Only Love Bonus Epilogue

STELLA

“Ruthie, no! Don’t climb on the nice man.”

I gave my oldest child the sternest expression I had, although it was hard not to laugh as she settled herself squarely on the old timer’s lap. At four, Ruthie was endlessly curious about absolutely everyone and had no fear when it came to talking to strangers—and she loved visiting the nursing home where Grams lived, because so many people were willing to chat with her. She had a particular interest in anyone in a wheelchair who was willing to let her hop on for a ride.

“That’s all right,” the old gent said, his voice raspy but joyful. “I don’t mind. We’re friends, aren’t we, Ruthie?”

“Yes.” My daughter nodded delightedly. “But I forgot your name.”

He howled with laughter. “It’s George.”

Ruthie looked at me triumphantly. “This is my friend George.”

Mr. Mason,” I corrected, but Ruthie had a mind of her own—just like her namesake—and would probably go on calling the man George no matter what I said.

Sure enough, Ruthie turned up her nose at me and I exchanged an amused glance with Ryan, who cradled one-month-old Declan in his arms. He’d actually been born on Grams’s ninety-ninth birthday. I held tight to the hand of our two-year-old son, Mason, lest he take off running.

“There you are!” The familiar voice, a little weaker than it used to be, but still filled with spunk, rang out across the common room full of Sunday visitors.

I turned and saw Grams making her way toward us with her walker. She hated that thing, but after a few falls in the last several years, we told her she had to use it or else we’d refuse to come see her. Of course, we never would have done so, but Grams cherished her visits with her great-grandchildren so much, she complied … at least when we were there. Who knew what she did when we weren’t? But at her age, I figured she’d earned the right to darn well do as she pleased most of the time. I only wanted to keep her around as long as possible.

“Hi, Grams,” I said, opening my arms to hug her small but remarkably sturdy frame.

“Hello, my darling.” She hugged me before leaning down to squeeze Ruthie’s shoulders. “And how’s my Ruthie-girl today?”

“Good.” Ruthie patted the old guy’s head. “This is George. He’s my friend.”

“Mine too. How are you today, George?” Grams winked at him.

“Very well, thank you.”

“And how are you, Grams?” Ryan asked, kissing her cheek as he bounced Declan in his arms. The baby had been fussy on the ride here, and no one was better at calming him than Ryan. He’d been like that with all our children. Maybe it was his deep voice or the quiet, soothing way he spoke to them, but he definitely had the magic touch and patience for days.

“Just peachy, dear.” Grams sighed.  “Although whoever is making those things that pass for muffins at the breakfast buffet table should really take up a different profession. They’re like hockey pucks!”

Ryan and I shared a smile. Grams was happy here but for the loss of her own kitchen, and never failed to make at least one critical remark about the sorry state of all the baked goods at the nursing home.

“Well, Ruthie and I brought you some muffins we baked yesterday, and there are plenty to share with your friends if you’d like.”

“Perfect. And can we still bake at the house before Christmas?” Grams asked hopefully.

“Of course, Grams. Ryan is going to come and get you next Saturday and we’ll spend the entire day in your old kitchen.” Two years ago, when the family had decided Grams should no longer live alone, Ryan and I had offered to buy her house in Hadley Harbor and move up here. She’d been so thrilled at the idea that she hardly made a fuss about moving out.

“Splendid.” Grams looked pleased. She looked up at Ryan. “And how are things at Cloverleigh?” Ryan had gone to work at Cloverleigh Farms again after we moved back up here, stepping into the role of Projects Manager, taking over all groundskeeping and landscaping. The new title had also come with a raise, allowing me to stay home with the kids, although I’d recently started to work in online therapy and enjoyed its flexible schedule and varied clientele.

Ryan smiled. “Great. Busy for the holidays.”

“Glad to hear it.” Grams leaned down to talk to Mason. “And what’s new with you, handsome?”

He grabbed on to her walker with both hands.

“You want this contraption? It’s yours.” Grams laughed as he steered the walker away from us and began to push it around the room. I frowned but she patted my shoulder. “Oh, let him. He’s not bothering anybody, and I’m fine on my feet for a few minutes. Now let me get a look at that baby.” She shuffled toward Ryan, and he turned so Grams could see the newest addition to our brood. “Well, hello there, sweetheart. You’re a looker, just like your daddy. Did you know that you and I share a birthday?” She lowered her voice. “That’s right. All the best people are born in November.”

“Would you like to hold him?” Ryan asked while I kept one eye on Ruthie, who was trying on George’s glasses, and the other on Mason, making sure he wasn’t smashing into furniture or people.

“I sure would.” Grams sat down on one of many couches in the room and made herself comfortable, then Ryan carefully placed the baby in her arms.

“He’s been a little crabby today,” Ryan said apologetically.

“That’s okay,” she said, shushing Declan as he continued to fuss. “You can be as crabby as you want, and I’ll still love you all to pieces, little guy.”

Ryan and I sat to one side of her, and he took my hand. Something caught in my throat as I watched her soothe and whisper to my newborn son with familiar words I’d heard growing up, and soon I couldn’t help tears from filling my eyes. I sniffled, and Ryan shifted his attention to me.

“You okay?” he whispered.

I nodded, smiling even as I started to weep. “I think it’s the hormones. I’m still not quite myself. Sorry.”

“You never have to apologize to me for that.” He leaned toward me and kissed my temple. “For the rest of my life, I will continue to be amazed that you gave birth to my children. And that was after carrying them for nine months! I mean, you grew three humans and put them out in the world. Nothing I’ve ever done comes close. You deserve all the recovery time you need.”

My heart filled with love for him. For all his nervousness about becoming a father, he’d been nothing but excited and supportive throughout my pregnancies and at the births of our children. I’d never forget his tears when he held each of them in his arms for the first time. “Thank you.”

He kissed me once more, then a noise made him look up. “Oh, Jesus. Mason, no!” He  bolted off the couch in time to grab our toddler in one arm and the walker in the other before Mason could eat more cookies off the plate in the lap of a little old lady in a birthday hat. “I’m so sorry,” he said to the lady and her family.

They laughed and said it was okay, then offered him another cookie and one for Ruthie too. He rushed over, ecstatic about his score. “Go give it to your sister,” I told him, pointing toward Ruthie, who was telling poor George about the accident she’d had at pre-school last week.

“I wet my big-girl pants, but it’s okay,” she reassured him, as if he’d been the one to wet himself. “My dad said accidents happen. And my mom says life is full of surprises.”

I shook my head and smiled. It was true, I did often say that, but not in the context of her wetting her pants because she didn’t want to stop playing outside to go in and use the bathroom.

Looking around me now, I felt like it was more true than ever. I could never have guessed just a few years ago at the turn my life would take simply because of a last-minute visit to Grams. Falling in love with Ryan had been the surprise of my life, and look at everything it had led to. Back then I never could have imagined how happy I’d be, how full and joyful my life would become.

Of course, Grams would tell the story differently. She’d say there was no surprise at all, that she knew exactly what she was doing when she tricked me into coming up here to visit her.

Well, I thought as I took Ryan’s hand again, maybe she did.

P.S. Of course I did.

—Grams