Cottoned clouds mantling the sky and withered leaves collecting at people’s feet heralded the coming of the fall season in the San Joaquin valley. On this nippy morning, Nick and Heath drove Audra to the orphanage on their way into town to pick up ranch supplies and goods for Silas.
“That’s the last of it, Heath,” informed the clerk as he hauled the last sack of flour from the back store. “You should have everything. Want me to carry it to your wagon?”
“No, that’s okay, Hank. I’ll do it.”
He let the heavy load slid off his shoulder to land at Heath’s feet with a thud. “I was hoping you’d say that,” he heaved out with appreciation, rubbing his aching back.
“Where’s Jason? Didn’t you hire him to carry the heavy loads for you?”
“Yeah I did, but the kid’s just isn’t cutting it. I might have to fire him and find me another clerk.”
“What about young Tommy Sands? He’s a willing worker. Worked for us during harvest. He’s fast and thorough. You shouldn’t have any problem.”
“If you recommend him I’d be willing to give him a try.”
“I’m gonna see him on Friday when he comes by the ranch to pick up his last pay. I’ll tell him then.” He bent down to grab a firm hold of the sack that he fluidly swung across his shoulder.
“I’ll be waiting.”
“Thanks again, Hank.”
“My pleasure, Heath.”
As heedful as he was watching his step out the door, he just couldn’t avoid the bumpy encounter with a spirited brunette heading the opposite way. “Hey, watch it!” Heath snarled, losing balance that caused him to drop his load onto the boardwalk. His grievance quickly caught in his throat the second his eyes set on the beautiful hindrance.
“I’m sorry, Sir. I didn’t see you coming out,” she apologized effusively. “Here, let me help you with that.” Before Heath could decline she nudged him aside, grabbed one end of the sack and dragged it to the wagon where she lifted it with both arms and set it down. “There!” she huffed out, slapping her hands clean. “That is your wagon?”
“Euh...ye…yeah. It is,” Heath managed to stammer out, bowled over by at the staggering feat he witnessed from such a dainty woman. “You have some grip there, Miss…”
“Evans. Gabrielle Evans. Gaby for short.”
“I’m…I’m Heath Barkley,” he faltered with trepidation as he extended his hand to shake hers. “Please to meet you.” He recoiled at her vice-like grip. “Like I said, that’s some grip," he reiterated, flexing his fingers as emphasis.
“Don’t let that frightened you. I was raised on a ranch. The eldest of four sisters. My father wanted a boy to run the spread, but here I was a girl so I took on the job anyway. Hauled me a wholla of sacks of grain among other things.”
“I wouldn’t wanna me to face ya in a dark alley.”
Gaby chuckled at Heath’s humour. “If you’re a good boy I don’t see why you should have to worry.”
“I’ve never seen you around before,” Heath stated to prompt a conversation that he hoped would reveal further aspects of this enigmatic stranger.
“I arrived in Stockton two weeks ago and spent most of my time settle into my new house and establishing my new business.”
“Oh? What kind of business?” Heath asked warily as to the type of establishment such a lady would choose to run.
“A catering service. I helped my mother ran the one we owned back in Minnesota. It was hugely successful. So I thought I might set one up in a teeming town like Stockton. It’s a long shot but I’m game to try.”
“This town certainly could use one around here. Aside from the Cattleman’s restaurant and Harry’s café there’s not many places you can eat fine food.”
“What I have in mind mostly offers prepared dishes to serve at one’s party for example. You order what you like on the menu and I deliver it for you wherever you wish. But now that you mentioned it, perhaps I should arrange for a few tables and chairs so people can sit and sample the cuisine before ordering. Gee, thanks for the suggestion, Heath.”
“Glad I could help,” Heath answered diffidently, caught unawares by the credit she attributed him. “And thanks for the helping hand.”
“No problem and again I’m sorry for bumping into you.”
“It was my fault. I didn’t watch where I was going.”
“Nonsense! You had that huge load on your shoulder blocking your view. I on the other hand was browsing with my head in the clouds. But as long as no one’s hurt.”
“No harm done.”
“Well I assume I’ll see you around.” she left with a meaningful smile to which Heath responded with his trademark grin.
He watched her cross the street to the hotel, numbed with a fascination that brought the world to a standstill until brother Nick roused him out of his reverie with a clap on his back. “Something wrong?”
“No. Why d’ya ask?” Heath said offhandedly; his tone short of offensive.
Nick frowned at his brother’s aloofness to an innocent question. He followed Heath’s gaze to the brunette entering the hotel. “Who’s that?”
“A woman not to be trifled with,” Heath replied in a sigh fraught with a mix of uneasiness and wonderment that Nick couldn’t decipher.
“What’s that mean?”
“Her name’s Gabrielle Evans and let me just say that you wouldn’t want to cross her. She has the strength of a dozen men.”
“Ummmm I wouldn’t mind finding out,” Nick intoned with an impish twinkle in his eyes. “But you can have her.”
“You’re not still hankering after Carrie Whelan?” Nick’s broad toothy grin was confirmation enough. “Nick, she told you she wasn’t interested.”
“Her mouth may say she isn’t but her eyes are telling me different,” he boasted confidently.
“You’re asking for trouble, Big Brother.”
“This is the kind of trouble I like.”
“Yeah, and I’m the one who winds up getting you out of it,” Heath chaffed, quickly ducking to dodge Nick’s playful swat on the head.
“You got everything?”
“All right, let’s go back before we get caught in that storm,” he said, motioning to the dark clouds rolling in the horizon.
Rain pelted against the windowpane while the brothers engaged in their traditional game of pool. Normally an ace to beat, Heath’s game was off the mark as his thoughts centered on the morning encounter with the pretty brunette that, for some baffling reason, kept haunting his mind. So absorbed was he that he would distractedly shoot balls at random, much to Nick’s delight who relished the hundred-dollar bet wagered. Jarrod’s brow creased with concern upon noticing the glaring distant blank look in Heath’s eyes.
“Something on your mind, Brother Heath?”
Heath blinked his way back to earth and answered aloofly. “No. Why you ask?”
“There’s no gainsaying your game is little off tonight. You don’t usually lose to Nick.”
“Yes he does!” Nick protested, taking offense in Jarrod’s statement. “He doesn’t always win.”
“Only when Heath is not concentrating. Otherwise he beats the pants off you.”
“I bet it’s that girl he met in town today,” Nick broached in an innocently teasing tone.
“A girl? Oh do tell Brother Heath,” Jarrod joined in the bantering in an attempt to worm the scoop out of his brother.
“She’s just someone I met, rather I bump into coming out of the general store. I don’t know what to make of her.”
“Could be that you fancy her?” Nick probed, clearly needling Heath into confession as he prepared for his next shot.
“Well she’s not bad looking but…” he faltered having failed to find the right words.
“But what?” Jarrod insisted.
Heath shrugged and uncomfortably shifted his weight around as he rummaged around for attributes to describe Gabrielle. “I don’t know. She’s unlike anyone I’ve met before. I know one thing and that is I have to watch my step around her.”
“Why is that?”
Nick shot the sixth ball into the corner pocket, a triumphant grin reaching his ears as he savoured his imminent victory. “Heath says she’s got the strength of ten men. Was raised on the ranch; the eldest of four girls.”
“She helped her father run the spread, she says. She slung that slack of flour over her shoulder as tough it was filled with feathers. She also has some grip,” he described with a daunting look, unconsciously curling his fist as if he suffered a lasting effect.
“Women need to defend themselves nowadays. Some men are no gentlemen,” Audra claimed from personal experience.
“True,” Jarrod agreed, turning to his sister who was helping her mother crochet a quilt.
“And what’s odd is that she doesn’t look like it, I mean bulky that is. She’s dainty and slender. Very feminine in fact,” Heath continued to muse, as he absentmindedly watched Nick drive another ball into the end pocket.
“Perhaps you ought to invite this young lady over for dinner some night,” Victoria suggested casually, careful not to put Heath into an awkward position.
“That might be too premature, Mother. I don’t know much about her except her name. She might be married.”
“Did you see a ring on her finger?” Nick asked matter-of-factly, while poised ready to make the winning shot.
“I didn’t look.”
Victoria sensed Heath was becoming increasingly ill at ease and rose to his defense. “Heath, you take your time. If you see her again and feel like inviting her to dinner, know that we’ll be delighted to meet her.”
“Thanks Mother,” he thanked her with a shy smile.
“Hey, hey! I won!” Nick whooped with excitement. “Okay boys, fork it over,” he goaded, wiggling his fingers to get the cash. His brothers obliged begrudgingly, each slapping a fifty-dollar bill in Nick’s palm.
“I guarantee that Brother Heath here will get his revenge, once he gets better acquainted with his mystery lady,” Jarrod said teasingly, throwing a knowing wink at Heath that earned him a lackadaisical grin in return.
At cockcrow the next morning, all was quiet in the household as Heath quietly crept down the stairs. He headed head out to the barn and backed Charger from his stall to steer him outside where he met with Duke.
“Where you’re going?” he queried, puzzled as to the reason why Heath would saddle up his horse before breakfast.
“I got business in town,” Heath informed bluntly without elaborating. “Do me a favour, will ya? If Nick asks for me tell him I’ll be back in time to help him with the branding.”
“Sure thing, Heath.” Duke said obligingly, still baffled as to the nature of this business. “Does that mean you’ll be missing breakfast with the family?”
Heath nodded and smiling warily, said, “Give my apologies to mother.”
The town was barely rousing when Heath drove down Main Street. Scrutinizing eyes swept both sides of the street in hopes of catching a glimpse of their brunette. He reined in Charger in front of Harry’s Café and went in to order breakfast. He chose a window table with a view on the street. In was minutes later that his heart began fluttering at the sight of the young lady heading toward a vacant store he gathered was to be her new place of business. Heath wolfed down the rest of his food, paid the bill and headed across the street, but his step faltered as he neared the door. Drawing deep breaths to summon a courage that never came, he instead settled for stealing quick peeks inside at the woman busy sweeping the floor.
“What’s the matter with me?” Heath chided. “Why can’t you knock on the door? Come on! What’s the worse that can happen? She’ll invite you in and then what? What do I talk about?”
“Are you all right, sir?” a bystander asked, concerned by Heath’s behavior.
“Yeah, sure. I was just thinking out loud.” Heath fibbed after being caught unawares by the sudden intrusion in his train of thoughts. He tipped his hat below one eye to hide his blush as he stole away to his horse. Out of the corner he caught a cursory glimpse of the man entering Gaby’s store. He labored under the misapprehension that he was her husband and with it, hopes of forging a friendship dashed to the ground.
With a heavy heart and a wistful grin he returned to his faithful equine companion and nudged him towards home.
Heath kept to himself most of the day, occasionally teasing Nick on his obstinacy with Carrie Whelan; all the while wishing he could have a lady to call his own after his breakup with Maria Montero.
At the end of the day, brothers headed back to the ranch. They rode alongside each other with Nick rambling about his gal and Heath humoring big brother with monosyllabic answers as he lazily swayed in the saddle to his horse’s hoof beat.
“As usual Heath, you are a real chatterbox,” Nick quipped.
“Sorry Nick. Don’t have much to say.”
“Uhn uhn. What’s eating you?”
“Don’t give me that,” Nick argued. “What were you doing in town this morning? What was so important that you had to miss breakfast with the family?” Nick grilled to coerce a straight answer.
“If I’m not mistaken Nick a certain somebody’s birthday is coming up,” Heath affected to throw Nick off the track.
“Audra’s birthday. But two months from now!”
“Just got me a head start.”
“What exactly are you getting her?” Nick queried with an eyebrow arched in suspicion.
“If I tell ya, you’ll shoot your big mouth off and it won’t be a surprise no more, will it?”
“Why don’t I believe you?”
Heath shrugged his brother’s suspicions off. “Whatever suits you, Nick.”
Nick shot Heath a look of distrust that failed to impress his little brother. Realizing he wasn’t making headways, Nick veered off the conversation to the hands’ big night.
“Are you planning to join the guys in town tonight?”
“Yeah. I’m thinking I might try my luck at the poker table.”
“Still sore of losing to me at pool?” Nick chaffed with a satisfied smirk on his face.
“Yeah, right,” Heath mocked in a chuckle. “Race ya home.” He kicked Charger at a full tilt, leaving his dazed brother in his wake.
Heath was on a winning streak at the poker table. Lady luck was sticking to him like burr, much to the other players’ frustration. However when signs of restlessness became apparent, Heath decided to call it a night to give them a chance to win some of their money back among themselves. He pocketed his winnings, swigged down the last of his beer and headed out the door, nodding goodnight to Harry the bartender as he passed by the counter.
One cool and composed player made eye contact with two of his watchdogs and with a discreet toss of the head, ordered them to follow the loaded winner.
They shadowed Heath, charily treading in his heels until they reached a quiet, dark area adjacent to an alley. “All right, Barkley, fork it back.”
Heath maintained his composure, remaining rooted to the spot without budging an inch for fear of provoking his aggressors. “What are you talking about?” he asked innocently, discreetly ogling his gun in the holster.
One man stepped up to Heath from behind and rammed his fist in his lower back, causing him to yelp a painful cry. He whipped Heath’s gun from the holster and hurled it aside.
“You stole some money that belongs to our boss,” the man threatened with his shiny six-shooter thrust at Heath’s head.
“He lost it fair and square,” Heath heaved out, still trying to catch his breath.
“That’s not how we saw it,” scoffed the partner.
“Something I can help you with gentlemen?” A voice drifted from behind, startling the two thugs who spontaneously swirled round to shove their guns in its direction. Heath seized the moment of distraction to lunge at his weapon lying on the ground, but one man caught the move in a sidelong glance and knocked him unconscious.
With a deep breath, Gabrielle muzzled up her flaring temper and strained an amiable grin to placate the rabid dogs itching to sink their fangs into her.
“Bug off lady,” snarled one of the thugs.
“Lady? At least you’re polite,” she slashed cynically, though she remained completely unruffled by the threat.
“We’ve got everything under control,” the second man growled, pulling the hammer on his gun as a final warning to heed their advice.
“I can see that. Two guns against none. Tsk, tsk!” she clucked her tongue and shook her head in mockery. “That isn’t fair.”
“This ain’t no place for no broad. So why don’t you skedaddle out of here.”
“Broad? First lady, then broad. We’re definitely not making progress here gentlemen,” she continued to temporize, hoping the blond’s moans would create the diversion she needed to tame the two thugs.
“Woman! I said get out of here!” annoyed, the man barked, waving his gun at her.
“You could at least say please,” she teased, further exasperating the hoodlums.
“Bug off!” the man roared; then on a softer conceding tone, “please.”
“Well in that case…” In a split second, she swirled on her heels and shoved her foot into the man’s stomach, the force of the blow hurling him back against a pile of crates. Dazed by the bolt out of the blue, his partner mechanically thrust his gun on her, only to have it ripped out of his hand by a powerful kick that broke his wrist.
She lunged at the thug to assail him with a few karate chops. She then turned to the first man teetering to his feet and KO’d him with a lethal kick to his lower back, propelling him against the bricked wall where he banged his head and slumped to the ground senseless.
“You didn’t say it with enough feeling,” she mocked to the two listless bodies sprawled on the ground before hurrying over to Heath moaning his way back to consciousness. “You okay?” she asked with concern, squatting down to his level to check for injuries.
“Yeah. Yeah I’m okay,” he slurred out, gabbing his head and wincing in pain, “I think so.” Blinking away the fog, he focused on the two thugs lying face down in the dirt.
“What happened? Don’t tell me you did this?”
“My uncle was a Federal marshal. He learned a martial art called karate and taught it to me. Comes in handy when you’re walking the streets alone at night.”
“Karate. Yeah I heard about it. It’s from the Orient. Heard say it was deathly.”
“That all depends how you use it.” She pulled out a handkerchief from her pants pocket and gently reached out to the bleeding temple to dab at the trickle of blood. “This is a nasty wound. It might require stitches.”
“It’ll have to wait. Can’t go waking Doc Merar for a bump on the head.”
“Stubborn, aren’t we?” she observed amusedly.
“So I’ve been told.” He hoisted himself up against the wall, the climb triggering a debilitating spell that prompted him to claw at Gaby’s arm for support. He shook the dizziness away and cast one last glance at the two senseless men.
“I’ll say this. I’d rather meet these guys in a dark alley than you.”
“You have.” she jested. “And I hope you’re not offended?”
“Having a woman save your butt, so to speak? It’s usually gentlemen who save damsels in distress.”
“Nah! I’m kind of glad you did show up. I was really sweating bullets. I should ask you what you’re doing out by yourself at this time of night?”
“I’m not wont to do that but tonight was an exception. I thought I had forgotten to put out the fire in the wood burner. Wouldn’t have wanted my business to catch on fire before it even started.”
“You’re husband couldn’t do it?” Heath blurted out matter-of-factly, cringing slightly at the boldness of his question.
“Husband? I’m not married.”
“Oh!” Heath expressed with a mix of relief and puzzlement. “I thought…well…I thought,” he hemmed and hawed, struggling to collect his thoughts . “Today I saw a man enter your store and I thought…”
Gaby broke into a chuckle. “I see. He’s my business associate. He’s the one who haggled a good price for the place. I don’t like mixing business with pleasure, though he is a handsome fellow,” she remarked with a hint of tease to gauge Heath’s reaction. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah. Can I take you home?”
“I should be the one asking that question under the circumstances. I have my surrey in front of the hotel, but you can ride along with me. I’d appreciate the company.”
Heath smiled responsively at her offer and together they walked to the carriage where he gallantly assisted Gaby into the front seat before mounting Charger.
The grandfather clock chimed twelve midnight, sending a chill down the Victoria’s spine. Standing out on the balcony in night robe, the anguished mother kept her eyes fasten on the iron gate, shivering in dread at the most gruesome thought to cross her mind. She squashed the dark notion and wished into mind a shadowy figure on a horse to come into view. So absorbed was she that she didn’t hear the patter of feet approaching from behind.
“Mind some company?”
The intrusive voice broke into her thoughts, causing a slight start that she held back. “Of course not.”
“You’re worried about him, aren’t you?” Nick had to smile at his rhetorical question.
“It’s getting awful late. He said he’d be back before midnight.”
“Knowing Heath he’s probably on a winning streak and don’t want to leave the table,” Nick minimized, though lacking conviction. “Or he might have run into Candy and…” Nick held his tongue at his mother’s fierce scowl warning him from dishing out the juicy details. “Well,” he harrumphed with discomfiture with a red-beet face and a silly grin to boot, “Well you know what I mean?”
“Yes I do know what you mean, Nick. Strange at its sounds I’d feel better if it were that instead of something else.”
“If it’ll put your mind at ease I can ride into town and see if he’s all right.”
“No, it’s okay,” she conceded halfheartedly, putting her hand on Nick’s arm. “He won’t like it if he knew we were mother-coddling him.”
“That’s for sure. But don’t worry. Most of our men are in town. If he’d gotten into a scrape one would have rode out here to tell us.”
Nick’s rational statement brought some relief and she smiled in agreement. “You’re right.” She glanced up at her son and placed a soft kiss on his cheek. She then draped her arm in his and together they stepped back inside and onward to the grand staircase. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about Connie Whelan. Are you two making progress?”
“I’ve given up, Mother. God knows I’ve tried. I thought she was just hard to get. Some women are teasers and set the bar high for men to jump their fence. I don’t mind. It’s even kind of fun trying to get there, but I’m the end of my wits. Tonight was the last straw for me. If that’s what she wants, a man who will crawl on his hands and knees, well she’ll have to set her cap elsewhere ‘cause this guy is keeping off her grass.”
“Perhaps it’s for the best.”
“Yeah, well I don’t know but I don’t intent to idle away my time trying to find out. Plenty of other fishes in the sea for Nick Barkley to hook.” Reaching the top of the stairs, he held her by the shoulders and laid a kiss on her forehead. “You get some sleep. I’ll keep watch for Heath.”
“Thank you.” She entered her bedroom and closed the door behind her. She ambled over to the window and cast her eye out for any sign of Heath. She gasped in a silent whoop of joy at the sight of a lone rider entering the barnyard but her jubilation was short-lived as she realized it was merely a ranch hand returning from his night on the town. The calmness observed in the man put her fears of misfortune to rest. If her son had met with an accident, he would have dashed straight for the house instead of steering his horse into the barn. But what if he hadn’t crossed path with Heath?
Heath’s nose twitched to the inviting aroma of fresh bacon sizzling in the pan. Blinking away the mist in his eyes, panic seized him as to the unfamiliar surroundings. One sweep of the room told him he was at Gabrielle’s house. He recalled her offering the hospitality of her home after noticing how dangerously he was swaying on his saddle as he rode alongside her surrey. Normally he would have declined, insisting that he was fine, but he liked the arrangement he deemed an opportunity to get better acquainted with her.
He flinched at the thought of having crashed on her sofa uninvited. He was to leave once the dizziness had subsided but found that the Sandman had other plans for him. What will she think of him? He drew in a deep cleansing breath to clear the cob webs away and slowly but painfully rose to a sitting position. He put his feet on the floor and hauled himself out of the sofa, stretching his muscles as he followed the tantalizing aroma to the kitchen.
“Hey, you’re up!” Gaby cheered. “How did you sleep?”
“Believe it or not, I slept like a baby. Your couch was very comfortable.”
“I’m glad to hear. How’s the head?”
“It’s still there,” Heath joked.
“No pain? No dizziness?”
“No. It’s all gone.”
“Nevertheless I think you ought to have the doctor take a look.”
“On my way back, I’ll drop by his office,” Heath dismissed nonchalantly, raising Gaby’s suspicions as to his true intentions.
She took a slice of bacon and dangled it in front of Heath’s mouth. “Here, taste this?” Heath snapped it with his teeth and munched on it with great satisfaction. “Hummm, that’s good.”
“Would you join me for breakfast before you return home?”
“I certainly don’t want to impose.”
“You’re not. I told you I like your company,” she said sweetly with just the right soupcon so not to overstep the boundary of friendship. “Want some coffee?”
“Please.” Heath sat at the table and pursued the conversation that his falling asleep had unexpectedly interrupted last night.
“You said you lived on a ranch?” Heath asked while sipping his coffee.
“That’s right, In Denver, Colorado. A six-thousand-acre ranch. Nothing compared to the Barkley land, though, but it was enough for us” she ribbed, hiding an elfish smile behind the rim of her cup.
“And you helped your father run it?”
“I started out when I was seven. My mother insisted I was too young to handle the chores that were normally done by men and naturally dad wouldn’t give me anything strenuous at first but as I grew into my teens, I found I could cope with the daily routine and wound up handling more than my share of the workload. I love the smell of a ranch. I used to get up before sunrise to greet the new day and treat the horses to an apple.”
“Dawn is my favorite time of the day. It’s peaceful and quiet. You’re one with nature and it helps you get in touch with your inner self.” Heath described with a soulful grin hanging on his lips. “Say, what’s that kicking stuff called again?”
“Yeah. It sure comes in handy when you’re walking ‘round without a gun on ya. If you have time I’d be much obliged if you could teach me some of those moves.”
“I don’t mind. At your convenience.”
“I was thinking perhaps tonight at the ranch?” Heath broached the subject ever so lightly, gauging her reaction before threading along similarly, “You could come over for supper; meet the rest of my family.”
Gaby raised her hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle at the connotation behind Heath’s request. She weighed the implication of acquiescing to his invite and deemed it necessary not to encourage him down that road, as she preferred forging a friendship first and let nature takes its course, as it may be later. However something about him compelled her to reconsider her decision.
“You sure your family won’t mind?”
“I’m sure. In fact it was my mother’s suggestion that I invite you,” Heath blurted out, slightly cringing at the blunder he committed.
“She knows about me?” Gaby asked, surprised that her name had been mentioned in the Barkley household.
“I told her how we met in town. My family and me we talk about most of everything that happens during the course of a day,” he further explained to smooth out the bristles he sensed that his bluntness had raised.
“I see.” She paused to ponder the invitation once more. “All right then. I accept.”
“Great!” Heath enthused in spite of himself, then said composedly, “I’ll pick you up around seven?”
“I’ll be ready. But first let’s have breakfast.”