The store was busy as ever, and Justin was in full health and charming his customers as he always did.
Amanda was helping behind the counter and Maria was in the kitchen with Giulliana, now a very active toddler.
The doorbell jingled, and Amanda looked up as she said goodbye to the person she had served. Then she screamed and dashed around the counter to throw herself into the arms of the older woman, who there was no doubt was her mother. Behind her came the Reverend Cosgrove and a man from the stagecoach office carrying two heavy bags.
The place went crazy, and the customers joined the fun because they always seemed to think they were part of Justin’s family. Maria came to see what the fuss was about, and Ned appeared from the storeroom.
“Where is my grandson?” Jean Cosgrove asked her daughter and Amanda pulled her mother away from the excited crowd into the living room.
“Oh, it is so good to see you. Is there something wrong? Why did you not tell us you were coming?”
“It was a last-minute decision. The church is having repairs done, and we decided to get out of the dust and the mess for a little while. Your dad has a young man training to be a minister, and we left him to deal with it all.” Then she stopped talking and drew a breath. “Oh, Good Lord above, he is just so big now.” The little boy with the blond hair pulled himself to his feet on the side of the wooden pen they had constructed to keep him in one place. Once on his feet, he did exactly the right thing and reached up his arms to his gran. She almost squealed with delight and swept him up in her arms.
“Justin junior, you are one big boy now. I cannot believe it. It is only months since the baptism.”
Justin carried in the two bags and took them to the downstairs bedroom.
“He is a big boy,” Justin said as he passed his mother-in-law.
“And gorgeous,” Jean added. Amanda’s father came and took the little boy from his wife’s arms. Justin came back, and Maria said she would serve in the store. She dodged the family group and grabbed her daughter by the hand as she went. Giulliana was a lively little girl, and Amanda knew she would be going around all the customers to say hello.
The family finally were seated, and news was up to date. Amanda went to check the bedroom was tidy and the bed made and heard her dad talking to Justin. Her mom followed her in. They sat on the bed side by side and hugged each other.
“You look so well and happy. I am really glad for you,” her mom told her. “You know I thought that coming to meet this man was a risk.”
“He is just wonderful, and we have the little one now as well as two businesses to run. We are having an extension to make the kitchen enormous and putting another bedroom above the extra space.”
“Can we stay for a week?” her mother asked, and Amanda laughed.
“Of course, you can. It is a lovely surprise. Reverend Macbeth will be delighted to talk to Dad again. The church is painted and finished and looks very smart.” She laughed. “He will want to know what the churches in New York are doing, and he will introduce it here.”
They went back through and took the baby away from his grandad. Amanda went to check what Maria had started for the midday meal and added some extras from the store. Justin excused himself and went back to serve. Maria and Giulliana came back into the kitchen. The little girl inserted herself between the two newcomers on the sofa, and they were pleased to have her attention.
“She is a most beautiful child,” Jean told Maria.
“And she knows it,” Maria answered. “She is a handful to keep an eye on.”
“I love her to bits,” Amanda said and grabbed the toddler. Giulliana screamed with delight as she was swung in the air. Then she was happy to sit on Amanda’s knee as the family caught up with the news.
At midday, Ned and Lonnie said they would take their meal to the storeroom, but Amanda would have none of that.
“I have to prove I really need a huge kitchen table when this extension is finished.”
They all sat around the table, and Amanda beamed at them.
“I love having lots of folks eating at the table.” The lots of folks talked as they ate, and then the doorbell jingled and Barney stuck his head inside. Then he grinned and came in.
“When did you arrive?” he asked the Reverend and Mrs. Cosgrove. “Lovely to see you. You will have to come down and see the trading post. It has changed a lot.”
“We will,” Jean told him. Amanda pulled him out a seat and poured him a coffee.
“Have some pie and cream,” she said, and he joined the party.
“Jenny asks if you can come down to see Marco? He has something he wants to ask you?” The question was at Justin, but Amanda answered in Spanish. Barney laughed and answered in the same way. Justin had a bit of the language he had learned from Maria. Jean Cosgrove looked at her daughter and forgot to eat.
“When did you learn another language?” she asked, and Amanda reverted to English.
“I love speaking Spanish,” she said. “Maria taught me.”
“And Amanda made me speak English properly,” Maria added.
“Barney helped as well as Jenny and Berry,” Amanda said.
“Amazing,” her dad said and took the dessert she handed over.
“We will come down when this is all cleared away,” Justin said. “Is it a good enquiry or a problem?”
“I am not allowed to say.”
“Very mysterious,” Amanda concluded, but Barney looked quite excited. The meal finished, Maria went to serve a customer, and Barney said he would see them soon.
“Have you got the wagon?” Justin asked, but the manager shook his head. “I will bring the rugs down when I come,” Justin finished.
With her parents settled and prepared to look after their grandson, Justin and Amanda loaded the stock to go to the trading post on the wagon and set off.
“I wonder what it is?” she pondered as they went down the main street.
They drove into the wide-open gates, and it looked quite astonishing. Berry loved plants, and she had surrounded all the display area with pots of flowers and greenery. It was a joy to see, and there were customers strolling around even as they watched.
They drove around to the rear of the barn and left the wagon. Jenny was inside with her fiancé, Marco. The man was Mexican, dark-haired, and very good-looking. He stood up and kissed Amanda on both cheeks. He could speak excellent English, but they all spoke in Spanish and took seats.
“I am dying with curiosity,” Amanda said. “We know the date of the wedding. Is there something else?” Jenny took a breath and smiled at Marco, who nodded.
“We want to ask you both if you would consider selling us a piece of this land to put up a small house and workshop for my dressmaking.”
There was a silence as neither Amanda nor Justin had seen this coming. Jenny took a breath and burst out that she did not want to upset them, and they would find something else.
“No. Wait,” Justin said. “You came up with something that I had never thought about before.”
“I have a job,” Marco added, “but if we were close to the town, it would be easier for me.”
Justin looked at Amanda, and she suggested they all went outside and had a look at what was there to use. She was rewarded with one of Justin’s wonderful smiles, which still made her heart to a little somersault. They all went out the door and stood surveying the property.
“The thing is, I was still thinking about selling the whole place and putting the store and the trading post into one place, but there is nowhere really suitable to do that.” He paused and added that Barney and Berry had made such a good job of the place that it would be silly to change it. Berry took Barney’s hand.
“So, we can stay and keep on living here?” she asked anxiously. Justin smiled and told her not to worry.
“I am having to think on my feet here, but it would suit me better to build the house and workshop and charge you rent. How would you feel about that?”
“Could I have a garden and a corral for a couple of horses?” Jenny asked.
“We could use the same entrance for both businesses,” Marco said.
“What do you think about it, Barney?” Amanda asked.
“As long as there was a definite end to one part and the start of the other. It would be fine. We all get on well together and …” He paused and looked at Berry. She grinned.
“It would be good to have my sister here as a babysitter.” There was a stunned silence, and then Jenny threw her arms around her sister.
“I am going to be an auntie. Really? That is just the best news ever.”
There was great jubilation, and Barney threw out his chest and took all the congratulations. Amanda hugged him.
“If it is a girl, you know what she will be called,” he told her quietly. She waited. “Amanda.” She hugged him again.
“But what about this house?” Justin asked in the end.
Marco asked what he thought the rent would be, and Justin named a very reasonable figure. The engaged couple looked at each other and nodded.
“Yes, please,” Marco agreed, and Jenny put her arms around him.
“Can we build it before the wedding?”
“With all of us helping, of course, we can,” Barney joined in, and they paced out the space and worked out how much land would be used. Back in the house, the couple explained what they had in mind for a house and workshop, and Justin scribbled it all down.
“I will ask the timber yard people to do the building, and then I will get the wood at a good price,” he said. “I will tell them that it has to be done immediately.”
Amanda and Justin left the two sisters chatting about how they would work together and rode home in the wagon. They sat in the little cart when they reached the back of the store, and Justin took her hand.
“You okay with this arrangement?”
“Have you got the money?” she asked, and he grinned.
“Come on, Manda. This is me we are talking about.” She laughed, and he added that while they were alone, there was something else.
“Oh no. Not more work?”
“You like hard work, remember? But this is not work.”
“I wrote to Barbara that had the baby after Benjamin took advantage of her.” This was a different tack altogether, and Amanda waited a little anxiously. He took her hand. “You know that I love you more than life itself, and we are lucky enough to have a good life and a wonderful baby boy.” She nodded.
“I always feel guilty about what Benjamin did to her, and I want to make amends a little bit.” He paused and said that he had written to Barbara and said that he had opened a little bank account for the boy and would add a little something each month. “It is not a lot, but by the time he is grown, it will mount up. We have Benjamin’s land, and Barney is making a wonderful job there.” He told her what was in the bank account for the trading post, and she gasped.
“That is marvelous.” She grinned and kissed his cheek. “I guess I can ask Jenny to do me a new dress.”
“You know you can,” he told her. “Do you mind about helping out the little boy?”
“Of course, I don’t mind. I am married to the best man in the world.”
They went back into the family, and there were a few days of absolute joy as her mom and dad enjoyed their grandson and took on little Giulliana as well. Justin explained that he would expand the trading post and went off to see the men at the timber yard. The work started the following day, and Justin let Barney work out the way the land would be divided up.
Amanda had done a lot of work in the garden behind the store. She and her mother were sitting in the sunshine with the two children when Maria came through and said there was the woman who used to go out with Justin asking for him in the store.
“He is at the building site,” Amanda said and stood up to take the baby inside. She popped him in the pen and went to see Barbara.
The woman looked quite ill. She was pale and shaking a little. The young boy holding her hand looked frightened.
“Come through to the living room,” Amanda said and took the woman by the arm. There were no comments from the customers. Maria and Lonnie were both serving, and she left them to it. Her dad was down at the church talking to Reverend Macbeth.
“Sit down, Barbara, isn’t it?” Amanda said as her mother brought Giulliana inside. That little ray of sunshine went up to the older boy and grinned at him.
“Hi,” she said and squished onto the seat beside him. The lad gave the start of a smile.
Amanda explained that Barbara was an old friend of Justin, but she had a baby with Benjamin and went to her parents.
“He is a big lad now,” she said to the newcomer. “Justin told me he had written to you.”
“I am sorry to arrive like this, but when I found the letter, I just clutched at a straw and thought that maybe Justin could find me a job. I have nowhere to live and no money.”
“When did you eat?” Jean Cosgrove asked.
“I cannot remember,” Barbara said wearily and let herself cry for the first time. “My parents do not want me or their grandson.”
“Dear Lord, are these people not Christians,” Jean said angrily and went to the kitchen to find food for the visitors.
“My mother is very good at getting things done. Did Justin tell you that I am Amanda?”
“Yes. He said you were married and had a little boy.” Barbara glanced at the pen and almost smiled. “No doubt the two are related,” she added.
“Come and sit at the table and eat,” Jean told her, and they settled the mother and son with hot soup, bread, and then cake from the store. Obviously, the pair were starving, and mother and daughter exchanged looks across the table. Giulliana sat beside the boy, who she had obviously thought was a new friend. She ate some cake and watched him eat with interest.
Amanda filled the time with explaining what Benjamin had done and why he was in jail for twenty years.
“Justin bought the trading post, and it is doing well. He thought that Benjamin’s son should have something from the place.” She paused. “Do you remember Barney from the house next to the church? He would be just a boy when you were here, but he is the manager at the trading post and married now.”
Barbara nodded and said she remembered him.
“The church and his parents’ house burned to the ground, and he was left on his own,” Jean added. Amanda turned her head as a step sounded at the back door, and she stood up as Justin came inside and then stopped in his tracks.
“Good Lord, Barbara. How are you?” he managed to get out. Amanda caught his arm.
“She is homeless and in need, Justin. Come and listen to what she has told us.”
Justin sat at the table and reached across to touch her arm. He offered a hand to the young lad, and after some hesitation, the boy gave him a handshake.
“This is your uncle Justin,” Barbara said.
“And aunt Amanda,” Amanda added.
“We can go away again. When your letter arrived, I just thought there might be work here, and I spent what I had on the stagecoach.”
“Stop worrying, Barbara. We have all suffered from the actions of Benjamin Leibert, and we know he took advantage of your good nature,” Amanda responded. “We would not turn you away.” That brought on some tears, and Jean asked the children, Giulliana, and the boy called Tommy, to come out into the garden with her.
Amanda pulled Barbara to her feet and wrapped her arms around her. Justin came and held both of them, and between them, they found Barbara a seat on the sofa and sat either side of her.
“Now. How bad is it?” Justin asked. Maria peeped in the doorway and went away again. The story came out that her mother wanted money to look after the boy if Barbara had a job, but there was no work, and she said we had to go away.
“I have looked all over for work, but with a boy it is very hard.”
“Those two are cousins. We need to sort out something for you,” Justin said and looked at Amanda.
“My mother is married to a minister. She will be horrified if we cannot help you. They have the spare room downstairs, but there is another room upstairs for you and Tommy.” Justin smiled at his wife.
“You are welcome to stay until you have something sorted out. You did the right thing.” He paused. “In fact, we are shorthanded right now, and if you can help out, it would be useful. I can pay you something, and we can look for a proper job.”
Barbara smiled through the tears that still tried to escape and stammered out her thanks.
“You catch up with Justin, and I’ll tell the others what has happened.” Amanda went into the store to find Maria, Lonnie, and Ned. When the customer there had gone, she quickly updated the others.
“Poor woman,” Maria said. “That man deserves to be in jail.” Amanda nodded and went back into the living room.
“Let us sort out the bedroom,” she said and took Barbara upstairs. They made up the bed, and Amanda said she would boil some water, and they could have a bath and change into clean clothes.
“I haven’t got any,” Barbara admitted. “Neither has Tommy.”
“We’ll boil the water, and I can lend you clothes. I will go out and buy some for Tommy.”
“I will pay you back when I am working.”
Amanda told her to stop worrying, and they went back downstairs to boil the water. Then she took money from the pot where it was kept.
“Tommy, come with me so that I get the right size clothes for you. Barbara keep an eye on the water please.” The lad came with her, and when they were outside, he clutched Amanda’s arm. She stopped and looked at him.
“My mom won’t die, will she?” he asked and started to cry.
“Or dear Lord. Who told you that?”
“My gran,” he said.
“Then she is telling lies, and that is a dreadful thing to do. I don’t tell lies, and we can fix you and your mom up fine.” She took his hand. “Come on, you need clean clothes and a lovely hot bath.” Tommy cheered up considerably, and the clothes shop lady was tactful. Amanda thanked her, and they went back to the store.
Barbara had filled the bathtub and was going upstairs. Amanda told her to hang on a minute and went into the store to bring one of the dresses out of the display. She found some other things of her own and a nightdress. Then she pushed them into the guest’s hands and told her to relax.
“Tommy is fine and playing in the garden. I asked him to keep an eye on Giulliana, and he is doing that, bless him.”
Justin was in the store, and Amanda’s dad came back from the church. They related the story, and Amanda told them what the lad had said about his mother dying.
“Poor little soul,” her dad said. “At least they are safe now.”
“That ghastly Benjamin has such a lot to answer for,” Amanda burst out. I really hate him.” Maria came in and agreed with her.
The household rallied around, and Barbara was glad, in the end, to take her son to a safe bedroom and catch up on sleep.
“I think she is finding it overwhelming,” Jean Cosgrove remarked.
“She will need time to get over the fear and the strain,” Amanda’s dad added.
“I have to say,” Jean said and put a hand on the arms of her daughter and son-in-law, “that you two are a remarkable team.” The remarkable team ensured that Justin junior was safely asleep, wished the older couple good night, and went to their own room.
Justin held out his arms, and Amanda gratefully felt them hold her close and safe.
“You are a wonderful man, Justin.”
“And you took in without question a woman that I once walked out with.” They sat and held hands on the bed and went over what the day had brought.
“We are so lucky, you and I,” Amanda told him.
“We were meant to be together,” he said. “We can help other folk as well. I will write to Benjamin and tell him that his son is here, and we will ensure he will be taken care of.”
“Barbara and Tommy arriving took over everything else. I am glad about Jenny, Marco, and the dressmaking.” She hesitated and looked at him. He waited because there was something else in her eyes. She took his hands and smiled. “I think you should know something else.”
A look of worry crossed his face for a second, but she reached over and kissed him.
“I think we might be having a second baby on the way.”
There was a staggering moment of stillness, and then he stood and picked her up in his arms.
“Thank you, Manda. I love you so much. We truly are blessed.”
Amanda put her arms around his neck, whispered that she was the luckiest woman alive, and he put her back on the ground.
“Happy ever after, Justin.”
“That sure is true,” he agreed. They wrapped their arms around each other and went to sleep smiling.