Exhaling heavily, Elizabeth grabbed James after shifting the reins to her other hand. Her eyes were set on the sight of Rhodeo straight ahead.
So much had changed in the last three years. She had changed, James had changed, and so had their town. It looked to be twice the size they had last seen it to be.
“Is this real?” she murmured.
He chuckled and took the reins from her. “Here. Feast your eyes, darling. It’s all real. Impressive, isn’t it?”
When she managed to steal her gaze away from the town to look at him, he was grinning. But then again, he knew. He had been here more recently than she had during their travels.
It wasn’t that she had meant to stay away for so long. Their plan was to spend three months at a time traveling. St. Louis mainly, but occasionally for other shows if they were given the opportunity.
Which she had been given along with James. Last year when they were finishing up another trip to St. Louis, they were offered the chance to go and perform in New Orleans. The music there was something magical, and they couldn’t resist.
But shortly after their arrival, news had come of a flood on the ranch. It had swept away the barn, and half the cattle were gone, all in the span of a couple of days. James had started back here immediately while he insisted Elizabeth stay for the music and because of a recent illness.
Since he was now watching the horses, she slipped a hand over her stomach to rest.
James had come home for a few months while she recovered from a miscarriage she didn’t tell him about. After the pain he had suffered in the past, she didn’t want to put him through anymore.
After James got the ranch back up and running, hiring a few more hands in town, he had come back to join her in New Orleans. Their time had been extended for a few months. Another offer had come through for them to stay, as well as an invitation from Mr. Hansen to go back to St. Louis for the future.
It had been tempting. But right now, Elizabeth wanted to be home.
She hadn’t been there in nearly a year. Feasting on the improved sight before her, she marveled over how well Rhodeo was doing. There was even a stagecoach station of their own right on the edge of town because folks traveled through here so much.
“Where’s the concert hall?” she asked the moment they reached the streets.
Chuckling, James gave a nod. “Right up there, Miss Impatient.”
“It’s not my fault,” she responded with a pout. “When I was last here, they were still looking for a spot. You were there when it broke ground. They even shared the blueprints with you. I’ve never been so jealous!”
“Don’t worry,” he promised her. “We can come back tomorrow.”
“We can’t go today?”
He shook his head before explaining, “You’re exhausted, Elizabeth. I’m taking you home and putting you right to bed. Tomorrow is opening night. You can see it when everyone else does.”
Sighing, she put her head on his shoulder. “Fine. I suppose that’s only fair.”
But James still made sure to drive by the outside of the grand little hall they had set up. She was able to admire it from her seat, eyeing the beautiful red trimmed and perfect windows. This was where most of their prize money had gone to, whatever they didn’t donate to the town or use for the piano at home.
A contented sigh escaped her lips as they started away from town.
“What was that for?”
“I don’t know. I’m just happy.” She smiled at him when he looked at her curiously. “We’ve had such fun, haven’t we? And now we are going home for a proper rest. In a beautiful town with a wonderful community, by the way, who have supported us in more ways than we deserve.”
He thought about it. “Hmm. I guess you’re right. We got pretty fortunate, didn’t we?”
Elizabeth said goodnight to their growing town and eagerly anticipated their arrival home. While a new barn had since been built, and some of the landscape had since changed, it was still familiar and welcoming.
Standing on the porch were Tracy and Frida waving their arms. “Welcome home!” they cried out.
She scrambled off the bench even as James protested, trying not to get her killed. For a moment, she regretted it. But he stopped the horses, and she continued moving to reach her friends without harm.
“It’s so good to see you,” Elizabeth told them with tears in her eyes. “Oh, it’s been so long!”
“Too long!” Tracy demanded before laughing and wiping away her own tears. “It is a good thing you came back now because I am getting married this week, with or without you.”
“As you should,” Frida said sternly before turning to Elizabeth. “And you! How you have grown.”
Her mouth dropped open. “What? I haven’t changed a thing.”
“Your hair is shorter,” Tracy noted. “It’s barely past your shoulders.”
“It was hot in New Orleans,” Elizabeth explained sheepishly, having forgotten about that. James had been disappointed when he returned to find she had cropped her hair up to her shoulders, but fortunately, it had grown quickly. Maybe in the next year or so, it would be at its usual length.
Frida tilted her head and tapped her chin. “That is not the only change. But have you told him?”
“Have I…?” Elizabeth clamped her mouth shut at the knowing gaze on the woman’s face. Her hands started up to her stomach before forcing them down. “What? How did you know?”
Looking between them, Tracy pouted. “Know what? Is it a married thing?”
“It’s nothing. But I always know these things,” Frida to Elizabeth. Then she smiled and stepped back. “It is a good thing we stocked your house. It is full of food and clean for you. Tracy, give them your lantern, and we shall be on our way.”
“But I wanted to talk with them. It’s hardly late.”
“We are going all the same.”
Elizabeth chuckled, feeling sympathy for her good friend. “We will talk tomorrow. James and I will be at the concert hall early if you want to meet us there before we open and perform.”
“I will be,” Tracy said eagerly. “I’ll bring Charlie, too. You’ll like him.”
“I know I will. Good night. And thank you so much. For everything,” she added, particularly for Frida.
The two women soon left. This gave Elizabeth a moment to herself as she stepped into the house she hadn’t been in for so long. Still, it felt like home immediately.
There was the scent of lavender in the air as she walked around to discover Frida meant what she said. There was more food in the kitchen than they’d ever had, along with a few new pieces of kitchenware. Not a speck of dust could be found. Even the bed was made up with clean, tidy sheets.
She turned back toward the hall. “Here.”
His footsteps followed. “I hope that means you’re tucked in bed.”
“How can I be if you haven’t done that for me?” she teased when he appeared. She lifted the lantern. “I hope we come up with some way to thank Frida and Tracy for tidying up here for us.”
James kissed her cheek before nudging her all the way into the bedroom. “We’ll find some way, I’m sure. But let’s get to bed.”
“I’m hardly tired,” she protested. “And I slept in the stagecoach.”
He paused, studying her face. “Maybe you’re falling sick again.” He put a hand to her cheek. “How is your stomach?”
“It’s fine,” Elizabeth said even as she considered telling him the truth. But instead, she bit her lip and obediently climbed into bed. James fell asleep faster than she did, giving her time to consider how and when she might tell him.
Months had passed now. Nearly four by her count. Having felt the quickening within her, Elizabeth was beginning to feel confident that this wouldn’t turn out to be a miscarriage after all. The other three had grown harder each time. But she’d never made it this far before.
She slept, dreaming of a family.
The dream came back to mind the following afternoon as Elizabeth gazed up at the concert hall. This was one of the reasons the stagecoach station had been installed. Already they had a line-up of performers––many of them friends from St. Louis––who would be coming around soon. It would put their town on the map and bring business to their community.
Everything was coming along so well. Her family was growing, she’d had years on the stage, and now an exciting opportunity for their town. Elizabeth didn’t know why she had been so blessed, but she wasn’t going to take a second for granted.
“Are you ready?” James came over to her after speaking with the mayor and sheriff at the doors. “It’s time to cut the ribbon.”
She excused herself from speaking with Westley and took her husband’s hand. “Yes! I’m ready. Are you making the announcement? I didn’t prepare to say anything.”
“You don’t have to,” he reassured her. “We’re going to perform, and that’s what everyone really wants to see.”
James was right. The mayor thanked the two of them for their efforts in town, congratulated them on their success, and wished them good luck. James and Elizabeth cut the ribbon together as the entire town cheered.
“Time to go in,” James murmured.
Eagerly taking the lead, Elizabeth looped her arm through his and walked in. She slowed immediately after the doors opened to gasp. It was a beautiful but simple concert hall. Redwood had been delivered for the floorboards. The walls were painted with bright flowers that were reminiscent of New Orleans. Seats were set up all around the tall stage, where a piano and microphone were waiting for them.
“It’s perfect,” she breathed. She put a hand over her heart as she felt the love pouring through her. When she glanced at James leading her down the main aisle, he was smiling down at her. “You knew it would be this perfect, didn’t you?”
“I hoped it would be,” he admitted.
Unable to take her eyes off him with all the love pooling inside her, Elizabeth couldn’t help herself. There was no better time to tell him. She felt eager for the future and wanted to share it with her husband. Once they were on the stage, she paused and pulled him close.
“I want to tell you something,” she whispered.
His forehead touched hers. “Now? People are watching.”
“This can’t wait.”
James studied her. “All right. What is it?”
“I… I’m pregnant. I’m four months along, actually, I think,” she added hastily when her nerves got the best of her. “Don’t be mad, James, please. I didn’t want to tell you yet in case something went wrong. I’ve had a few miscarriages––”
Elizbeth sucked in a breath and took a small step back. “You knew?”
A short grimace crossed his face before he let it go and nodded, pulling her close again. Everyone was still piling into the theater. No one needed them to do anything yet. Elizabeth forgot about them as she stared at her husband in shock.
“I suspected,” James admitted. “But you didn’t want to tell me, and I didn’t want to force you to tell me. I tried to help you where I could. I didn’t know what else to do. I figured…I thought you would tell me when you were ready. I just wish I could have done more to help you.”
“Oh, James.” She threw her arms around him. “You already do enough. You do everything! I just didn’t want to put you through the pain.”
He kissed her cheek. “We are in this together, remember? You and me. I want to share the good and the bad with you, Elizabeth. But thank you for telling me. I can’t wait. There’s already a rocking chair in the barn that I bought for you.”
“Really?” She hastily brushed her tears away, hating the way her emotions kept stealing over her. “You’re not upset?”
“No. Well, a little. If you try to jump off a moving wagon one more time, I may have to tie you to your seat,” he admitted. She offered a chagrinned smile before James winked at her. “But I know you are doing your best. We’ll be careful. And,” he paused to gesture toward the piano, “if anything can help a baby of ours grow, it’ll be our love shared out in song.”
It was the hardest thing in her life to stop herself from crying right then and there. Elizabeth sniffled before hugging James tight one more time. She murmured her love for him and then stepped back.
“I’m ready to share our music,” she announced.
Her husband smiled at her. He was a handsome man. More than that, James was a good man. He cared for her, and he loved her. Elizabeth was grateful every morning she woke up beside him. And now, she was grateful to share the stage with him as well.
“Then let’s give them a show, darling.”