear that the Mahoneys were on their side.
Perhaps it was shocking to say so, but Martha preferred Spencer’s family to her own. Her father was already getting bored with his ranch, although their restaurant was taking off. It was strange how adulthood could alter a person’s priorities so completely.
Martha Mahoney and Martha Rowland were entirely different women; that much was certain.
“We’re back, we’re back!” Spencer said, hurrying in front of the dark courtyard, shaking off the chill of the night air. “Have we missed the food?”
“No, of course not.” Martha laughed.
Rupert tramped in behind his brother, catching Iris’ eye with a soft smile. Wordlessly, she handed over the baby to him, and he cradled his son in his arms, smiling down at him.
After a brief flurry of chaos and clinking dishes, the table was fully set. It was nothing spectacular, just fine roast chicken, roast vegetables, potatoes, cornbread, and some dumplings. Martha found that she was enjoying the tradition of Sunday lunch. She, Dot, and Iris took turns, although Dot and Fred were not here tonight.
Iris was a much better cook than Martha, but she tried not to be jealous.
They settled into their usual seats, with Patrick and Bridget racing back with wide smiles and squeaky-clean hands. Martha sat beside Spencer, breathing in deeply, enjoying the savory scents of the food.
She glanced at him, and they exchanged smiles.
“How was your day, sweetheart?” Spencer asked, his gaze soft. “We’ve hardly had time to talk for more than a minute together.”
She chuckled. “You’ve got that right. My day was fine, and Bridget’s finally gotten the hang of long division at school. She’s good at math, you know. Very good.”
“That’s my girl,” Spencer said, grinning at Bridget. Bridget beamed in return. “Did you read Pearl and Harvey’s letter?”
“I did, but it doesn’t look like they’re coming home anytime soon. We could go to New York to visit them, though,” Martha suggested hopefully. “We could take the train.”
Spencer pursed his lips. “It would be good for the kids. Maybe we can talk about it later?”
“That’s a good idea.”
They glanced around at the table, and Martha felt a sudden swell of happiness in her heart. Spencer took her hand where it rested on the table, giving her fingers the lightest of squeezes. She glanced at him, and a slow smile spread across her face.
How lucky I am, she thought. If things hadn’t worked out just the way they did, I wouldn’t have married Spencer Mahoney. Isn’t life just strange?
Spencer met her gaze and grinned affectionately.
“I love you, Martha,” he murmured.
“And I love you too, Spencer. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I am starving, and I can’t love on an empty stomach. Let’s eat.”
They dug in, while Spencer laughed and laughed.