The sun warmed Sally’s head, her hand shading her eyes as she looked out across the yard to watch the four children that played there, their bodies tumbling and vaulting over one another with fits of giggles. It filled her chest with a certain sense of right to see them playing. A large border collie sat just off to the side of them with a watchful gaze ever upon them.
There were some times, on days like today, that it was hard to remember being in this exact same position five years previous, knowing that she was leaving the town for good.
What a fool she had been.
It no longer hurt to think about it like it once had. It had taken two years to get to the point where she could remember all the events leading up to it without blushing bright red for all of the misunderstandings and ego that had come between her and her now-husband. Even the day of their wedding…
She smiled at the fond memory, remembering riding back into town with James and Sarah, Rebecca jumping happily in the spot on the street with her hand over her heart.
It had felt like, in the Arizona desert, kissing James for the first time, like all of their problems had been solved. But, of course, that hadn’t been the case. No sooner had they gotten back to town than she had worried over the fact that she had already rented her house out to a nice, young couple new to town. She’d fretted and been ready to say that it was just another omen when James had laughed at her, asking her how she felt about shotgun weddings.
It had been a joke, but they had been married that very afternoon by the reverend, with only Betsy, Rebecca, and Sarah in attendance.
It turned out to be all that they had needed anyway.
“Sarah Giuseppe!” Sally called out, her voice sharp. “You get off of your brother, do you hear me!?”
“But mama!” Sarah whined back, her voice raised in petulance. “He pulled my hair!”
“He’s two!” Sally reminded her oldest daughter, rolling her eyes at the chuckle that came from behind her. She didn’t have to turn to recognize her husband’s deep voice, even in just laughter. “Are you going to back me up, James Harper, or do I need to get onto you, too?”
Strong arms banded around her from behind, pulling her into his solid chest as he kissed the top of her temple. “Aw, mama, I think you’ve got it,” he teased, swaying back and forth as she watched the children resume their play without the violence that they had just been chastised for.
“Well, daddy,” Sally stressed, poking at his arm despite her smile. “It wouldn’t hurt you to be the voice of reason sometimes, too!”
“I’m the voice of last resort,” he muttered, laughing at the way she hit his arm for doing so. “I’m the one who comes when you are too tired to keep getting onto them. I’m also the voices of duck calls and fish faces. Let me keep my reigning titles, wife. I have to be the bad guy often enough as a doctor.”
“Pfft,” Sally muttered in disbelief. “Everyone adores you,” she disagreed vehemently. And it was true.
In the five years since they had been married, he had only become more well-loved within the town, even as it grew. Everyone came to him for their medical needs, especially those mothers wishing to give birth to their babies in a calm, safe environment. Sally knew that her glowing recommendation was part of that.
“You know, Sally,” James started, his voice taking on that teasing tone that let her know she would be in stitches of laughter before too long.
But her attention had been claimed by something else, her body pulling away from him as if in a daze as she took a step forward from the post she had been leaning against before James had come out.
The figure walking up the pathway in front of their house was familiar, from the set of his shoulders to the sway in his walk. He was tall, almost six foot, with bright gray eyes and a shock of dirty-blonde hair that fell half over one eye.
Sally’s heart beat in her chest like horses’ hooves let loose to gallop, her eyes widening and her breath coming quicker as recognition seized her. There was no relief in her body, only panic, her body taking another two stumbled steps forward and almost falling as the man came to a stop only three or four feet away from her.
“Frank?” she asked, her voice shaking.
She could hear James’ gasp from behind her and hear her children calling out her name from a yard or so away, but she couldn’t tear her gaze away from the walking ghost in her front yard.
Frank stopped, his brows furrowed in confusion before an apology filled his face. “No ma’am,” the stranger drawled, his Southern accent thicker than Sally had remembered Frank’s being. “I’m Lieutenant Carter Giuseppe, and you’re Sally …” He trailed off, obviously taking in the scene in front of him and leaving off the name that he had thought to greet her with.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, looking between James standing behind her and Sally again. “I only know you by your picture, and I don’t know what you go by now.”
It hit Sally like a ton of bricks, her body sinking back into her husband’s with a sigh. Carter Giuseppe, Frank’s twin brother. She almost didn’t have words for the emotions that seized her, her head spinning as she grabbed James’ arm as it banded around her waist.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her eyes swimming with unshed tears. “I didn’t mean to assume…”
“No ma’am, this is my fault. I should have sent a letter ahead of my coming, or…” He stopped, laughing awkwardly as he reached behind him to scratch at the back of his head. “I was stationed with my brother, you know… and he made me promise that if anything were to happen to him that I was supposed to come back and take care of you and your child until you remarried.” He stopped, grinning larger as he looked between her and James again. “Actually, he made me promise to make sure you remarried, too.”
Sally laughed, sudden and unexpected, as she squeezed James’ arm, remembering her thought process upon rereading those letters between her and Frank when she had been trying to sort out her feelings for James and right and wrong.
“This is my husband,” Sally offered when her laughter died out, fitting her fingers between his on the hand that rested against her barely bulging middle. “James Harper and I’m Sally Harper now. But—” her smile grew wider as a shot of dark-blonde hair went hurdling past Carter’s legs only to run into hers.
Sarah’s inquisitive gaze flipped between the stranger and her mother, still just as intuitive as she had been as a baby. She stood almost protectively in front of her mother, her blue eyes narrowed as she looked the man up and down.
Sally dropped her hand to her daughter’s blonde curls, so like the man who stood in front of her now, and so much like her late father’s had been too. “This is your niece, Sarah Giuseppe,” she supplied, her lips twitching at the way her oldest daughter’s eyes widened so suddenly.
Carter dropped in front of them, crouching so that he was closer to Sarah’s height and smiling widely. “Hello, Sarah Giuseppe,” he intoned seriously, not missing a beat despite all of the awkwardness. “I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you.”
“You look like my other daddy,” Sarah muttered, her confusion marring her brow before she ran back off in the direction of her siblings. She had the same emotional capacity as any other young child, despite her awareness and perception of others.
Sally smiled slightly at Carter’s inquisitive look, shrugging. It wasn’t her question to answer.
“I thought it best to keep some photos of him up, for Sarah,” James offered, right on cue.
Sally could see the appreciation in Carter’s gaze at that admission, and it struck her again how much like his brother Carter looked.
“It looks like even though I’m a few years late, I still somehow fulfilled half of my promise,” Carter offered jokingly as he raised himself back to his feet. “I was hoping to find you in good health, with how long it took, but this is better than even I was hoping if I’m honest.”
Sally didn’t take offense to the words, laughing herself as she indicated James. “That’s all thanks to luck and this man being so persistent,” she admitted, not wanting to get into all of the details of how he had made sure she and Sarah were taken care of too soon. It was, she knew, a long story.
“I’m glad you’re keeping my brother’s memory alive as well,” Carter said thankfully, addressing that to both she and James.
“We do what we can,” James admitted, pausing somewhat as if unsure whether or not to continue.
“I didn’t know him that well, myself, before the war claimed him,” Sally admitted softly. “The war took its toll on us all,” she continued, glancing at her children before back to Carter. “What about you? Do you have family to go home to?”
A shadow passed over Carter’s features before he shook his head no. He glanced over at Sarah, quickly averting his gaze. Sally realized that she might have been his last surviving family member. Her heart twinged, her fingers pushing into James’ forearm unintentionally.
“Well,” James broke in evenly in his calm, bedside manner. “You’re free to stay with us while you’re in town,” he offered magnanimously, holding his hand up as Carter went to disagree. “However long that may be,” he continued. “We have the room. I insist, for Sarah, so that she can get to know her father more through you.”
He summed it up so neatly, his voice so sure, Sally could feel her heart swell all over again with love for the man who had taken her in all of those years ago. She could see the magic of his demeanor working on Carter as it did everyone, drawing him in with how even and confident he sounded.
James was a healer in so much more than just the traditional sense.
“I wouldn’t mind sticking around for a little while,” Carter admitted after a moment, looking out to where Sarah was running circles around her younger siblings. “This town, my brother was right. There’s something calming about it…”
“The people,” James answered with a chuckle. “It’s just good people. They infect the place,” he joked, “and I should know, I’m a doctor.”
“I had wanted to ask why you were having your children play in front of the clinic,” Carter answered back, shaking his head slightly.
“We live in the house joined onto it,” Sally chuckled, pointing over to the addition that James had added in the last three years. “Closer to work, for the man that cannot seem to keep regular hours.”
“You tell the people in town and out on the farms to keep their injuries and disasters contained to certain hours,” James answered, letting go of Sally so that he could crouch as a small, auburn-haired boy ran up to them. He scooped their son into his arms, standing back up and laughing as Sally rolled her eyes.
The awkwardness dissolved between the three adults the longer that they stood there, a gentle camaraderie falling between them as Carter eased his way into walking the rest of the way up the path to stand more directly in front of them. He seemed amused by the back and forth between the two, his lips twitching as he looked down, just seeming to notice Sally’s belly.
“How many do the two of you have already?” he asked suddenly, only seeming to realize how rude it could be taken at the last moment and flinching. “Sorry, living with only soldiers year in and year out for five years…” he offered by way of explanation, his eyes flashing slightly like a storm was only just barely contained within their gray depths.
“It’s fine,” Sally assured him, rubbing her belly and shaking her head. “We value transparency in this house. Polite conversation sometimes hides away what needs to be said…” She paused, sharing a knowing look with her husband before pointing out to the yard. “The older one next to Sarah is Frank Harper, my oldest son. He’s four. Next to him is Hope Harper, and the one in my husband’s arms is Daniel Harper.”
Carter whistled, his eyebrows raised. “So… four, going on five,” he added up, looking torn between being impressed and horrified.
“Four, going on only five,” Sally answered back with a warning look at her husband. “No more after five! I had Rebecca promise to not let me have nine children. You won’t believe what that washing cycle looks like with that many people…”
“Oh, I believe it,” Carter laughed, biting his lips to try and stop a chuckle from the way James shook his head at his wife’s insistence and then her slapping hand. “We took turns with washing duty when we weren’t near a town in the infantry,” he explained, that same haunted look flashing behind his eyes again.
Sally was noticing that it seemed to do so every time he mentioned the war at all.
“So you had much more than just nine children’s worth of laundry,” she concluded, trying to keep the conversation light.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” he hedged, shaking his head. “We only had so many allotted outfits, I imagine with free-range…” All three adults laughed. Sally’s turning more delighted as Sarah ran up, trying to run up Carter’s legs out of nowhere.
Carter, seeming surprised, caught her about her middle, lifting her onto his hip and raising his eyebrows in question.
“So, you’re my daddy Frank’s brother?” Sarah asked, her voice holding an air of know-it-all as she looked him up and down all over again. “Why do you look just like him?”
Carter blinked, clearly unfamiliar with children. Or maybe, Sally thought, just with children who were so head-strong and opinionated.
“I’m his twin,” Carter explained, looking confused as to how to explain it.
“Oh, so like his brother who was born at the same time?” Sarah asked knowingly, her smile large. At Carter’s hesitant nod, she pointed at Sally’s belly, “so like Daddy says mama might be having with how big she is already?”
Sally threw her hands up, snorting, and reaching forward to tweak her daughter’s nose. “I am not having twins!” she insisted, shooting another withering glare over at her husband.
“Now, Nugget,” James cut in, looking up from where he had been raspberrying Daniel’s arm. “You know your mother doesn’t want to admit that she might be carrying more than one.”
Carter looked confused, glancing between the two other adults and Sarah again in question. “Nugget?” he asked, clearly before he could stop himself.
“Nugget,” Sarah confirmed, pulling on his earlobe, clearly comfortable with the addition of him into her life now. “Because I’m like the gold nuggets that people chase across the country. I’m a treasure. That’s what my daddy says.”
Carter’s eyes widened slightly, nodding and smiling as Sarah started poking her fingers all over his face.
“A pain in the rump for a treasure,” a voice interrupted, sounding awfully amused.
Sally turned with a grin as Rebecca walked up, her eyes taking in the newcomer with raised brows in Sally’s direction before he could see.
“That’s not nice, Auntie Rebecca!” Sarah complained, her lower lip wobbling.
“I don’t think you’re a pain in the rump,” Carter told her seriously, his eyes shining. It was clear to Sally, already, that he was taken in by Sarah as everyone who met her was.
“Well, you just haven’t known her long enough,” Rebecca challenged teasingly, her eyes flashing with mirth… and, if Sally wasn’t mistaken, interest as well.
“Oh. And you have?” Carter challenged, his dirty-blonde eyebrows raised.
It was clearly a challenge, and Sally giggled before she could stop herself, all eyes around them turning to her at the sound. “I’m sorry,” she gasped, shaking her head and holding up her hand. “Oh, it’s just ironic. Rebecca, this is Carter Giuseppe, Sarah’s uncle. Carter. This is Rebecca, my best friend.”
“Sarah’s godmother,” Rebecca added, her lips twitching at the brief flash of fire that filled Carter’s gray gaze.
“Which means I’m the boss!” Sarah announced suddenly, wiggling her way down from Carter’s arms and grabbing his hand instead. She spun about, using her other hand to secure her Auntie Rebecca and start pulling. “As the boss, I’m demanding we go get Hope so that we can outnumber the boys again, right Auntie Rebecca?”
“It is always a good decision to outnumber the boys,” Rebecca commented in amusement as she let herself be pulled to the other side of the yard.
Carter seemed content to allow himself to be dragged as well, his lips twitching as he glanced between the tiny tyrant on one side and the other on the opposite side of her.
A sense of peace filled Sally, her heart swelling as she looked out at her odd, mismatched family. A peace that only intensified as her husband came to throw an arm around her shoulders, pulling her into his side.
“What’re you thinking about?” he asked softly, kissing her cheek.
“How perfect my life is,” Sally answered honestly, her voice chock full of emotion. “How wonderful you are.” She grinned up at him, pushing her nose alongside his and claiming his lips in a kiss to seal the words.
Because she meant every bit of them. It was perfect.