Shifting the lead rope to his right hand, Heath climbed in the saddle and nodded to the man standing on the ground before nudging Charger with his heels. The blond left the ranch leading the three unbroken horses, the reason for his time away from the house he called home.
The thoughts accompanying him on his way back to Stockton made the trip seem twice as long. His eagerness to return made every mile seem as two and he shook his head. It was going to be a long three-day trip home if he let his thoughts run away like this. Turning his mind to geography to keep it occupied, the blond fought to increase the passing of the day, to make it go faster.
After a long day of riding, sitting by his small fire, the blond sighed with contentment as his mind flashed the face of his wife in front of him and closing his eyes, sighed loudly. The past months of marriage had him sighing with happiness. He’d never known such fulfillment as he felt in her presence, in her arms. He could get lost in her eyes and the beauty of her inner being. Throwing out the rest of his coffee, he placed two more wood pieces in the fire and checked the horses, spending time with each one before heading back to the circle of rocks.
Laying on his bedroll, he groaned at the need to feel her body lying against his and rolled onto his side, holding his gun instead of her. Sleep was slow in coming and the dawning of the day found him wiping exhaustion from his eyes, his dreams haunted by the visions of her face and the desire she awoke in him with the remembrance of a single touch.
Quickly saddling the horses, the blond made a hasty decision and left without breakfast, pushing the horses to the town of Everton and arriving five minutes before the southbound train was leaving. After settling the horses into the stock car, the blond smiled in anticipation of arriving home two days ahead of schedule by riding the train, a contraption he himself found appalling compared to the feel of a powerful horse’s muscles and even gait.
Smiling and winking at the little girl seated across from him, he was rewarded with a shy smile before the petite redhead leaned into her mother’s side. Lowering his hat over his eyes, the blond crossed his arms and leaned his shoulder against the window, seeking to catch up on his sleep while the iron beast chugged away towards home.
The blond didn’t know how much time passed before he felt the lurching of the train slowing and he pushed his hat upon his forehead, glancing out the window into the bright afternoon sun.
The young lady sitting across from him smiled and offered quietly, “Modesto.”
Nodding, Heath flashed a lop-sided grin at the woman whose face wouldn’t launch a thousand ships but the natural beauty was clear for him to see, “Thank you, miss. I hope I didn’t scare you or your daughter with my bear sounds. I’m afraid I was exhausted.”
“Bear sounds?” queried the girl of four with a whisper of awe. “You make bear sounds?”
Smiling while looking down at the red headed child with her, the woman’s voice was clear and soft, “He means snoring while he was sleeping, Angel.”
“Oh.” giggled the little girl, her blue eyes sparking with laughter as she gazed at the large friendly man sitting across from them. “My mommy’s going to open a dress shop. Do you know any ladies who need dresses?”
Blushing at the boldness in her daughter’s statement, the woman shook her head and scolded her gently, “Angeline, that’s not polite to ask Mr., uh…”
“Thomson. Heath Thomson.” offered Heath holding out his hand and smiling at her similar offering, “Faith Johnson, Mr. Thomson.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Johnson.”
“Actually, it’s Ms. Johnson.” corrected the woman eyes which lowered slightly as a hint sadness shadowed their depths.
“Sorry, ma’am.” acknowledged Heath, his eyes glancing towards the small girl. “Miss Angeline, I do happen to know of some ladies who are in need of some new dresses.”
“You do?” stated Angeline, her eyes lighting up with excitement. “My mommy made this dress for me. My mommy’s the very bestest sewer.”
Sighing with embarrassment, Faith offered a smile of apology to the man across from her. “My Angel is my biggest fan, Mr. Thomson.”
“Heath, ma’am. Please call me Heath.” stated the blond as the train pulled out from the station after picking up more passengers, his eyes automatically scanning the new faces. “Where are you headed to?”
“Well, me too!” exclaimed Heath with a wide smile. “My mother, sister and wife will be excited to hear of a new dress shop being opened in our town. I think you can count on them to be some of your first customers.”
“That’s very kind of you, but please don’t feel it is necessary for them to shop at my store because of my daughter’s excitement.” sighed the light redheaded woman, her eyes asking for understanding from the blond across from her.
Waving off her concerns, Heath shook his head and smiled, “Believe me when I say I won’t even need to mention the new shop to the ladies in my family. I think they have a sixth sense when it comes to knowing when new clothes are arriving in town. I think they even know before the shopkeepers do.”
Giggling, Faith smiled and nodded, “Then, I look forward to meeting them Heath.”
Any further conversation was stopped when the train slowed and the conductor made his way towards them. “Here’s your stop, Marshal.”
“Jake, how many times I gotta remind you, I’m not a marshal anymore.” sighed Heath clapping the man on the back before turning and taking the hand of his two fellow travelers. “Ladies, it’s been a pleasure and I shall look forward to seeing your new store after you’ve become settled in.”
Saying their good-byes, mother and daughter watched from the window of the train, waving to the man who turned to look back and tipped his hat before riding away. They watched until they couldn’t see him any more and Angeline glanced upward.
“I think I’m going to like our new home, mama.”
Smiling and brushing her hand through the fiery red hair of her daughter, the woman agreed and wrapped her arms around the small girl and placed a kiss on her forehead.
“Me, too Angel.”
Heath smiled when he reached the ranch yard, handing the horses off to Ciego, not aware of the coolness of the man towards him in his anxiousness to greet his wife. In the grand foyer, Nick stood with his hands on his hips, his eyes furious as he stared at the bewildered blond.
“Nick, what the hell are you talking about?” stammered Heath. “What do you mean Cassidy’s gone?”
“What the hell did you think was gonna happen, Heath?” said Nick with disgust. “You’re supposed to be on a horse buying trip when we see you kissing the Widow Harrison in Stockton in broad daylight! I can hardly stand here and talk to you. I can’t believe you’d do such a low down thing. It’s, well, it’s disgusting!”
Turning to leave, Nick was stopped by the hand, which clamped down on his arm, the grip hard and muscular, the words cool and clipped with fury. “You got no right to speak to me like that, Nick. I don’t care what the hell you think I’ve done, I won’t have you sneering at me like that, like I’m lower than you, lower than the dirt on your boots.”
Any further words were stopped by the right, which knocked the blond down to the oak floor where he landed and shook his head to clear the confusion, which turned to anger before he pushed himself to his knees, and lunged towards his brother.
A scream of pure fury left the blond as he lunged and barrelled into the body of his big brother, the momentum carrying both men across the floor where they landed hard onto the wooden floor. Fists were moving and neither stopped to question the harsh treatment one brother was handing another.
Knuckles became bruised and cut as they left their marks on the other. All thought was gone as the two immovable objects clashed in a battle, the anger and hurt inside both men coming out in forms of battering fists and quickly forming bruises.
Grabbing hold of the blond, Jarrod and Gene pulled their combative brother off the top of the other. Forcing the blond down to his knees, both men were hard pressed to keep the furious man in place with his arms locked behind his back, each set of hands firmly holding a wrist and forearm.
“GET OFF ME!” screamed Heath, bucking against the pressure holding him in place. “LET GO!”
Nick rolled up onto his knees, wiping his fingers across his right eye, clearing it of the blood hampering its vision and gasping for air from the expense of energy used in his battle with his blond brother, his body already feeling the results.
“DAMMIT HEATH, SETTLE DOWN!” shouted Jarrod, his muscles straining against the power in his brother. “STOP IT!”
The former lawman was oblivious to the shouts of the two men holding him, his eyes only seeing the red curtain in front of them. His confusion and wounded pride at the foul accusations from the man who was more than a brother and the unexpected departure of his wife cut deep into the heart, which at one time had been stilted and afraid to let love in.
“STOP IT, HEATH!” screamed Victoria, afraid of the rage in the blond and severely shaken by the brutal hand-to-hand combat the middle sons had been locked in when they’d arrived. The cursing of each man at the other only adding to the tension of an already overwhelming and shocking situation.
Shaking his head, Nick held his hand against his pained side and knelt staring for a moment at the rage in his blond brother. His mind couldn’t comprehend how this man he thought he knew inside and out, this man who appeared to love his wife above everything else could coldly hurt her and his family with his nonchalant actions. His heart was twisted with anger and betrayal.
“HOW COULD YOU, HEATH? CASSIDY LOVES YOU!” shouted Nick from his knees, his body trembling with shock and fury, his hands clenched into fists, the knuckles bleeding from the exchange of blows. “YOU DISGRACED HER AND YOUR MARRIAGE!”
The sharp intake of breath was heard throughout the foyer and the blond snapped in retaliation, lunging against the hands holding him in place, “I’M NOT HIM! I’M NOT MY FATHER! I’M NOT THE SAME AS THAT SONOFA…”
The slap rang through the foyer, her hand left a mark on his cheek, his face turning to the right from the power behind the tiny hand, but it did what no words could do. It reached through the haze of red and shoved the curtain aside. The shouted slander towards the man she loved sent her hand flying towards the son she loved and held dear as much as her natural children.
“You will not speak of your father in that manner, Heath Thomson. He was not a perfect man and that sneer will not be tolerated.” stated Victoria firmly and through her tears. “No matter what, he was your father and I’m your mother.”
“Mother. I’m sorry, Mother.” stammered Heath, the hurt in her words and in her eyes left his body suddenly sagging from the fight she’d driven from him and his anguished words ripped into the hearts of all four. “I don’t understand. Where’s my wife? What the hell is going on?”
Jarrod took a deep breath and nodded to his white faced little brother, both men releasing their holds and the blond fell forward onto his hands and knees, his body trembling with emotion. Kneeling beside Heath, Victoria glanced over to Nick who now was seated on his butt holding his head in one hand and his hand against his left side.
“Lets get you cleaned up then we’ll talk.” stated the matriarch, hurt when the blond moved away from her touch, her hand falling back onto her lap.
Gene left the foyer and returned with the first aid supplies, his hands trembling slightly as he examined Nick, shaking his head and bandaging the cuts. Neither of the fighters spoke any more words, both just sat dazed and shocked at what occurred between them.
Kneeling beside Heath, Gene reached over and his hand was pushed away with a loud command before the blond staggered to his feet, “Don’t touch me. Just stay away from me.”
Gene looked over to his mother and other brothers for help when the blond saw his chance.
“Heath!” shouted Victoria at the blond who suddenly bolted out the front door. Jarrod and Gene ran after him unable to catch him before he jumped on top of Jingo and galloped from the ranch yard. Nick stumbled to the door and cursed softly.
“Get the horses, Nate’ll probably shoot him when he shows up at the ranch!”
The man whose world was spinning uncontrollably headed for the place where he felt his wife would be. The ranch of Nate Jackson, her brother and a former fellow marshal. His mind tried to wrap itself around his unexpected homecoming and the rage he’d unleashed on the brother he worked with side by side and held dear to his heart. He felt sick to his stomach, he hadn’t felt that amount of rage in years and it scared him to know it still existed inside his being.
The paining of his body made itself known with a ferociousness and he winced against the sharp jolt in his side. Pulling Jingo to a stop, he pressed his hand against his side and wiped the other across his face, staring at the red color appearing from the fight on his fingers. His head throbbed in the back and he remembered the burst of stars he’d seen when one of Nick’s large fists threw him backwards onto the floor, his head hitting the hard surface at the time was not noticed due to the combat the brothers had been locked in.
His first impulse was to seek out his wife and demand an explanation but the damage his brother was able to do to his body had the former lawman questioning if he’d be able to make it to the ranch of his brother-in-law. Hesitating for a moment, Heath turned Jingo towards Stockton, which was a closer ride, intent on seeing the town physician before seeking out Widow Harrison.
Taking a shallow breath, the former lawman growled to himself, “If I’d been seen kissing Widow Harrison, I’d like her to tell me when exactly that was. Cause I sure as hell don’t remember it.”
The ride under the hot California sun increased the temperature inside the man whose anger steadily rose as his body protested each bruise and each cut. Jingo’s ears twitched at the stream of heated words leaving the familiar man’s mouth.
“I’m gone for two weeks Jingo. Two weeks and everybody’s gone crazy! Maybe it’s a mass hallucination? Maybe they’re all nuts!”
“You’re supposed to be on a horse buying trip when we see you kissing the Widow Harrison in Stockton in broad daylight! I can hardly stand here and talk to you. I can’t believe you’d do such a low down thing. It’s, well, it’s disgusting!”
The statement of his older brother left him clenching his jaw in anger.
“I was out of town for two weeks. Where the hell does Nick think I got those damn horses? I sure didn’t pull them outta thin air!”
It was clear to the former lawman, his brother believed in what he apparently saw with his own eyes and he felt wounded at the injustice they’d think he was capable of.
“Jesus, how can they think I’d do such a thing? All this time and they don’t know me, can you imagine that, Jingo! When I find out what’s happened, I’m gonna make them eat those accusations!”
The venom in his words made the gentle mount nervous and glancing upwards, Heath saw the steeple of the church in the distance, the church where he and Cassidy married in a candle lit midnight ceremony. Thinking of the pain his wife must be in from this misunderstanding, the sapphire eyes filled with worry and concern almost toppling him out of the saddle from the burst of anguish taking his breath away.
“My god, how Cassidy must be hating me at this moment. I didn’t do anything wrong, Jingo. She’s my life. When I find out who did this to us, I’m gonna take great pleasure in wringing the life outta him after I make him confess. Dear god, please let me find him. I can’t lose her cause if I did, I don’t think I could survive.”
A future of not having his wife in his life sent the anger out of his heart, replacing it with fear and despair. She calmed the monster inside him like no others could and he couldn’t imagine the loss he’d feel. They’d gone through so much already, could they survive this misunderstanding, this apparent apparition that the town had seen.
Dismounting in front of the office of Dr. Merar, Heath held onto the saddle for a moment taking shallow breaths, the pain in his ribs leaving no doubt to the former marshal his big brother could hit harder than most men. Looking over the back of Jingo to the main street of Stockton, the sapphire eyes widened at the man dressed in a tan vest, blue shirt and tan pants who appeared on the balcony of the second floor of the saloon. Squinting against the glare of the afternoon sun, the former marshal headed towards the building as the man stepped back inside.
Nick bit back the groan threatening to escape as his body was jarred further by the fast gait of his horse, his jaw clenched tightly against the pain. Jarrod glanced over and worried over the paleness of his brother’s face who refused to be left behind at the ranch.
Gene shook his head at the horrific sight being replayed in his mind, the animalistic fighting between two of his brothers. While he was not a stranger to the violence surrounding them in the times they lived in, it was unnerving to the youngest to see the display of power wielded by both brothers against one another.
Never did the young man of medicine think he’d ever witness such brutality between the two men who were more than just brothers. They were more than just bound by blood, those two were bound by their souls. Shivering under the hot sun, Gene thanked the heavens above Jarrod had been with him when they entered the mansion for he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to break the two raging bulls apart without help and before further damage was done.
Nick pulled up at the sight of the rider coming towards them at a gallop, his stomach lurching into his throat when the man approached. Jarrod and Gene pulled up alongside Nick waiting for the rider.
“Nick, what the hell happened to you!” exclaimed Nate Jackson staring open mouthed at the bruised brother of his soon to be ex-brother-in-law.
“You didn’t shoot him did you, Nate?” asked Nick gruffly.
“Shoot who?” questioned the former lawman curiously.
“Heath!” stated all three men at once, spreading surprise across the face of the brown haired man.
“I will when I see him.” snapped Nate, his sister’s tearful red eyes and story told through her sobs of hurt sent the man into a flurry of anger. His search of Stockton for his kissing brother-in-law after the incident proved fruitless and his anger simmered as the blond remained at large. “Former friend or not, he’d best hide when he sees me coming.”
Jarrod looked at his brothers in confusion and stated, “He didn’t show up at your ranch looking for Cassidy?”
“ARE YOU CRAZY? DO YOU THINK I’D LET HIM NEAR MY SISTER? AFTER WHAT HE’S DONE!” shouted Nate, his gray eyes flashing with flames of anger.
“You mean you didn’t come across Heath on your way here?” asked Gene, his face scrunched up with puzzlement.
“Yes, I’m sure! I know what he looks like, Gene!” replied Nate sarcastically.
“This doesn’t make any sense, Jarrod.” stated Gene in exasperation.
Squeezing his temples against the throbbing headache caused by the fight, the sun and the confusion, Nick sighed loudly, “Where the hell is he then? He’s in about as bad shape as me, he can’t have ridden too far.”
“You saw Heath?” grilled Nate. “What did he say about him kissing that…that… homewrecking woman?”
Between the two oldest brothers, the men filled the former marshal in on the happenings of the day, which were the reason for their ride to his ranch in search of their blond male sibling.
“Heath said he didn’t understand what was going on and wanted to know where his wife was.” replied Nick, hazel eyes filled with confusion, a bad feeling starting to settle into his stomach.
“Hey, do you think Heath went to Stockton instead? He took quite a beating from you, Nick.” suggested Gene suddenly.
“He took as much as he gave, Gene.” said the rancher tenderly touching his bruised ribs. “Maybe he decided he needed to see Doc Merar.”
“That must be it.” agreed Jarrod with a nod and turning his mount towards the town.
Nate turned his horse and shook his head, “Cass went to town bout an hour ago to get some fabric or something with Audra, boys. I don’t want her to run into him unless I’m there. He’s done enough already. This is the first time in a week she hasn’t cried all day.”
Faces grim and hearts filled with anxiety rode with the group of four men as they hurried towards the town hovering on the horizon. Nick took a shallow breath and tried to calm his temperament, which was as surly as a grizzly with a tooth ache from the pains in his body. The dark haired man couldn’t put his finger on it but somehow he suddenly had the horrible gut wrenching feeling he’d been wrong about his little brother and he could feel his stomach muscles clenching. Jarrod and Gene kept an eye on Nick, both men worrying over his pallor and the pain he was in as they rode.
Nate shook his head and frowned. He’d never known his blond friend to lie, not even once and if what the brothers said was true, it appeared Heath had no understanding of what was happening or why his wife wasn’t home at the ranch. No matter how much he thought on what occurred the week before, he always came up empty handed with trying to find a plausible reason for Heath’s kissing escapade. Not to mention the fact the anger over the hurt caused his sister had placed a strain on his blossoming relationship with Audra.
Gray eyes filled with puzzlement as he followed the brothers toward Stockton, promising himself he’d give Heath a chance to explain and if he didn’t like what he heard, then he’d see his brother-in-law got what he deserved.
“There’s Jingo!” exclaimed Gene pointing to the horse in front of the office of Dr. Merar and the group of riders stopped beside the animal, dismounting and climbing the steps.
Taking the outside stairs in the back of the weather faded wood building, Heath climbed to the second story of the saloon and entered through a door which normally was used by men wanting to leave the ladies of pleasure who they frequented on the second floor without the eyes of the town seeing.
The familiar feeling he got at seeing the man who stepped out on the balcony raised his temperature one more notch and he forgot about the pain he was in with each step he climbed. Men and women alike backed up against the wall in the hallway at the murderous look in the blond’s eyes. They scurried out of the way and sought haven away from whatever was to occur, not wanting to be an injured bystander.
His feeling was confirmed as he neared the door of the room he sought, the voice through the door raised his foot and the plank of wood burst open under his power and was left to hang on a rusty hinge. Screaming at the sudden force, which tore open the door, the woman seated on the bed scrambled into the corner and the man in the room was riveted to his spot.
Coming face to face with the furious blond, the stranger smiled nervously, “Nice to see you again, Marshal.”
The sound of a woman screaming rang out through the afternoon and the four men stepped off the porch of the doctor’s office into the street, their mouths gaping at the two men fighting on the balcony of the saloon.
The blue eyes of the man widened as the former marshal whose face was bruised and bloody growled loudly then lunged, the former lawman’s hands grabbing hold of the shirt he wore and both were propelled through the open set of doors and onto the balcony. Running towards the fight, the brothers and Nate watched with horror as the fighting men broke through the railing of the balcony, bounced off a load of supplies on the back of a wagon and landed onto the street below, the wood particles landing on the two men who had each other’s shirt gripped in their hands.
“HEATH!” screamed the men, all thoughts of anger and retribution leaving as they rushed to the two lying in the street. Falling to his knees, Nick pulled a nonstruggling Heath off the top of the man he was laying on, his gasp loud in the air as he held his brother in his arms and his eyes fell onto the stranger.
“Damn, he looks like Heath. They could almost be twins!” exclaimed Nick in astonishment, his brothers as shocked as himself.
Nate cursed loudly, grabbing hold of the unconscious stranger’s shirt and yelled at him to wake til he was forcibly pulled back from the stranger by Fred Maden who suddenly appeared. The former marshal’s anger spilling over as he realized what the double of his friend had put everyone through.
“STOP IT, JACKSON!” demanded Fred loudly, the brown haired man trying to calm the fury in himself as the sheriff held onto him.
“I can’t believe it,” snapped Nate angrily shrugging out of the sheriff’s hold before kneeling beside Nick when Heath moaned and moved his head.
“Heath, open your eyes!” called Nick, running a hand over the blond hair matted with blood, his heart filled with guilt and pain over what he’d put his brother through and he pleaded in anguish. “Please Heath open your eyes.”
Groaning at the pain he felt, Heath fought to open his eyes and obey the voice calling to him. Subconsciously taking stock of the parts of his body protesting, the blond shook his head and moaned, biting back any further cries of pain when he suddenly remembered the events of the day.
The lids over the sapphire eyes flew open and he pulled out of his brother’s arm rolling slowly onto his side before hissing at the men kneeling by him. “Get the hell away from me!”
“Heath..” protested Nick, reaching over to steady his brother and stopping at the look of venom glared his way. Jarrod and Gene placed a hand on Nick when he flinched as if their angry brother had shot him with a bullet instead of his eyes.
Seeing his body double laying on the ground, Heath rose to his knees and grabbed hold of the other unconscious blond’s collar, holding on tightly and swaying as he made his way to his feet. Glaring down at his brown haired brother-in-law, Heath snarled into the guilt ridden gray eyes.
“Where is my wife?”
“Heath, now how was I to know it was him. I mean…really how many years has it been?” offered Nate standing and holding up his hands towards his friend in a gesture of defensiveness. “Heath..”
“WHERE IS MY WIFE?” demanded the blond furiously, his voice ringing out and down the street, through the crowd standing stunned from the man who looked like the former marshal, the man who must have kissed the Widow Harrison.
“Heath, calm down.” pleaded Jarrod and Gene while Nick was helped to his feet by Fred and Nate.
Heath teetered on his feet and shook his head to keep away the impending darkness, his hold on the other man not loosening. Fred stepped in front of the former marshal and stated firmly.
“Let him go, Heath.”
“I can’t Fred.” hissed the battered man, his eyes filling with despair. “Cass thinks it was me but it wasn’t. I was gone for two weeks and just got back. I need her to see this snake.”
“How about if we let the doc look to see how bad he’s injured and then I’ll lock him up in jail.” offered Fred calmly, receiving a negative nod for an answer.
“I’ll keep him in the cell til Cassidy has a look at him and this whole mess is cleared up. Okay, Heath?” asked the sheriff then adding. “I promise, Heath, I’ll bring Cassidy to see this guy myself.”
Suddenly feeling exhausted and spent, Heath released the hold he had on the collar, the other blond falling to the ground by his feet. Howard who appeared during Fred’s talk instructed some onlookers to carry the still stranger to his office.
“Jarrod and Gene you’d best bring your brothers too.” added the physician before following the citizens down the street.
“Come on, Heath.” said Jarrod reaching for his blond brother who stepped away from his hand, unsteady on his feet.
“I told ya’ not to touch me!” snarled Heath weakly before starting on unsteady legs towards the doctor’s office, leaving his brothers with his friend, ashamed and hurt in the street.
Fred walked beside the staggering blond and suddenly grabbed onto him when his legs gave out. Putting Heath’s left arm over his shoulder and nodding when Nate appeared to take the right side of the passed out man. The men carried Heath in and placed him in another room where Helen Merar waited to care for their friend.
Nate leaned against the wall in the waiting room his eyes closed and mentally berating himself. The brothers entered and took a seat in the room, glancing up at Fred who came from the examining area.
“Nate, who is that guy?” asked Fred gesturing to the rooms behind him with his thumb.
Taking a deep breath, Nate wiped his hands over his face and clasped them behind his neck before sighing deeply, “His name’s Gaylord Fleshton.”
Fingering the satin material, Cassidy fought back the tears, which threatened to escape her sienna colored eyes at the sight of her wedding band and engagement ring on her left hand. The blonde girl felt like she was walking in a living nightmare the past week.
She didn’t think there was any more moisture her body could conjure up in way of tears but every day proved her wrong. Each time she closed her eyes, she saw the horrific sight as if it were happening again in front of her and the tears threatened to fall. Today was the first day she’d been back to town and she had to delve deep inside herself to find the strength to not disappoint her sister-in-law, Audra.
She couldn’t rid the sight of her husband kissing another woman, the Widow Harrison, whose dresses showed far more of her buxom cleavage than a decent woman’s should. The widow whose slight color on her cheeks was not from a healthy glow but a mirage caused by the use of makeup. While she was a widow, she was only twenty-three years old and beautiful could be used to describe her.
Nick who’d accompanied her to town that fateful day was just as stunned and routed in place at the sight down the street than she was. The low growl from deep within him startled her and she couldn’t stop her own heartwrenching sob from escaping. She’d been left standing alone as her husband’s furious brother bolted towards the couple who’d been carrying on in broad daylight in the town where they lived.
When Nick returned fifteen minutes later, she’d been standing in the same spot, her eyes fixated on the place where she’d seen the sight, which made her sick and tore her heart into tiny pieces. Apologizing for not being able to catch up to the couple and find where they’d gone, Nick took her back to the ranch and to the mansion she lived in with her husband’s family before he headed out with her brother in search of her husband who was supposed to be on a horse buying trip for another week.
Audra and her mother were just as stunned and revolted by what Nick described after they’d arrived back home. The women tried to offer their support while their own minds and hearts tried to make sense of an unfathomable situation.
Leaving the family downstairs, she climbed the stairs to the bedroom she shared with her husband. Standing in the doorway, she grabbed onto the frame of the door, her legs trembling at the sight of the large bed where they spent their night locked in each other’s embrace, their love warming them more than the flames in the large fireplace. The betrayal she felt had her sliding to the floor of the doorway, her tears falling and she couldn’t stop them.
From the foyer, Nick heard the sobbing and found her there, his heart tortured at the deep wrenching cries of his brother’s wife and he carefully picked her up to place her on the bed. Through her words amidst the gasps of shattering intakes of air, he understood her wish and took her to the nearest guestroom, placing her on the bed where she moved into a fetal position, her body trembling from the shock.
The large hearted man felt the flame of anger burning and rising to a forest fire level as he covered his loving sister-in-law with a large comforter leaving the room to bring his mother up to sit with her.
She’d stayed in the house one day before asking Nate to move her onto his ranch. She wouldn’t stay in the mansion he called home while he was out gallivanting with other women. Her days spent doing unnecessary chores around her brother’s small house and planting a flower garden around the dwelling much to his chagrin and dismay.
Her nights spent haunted by nightmares and questions. She’d searched her mind and the time spent with the man she loved but could find nothing to indicate he was a person capable of what he’d done to her and his family.
Heath’d been nothing but a loving, gentle, caring and generous partner in life and in bed. What did that woman have she didn’t have? Did he like those types of women better? Was she more exciting than her? Why would he callously and viciously act this way? What was happening to their marriage, which was still in its young stage?
Audra walked over, placing her arm across her sister-in-law’s shoulders and leaned her blonde head against Cassidy’s and whispered, “I’m sorry Cass for pestering you about coming to town today. Do you want to head back?”
Swallowing the emotion in her throat, Cassidy nodded and tried to smile through her tears, “Can we, Audra? I don’t think I’m ready for this yet. I don’t want the whole town to see me in hysterics.”
Assuring her sister-in-law they could head out, Audra’s eyes surged with anger at her brother’s apparent abuse of his marital vows as she lead the devastated woman from the dress shop. She’d have never known the blond was capable of such a heinous act.
“Miss Audra! Miss Cassidy! There’s two Heaths down at the doc’s office!” declared Billy the deputy rushing up to the women, relieved he’d finally found them in the town.
“What?” asked the women at the same time, their confusion showing in their eyes.
“Go to Doc Merar’s!” ordered Billy, giving them a slight push in that direction. “I gotta ride out to the ranch and get Mrs. Barkley! HURRY UP!”
Picking up their skirts, the two young women rushed down to the office of Dr. Merar and up the stairs, the door flying open under Cassidy’s hand and they stood gasping for air.
“Nick, what happened!” exclaimed the women with concern at the condition of the large man standing with Jarrod and Gene.
“Heath and I had a fight…” informed Nick, any further words stopped by the loud shouts coming from the back examining rooms.
“DAMMIT, GET THE HELL OUTTA MY WAY JACKSON!”
“HE’S HURT, HEATH! LEAVE HIM ALONE!”
“HE’S GONNA REGRET THE DAY HE SHOWED UP HERE! I’M GONNA RIP HIS HEAD OFF BEFORE I TEAR OFF HIS LIMBS!”
Rushing towards the back rooms at the start of the heated words, Jarrod helped Howard grab Heath off Nate who’d he been trying to go through to enter the room where the man from his past lay unconscious from a concussion.
“HEATH, STOP IT!” shouted Howard, knowing the blond was hurting from the reduced strength in his struggling attempts. Jarrod and the physician pulled Heath to the next room, the blond bucking in their hands, his face red with fury under the bruises which dotted his skin.
Nick lead his sister-in-law to the other room which Nate was guarding, whispering in her ear about her husband’s double who was the man they’d seen with Widow Harrison. Cassidy looked past Nate and grabbed onto her brother’s arm at the sight of the man who could have been her husband’s twin, the shock widening her sienna eyes and her curse of disbelief was drowned out by more shouts.
“HEATH, DO I HAVE TO TIE YOU DOWN?” shouted Howard from the other room.
“I’D LIKE TO SEE YOU TRY IT! GIT OFF ME!”
Stumbling to the doorway of the other room, Cassidy’s tears flowed freely in her pale face at the rage in her husband as he shoved the physician, then Jarrod to the side, turning and stopping in his tracks when he saw her. His sudden halting of movement caused the others to look towards the doorway.
His face was bandaged on his cheek, his head wrapped in a white cloth and dark bruises dotted his skin while a wrap around his ribs could be seen from the shirt which was unbuttoned except for the bottom two round pieces of ivory.
“Cassidy?” whispered Heath, anguish twisting his voice, thickening his words. “It wasn’t me, Cass. You gotta believe me, honey. I’d never…not in a million….”
Whimpering amid her tears, Cassidy ran forward into her husband’s arms and he dropped to his knees. Holding onto the sobbing woman he was desperate to reassure of his faithfulness, Heath closed his eyes and simply enjoyed the warmth of her against him.
Jarrod and Howard quietly closed the door, the men leaning against the wall, taking deep breaths to regain their oxygen intake after the fight the blond had put up. Howard patted Jarrod on the back before entering the other room and closing the door. Nick, Nate and Audra stood in the hallway with Jarrod, all four waiting for the couple to come out of the room and to face the man they knew as brother and friend.
He held her in his arms, his bruised face resting against her hair until the sobs shaking her body faded and she wrapped her arms tightly around him, his gasp of pain bit back when her arm pushed against his bruised ribs. The pain from her embrace didn’t matter compared to what the pain of losing her would have caused.
Cassidy welcomed the safe and secure arms of her husband, her worries and fears of the past week were washed away with the fountain of relief she’d cried. She felt him place a kiss on her hair and her ear against his chest heard the intake of breath after she tightened her arms around him. Suddenly, she pulled away remembering the wrap around his ribs and she gazed into his emotion filled eyes.
“I’m sorry, Heath. I’m just so happy to see you, to know it wasn’t you.” stammered the woman as his fingertips brushed the salty water from her face.
Shaking his head, he smiled and placed a tender kiss on her lips, “I’m sorry, honey for you thinking I’d do something like that. Never, Cassidy would I ever do such a thing.”
“I really thought it was you, I did!” insisted Cassidy lowering her eyes to his broad chest, the shame spilling out. “I should’ve trusted what we had…have and should’ve known but he looks so much like you. I would’ve sworn on a stack of bibles it was you. I was so positive it was you and hurt from you kissing her. I kept questioning if you regretted marrying me or wanted me to be like that woman. Even Nick thought it was you that day and then when him and Nate couldn’t find you, when everyone…”
Shushing her words with a finger on her lips, Heath brushed back the hair which escaped from her clip, pushing the stray lock behind her ear, his eyes studying every feature of her face before they narrowed and his hand grabbed the floor to steady his suddenly unbalanced body.
“Heath!” exclaimed Cassidy watching as his face lost its color and he slumped back against the wall holding his head in a shaky hand. “Heath? Honey?”
The twitching of the muscles in his jaw revealed the pain he was in and she jumped up, hurrying to the door and throwing it open. “Heath needs Dr. Merar!”
Gene knocked on the other examination room while the others rushed into the room, kneeling around the blond who was still fighting the bout of vertigo while his wife took hold of his arm. Nick reached forward and then pulled his hand back sharply, climbed to his feet and abruptly left the room brushing past Howard and Gene, the sound of the front door slamming was heard by every one in the building.
Nate saw the same look of apprehension on the other two brothers in the room and let out a quiet sigh of ‘which I coulda done over’ before placing a hand on Heath’s shoulder.
Finally getting over the dizziness and wavering feeling, the blond leaned his head back and slowly opened his eyes, the orbs moving across the faces of his siblings and his friend before settling back on Jarrod.
“Nick?” whispered Heath through the throbbing from the drum section of the band in his head, the day replaying itself in his head to the tune of a symphony.
“He needed some air, Heath.” replied Jarrod unable to read the eyes of his injured brother, not sure if the blond was in a forgiving mood or not, wondering what the rest of the day would bring.
Howard knelt in front of his patient, cutting the brothers’ views from each other and scowled angrily, “Didn’t I tell you once you stopped shouted and carrying on you’d feel your injuries? Adrenaline was the only thing keeping you on your feet and you’re darn lucky you didn’t hurt yourself more, Heath! I don’t know why I even talk when you come into my office cause your brain sure don’t catch anything I say! Course why listen to me at all, I’m only a doctor for heaven’s sake!”
A smirk turned the blond’s lip up at the corner and his pained eyes filled with a twinkle at the verbal dress down from the physician who was also his friend before he weakly growled.
“You’re lucky, Doc. Right now I don’t think I could rip his head off and tear Fleshton apart limb by limb. Now, you won’t have to stand guard in front of that miserable piece of...his room tonight and you can get your beauty sleep. Now, tomorrow it’ll be a different story.”
Nate covered the smile on his face and with a rolling of his eyes, Howard grumbled while he examined the blond who couldn’t seem to fight the fatigue suddenly weighing him down. Gene handed the physician the mixture of headache powder and watched as it was administered. Carefully lifting the blond to his feet, Jarrod and Nate settled him in the bed where Audra and Cassidy fussed over him.
Heath reached out and grabbed Jarrod’s sleeve as he turned to go. Looking into the questioning sapphire orbs, the first born patted the hand on his shirt, nodding before leaving the room with everyone else. Cassidy pulled the blanket up and sat on the bed, running her fingers up and down his bare arm, his muscles slowly relaxing as the medicine kicked in.
“What is it, Heath? Is it about the fight you and Nick had?” queried Cassidy softly, his eyes closed and he brought her hand up to his face, placing a kiss on her palm. “He didn’t know it was that man, honey, he thought it was you.”
His thoughts were becoming muddled with the need for rest from the pain. He squeezed his hand’s wife and he mumbled, his words filled with drowsiness, “Need to get thoughts straight, Cass. Later. Talk later.”
Howard placed a hand on the shoulder of his old friend, her gray eyes staying on the stranger in the bed, unable to comprehend in her mind how this man could have shaken her family so drastically with his appearance in their hometown.
The appearance of Billy at the ranch and the subsequent ride into town, left her with so many questions which only increased the guilt tearing into her small frame. The relief of knowing Heath was not mortally hurt was tempered by the realization of the hurt they’d all caused when they believed he was capable of betraying his wedding vows. Capable of an act which ironically had been committed by his father, a man he never knew and, in fact, it was his father’s act of betrayal which was the reason for his being conceived.
“Vic, they say everyone has a double in the world.” stated Howard quietly. “It appears this gentleman is Heath’s.”
Nodding, Victoria reached over and patted the large hand on her left shoulder, her voice barely above a whisper, “So it would appear, Howard.”
“You can take Heath home in the morning even though I know he won’t get the rest he needs, try to keep him in bed for a day or two.” sighed Howard as they left the doorway and took a few steps to the next room. Smiling at the physician’s voice, Victoria squeezed his arm in support and understanding of the stubbornness the boys in her family possessed that raised their old family friend’s frustrations each time his services were needed.
Quietly opening the door, the tiny woman soundlessly crossed the floor, her dress rustling not heard over the steady inhalation and exhalation of breaths from the couple asleep in the room. Cassidy lay on a small cot next to the bed containing her husband, her blonde hair spread out on the pillow. Stopping beside the cot, Victoria smiled tenderly at the sight of her daughter-in-law and pulled the blanket up to her shoulders.
Moving to the right side of the bed, Victoria studied her blond son moving in a restless slumber. His eyes were moving under their lids and he lay unaware of the low moan of pain in the room as he shifted on the bed. Her hand reached up and ran lightly over the blond hair not covered by a strip of white. The bruises on his face were the remnants left over from the brutal clashing of brother against brother. Leaning over, she placed a soft kiss on his forehead and moved from the bed to the door, sighing deeply as she looked back at the children before exiting.
Entering the waiting room, she smiled at her youngest children and accepted their hugs of support. Jarrod had departed and gone in search of Nick when his mother arrived with Billy. Gene took the arms of his mother and sister, quietly informing his mother neither Jarrod nor Nick had returned while she’d been out of the waiting area. Arriving at the hotel, the three members of the Barkley family checked into their rooms before heading to the restaurant.
Earlier after kissing his mother on the cheek, Jarrod left the office of Dr. Merar and went in search of his missing brother. The attorney checked the saloons and was surprised when he couldn’t locate his rancher brother in any of the establishments. The darkness of night had fallen on a day, which found the confident, collected professional man still spiralling from the unexpected events. Walking down the boardwalk, the low glow of a light in the window of his office gave him a hint as to where the younger man was hiding.
Sitting on the sofa of leather in his big brother’s office, Nick downed another shot of the soothing liquor, the burning in his throat more from emotion than the corn concoction. Leaning forward and placing the crystal on the table, he studied the bruised hands at the end of his arms, the knuckles battered from where they’d left their mark on his brother’s body and face.
The opening of the door didn’t move him from his spot or his eyes from the large tanned hands he was intently studying. Jarrod closed the door, walked to the small bar, noting the amount of liquor depleted from his supply before pouring himself a drink. Carrying the container over, he refilled the empty piece of crystal on the table and took a seat across from his unusually quiet brother.
Several minutes passed and Nick’s drink sat untouched on the table while Jarrod unknotted his tie and opened the top button on his shirt, his sips of his own drink the only movement in the room.
Letting out a shaky breath, Nick shook his head, his voice low and quiet. “I can see it now, Jarrod. I can see the confusion in Heath’s eyes when I stood there accusing him of being unfaithful to his wife. He was stunned and shocked. Now, I can see it.”
Leaning forward in his chair, Jarrod sat with his elbows on his knees and studied his brother’s down cast face and he stated firmly. “Nick, we all thought the same thing. It wasn’t only you, it was all of us, the whole family. You’re not to blame for this.”
Snorting, Nick shook his head and leaned back against the seat, his hands clenched into fists before he let out a loud growl, jumping up to his feet, “Don’t you get it? We hurt him deep inside, Jarrod. We’re his family! We’re supposed to love him instead of being judge and jury!”
“We do love him Nick and we’ll get this all straightened out with Heath.” reassured Jarrod standing on his feet and taking hold of his agitated brother, holding him by the back of the neck and staring into the hazel eyes. “Surely Heath will understand how it must have seemed to us, what it appeared to look like. He’s not unreasonable, Nick.”
“Yeah, now we know it was Fleshton but the damage has been done already. How would you feel if you were accused of the same thing your father did? Again, it seems he is paying for his father’s past sins. He’s not unreasonable, Jarrod but I’ve never seen anyone with so much anger just simmering under their surface. He’s had over twenty four years of paying for father’s sins and now, his family who should be there for him no matter what…the ones who shouldn’t judge are the very ones who wrongly condemned him as quick as he could blink.”
Jarrod’s eyes wavered in confusion, his confidence of being able to right the wrong leaving with the trail of Nick’s thoughts, Nick’s fears. Hazel eyes saw the indecision appearing and he nodded before walking over to the window, his back to his older brother.
“Yeah, it scares the hell outta me too.”