Recap from Chapter 29: Feeling lucky to be taken care of while suffering a nasty cold, Haze rested, dozing to old episodes of “The Waltons.” The show cast her thoughts toward family and the eventual starting one of their own. As she dozed, she suddenly realized that she could be pregnant right now. Jake returned just as Haze was reeling with the idea, but instead of sharing, she said nothing about her suspicions.

No sooner did her cold symptoms dissipate, Haze was back in her studio working on a new art series. With all that time in bed recuperating, she found herself dreaming constantly about clouds—storm clouds, especially. Ominous clouds looming over the horizon, dark and foreboding—it was all she could think about. And so began the painting. She chose a large canvas, propping it up on a table to get started. She sketched only the horizon line—a prairie field in fall colors. The clouds needed no sketching. Just like the sky above, which was as fluid as the wind that moves it, clouds formed as paint was applied and then blended across the canvas with a series of brushes. The effect was mesmerizing. And so therapeutic for Haze. Moving paint with no real expectation of the outcome ticked all the boxes of why she became an artist in the first place. Creativity flowed through her fingertips and the vision changed as she saw fit. A sweep of the brush here; add more white or black or indigo to allow it to take shape; more blending. She was working up a sweat, pushing aside everything else. She was keenly focused on what was unfolding on canvas and nothing more.

Jake won the bid for the cabinet job and was busy in his workshop planning and building. It was the life she envisioned for them: two artisans busy at work. Crowley had taken to following Jake into the workshop where both returned at the end of the day covered in sawdust and wood shavings. It had become routine that every day, late in the afternoon, Haze heard their approaching steps and caught a glimpse of them through the studio window. Dog and master stood on the porch to brush off their coats before coming inside. Watching them execute their brush-off and all over shake made her smile every time. Jake would take the lead and show Crowley how it’s done. Jake’s rendition was hilarious.

Often, Haze had something going in the crock pot and the cooking smells wafted throughout the house, getting stronger as the day progressed. There was something so comforting about a hot meal almost making itself as she worked in her studio. Today, there were spareribs simmering in homemade honey barbeque sauce with fresh herbs on top. Big baking potatoes were in the oven, slathered in butter and covered in foil.

When Jake and Crowley opened the front door, Jake sniffed the air theatrically and exclaimed, “Damn, that smells good!” Haze giggled. “I’ll be out in a few minutes.” They both understood that a few minutes in the studio meant closer to an hour. He rubbed Crowley’s neck and ears. “We know that’s not true, don’t we boy?” He called out, “Do I have time to take a shower before dinner?”

“Sure,” she shouted back. “Take your time.”

He gave Crowley a knowing look as he headed toward the bedroom. A hot shower at the end of the day was a reviving experience. It also helped keep the sawdust off the furniture and out of the bed. He emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of shampoo-scented steam, which also wafted throughout the house. Haze’s nose alerted her that it was time to clean her brushes and duck out of the studio. She encountered Jake in the bedroom, drying off his hair. Except for a towel tucked around his waist, he was naked, his skin still damp. She came closer. “You smell like sexy man,” she said, smooching his neck. He grabbed her in a damp embrace, dipping her backward and kissing her lips. It was a funny move at first, but then it became much more. The kiss deepened as her hands wandered over his skin. He dropped her onto the bed and then comically whipped off the towel. She leaned up on her elbows, watching as he put on a funny show of posing like a body builder. His hair was sticking up in all directions and his chest hair was fuzzy from being washed. She whistled and clapped at his performance. When he’d had enough, he leaped onto the bed, making her wince and roll aside so he wouldn’t smash into her. He gathered her underneath him, arms on either side of her smiling face. “Do we have time for anything interesting before dinner?” he asked, brushing a strand of hair from her forehead. “Absolutely,” she replied, running her hands over his back and pulling him closer.

The next day, Jake brought Haze a cup of coffee while she was working in the studio. It happened to be Valentine’s Day and he wanted to tease her about the surprise he’d planned for later. He stood by her side, watching her work the stormy sky on the giant canvas. She had since propped it up on a plank balanced across two sawhorses leaning against the wall—or rather Jake had made that makeshift platform for her to work. The piece was coming out just the way she envisioned, the sky loaded with dramatic colors.

“So, tonight I’ve got something nice planned,” he began, “and you don’t have

to do a thing. I’ve got the whole thing all worked out.”

She smiled around the brush handle she held in her teeth. Then she put it to use. “So, you’ve got it all worked out, do you?” she said with a glance over her shoulder. “I hope you remembered that we decided on no gifts.”

He held up his hands. “I didn’t break any rules—I promise.” He wrapped his arms around her waist. “You just have to promise to be done here at 6.” He kissed her neck.

“I’ll set an alarm,” she said, leaning into his embrace.

She had put her recent suspicions to rest earlier in the week. It was easy to learn the truth. The hard part was keeping it from Jake. She didn’t share immediately. She had wanted time to ponder what to do with the information. Should she blurt out everything over a bagel at the kitchen table with no more importance than making a grocery list? Or should she plot a grand reveal? She became inspired while perusing the inventory at Evergreen Crafters. She made a purchase and had it wrapped in their signature forest-themed paper, tied with raffia. She hid the present in a box on the top shelf, tucked between her reference books. She glanced up and smiled. Then she gazed at the progress on the canvas. With this thing unsettled, it’s no wonder she had storm clouds on her mind. Something big was on the horizon, and it was working itself out through her art. Jake may have kept his promise, but she had a gift to give.

Just after 6, Haze came into the kitchen to find Jake pouring wine. “Come with me,” he said, tipping his head. She followed him into the living room to find it completely transformed. He had pushed back the furniture to make room for a quilt that he had spread on the floor next to the fireplace where he had lit a fire. Scented candles flickered all around the room, casting a warm glow on the inviting scene. Jake had spread a beautiful picnic with a charcuterie board including homemade spreads and toasted baguettes. He had placed peony plants aroun the room and tossed oversized pillows on the floor to lean against. Haze was speechless. He was obviously pleased with her reaction. He kissed her on the cheek. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said, handing her a glass of wine. “My gift is time to set everything else aside to enjoy time with each other.” They settled on the cushions. “To us,” he said, touching their glasses together. “To the life we’re building and all the wonderful unknowns in our future.”

Haze smiled and took a sip to brace herself for what she was about to reveal.