Even though she had been managing the Paradise Hills Ranch for over seven years, Penny could hardly believe how blessed she was when she stepped out onto the porch to survey her property.
This had taken hard work. Blood, sweat, and tears had been required to keep the ranch working. They’d enjoyed good seasons as well as hard ones, always coming out all right in the end one way or another. When she considered the effort she had given, she found only pride. No pain and no reason to complain.
Yawning, Penny paused to stretch. Her hands raised up to the sky before settling on her waist with a note of satisfaction.
All she had done was sit down on her comfortably padded couch for a minute. The house had been noisy and messy when she closed her eyes. When she finally opened them, everything was cleaned up and quiet. If no one was inside, then surely she would find them somewhere under the brilliant sun.
She breathed in the delightful fresh air before making her way down the steps and off toward the lively figures in the distance.
While Penny knew she shouldn’t be surprised they were off in the pastures, she did wish they wouldn’t go so far. It would be time to prepare supper soon and everyone knew how much she liked to keep an eye on everyone while she could still manage it.
Seven long and glorious years. Penny glanced at the sun, wondering how some things could change so drastically while others remained the same.
Like how she used to have young men and women passing through the property for work. Her grand scheme after Todd’s death had been a clever one that worked to her advantage in several ways. It had meant she could help over twenty couples come together in the span of two years. She had made good friends to whom she still remained connected whether through town or letters. It had allowed her to keep her ranch functioning.
And, of course, the scheme had helped her wind up with Cal.
There were mornings where she woke up and still wasn’t sure how she had become so fortunate. He brought such vibrance to her life; she had never laughed or blushed as much when he was around. Having him at her side made Penny stronger and braver, though he repeatedly exclaimed that was none of his doing.
“If anything,” he would say to her with a smirk, “you are much too brave. It almost makes you foolish. What a blessing it is I am here to save you every time that you trip.”
Words like that were usually just an excuse for him to pull her close and wrap her in a tight embrace where they shared a multitude of kisses. It was easy to get carried away with him if she wasn’t careful.
He had been a good help when it came to developing new strategies in managing the cattle and selling the herds in the right season. Then he had helped her ensure the couples were married off before they officially closed their efforts from bringing unwed people to the ranch where they might learn skills and marry afterward.
Even though Penny had been insistent that she could manage that work while also managing the ranch, Cal had eventually convinced her otherwise. They had married off the last couple just days before she ended up giving birth to their first child, Mary Jane.
Remembering how it had felt to hold her baby girl in her arms like that, Penny warmed. She smiled as she continued walking toward the pasture where she could see the five-year-old girl was riding her pony. Mary Jane looked like a sweet little princess as she rode––or, rather, bounced––along the fence line.
“Look, Mama, look!” Mary Jane squealed.
Penny waved, smiling. “Careful, dear!”
The words came too late as her girl tried to adjust herself in the saddle just as the pony, Moonlight, shifted. Mary Jane yelped as she slid from the saddle to crash in a heap on the ground.
Before Penny had time to worry, movement flashed by. “Mary Jane!” Cal was there at their daughter’s side at once. He knelt as she stood, helping to brush off the dirt. “Remember what I said, sweetheart?”
“Keep your eyes ahead of your horse. But I had to look at Mama,” the girl explained plaintively.
The two of them turned to look as Penny reached the fence and leaned on it. She offered a sheepish smile. “I was only coming to ask what you wished for supper. But I can always go cook what I like if that’s preferred?”
“No,” the two of them groaned.
Cal turned back to Mary Jane to say, “Maybe we should stop today. You can resume your lessons tomorrow. You’re dusty enough as it is.”
“But I’m not done. I want to try,” their daughter pouted and then crossed her arms for effect. Her pigtails wiggled slightly in the air, tied together with bright purple ribbons. They stood out with all the dirt that Mary Jane wore. “Please, just one more time?”
Penny piped up, knowing just how exciting it was to learn how to ride. “Cal, she’s a big girl. She fell and she picked herself back up. She knows what to do. You don’t need to worry so much.”
When she said that, he threw her a frown. They took turns being the one who worried when it came to moments like this. But since she couldn’t exactly go running about anymore, he had taken the role over for the last couple of months. She hoped he wasn’t worrying too much about everyone. That would only leave them both irritated.
“Fine,” Cal sighed. He whistled two notes, bringing the obedient pony back to their side. More instructions were given to Mary Jane. Then, once satisfied, Cal helped his daughter into the saddle. He nodded as she started off again. It was as though her fall had never taken place. Before Penny could watch her go, she saw her husband turn to her. “You.”
She opened her eyes wide. “Me? I didn’t do anything.”
Walking over to her side, Cal easily jumped over the fence. Penny was envious because she could do the same. Well, most of the time she could.
Since she stayed put, it was easier for Cal to loop his arms around her waist and pull her close. It was awkward with her growing belly between them, but they were used to that by now. “You should be more careful, that’s what,” he said in her ear. Then he planted a kiss on her cheeks before pulling back. “Are you doing all right?”
“I am, yes.”
“You hardly slept last night,” he pointed out.
That made Penny wince. She had hoped that all her moving about in the bed hadn’t woken him up. “I’m sorry about that. But remember I can’t exactly get comfortable at a time like this.”
Both of them looked down at the belly in between them. The baby knew Cal’s voice by now. Ever since he had started talking, she had felt more movements from within the womb. Most likely, it would be another baby who absolutely adored their father and would do anything for him. Most of their children had been like that.
Comfortable silence settled between them. A breeze tugged at her long red hair though most of it was pinned back. She didn’t have time most days to brush it like she used to.
“We’ll get you more pillows,” Cal promised her.
Nodding, she leaned forward to kiss his lips. “Maybe that will help. Just so long as it isn’t twins again, I think I’ll be all right. We only have a few more weeks, I think. Three at the most.”
He gently grasped her chin to kiss her one, two, three more times. Every time, her heart fluttered. Although it looked like he was about to do so again, he paused when he heard loud laughter behind him. As he turned, Penny looked and laughed as well.
A groan escaped his lips. “I told them not to play in the dirt. One of them is going to choke on a pebble again.”
“Or they will be fine,” Penny countered.
Together, they watched the twins playing in the dirt. Little Patrick and Hunter were adorable and always getting into a new mess or some other sort of trouble. They had just turned three years old. They ran everywhere, screamed when they liked, and didn’t do a very good job listening to their parents.
Still, they were loved, and they knew it.
Leaning on her husband’s shoulder, Penny chuckled. “Look at them. They’re having fun. Isn’t that what matters?”
Patrick was spitting in the dirt as though to make mud. Meanwhile, the younger of the two, Hunter, was digging with both hands as he jabbered away about some sort of plan of his. Most likely something about buried treasure.
“They’re going to need baths again,” Cal huffed.
“I’m sure we could all use baths tonight,” she reminded him. “Don’t worry, Cal. Just enjoy them being happy. And not destroying the house.”
The last comment made him smile just like she had hoped. However, as she watched him thoughtfully, she noted how the corners of his lips began to droop. “Is something wrong?”
“No. No, I guess I’m just tired of watching and worrying all the time. I keep expecting to stop. But it doesn’t stop. Not even when I’m on a drive or trying to fall asleep,” he added while he ran his free hand through his thick hair.
Seven years, and he was just more handsome. Penny could hardly take her eyes off him. They’d had such fun together so far that it felt like they’d been together for much longer. And yet they were hardly beginning. Her mind flashed back to their wedding and the happy days that had followed.
“Yes, I don’t think the worry ever goes away,” she agreed.
“Why not? It should,” Cal complained. Then he rolled his head around to look at her. “It seems like you never do. I thought my heart jumped out of my throat when I saw Mary Jane fall.”
“She’s fallen off Moonlight before, hasn’t she?” Penny pointed out. Then she shrugged. “And I do worry. All the time. However, I know that sometimes there is nothing I can do. I can’t pick Mary Jane up every time she falls. I worry still, but you’re always around. And our kids are hearty. It’s a miracle none of them have broken a bone or required a visit to the doctor.”
Cal considered this. “Aren’t we supposed to help?”
“Of course! When I worry, I try not to dawdle on the problem for too long. I try to find a solution. You know how I like a challenge. And when I don’t have a solution, well, again … I have you.”
“Me?” He threw her a doubtful look. “To worry over everything?”
Elbowing him, she chuckled. “No. I have you to help me work everything out. That’s what families do. What a husband and wife does. So long as I have you at my side, I’m certain we can solve any problem. Like when Mary Jane takes a tumble or when I need to plan our supper. Speaking of,” she added when her stomach growled.
Her idea earlier that morning had been to prepare a nice roast for them. They’d had one in the freezer box for the last two days, and she wanted to make sure that it would be used before it went bad.
It had been a good idea until, just as she was about to take it out, she remembered they were planning to use the roast for the following evening.
Every Sunday night, they had company on the ranch. Or there were times where they stayed in town to eat with friends. This week, they were having Stella and Ira over with their two children.
Penny was thrilled at the idea of having them over. Any chance to see her dearest friend was going to be wonderful. However, this all meant that she could not use the roast and she had no plans for supper. The children would need to be fed soon before they could grow cranky. And she could certainly use some food as well. The baby inside her belly always kicked her harder when it was nearing mealtime.
Cal grinned and pulled away. “Speaking of,” he repeated, “you don’t actually have to worry about supper today.”
“Nope.” Stepping away, he moved over to the nearby equipment shed. There was a ledge on the outside where there was a basket waiting for them.
Eyes widening, Penny felt her heart skip a beat. She hadn’t seen that before. Or, if she was right about it having food in there, she had no idea where the food had come from. When had Cal put a picnic basket together? Then she remembered she had started to fall asleep a few hours ago after cleaning up lunch; that was when Cal had taken the children outside.
“Come. Let’s waddle together over to the shade,” he told her.
Pouting, she said, “I’m not waddling.”
There was little that Penny felt she was self-conscious about. Especially as her body had changed and softened through the years and with carrying children. She accepted the mistakes she made as well. But the waddling was something that always made her hesitate.
“Did I say that?” He feigned innocence. “I would never say such a thing about my beautiful, stunning, clever wife. No, you’re not waddling. You’re just…”
“Just what?” she asked hotly.
His lips curved into a wide smile. “You’re just walking like someone would walk if they were waddling.”
Cal laughed when she playfully hit him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he continued to tease her, “I won’t let you waddle. Here, hold this, would you?”
When she accepted the basket with both hands, Cal bent down and quickly scooped her into his arms. She squealed in surprise to find herself off her feet. Heart pounding, she gave him a look as he straightened up.
“This?” Penny asked. “This is how I won’t waddle? By not even walking at all?”
He winked. “Told you I would take care of you.”
There was no time for her to protest as he started calling for the children. While he carried her, Cal called their children over to them. Once they learned there would be food in store, everyone hurried along. It didn’t take much time for the five of them to be gathered in the clearing to eat right where she had married Cal seven years ago.
“Finally,” Penny mumbled once she was set down. “Goodness, I’m sweating.”
“But I did all the work,” Cal protested.
“I was carrying the baby and the food,” she said.
“And I was carrying you while you carried the baby and the food,” he pointed out.
She raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to sweat?”
Wiping a hand across his forehead, Cal winked and showed her a damp hand. “No, I’m doing just fine. But can you picture how much you would be sweating if I had let you waddle this far?”
She huffed. “All this talk about waddling.”
“I want to waddle! I want to be a duck!” Patrick cried out, catching the very last piece of what she was saying.
Eager to play, all three children dropped their food to start bouncing around to act like ducks. It was adorable and distracting, both of them forgetting their playful argument. She laughed, leaning back into Cal who kissed the top of her head.
Penny felt her heart melt as she gazed around at everyone. She was truly blessed. Thrilled to be here, thrilled with her family, she could hardly believe how much these seven years had given her.
“Darling? What’s wrong?”
When she glanced up at Cal’s concerned expression, she let him run a thumb across her cheek and reveal a tear that must have fallen from her eye. She blinked, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“Are you all right? Are you in pain?”
Inhaling deeply, Penny shook her head. Yes, I’m all right. And no, I’m not in pain. I’m just so happy, Cal. Growing up, I could never imagine having this much joy in my life. Thank you for being here. For everything.”
One of the twins shrieked. She started in surprise, pulled away from the delicate moment with Cal. Penny looked around quickly to see if any of the children were injured. From the looks of it, Hunter had touched the water. He was shaking his hand in the air with droplets spraying everywhere, making his siblings laugh.
“So you do worry,” Cal whispered in her ear.
Turning to him, she raised her eyebrow. “Would I be a mother if I didn’t?”
His gaze drifted over her face slowly like he was trying to memorize every freckle and wrinkle. Not that she thought she had many, but she was getting older. They both were. Penny knew this in the back of her mind. Time faded away, however, whenever Cal looked at her.
“We were talking about something else, weren’t we?” she murmured.
“Yes. You were worried I could have ever walked away from you. From this. His warm smile could still leave her breathless. “How could I not be here? I would not have let you get away if I could help it.”
“You did talk about leaving,” she told him.
“I would have never done it,” Cal said reassuringly. “I would have come right back and then I would have begged you to take me back. And I would not have left your side until you accepted me again.”
She rather liked the thought of that.
Sinking back into his side, Penny drew closer to enjoy his warmth. They would have one another for the rest of their lives. Hopefully, that would be enough. No matter what might or might not have happened in the past, she knew they would have eventually come back together like he said. They had never been able to stay apart for long.
They’d enjoyed seven years thus far, and she considered how perfect the next seven would be as well.
She had her family, and she had her ranch. Although she no longer worked out in the pasture or road as much as she once had, Penny didn’t mind the transition back to the house. There were still opportunities to be outside. Besides, Cal was a brilliant ranch hand, and she liked any excuse to spend more time with her children.
“You mean everything to me,” she murmured as they listened to their children laughing and quacking nearby. “Everything, Cal.”
“As do you for me. I love you,” he added.
Penny felt the truth of his words sink into her, sending a thrill up her spine. She couldn’t think about being anywhere else or wanting anything else. Every moment in her life had led her to him. To this life.
She couldn’t wait for the rest of their years together, knowing how wonderful it would be. Laughter and teasing and love awaited them. No matter what happened, she knew she would love it all so long as she had Cal at her side.