Heath, lying on the grass on his front, read the Stockton Gazette Nick had just handed to him whilst his brother impatiently stood by.
"Well?" Nick exclaimed, trying to push his brother for a response.
"I'm reading," Heath replied, taking his time.
Nick let out a loud 'hmmph' and stood in front of his brother.
"You're blocking out my light, Nick." Heath objected quietly.
"Oh sorry," Nick apologized, moving away sheepishly before stopping and turning back. "What do you mean, I'm blocking your light. It's daylight out here!"
"You're a big man Nick. What can I say? Your shadow is such it puts little brothers in the shade."
"Well I'm mad and angry," Nick vocalized at the top of his voice, ignoring Heath's attempt to get a rise out of him.
"So I hear," replied Heath, protecting his ears. "Look it's obviously a mistake. We'll go by town and see the editor. He can print a retraction in tomorrow's paper."
"What and back down! Me! Nick Barkley! Never!"
"You want to do this?" Heath said incredulously, rolling onto his side, up on to his right elbow and holding the paper aloft in his left hand.
"You want to see me back down?"
"From what!" Heath shot back, with disbelief spread across his face. "You never even entered the fight! What are you backing down from? Nick forget it. Get the story corrected and just forget about it! Listen to your younger brother."
"Boy! You never did learn to respect your elders." Nick exclaimed, lightly clipping his brother's head with his gloved hand as he helped him to get up.
"Oh I respect them alright," Heath said, rubbing his head extensively, "I got the dents in my skull to prove it."
A contrite Nick searched his brother's head for bumps. Finding none, he shot back, "You'll live."
"But my dear brother," Heath smiled back as he lifted his head to look at Nick. "Will you? When Jake Cannon meets you in the ring. They don't call him "Killer" for nothing."
"Well that's just where you come in little brother," Nick grinned back as he mounted his horse. "Because you're going to be my sparring partner!"
Heath shook his head. "Ah Nick!" he protested. "I only just got my nose fixed and you plan on breaking it again!"
"I didn't break it. You ran into my fist!"
"You hit me!"
"I was aiming for someone else!"
"And hit me! Boy Howdy! Are we in trouble!" Heath sighed, defeatedly. C'mon," he said climbing up into the saddle on Charger. "I got to pick up Sean and Thomas from school. Maybe your two nephews will make you see sense! That's if you want to be around for their next birthday!"
Nick and Heath came into the school yard and dismounted from their horses. Heath had tried dissuading his brother to no avail not to get involved with the boxing contest erroneously advertised in the Stockton Gazette, but having expended his anger on Heath there was no way Nick was going to back down now. Even at the apex of his anger, the idea of the contest was actually beginning to appeal to Nick who considered himself a fighter of some talent and experience. To put it bluntly there were just some conversations Nick would only begin with two fists.
"So you're still going to do it?" Heath said, annoyed at his brother's stubbornness.
Nick nodded. "It's a week Saturday, Heath. That gives you time to get me in shape."
"We got a ranch to run, Nick." Heath objected, still hoping to put him off.
"We got a fight to win!" Nick responded, silencing any further objection on his brother's part.
Any response Heath was trying to formulate in his mind was rudely interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Johnson, wife of the town's mayor.
"Why good afternoon Heath and Nick! How nice to see both of you picking up the children. I swear Heath, those darling boys look more like you everyday. They're going to be real heartbreakers when they grow up, just like their father. You really must bring them round to the house one day. How's your mother? Do tell her Darleen and I will be calling around next Tuesday about the town social. I do hope you will be there. A young man like you should be enjoying himself."
"Afternoon Mrs. Johnson," Heath stuttered bashfully, blushing under the rush of Mrs. Johnson's words and from the direct attention she was giving him. He shifted awkwardly on his feet and fingered the rim of his hat. Why was it she always cornered him when he came to pick up the children? Well, of course he knew really. The whole family knew. Mrs. Johnson wanted Heath for a son-in-law and was set on her mission.
In that predatory way of ambitious mothers she had been targeting Heath for her daughter since what she had considered a respectable period of mourning had passed for the young widower. Only, what she deemed a respectable period of time for mourning had no bearing on how Heath himself felt. His heart and body continued to ache for his late young wife and time hadn't helped or distanced the hurt and the pain of her passing.
But time moved on at an uncompromising rate and as far as Mrs. Johnson and society were concerned, Heath Barkley was now considered eminently eligible once again with mothers intent on making one of their daughters his wife. Heath wasn't blind to the fact that he was an unwilling pawn in their matrimonial plans and resisted strongly every attempt. He simply wasn't interested in finding another wife, or falling in love. Cate held his heart and he wasn't about to give it to anyone else. He and the children were just fine on their own. Women could leave him alone.
"Afternoon Mrs. Johnson," Nick added, aware that Heath was beginning to feel uncomfortable under the woman's determined gaze. All Heath's nervous anxiety came into play. The playing with the cuffs on his sleeves, the nervous hand gestures to his face as if trying to hide behind a shield. Well, not for the first time Nick proved to be his willing shield. "Sure is mighty warm standing out here, Mrs. Johnson. Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to seek out some shade under that tree. There's a seat you can sit on whilst you wait for your son."
Mrs. Johnson instantly became irritated at the older Barkley's interference. Nick Barkley was eminently as eligible as his younger brother but an altogether different character. Heath Barkley was vulnerable and in her opinion in need of a wife and mother for his children. Nick Barkley was not.
"The shade? But..."
"Yes the shade," said Nick offering his arm, refusing to accept no and navigating her successfully away from his brother.
"But.." Mrs. Johnson protested, craning her neck to look back at Heath. "I just wanted to talk to your brother.....I wanted to invite him to my Darleen's birthday party next Saturday."
"Your Darleen! Next Saturday you say!" Nick played for time.
"Yes. You know it's about time that brother of yours enjoyed some young company. It's not good that he keeps himself at the ranch and working all the time. Cate was such a sweet thing. The perfect wife for Heath, but she would not want him to go on alone. There are the children to think about."
Nick bristled. He did not need Mrs. Johnson talking about his brother in such free terms. What did she know about what Heath and Cate felt about each other and what was best for the children." He felt himself getting angry and yet for the sake of his brother he kept his calm.
"I know you are only thinking about my brother, Mrs. Johnson," he smiled, nearly choking on the words for her insincerity and insensitivity was clear to see. "But my brother's not quite ready for socializing yet. Cate's death hit him hard. He hides it on the surface Mrs. Johnson but it's there all the same. I guess only those of us closest to him see the real hurt. Now I'm sure a fine understanding woman like you will understand how it can be for a man like my brother. I just know if you were to invite my brother right now he's would accept out of politeness. But would you really want my brother to attend when he is still hurting like he is?"
"I thought not," Nick grinned, taking advantage of her silence. "I knew you would understand," he said as they both reached the bench and she sat down.
"If you'll excuse me I'll get back to my brother. I see the young'uns are about to come out of school. "Good afternoon to you Mrs. Johnson. I'll be sure to pass on your message to my mother."
Mrs. Johnson sat on the bench and watched Nick Barkley walk away, realizing she had been out maneuvered.
"What did you say to her?" Heath asked, casting a furtive glance in the direction of Mrs. Johnson under hooded eyes.
"I just told her that you were still grieving Heath. I just told the truth. I don't think she will bother you again."
Feeling awkward at not having been to handle the situation himself, Heath nodded, "Thanks Nick."
"Don't mention it. You're my little brother, aren't you?"
"It doesn't get any easier you know Nick." Heath suddenly opened up. "I miss Cate more today than when it first happened. It should be her standing in this school yard waiting for the boys. Look what she has missed and will miss." A tear fell from the corner of Heath's pain-filled eyes, which he tried quickly to hide lest the women standing in the school yard saw him. A few did and thought no less of the young widower who was doing such a good job of bringing up his children and carrying on.
The door bell rang and almost instantly the doors opened as the children began to descend down the stairs.
Within moments, Sean and Thomas had flung themselves into their father's arms and were telling them about their day, both of them wanting their father's attention all at once.
They were the best medicine for what ailed Heath, Nick thought as he saw the way his brother and his sons interact. The somber mood lifted from his brother's face and in due course they were soon riding home, Sean sitting in front of Nick on Coco and Thomas in front of Heath on Charger, their childish chatter proving music to their troubled father's ears.
"Nick get up!"
"Nick, I ain't tellin' you again. Get up! This is your idea, not mine!"
"What time is it?” Nick growled into his pillow.
"Five-thirty! In the morning!!!!"
"Come on Sleeping Beauty. We got time for a run before breakfast."
Heath smiled. "Oh, I reckon you'll be calling me a lot worse before this is over. I reckon I'll be right up there with your worst nightmare."
Nick reached out an arm and yanked Heath down on to the bed and glared at him threateningly. "Don't be enjoying this too much, Little Brother. I hired you and I can fire you any time I want." He let go of his brother and turned over, pulling the covers back over him, determined to grab five minutes more.
A mischievous smile played across Heath's face. "Are you firing me, Nick?" He said innocently lifting himself up onto his elbow and staring at Nick's back.
"Yes!" Nick snapped back. "Now leave me alone!"
"Well that's fine. I'll just get me back to bed then."
Nick grunted, his only attempt at a reply. What he didn't expect was what came next. Suddenly he felt the base of Heath's stockinged-feet find an all too comfortable home in the small of his back and kick him out of bed, rolling him on to the floor.
"What the hell did you do that for?" Nick blasted back when he found himself spread-eagled on the floor.
"Like I said Nick, I'm just going back to bed. You on the other hand are going to begin that five-mile run." And with that Heath settled into Nick's place in the bed. That was until a recovered Nick picked up the mattress and turfed him on to the floor.
It took a few moments for Heath to find his bearings and crawl back over to the edge of the bed where he peeked his head tentatively back over the rearranged mattress. He grinned cheekily back at his brother who was staring right back at him, from the looks of him, his temper undifused. "Sure glad we're talkin again, Nick. I take it I'll see you down stairs in five minutes."
"Younger brothers!" Nick huffed. "They just don't show you any damned respect any more!"
"C'mon Nick, three more laps and then you can have a break!" Heath shouted at his brother as they both ran around the compound of the Barkley ranch.
Nick growled between painful gasps for air. "Boy! As of today....." Almost as soon as he had begun to speak he had to stop and bend down to help ease the pressure on his lungs. "I only...." he continued after another pause, "have one brother, ya hear!" Another long pause, "As of today, you are no longer my brother! Jarrod is my brother. You! You are the enemy!"
Heath stopped running and returned to where his brother was standing. "Gee Nick. I'm touched by the affection you show in your voice. Now, twenty sit ups, if you please!"
"Twenty! When's breakfast? I've already been out here nearly an hour. A man's got to eat!" Nick protested further, sitting down on the ground and preparing to perform the next phase of torture his brother's had planned.
Heath's all too lean frame knelt down on its haunches as he leaned forward to pinch the rolls of fat evident on his brother's waist, made worse by the way Nick was sitting, defeated and slumped forward." The posture did him no favors at all.
"Okay! Okay! You made your point," Nick snapped, roughly pushing his brother's hand away. "Twenty, you say?"
"Twenty," Heath confirmed, getting up to stand. A wave of dizziness caught him by surprise and though thrown by it he quickly recovered less Nick caught on to what had happened. With the subsequent theatrics of Nick's sit-ups, he soon forgot about the incident and quickly set about counting. As Nick completed the last one, his body lay defeated on the ground, "Can I have breakfast now?" he moaned.
"I reckon you earned it," Heath smiled back. "You did well Nick," he congratulated with a brother's pride. "We'll do another session just after lunch!"
"Lunch!" Nick grimaced. "For Pete's sake let me have my breakfast first!"
"About breakfast," Heath teased. "There's a few things I need to tell you about that first. As your trainer I've made a few changes to your diet."
"What changes!" Nick blasted after his brother as he sailed towards the house.
Heath and Nick quickly washed up and joined their mother and the children in the dining room. As Heath came into the room his boys who had been woken and dressed by their grandmother and were all washed behind the ears, climbed down from their chairs, either side of their father's chair, and ran to greet him.
"Morning Papa," they shouted. Still wearing their napkins tucked into their shirt fronts they jumped up into their father's arms and threw their arms around his neck. Heath returned their hugs and planted a kiss on both their cheeks. Then still in their father's arms the boys leaned across to kiss their Uncle Nick who bent his face low to oblige, believing the sins of the father do not visit upon the sons.
Victoria sensed there was trouble between the two and thought she understood the source. She knew by their faces who had got the upper hand that morning. Nick's face was like thunder, Heath's was not. Round 1 to Heath, she thought.
Heath adjusted the weight of his boys in his arms and carried them back to their chairs. After settling them down he came around to his mother and gave her a kiss on her cheek, wishing her good morning and he watched Nick do the same. Then both sat down and waited for their breakfasts to be served by Silas.
Thomas and Sean sitting either side of Heath and opposite their uncle resumed eating their breakfast, the Barkley cutlery still too big for their hands and mouths but with help from their father who cut up their food, they somehow managed. Still they were both easily distracted by their Uncle Nick's behavior.
Thomas jabbed a piece of food with his fork and set about putting it to his mouth but then seeing Uncle Nick glare at his father, he forgot about the food which hovered just an inch from his mouth and looked at his grandmother. Funny, he thought, she didn't seem bothered. He looked to his father who was seeing to Sean. Neither did his father. With unblinking eyes he looked back at his Uncle Nick who was still looking mad. Open mouthed, Thomas tugged his father's sleeve and his father turned to see what he wanted. "Papa?" he whispered, "Why does Uncle Nick look so angry?"
Heath looked across at his brother and smiled. "He's not angry son. He's in training. It's how you look when you are in training. Kinda severe, ya know. It's like the body is happy but the mind is a bit slower to catch on. Your Uncle just doesn't know he's happy yet, but he will."
Thomas listened to every word his father said as though it was gospel. "When will he know Papa?"
"Oh about the time he accepts his younger brother is right."
Nick let out a loud "Hmmph." His patience tested he shouted out. "Silas! Where's my breakfast!"
"Nick!" Victoria immediately censured. "Silas will be treated with the respect he deserves. He is not here to be at your beck and call."
Aware that he had two pairs of young impressionable eyes looking at him and knowing he was in the wrong, Nick instantly apologized.
Just at the moment, Silas entered the room with a large tray carrying just two plates, prepared exactly to Mr. Heath's instructions. He served Nick first with what Nick considered food his twin nephews would feed to their pet rabbit. In fact he wasn't at all sure that he didn't have Oscar, the rabbit's food, and the rabbit had his. Realizing the twins and his mother were watching him very closely he kept his own counsel until he saw what Silas served Heath.
Prime, thick juicy steak sizzled seductively off the china and beckoned towards Nick. And boy was Nick ready to be seduced! As far as bodily parts were concerned his stomach, smell and taste buds were in charge now. Nick knew what he wanted in food just like he knew what he wanted in women; steak for breakfast, steak for lunch and steak for dinner with curves in all the right places and served hot!
Perfectly aware of how his brother was reacting, Heath played with him unmercifully. Teasing the steak on his plate with his knife and fork, he rolled it over one way and then the other, pausing a moment to talk to his mother, who knew perfectly well what her youngest son was up to. It was all going to end in tears, she thought as she watched Nick's hazel eyes smolder and never leave the steak on Heath's plate. If it wasn't for the children's presence Victoria would have had a sharp word with Heath for teasing his brother so. Instead all she could do was watch as Nick slobbered unattractively, showing a previously unnoticed resemblance to his dog, Buster; a dog, it seemed, truly fashioned in his master's mould.
As Heath cut into the steak and the rich succulent flesh spewed forth pink blood juices on to the plate, a plume of infused beef-scented steam rose aloft and then deciding on a direction, took a sharp turn towards Nick where it wafted teasingly under his nose. Nick twitched his nose as if in a tribalistic mating dance and then hungrily breathed in the aroma, letting it trickle slowly down to his waiting taste buds. As it hit the spot, Nick knew right there and then he would kiss his brother full on the lips to get a slice of that beef.
Fortunately everyone was spared the unbecoming sight by the one of childrens' voice interrupting again. "Uncle Nick," Sean declared with childish pragmatism. "If'n you're not wanting that lettuce for breakfast, can I have it for Oscar. He loves lettuce!"
Nick sighed loudly and pushed the plate across to his nephew. Then he sunk his chin low in his hands and watched Heath finish off his steak, knowing he had brought it all on himself.
Later that morning Victoria cornered her youngest son. "Heath! I know Nick has brought this contest on himself and roped you reluctantly into it as well, but a man needs more than salad to keep him going if he is to put a full day's work in on the ranch, let alone take part in a fight."
Heath gently pressed his hand to his mother's upper arm understandingly and bent low to kiss her on the cheek, "I know Mother. It was only a joke. Don't worry I have discussed with Silas a proper diet he can prepare for Nick. I'm sorry I just couldn't resist it this morning. And you must admit Nick's face was a picture."
Victoria couldn't help the smile that played with her face. "Don't let it go too far. I love you both and won't take sides. Look after him Heath."
"Just as he looks after me," Heath smiled, turning his eyes downward, suddenly growing serious in his thoughts.
Both mother and son, knew what was meant by those words. Heath had no greater protector than his older brother and it had been needed more than most. There was an unspoken fragility about Heath which Victoria and the family worried over. He bore so many legacies from his childhood and had been crushed it seemed too many times. She remembered well his coming to the ranch; the shock it had caused and yet the joy it eventually brought. It was so easy to be this boy's mother for he was easy to love, but there was a price; worry over a boy who did not enjoy the best of health for all his outward appearance.
The broken nose he had suffered recently was minor compared to the severe chest infection he had contracted two month's back and from which she thought he had not entirely recovered. He was still too thin and she knew he tired easily after a long day's work. It wasn't unusual to find her youngest son fast asleep in Jarrod's study where he thought he had slipped unnoticed for a five minute nap. Only a nap would turn into a full hour's sleep and more. Still no one said anything, they simply kept a careful eye on him, knowing that he found it difficult to get to sleep since Cate's death. Just as important was to make sure Heath wasn't aware of their concerns or their covert checks on him and so Victoria was quick to divert his question when she caught Heath's eyes watching her, concerned.
Victoria smiled. "I'm fine Heath," she said anticipating his question and pressing a mother's loving hand to his face. Of all her children she knew he appreciated that touch the most, having gone without it so long. "Just make sure Nick gets something to eat at lunch."
Heath grinned, reassured. "I don't think he will be disappointed Mother. I got Silas to put some extras in there. We'll see you at dinner?" He said, bending down to give her an extra kiss. "Do you want me to pick up the boys again today?"
"No," Victoria responded. "I'm going into town this afternoon. I'll pick them up after I've been to the dressmaker. I'll take them for some more shirts and pants, they're fast growing out of the one's they have."
"Thanks Mother," Heath shouted back as he picked up his hat from the the center table and went on his way.
The smile he had put on Victoria's face remained there for several minutes, before she decided she had better get on with some work.
Sean and Thomas held hands as they followed their classmates down the town's main street, all the children in pairs. They were on a trip to the museum which their teacher, Miss. Farmer had arranged. Miss. Jenny Farmer was the new kindergarten teacher and the children liked her very much. She had already seen to a scrape on Sean's knee that morning and he now sported a bandage of which he was very proud. He couldn't wait to tell his grandmother about it when he got home.
All of a sudden the sun seemed to go in and a shade descended on the little ones as a large group of men passed them by on the outside of the sidewalk. Jenny Farmer was quick to protect her little ones, though the men were careful as they passed.
One of the men was so tall and big it looked as though he could reach right up into the sky and pull it down. Sean and Thomas had to crane their necks upwards to look at him. In the process Thomas almost topped backwards, such was the strain. They heard the men call the tall man Mr. Cannon and some call him Jake. Then they heard their Uncle Nick's name mentioned.
"Whose that?" Thomas gulped as the men continued down the sidewalk and the children were left looking back. "I don't know." Sean answered back. "But he mentioned Uncle Nick. Let's tell Papa when we get home."
"Maybe he's a friend of Uncle Nick's," Thomas reasoned.
"Maybe," Sean nodded, once again taking his brother's hand.
That Friday, Heath and Nick had listened to the boys talk about Killer Jake Cannon.
'As tall as the trees!' Thomas and Sean described in animated unison, eager to tell their story.
"And this wide!" Thomas added with arms outstretched and eyes popping with the effort required.
Nick and Heath exchanged uneasy looks. Well, kids were known to exaggerate they both thought, but it was obvious they had missed a trick here. No self-respecting boxer and trainer would not check out the opposition first. The only thing they had on Killer Cannon was the newspaper cutting from the newspaper and that only showed Jake Cannon from the chest up. Nick had even allowed himself to think he could take the man, possibly in the eighth or ninth round. That was then, now he was no so sure. So, the next day both brothers took a trip to town and decided to see the competition for themselves.
They took an unhurried ride into town, there was no need to let their anxiety show, that would become evident all too soon. Both brothers had a distinctly bad feeling about this, but there was simply no way out of it without losing face and Nick was not about to do that. Pride came before a fall and that fall was looking more and more inevitable.
Stockton was busy. In fact it was very busy. News of the fight had got around and banners now hung across the streets promoting the event. Suddenly it all became very real to Nick. That was his name up there on the banner. Right up there with Killer Jake Cannon! He decided he needed a drink.
As the two brothers approached the saloon on their respective mounts, they dismounted in silence and slowly took a look round before going inside. Nick first, Heath immediately behind. They found familiar and not so familiar faces inside and soon townsfolk were coming up to the brothers, congratulating Nick for taking on the challenge and slapping him on the back.
Of course, the same people were placing bets on who would win and most were betting against Nick. Still at this point, Nick was not aware of that fact and it was on the wave of cheers and positivity that he was carried into the room and bought drinks. "Well this is more like it," Nick whispered to his brother, quickly forgetting the reason they had rode into town.
Heath pushed back the brim of his hat and sighed heavily as Nick sank his first beer. It was too early for him and besides he had work to do. Without saying a word, he stole unnoticed out of the room and walked down the street and a few blocks to the gymnasium where Killer Cannon would be training. Any illusions he had up to that moment were instantly dispelled when he saw the boxing giant floor his sparring partner before the second round was out.
"Heath! Where are you?" Nick's voice resounded through the house in search of his brother.
"In here! I'm getting the boys ready for school. What do you want?"
Nick walked through the open door of his nephews’ bedroom and saw Heath dressing Sean.
"I've been thinking," Nick started.
"Can't it wait?" Heath replied, irritated. "I'm late and Mother's not here to help me. I got to get the boys to school and then get myself over to the Johansens."
Nick wasn't listening. Heath had tried for the umpteenth time to talk him out of the fight since Friday and he wasn't having any of it. Eventually, Heath had gone to bed, calling an end to any more talk, aware that he had to try something else, even if that meant breaking his brother's legs.
Absentmindedly, Nick gathered a stack of neatly laid clothes and Thomas, not necessarily in that order, and began dressing his nephew in an effort to help his brother out and also to continue his talk. He rambled on telling Heath about his new plans to win the fight. Heath wasn't listening. He was preoccupied with getting the children washed and dressed and off to school. His brothers words were having no affect. Still Nick prattled on.
"Well what do you think?" he said finally, as he finished both his outline and dressing Thomas.
"I'll think on it," Heath answered cleverly, covering the fact that he had not heard a word. He finished tying the laces on Sean's shoes and then turned to see how Thomas had been turned out. From the look of the boy it was obvious Nick had paid no attention to the dressing of the boy as he had rattled off his plans to Heath.
Thomas stood mute and with a surprised look on his face. His uncle had buttoned his shirt without first putting his arms through the armholes. Armless, he now stood there waiting to be taken to school.
"Nick!" Heath shouted. "Look what you have done to Thomas! Are you trying to help me or get in my way, cuz I ain't so sure right now!"
Nick looked at his nephew and his face turned downward. "Sorry Thomas," he said apologetically. In the background, Sean giggled at his twins brother's appearance. "You look funny, Thomas!" He giggled. Soon everyone but Heath was laughing. Heath had something else on his mind. 6' 2" of stubborn mule-headed brother, no less.
Darleen Johnson listened to her mother's endless chatter as she drove the surrey to the Barkley ranch where they were expected for lunch. It was a visit she was not looking forward to and yet ever since she had turned seventeen the twenty-four year old young woman had become quite used to her mother's attempts to marry her off. Oh the shame of it, being a woman of twenty-four and without a husband. There was a wry tone in Darleen's self-reproach. She didn't really feel any shame. Independent of thought, if not of means, she was intelligent enough and self-assured enough to know that it would either happen or not and there was no point in worrying about it in the meantime. Would that her mother felt the same.
Her mother's familiar words were now drifting into the background and into the sounds of everything else she was hearing along the ride. The hooves of the horses noisily hitting the road, the birds in the sky and the sound of the surrey rolling along at a steady pace. Without guilt, she allowed her mind to drift away from her mother. Instead, she let it turn towards Heath Barkley.
She had a high regard for the young widower, as handsome as his brothers, if not more so because of the combination of reserve and gentleness that accompanied it. It was rare in a man out west. Heath Barkley, she had discovered, could achieve authority and respect without forcing his personality and opinion on others. It was a hugely attractive quality.
For there was the nub. She could easily allow herself to fall in love with Heath Barkley and in that she wasn't alone. The sight of a handsome young widower with three equally adorable young children sent signals to a women's brain which, often she had no control over. But something stopped Darleen from letting it get that far. Darleen had been a close friend to Cate Barkley, Heath's late wife, and knew the couple had been very much in love. Perhaps it was that, that held her back from seeking more from Heath other than their casual and pleasant friendship.
They had met infrequently since Cate's death, but when they did they enjoyed each other's company and often conspired to keep unwanted male and female attention at bay by becoming the other's dance partner at the rare social functions Heath would attend out of duty to his family.
Somewhat reluctantly she had to admit, their ease in each other's company, achieved ironically because there was no romantic threat, had fueled some of her mother's zealous behavior in trying to achieve a match between the pair. To Harriet Johnson, it was simply inconcievable that a man and a woman could be just friends, there had to be something more.
As she drove the surrey through the gates leading up to the mansion, Darleen became reminded of visiting Cate here in the first days of her young friend's marriage. She felt so much older now, achieving years which her young friend had been denied.
Cate had been a force for life which made her death even more poignant. There was no one more looking forward to life than the vital Cate Barkley. Young, carefree and a bit spoilt she was much loved. But Death wasn't sentimental. It had taken her life regardless. It was left to others to mourn.
No, Heath Barkley wasn't hers to have. He still belonged to Cate and that was as it should be. One day, he might be ready to marry again, but it would not to be her. Whoever it was, would be have to be special person because she was getting a very special man.
On welcoming her guests, Victoria skillfully steered Harriet Johnson away from Heath, suggesting instead that he and Darleen take little Cate, who was sitting nearby, out into the garden where the small child could run about. Oh, she knew it would invite more talk from Harriet but it would excuse Heath from the same room as Harriet until lunch required him to attend.
Heath blushed a grateful response to his mother's suggestion. Carrying Cate, he escorted Darleen outside. They left to the sounds of Harriet Johnson complaining about the weather and the heat. Heath knew he would have to make it up to his mother somehow.
"I'm so sorry about that," Darleen immediately spoke up as they left the confines of the house. Heath smiled as he put Cate down to let her run around. Cate began to run off, but then stopped for a moment to check she was being watched by her father. Satisfied he hadn't gone away, she happily ran about.
Both he and Darleen laughed at the little girl's behavior then Heath turned to Darleen and answered her unnecessary apology." "Oh that's alright. My mother knows I am on safer ground out here. I'll be honest I find your mother terrifying."
Darleen laughed sympathetically. "Imagine living with her! She terrifies my father too!"
"But not you?"
"No, not me. It's a source of huge frustration to her," she laughed.
"It's good to see you Darleen," Heath said genuinely, enjoying her company. Slowly, he escorted her around the garden as they followed Cate.
Darleen felt the warmth of his statement and teased: "Are you coming to my birthday party then?"
Heath grimaced, the grimace more funny than genuine horror and not spoiling his handsome face. "Do I have to? Parties aren't really my scene. Cate was always on at me......" .
Darleen ended her teasing. "No, you don't. But I will hold you to a picnic by the lake. We can take the children with us."
"It's a deal," Heath smiled broadly. He bent down to give her a friendly kiss on the cheek, but an unplanned turn of her head, meant that their lips met and lingered momentarily instead. Simultaneously they each pulled away, embarrassed and somewhat thrown by what had happened. "I'm sorry Darleen," Heath hastily apologized.
"It's alright," she reassured him still feeling the soft touch of his lips on hers. "There is no shame in two friends sharing a kiss, I think," she added with a smile which helped him to sort out the confusion in his own mind and put everything back in place; Darleen was his friend, Cate was his wife, the two no longer confused. For Heath's sake, Darleen let it continue that way. He needed things to be simple and uncomplicated between them; his eyes, unbeknown to him, were pleading for it. She assumed control. Placing the kiss firmly in the past, she said: "Why don't we see what Cate has got up to? And then you can tell me why on earth Nick has got himself involved in a professional fight. Everyone in town is talking about it!"
Darleen couldn't stop laughing. "Oh Heath! You're not serious! You can't hobble Nick so he can't take part in the fight!"
"Well, what can I do? I have to do something! Nick won't survive to the third round!" Heath said, exasperated.
"You're sure he can't win?"
Heath nodded, "I've been watching Cannon train. He's gone through three sparring partners already! The man's a professional fighter, Darleen! Nick can fight well, but he's not in the same league as Cannon!"
"So what are you going to do?"
"Well," Heath smiled, "I've thought about having him kidnapped!"
Both laughed, but Heath was half-serious. He had to find a way to stop this fight somehow.
Cate toddled over to where they both sat, Heath, half-reclining on one elbow, twiddling a long piece of grass between his teeth, Darleen sitting upright with her skirts splayed out and a parasol in her hand to lend her shade. Cate crawled over her father pushing him flat on his back. The laughing continued, this time joined by Cate's giggles.
"Well, you tell us then, Cate?" Heath asked. "What should we do with your Uncle Nick?"
"Uncle Nick!" Thomas shouted.
"Yes!" Nick yelled.
"You're not doing it right!"
"Well, I know that. How do you use these ridiculous things anyway?"
"It's easy," said Sean. "See!" And with that he began to demonstrate.
With an envy unbecoming a man of thirty-two towards a five year old boy, Nick watched his nephew skip effortlessly with his rope. Chunnering to himself he tried again, getting his feet tangled in the rope almost as soon as he had begun.
"Let's try something else," Nick announced, throwing the skipping rope away in disgust. "Let's see that piece of paper your father wrote out this morning. What else has he got on the list?" He took a few minutes flattening out the piece of paper he had crumpled up and shoved in his pocket.
"Press ups! Okay, now we're talking. Let's do some of those!"
He quickly lay down on the ground and his nephews followed, watching him with great interest.
Sean's face appeared in front of his uncle's, almost nose to nose, as he lay down opposite, resting his chin in the palm of his hand. Nick gave him a skewed look at his proximity.
"Kid! Are you going to stay that close?"
Sean nodded. "Papa told me I had to watch you do all your training. I'm watching you Uncle Nick."
"Oh he did, did he?" Nick replied, unimpressed.
With the boredom he felt with all the other exercise he had done thus far for Heath, Nick began his monotonous routine, not helped by the fact that as he sweated in buckets, Sean lay opposite, utterly cool and composed.
Nick and Heath had spent a good session sparring; each keeping up their guard, feet dancing, eyes alert, bare torsos running with sweat. Nick's dampened hair lay plastered to his skull, Heath's dripped and curled at the edges, lending him even more youth. A series of left-hand jabs and right-hand jabs thrust forward, heads jerking in response. It had been a good session and it was with this positivity of mood that both brothers stripped off to wash off the sweat with a dip in the lake.
"Goddamit, Heath! I think I'm ready," said Nick, as he splashed himself vigorously with the water. He was energized by the session they had just had and was determined to celebrate. His reflexes were good and there was no stopping his confidence now. Seeing his brother's more cautious face he playfully and noisily slapped him on the butt.
"Nick!" Heath protested as he felt the smart on his left cheek.
"Ahh, stop complain', it's too pretty a butt anyway," Nick shot back, swimming away, refusing to come down from the cloud he was on. That was until, still pumped up, he challenged Heath to another session after they had dried and dressed from their swim in the lake.
"Ah God Heath! I'm sorry." Nick exclaimed as he felled Heath with a left punch the blond didn't see coming. All Heath knew was that one minute he was standing, the next he was not. It had happened that quick. Coming to, he immediately felt the pain in his jaw and his two hands shot to his face.
Immediately, Nick thought he had broken his brother's nose again. Heath rubbed the side of his jaw in answer. "No, Nick you missed the nose and got my jaw instead."
Nick knelt down concerned. "Is it broken?" he asked, still unable to see his brother's face, worried at what he would find there.
"No. But I reckon you broke at least two of my teeth."
"If they were," Heath replied in a tone laced with threat, "You'd be a dead man by now. No, I reckon you got a couple at the back."
"Ah Geez, Heath. I'm sorry." His apology was genuine, though it still didn't make much impact on his good mood. "It was just a lucky shot," he said, knowing different.
"Not it wasn't. You had me beat, big brother. You landed one on me. Don't tell it any other way."
"I did, didn't I?" Nick's eyes were gleaming, he could smell victory on Saturday night.
Heath saw the look; the look that said, 'I can do this.' Heath didn't want to puncture his brother's dream. He really wished his brother would be able to take Killer Cannon and it felt disloyal to think otherwise, but the advantage Cannon had was just too great. Heath had racked his brains to find a way to stop this fight, but knew at the end of the day, the only person who could stop it was Nick. And that wasn't about to happen in the next two days. No, for better or worse, the fight would take place this Saturday. And Heath would be there to lend his support and patch his brother up afterwards.
"Help me up, Nick," said Heath, clutching his jaw with one hand and reaching up for an arm with the other. Nick pulled him up on to his feet. The wave of dizziness Heath had felt a few days before, caught him unawares again and it was Nick's steadying arms that kept him still standing.
"That punch really got you Heath. We better let the doc. check over you."
Heath shook his concern off. "Ain't a doctor I need," Heath drawled, rubbing his jaw and deliberately ignoring the dizziness that had come over him again. "It's a dentist! And I'm getting him to send the bill to you!"