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.
Even San Francisco's hard-packed roads had turned to slush under the constant assault of late December rains. Jarrod picked his way carefully up to the depot, but even that short walk soaked his shoes. He was surprised to see only Nick at the station. "Where's Audra?"
"Nice to see you too," Nick grunted. "She's got a cold. Mother thought she'd best stay home."
"Even at a party this large we're bound to be short of dancing partners. It is fancy dress, Nick," Jarrod added, casting a glance at Nick's small bag.
"I've got my evening clothes," Nick said, swinging the bag.
"In that? My God, Nick, just think how wrinkled you'll be."
"They can iron it at the hotel," Nick said blithely.
"Your evening clothes, and about 100 others," Jarrod muttered.
"The right tip will take care of it."
And apparently Nick did know who or how much to tip, because by evening he was impressively dressed and pressed. Although Nick spent most of his life covered by dirt, he had a dandyish streak where dress clothes were concerned. No doubt his shirt would be the starchiest, most ruffled one at the ball.
Apparently the good ladies of San Francisco had a taste for the ruffles. Nick disappeared into the packed ballroom. Whenever Jarrod caught a glimpse of his tall brother, he had some San Francisco belle on his arm. They might be a little short of women, but Nick seemed to be doing fine.
Jarrod, unfortunately, was shanghaied first by the mayor himself, then by a state senator. The ball swirled around him while he tried to feign a polite interest in an upcoming bond issue. Something about city transportation...
Jarrod had been caught by the state court's supreme justice, who wanted to congratulate him on his victory against Coastal and Western. "Of course they'll appeal," the judge said. "No doubt I'll get to rule on it eventually."
"In my favor, of course," Jarrod said automatically. There was a brief break in the music. There was an intense knot of would-be swains in one corner.
He caught a flash of dull green silk, dark hair in an elaborate chignon. He smiled. Well, there could only be one eye causing a hurricane of that particular strength. He'd wondered if he'd get a chance to dance with Hester tonight; from the looks of the pack, his chances were bleak.
But at that moment Hester caught his eye. She broke away from the pack and headed toward him. "Judge Hanley," she said scoldingly, "have you been keeping Jarrod all this time? I'm sure you won't mind if I borrow him for a bit. I'm perishing for a bit of champagne. Shall we go into the dining room?"
"Neatly done," he said admiringly. "I've been lectured at by one upstanding civic figure after another all night. I was beginning to feel quite the greybeard."
Hester laughed. "You don't look so solemn as that yet. In fact, from the shine on your shoes, Barrister Barkley, I detect a distinct intention of dancing."
"If your card isn't hopelessly filled."
"Oh, I believe I can work you in. But I'm serious about the champagne. Isn't this a terrible crush? Everyone west of the divide must be here. Are all the Barkleys out tonight, or just you?"
"Nick's around somewhere. Audra was coming, but apparently she's ill."
"Too bad, we could use a few more girls around..."
Jarrod laughed. "Hester, you're the only woman I know who actually welcomes competition."
"There's one thing about a New Year's Eve party," Hester said dryly. "There's always plenty of dancers--but only so many good ones. My poor feet are
already quite trodden on. If not for this dreadful rain we could catch a breath of air on the balcony." She looked around. "I'm going to rest on those stairs. Would you be so good as to bring me a glass, Jarrod? By the time we've had a sip the band should be back."
"Your servant, my lady."
The grand staircase provided one of the few areas left for sitting; there were couples and groups strewn up its whole sweeping length. Hester was near the top, with a fine view into the ballroom. She smiled and took a glass from him. "Oh, heavenly. I can't remember when I've been in such a crush."
After taking a long sip, she said, "And of course this isn't all I have to thank you for. Jarrod, what a wonderful present! Selfishly, I'm glad I dragged you off to Augusta's. How kind of you to have actually been paying attention to my prattle and remembering which watercolor I liked!"
"It's for a good cause--promoting the arts of the West, is how Augusta phrased it. It's a small enough gift. Not just for Christmas, but for your--shall we call it moral support?--during the trial."
"A small gift would have been flowers or some Florida water, not something which you must have really thought about. I'm sincerely touched, Jarrod. I only wish I had reciprocated. I've been thinking and thinking, but I haven't come up with anything suitable yet."
"Well, don't fret, Hester. And there's certainly no need to reciprocate."
"Of course there is. I just reserve the right to take my time doing it...Oh, look, the band's coming back. I do hope we have some waltzes. I don't think I have the energy for any more reels."
Jarrod consulted his watch. "It's nearly midnight anyway." The music began; it was a waltz. "Are you free, Hester?"
"For my favorite barrister? Of course."
This season the colors were bold and brash, rubies and emeralds abounding amongst the ladies. Hester, in contrast, was in dull green. It should have been drab; but somehow the color brought out the honey-warm color of her skin and eyes. She might protest being tired, but she looked in a fine glow, with no weariness about her. Hester was, by any standards, a little long in the tooth for flirtation--Jarrod thought she was probably twenty-six or twenty-seven--but she was still the loveliest woman in the room.
As the waltz ended the mayor took the podium. "It is officially midnight," he announced. "A happy 1877 to us all!"
Jarrod grabbed two champagne glasses from a passing waiter. "Happy New Year, Hester. What shall we drink to?"
"Well, to a happy new year, of course. And, let us say, to being better friends next year than this year." She smiled.
He smiled in return. "I already consider you one of my very finest friends. But a good toast nonetheless."
They touched glasses. Jarrod kissed Hester on the cheek. From the corner of his eye he could seen the swarm pressing down on Hester. "I'll surrender you to your other suitors, now, Hester. Thank you for the dance."
"Thank you, Jarrod."
He turned away. He did not see if there were less enthusiasm in Hester's acceptance of the others' well-wishes. Despite the crush he caught sight of Nick, and Nick's face was red with anger.
He avoided Nick for a time, but the savor had gone out of the evening. Apparently it had gone out for Nick, too, for he soon caught up with Jarrod and cornered him. "We need to talk," Nick growled.
"Not here," Jarrod protested.
"Then let's go."
They were silent in the carriage home. Nick had had a splendid evening. Of course he'd been aware of Hester's presence; they had met a few times over the last years. He still nursed a little regret, a little disappointment, over the end of his brief engagement to Hester. But he'd been completely unprepared to see her with Jarrod--and to see what intimacy lay between them.
Behind the closed doors of their hotel suite, Nick roared, "Why didn't you tell me, Jarrod? What are you thinking of?"
"Tell you what?" Jarrod asked. He knew very well what had upset Nick, but he wouldn't make it easy for his brother.
"Hester. How long has this been going on?"
"How long has what been going on?"
"Jarrod, I saw you together. I heard you! A Christmas present? Jarrod, that's serious!"
Now Jarrod began to feel angry. "How long were you following us around?"
"That doesn't matter. Jarrod, how far has this gone? Are you--engaged?"
The solemnity of Nick's manner, or yet the latest in a series of champagne glasses, made Jarrod laugh. "Engaged! Nick, your imagination has run away with you. Hester is a friend, no more. I'll admit she is--a closer friend than I might have realized. But no more."
"A Christmas present--"
"A trifle. A watercolor she liked. And she certainly took it in the spirit I intended."
"Are you sure? The way you looked at each other--" Nick looked away, swallowed hard. "It looked like more. For both of you."
"I assure you you're quite wrong. Hester is--well, Hester is Hester. She can't help being impossibly charming. But I'm not likely to get caught up in her charms. Not at this late date."
"Hester has more than charm," Nick said.
"I agree, although she does her best to hide that fact. But, really, Nick, you're worrying about nothing. And in any case--what if I were to court Hester?
Surely you wouldn't hold it against me. Your involvement with her ended years ago!"
Nick was pacing. His ruffles had been undone by the heat and the crush, and his dandy's shirt looked sadly deflated. "I know, I know," he muttered.
"But I hadn't really thought--I didn't know it would matter this much to me. And, Jarrod, I don't think Hester is the right kind of woman for you."
Jarrod said sharply, "I think I'm a better judge of that than you." More gently, he said, "Nick, I'd certainly hate for a woman to come between brothers.
And I'm sure this won't. But I reserve the right to see whom I please and do as I please. I appreciate your concern, but don't let it go any farther, Brother Nick."
Nick, tired of champagne, poured himself a whiskey. "I'm still surprised. I thought you were taken with Anna Carroll."
It was Jarrod's turn to pace. "There's nothing there," he said.
"Just as well. I think Heath's gone sweet on her."
"Heath?" Jarrod was truly surprised. "Whatever makes you think that?"
"He spent two days fixing her roof," Nick said. "When he had other things to do."
"Avoiding your chore list, Brother Nick, would make roof repair look good even to me. And you know how I hate manual labor."
Nick grunted. "You'd do anything to avoid a sweat, pappy. And I'll tell you what: I've wondered if maybe the good doctor wasn't a might smitten with Heath, too."
At that Jarrod laughed. "You're as big a gossip as an old woman. Tell me, Nick, what makes you think Anna is smitten with Heath?"
"They took all those rides together in October."
"That was for Heath's convalescence."
Nick raised an eyebrow. "Pretty damned dedicated, wouldn't you say?"
"But she is pretty damned dedicated. And that was months ago, Nick. What else do you have to support your suspicions? Has Heath said something to you?"
It was Nick's turn to laugh. "When does Heath ever say anything? No, of course not. It's just a look he's got."
Jarrod, too, decided it was time for something a little stronger. "You know, I've always thought Heath was still a little occupied by the memory of the lovely Miss Montera."
"You would be right there. But I have the sense he's over that." Nick lit a cigar. "You're right. Look at us, gossiping like this! It must be that lousy champagne. Never get that silly on whiskey."
Jarrod, who'd seen Nick plenty drunk and plenty silly on whiskey, had a sharp reply, but kept it to himself. It was New Year's Eve, after all. Nick's suspicions were a little troubling--but nonsense. It was the champagne. Or all those ruffles.
Anna didn't join the Barkleys for Christmas dinner. Maria Ortega had her Jesus on Christmas day, and there was a rash of whooping cough among the younger set. She set her regrets. And she was sorry, but a little relieved, too, at not having to see both Jarrod and Heath.
Her absence cast a pall over Heath's holiday. He'd spent the intervening days telling himself he was wise to stay away, and that he'd avoid her at Christmas. But he began to think her absence was a harder test.
Jarrod stopped by after Christmas with an invitation. Nick and Audra were planning on joining him in San Francisco for the mayor's ball. He could see that her absence from Christmas dinner was really caused by duty; when he caught her she had been out most of the night and was catching a few winks on her waiting room sofa.
He plumped for the ball as hard as he dared, but she still turned him down. There was a wistfulness in her tone that made him think her refusal was not definite. "Remember, Audra and Nick aren't leaving until New Year's Eve," he said in parting. "There's time for you to change your mind."
"I'll keep it in mind," she promised.
She did keep it in mind, though she never seriously considered going to San Francisco. But her thoughts were frequently on the family. She wondered if she were bold enough to invite herself out. She wasn't; nor was an invitation forthcoming. No doubt she was thought of as Audra's friend, and Jarrod's; no point in having her in for such a quiet evening. Or perhaps the rest of the family had gone to San Francisco as well.
But she ended up at the ranch anyway. New Year's Eve, like the days before, was wet, wild, and cold, with a constant North wind. She had precious few calls that day; you'd have had to be near death to venture out in that weather. Occasionally she thought of Audra and the others; what a terrible day for traveling, even for a party.
When evening fell she began to regret her refusal. She felt melancholy and low. She was in a reflective mood. The year had been a packed and surprising one. Even five months ago she wouldn't have believed it. And there was much to look forward to. Yet she felt heavy and dull and very far from home. Her feelings were unchanged, but she had little hope of any return. She hadn't seen Heath since he'd worked on her roof. She had half hoped--well, she'd hoped a lot of foolish things, none of which had come about. In the new year, she told herself firmly, no more day dreams. They were pleasant to indulge but hard to let go of.
At first she thought she'd imagined the knock in the wind; but it came again, louder and more insistent. She opened the door to Heath. Surprise, pleasure, brought a flush to her face. "Why, Heath, come in. You must be soaked."
"I'm sorry to bother you like this," he said. "Audra's poorly. She didn't go to San Francisco. Could you come out?"
Her heart sank a little. "Of course. I'll get my bag. But come in for a moment. Don't worry about the carpet."
"I'm sorry to disturb you on a holiday."
"As you can see, you're not disturbing much. I've just been thinking some rather somber thoughts. New Year's resolutions."
He helped her into a slicker. "What would you change, Anna?"
Struggling into the slicker, she caught sight of herself in a mirror. She looked pale and frumpy. "Not to be so foolish," she said sadly.
"You seem about the least foolish woman I ever saw."
"I might surprise you."
He helped her into the buggy, settled the rug around her. "That wind's blowing right sharp. Even with the top up I'm afraid you're gonna get plenty wet."
"Um. Good thing you fixed the roof."
"No more trouble?"
"Not a drip. Even in all this. You did good work."
The drove in silence. Anna remembered their rides in the fall, the hours he'd spent at her house just a few weeks ago. The easy camaraderie was gone. She remembered her earlier impression--that he found her distasteful. Of course, he needed to concentrate on the road; or perhaps Audra really was poorly. But more likely he just found the chore tiresome. She began to wish they'd sent Ciego.
In the corral he helped her down. "You go on in," he said. "I've got to see to the horses."
Silas opened the door for her. "My, my, what a night!" he said. "You take off those wet things, Dr. Carroll. Shoes, too. I'll bring up a hot toddy for you directly. Mrs. Barkley, she's up with Audra."
She found the two women playing cards. Audra certainly had a heavy cold, but nothing worse. She was more distressed about missing the mayor's ball. "If I'd just gone to San Francisco a day or two earlier--" she fretted.
"You'd be having a cold alone in a hotel room," Victoria said dryly. "You're better off here."
"I suppose so. But there was no need for Heath to make such a fuss, or insist on dragging you out here, Anna." Audra brightened. "Still, you're here, and you must stay. I'm sure a little champagne won't hurt my cold."
"Of course she must stay," Victoria said. "I wouldn't sent a dog back out in this weather, much less you, Anna. How's the roof holding up?"
"Just fine." Silas brought in toddies for each of them. Anna remembered her stocking feet and noticed how damp her hemline was. "Audra, I hate to impose, but I didn't bring my overnight bag and I'm rather damp. May I borrow a dress?"
"Of course!" Audra bounded out of bed. "Even if it's just us it's still New Year's Even. Let's dress up anyway. Look, Anna, this is what I was going to wear tonight. Isn't it divine?"
It was. It was a rich claret color, heavy, soft velvet, simply cut. It also had quite a low neckline, and no sleeves. "I think you need something with a little more coverage, with your cold, Audra," Victoria suggested.
Audra frowned. "I suppose you're right. But, Anna, I believe you could wear it. You'd look lovely in this red--better than me, probably. Oh, do wear it! And we'd better hurry--it'll be midnight before you know it."
Anna looked doubtfully at the dress. No more foolishness, she'd told herself. But he was the one who'd wanted her to come..."It's a holiday, after all," she said to herself.
"Well," Victoria said, "I'll leave you two to get dressed. I'd better make sure we actually have some champagne on hand."
The dress was a bit tight in the waist, a bit loose in the bust--Anna didn't have Audra's fine figure. But it fit well enough. Audra, however, wasn't satisfied. "Your hair," she said at last. "The braid won't do. Up or down? Up, I think. You have a nice long neck--nicer than mine."
"Nothing fancy," Anna said quickly.
"No, just a nice twist--like that." Audra worked quickly and surely. "It's so much easier to do someone else's hair. Now, a few wisps like that--but still not finished." Audra rummaged in her jewelry box and pulled out a locket. On a fine gold chain, the necklace neatly matched the line of the dress.
"Perfect!" Audra beamed. "Anna, you look wonderful. I feel just like Cinderella's fairy godmother. I just wish we had a ball for you--and a prince charming, of course."
While Audra dressed Anna looked at herself in the mirror. The deep claret made her skin smooth and creamy; it brightened her grey eyes. With her hair up she looked polished, even elegant. Perhaps she was wrong to skip those fancy dress occasions.
Audra dressed quickly in a more sensible dress, with long sleeves and a high neck. "That should keep my cold in check. Isn't this fun? I do wish I'd had a sister. Now if there were only some men!"
"Well," Anna said, a little unsteady, "there's one."
"Heath? He's a dear, but not my idea of Prince Charming. I can't see him sweeping any girl off her feet--but he's got a romantic side, I know, like Nick. We'll just have to make do."
They made a grand entrance, descending the curving staircase. Victoria was struck by the change in Anna, and a little saddened, for seeing Anna like this it struck Victoria afresh that she might have been a suitable wife for Jarrod after all. It was clear that, though Anna scorned social occasions, she could shine when she chose. And she was shining now. But, Victoria thought, perhaps it was not the dress alone that made Anna shine.
Heath, Victoria could tell, was thunderstruck. He could not meet Anna's eyes directly, but he could keep his eyes away from Anna. When he did manage to look away he was distracted and distant. Audra had to repeat her request for champagne.
"Don't be such a bumpkin, Heath," she scolded.
He flushed. "It's not midnight yet."
"It's midnight somewhere, I'm sure. And I'd like a nip now. I think it would be medicinal. Wouldn't it, Anna?"
"A nip should do no harm."
While Heath was gone, Audra said, "I've been thinking of my New Year's resolutions. Perhaps it's my cold, but I can't remember what they were!"
"A little more discipline, my dear, wouldn't hurt," Victoria said gently.
"Of course. Discipline in all things. We Barkleys are very big on discipline, Anna. But, Mother, if I hadn't been so disciplined about going to the orphanage, I wouldn't have gotten so wet and I wouldn't have this cold."
"Or if you hadn't danced until three at the Hortons' a few days ago."
Audra shook her head firmly. "Dancing never gave anyone a cold. Isn't that right, Anna?"
"I wouldn't say never," Anna smiled.
"Discipline again. That's why you fit in so well with us. You must be the most disciplined woman I know. Except for mother."
"I have my weak points," Anna admitted. "I'd promised myself I was going to be less foolish in the new year--and look at me!"
"It's not next year yet," Audra pointed out. "And this isn't foolish, it's fun. The two aren't the same. Anna, I think you should be more foolish, not less. You should have gone to the Hortons'. Heath," Audra said as he reappeared, "don't you think Anna should be more foolish?"
"I reckon she's about right for herself," he muttered. He was struggling with the cork as Silas came in with glasses.
"And you, Mother?"
"I think I could be less critical."
"You, criticize your children? Never, Mother." Audra laughed. "Or at least never undeserved criticism. What's your resolution, Heath?"
He looked at her wryly. "I'm gonna stop answerin your foolish questions. I'm also gonna stop lettin you win at cards."
"A good disciplined Barkley answer--what do you mean, letting me win? I beat you fair and square. Isn't it midnight yet?"
"Give it a minute, sis."
A silence fell as they stood about, waiting. At last the clock on the mantel chimed. Audra embraced Anna, then Heath, then she went to Victoria. Seeing Anna and Heath standing awkwardly side by side, she said, "Heath, don't be such a bumpkin! Wish Anna a happy New Year!"
Audra turned away; she didn't see the blush on either face. He went one way, she went another; he meant to kiss her cheek and she meant to offer it, but instead his lips brushed the corner of hers. Her eyes widened in surprise, but she didn't move back.
"I think I need more champagne," Audra said.
"I think you've had enough excitement, dear. You don't want to bring on a fever. I think it's time you made your good nights, Audra."
"It's midnight, and Cinderella turns into a pumpkin," Audra said vaguely. "I think you're right, Mother. Good night, dears."
"Stay and finish the champagne," Victoria suggested. "It'll go flat anyway. I'm going to make sure she gets tucked in. Happy New Year's to you both. Audra?"
Audra was humming to herself. At the top of the stairs she said, "Poor Anna. No prince charming at the ball."
"I think Anna's content," Victoria said, and steered her daughter towards her room.
Anna was not yet content. Heath emptied the last of the bottle into their glasses and blew out the lamp. She said, anxiously, "Are you going up, then?"
"No, I just like the firelight. More fitting this late at night." Too, he felt more comfortable in the dimmer light; and, as in her kitchen, he liked to see the fire throw shadows across her face.
The champagne was very light, and it warmed all the way down. As she finished it, she said, "I feel so strange. All dressed up."
"I still feel more comfortable in my work clothes. But once a year it's all right."
"Sorry you didn't go to San Francisco?"
"Oh, no, not at all." Somehow champagne loosened the muscles in the face; she smiled more widely and more easily than usual.
Another silence fell. He thought: you'll never have another chance, not like this. The holiday, the dress, the champagne: there was a spell over them both. "Anna," he said quietly. "Anna, I love you."
Seeing her startled look, he continued, "I know I got no place talkin like this to you. I don't expect you to feel the same. I just--I just wanted to say it, that's all."
"Oh, Heath!" She turned away. "You don't know--Heath, I'm a difficult woman. You don't--"
"I do know. I do know you, Anna. You aren't difficult. You're just carryin too heavy a load. I wish--I wish I could make it easier for you. Make you stop tryin so hard. Tote some of it for you."
She forced smile. "You sure it's not just the champagne talking? Or the dress?"
"Dress just makes it harder. You look different. Not like my Anna."
My Anna. She took a breath and went over to him. She sat down beside him, very close, and leaned her face against his neck. After a moment's surprise, scarcely believing his good fortune, he put his arm around her and pulled her closer. The skin on her arm was smooth, but he could feel the strength in it. Yes, this was the woman he wanted.
She said, "I am--perfectly happy. Perfectly. I love you, Heath. I never said that before. I never thought I'd get a chance to say it. I could say it a thousand times."
The solemnity and the tension of just a few moments before had fallen away. Perhaps the champagne had loosened his smile, too. "Don't let me stop you," he said.
The End of Anna's First Adventure