One year later
Caitlin sat next to Nathaniel in the buggy as they drove from their new home in the hills just north of Dallas into town, heading for the bank. Harold Sweevly kept his word and had funded a major part of the rebuild of the Citizens First Bank of Dallas, which had been completed nearly six months ago. The opening of the new bank coincided with the completion of the construction of their new home.
While Caitlin’s new home wasn’t as grand as her parents, it was a large two-story with enough room for the young couple to grow into. Nathaniel designed it with four bedrooms in anticipation of a large family. The master bedroom and two smaller rooms were located upstairs, with a guest room downstairs. One of the smaller rooms upstairs had been converted into a nursery for the child that would be born within a couple of months after the New Year. Caitlin placed her hand on her gently swelling belly, and every fiber of her being filled with contentment.
“You said your father was due back from his honeymoon by the end of the week?” Caitlin asked, even though she was sure of the date. “I’ll need to get Zoe to help me finish the curtains for their cottage.”
After Caitlin and Nathaniel had announced their engagement to the family that morning, he emerged from the train car and told them everything. Caitlin’s aunt had quietly requested that her older brother hitch up the family buggy. Though surprised that his sister came downstairs from her room and actually wanted to go for a ride, he said nothing. He was likely more than happy to see a bit of light shining in his sister’s eyes once more.
It was only later that the family learned that she had gone to pay a visit to Boyd Hanson, and that incident had occurred the day after Caitlin and Nathaniel had spoken their wedding vows. The newly wedded couple had been preparing for a brief honeymoon in New York City so Nathaniel could show off his new bride to his uncle Blaine. It had been that very day before they left for the train that Boyd had arrived at the Holden ranch house, wearing an old but clean Sunday suit. He dismounted, and then, with his hat in his hand, had been invited into the home by Spencer himself.
Caitlin had been downstairs, trying to explain to Alex what a honeymoon was. Her parents had gazed at Boyd with fondness as he watched Aunt Anise came downstairs wearing a soft green dress and black shawl Caitlin would never forget draped around her shoulders. No one missed the look of affection that passed between the two of them.
Boyd had turned from his love and spoken to Spencer.
“I’m going to be courting your sister for a short time, Spencer, and then I’m going to marry her.”
Caitlin had barely held back a smile as her father glanced between Boyd and his sister, flushed deeply, and then stammered his acceptance. Then, arm in arm, Boyd and her aunt had left the house, both smiling and eyes shining.
Though Spencer had been startled to learn the truth about his older sister’s love affair with his former foreman, he had admitted to Caitlin just after they left that he was relieved his sister now had a chance to experience true joy in her life.
Aunt Anise and Boyd married and Nathaniel gifted them with a month-long trip to Niagara Falls, on the Canadian border. He had heard that it was a spot favored by honeymooners, and he wanted to give them both a trip that they would never forget. After all, it had been a long time coming.
In the month they had been gone, he had purchased a cottage for his father and his new wife on five acres of property just to the south of town. He and Caitlin had been spending much of their free time there, painting, repairing a few things, and gathering bedding and cookware, dishes, and a beautiful china cabinet for the couple.
“Curtains finished or not, I’m sure they’ll both be more than happy with the cottage,” he said. “And I’ve been assured that the rest of the furniture I ordered will arrive by the end of the week.”
“That’s good,” Caitlin replied. She sat close to Nathaniel, occasionally brushing against him as the buggy wheels dipped into a rut as he pulled the buggy up to the hitching post at the back door of the bank.
He climbed down and then helped her out. As they made their way upstairs to the offices, she turned to him. “I’d like to get my work done early so that I can get over to the bakery to ask Zoe for her help with those curtains.” Plus, she wanted to see the baby. Just after the dust had settled following Nathaniel and Caitlin’s marriage and they returned from their own brief honeymoon in New York City, Zoe had announced that she was with child.
The baby girl was six months old now and Caitlin visited often, marveling at how fast the baby had grown from a completely helpless bundle of often impatiently swinging arms and legs to one that either gurgled with contentment or screamed in ire. Nervous about becoming a mother herself and living closer to town now, she often visited Zoe and baby Alice. Marcus did the best he could to help Zoe and Barty with the new addition to their family.
Zoe had placed a rocking chair in the bakery kitchen so that her mother could sit and watch her and the baby in its small cradle as Zoe continued working in the bakery. Still, there were times when Zoe was so exhausted from long, sleepless nights that it took everything she had to get to the bakery. With Barty at the blacksmith shop every day except Sunday, Marcus often volunteered to take little Alice to work with him. The cradle settled behind the counter at the post office, much to the delight of customers who loved cooing at the little one.
At the top of the stairs, Nathaniel brushed a kiss on Caitlin’s forehead and strode down the hall to his own office while Caitlin stepped into a smaller one. She worked three days a week at the bank as an assistant to Stephen Watley, Nathaniel’s typist. Business was booming and Caitlin had insisted on learning more about her husband’s work. Now she shared the room with Stephen, and after having learned how to work the typewriter, helped with the preparation of documents and letters. Of course, that would come to an end as she came closer to giving birth to their child, but for now, it kept her busy and content.
Harold Sweevly had been among the first customers to make a large deposit at the bank, perhaps still feeling guilty over his role in destroying the original. Nathaniel had kept his word and never told the sheriff who had started that fire. It was Harold’s action that prompted several businessmen in town to also follow suit, and as Nathaniel’s reputation as a fair and honest banker spread, more and more customers appeared at its doors. The bank offered low-interest loans to neighboring ranchers and farmers, and the Citizens First Bank of Dallas lived up to the name.
The transformation of Harold Sweevly’s reputation over the past six months or so had been nothing short of amazing. In fact, Harold himself had recently gotten engaged to a lovely young woman named Sallie Mae, who lived on a small ranch with her large family down near Houston. Nathaniel wasn’t the only one who had watched Harold transition from an arrogant banker to a knowledgeable and successful rancher who no longer placed as much importance on money or power as he once had.
“What are you smiling about? Daydreaming again?”
Caitlin glanced up with the start of surprise to find Nathaniel leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest and smiling. Stephen had left for lunch a short while ago, and Nathaniel stepped into the room, closing the door softly behind him. He leaned over Caitlin’s shoulder to look at the document she had been typing, his breath warm against her ear. She hid her smile.
“You’re distracting me.”
Hands settled on her shoulders, large, warm, and strong. She leaned her head back against Nathaniel’s stomach as he gently kneaded them.
“You should go home, get some rest.”
She turned to look up at him. “Why? I’m not tired. And I want to get this done so I can go visit Zoe for a little while this afternoon.”
He shook his head ever so slightly. “I hope you’re not pushing yourself too hard, Caitlin.” He glanced pointedly down at her stomach. “You’re not going to learn everything about babies by visiting Zoe so frequently. They’re all different, you know.”
“I know that,” Caitlin said. Yet as she laid her hands protectively over her stomach, she admitted the truth. “But I can’t deny that I’m nervous. I don’t know the first thing about babies.”
“With all your experience with Alex?” he asked doubtfully.
Caitlin chuckled softly. “I was ten years old when Alex was born.” She shook her head, her smile broadening. “I stayed as far away from him as possible until he was old enough to play with.”
Nathaniel grinned. “Still, they’re all different, and there’s no way to know what kind of parent you’ll be until you’re in the thick of it.”
She glanced up at him. “You mean like learning how to swim?”
He laughed. “Pretty much.”
“Aren’t you nervous, Nathaniel? About being a father? I know how to be me, but I don’t know how to be a mother. And I know that you don’t have any experience either.”
He pulled her up from her chair and wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin on the top of her head. His voice rumbled from deep in his chest.
“Of course I’m nervous, but we’ll figure it out, one day at a time, like all parents do.”
She smiled, inhaling the scent of the laundry soap she had used on his shirt. Combined with the scent of him, and the ever-lingering scent of ink on him, she sank into him, knowing that she would be able to rely on his confidence and strength in her moments of worry and uncertainty.
“I don’t want to make mistakes, Nathaniel.”
“But we will,” he murmured. “That’s how we learn, isn’t it? But we’ll raise our daughters or sons, Lord willing, to be good, honest people. We’ll do our best to teach them right from wrong, to be kind and compassionate like their mother—”
“And like their father too,” she interrupted. She leaned back to look up at him, her love for him filling her heart, as it always did when she gazed into his eyes. “And all because of a few Valentines.”
He gazed down at her with a confused frown. “What?”
“The Holden’s and the Hanson’s have joined together in harmony after all these years, as they were meant to be. It’s quite amazing, really, if you think of it.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at.”
She tried to put her thoughts in order. “What if my aunt had never asked me to go into the attic to get her shawl? What if I hadn’t tripped over that box, spilling that cigar box filled with Valentines? What if I haven’t had that old cigar box laying in my lap that day you came down to the pond… I wonder if things would’ve turned out the way they did. Isn’t it amazing how one little moment in time can change one’s very future, perhaps one’s very destiny?”
“Indeed.” He wrapped his arms more firmly around her shoulders, once more pressing her head gently against his chest. “It’s still amazing, isn’t it, solving the mystery of those Valentines, and excavating the secrets of the past?”
She frowned. “It’s so sad they missed out on so many happy years together.” His chuckle surprised her.
“It’s a good thing they did.”
Once more she lifted her head, slightly frowning. “How can you say such a thing, Nathaniel?”
And once more, a laugh rumbled from his chest. “Caitlin, you do realize that if my father and your aunt had gotten married back then, I never would’ve been born and you and I wouldn’t be standing here in this cramped little office with our arms wrapped around each other at this very moment.”
He was right. Life certainly was filled with both good and not so good, of sadness and happiness, but in the end, hopefully, things balanced out. It was hard to believe that just over a year ago, the boy she had considered the best playmate ever, the best friend she’d ever had, had come back into her life as a grown man and here they were, married and expecting their first child together.
In another six months, she would have her own child, and she could only hope and pray that she would be a good mother. Times were changing fast, and she told herself that she would never allow anyone to tell her children whom they should marry. If there was one thing she had learned in all of this, it was that the heart knew what it wanted and she would teach her children to listen to their hearts and to follow their dreams.
Over the past year, Nathaniel had grown into his own confidence and abilities to balance the needs of a bank and the needs of the populace that it served. Though he worried at first that he might be hard-pressed to prove to his uncle, the banking board members back in New York City, and even his own town that he was more than capable of running a successful bank while at the same time serving the needs of the public, he had more than succeeded.
She leaned into him once more, so very proud to be his wife. She already knew that he would make a wonderful father, and she could only do her best to be a good mother. Everything would happen as it was supposed to, just like her finding those Valentines. Call it fate, but she had learned that if she followed the yearnings of her heart, she would find the happiness she had always desired.
The distant sound of a train whistle disturbed the silence of the room, and she smiled and gently pushed away from Nathaniel. “You need to let me get back to work, husband, so I can get over to Zoe’s and we can finish those curtains. Your father’s due back in two more days and there’s so much to do!”
He didn’t release her, not right away, anyway. Instead, he gazed down at her, his eyes twinkling and a smile curving his lips. “You’re in that much of a hurry to get rid of me?”
He leaned down to kiss her, a soft, feathery light brush of his lips against hers. The kiss gradually deepened. When she finally came up for air, she scolded him. “Are you trying to distract me?”
An eyebrow lifted. “Is it working?”
She smiled. It was so easy for him to distract her, and he knew it. She supposed it wouldn’t matter about the curtains after all, especially after he sat down in the chair she had just vacated and pulled her gently into his lap. He held her against him, her head resting on his shoulder, her nose pressing gently against the warmth of his neck while his left hand rested gently on her stomach.
“We’ve got to start thinking of names,” he murmured. “A boy’s name and a girl’s name.”
She teased him. “What if we have twins, or triplets even?”
Another chuckle rumbled up from the depths of his throat. “I wouldn’t put it past you, Caitlin. You do have a reputation for being quite willful, don’t you?”
“Did I tell you that I got a letter from Uncle Blaine?” Without giving her a chance to reply, he continued. “He’s planning on coming down for a visit after the New Year, maybe even around Valentine’s Day.”
Her eyes widened, and she lifted her head, eyeing him warily. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of doing some matchmaking of your own?”
He shrugged. “Why not? It worked for you and me, and it certainly worked for my father and your aunt. Besides, Uncle Blaine said he would be sticking around for a while. He wants to have time to get to know his brother again, and I know he certainly enjoyed meeting you.” He eyed her. “Can you think of anybody who might be interested?”
She shook her head. “Not at the moment, no, but perhaps your uncle is perfectly happy being a lifelong bachelor.”
“He just doesn’t know what he’s been missing out on.”
“Be that as it may, you can rest assured that I’m not going to be attempting any matchmaking for anybody. Heaven forbid.”
Nathaniel grinned. “You never know.”
She gave him a playful frown. “No, Nathaniel, no.”
He merely shrugged, chuckled when she rolled her eyes, and then pulled her against him again. Truth be told, she could stay like this forever, snuggling in Nathaniel’s arms, reveling in his warmth, the feel of his arms around her. She would never grow tired of this. Never.
And so they sat like that for quite a while, both of them quiet, each of them absorbed in their own thoughts. Caitlin’s fingers played with the top button of his shirt while Nathaniel’s fingers gently brushed her arm and occasionally rested on her belly. Her hand over his, both of them already loving the child growing inside of her, Caitlin knew that if her estimations were correct, her baby would be born around their second anniversary, close to Valentine’s Day.
Her Valentine baby would be welcomed by one and all. Her eyes glazed with tears and a lump grew in her throat as she felt a surge of love for the child that she and Nathaniel had made together. She grew drowsy as she snuggled within her husband’s embrace, and in a half dose, barely noticed when the door opened. Stephen almost stepped into the room and eyed the two of them sitting in the chair together. He nodded at Nathaniel, smiled, and backed out, closing the door softly behind him.