3 years later
Dagan’s Rest, California
The wind was still warm, and the sky its usual azure as Tilda waited for her son to finish chasing the chickens. Charlie was about to turn two years old, and he loved to run around on his podgy, toddler legs. The chickens didn’t seem to mind him much. They scattered as he came for them and then clustered around the feed again.
“Come on,” Tilda said. “Enough harassing the poor birds. Let’s go inside.”
The little boy, as blonde as his father was, looked up at her and grinned. She knew that grin. It was his “I hear you but am going to ignore you” grin.
Tilda took a step forward, and her son took one back. Then squealing with laughter, he turned and ran at full tilt for the paddock, where the horses were watching him with their large, liquid eyes. A few steps of her own had Tilda blocking his way to the horses. She bent down, scooped him up, and, holding him over one arm, she pretended to smack his behind. Charlie cackled with laughter.
The back door to the house swung open, and her mother stepped into view.
“What are you two up to?” she asked.
“Feeding clucks,” Charlie said between giggles. “Clucks run away.”
“Yes, the chickens will if you scare them,” his grandmother said, giving Tilda a disapproving look.
As they entered, her mother said, “What will they think of him at school when he arrives calling chickens clucks?”
“Mother, he won’t be doing that anymore by the time he can go to school,” Tilda said. “Anyway, I think it’s a perfectly descriptive name for them. They do cluck.”
“You’re doing the boy a disservice,” her mother said.
“Oh, Adeline, give Tilda a break,” her father said. He was already seated at the kitchen table where breakfast waited for them. “She’s doing a fine job raising Charlie. Isn’t she, boy?”
At the sound of his name, Charlie wriggled free of Tilda’s grasp and toddled to his grandfather, who scooped him up and placed him on his lap. He would eat his breakfast there as happy as a pig in its pen.
As Tilda took her seat at the table, her husband of two years, Laurie, came into the room. He was as handsome as the day she had married him. He grinned at her, reminding her strongly of the naughty smile she’d seen earlier on her son’s face. The two resembled each other so strongly except for the eyes. Charlie had gotten her brown ones instead of his father’s blue.
“Morning, all,” Laurie said. He took a seat beside Tilda. “Hello, beautiful. Where were you? I woke up, and you were gone. I almost thought I’d only dreamed I went to bed with a gorgeous woman last night.”
“Flatterer,” Tilda said, playfully thumping him in the ribs.
“Yes,” he said, kissing the tip of her nose.
“You two are still nauseatingly in love,” her mother said. “It’s enough to put people off their food.”
“Oh, now, Adeline,” Laurie chided her. “You and Spencer are just as bad when you have a mind to be. Anyway, what’s wrong with me thinking my wife is the most wonderful, loving, generous, patient woman in the world?”
“Nothing,” Tilda said. “Except that when you butter me up this much, you’ve either done something silly or are about to. So, which is it?”
“Neither,” Laurie said. “I’m just hungry.”
Tilda took his hand in hers. “It’s going to be fine.”
Laurie nodded and freed his hand. He put some toast on a plate and reached for the eggs. Tilda could see that he wasn’t fine. He was nervous.
“It’s because your folks are coming,” she said. “They aren’t ogres.”
“You’ve never met them,” he said, flatly spilling the eggs on the table.
“Dada mess!” Charlie cried.
“Yes, Charlie, Dada made a mess,” Laurie said, slamming the bowl down harder than he probably meant to. “And see, he’s done it again.”
“Come on,” Tilda said, taking him by the hand. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Grabbing two pieces of toast, she led her husband out of the kitchen and into the yard. Things had changed around the farm in the last two years, thanks to Laurie and his inability to sit still. They had a paddock for the horses now, a chicken coop, and he was working on a doghouse for the pup he wanted to get.
It was fine with Tilda. She loved dogs. She also knew that there was no chance at all of the animal sleeping in that doghouse once it was finished. The animal would most likely end up on their bed. Laurie had the softest heart she’d ever seen in a man. He’d almost brought home a coyote cub he’d saved from drowning once until he saw the mother eyeing him like he was lunch.
They walked out passed Laurie’s woodworking shed, the barn, and the outhouse. They walked on into the orchard, where the orange trees spread their branches to the sky. The fruit was starting to grow and swell.
As they walked, they chewed on their toast. Only when they were done and had come to a halt at the fence did Tilda turn to him.
“You want to tell me what this is all about? What its really about?” she asked.
He sighed and kicked at the dirt with his booted foot. “I’m not sure I’m ready for them.”
He meant his folks. Laurie had had a troubled childhood. His parents had had eight children, and he and his older sister had been shipped off to live with an aunt. Although he and his sister had been fed, clothed, and educated, they had never felt loved. Not really, deeply loved. His parents hadn’t kept in touch much with him, and when he had finished school, he and his friend Duncan had come out west.
They had been on all sorts of adventures in various towns, but it wasn’t until he decided to try his hand at panning for gold that he met Tilda. Of course, that was another adventure, one in which she’d been looking for her father. But it had brought them together, and she was glad of that. Thankful really. But she had always felt there was something missing from Laurie’s life.
So, in her wisdom, or madness, she didn’t know. She had reached out to his folks. The first letter had taken ages to write. What could one say? “Hi, I’m married to your son, and well, sorry you weren’t invited to the wedding, but he’d really like to get to know you now?” Anyway, she’d agonized over it for days and then finally put something on paper and sent it off to the last address Laurie could recall them living at.
It took over a month, but the reply came. It was from Debra, Laurie’s mother. She said she was thrilled to hear he was still alive, and so the conversation began. Tilda told Laurie about her letters to his mother and let him read everything his mother sent back. For a while, he was angry, she could see it, but she was pregnant with Charlie at the time, and Laurie seemed to be going through changes of his own.
When Charlie was finally born, Laurie seemed to feel an urge of his own to correspond with his folks. He wrote his first letter to his mother.
The letters had been going back and forth since then, and they were finally coming out west. One of his sisters had moved to Santa Clara, and that wasn’t so far from where they were. They would visit Laurie and Tilda for a while and then go on to see his sister.
It was all arranged, and they were due to arrive that day. Now it seemed Laurie had cold feet.
“It’s okay to be nervous,” Tilda said when he didn’t speak.
“Is it?” he asked. “I mean, they are my parents. This should be easy.”
“You haven’t seen them in years,” Tilda said.
“Twenty-two years,” he said. “I don’t even remember what they look like. I had no pictures of them or anything.”
Her heart aching for her husband, who had been so strong for her through their time together, she kissed his cheek. She wished she could give him that strength he always displayed when she needed him.
“You writing to someone and then meeting them in the flesh are two different things,” he said. “I know it’s important that Charlie meets them. He needs to know his other grandparents. It’s just, do I have to be there?”
Tilda couldn’t help but chuckle. “Are you serious?” she asked. “Do you have to be there? Of course, you do. You’re their son, and they love you. Just like you love Charlie. They sent you to your mother’s sister because it was the best they could do for you at the time. I think it hurt them a lot too. You have the chance now to start again, to build a better relationship than you’ve had. And the hardest part has already been done.”
“Really, what was that?” Laurie asked.
“Reaching out in the first place,” Tilda said. “Now come on, they’re going to love you, and they’re going to be so proud of you.”
He eyed her suspiciously. “Why?”
“Because you married me,” she said, grinning. She kissed him, loving the feel of his lips on hers. It always sent blood rushing through her body, her nerves tingling with delight at his touch. Especially when he ran his fingers gently up her arms and into her neck as he was.
“Oh no! No! No! We don’t have time for anything like that,” she said. “The train will be coming into the station in three hours, and we still have to get there.”
“So?” he asked, his words muffled as he kissed her neck, making her skin erupt in gooseflesh.
“So, we have a two-and-a-half-hour drive,” she said.
Laurie shrugged and pressed her closer to him. Oh, this man was trouble. He was so much trouble, and yet she loved him dearly. He knew he was charming her, that if she let him carry on, they would never be at the station in time.
“You are an evil man,” Tilda said breathlessly, kissing him back.
“I know,” he said.
Fifteen minutes later, Tilda and Laurie hurried back to the house.
“Well, I hope you’re feeling better,” she said, trying hard to berate him.
He grinned. “You loved it.”
She glared at him, but there was no malice in it. Of course, she loved being with him. She wouldn’t have married him otherwise.
They found her folks and their son ready to go. Tilda’s father was hitching the horses to the wagon with Charlie sitting on the seat, pretending to drive. He was such a funny child. He waved and wanted to get down to run to her, but Tilda shook her head.
“Wait,” she said.
He obeyed and waited for Laurie to go and pick him up. He snuggled with his father, and Tilda felt her heart soften.
“Come on,” her mother said. “We’re going to be late. Did you two have a good talk?”
Tilda nodded. “Very good. I think Laurie feels a lot better about things now.”
Her mother nodded. “Well, good. Get whatever you need and get going. You still have to fetch Jillian and Duncan.”
Climbing into the back of the wagon and taking her son from his father, Tilda got ready for the long ride to the train station.
Jillian and Duncan had moved into town. They had a lovely little house near the wagon and cart repair store that Duncan and Laurie ran together.
Tilda and Jillian had been friends since their school days, and Tilda missed her friend living down the street on her folks’ farm. But things changed, and people moved, and she was fine with it. So, she had to ride into town to see Jillian? It didn’t matter. They still had a wonderful time together most weekends.
Jillian and the family were waiting on the porch. She had a little boy too. He was about three months younger than Charlie, and the two of them played well together. They named him Ethan, and he was a big boy, taller than Charlie.
“Hello, all,” Jillian said, climbing into the back of the wagon. “We thought you might have forgotten about today.”
“No, we had a little delay,” Laurie said. At least he couldn’t say it without smiling. Tilda shook her head.
With Duncan aboard as well, they set off. The two men rode up front, and Tilda and Jillian sat in the back. At least with the wagon, there was a place for the little boys to play. So long as they stayed in the middle on the floor, it was fine. Jillian had brought some wooden blocks, and the little ones began to stack them and knock them down.
“How is Laurie?” Jillian asked. “I thought he would be a little more nervous.”
“He was, but we went for a walk,” Tilda said. “He had some things he needed to get off his chest.”
Jillian nodded. “It’s understandable. At least he will be happy to see Duncan’s folks. I’m a little nervous about meeting them. Mr. And Mrs. Turner have been writing nonstop to Duncan since he gave them our address.”
“It’s to be expected,” Tilda said. “They love their son.”
“True,” Jillian said. “Are you going to try out for the new play the theatre is putting on? They need a leading lady.”
“I don’t know,” Tilda said. She had been very keen on acting before Charlie was born. She wasn’t sure she could get back into treading the boards.
“Oh, go on,” Jillian said. “I’m singing in it.”
“Well, then I will have to audition,” Tilda said. “What is it?”
“A musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Jillian said.
“A musical adaptation?” Tilda asked slowly, horror filling her. How could anyone turn Shakespeare into a musical?”
“Well, it’s more kind of based loosely on a Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Jillian said. “You can ask about it at the theatre.”
“I think I will,” Tilda said. “As one of the people who petitioned for the theatre to be built in the first place.”
She was glad when Jillian changed the subject to Ethan and how he was getting on. Being such a big child, he was eating her out of house and home. Tilda wondered when Charlie, who ate like a nervous bird, would start doing the same thing.
The hours rolled by. The children slept, and their mothers dozed, being lulled by the rocking of the wagon. Eventually, they arrived at the station.
It was outside the town of Santa Clarita and was mostly a platform with a ticket box. It was busy today, though, with the train coming in. So they had to leave the horses and the wagon quite far from the entrance. At least Laurie had found some shade.
Charlie was moody, having been woken from his unscheduled nap before he was ready. He wriggled and moaned in her arms, but Tilda held him tight.
Ethan was still asleep, with Duncan carrying him. It seemed Jillian had all the luck.
They were late. The train had already arrived, and several people were leaving, trunks and portmanteaus in tow. Tilda had sidestepped a woman with several bags who was tottering under their weight.
Laurie stopped and helped her to the buggy, which was waiting. The driver regarded him with a cool, uncaring look as he berated the man for allowing the woman to carry her own luggage. She thanked him so profusely and for so long that he had to rush to catch up.
Standing on the platform, Tilda looked around. Where were they? They had come on the train today, hadn’t they? Was it the right train?
Butterflies dashed about in her gut, and Tilda snapped at Charlie to be still. She couldn’t manage him and the nerves she was suddenly feeling. “Stop it!”
Charlie glared at her and raised a podgy little fist to hit her. His father’s hand closed over his.
“No,” Laurie said.
Charlie frowned at him and glared at him too.
“Never raise a hand to your mama,” Laurie said. “My father taught me that, and you will learn it too.”
“I’m so glad you still remember that,” a voice said.
Laurie must have recognized it because his face went white, and he turned around. A man, tall, thin, and an older version of Laurie, stood behind him. He had his hat in his hand and was smiling.
“Lawrence, my boy,” he said, opening his arms.
Laurie seemed to have been turned to stone. He stood staring at his father as though he had never seen him before. His father closed the gap and wrapped his arms around his son. “I have missed you.”
“Father,” Laurie said. “It’s been twenty-two years.”
“Twenty-two years, three months, and fourteen days,” another voice, a woman’s, said. “I never stopped thinking about you, my boy.”
This was clearly Laurie’s mother. She had his eyes, and the face was so similar to his, except for the jaw, which was all his father’s.
Laurie hugged them, turning from his father to his mother and then back again and again. Tilda was drawn into the mix, and soon everyone was crying, even Charlie, who didn’t know why this was going on.
It took them some time to gather themselves, but eventually, they managed to leave the train station and head to the wagon.
Duncan and his folks’ reunion was a lot quieter and shorter. They hadn’t been apart as long. Laurie was thrilled to see Mr. and Mrs. Turner as well. He was hugged and kissed, and so were Tilda and Charlie.
This was going to be a strange and wonderful ride home. As they piled in and got settled, she noticed how well everything was going. The grandmothers were instantly besotted with their grandchildren. Duncan’s mother fussed over Jillian, too, which made her smile a lot. And Tilda found that Laurie’s mother was a sober woman with a logical mind who had no qualms about expressing her opinions.
That evening they had dinner around the kitchen table. Tilda and Laurie’s parents got along fine, and when finally they were in bed that night, Tilda let out the breath she felt she’d been holding all afternoon.
“We made it,” she said. “We survived the first day.”
Laurie turned to her and slipped his arm under her. She moved to rest her head on his chest and snuggled close.
“We did,” he said. “Only another thirty or so to go.”
Tilda sighed. “They do like each other, our folks, don’t they?”
“Seems like it, but who knows,” Laurie said. “We can’t know what will happen tomorrow, but I’m just glad that you’re here with me. So that no matter what, we’ll face it together.”
She smiled and kissed him. He was right. No one could know what the future would bring, but Tilda knew that she and Laurie could face anything and everything together. They would stand by each other, and that was all that mattered.