In the three years since moving to Grayrun to be with Levi, and moving into a beautiful little home only ten minutes from his family home, Olivia had learned two things. One, that having nieces and nephews was more exhausting than one might think; and two, that having her own children was even more so.
Now that Levi worked on the ranch of a family friend, Olivia spent long days looking after the children. It was a blessing, of course, but exhausting work.
The oldest of Loretta's children were both boys. They were named Ryan and Ashley, after both of her grandfathers. Now they ran about the garden like little terrors, shouting and screeching as they chased each other around the porch. They had been doing so for the last hour, and Olivia didn't know how they had the energy for it all.
At least Daisy was a little quieter, sitting on the steps with a doll in her hands. She talked in hushed whispers, acting out whatever play she had forged for her toys. Her golden hair was bleached white from the sun, shimmering in the glow.
"Boys," Olivia warned, just as Ashley went careening into the bushes at the far end of the garden. "Be careful! Your mother won't be happy if I send you back home covered in dirt and scratches."
Ashley picked himself up, dusting off his shorts with a playful scowl. "I'm fine! See?"
"Just make sure it stays that way, please."
Ashley only shrugged; then turned back to his brother and began hollering once more as he chased him around the apple tree.
Olivia didn't have the heart to warn them a second time. She was sweating from the heat just from merely sitting down, and she didn't think she would ever get entirely used to how scorching Texas could become. She leaned back in the porch chair with a sigh, watching with only mild annoyance as Ryan collapsed in a heap just inches from her flowerbeds. If he ruined them, the price of new seeds would come out of his pocket money.
"Auntie Olivia?" Daisy piped up in that sweet voice of hers. "Can we play dolls?" She held one out - her favorite, with thick blonde curls and a bright, red painted smile. "I used to play with Ashley, but now he says he's too old, and it’s only for girls anyway."
Olivia couldn't help but laugh, muffling it with the sleeve of her dark gray blouse. "I'd love to play dolls with you," she replied, leaning forward just enough to ruffle Daisy's curls. Once upon a time, as simple an act as leaning forward had been easy - but now she had a broad bump in the way, restricting her movement. Only four months left, she reminded herself, you've done it once, and you can do it again.
Since Olivia could hardly kneel on the ground like she used to, Daisy brought the dolls to her. They were an old-fashioned, expensive kind with delicate hair and realistic features; the kind that Olivia had always dreamed of owning as a child. That wasn't to say that Loretta and her husband were rich; simply that they always made sure to treat their children well.
They played for perhaps five minutes before a shadow fell across Olivia. She tilted her head up to see Levi standing in the doorway, holding the sleeping form of their daughter, Charlotte. She was cuddled right against his chest with her favorite green knitted blanket across her middle, soft snores leaving her lips.
Levi beamed as he stepped onto the porch, and carefully lowered himself - and Charlotte - into the seat beside Olivia. "I always thought it kind of sweet, how Charlotte sleeps," he said thoughtfully. "Do you see how her nose scrunches up, and her little eyebrows twitch?"
Olivia smiled softly, reaching out to brush a curl from Charlotte's face. "She gets the eyebrow twitch from you, Levi," she said with a smile. "It happens when you're dreaming."
"Hmm. I wonder what Charlotte is dreaming about right now, then?"
Olivia wasn't even sure that babies could dream, but it was a charming thought. Perhaps she was dreaming of great adventures, the kinds of things only found in adventure books. Or, more likely, she was dreaming about food. She had only just been introduced to solids, and now she couldn't get enough of it.
Levi sat back in the chair, holding Charlotte to his chest - then his eyes roved out across the garden, to where Ashley and Ryan were still play fighting on the grass. They shrieked and tumbled, but still Charlotte slept on. "I don't know how Loretta takes care of them full time," Levi mused with a smirk. "I'd be exhausted."
Olivia quirked a brow, patting the great dome of her stomach. "Then you'd better hope for another girl," she answered, "because the boys in my family are known to be little devils."
She swore that Levi paled. "You know, I think every father longs for a boy, but I'll be happy for a girl instead."
They shared a laugh, then, in the quiet of the morning. Olivia knew that Levi was only joking - he loved Charlotte more than anything, doted on her, and he would be happy no matter what their newest baby was. Who knew, perhaps they would even be surprised and end up with twins - Hannah had given birth to twins both times, although she still found time for her studies. It helped that her husband, Billy, was so doting on the children.
Her attention was once again drawn to Ashley when he went stumbling, smacking the back of his head against the apple tree on his way down. He landed with a thud and proceeded to stare dazedly up at Ryan - before bursting into tears.
"Oh Lord," Levi muttered, quickly climbing to his feet. "Take Charlotte, would you? I'll make sure he's all right."
No sooner had Charlotte reached her arms when she, too, began to howl. It was a gut wrenching cry that had sent Olivia into panic the first time she heard it, but now it was common place in this small house. What could she say? Olivia had raised a child almost as dramatic as herself.
Deciding that it was better to calm her down somewhere quiet, Olivia darted inside the house. At least here, the sound was contained. Charlotte continued to scream and cry, but it dimmed somewhat when Olivia began to stroke a hand through her thick ebony curls. "There," she murmured, bouncing Charlotte on her hip, "isn't that better?"
Charlotte was too young yet to talk, although Olivia felt like she might start soon. She was already learning to crawl, although it was somewhat shaky still, and she seemed to sometimes understand what Olivia said. Like now, for example. She blinked up at Olivia with enormous blue eyes, and although they still brimmed with tears, she managed a round-cheeked smile.
"See?" Olivia murmured, "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
Charlotte's response was to stick her hand in Olivia's face and laugh.
And to think, she thought with a laugh of her own, soon, I'll be dealing with this all over again. Well, that's what I get for having two babies only a year apart.
She still wasn't sure that Charlotte was all right to go back outside, so Olivia wandered down the hall, humming an old lullaby. It was something that Papa used to sing to her when she was young, and Mama sang before that. It always worked on Charlotte, who couldn't stay awake when there was music.
Olivia paused by the front door, her eyes drifting to the pile of letters on the side board. The pile just kept on growing, no matter how quickly Olivia thought she was getting through it. There was a letter from her friends back home, one from a distant cousin, even one from Tom, that sweet boy...
There was one from Papa, too, no doubt wishing for another visit. After being there for the wedding, he insisted on visiting every six months. Olivia rather thought that he was lonely in that old house all alone, but she loved his visits.
Maybe a small part of him was still trying to make up for the whole Charles Duncan thing, too.
Oh, this letter was new. It jolted her from thoughts of Papa, and she looked down to touch the envelope. Opening the envelope one handed was quite the task, but somehow she managed. The envelope fluttered to the floor, but that wasn't what Olivia was interested in anyway.
Dearest Olivia, it read, I don't know if you remember me, but three years ago you saved me from a bandit called Alder Dempsey. I was reunited with my son because of you, and just two weeks ago I found my husband, too. He moved to Kentucky almost three years ago, and I honestly didn't have much hope of finding him; but thanks to you, I had that chance - and now we're together again.
We're moving back to Texas soon. I understand if you wish to put that part of your life behind you, goodness knows I do, but perhaps we could meet sometime? My son, Lewis, wants to thank you in person. That nice man, too. Levi, was it?
Regardless, I just wanted you to know how many lives you and Levi changed for the better. There was a time where it all felt so hopeless, but now I have the best life I could have dreamed of. I hear that Sheriff Burk has helped over a dozen people find their loved ones again - and it's all because you showed him how to find us.
I will forever be grateful.
Olivia stared fondly at the letter in her hands, heart slowly warming with joy. It was wonderful to think that Diane was back with her husband, that Lewis had his father again. She found herself sniffling, holding back tears that prickled at the corner of her eyes. This really was the best outcome that she could think of. Already, she was wondering how best to reply.
"Is everything all right?" Levi's voice came from down the hall. "Ashley might have a bruise or two, but nothing serious. I've given him the old talk about being careful outdoors, you know the one. We gave it to him last week, too."
Olivia hummed in reply, laughter bubbling up in her chest. "He won't listen, but at least we can say that we tried."
"True enough." Then Levi paused, eyes drifting to the letter. "Another one? It seems like everyone wants to get in touch with us these days."
At some point, Charlotte had drifted back off to sleep, and she was content to slip into Levi's waiting arms as Olivia gently passed her over. She let out a tiny yawn and cuddled into Levi's shoulder, buried under the bright green blanket again. It was amazing how quickly babies could just pass out.
Almost as amazing as how, after three years, Diane had successfully tracked her down to say thanks. "It seems that Sheriff Burk's hard work has paid off," she said with a grin. "I just got a letter from one of the people we freed. Diane."
"The one with the boy?"
"That exact same woman," Olivia confirmed. Her heart warmed all over again, delight spreading through her chest. "She's found her family at last, and apparently she isn't the only one. It really feels like everything is coming together."
He hummed in agreement, then curled an arm around Olivia's waist to pull her close. Their lips met in a languid kiss, Charlotte nestled safely between them. The warmth of Levi's body never ceased to amaze her, for even when it was mild outside he seemed to radiate heat. Now was no different, and Olivia found herself sinking into him.
When they pulled apart, Levi grinned down at her with a mischievous smile. "The children are just outside," he murmured against her, "we should probably stop."
"Just one more?" Olivia asked.
Levi had never been able to tell her no. He rolled his eyes with a teasing little smile, the kind that let her know he wasn't really annoyed, and dipped down for another kiss. This one lingered, soft yet passionate, as he kissed her with his entire being.
Olivia's cheeks flushed pink, as they always did, even after three whole years. She laughed against his lips and he laughed back, until the sounds of delight filled the entire house.
This wasn't the life that Olivia had imagined for herself, or the life that Papa had wanted for her. No, it was a thousand times better than anything either of them could have dreamed up, and Olivia was grateful for every moment of it.
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