Five years later
Elsie watched the black and white dairy cows amble by. They all had names, but she’d lost track somewhere around cow number twenty. Of course, Tom knew them all. He and Jacob were dedicated to the cows. She was a little less so.
The cry made her head snap in the direction of the little piping voice. She spotted her three-year-old son, Conner, sitting on the back of Coffee. The horse snorted and nodded her head as though she had something to say about her small rider.
Panicking slightly, Elsie was about to climb over the fence that separated her from the mass bovine migration and rush to her son to catch him should he fall off the horse. But there was no need. Apart from the fact that her son had been in the saddle since he could sit upright, she needn’t have worried because striding along beside him was Tom.
“Look, Mommy, I’m riding Coffee,” Conner yelled over the mooing of the cows.
“You sure are,” she called with a laugh. What a character that child was. And he was the apple of his father’s eye. Never had there been a boy more loved in the world than Conner was. He was precious.
She waved to them and got one back from each of her boys. Tom’s was a languid movement accompanied by the grin that still sent shivers through her body. Oh, how she loved him.
“Don’t be late for dinner tonight,” she called. “I’m not even going to try and reheat it if you’re late.” Then, under her breath, she added, “Or explain to our guests why you’re not there.”
“We’ll be in in an hour,” Tom called. “Just seeing to the cows.”
She nodded and turned to head back into the house. The new farm was proving to be a wonderful place. Nestled in the hills, it was a green paradise with a permanently flowing creek that bubbled through the farm, bringing life as it went. And best of all, it was just two hours from Coppertown.
They never saw the likes of Oliver Trench and his horrible wife Gertie any longer. With Wellington’s Gulch being their nearest town, they had no need to travel to Coppertown ever again. Well, except to visit old friends.
Elsie went into her kitchen and stared at the preparations that were underway. The next day was Conner’s fourth birthday. That little miracle had come rather speedily after she and Tom were married. It felt as though the two had happened almost simultaneously and she had hardly begun to be used to being a wife when she found out she was due to be a mother as well.
And so, the kitchen was filled with colorful baked goods, and she was about to start assembling the little boy’s cake. He was a great fan of chocolate and cows, so she’d made him a chocolate cow cake. It was nothing as fancy as the cake that she’d baked with Mr. Arnold all those years ago, but it was in the shape of a cow’s head, and she was rather proud of it.
She had also made a lot of cupcakes that she was currently frosting so they looked like bright yellow sunflowers. For the color she thanked Mr. Arnold who, over the years of their correspondence, had finally given her the secret to his bright color distillations. She would write to him once the cakes were made and tell him how it all went. He always seemed so keen to hear of all her baking triumphs and failures, offering praise and advice.
Consumed in her work, as often happened, Elsie didn’t hear the thud of hooves, nor the jangle of harness, until she heard Jacob send up a cry. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she beamed. They were here. Oh good! She could do with Agnes’ help, and Martha, her and Carl’s daughter, was wonderful at minding little Conner. He never got away with anything when Martha was visiting.
Flinging the back door open, she strode down the steps into the yard and halted. This wasn’t the Bowman’s cart. It was a posh carriage. For a long moment she couldn’t think who could possibly be visiting them who owned one. And then the door opened.
A tall woman with blonde hair and the same shaped face as Elsie’s own stepped out of the carriage. She was dressed in the latest fashions and her hair was perfect. Smiling, she walked towards Elsie with her arms out.
“Oh, Elsie, my darling,” she said.
Elsie stiffened. She had never expected to see her mother ever again. After the fiasco in Coppertown where her father had kidnapped her and held her against her will, Elsie had hoped she would never see them again. And yet, here her mother stood in the mucky yard, hugging her.
“Mother,” she said. “This is a complete surprise.”
“I know,” her mother said, letting her go. “But it took a lot of convincing your father to come. After all, it’s not every day that your grandson turns five now, is it?” Her mother beamed. “Where is the little cherub?”
“Wait just one moment,” Elsie said, her hand clamping onto her mother’s wrist. “How did you find me? What are you doing here? You can’t just invite yourselves into my life…”
“I invited them,” Tom’s said from behind her.
Elsie turned and saw Tom holding Conner in his arms, walking up the path behind her.
“Tom!” she cried, unable to believe this. What was happening? There she was expecting her dear friends Agnes and Carl to arrive and instead she ended up with her parents. Elsie was shocked and horrified at the same time. “What are they doing here? Why did you invite them?”
Tom smiled and put an arm around her waist. “Because Conner needs to know his family,” he said. “Trust me on this. When it comes to the importance of family, you can’t begin to understand it all until you’ve grown up without one. Conner needs his family. And so do you.”
With that, he went and greeted her mother.
Elsie’s world swam around her as from the other side of the carriage she heard her father’s voice. He stepped out from behind the carriage looking older and yet still smug. He came around to stand beside his wife, regarding Elsie with pity and a certain amount of dismay.
“I told you that she would not be happy to see us, Natalie” he said.
“And that is entirely your fault,” her mother snapped. “Honestly, Christopher, had you not behaved so appallingly we could have made amends a long time ago.” She shot her husband a look of pure venom that made even Elsie recoil. Then smoothing her dress, her mother said, “But we are not here to fight. I understand that you are less than thrilled to see us, Elsie, and I know we have a lot to make up for, but all I ask is that you give us the chance to try.”
It was such a heartfelt plea that Elsie couldn’t say no. She could only nod and invite her parents into her home. She hastily made some tea and while she was busy, watched as her son met his grandparents for the first time.
Conner, his blonde hair mussed from the breeze and his face streaked with dirt as he’d been out with his father all day, watched her pristine mother and father with little hawk eyes. Then he turned and, frowning, asked Elsie, “Are you sure they’re my granny and grandpa?”
“Yes, darling,” she said.
He didn’t look convinced. “But they not wrinkled enough,” he said.
Elsie knew what he meant. He had books with pictures in them that illustrated grandparents as these bent over men and women with lots of wrinkles, walking with the aid of canes. Her folks were too young for that, and both were strong.
After assuring the child that they were his grandparents, Conner inspected them and then promptly lost interest. He bounded through the house to his room where he fetched several toys which he brought to show to the strangers.
Her father watched Conner go with an odd look on his face, but her mother seemed utterly delighted. She cooed over the boy and grabbed him, picking him up to deposit him on her lap. She smiled and laughed and for a moment, Elsie got to see the mother she’d missed out on. It broke her heart.
Why were they here? And why was her father watching her so, like a cat playing with a mouse? What did he have up his sleeve this time? Surely, he couldn’t still want her to marry his subordinate Aiden Johnston. She didn’t know what to make of it all, but decided to keep a close eye on her father. If he tried anything with Conner, Elsie would retaliate.
With her eye on her father, she fed them tea and spent the rest of the afternoon finishing up the goodies for the party the next day. Her mother helped her to take them to the cold room beneath the kitchen where they would wait until the party.
“You’ve done a marvelous job with the baking,” her mother said. “Cook is ever so proud.”
“How does she know about my baking?” Elsie asked, startled.
“Well, I always knew you were taking lessons with Cook,” her mother said. “And Tom is so proud of you and what you achieve. Baking for the Wellington’s Gulch bakery is a big step. Tom wrote that it took two slices of your pecan pie to convince him.” She smiled. “And now he can’t get enough of your cakes and tarts. I always knew you would find a way to make a difference in this world.”
“How?” Elsie asked, unable to keep her mouth shut any longer. “You never saw me as a child. I was not of importance to you. You and father ignored us unless we achieved something wonderful and then you praised us for a moment before shutting the door between us again. You don’t know me, and I certainly don’t know you.”
She turned to leave but her mother grabbed her arm and held her back. “I watched both of my girls grow and develop. I knew what you were doing all the time. The maids kept track of you for me.” She sighed. “In our social circles, it’s just not done to raise your children yourself. You hire nannies and minders, tutors. It’s nothing personal. Just how things are done.”
“But I needed you in my life,” Elsie wailed. “I needed to know if you loved me for me and not because of something I achieved. I wanted to be important to you, but I don’t think I ever was.”
As the words left her lips, Elsie saw tears form in her mother’s eyes and spill over onto her cheeks. She blinked them away.
“Oh, Mother, I’m sorry,” Elsie said.
“No,” her mother said, holding her hand up. “I deserved that. I was a terrible mother. But then I never knew how not to be. My mother raised me with a nanny, and I never saw her. It was only recently when she passed away that I realized what I had missed out on. What I missed with you and Lottie.”
Elsie had no words. She hugged her mother and felt tears rush down her cheeks. They held each other for a long time and then when they were done crying, they came out of the cold room.
“I thought you’d gotten lost down there,” Tom said, and Elsie could see it was a joke from the look on his face. She smiled and hugged him not sure if she was mad at him or very grateful. This was the first and most honest conversation she’d ever had with her mother and it felt good to finally have it.
Agnes, Carl and Martha arrived just before dinner. There was a lot of happy greeting when she saw them, and Conner hugged Martha so hard he gave her the hiccoughs.
They all sat around the kitchen table that evening eating the chicken pie, rice, and salad that Elsie had prepared. Because she was feeding Carl as well as her family, she had added bread and cheese to the menu as well, knowing the big man’s appetite.
Agnes was pregnant with her second child. She was only mid-way in her term and was still feeling bright and largely energetic since the morning sickness had finally left her for good.
“I hope this one is a boy,” she said. “Carl needs a boy.” Glancing at her husband, she smiled when she saw him setting Conner on his knee and bouncing the boy up and down to great peals of laughter.
“Boys are a lot of work,” Elsie said.
“So are girls,” Agnes said.
When dinner was done, Elsie washed up and then, unable to take it any longer, took her father outside for a talk.
“Well?” she asked as they walked onto the porch. “Are you just going to watch me like a cat watching a mouse or are you going to speak to me?” The night air was cool, and she wished she’d brought a shawl with her, but she refused to show weakness.
The trees would soon be losing their leaves en mass, but for now they were lovely. Elsie watched as some moths flittered around the lanterns, desperately trying to reach the little suns inside.
“I am not certain what you’re hoping I’ll say,” her father said, leaning against the support pole with his hands in his trouser pockets. “This trip was all your mother’s idea.”
Elsie smiled but there was no happiness in it. “So you’re still angry that I married Tom and not that appalling Aiden Johnston, are you?”
He shook his head. “Aiden is a wonderful banker. He is ruthless, clinical and logical, but I suppose he would be entirely the wrong husband for you. Your mother has spent the last five years explaining this to me. Perhaps I am stupid, but I consider a man’s wealth and position in life to be something of a draw card when looking for a son-in-law. Oddly, a dairy farmer doesn’t rank highly at all.”
“You’re such a snob!” Elsie retorted. “You don’t like Tom because he’s a farmer? He bought this land from Carl, you know. It was Carl’s uncle’s farm. Tom sold the farm he was born on and moved out here to give us a better life than we could have had in Coppertown. And you don’t think he has the mettle to be your son-in-law? What have you ever done that makes you better than him? He is loyal, honest and true. He is dependable and his word is his bond. Can you say that with absolute sincerity?”
He didn’t speak.
“I thought not,” Elsie said. “Consider that, and then when you pull your sizable cranium out of your rear end, come and speak to me. Until then, I will consider you furniture.” She turned and left.
Her father, however, stayed outside.
The next day dawned bright. Elsie had slept little, spending the dark hours in the clutch of darker thoughts. But it was Conner’s birthday and he deserved to have a marvelous day. Several of their neighbors had children around his age and they were all coming over that afternoon to have a picnic under the golden, red and orange trees. It would be marvelous.
Elsie was busy in the morning setting up. Everyone helped to get the decorations up and to make sure that everything was set and looking perfect for the little tyke’s big day.
When all was ready and the guests had yet to arrive, Tom came to Elsie and wrapped his arms around her.
“You never told me what happened with your talk to your father?” he said.
She harrumphed. “It went as one would expect it to. That man is a snob right down to his marrow.”
Tom kissed her neck, making her skin erupt in gooseflesh. He had terrible timing. He knew what that did to her and yet he always did it before they had company. Elsie turned in his arms and smiled at him.
“Do you think we could sell my father? I’m sure some bank somewhere needs a cold, heartless old man,” she said.
Tom shook his head. “Elsie, you have to make the effort with him. I will, too. But it has to come from us. He will either see the light or not, but at least we will know we did our best to include him in this family. It’s important.”
She sighed. He was right. As usual. Rising on her toes, she kissed him with great passion and need. How she wished they were alone now and not expecting a horde of children and adults to descend on them.
Tom snuggled into her neck and said, “How about we get rid of everyone early, put the critter to bed and then make him a brother or sister?”
Elsie giggled. It was rather tempting. Perhaps if there were two, they would play together. Then again, she remembered what it had been like growing up with Lottie and she expected there would be a lot of fights. Especially since Conner would be a good deal older than his sibling.
“How about we do all that and not make another one?” Elsie asked.
“Oh, come on,” Tom said, kissing her neck a little more. “It’ll be fun.”
Elsie knew it would be. That part always was. But then came all the other parts and some were a lot less fun. She spied movement across the yard, catching her eye. “I don’t know about another,” she said. “I have my hands full with the critter.” She said it meaningfully and Tom turned.
Conner had been perfect for his party—dressed in his best Sunday trousers and shirt—and now he was covered in chocolate.
“How?” Tom asked.
Elsie shrugged and ran to her son. She’d have to wash and change him quickly. But that was the fun of it. The joy of being a parent and living a life filled with love, honesty and happiness, with life and all its quirks. Elsie knew she would never have chosen a different life. Not in a million years.