2 Years Later
Annalise sat in the drawing room of her house, enjoying the fresh spring breeze as it carried in the smell of sage and Queen Anne’s lace that she had planted last spring. She had come into her drawing room to journal. Her chores were done for the afternoon, and she needed a rest.
Pressing her hand to her burgeoning stomach, she smiled. These days she got tired more easily, and Clay was insistent on her taking this as easy as possible. Annalise smiled as she recalled how he hovered over her while she gardened.
Annalise’s fingers trailed over the leather-bound journals that she had collected over the past two years. She smiled as she recalled all the things that she had written in them. The first year she had spent in Mt. Carmel had been the most exciting. She recalled how she had survived several gunshot wounds, and Bert’s kidnapping.
Thinking about Bert took the edge off of her good mood. She rarely thought about Bert, especially these days, but she couldn’t help but wonder how he fared. He’d been in prison for the past two years serving his sentence out. Neither Annalise nor Clay had seen him since his trial, and neither had spoken of him since they had made decisions regarding the ranch.
Aunt Mabel was the only person who ever spoke to Bert, and she never told either Clay or Annalise about their conversations.
“What are you thinking about with such ferocity?” a voice asked her.
Annalise smiled as she took in the sight of her husband leaning against the doorway. He was dirty from working, and she was surprised to see him so early in the day. Normally, Annalise didn’t expect to see Clay until closer to supper time.
“Just the past,” she told him.
He chuckled before moving further inside the room. “Why would you want to think about the past?” he asked.
As he walked in the space, Annalise couldn’t help but admire him. Clay had always been handsome, but in the last two years he’d shaken off the last bits of boyhood and had grown a confidence in himself that made him heartbreakingly attractive.
“So that we don’t repeat it,” she told him.
Clay chuckled. “I don’t think we have any danger of that,” he told her.
Annalise knew he was thinking about Big Tom. They’d spent a great deal of time ignoring the events that Big Tom had set into motion. It wasn’t until Annalise was expecting that Big Tom started to become something that they discussed.
Clay was starting to open up about his fears about fatherhood by discussing the father who hadn’t been willing to claim him.
“You’ve gone quiet again,” he said to her.
She smiled. “I was just thinking.”
“About the past?”
Annalise shrugged. “About how far we’ve come.”
Clay smiled. He walked towards her and sat in the chair opposite hers. She tried not to cringe as she thought about his dirty clothes leaving marks on the cream fabric. Clay had bought her the chairs as a second anniversary gift. He’d had the fabric shipped from New York. They were lovely, if impractical.
“I changed my clothes before coming in here,” Clay told her, as if he were reading her mind.
She chuckled, a blush rising to her cheeks. Annalise wasn’t usually so particular, but the drawing room was her sanctuary. Clay had built it onto the main house when he’d started expanding their living quarters.
“You’re very thoughtful,” she said.
Clay shrugged. “Aunt Mabel had a drawing room in the old house. She’d entertain, and she always made us change our clothes before we came in.”
Annalise smiled. She could imagine that. Aunt Mabel ran a tight ship. Even now, as she helped them prepare for the baby, she made it clear that she knew best and that her rules would be followed. It drove Annalise to lunacy sometimes, but she appreciated the older woman’s help.
“I can picture Aunt Mabel scrubbing behind your ears,” she said, giggling.
“She was ruthless,” Clay told her, chuckling.
Annalise pictured Clay as a little boy, trying his best to run away from his aunt. It made her giggle.
“What are you doing in here so early?” she asked. “I thought you’d be working on the new fencing.”
“Do you not want me in here?” he asked.
“I’m happy to have you,” she said, and she meant it. She still remembered when she thought that Clay had died after facing Bert. She shivered at the memory. She would never not be happy to have Clay’s company. She was grateful for every moment they spent together, and she always would be. “I just want to make sure that everything is okay.”
“Everything’s fine. I’m here because I wanted to see how the plans for the spring dance were coming along,” he told her.
Annalise raised a brow. She and Clay would be hosting a dance, similar to the one she had helped Big Tom plan all those moons ago, and she’d been working on the plans for it for weeks. It was nice to have something to focus on but stressful as well.
Their plot of land was nice, but it wasn’t large enough to host the entire town, which was the problem.
“Plans are complex,” she said. She didn’t care to get more into it than that. Clay was already worried about her since she was pregnant. She thought it was very sweet, but it was starting to drive her a bit insane.
“Maybe we should rethink this,” Clay said.
Annalise sighed. “I’m fine,” she said. “We will just have to call upon our neighbors to open up their spaces. The barn isn’t going to be large enough.”
Clay sighed. Annalise knew that he wanted to make her happy, but he also didn’t care to throw a party for the whole town. Being a landholder instead of a foreman hadn’t made Clay any more social.
“We agreed to do this,” she reminded him.
Clay sighed once more, and Annalise tried not to laugh. “You aren’t going to let me out of this are you?” he asked.
Annalise pursed her lips and shook her head.
Clay exhaled. “I suppose I should tell Billy and Jose.”
Annalise’s mouth dropped open. “Did they send you in here?” she asked.
He nodded. Annalise wasn’t shocked that he didn’t even look guilty about that face. She couldn’t believe it. Jose and Billy were their neighbors and had volunteered their land to be part of the celebration. It was the only way that they could host the entire town.
“You tell them that if they don’t allow us to use their land for the spring celebrations, I’ll be talking to their wives.”
Clay chuckled. He came closer to Annalise. She could smell leather and sage on his skin as he came closer to her. “I’ll pass along the message,” he told her. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to her head. Annalise closed her eyes, enjoying the feeling of his lips on her skin.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
Though she hadn’t expected Clay to come into the house so early, she was enjoying his company. Even if he’s trying to derail my party, she thought.
“Aunt Mabel needed my help,” he said. “It’s why I came inside. I’m going to ride over to the ranch.”
Annalise bit her tongue. Aunt Mabel insisted on staying in the main house of what had once been the Turner Ranch, despite the house being much too big for her. Clay and Annalise had tried and tried to get her to move in with them but she refused, claiming that she wouldn’t leave her family dwelling.
After Bert’s arrest, Aunt Mabel had tried to give Clay and Annalise the ranch. They’d both decided they wanted a fresh start. For Clay, there was too much history on the land, and it wasn’t good. For Annalise, she didn’t want to be tied to a man who had wanted her dead.
Aunt Mabel rented out the land to smallholders, which helped her to keep the house running. Clay helped her with everything else. Annalise knew that the two of them rarely talked about Big Tom, but she was glad that they still had each other.
She knew more than anyone how important it was to have blood relatives. Thinking of it caused her to caress her stomach lovingly. Soon, she’d have a new relative of her own, and she couldn’t wait for the birth of their child.
“Annalise?” Clay asked. She’d been so lost in her thoughts that she hadn’t said anything to him.
She smiled. “Tell Aunt Mabel I said hello,” she told him. “And take her some of the bread I baked.”
Clay pressed a kiss to her forehead once more. “I will,” he told her. “I’ll be back in time for supper.”
Annalise nodded. “I’m making stew,” she told him.
He chuckled but said nothing. Annalise had been trying her best to learn to be a better cook. Every day was a challenge, but she’d mastered bread making, and she was sure that she could master stew.
Even if we have to eat it every day for a week, she thought.
Annalise turned back to her journals. She pulled out her latest. She’d been documenting her days, and she hoped that they would serve as a memoir for her child. She wanted them to know all about her life on the ranch. She wanted them to see the majesty in her life in the same way that she had seen it in her uncle’s.
Grabbing her quill, she began writing about the latest. The scratching of her writing instrument against her parchment brought her a sense of peace. Not that she needed too much peace these days. Her life wasn’t necessarily filled with the type of adventure she had thought it would be, but she had found the home that she had always desired.
Banjo music played loudly across their property. Clay watched as his neighbors and friends drank, ate, and danced. He was grateful that his wife was too pregnant to want to be twirled around. He still hadn’t mastered the art of the quadrille, despite Annalise trying to teach him.
He chuckled to himself, bringing his ale glass to his lips as he thought about how he had trampled the hem of her dress at the last town gathering.
“What’s so funny?” Annalise asked.
He turned to look at her. She was dressed in a lovely pale pink. She had woven different colored wildflowers in her hair, and Clay was blown away by how lovely she looked.
“Glad I don’t have to dance,” he said.
Annalise laughed. “I should make you dance just for that comment,” she told him.
Clay knew that she would, but he also knew that she was too exhausted to do so. The heat was starting to rise, and though she had covered her delicate skin with a hat, he could tell that she was growing weary.
Aunt Mabel assured him that tiredness was normal at this stage in her pregnancy, but it still made him nervous. Annalise was usually the bright, bubbly part of their marriage. She forced him to dance and socialize at every party. The fact that she was exhausted easily made him nervous, whether it was normal or not.
“Perhaps we should go inside?” Clay said.
Annalise turned to him, her eyebrows furrowing. “Why?”
“You look tired,” he said.
Annalise rolled her eyes and drew her attention back to the dancing.
“So, I suppose that’s a no,” he said.
Annalise chuckled but said nothing.
Before he could try and convince his wife to go back inside, Billy, Jose, and their wives joined the two of them. Clay could see that his friends were flushed from the available drink, and he tried not to snicker. Jose and Billy had bought the land neighboring Clay’s on both sides. They weren’t any happier about hosting the town than he was. It seemed that once drink was involved, they cared a little bit less about people trampling on their property.
“You’re looking lovely, Annalise,” Jose said.
“Thank you,” she told him, sipping on the tea that Clay had brought her. He wanted to make sure that she was getting enough liquid in this heat.
“You look ready to have that babe,” Billy said.
Clay wanted to smack him. Annalise had been very sensitive lately about her pregnancy.
“Sweet as ever, Billy,” Annalise said.
Clay breathed out a sigh of relief. He was glad to see Annalise happy and smiling. After everything that they had gone through together, she deserved to be happy.
“Have you given any thoughts to expanding your land?” Jose asked.
His wife groaned.
“What?” he questioned.
“Must we talk about business right now?” she asked. “It’s a celebration.”
“I’m curious?” Jose said.
Clay chuckled. Jose and Billy hadn’t been pleased when Clay decided that he wouldn’t take the ranch. They’d stuck by him through the decisions, especially when he helped them buy their own plots of land, but they’d never understood why he didn’t want more for himself. They’d been after him to expand for some time now, but Clay had been hesitant.
“I’m still thinking on it,” he told Jose.
It was the truth. Clay was happy with what he had. He’d taken the shoddy shack and built a beautiful home. He had enough property to farm and kept enough animals to make decent money, and he didn’t have to constantly worry about upkeep. He liked his life. He only considered expanding because of Annalise.
“Y’all should go dance,” Annalise said. “Enjoy yourselves.”
Jose and Billy both groaned as their wives led them out onto the dance floor.
“That was cruel,” Clay said.
Annalise giggled and shrugged her shoulders. “I wanted to talk,” she told him.
Clay tried not to groan. He wished that Jose had never brought up the idea of expanding. Clay hadn’t talked to Annalise about it. He hadn’t wanted to bring her any stress as she neared the end of her pregnancy.
“Why don’t you want to expand?” Annalise asked.
Clay shrugged. He’d opened up to Annalise a lot more over the past two years, especially about Big Tom and Bert.
“I don’t see any point in it,” he told her.
“But you were thinking about it?” she said.
Clay nodded. “I was. I thought it would be good to have more land. More land means more income.”
Annalise released an exhale. “We don’t need more money,” she told him. Clay knew that she was saying that she didn’t need more money. It was a point of contention between the two of them. Clay wanted to give Annalise a life so close to the one she had had in New York that he sometimes worked himself into the ground to do it. He knew that she didn’t care about fancy clothes or beautiful furniture, but when they married, he’d made a promise to provide her with everything she could ever want.
“Is this about the baby?” she asked.
“A bit,” he told her honestly. “I want our child to have a good life, but I also don’t want to be Big Tom. I don’t want this land to be the only thing I care about.” Clay spit out the words as if they were burning his tongue.
Clay had put his anger towards Big Tom to rest years ago, but impending fatherhood had made him think about how his own father treated his sons. He’d used the ranch as an excuse not to claim Clay and dangled it over Bert’s head his entire life.
“Hey,” Annalise said, her voice soft. She pressed her soft, warm hand against his cheek, turning his head so that he was facing her. “You have nothing to worry about. You are going to be a great father.”
Clay said nothing. The middle of a celebration wasn’t the best place to have this discussion, especially as he felt himself becoming choked with emotion. “Do you really think so?” he asked her. He couldn’t help himself. Clay wasn’t one to be vulnerable, but he trusted Annalise enough to know that she wouldn’t hold it against him.
She nodded and smiled, and it felt like a weight was being lifted off of his chest. Suddenly, Annalise gasped. Her hands flew to her stomach, and Clay felt a fit of panic. Please don’t let anything be wrong with the baby, he thought.
“What is it? Are you alright?”
A wondrous smile bloomed over Annalise’s face. She nodded excitedly as she grabbed Clay’s hand. “The baby,” she said, her voice thick with emotion, “he’s kicking.”
Clay eagerly pressed his hands against her stomach. Even through her thick gown he could feel the slightest hint of movement. His eyes widened. “Amazing,” he breathed out. It was.
For several minutes, Clay and Annalise stood together. Both of their hands were pressed against her stomach, marveling at the feel of their unborn child kicking against their hands. They weren’t thinking about Big Tom or Bert or the past. Instead, they were both considering the future. It was a future that they had both fought hard for, and it was one that they would both protect no matter what.
“I love you,” Annalise said to Clay.
He looked deep into her eyes. He could feel the love he had for her swell in her chest. It felt too great to be spoken.
“I love you too,” he said.
Looking at their town, watching everyone usher in the new spring, Clay couldn’t help but feel like this was the beginning of the greatest adventure of their lives, and they’d see it through together.