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Anna's Adventures, The Last Chapter, Part 2
By Dale
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Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. No infringement is intended in any part by the author, however, the ideas expressed within this story are copyrighted to the author.

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Maria had been extracted from the melee by the unexpectedly strong arm of her father. She had been too surprised to resist, and before she completely recovered her senses they were in the carriage, moving briskly towards home.

Her father's silence was thunderous, but he held his tongue until they were at last in the privacy of home. His icy tone stopped her at the foot of the stairs. "Maria," he said, "we must talk."

"I'm tired, Father."

"No doubt. You had a fine evening's work. Come into the parlor. Or do you wish the servants to hear?"

Mutinously she turned, her head high, and walked slowly into the parlor. Her father closed the door firmly behind her. "Are you pleased with your outing, Maria? The young man for whom you humiliated yourself is a drunken boor."

Maria said nothing. The fight had been thrilling. After being ignored by him--to know that she could prompt such drastic action! Of course he had been surprised. Of course he'd hung back. But he couldn't pretend indifference for long. She half-expected him to come flying after them; even now she was tensely listening for the sound of hoofbeats, an impatient knock at the door.

Montero sat down. He felt suddenly weary and irresolute. Tonight had been beyond his worst nightmare. His daughter had behaved like a common tramp, provoking a drunken brawl by her indiscretions. Even now her face was aglow with a primal excitement. That his gentle daughter--the product of the finest families, the best education--that she could be moved by such man, that she could take pleasure in such common behavior--how was it possible? It was a shame that the old ways could not still be followed, that a daughter could not be made to accept her father's choice. He should have seen her properly married in Europe. Now--now all of her animal passions were stirred, and they would not be quieted without dishonor. "Have you nothing to say for yourself?"

"I did nothing wrong."

"Once before you said that to me. Then I believed you. Now we both know it is not true." With effort he rose. "On Monday I will return to San Francisco. You should come with me. If you do not, I am finished with you."

"Once before you threatened me with that, Father, and look at all the sadness you caused. Will you really do it again? Because it won't work this time. If I have to part from you, Father, I will. I won't sacrifice my whole life's happiness to some stupid notion of honor."

"Some stupid notion?" He shook his head sadly. "I cannot believe you are my daughter. I cannot believe you are so dead to duty, or to shame." He paused at the door. "Have I been such a bad father? I acted in your best interests. Now I believe you choose your actions only to hurt me. Tonight--what happened tonight is to be your whole life's happiness? Maria, you are a fool."

When he was gone she wavered. Five years ago her father had been little more than a statue to her; she had scarcely known him. Since then she had lived at close quarters with him. Though she had never quite forgiven him, he was far dearer to her than he had been five years ago. For a moment she saw the evening through his eyes, and she was ashamed. Even as she'd flirted with Nick Barkley she'd felt cheap and small and desperate. Her father was right: there had been nothing honorable in her behavior tonight.

And yet...Desperate times called for desperate measures, didn't they? And it had worked, hadn't it? In the end he hadn't been able to bear the sight of her with Nick. In all the time she'd been there he hadn't been with his fiancee for even a second. No; everything he'd done tonight spoke of how deeply he still loved her. Tomorrow; she thought; tomorrow would settle everything. She felt a little uneasy at the thought of Anna Carroll, whom she scarcely knew and would no doubt harm. And her father, suddenly gray and old and exhausted...

But it would all be made well. Anna Carroll could not wish to hold onto a man who loved elsewhere, no woman could. And her father--her father would see her happiness, and relent. For she would have happiness. She would have Heath, at least, and she would have happiness.

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The morning crawled by. Of course she expected him to call; she expected him to sweep her away as he'd so nearly done five years ago. But the polite hour for calls came--and why had he waited even for that?--and still he did not come. Finally she realized she would have to go to him. Last night--what must he have thought of her, seeing her dancing and flirting with his brother? No doubt he'd assumed the worst. No doubt, too, he was ashamed of his impulsive action. No doubt he'd thought her sudden disappearance proved her disdain. She would have to go to him.

She rode over the familiar backlane. She drew up on the north ridge, looking south. From here the house was scarcely a speck, but she felt certain he would be there. She spurred her mount on.

The wagon was there, the horses turned loose in the paddock. There was hammering inside. She took a deep breath. Finally; finally, she would hear his voice again, see those eyes turned toward her with love. She pushed open the door.

He was laying floorboards. It took him a moment to realize someone was there. Was he surprised or wasn't he? He put down the hammer, wiped off his hands on his discarded shirt. "You didn't ought to be here," he said when he could trust his voice.

"Where else should I be?" she asked coolly.

There was no mistaking her intent. He said roughly, "I'm to be wed this Saturday."

"You didn't act like a man engaged last night."

How strange it was to see her again. She was much changed, but the changes were all good. He was made aware, afresh, of just how young she had been five years ago; a schoolgirl, really. She was no schoolgirl now; there was self-possession, confidence, determination in every line of her. Maturity had taken away the slight chubbiness in her face, showing the finely made bones beneath. Her clothes were simpler today, but the simplicity suited her. The same reckless light in her eyes, the same hectic color in her face were still there from last night. Five years ago she hadn't had such fire.

The room felt small. He pushed past her, stepped out into the glare of the afternoon. Good grass growing all around, fat happy draft animals in the paddock. This house and this barn, his own loving handiwork. Would he live here? he wondered.

"Heath." Maria's voice was quiet, but there was no mistaking the certainy underneath. "You know why I'm here. Why I came back to the valley." She hesitated. "I behaved badly last night. I didn't know what else to do. But, Heath, I think you know. I've never stopped regretting leaving you. I've never stopped--I've never stopped loving you."

The memory of five years ago, ashes in his mouth. He'd just come to the valley; he'd felt new-minted and shiny as a gold piece. She had taken away much of the savor of his new life. For what? "Do you have your father's permission to be here?" he said cuttingly, his back to her.

"No," she said. "No, I don't. I'm here against his express wishes." Her voice faltered a little. "If I don't go back to San Francisco with him tomorrow I'll never see him again."

"Then I reckon you'd best go with him."

"I can't." It was hard to talk to his back. "I can't go back with him, Heath. I had to see you again. I had to tell you. I had to know."

"You had to," he said bitterly. "You ever think of what I might want? You ever think your coming around ain't what I want? You been gone five years, Maria."

She swallowed. "I know this seems awkward. Oh, Heath, if I'd known--if I'd known there was any hope--I would have come sooner. Never, in all this time, never did I stop loving you or hoping I'd find my way back to you."

"Well," he said, "I wasn't good enough for you five year ago, and I ain't much improved since then." He spoke as roughly as he could.

"You were always good enough for me." Her voice was ragged, hard-pressed by tears. "No one else ever moved me as you did. No one else ever seemed as decent, or as generous, or as honorable. Perhaps my father thought you weren't good enough. He was wrong. I always knew it."

He turned finally to look at her. Yes, she was a handsome woman, and she had dignity and breeding written all over her. It wasn't right to let her stand there and talk like that. But then the despair that had been eating at him for days bit more deeply. Anna had run away from him last night, disgusted by his behavior. He'd had no word from her since. Here was this other woman, a woman he'd long hungered for, beautiful and so far above him. It would be a fine old revenge, a fine old revenge on old man Montero and on Anna and on that popinjay Sherborne and on Hester and Nick and Jarrod--he wasn't even sure why he wanted to hurt most of them but it didn't matter any more. Maria Montero was a weapon and he was in a fighting mood. He pulled her into his arms, kissed her hard.

She melted into him, relief making her weak. This was not quite the way she'd remembered it, not quite as she'd dreamed it, but it was thrilling enough. His hunger and his need for her were obvious. She felt tears on her face. At last, at last. How right she had been to come here today! "We'll be married," she said softly. "Once we're married everything will be all right. Father will be reconciled. Once we're married..."

The word stopped him cold. Married. Yes, he was to be married. But not to her. Anna, he thought stupidly, Anna, what am I doing? Anna, who had loved him and chosen him without reserve. His beautiful Anna, tall and grave and gentle, the glow of the moonlight on her white skin. Oh God.

He pushed Maria away gently. He felt as if he'd been surrounded by a fog for days, ever since Anna had mentioned her trip to San Francisco. Clear-eyed now, he knew he'd been a fool, blinded by his own jealousy and past hurts. He was struggling to find words for all this, to somehow put aside this woman without doing to her the damage she'd done to him. In the silence he heard the distant jingle of harness, and turned to see Anna's rig disappearing back down the road.

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Haste made Heath clumsy, and it took far longer than it should have to catch the team and get it harnessed. Maria stood by and watched, puzzled, but she let him go without a word. She had hoped for more of a resolution, but she went home with the conviction that the resolution was close at hand.

He drove as fast as he could. At a fork in the road he had to guess: would she go home, or would she go to Victoria? Home, he decided; this wasn't something she'd want to raise with Victoria, and no doubt she'd dread seeing him again. He turned his team toward Stockton.

A small chalkboard hung by Anna's surgery door where she left messages for patients when she was out. The message on it was scrawled and barely legible. Gone to San Francisco, it said. Please see Dr. Martin in Lodi.

He ran for the station. But the afternoon train was pulling away; he'd just missed it. But, he thought, perhaps she had too; she'd had a head start but that nag of hers wasn't very fast. He went into the station and went to the ticket window. "Did Dr. Carroll get on the San Francisco train?"

"Yes, she did," the station mistress said. "In a powerful hurry she was, and just barely made it. Must be someone awful sick in San Francisco." The mistress leaned over her counter. "Nicely dressed she was, too. I'm glad to see you've put a stop to her gallivanting around in those odd clothes. Not proper for a lady at all."

Heath, conscious that he'd come away with no shirt, left the station quickly. He was too embarrassed to ask if she'd had a bag; if she'd bought a return ticket. San Francisco, he thought. Who did she know in San Francisco but Nat Sherborne? Perhaps she'd go back to that hospital where she'd first worked. A hotel? No, it would be Sherborne. The irony of it.

He stood for a moment on the sidewalk. The late afternoon sun was still bright and hot. But he'd upended his world in the space of one afternoon. His feet heavy, his gait slow, he headed for his wagon.

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Anna had had only one thought: to get away. During her drive out to the house she had so nearly convinced herself that she was wrong, so nearly convinced herself that it wanted only a little gesture by her to restore the feelings that had run between them just a few nights ago. It took a long moment for her to understand just what she was seeing: Maria Montero in Heath's arms.

Her face burning, she'd turned the rig around as fast as she could, desperate to avoid being seen. To have to meet the eyes of either one of them, to try to speak would be a horror. Anger and grief worked together to close up her throat. She couldn't have said a word to either of them.

When she got to Stockton she realized it wasn't far enough away, she would have to keep going. The choice of San Francisco was dictated by the fact that the train was standing in the station, and it was the only other place in California she knew. But she got on the train with no very clear idea of where she was going or what she would do when she got there.

The ride to San Francisco took four hours. Four hours alone on the hot, rocking train, choking on dust, wasn't enough to wipe the image out of her mind, or to rob it of its power. What a fool I was, she thought sadly. Thinking everything was settled, thinking he was mine. After accepting for so long that she would have a life only as a doctor, never having hoped for love or a man or a family, how quickly she'd changed! How quickly and completely she'd come to believe that all of that would be hers! How hard it would be to let go of that happy idea...

When Anna had first realized her love for Heath, she'd despaired of any return. Now the despair that came over her was far darker, far more suffocating. It was worse, she realized, to have hoped and then lost that hope, than to have never hoped at all.

And it was such a loss. How could she stay in Stockton? Could she live in a town where another woman claimed Heath, where another woman lived in the house he had built with his own hands, built for her? Although, she thought sourly, the little house probably wouldn't be good enough for Maria. She remembered the beautiful clothes, the elegant townhouse. Hard to see her mistress of a simple farmhouse. But for love--well, perhaps for love Maria Montero could learn to live Anna Carroll's life. Or perhaps for love she could make Heath live her own kind of life. Somehow that was the most revolting thought of all, Heath taken from the country he loved, stuffed into a city life in a ruffled shirt.

When the train pulled into San Francisco, it was past 8:30 and twilight was coming on. Anna was at a complete loss; where to go? What to do? She was tired, and, she realized, hungry. How was it possible to be hungry at such a time? Jarrod was here in the city, and she knew where his lodgings were, but she had no desire to see any of the Barkleys. She knew where Nat Sherborne lived, too, but it never occurred to her to go there; Nat was the last sort of confidant she wanted. Hester, she thought suddenly. It would have to be Hester.

She didn't know Hester's address, but the family was well-known in San Francisco, and she found a cabby who could take her there.

The house was just as imposing as the Montero house, and not far from it. The door was opened by a footman who looked her over with a sniff but allowed that Miss Converse was at home and he would be happy to give her the name. He left Anna cooling her heels in the antechamber.

Hester appeared soon after. "Why, Dr. Carroll, this is a surprise. I'd understand if you had no desire to see my face again after last night!" She got a closer look at Anna and dropped the bright tone. "My dear, you're obviously upset. Has something happened at home? I'm sorry to say Jarrod's not here. Shall I send for him?"

"Oh, no, please. No, I've--I've come on rather short notice. I didn't even bring a bag. I've--oh, dear. Things have gone so very wrong. I'm sorry. I didn't know where else to go."

Hester smiled a little. "You must be famished. Your timing is perfect, I was just about to sit down to supper all by myself. Let me offer you a little refreshment, and then you can tell me your troubles."

Hester had obviously planned to sup alone, but there was enough food on the table to feed a dozen. It was not until after the supper things were cleared, and Anna settled in a guest room, that Anna found the courage to tell her story. Hester listened patiently, her brow furrowing more deeply as Anna went along.

When Anna was finally finished, Hester sat for a moment, thinking. Then she said: "This is a sad situation indeed. I'm so very sorry, Anna. I know--I have a little idea of how it feels when something like this goes so wrong." She stood. "I'm not sure what to tell you. I think the best thing is for the both of us to sleep on it, and perhaps talk in the morning. If you need anything, please ring the bell. There's nothing more soothing to me than a little of Cook's special tea. I recommend it highly on a sleepless night."

At the door, Hester said: "I suppose it's very selfish of me, but I am glad you came here."

Anna tried to smile. "I'm just glad I had somewhere to go."

Hester hesitated, then said, "I'm not sure you want to hear this. But your dress was delivered Saturday after I'd already left--your wedding dress, that is. Would you like to see it?"

Anna looked away. "No," she said finally. "No, I don't."

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On Monday morning Heath got up early. But he didn't go to the house. A whole corralful of unbroken horses had been waiting for him for a week or more. Time to get to it; he'd left Nick with all the chores to do for far too long. In any case, he couldn't face going out to the house. He wondered if he'd ever be able to see that place without remembering those moments with Maria. And Anna. What must she think of him? Impossible to explain. A man as eloquent as Jarrod would get knotted up trying to explain how he'd ended up in that situation. He had no chance at all. And he had no reason to think Anna would sit still enough to hear whatever he could say. Couldn't blame her. How it must have looked to her. She must think him the most faithless, worthless man in the world. That was the worst part. If he had to lose her--well, at first he'd never hoped to win her. He could bear to lose her. But to know that he'd hurt her as he had. No amount of work could quite drive that from his mind.

Nick was sullen and withdrawn himself, and he left his little brother alone with the horses. So did all the other hands, at Heath's express request. He wanted no talk and no company. He just wanted to get tired enough to maybe sleep that night, which is more than he'd managed the night before.

Victoria stopped a few times that afternoon to watch him. She'd seen the fight unfold on Saturday night, feeling a profound annoyance with herself. She might have prevented it; she might have warned him. Oh, her reasons were good enough--she'd been worried about what Maria would do to Heath's peace of mind. So much for hoping that Maria would quietly leave the valley without seeing Heath. Victoria had missed most of the action; she hadn't seen Maria dancing with Nick. But she got a vivid picture from Audra.

Jarrod and Nick and Heath were grown men. They could, and should, be left to manage their own romances. But from what she could see, they'd been doing an abominably bad job of it. Trouble enough that they each wanted a woman another brother had wanted. Well, trouble like that happened. But how could they be such dunderheads? How could Jarrod have kept his liaison with Hester so secret--especially when it was so serious? How was it possible that Nick--impulsive and emotional and in and out of love a half-dozen times a year--how was it possible that Nick was still so sensitive on the subject of Hester Converse? And Heath. Maria coming back like that was a bad knock--but there had been something wrong before. Victoria had thought the couple had been easier after Anna's return from San Francisco, but Heath had been withdrawn and dark-browed before the fight.

But...they were men grown. Jarrod was off to San Francisco with Hester, and he'd left her with the distinct impression that he meant to seek Hester's hand, perhaps had done so already. From the look of the two on Saturday night, he would not seek in vain. The problem of Hester would be a permanent one. Nick--and Audra, for that matter--would have to be reined in. And did Nick mean to make a habit of courting Maria Montero? She hadn't seen the worst of Maria's behavior on Saturday night, but she was deeply shocked by the notion that a well-bred young woman would flagrantly pursue an engaged man so close to his wedding. Victoria had begun to doubt the wisdom of any connection with the Monteros.

Heath ate his dinner standing up in the kitchen, and he did the same with his supper. After supper he went back to the corral. When darkness came, Victoria decided this had gone on long enough.

There was a single lantern lit and balanced on a post. He was close by, struggling to get a saddle on a particularly fractious roan. "Isn't this a bit much, even for you?" Victoria asked. "I'm sure Nick's been nagging you about your chores, but shouldn't you have spent your time working on the house?"

"Ain't no point in workin on the house," he said sullenly, his eyes fixed on the cinch.

His words surprised her. "I see," she said coldly. "I take it that you've decided to break your engagement and decided to pursue Maria Montero."

"I ain't decided nothing," he muttered.

"Heath," Victoria said. "Stop fiddling with that saddle and come over here. I'm not going to shout across this paddock."

He came to the fence, but he kept his eyes down, worrying a frayed edge on a glove. "Anna's gone," he said finally.

"Gone?" This was worse than she'd expected. "Gone where?"

"To Frisco," he said. He looked up briefly, his face dark with disappointment and anger. "To Sherborne, I reckon."

Victoria threw up her hands. "Sherborne? Sherborne? Is that what this is about? Heath, that sort of idea isn't worthy of you. It certainly isn't worthy of Anna." He was still toying with the glove, but from his expression she began to understand a little better. "When is she coming back?"

"Don't know," he said. "She didn't say nothin to me. I don't reckon she's comin back at all." He finally let go of the glove. "Maria left me all on her own. Anna I had to drive away." His voice grew more bitter. "Reckon I did a right good job of it, too."

"Your behavior on Saturday night was pretty bad," Victoria said. "I hadn't seen you act that way--in years, really. Why wouldn't Anna be shocked? But was it really enough to make her leave without a word?"

Even in the dim light she could see him flush. "I done worse'n that," he muttered.

"I see," she said, and thought she did. "So you have seen Maria Montero since then."

"I seen her."

But seeing Maria Montero had apparently not made him very happy. "Heath," she said gently, "Maria's coming back now is very--unfortunate. I'm not surprised if you're a little confused."

"I ain't confused," he said.

"Are you sure? You thought about her for a long time."

"I did. I did. And maybe--maybe if she'd come back sooner--well, I can't say. But she didn't. Anna..." His voice trailed off.

"Do you still want to marry her, Heath?"

He finally looked up. "Yes," he said. "Yes, that's what I want, more'n anything." He shook his head. "I'm a damned fool. I was this close--this close--and now I ruined it all."

"Maybe you have," Victoria admitted. "Maybe Anna won't be able to forgive you. But you're not likely to find out hanging around this corral in the dark. Especially if you break your neck."

"She don't want to see me."

"You don't know that. Perhaps she won't. Perhaps you can change her mind."

"I ain't no good with words," he said roughly. "I'm not like Jarrod, I can't talk out things."

"You were good enough with words to win her once. Heath," and her voice took on a new urgency, "you can't just stay here and sulk. Going to Anna may not fix things, but at least that way you have a chance. You have no chance if you stay here." She reached over, forced him to look at her. "I watched you waste the better part of four years grieving over Maria Montero. I don't intend to watch you waste the rest of your life regretting Anna. I know you have your reasons for being afraid. I know life hasn't always been kind to you. But I also know that your past is no excuse for throwing away your future. Don't worry about words, Heath. You'll find the right ones. Just go."

"She's in Frisco."

"Maybe she's back. And if she isn't--well, you know where to catch the train."

He looked down. "I been workin all day."

"She's seen you looking far worse. No more excuses. Just go."

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Heath reached town at an awkward time. There wouldn't be a train to San Francisco for an hour or more. He thought briefly about ducking into Piper's--nothing like a little Dutch courage--but thought the better of it. A little less beer on Saturday night and he might not be in this mess.

For want of anything better to do he went to Anna's surgery, just in case she'd actually come back after all. There was a fresh message on her board. He read it over two, three times to be sure he'd read it right. Alarmed, he ran for Charger. He wouldn't be going to San Francisco that night.

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Anna woke early and ate breakfast in her room. There were quite a few books in the handsome guest room, both serious novels and lighter picture-books, but she was in no mood for reading. Instead she sat at the window as the city come to life. Hester's street was a quiet one, but it sat on a high hill and Anna had a view of a large swath of the city. She watched without seeing.

It was late in the morning when there was a gentle tap at the door. "I thought I'd be tactful and let you sleep in," Hester said. "But of course you're used to leading a useful life and were probably up hours ago." She was pinning on a dashing, small bonnet. "I'm going to soothe my nerves with a little shopping. Would you care to join me?"

For want of anything better to do, Anna agreed. Hester found her a hat and they set off. "Why do your nerves need soothing?"

Hester smiled ruefully. "Jarrod is taking supper en famille with the Converses tonight. It probably won't be as lively as the dance, but it won't be a pleasant little evening at home. Jarrod and I are well matched in one thing at least: my family loathes him as much as his loathes me."

They had turned into a street crammed with shops. The bright material of half-finished dresses, the luxuriant feathers of trimmed hats gleamed out. "Yet you're willing to marry him."

"Willing, yes. Although for the last forty-eight hours I've wondered if selfish isn't a better word." Hester looked over a display of reticules with seeming interest. "I've been on the market for quite some time, and, if you don't think this sounds too dreadful, I have seen a great many men--and had more than a few offers." The bright chattery note left her voice. "He's the finest man of my acquaintance. He's the only one with whom I could bear to imagine a future. So, yes, I'm willing."

They walked a few steps, paused at another shop. This one was full of shoes. "My goodness, look at those heels. We'll all have broken necks come September." She stole a glance at Anna. "I'm willing to marry Jarrod," she added, "even knowing that once he favored someone else."

Anna bit her lip. "But you know that he prefers you now."

"I feel fairly confident of it. Confident enough to risk the future."

Anna's eyes suddenly watered, but she kept her eyes fastened on the shoes.

"My dear," Hester said gently. "Do you even know what you're looking at? You don't want to be here."

"I have nowhere else to be."

"I don't think that's true." Some playfulness came back into Hester's manner. "You chose this man over Jarrod--you must have thought very highly of him, once. Do you so mistrust your own judgment?"

"It's not my judgment I mistrust, but his."

"You put far too low a value on yourself, my dear. I think, perhaps, you should go back to Stockton."

"I'm afraid," Anna said.

Hester laughed. "Oh, my goodness! A woman who could get herself through medical school and halfway around the world! No, that won't do. In any case," Hester said more gently, "you'll have to go back sooner or later, and it's probably best that it's sooner."

"I don't know what to do."

"Nonsense, every woman knows what to do. If you still love this man, you get him back."

"How?" Anna asked. "She's so much prettier--and younger--and richer--and he loved her first."

"The race isn't always to the youngest, or the prettiest, or the richest," Hester said drily. "I know. You can't just retire from the field."

"I won't hold him to a promise he doesn't want to keep."

"I'm not suggesting you do. I'm just suggesting--that you make the best case for yourself before he does decide. Anna--may I be so bold as to lecture? You love this man. You would like to keep him. You won't do it at this remove." She patted her arm. "I think it's time we got you home."

Her voice a little unsteady, Anna said, "How far is it to the train station?"

"Too far to walk. And you need something from the house."

"I didn't bring anything."

"No, you didn't, and you can keep the hat, by the way. I'm certainly not sending you back to Stockton hatless. No, your wedding dress is at the house."

"I'm not sure I'll need it," Anna said unsteadily.

"Oh, I think you will," Hester said with a small smile. "One thing I know, those Barkley men have charm. All of them."

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Anna caught the afternoon train, the big white box on her lap. She couldn't bring herself to look inside the box. Hester's encouragement had evaporated by the time the train left the station. It was all very well for her to talk about keeping Heath or making her case; but Anna had no idea of how such a thing was to be done.

Still, there was some satisfaction in thinking that she was facing her trouble, and not running from it. She told herself she was the daughter not only of a doctor but a soldier, too. Hester was right, she had done a great many things and faced a great many problems. She might not be able to solve this one, but she wouldn't skulk away.

It was supper time when she reached Stockton and the streets were empty. She was a little relieved; all very good to say big things about facing your problems, but it was quite another to actually have to talk to anyone. On the other hand, it was an inconvenience, for the box, though not heavy, was awkwardly shaped, and she could have used a hand.

Impossible to juggle the box without thinking about what lay inside, the one truly handsome article of clothing she owned. Had ever owned, since she was a child and her extravagant mother was still dressing her. Well, she thought, it will serve for other purposes if it's never a wedding dress. What sort of wedding dress did a girl like Maria Montero require?

She was at her surgery, glad to have made it to her door without having to speak to anyone. With some difficulty she got the door open and erased the message on her board. Once inside she felt gloomy. She was alone, free to think about Heath and Maria.

She wasn't sure how long she stood in the parlor before a hard knock on the door roused her. So intense had been her thoughts about Maria Montero that Anna first thought she was imagining the figure on her doorstep. But it was Maria, frantic and apologetic at once.

"I'm sorry--so very sorry, so very sorry--to bother you like this. But my father--he was to return to San Francisco today. He felt unwell and didn't go. But this afternoon--he seems so much worse. I'm afraid--" She stopped to draw breath. "If you don't wish--I would understand--if there's another doctor--"

So strong were her instincts and her training that Anna hesitated only a moment. She reached for her bag. "Have you a carriage? I'm afraid I don't quite know where you live."

"I rode in."

"I'll get my rig, then, and follow you." She scribbled a new message on the door, and headed for the livery stable.

It was a very long drive to the Montero place. The road they took led right past the house. Anna made an effort to keep her eyes on the road, but she couldn't help stealing one glance. By then the sun was very low and the house and the barn cast deep shadows. She saw neither horse nor man. She wondered if he were finished; she wondered if she'd ever see the inside of the house. Her melancholy was replaced by anger when she realized Maria had slowed, looking over toward the house herself.

Another mile or two north, Maria pulled up at a fork in the road, hesitated, looked back at Anna's rig. "What's the problem?" Anna asked.

"That bridle path there--it would cut a mile or more off the trip." She looked at Anna's buggy. "But I've only been on it on horseback. I think it's probably too narrow and too rough for your buggy. We'd best keep to the main road."

"How much farther?"

"Three or four miles." Maria frowned. "I've been gone so long already. I hope..." Without completing her thought she turned her horse and spurred him on. Anna had trouble keeping her in sight in the worsening light on the unfamiliar road.

By the time they reached the main house it was twilight, but the size and the grace of the main house was still noticeable, low-slung and stuccoed, roofed in dark tile, the doors tall and heavy. Maria led her upstairs to her father's room. Maria let out a sigh of relief; Don Alfredo was still alive.

Anna suggested to Maria that she preferred to examine Montero alone. Maria nodded and muttered something about supper. Anna took a deep breath, tried to calm herself, and turned her full attention on Don Alfredo.

The change was shocking. Last week in San Francisco Anna's practiced eye had caught hints of ill-health. But now Don Alfredo was ashen, his eyes sunken, his breathing shallow and rapid. "Senor Montero," she said neutrally. "This is a sad change. What happened?"

"Today," he gasped. "Today I was to travel. But I was weary--and then--a great pain. It has gone, but I feel weak. You hear how I breathe."

His breathing was labored, but he was alert and showed no sign of paralysis. Good; no paroxysm. But his pulse was weak and rapid and irregular. Prone as he was, the mass she had found before seemed more prominent and disturbing. But that was hardly the cause of his current distress.

"Well?" he asked. "Shall I--shall I call for a priest?"

"I don't think it has come to that. But you have overtaxed yourself, Senor Montero. Far too much. The travel and the--" She swallowed, looking for a word. "--excitement. You have asked your heart to do too much. Rest is imperative for the immediate future. Certainly you won't be traveling for a while."

"How long?" Montero asked, clearly alarmed.

"I can't say yet. A week at the very least. A month is perhaps more likely. You must rest, and then regain your strength very slowly." Anna winced inwardly. The Monteros would be in the valley indefinitely. It was a prospect she loathed, but she knew it was best for her patient. "No doubt you would recuperate here far better than in San Francisco anyway. The country is so much quieter and the air so much healthier."

Montero shook his head gloomily. "All the quiet and all the air could not change the misfortune of this place."

So, Anna realized, the excitement of perhaps marrying off his daughter had not been the good kind. Of course not; Heath had said the father disapproved five years ago. Apparently he did still. But even if removing his daughter from Heath's presence might improve his spirits, Anna knew moving Don Alfredo would likely bring tragic results. The irony, she thought: if only I'd told him not to travel. Better still, sent him back east for some other consultation. It would have been better for him--and so much better for me. But who could foresee? If she'd known who the Monteros really were, would she have done differently?

"This is your home, isn't it?" Anna said with a brightness she didn't feel. "You must find someway to enjoy your time here. Or at least not to worry. In the meantime, I have a drug which will help ease the pain and make your breathing easier."

"This is some new thing?"

"No, the drug has been used for a century or so. It's made from foxglove. It helps the heart do its work. It must be taken very carefully, though, because it's very powerful. I'll stay for a while to make sure the dosage is correct."

After he had taken the mixture, Anna packed her bag and settled down for what she knew would be a monstrously uncomfortable hour or so, no matter how gracious the ailing Don Alfredo might be. Indeed, despite his illness, he remembered his duties and inquired if the doctor had supped. Anna hadn't eaten since her late breakfast at Hester's, but she couldn't imagine trying to choke down food in this situation. Tea she accepted, though warning that for the time being the Don's own tea should be very weak.

He waved a weary hand. "You take all of my pleasures from me, and for what? I am far worse than a week ago."

"The condition for which you consulted me didn't cause this. Although it may have contributed to it, by weakening your strength."

"No, I know the cause of my current trouble." He looked at her sadly. "I am most sorry, doctor, that my trouble has become yours as well."

Anna had no response.

"He is not worthy of you, doctor. You have one consolation. You are troubled now, but perhaps you are being spared greater heartache in the future." He sighed. "Perhaps it is just as well I shall not see much of the future." He looked at her searchingly. "You do not contradict me."

Anna said: "The mass on your liver--I noticed it again tonight." She saw no reason now to lie. "It seems to me even more likely to be a serious--perhaps fatal--condition than I first thought. With this new complication from the weakness in your heart, I find it hard to be optimistic on your account."

He shrugged. "I have found nothing to be optimistic about for some time." The tea things were brought in. With some assistance he struggled to a sitting position, made a face at the weakness of the tea. "It has no flavor."

"Tea and coffee increase the excitability of the heart. You should avoid both until you're stronger."

"The excitability of the heart," he repeated. "An interesting phrase."

Anna could not help feeling for the old man; both his disappointment and his love for his daughter were so palpable. And yet, almost against her will, his attitude nettled her. "Why are you so certain he's unworthy?"

"My dear." He made a dismissive gesture. "You cannot get gold from dross. He has come from nothing. He showed that most clearly the other night. A boor."

"But his brother fought too."

"A different matter. The Barkleys--they are not well-bred, but they have potential. In another generation, with the right wives, they will be respectable men. But he--surely you see it too. I can tell you are a gentlewoman despite your profession." He frowned. "I suppose these lowborn men exert some fascination for all well-born young women. The lure of the unknown. The excitability of the heart."

Anna squirmed. "But you speak as if no man born in poverty could be honorable, or honest, or trustworthy."

"Perhaps honest. Perhaps even trustworthy. But honorable? Honor is carried in the blood."

She couldn't resist. "Yet not everyone with honorable blood acts honorably."

"You are too kind to be more direct. You think of my daughter. I cannot explain it." He put aside the teacup. "My daughter fancies herself happy. I suppose I should be happy too."

She felt both annoyed and more deeply depressed. Was there something she didn't know? Had Heath already spoken to Maria? What she had seen the day before was bad enough. Could Don Alfredo be right?--Could Heath be so dishonorable as to have asked for Maria's hand before their own engagement was ended? She wouldn't believe it. Stiffly she said: "You speak as if your daughter's future were already settled."

"Perhaps it is, she would not tell me. I assume it will be as she desires." He smiled a little. "Almost, doctor, a father might hope that you could make it not so."

She swallowed hard, and said shakily: "I would not hold a man to an engagement if he wished to be released."

"Of course not. You are an honorable woman." More loudly, he said, "Maria. If you wish to join us come in. Do not lurk by the door."

"You look a little better," Maria said.

"I feel better. The good doctor has given me some excellent medication."

The digitalis had done its work. His pulse was slower and stronger, his breathing deeper and easier. "I think this dosage will work well. I'll leave a draft for tomorrow and instructions for the pharmacist. You must be precise in the time and the amount you take." She rose, relieved that even her professional obligations wouldn't keep her here any longer. "I'll call again the day after tomorrow. If you have need of me before then, don't hesitate to send for me. But I think the crisis has passed."

Maria accompanied her down the stairs. "Are you sure you won't take a meal?"


"It's so late. Would you like to stay the night?"

The thought of a night under this roof--"You're so kind. But I would rather get back. I've been away so much the last day or two. I'm worried about some of my other patients."

"Then let me send a man with you, at least. You won't be back in Stockton until 11 o'clock at least."

"It's no trouble. I'm used to being out and about alone at all hours." That last part wasn't true, but she didn't want a stranger hanging around. She just wanted to be free of this house.

At the foot of the stairs Maria took a deep breath. "How is he? Truly?"

"The immediate crisis is passing. His recovery will be long. And slow. And..."


"Uncertain. I think, aside from tonight's alarm, your father truly is gravely ill. In any case, he needs rest and quiet. Certainly no traveling for some time."

"Gravely ill," Maria echoed. "Do you mean mortally? And soon?"

"I think it likely, yes."

Maria's eyes watered, but she blinked back the tears. "I can't thank you enough for coming out tonight. My father has great admiration for you and your skills. I know--I know how difficult this must be for you. I could understand your refusing."

Anna shrugged. She had no desire to continue the discussion about honor and who had it and who didn't.

Maria said, "This is so very awkward. In light of your kindness to my father--and my own admiration--it is so very difficult." She sighed. "I'm sorry for--for everything. I--I won't try to excuse my behavior. Only if I could make you understand a little. What happened between Heath and I five years ago--our parting--it ought not to have happened. It happened for no reason."

"No reason?" Anna couldn't quite let that pass. "I understand your father objected and you yielded to his objections."

Maria frowned. Perhaps Heath had told Anna; were those the terms he'd used? "It's true, I didn't wish to injure my father. But it was wrong. I just wish it were possible to undo that wrong--" She glanced up the stairs. "--without injuring other people. Especially innocent people."

Maria, like her father, spoke as if the matter were already settled. Her presumption staggered Anna. Her eyes were dry and hot, but she knew that tears were not far behind. It was over, she thought; her coming back today or tomorrow or any other day would not matter. No, she thought, close to hysteria, it would matter, for she had come back in time to perhaps save Don Alfredo. Perhaps he would dance at his daughter's wedding! In any case his recuperation would keep Maria in the valley--not that she would need any inducement...

Anna reminded herself that the girl before her deserved her pity. She herself had just delivered the father's death sentence. Anna knew what it meant to watch a beloved father waste away to nothingness and death. She suspected that Maria, however she might flout her father's rules, loved the man deeply. But no doubt Maria would have sources of consolation.

Anna thought: If I don't leave now--"Good evening," she said. What an effort it took to make her voice so calm, so level. "I'll call in a day or so."

A man was holding her buggy by the side of the house. She lashed poor Crockhead with a rare fury and drove off into the darkness.

Charger had spent an awful lot of time in the barn in recent weeks, and he need no urging. Once outside of town he settled into an easy canter that ate up the distance. It was dark, and the road north of the house wasn't familiar, but Heath couldn't bring himself to either rein in Charger or pay more attention to the road. What on earth could she be doing at Montero's? He had never connected Anna's visit to San Francisco with the Monteros' presence in the valley, and sickness never occurred to him. Had Anna gone there on her own? Invited by Maria? There wasn't really anything Maria could tell Anna that was worse than what Anna had seen with her own eyes, and yet he dreaded the idea of Anna hearing anything more. His task would be hard enough without Anna absorbing any of the Montero viewpoint.

It had been five years since he'd been here last. Five years ago he had ridden away from here with Maria, frightened and exhilarated by their mutual defiance. He had ridden away not realizing the greatest threat to his happiness rode beside him, her small hand clasped tightly in his. He had ridden away innocently unsuspecting of how soon her defection would come, or how deeply, how lastingly it would wound him.

The hell of it was that he had always understood Maria's reasons, and had always sympathized with them more than he liked to admit. But that sympathy meant accepting, to some extent, her father's valuation of him, her father's belief that Heath--with or without the Barkley name--had nothing to offer Maria Montero besides a trifling passion that would soon evaporate. Maria's defection spoke to a fear that had lived in him since he'd been six years old and understood, a little, what he was and what the world thought of him.

Losing Maria had meant more than just losing love. That was bad enough, and he wasn't the sort to get over the loss easily. But it had also meant losing hope, losing faith in himself. Those losses had been far harder to recover. Given his behavior the last days, maybe he still hadn't.

At the door, in the moment before he knocked, a cold dread washed over him. Nothing good happens to me here, he thought. Nothing. But Anna was on the other side of that door. He knocked.

The servant seemed hesitant to admit him, but he pushed his way in. The sound of the scuffle drew Maria to the head of the stairs. Surprise held back a radiant smile for only a moment. She hurried down the stairs. "Luis," she said. "Mr. Barkley is a welcome guest. You are dismissed." She turned to Heath. "An unconventional hour for calling, but I'm happy to see you here at last."

"I have to see Anna," he said unceremoniously.

Her smile wilted a little. "Dr. Carroll? But she left. At least half an hour ago. Perhaps more."

"She left? But she couldn't have. I didn't pass her on the road."

Maria thought, then a frown crossed her face. "She might have taken the wrong turn away from the stables and gone down the bridle path."

"The bridle path?" It had been five years, but he remembered a narrow, rough path. "The bridle path? In the dark? You let her leave here, alone, in the dark?"

It was the look on his face. She stepped back, her hand over her mouth. It was a long moment before she could speak. "Dear God," she said softly. "You love her. I hadn't realized---I didn't think--"

It would have been easy to hurt her now, but he knew he had to do better. Awkwardly, he said, "Maria, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have--well, if I give you reason to think otherwise I'm sorry. She--she's the only one. I'm sorry."

"Dear God," she said again. "If only I'd come back sooner."

"Don't think that." He had to tell the truth now, had to make sure there would be no repeat. "It would always have been her, no matter what. Better this way."

"I see." His face. How often she'd dreamed of it, but she'd never imagined quite that expression. She knew him well enough to know the truth when he gave it to her. "Do you remember the way? Perhaps someone should go with you."

"I'll be all right on my own."

"Of course," she said. A ragged little laugh escaped her. "You don't want my help. I suppose I've been enough help already."

"Maria, don't talk that way. It's just--things are just the way they have to be. Can't nobody change what they feel. Don't--don't let this drag on you, Maria."

Five years, so many dreams. They had vanished in a few brief seconds. Tomorrow, she realized, she would have to get up in the morning and face the stark truth of her life: her father was dying and her dreams of the future would never come true. This beautiful, fertile valley, her ancestors' proudest possession, the site of the richest moments of her life, would be barren and death-haunted for her. A fine crop. "You had better go," she said quietly. "She's got a good head start."

"I'm sorry," he said.

She could see that, as much as he wished to make this easier for her, he was impatient to be gone. She opened the door and mustered something like a smile. "Good luck," she said. "Godspeed."

The darkness soon swallowed him up. Once upon a time a romantic girl had told the man she loved she wished to be forgotten, she wanted him to love another. How noble and romantic those words had sounded. It had taken years, but he'd done as she'd asked. Now she would have to do the same.

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Heath was already hoarse from calling Anna's name when Charger shied at something in the darkness. He jumped down, his heart in his throat. It was Anna's buggy. The axle had broken and a wheel had fallen off. The horse was tangled in the harness though he seemed unhurt. But Anna was nowhere to be seen.

He left the buggy and the horse and got back up on Charger. He called her with greater urgency. She had been well enough to walk away from the buggy, but who knew how badly she might be hurt? Even now she might be lying somewhere–

She had heard him calling. She couldn't bear to face him and had tried to walk faster. Why hadn't she tried harder to get the horse free? She could be riding him now, she could be home...But she was alone in the dark, and she stumbled for the third or fourth time. Her fear overcame her anger and she called back to him.

Even in the darkness he could see her chin was bloody, her eyes wild. His relief at finding her alive was so great it made his knees buckle. He grabbed her, pulled her close to him. She was trembling. It was a long moment before he realized her arms were around him, her face pressed against him. "Damn you, Anna," he said, his voice rough with relief. "I told you that rig was worn out. You might have killed yourself back there. Ridin all alone in the dark on a strange road–"

Anna recovered herself then, remembered where she was. What had happened. She pushed away from him. Her voice unsteady, she said, "It's none of your business where I go."

"Anna." He choked. "Anna, I can't fault you if you don't want to wed me. But you can't say–you can't say it's no business of mine. Even if you won't let me be no more'n a friend–you'd leave me that, wouldn't you?"

She said nothing. Even in this poor light she didn't want to meet his eyes. Her teeth were chattering and she didn't feel up to talking about anything.

"Here," he said gently, pulling out his handkerchief. "Your chin's bleedin."

She pushed his hand away but took the handkerchief. "It's just a nick."

"It's worse'n a nick. I gotta get you home."

"I can walk," she mumbled.

"Walk? It's miles to the ranch. It's dark and you don't know the road and you're hurt. You ain't walkin nowhere."

He boosted her up on Charger and swung up behind her. Her trembling had slowed and no doubt she was capable of staying in the saddle, but he kept an arm locked around her, kept her pressed close to him. This time she didn't push away.

As they neared the ranch she said, "I want to go to Stockton."

"You're done in, Anna. Let Mother take care of you while I go for Doc Scanlon."

"I don't need a doctor."

"You're gettin one."

He turned the horse in to the main corral, slowed to a walk. He realized this might be the last time she let him this close. He kissed her gently on the cheek. Suddenly she was terribly, impossibly tired. She slid off Charger into his arms, and let him carry her into the house and up the stairs. Out of habit he pushed open the door to his room.

The noise had woken Victoria. Heath told her only that Anna had turned over her buggy and he was going for the doctor. Victoria was left to do what she could for her future daughter-in-law without knowing if Anna would actually ever be her daughter-in-law. Anna had nothing to say.

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Doc Scanlon was not amused to have his rest–not to mention his retirement–broken in the small hours of the morning. He was even less amused when he realized he'd been roused just to put a plaster on one deep cut and to fashion a wrist splint which, he guessed, would be shucked as soon as he was out of the room. He recommended a little rest for the patient, a prescription which he left with the gloomy certainty that it would be, like most good medical recommendations, ignored.

By now it was dawn. Victoria said, "Anna, you look as if you need a little nourishment before you rest. I'll bring up some breakfast." Before Anna could protest, Victoria closed the door firmly. They might as well say whatever they could say to each other now. Victoria smiled a little as she went to the kitchen, realizing she had just closed the door on a most improper situation. Hang the proprieties.

Anna briefly thought about pleading illness and postponing this confrontation. But Heath didn't look like a man who would be persuaded out of his own room that easily. He pulled a chair along side the bed. "I meant what I said back there," he began. "If you don't want to wed me I certainly won't hold you to it. God knows I give you cause to break with me. But..." He drew a breath. "If you're set on breaking with me I just ask that maybe down the road, you'll think on me again. Let me try again."

She fiddled with the splint, but it was on her right hand, and her left seemed unusually clumsy. "Heath, I don't think it's right to marry unless you're sure."

"I know, I know. And that's why I want you to have what time you need. I just–I just want you to say I can hope a little."

Her uncertainty; was he too kind to speak of his own? "But you need to be sure."

"I am," he said quietly.

"You didn't look sure..." Her voice faltered.

"I know, I know." He buried his head in his hands, but then forced himself to look up again. "Anna, I'm more shamed of what I done the last few days than of–than of anything I done in my life. I'd give anything to have these last few days back. Anna, it wasn't just Maria. I won't lie to you, seein her like that shook me. Some part of me never stopped feelin bad over her. But not the way you think."

"In what way?"

"What I tried to tell you the other night. Losing her–it made me think I wasn't worth any decent woman's time. Thought nothing could take the stain off me. That's why I acted so foolish over Sherborne."

"Sherborne. Heath, you know I don't care for Nat Sherborne. I thought we'd talked about this, I thought we understood each other."

"I thought so, too," he sighed. "I guess I wasn't so strong as I thought I was. But I never stopped thinkin, Anna, maybe I wasn't the man for you. Seein you talkin to Jarrod, dancin with Sherborne–and seein Maria, it made it all fresh again to me."

"I'm not sure what hurts worse," Anna said, "seeing you–seeing you with her or knowing that you have so little faith in my love for you."

He bit his lip. His voice unsteady, he whispered, "Do you–you still love me, Anna?"

"Yes, Heath, of course I do. I just wonder if it's enough."

He took her bandaged hand. She made a half-hearted movement to pull it away, but he hung on. The first thing he had noticed about her were her hands, her cool and strong hands. They were roughened by hard work and harsh soap. He still thought they were the most beautiful hands he'd ever seen. "I wish I could promise you I've learned my lesson. I wish I could tell you I won't go jealous on you like that. I can't promise that just yet. Maybe–maybe as time goes on I'll get more settled. I hope so."

She thought about it. She hoped so, too, but she realized it didn't much matter. She loved him; she wanted no one else. How could she part with him? What had Hester said: confident enough to risk the future? Not certain. Perhaps certainty was too much to ask. But she felt confident enough to risk the future. It was the only future she wanted.

The hand that had lay slack in his stirred, her fingers curled around his own. His voice was thick. "You might find a better man but you won't find one loves you more, Anna."

"Try to remember," she said, "that I feel the same for you."

He kissed the back of her hand, raised it to his cheek. "If you want to postpone the weddin, it's fine with me. I understand."

At that point Victoria knocked and came in, bearing a tray. From the looks of it they had done a better job than she'd hoped. "Well?" she asked. "Are we having a wedding this Saturday?"

Anna looked at Heath, smiled a little. "Yes, we are."

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Nick Barkley was a man who rode his temper with a snaffle bit and a slack rein, though he knew a curb bit and maybe even a choke strap were needed. Sooner or later–generally sooner–the beast broke loose. Afterwards, usually immediately afterwards, he was full of genuine contrition and an honest resolution to do better next time. Most times he stumbled over his own feet in his haste to make amends.

But this time he wasn't sure how to make amends. He had a boy's fascination with every new invention that came his way, but he also had a boy's loathing of real change, and there had been a bit too much of it lately to suit him. He gave up his ideas only under duress.

Hester Converse was apparently an idea he'd never entirely surrendered. They had parted in such a way that had left him thinking there would be other chapters written in that exciting tale. He was a man partial to whiskey and beer. Hester was champagne. She'd gone straight to his head, and the hangover hadn't quite cleared. She was an intoxicating woman, of a sort wholly unfamiliar to him. He'd gone about his business once she'd left, he'd danced and flirted and even blushed over a few girls since then, but none of them had been like Hester, they'd been whiskey or beer and they hadn't quite driven out that heady taste.

Now he'd have to get used to having the bottle in plain and constant sight, but on a shelf just out of reach. He'd seen enough on Saturday night to realize Hester had made a choice. This wasn't another game of flirtation for her. She had said yes to Nick and then taken it back, but the yes she would give to Jarrod–and he could see she would give it–would not be taken back.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, more bitter than he could have imagined. But Jarrod had had to do the same, and he'd done it with rare grace. Nick couldn't do less. He'd already spoiled the chance to do it gracefully. But the curb bit was back out, and this time it would stay on. In the end family was too dear to Nick. He wouldn't lose a brother over a woman, even if the woman were Hester Converse. And he had a deep trust in Jarrod's judgment. If Jarrod thought Hester reformed, he was probably right.

Nick knew that, if he'd injured anyone by his bad behavior Saturday night, it hadn't really been Jarrod or Hester. It was Heath with whom he'd actually exchanged a few ill-aimed blows. But there was no need for amends there. It wasn't the first time they'd done it; they were both realistic enough to know it might not be the last, either. But between those two words were rarely needed. By Tuesday Nick knew whatever had been wrong for Heath on Saturday night had been made right again. Just to be certain, though, Nick skipped his chores to give Heath an afternoon swinging a brush and a bucket of whitewash.

That left Maria Montero. Five years ago he'd been smitten himself by the pretty little stranger. But the girl had chosen Heath so quickly that there had been no rancor on his part. The Maria Montero that had shown up on Saturday night had been a far more alluring creature than the schoolgirl of five years ago. In fact she'd had a definite champagne air to her. But Nick knew his attentions to her hadn't been prompted by any real attraction. She had just been a conveniently sharp weapon. For that he was truly ashamed, and truly contrite. Whatever she was, however badly she might have acted to Heath, she deserved better.

So on the Thursday of that week he trotted up the north road to the Montero place. He had a perfectly neighborly reason to call, and, if the chance presented itself, he had a pretty good apology planned out. It probably wasn't as fine a piece of work as Jarrod could have done. Pity that Jarrod had all that eloquence and he got in so few scrapes. But Nick was determined to give it a try.

Saturday night she had shone with high spirits and high hopes. This afternoon that shine was gone. She seemed quiet and sad, but she received him with more graciousness than he knew he deserved. It just made him admire her more.

They chatted a little about her father. He was much improved from Monday, but still terribly weak. Maria admitted she was deeply worried. She feared that he'd accepted his fate and would make no effort to recover. "From what Dr. Carroll says, his condition was grave anyway. But I can't help feeling how much I've made things worse."

"Don't be so hard on yourself," Nick said. "You weren't trying to hurt him."

"But I knew I would." She rose and walked to a window overlooking the garden. She and Heath had walked there that first day, before she learned of her father's displeasure. She could remember every word they'd exchanged. But these memories were an indulgence she knew she could no longer afford. "I knew his feelings, and I chose the one course of action that I knew would most wound him. My father has been wrong about many things, but he never acted without honestly believing he was acting for my best interests. I'm ashamed to realize I can't say the same. I thought all of his talk about honor was just pride and nonsense. Now I realize he meant something deeper when he used that word."

"You only wanted to be happy, Maria. Everyone wants that."

"But once I knew he'd chosen another...No, there's no excusing my behavior since then. And I must apologize to you, Nick. I know I caused trouble between you and your brother. I'm sorry."

"Just a minute," Nick smiled. "I came here to apologize, and you've beaten me to the punch. And I know I can't do it half as nicely as you just did."

"Apologize?" She turned to him with surprise. "But you were a perfect gentleman. Why on earth would you apologize?"

"Because my situation was far more like yours than you realize." He told her about Hester, the broken engagement, his hurt at realizing that his brother had won what he couldn't. "You did something that hurt your father. But I did worse. I had no excuse. I didn't really think I'd change Hester's mind. I just wanted to hurt her. I just wanted her to feel as badly as I did. So you see I have a far greater reason to apologize."

"So." Even her smile was grave, but it was kind, too. "It seems we are both disappointed."

Yes, she was much handsomer than she'd been five years ago. There was something womanly and soft in her graceful regret. "Will you stay in the valley?"

"For a while at least. My father is too ill to be moved. And I think, once he knows this matter is over, he would be happier here. This is his home, this is where he truly wants to be. If his time is to be short, I want it to be here. I can do no less."

"If your father needs any help around here I'd be glad to lend a hand."

"How kind of you. But we've been away for years. The overseer is used to running things without my father's presence."

"You'll be lonely here," he said gently.

"I'm used to having only Father for company. And if I'm lonely..." She smiled again, though this time it was more wry than sad. "I can use the time for reflection. I think a little penance is in order."

"Just make sure it's only a little. It's a bad habit to get into." He grinned. "Believe it or not, I've been known to overindulge in it. But then I've overindulged in a lot of things."

She walked him to the door. "It was so kind of you to call."

"Nothing I like more than being neighborly." He turned his hat around in his hands. "You said we were both disappointed. But not dead." He took a breath. "Maria, may I call on you again?"

She was surprised at first; but he thought she was pleased, too. "I would appreciate that, Nick."

When Nick was in his usual high spirits he whistled. He wasn't whistling as he rode away from the Montero ranch, but a tune was running through his head. She was a fine woman.

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The match between Anna Carroll and Heath Barkley had been considered in Stockton and deemed an appropriate one; they were both odd ducks in their way, not quite fitting in any of the normal places, and somehow seemed well matched on that account, if no other. Of course after the mission dance there had been more than a little speculation as to whether there would be a wedding at all.

If there had been any trouble you wouldn't have known it from the bride or groom. The bride had generally been reckoned plain, but on this day she gave truth to the old saw that all brides are beautiful. She was much more handsomely dressed than anyone in Stockton had ever seen ("Already putting on Barkley airs," a few folk sniffed), but the dress was the least of it. They made a good couple, much of a height, she dark and he fair. Both the bride and groom had the heady air of expectant love about them, and it favored both of them. It was the sort of air that made older folks sigh, remembering the days when the clasp of a hand was the mystery and promise of life.

The wedding wasn't fancy, but it was big enough. The groom's sister was on the arm of a glossy-looking young man from San Francisco, the both of them looking like cats on the trail of a very plump canary. The groom's eldest brother also had a guest from San Francisco, though the young lady contrarily sat on the bride's side of the church and raised an eyebrow at her young man across the aisle. At the reception no one missed the yellow diamond on her left hand, a diamond almost, but not quite, large enough to be vulgar. Wise heads nodded that there were more matches on the way. ("Of course," a few folk sniffed. "Money always marries money.") The arm of the groom's other brother was empty, but he seemed in a cheerful mood just the same.

Hester had sat on the bride's side not just to be contrary, but because she was still a little hesitant about coming up against the Barkleys at close quarters. The ring was on her finger and there was no going back; but she was in no hurry to put her head in the lion's mouth just yet. This week's dinner en famille Converse had been trial enough. But she got a boost from an unexpected source.

The reception was winding down when she found herself face to face with the groom. Their acquaintance was limited to an embarrassing passage a number of years ago. To make things worse, they had nothing in common, and Hester knew her future brother-in-law had no talent for small talk. She braced herself for the worst. "It was a lovely wedding," she ventured.

He smiled. People kept telling him it had been lovely; apparently no other word would do. He didn't have an opinion and didn't much care. He was just powerfully glad there had been a wedding. Personally he could have done without most of the folderol; though he had to admit the bride's dress was uncommonly flattering. "I believe I owe you a thanks."

"Whatever for? Oh, the dress. All the credit I'm owed is having a marvelous dressmaker, I'm afraid."

He sighed. What he liked best about Anna–well, one of the things he liked best–was that she didn't run on. That sort of talk left him feeling clumsy. But he wasn't to be put off. "Not the dress. I mean because I'm not sure without you there would have been a wedding."

"Is that what Anna told you?"

"No. But I don't reckon she'd have come back so soon unless maybe you gave her a little push."

Hester shook her head slowly. "I didn't push," she said. "She wanted to come back."

"All right, not a push. But then thank you for at least not talkin her out of it."

She smiled. "I've learned that it's a waste of perfectly good breath to try and talk people out of things they're going to do anyway."

"Lucky for us, ain't it?" She was determined to defect any thanks he might give. Yet he did feel grateful. He took her hand. He said: "Welcome to the family, Hester."

She knew he meant it. For once she had no smart reply. "Thank you, Heath." Yes, those Barkley men had charm.

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Anna's accident had solved the family's problem of what to give the couple for a wedding present. They drove out to their new home in a smart new two-seater, drawn by Victoria's favorite gray. They did not talk on the drive; they were both too aware of how near a thing it had been, and the realization that they might have missed this was enough to make them shy.

When the reached the house Anna watched her new husband put the horse and buggy away. "I'm still afraid Nick's going to play some prank."

"He promised up and down he wouldn't." In fact Nick had left the reception a little early, but there was no sign of him here, and Heath was sure his brother wasn't up to any mischief. "And if he won't none of the others will. Come on, I got a surprise for you."

Anna had spent the previous day unpacking and the house was mostly settled. But there was one thing she hadn't seen yet. He made her close her eyes and took her around to the side, where he'd hung the sign just this morning. Anna Carroll Barkley, Physician and Surgeon. "Oh, Heath, what a wonderful surprise. It's beautiful."

"You're beautiful," he said.

She wrinkled her nose, remembering New Year's Eve. "It's the dress."

"It's not the dress." He put his arms around her. "My Anna. My beautiful Anna." He looked at the sign and the house and he said, "I hope you'll be happy here, Anna."

"We'll be happy here," she said. They stood that way for a moment more, and then she stepped away. She took his hand, and together they went in.

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