Amanda finished her bottle with a sleepy sigh and I set it aside so I could lay her in her make shift bed. She squirmed for a moment before falling fast asleep. I brushed back the curls from her face and outlined the plump cheek with one finger while I watched her sleep. She was so beautiful and I loved her so much that I could hardly stand the fear that someone might appear to take her from us.
When I thought of a grieving father some where, anguishing over the fate of his wife and daughter, I tried to be strong enough to let her go. But the walls around my heart were permanently destroyed and the fear was like a knife through it. I tried to hide it from Nathan but he had the magic ability to see into my soul and he'd told me of his own fears.
We comforted each other and spent more time with Amanda, soaking up her giggles and smiles for the day when they might not be there. I checked to make sure that the sides of her bed were covered. The orange crate that Gloria Potter had given us served as an adequate substitute with padded sides but I had a suspicion that Buck was making her something better.
Excited voices from the outer room brought my head up. It sounded like Mother and Josiah so I rose to my feet and went to see what was going on. Closing the door behind me, I found Nathan with the biggest smile on his face. Mother looked unbearably smug and even Josiah was beaming. Crossing to Nathan's side, I listened while they all spoke at once.
A Pinkerton agent? I could hardly believe my ears. That nice man who'd picked up Amanda's rattle was a detective? But when they said that he was a representative of Amanda's father, I almost fainted. Nathan held me close and stroked my hair while Mother assured me that the father didn't want to take Amanda, he just wanted to know that she was safe and loved.
"It's all right, Ezra. She is safe and loved with us." Nathan held me tightly and whispered in my ear. "She's ours, sweetheart, all ours."
I hid my face in his broad chest and held on as tight as I could while relief crashed through me like a sledgehammer. "Thank God."
Josiah's voice broke into the silence. "This is probably a good time to tell you something else, too."
Uncertainty was strong in the deep tones and I let go of my stranglehold on Nathan to turn and see him. Mother was smiling a smile that I'd never seen from her before. And Josiah looked elated and terrified all at the same time. I had an inkling of what he was going to say and I held onto Nathan tightly.
"Ezra, your mother has ... has accepted my proposal of marriage." He looked down at her as if she were the most precious person in the world.
"Congratulations, Josiah. Maude, welcome to the family." Nathan said simply and looked down at me to see my reaction.
I let go of him and reached out to hug my mother, for the first time truly feeling like more than an inconvenient son. "Congratulations, Mother, you won't take Josiah away, will you?"
"Nonsense, Ezra, I would no more part him from his friends than I would leave my first grandchild while I played elsewhere." She hugged me back, whispering gently in my ear. "Forgive me for leaving you so often in the past, Ezra. I was young and foolish. I didn't know what a treasure I had in you. Please let me have a part in your life."
I nodded shakily, all the words I wanted to say locked behind the lump in my throat. Perhaps I would yet know what it was like to have a real mother. And Amanda would have a grandmother to spoil her and a grandfather to protect her. I brushed the tears from my eyes and let her go to turn to Josiah.
"Thank you, Josiah. It will be nice to have a father." I said quietly and let him hug me close. He was such a special man and I'd always felt close to him. Now that I was a father, it seemed so wonderful to have one of my own.
"I will be the best one I know how to be, Ezra. And I already love Amanda so I hope to be a good grandfather to her as well." He patted my back and let me go with a soft kiss to my forehead.
Nodding, I went back to Nathan's arm and leaned against him, suddenly more tired than I'd been in weeks. He seemed to sense that and he kissed my other temple. "Folks, it's been a kind of wearing day. How about we meet for breakfast here tomorrow so we can talk more about this surprising Christmas?"
Mother agreed and taking Josiah's arm in hers, she led him away. Nathan locked the front door behind them while I started blowing out lamps. He checked the stoves and banked their fires then joined me in the bedroom. I was almost too tired to get undressed but he stripped me bare and slid me under the covers before checking on Amanda. Then he got undressed and joined me under the heavy quilt.
"Sweet dreams, Ezra. I love you, sweet cheeks." He scattered kisses over my face until he brushed my lips with his.
"I love you too, Nathan. Wake me early so we can make love before Amanda wakes up?" I yawned and cuddled as close to him as I could get.
He chuckled softly and held me close. "Good idea, Ez'. We're going to have to think about a bigger place before she gets too much older or we'll be back to hiding behind doors for a kiss."
I chuckled and fell asleep before I could answer him.
But Amanda woke first and her soft cooing brought me awake at once. Slipping from bed, I picked her up and brought her back with me. Nathan held up the quilt and I settled her on his broad chest before cuddling up close to them both. She blinked and wiggled all over, patting his skin with her tiny hands. This was the best time when we were all snuggled under the blankets, sharing warmth and baby kisses.
I wanted her to know that we loved her, every day and in every fashion that I could think of. I never wanted her to ever doubt our love and support, no matter what she did. "Nathan, what do you really think about Mother and Josiah?"
His eyes were tender and his voice soft with feeling. "I think it's the best thing for her although I'm not so sure about Josiah. But he's a bright man and he knows as much of her history as you've told him about her. I think they're both old enough to be looking for companionship rather than red-hot passion. Although, from what I know about him, there may be more passion than she's seen in a while."
"Nathan! She's my mother." I said indignantly and he just laughed. Amanda joined in with her little chortle that was so infectious and I found myself laughing, too. "I don't want to think about the words 'mother' and 'passion' in the same sentence. I think ... she's sorry about how she raised me and hopes to become friends now that we're both older and perhaps wiser."
"Perhaps, sweet cheeks. Whatever her motive, I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. If she stays and becomes a part of this community, then when Amanda gets a little bigger and starts having girl-questions, we'll have someone who can answer them." He was patting her back and she was wiggling all over again. "And who just made a mess, little girl?"
I chuckled and got up to get a fresh diaper. Pouring some hot water into the basin, I got a warm washcloth ready. "I wish we had a layette like I saw back in New Orleans."
"You mean a table about waist height with a railing all around it and a soft surface for her to lay on?" He rolled out of bed and brought her over to the dresser top. "I saw one once a couple of years back. I don't think it would be too difficult to put a railing up around this dresser and a soft pad like a double quilt under her messy little butt."
That last was said with a fond smile at the aforesaid behind and she chortled again waving her little arms around while I washed her clean and Nathan readied another diaper. I'd gotten pretty good at changing her and I quickly pinned the new diaper in place while she sang to us. She had inherited Nathan's voice and was going to sound beautiful in the church choir when she grew up.
It was at times like these that I forgot that she wasn't born of our seed. Nathan cradled her again while I dropped the messy diaper into the ten-gallon crock that held a solution of bleach and water. It was almost full and I made a mental note to carry it over to the Chang's laundry. Gloria Potter had patiently explained how diapers were made and in my spare time, I was hemming the soft cotton squares that kept Amanda clean and neat.
Vin had a surprisingly neat sewing hand, too. He'd offered to help with the caveat that I not tell anyone. We both sewed an hour a day while Amanda took a nap. He was a quiet man with a yearning for a home and I think he was comforted in our cozy little nest. I served tea and cookies when he came by. Sometimes we spoke of events but other times we just sat quietly and sewed.
He was a good friend. Each of the others helped in their own way and I was greatly comforted by their support. And now, Mother was come to become a part of our growing family. My thoughts jumped here and there with no pattern to them. I found myself stirring the oatmeal for breakfast with no memory of how I got to the stove. I was going to have to pay better attention to what I was doing.
I decided on omelets and I whisked them together while listening to Nathan explain what we had to do today to Amanda. She cooed at him every time he took a breath as if to tell him to keep on talking. She was such a joy and I loved watching Nathan with her, his big hands cradling her tiny body. But the knock on the outer door signaled our guests arrival and I put the bowl aside to answer it.
Luckily, it was Josiah and Mother, not a patient in need of urgent attention. Breakfast went well and Mother even complimented me on the omelet. She obviously was wondering where I learned to cook but I still could not talk of that dark time in my life. Nathan had gently asked me why I kept on cooking and I had told him that recipes stayed the same no matter what you did.
Order from chaos, I thought to myself although I'd tried to explain it further. He'd shaken his head with a grin and kissed me senseless, making love to me with all the passion he felt. I was a lucky man to have my other half accept my odd foibles with such abandon. We were well matched and I watched the pair across the table for the signs that they were matched, too.
And oddly enough, they were. Josiah wasn't much of a talker except when he was telling a story about one of his journeys. Mother always commanded attention, which he gave her in unstinting measure. She played to an audience and he gave her one. It was fascinating to watch her emote then turn to him to see his reaction. His slow smile would fluster her so much that Nathan or I could get a word in.
I had a funny impression that Mother had met her match. Grinning down at the pabulum that I was feeding Amanda, I bit my lip to keep from laughing. There was a power in Josiah that everyone was drawn to and it seemed that Mother was no different. For the first time, I saw that their physical relationship might just be as passionate as Nathan's and mine was.
Perhaps she'd been looking for someone to love the way I had been. If so, we were both incredibly lucky that we'd found our dearest loves here in the west. Amanda was waving her arms again and I handed her over to Nathan for her bottle while I started to clear the table. Mother helped me with the dishes, drying while I washed. We'd never done that together before, in fact I'd never seen her with a dishtowel in her hand.
It seemed the age of miracles truly hadn't passed.
"Ezra, I need to talk to you and Nathan about a little gift I got for you both and Amanda." She sounded hesitant and I looked at her in amazement. Maude Standish was never diffident or so I'd been led to believe.
We came back to the table to find Josiah patting Amanda against one broad shoulder. Nathan was back to carving a teething ring for her out of a piece of oak and we sat back down to have our talk.
"When I came last time, I was quite taken aback by the two of you." She began. Her blue eyes looked into mine calmly. "But I could see that you were happy, Ezra. That's all I ever wanted for you. I was unhappy and insecure from the moment I bore you. I was seventeen and scared to death. I thought wealth and power would make me happy and secure a future for us. While you were growing up, I told myself that the reason I didn't keep you with me was because you'd be a liability."
She smiled faintly and shook her head. "That was a lie. I hated some of the things I had to do and I didn't want you to see how terrible I'd become. When the war came and you were dragged into it, I was afraid for the first time in my life for another person. That frightened me even further and I tried to make you into something you're not. I can hardly forgive myself for that but I'd like for you to try to forgive me anyway."
I'd never heard this from her and I looked at her with adult eyes instead of the childish ones that had colored my picture of her. "I do forgive you if only because what you taught me brought me here to a small town where I found six good friends and the man that I love more than anyone else in the world. There were so many paths I could have taken but in fleeing the life I thought you wanted for me, I ended up here. And here is right where I want to be."
Nathan slid his arm around me and I leaned into his solid support. She nodded sadly. "I thank you, Ezra. Perhaps in time we can even become friends. Anyway, when I saw that you were creating a family without me, I took a good hard look at myself. I didn't like everything I found. So I made myself a promise. A promise to help you create a safe place for your love and at the same time perhaps create one for myself."
Amanda belched loudly and Josiah beamed as if she'd done something momentous. Mother shook her head and reached for the baby. "Amanda, we need to have a little girl-to-girl talk. But not right now." She cradled her in her arms and I had a sudden vision of a young girl of seventeen holding a baby in her arms while fearing for the future.
"Now, when I made that decision, I immediately set to work securing what you'll need. Except for the piece of land that Mr. Larabee owns, the rest of you are without property. So I bought 100,000 acres just outside of town for you." She held Amanda close and watched our reaction with an almost fearful expression.
"Maude?" Josiah's accents were shocked. "100,000 acres?"
"Well, you need three acres of land per head of cattle. It includes water rights to the river and has two natural springs so water won't be an issue. You'll be close enough to town so Nathan can continue his practice but you'll have enough room to build a nice house with bedrooms for all the children you're planning for."
I blushed. "Mother, how did you know that I want more children?"
"It's in your eyes, dearest, whenever you look at Amanda or Billy or any one of the children in town. You have more maternal instinct than I ever had even though I bore you." She rocked Amanda and her eyes softened when the baby cooed up at her. "The others of the seven have chosen your path in loving and they'll need a safe place for themselves sooner rather than later. And I'd like for Josiah and I to have a place there, as well. It's no good arguing about it. I've already put your names on the deed. Call it a wedding present."
I looked at Nathan and saw nothing but amusement in the dark eyes. I sighed in relief and he kissed my cheek before turning to my mother. "Maude, I thank you for thinking of us. We accept your gift but we'll have to have separate houses. You and Josiah will need your privacy."
Mother's eyes sparkled at him. "Indeed, Nathan, I think that would be best. There will occasionally be nights when Amanda sleeps over with her grandparents so her parents can have a little privacy of their own."
And Nathan's laughter was the sweetest sound I'd ever heard. We planned far into the morning until Nathan had to go to open the clinic and I had to go to my teaching duties. My dream had had farther-reaching implications than I'd ever thought possible. A school had been started and I was indeed one of the teachers. The children were a joy to teach and having Amanda there seemed to make them even more comfortable with me. Mrs. Travis was another of the instructors along with Josiah and Mr. Brewster from the livery stables.
When I walked over to the storefront that was our current school, I could smell moisture in the air and I wondered if we were in for a bout of snow. Mr. Brewster met me there and told me we were indeed in for a seasonal change, as he so quaintly put it. Chris and Vin had driven into Sarney the day before and stocked up on extra supplies for the general store so we were ready for whatever hit us.
By one, the clouds were hanging so low that it felt like I could reach up and touch them. Josiah had the afternoon class but I wondered if he'd have any students when the first snowflakes began to fall. By the time that I reached the clinic, the wind was howling so hard that I had a hard time closing the door after me. A strong arm from over my shoulder caught it and helped me pull it tight.
"I'm closing the clinic now for lack of patients." Nathan chuckled and peeked under the blanket at Amanda's sleeping face. "Wore her out again, did they?"
"The girls think of her as a living breathing doll they can play with. I even found Billy picking up her rattle again and again. She seems to enjoy the sound of it hitting the floor. I'm thinking of sewing a string to her blanket and attaching it to the rattle so it's not so hard to find the darn thing when it rolls." I leaned against him and enjoyed his heat.
"Upstairs with all of us. I think that lunch might wait for a little while." He brushed his lips over my ear and I moaned a little. "While she's sleeping, I thought we might celebrate your mother's extraordinary gift."
I chuckled and nodded. "Yes, indeed, since Amanda woke up first, I believe we missed out on our pre-breakfast loving."
"We'll make it pre-lunch instead." He promised me and ushered me out ahead of him. The snow swirled thickly around us and it took all his strength to hold the door open at the top of the stairs. We locked and bolted it behind us. He checked the stoves and added more coal while I unwrapped Amanda and put her to bed. Her diaper was still dry so I said a silent prayer that it would stay that way until after we made love.
I'd missed him and it seemed like days since we'd last held each other in passion rather than in sleep. Taking care of a child seemed to take a lot more energy, than anything else I'd ever done. Hurriedly, I pulled back the covers and began to undress. Making sure that the kettles in the bathroom were filled to the brim, I filled the one on the bedroom stove too. When she next awoke, we were going to take her into the bathtub with us for her first bath. Up until now, we'd just given her sponge baths but with two of us, I thought it was time for her to find out how much fun a bath could be.
Nathan was undressing when I came back in the bedroom and the temperature must have gone up twenty degrees when I saw all that lovely chocolate skin unveiled for me. "Ezra, that's about the most lustful look I've ever seen on your face."
His whisper was doing something shocking to my knees. Whispering back a soft 'I need you', I slid onto the bed with that little flirty glance that Mother had perfected so many years ago. It worked if Nathan's reaction was anything to go by. Dropping the rest of his clothes in a heap, he dove in on top of me, taking my lips with all the passion I could have hoped for.
I loved the feeling of his skin against mine. And his hands sliding over me made me feel like the most beautiful man in the world. His hot breath made me shiver and when his lips tugged at my nipple I almost came from just that. His chuckle told me that he'd caught my reaction and suddenly slick fingers were sliding behind my balls to the small hole that ached for him.
"Ezra, you are the most beautiful man in the whole world." He switched nipples and slid two fingers inside of me. "Last night, that handsome Pinkerton agent all but panted after you when you smiled at him. I think that I'm going to have to keep a close eye out or someone might decide to run off with you."
I shook my head and caught my breath at the three fingers stretching me for him. "I'll never leave you, Nathan. I don't even remember what he looked like. Oh there, Nathan."
"There it is, sweet cheeks." And his fingers came out while I waited breathlessly for his cock to take their place. His lips on mine swallowed both our groans when he slid slowly inside of me. He rested balls deep while my legs wrapped around his waist to keep him there. I sucked on his tongue, entwining it with my own until we had to move.
We took it ever so slow and made it last for a long time. Who knew when we'd have the time to make love like this again? Finally he bathed me with his seed and I made a mess between our stomachs. Nathan held me close, scattering little kisses over my face until my body forced him out. He rolled off of me and got a warm cloth to clean us up. We dosed for a while until Amanda woke up and told us in no uncertain terms that she wanted her lunch.
Life just didn't get better than this, I decided while fixing a grownup lunch. Nathan was giving her a bottle of milk and telling her a story about snow while she listened to his voice in fascination. Amanda had a little of our soup and tried to decide if she liked the broth or not. Eventually she dozed while we finished our fresh bread and vegetable soup. Nathan cleaned up while I put her back in bed so I could fill the tub for our bath.
She was wide-awake when I finished putting in the last of the hot water and she cooed in my ear, seeming to like my bare skin as much as her father did. Nathan joined us, getting in first then taking her from me while I climbed in. First we dipped her toes in and she splashed us happily at once. She literally had no fear at all and I wondered if all babies were like her or if she was simply the best little girl in the world.
Of course, I might be a wee bit prejudiced.
We washed her hair with the gentle soap that I made sure we kept on hand for our hair. She fussed a little when some water got in her ears but once I dried them, she seemed to forget all about it. She looked like a little angel with a head full of bubbles and I wished that I knew how to draw so I could make a picture for us to remember this moment always.
Taking turns holding her, we made sure we got washed, too. The bath lasted until the water began to cool off. Once again, he got out first then took her from me while I got out. Nothing smells sweeter than a freshly washed baby does. I dried her hair with gentle pats and rubs until it was as dry as I could get it. Gloria Potter had given Amanda a little flannel wrapper that felt almost as soft as she did.
We dressed casually and adjourned to the outer room. Nathan settled in with the latest copy of JAMA while I pulled out my copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Amanda settled in my arm with her rattle to gnaw on while I read aloud to her the glorious words that were just as relevant today as they had been two hundred and seventy-five years before.
She listened with wide eyes, almost forgetting to chew on her fingers. And when next I looked up, Nathan had set down his journal and was listening too. His eyes were intent on my face and the look there made me feel as beautiful as he swore he found me.
"You have the most beautiful accent, Ezra. I think Shakespeare would have enjoyed the way you read his poetry."
"There is a controversial theory that he might have been writing about another man instead of the Dark Lady he mentions." I flirted with him a little and he smiled at me.
"If he looked anything like you, Ezra, I can well believe it. Read some more for us." He settled back in the chair and closed his eyes.
I began anew to seduce my lover with words. Perhaps Amanda could be persuaded to take another nap in an hour or two. In the soft lamplight, I read another love sonnet for my two dearest loves. I hoped all of us were safe and warm and loved this snowy day.
The end for now