Written in 58 minutes.
The local assembly hall was richly decorated and adorned for the holiday season, with strands of garland and holly hanging generously from every available surface. Elizabeth wandered over to the tables where the refreshments would be held and ignored the looks and whispers from some of the local women, particularly nosy Amy Vining and Britta Westbourne.
“You shouldn’t pay any attention to them.” Elizabeth turned at the new voice, recognizing Robin Scorpio, the pretty dark-haired woman she’d seen at other meetings. “Britt’s never forgiven you for swooping in and marrying Jason out from under her nose. And Amy’s just a gossip.”
“I don’t worry about any of them,” Elizabeth said, shrugging, though she was grateful every day that she’d hid her scandalous past. No one had ever questioned her life as a widow, and she thought most people would forget that Jason wasn’t Cameron’s biological father. After all, her little boy had Jason’s coloring—
Oh, maybe there would be other whispers, Elizabeth realized with a sinking thought. After all, Lila had put out that she was a connection from back home. What if they thought Jason had come East—
“They’ll have something new to talk about eventually,” Robin said, sliding her arm through Elizabeth’s and walking her over to the stage where a small group of townsfolk would play instruments during the Christmas party. “And you don’t know this, but I’m driving them insane by talking to you at all.”
“What?” Elizabeth frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“Oh, it’s all ancient history, but Jason and I had a little bit of a romance a lifetime ago.” Robin’s smile was genuine as she continued. “We were still at school, and then I wanted to go to San Francisco — I wanted to become a doctor.”
“You—oh. You work with Dr. Drake—”
“I do. I dragged him back from San Francisco. We practice together,” Robin continued, “but I’m sure many of the old biddies thought Jason was pining away for me. He wasn’t,” she said quickly. “I just didn’t want you to hear any of the gossip and wonder. Jason never really thought about marriage at all. And that was never in our plans.”
“No one has said anything—”
“Not to your face,” Robin said cheerfully. “But you can be sure they have behind your back. Don’t listen to any of them.”
“I don’t plan to.”
“Good. Patrick told me your news, I hope that’s all right. I was so happy to see Jason settling down. He was so good with his nephew, he’s told you that, hasn’t he?”
“A few times.”
“A tragedy,” Robin murmured, her eyes growing distant. “It’s why I came home for good. I was just visiting when the epidemic broke out. I worked for days trying to save as many as I could, but we lost so many. And Jason’s family was nearly wiped out. I don’t know how Lila got out of bed after losing her husband, both children, and all but three of her grandchildren. Ned lives in San Francisco.” She took a deep breath. “But you and your son, I know that’s brought them all such joy. And this new child. If you ever need anything, please don’t hesitate.” Robin squeezed Elizabeth’s hand and then left her.
Robin’s words were still echoing in Elizabeth’s head a few hours later as she left the assembly hall and walked the short distance to Lila’s grand house to retrieve Cameron. She wasn’t bothered by Robin’s recounting of a youthful romance — Elizabeth hadn’t come to her husband as an untouched saint, and Elizabeth could hardly begrudge him the same.
It was the reminder of how much grief Jason had suffered in the previous years, and wondering if it had anything to do with the strange way he’d been acting since they’d learned of her condition. He was overprotective on the ranch, not letting her near the horses when he’d previously not blinked at her help. And then there had been that dinner—
“Hello, dear,” Lila said as Elizabeth came into the parlor. She removed her reading glasses. “How does the assembly hall look?”
“Like it’s been drowned in garland and holly,” Elizabeth said, taking a seat next to the older woman. “Things are nearly ready for the end of the week.”
“I’m so glad you and Jason have decided to come and stay the night in town. You’ll enjoy yourselves so much more.” Lila set aside the newspaper she’d been reading. “I wanted to apologize for overstepping when you were here last. And for sending Dillon out to the ranch.”
“I—” Elizabeth paused. “When did Dillon come to the ranch?”
“Oh, a few days ago. I know Jason said he wouldn’t need and any of the toys or furniture we’d saved, but I didn’t think that would extend to the cradle. It’s been in our family since Alan was born,” Lila said. “Alan and Tracy both used it, and then all three of Alan’s children. It was meant for the eldest son—” A pinched, pain expression fluttered over her face. “And, well, that would be Jason now.”
“I didn’t—he didn’t—” Elizabeth exhaled. “He sent it back, didn’t he?”
“He did. Dillon said he was quite irritated over the matter. I really hope you’ll both accept my apology.”
“Of course. You meant well. I’ll speak to Jason.”
After reassuring Lila once again, Elizabeth retrieved Cameron from the nursery, hitched up the carriage and horses, and made her way home, wondering how she would broach the topic with her husband, if she would at all. It wasn’t her family. Perhaps it wasn’t her place—
Was Jason worried about the implications? That she’d expect Cameron to inherit the cradle as the supposed elder child? While it might explain his reaction in some ways, it did not sit well with her as the reason. Jason had never once suggested he planned to treat Cameron differently from any future children. Rather, he’d accepted from the first, the responsibility to act as Cameron’s father. He’d seemed to find joy in the prospect.
Once at home, Elizabeth turned Cameron over to Alice and hunted down her husband, still not quite settled as to what she might say. She found him in the training yards, putting Dusty through his paces.
The stallion was pleased to see her and immediately pulled away from Jason to shove his head over the fence to sniff at Elizabeth. “Hello, darling,” she murmured, her fingertips brushing against the velvet of his coat. “I miss you, too.”
“How was your meeting?” Jason asked, glancing behind her to watch Johnny unhitch the carriage and lead the horses inside.
“It was fine.” Elizabeth bit her lip. “Your grandmother wanted to apologize for sending the cradle.”
Jason’s mouth tightened. “Did she?”
“Yes. I—” She paused. “I suppose she was a bit hurt that you didn’t want to use the cradle that your father used,” Elizabeth said finally. “Is—I don’t—is there something wrong with it?”
“No. I meant what I said before. She ought to keep it there at the house for visits.” Jason tugged the stallion back towards him. “We’ll get one for here. I was going to work on it this winter. Cameron can help.”
“Oh. You—you don’t plan to just purchase a new one?”
“No. I was going to make one. Unless you’d rather—”
“No, I think that would be lovely, and such a wonderful way for Cameron to feel included.” Elizabeth’s spirits brightened. “He won’t have been able to use it, but it’ll be his all the same.”
Jason’s face eased. “That’s what I hoped. He should have his own things. Not hand-me-downs from people he never knew. He deserves that much. He’s the oldest.”
“Of course. And Lila will understand completely when you explain it that way.” Elizabeth stepped back. “I ought to go in and check on Cameron. You’ll be in for supper?”
Jason watched Elizabeth carefully pick her way from the stables towards the front of the house. The winter had already descended on the area—their autumn shorter than normal this year, and he thought they’d see snowfall before the Christmas. He would have to make sure she had all the clothing she needed for a cold winter. And that they were ready to clear the paths so she wouldn’t be hurt—
Once Elizabeth was inside, Jason turned his attention back to the horse who also seemed to watching her go. The horse and the woman missed one another, and he felt a spear of shame for forcing her to stop coming to the stables. But if Dusty or another horse kicked at her — or she fell—
At least he’d navigated the tricky situation of the cradle. For the first time in his life, Jason cursed his grandmother. Lila knew what she’d been doing by taking her apology to Elizabeth, and not to Jason. She was interfering—
But he’d handled it, Jason told himself as he walked Dusty back into the stable and put him up for the night. Even better, he’d come up with something better than an old cradle. He’d carve one himself, and he’d teach Cameron, just as Jason had been taught by his own father. Cameron could put his initials into the wood—
It would be something better. Something that only belonged to them without memories of what came before.
When Jason had brought the puppy home for Cameron, he’d expected the little boy to name the greyhound after the little rag doll puppy — Archie. But Cameron had been horrified. Archie wasn’t going anywhere — that had been his first dog. And anyway, the little greyhound wasn’t an Archie. Anyone could see that. He was something better.
Cameron had insisted on pouring over the primary books his mother was always trying to teach him to read, and then tugging novels and other books from shelves in Jason’s study, asking for words, looking for just the right word to describe the puppy with his long nose and spindly frame.
Finally, only the day before Elizabeth’s conversation with Lila, Cameron had dragged down Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and begged Jason to read it to him. Maybe the dog’s name would be in this book. Jason had obliged, and within the first few pages, they’d had a winner. The dog’s name was Pip. Of course it was, Jason thought. But Cameron hadn’t wanted him to stop reading, and decided that it would be his papa’s job to put him up for bed in evening because they would read first.
So Jason perched on the edge of Cameron’s bed, reading and keeping an eye on his son as Cameron drifted into sleep, Archie the rag puppy clutched in one hand and Pip the greyhound’s snout in the crook of his other arm.
Jason set the novel on the bedside table, turned the lamp down low, and made sure Cameron was warm and tucked in, before going across the hall. Inside their room, Elizabeth had brought in a chair that sat before the fireplace, a basket of mending by her side. She’d struggled with that first, Jason remembered, but she’d taught herself to sew without the tip of her finger.
He across from her, in the chair he’d brought because it seemed like a cozy and private way to end each day, just of the two of them. Elizabeth smiled at him, the flames of the fire flickering over her face. She’d seemed sad after that dinner with Lila, and there’d been shadows in her face earlier during the conversation at the stables.
But he’d reassured her, and now she was happy again. “I never thought Cameron would fall in love with Dickens,” she said, pulling out one of Cameron’s shirts and searching her bag for a button that would match. “But he was excited for you to keep reading tonight.”
“He made it through an entire chapter,” Jason said, toeing off his boots and setting his hands before the fire. “We’ll see how how he feels after a few more nights of it.”
“And he loves that dog. Thank you for remembering it. He’s wanted one for so long.” Elizabeth met his gaze. “You’ve always been so wonderful with him. From the beginning.”
“He made it easy.” And so had she, Jason thought. Both of them had just trusted Jason from nearly the first moment. It ought to have been harder to create a life together from nothing — she’d been the bride his cousin had found for him after all — but sitting here, it was as if they’d always been traveling down the road towards one another.
“I was thinking you might want to start training with Dusty again.”
Her fingers stilled, and she blinked. “But you said—”
“As long as I’m there,” Jason added in a rush. “For now. I—he misses you. And, well, so do I. We were doing good work out there together. It’ll be a few more weeks before winter really sets in and we won’t be able to train as much—” His words were cut off as Elizabeth flew out of the chair and launched herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck. Startled, Jason laughed, then drew her into his lap. “I suppose that’s a yes?”
“It’s absolutely a yes. I know you’re worried, and I promise I’ll be very, very careful.” Elizabeth beamed. “You won’t have to worry. The baby comes first.”
“I know.” He kissed her, savoring and lingering. He hadn’t realized how lonely he was until that day in the train station, when he’d walked in and saw her sitting there. Waiting. He would do anything to protect their life together.