Six months later
Snow capped the roofs of all the surrounding houses, smoke making its way up through the bright blue sky and into the heavens like a beacon calling for more. Not a single house, however, looked quite as busy as the Bells’ in the bright morning light.
Mr. Bell, Daniel, Logan, and Alan all stood out in the yard, lumber and posts strewn around them as they called back and forth and worked on setting them up next to the house, their foreheads already dotted with sweat and concentrated frowns on their faces.
Getting the addition to the house set up was beginning to look like more than any of them had bargained for.
Not that any of the men folk were about to admit as much.
Marie could scarcely believe they were even calling out asking for help from each other with as stubborn as they’d all been about how they could get the job done without needing help. Because help had been offered. A lot of help around town had been offered.
And none had been accepted.
Alan had just stared at anyone who had offered, whereas Daniel had insisted he could do it on his own.
The fact that he was accepting help from Alan and his father without complaint went a long way to say just how much adding the room to their house was going to take out of him, Marie knew.
“Oh, they’re making me tired just looking at them,” Audrey complained as she came back out to join Marie on the front porch, two glasses of steaming cider in hand.
“I don’t have to look at them to be tired.” Marie laughed, taking hers gratefully as she settled back in the rocker once more. “Although I don’t know how they’re sweating in this weather! I’m surprised it hasn’t frozen to their faces!”
Audrey giggled. “Sweat-cicles,” she said with a laugh. Her laughter was short-lived as the rest of Marie’s comment seemed to register, though, her eyebrows furrowing in worry. “You haven’t been sleeping well? More nightmares?”
It was a topic Marie had never imagined would be so easily brought up, especially not outside her home with only Alan or Daniel. But Audrey and Alan were much closer than they’d been even just a handful of months before, and with that closeness came Alan confiding certain things to Audrey. Like his nightmares, which, of course, had led to Marie’s nightmares.
“Non,” Marie answered honestly. “I don’t have them near as often as I used to. Honestly, now it’s mostly just whenever I get too stressed or Cerise writes another of her letters.”
Audrey frowned, her irritation with hearing Marie and Alan’s stepmother’s name just as strong and instantaneous as Daniel’s was.
“Have you opened any of them?” she asked curiously.
Marie shook her head. “I haven’t gotten any in a month or more now either.” She giggled. “Not since Daniel took it upon himself to write her back and sign his job title and name.”
Audrey snorted, her hand clapping to her lips at the strange laugh that left them. “Oh, my word. That’s wonderful. I can imagine her face.”
Marie could too, it was why she’d laughed so hard when he’d first sent it.
“I just haven’t been sleeping well,” Marie explained, shrugging as she looked out to where Mr. Bell was pointing and gesturing trying to lead the other three men about.
“We don’t have to do the wedding planning today, Marie,” Audrey offered, her voice warm and worried. “If you want to go and nap–”
“Ca va, nap?” Marie cut her off, her voice raised in question. “With these men making this noise?” She laughed as she gestured to her husband and the others. “I would be lucky to so much as close my eyes.”
Audrey smiled as she looked out. “You’re right, even still, though. You could go to my house and rest there.”
Marie waved her hand. “I’ll be fine,” she promised dismissively. “We only have so many months before spring arrives and with it your wedding!”
Audrey beamed. “I know. Alan has been wanting to hold off announcing it until after the date, but I don’t think I can. We didn’t even realize when we picked it that the day we’re getting married is going to be on the day he’ll have officially been four months sober of hard liquor …”
Marie sat back with her cider, smiling into the cup as she looked out on her brother.
She understood why he wouldn’t want it announced. One, she knew he wanted the day to be about and for Audrey. Two, she knew how hard he’d worked for it and how he worried that too much pressure at times might set him back. And three, she also knew how ashamed he still was of his past and all the ugly bits of it that came to light in such a bright place.
He looked better, though.
She didn’t think he’d ever lose that gruffness about him; there was no way he could, but he was steadier somehow, less dark.
“He was right about it worsening his symptoms then,” Marie murmured, her heart glad for her brother as he turned to look up at the porch and check on Audrey.
The fact that he’d come so far and found the love of his life was more than she could have ever hoped for him.
When she thought about how the love of his life was also her best friend, it almost felt unreal at times.
“Oh, you know my daddy is all kinds of happy he’s sworn off of it, but to hear him tell it, Alan’s symptoms lessening is all the strength of his character. And God, of course,” Audrey hastened to add in amusement.
Marie grinned. Revered Massey had been so slow to warm up to Alan, especially once it came to light that he and Audrey were sweet on one another. He’d been even slower to agree to allow Alan to court her.
Not that it had made much of a difference.
All that slowness had just made their courting period that much shorter and their engagement following it that much sooner.
“I don’t know how I’d handle being counselled by my soon-to-be in-law,” Marie murmured honestly, her lips twitching at just the thought.
She loved Mr. and Mrs. Bell, but to think of confessing everything to them before their son or to open up about such personal matters with them was almost frightening.
“Which in-law?” a voice asked from the doorway, making Marie jump.
Mrs. Bell laughed at Marie’s look of apology, her eyes dancing with amusement as she eased out onto the porch with a tray held carefully in her hands. “Oh, don’t worry, dear, I happen to agree with you on that. Being counselled by my mother-in-law or father-in-law would have been mortifying!”
She winked as she kicked the door closed behind her, the drinks on the tray steaming as she looked out at the gathered men coming to a halt.
“Here,” Marie offered quickly as she put her own drink to the side. “Let me help you!”
She rose from the rocker awkwardly, her back feeling like it was creaking and her muscles protesting the sudden, too-fast movement as she grabbed the arm of the rocker.
“Nonsense!” Mrs. Bell cried. “Don’t you dare! I can carry these down to the men. Alan! Alan! Be a dear and come help me with this tray here!”
Marie stopped, though she didn’t sit back down.
It still took her by surprise when Mrs. Bell talked to her brother so easily and openly.
Out of everyone, Mrs. Bell had taken longer, even than Reverend Massey, to accept Alan.
Marie had been afraid for the longest that she never would, but Mr. Bell having a fall in town and Alan being the one to carry him back home and help him get things settled and seen to had changed her mind about all that.
Mrs. Bell hadn’t even waited for the next weekend before inviting him to start joining them all on Sunday dinner. She’d even invited him to Christmas and had him help her set up her tree. Sometimes Marie worried that she tried too hard to apologize for taking so long.
Other times Marie knew that having Mrs. Bell around was just as good for Alan as it had been for herself. Both had missed out on what their mother could have been and both missed her now that she was gone, Mrs. Bell filled a special void that no one else could.
“Don’t you go taking my workers from me, Madeline!” Mr. Bell called out in faux frustration as he shook his fist up at the porch. “You’re lucky we’re at a good stopping point, woman, I’ll tell you what!”
“You’ll tell me what?” Mrs. Bell repeated, her eyebrows raised to her hairline.
“That is what I just said!” Mr. Bell yelled back playfully, his green eyes sparkling even from the distance he was away.
“Why don’t you come tell me what’s up on this porch, Michael Bell. Good and close where I can reach you,” she added, huffing as she set the tray of what looked like hot coffee down on the railing. “That man,” she added in a lower tone for Marie and Audrey alone. “Girls, I’ll tell y’all what, you give a man an inch and he’ll take the whole mile!”
Mr. Bell made his way up the stairs as she spoke. Alan, Logan, and Daniel were still setting pillars down back behind him.
“Good, coffee. I reckon that’s as good a reason as any for you to go hollering orders like you did,” Mr. Bell teased his wife, grinning all the wider when her eyes flashed at him.
“I’ll tell you one thing for sure and two things for certain, Michael Bell … if you don’t watch that tongue in your head, I’ll–” she cut off, floundering as she didn’t find a threat good enough.
“You’ll have the good sense to tell me when I need to stop,” Mr. Bell supplied, ducking his head to kiss her cheek. “And I’ll give you grief for it to keep you young.”
“To keep me young!” Mrs. Bell despaired as the other men made their way up the porch.
“You sure look young to me, Mrs. Bell,” Logan complimented smoothly as he walked up.
“Watch yourself,” Mr. Bell muttered.
Alan touched Marie’s shoulder as he passed, but only briefly, his white-blue eyes on Audrey in the same way they usually were these days.
Marie didn’t mind. She was awful busy smiling at her own husband coming up the stairs towards her.
In more than a year of being married, she didn’t think she found him any less handsome than she had the day she’d gotten off that stagecoach for the first time. If anything, she found him more handsome now. Even with sweat on his face and his hair mussed like it was.
Nothing compared to the gentle way he framed her protruding belly with either of his hands as he walked up to her, his lips soft against her temple. “Why’re you standing?” he asked worriedly as he tried to lead her back to the rocker. “You barely slept last night darlin’, you’ve got to rest, you know what the midwife said.”
“I know what the midwife said, mon cher.” Marie laughed. Everyone, she thought, knew what the midwife said any time the midwife had anything to say. Daniel was fond of telling everyone everything, his worry and excitement even greater than Marie’s.
Although Marie thought that might have been because he got more sleep than she did now.
“Rest is important. You’re in the last stretch of this thing–”
“Let the girl breathe, Daniel!” Mrs. Bell chided from where Mr. Bell was helping her into her own chair.
Daniel rolled his eyes and helped her sit regardless. “You know the midwife thinks you might be carrying multiples,” he reminded her. “You’ve got to make sure you don’t overdo it. She said we want them staying put as long as we can manage.”
“Aye, cher. I’ll have to agree with Daniel on this one,” Alan muttered seriously. “I had to help a horse that was foaling two foals once–”
“I’m not a horse!” Marie exclaimed, her eyes wide.
“You aren’t a horse,” Daniel soothed as he handed her the hot cider back and came to lean against her chair with his coffee.
“I didn’t call her a horse!” Alan muttered at all the chuckles going around. “I only said I was helping a horse.”
Marie had to bite back her own grin as she settled back into the rocker, rubbing her hand over her extended belly as she looked around the front porch. Sometimes it all still felt like a dream, all of them gathered and happy.
“You don’t go comparing women to livestock, Alan, even I know that,” Logan commented dryly from the railing that he was leaned up against.
“And what was it that you compared that girl to you wrote off of the bridal ad?” Daniel asked wryly, chuckling at Logan’s immediate glare.
“I didn’t compare her to livestock, that’s for certain,” Logan groused.
“No, you just compared her to leather,” Alan interjected, his tone just as amused as everyone else’s.
“I said she was dependable like leather!” Logan complained loudly. “It was a compliment. Lord Almighty if I’d known how fickle these ads would be, I’d never have started. I just wanted to meet my wife. How was I to know Daniel and Marie were one in a million!? Every girl I write is either misrepresenting herself in her ad or all kinds’a sensitive about things that aren’t meant as an insult in the first place.”
“I could have told you we were one in a million,” Daniel said lowly, but Marie knew it was for her ears only.
The rest of the world seemed to fade into the background, Daniel’s forest-green eyes all she could focus on as he stared so lovingly at her.
It was hard to believe that just a year ago she was still grappling with whether to trust him with the truth of her past.
Only a year …
Marie felt like she’d lived lifetimes between there and now, but in a good way.
It wasn’t like they didn’t have their stumbles. There were times when lack of sleep or stress got the better of them and they snapped, but they were always quick to apologize. There were times when they were more focused on taking care of things than making the time they needed to just be with one another, but they always came back to it.
Before they’d realized Marie was pregnant, they’d been arguing a good deal more than usual even, what with her heightened emotions and all the extra hours Daniel had been spending out of the house at the time helping Alan get his smithy set up in town.
But they’d kept faith. They’d trusted one another.
And God had seen them through every one of those pitfalls.
“God’ll send you who you’re meant for in your own time,” Daniel said evenly, answering whatever part of the conversation Marie had missed in being so focused just on looking at him and revelling in what she had been gifted.
She smiled to see their thoughts mirror one another so closely even despite thinking about different things.
The little Bell (or Bells) she held in her belly kicked with her smile, making it brighter as she reached for Daniel’s hand. He’d been trying to feel their baby move ever since Marie had said she could feel it, but they always stopped the moment he put his hands on her.
Marie thought it was just on account of him calming them the same way he did her, but maybe that was wishful thinking.
The conversation continued around them, but Daniel stepped closer to Marie at her urging and put his coffee cup down. “What’s on your mind, darlin’?” he asked as he crouched in front of her.
“I was just thinking about how far we’ve come,” Marie answered honestly as she held his hand, waiting to make sure there was going to be more kicking before she got his hopes up. “If you’d told me five years ago that a family like this even existed, much less that it would be mine? Mon cher, I would have called you crazy.”
Daniel smiled, but it was a sad smile. “If I could have found you back when you were little and taken you away from all that to save you the pain of it all, I would have,” he whispered.
That kicking started up again and Marie grinned.
“Building a family with you and this life, oh, how was it you said it all those months ago? Building in love with you, that’s the best cure for my past I could have asked for,” she promised him as she pulled his hand onto her moving stomach.
“Just like you said, God gives us what we’re meant for in our own time. We just have to have faith,” she whispered as she watched Daniel’s eyes light up with excitement and awe as that little foot kicked directly into his palm.
Faith and love … Marie had never been so sure of either one as she was since having Daniel come into her life, and she knew there was only more to come.