The ride out to the lake was gently paced. Heath watched his sons and their pony mounts carefully, passing on his own horsemanship skills to help them improve. When necessary, he would take the ponies reins and lead the ponies and young riders over more tricky terrain; otherwise he allowed them to ride under their own authority backed up with his encouraging words.
The boys' confidence with their ponies had grown over the weeks and more and more they looked forward to spending the day with their father and all riding together.
Nearing the lake, the three Barkleys brought their horses to a halt. Thomas had a little trouble stopping his and his father reached over to bring the pony to a final halt. When he dismounted he showed Thomas again what to do and his son nodded his understanding, his face a picture of horsemanship study. With a smile at his son's seriousness, Heath helped him down and then helped Sean down. Immediately, the children set off the for the lake shore.
Heath let the ponies and horses roam, sneaking an apple from his saddlebag for each, then joined his sons.
Both his boys had already taken their boots and socks off and were ready to paddle in the water. Heath scooped Sean up and let him tread the crystal water.
"Me too! Me too!" Thomas squealed, not wishing to be left out. Heath fulfilled his wish.
"Can we go for a swim, Papa?" The boys asked. Heath thought of his letter, part of which he knew would be for the children. Life was a compromise. The letter though burning a hole in his shirt was not going to go away.
"I don't see why not."
Quickly the boys undressed and Heath did the same. He made sure the letter was tucked safely between his clothes and not likely to blow away. Then he joined his sons, teaching them how to swim better, encouraging each effort and granting their appeals to "look at me!" It was about having fun too, and so he swam with them on his back, tumbled them over into the water off his shoulders and had water fights with them until they were laughing so hard they had to stop.
Afterwards, when they had dried off he shared out the apples with them and they walked around the lake munching them, Sean on his father's shoulders and Thomas walking by his side. Their drying hair curled under the sun without benefit of a brush to hand to straighten it. Conversation was full of questions typical of six-year-old boys and as always they expected their father to have all the answers. Heath did his best. Occasionally, they stopped to skim stones across the water or to look at the freshwater fish and creatures in the shallow pools. It was, in truth, a perfect afternoon.
In due course they returned to the horses and sat down nearby. Heath pulled out the letter.
"What's that, Papa?" Sean asked, leaning over his father's broad back and pressing his cheek to his father's as he strained to see.
Heath smiled, as Sean's arms circled his neck. "It's a letter from Mama."
Thomas came to join them. "Read it, Papa! Read it please!"
Heath opened the letter whilst Thomas sat opposite, cross-legged and arms folded.
"My darling Heath and boys,” Heath read.
He blushed somewhat at the endearment and his boys giggled at their father's embarrassment.
"Mama is being kissy, kissy," Thomas giggled, pursing his lips in a way he had seen grown ups do.
"My darling Heath and boys,” Heath continued.
"I am sitting here in Audra's beautiful walled rose garden overlooking the bay. The twins are asleep in their cribs upstairs. Audra has been taking them out for daily walks and the sea air is agreeing with them. They can barely keep their eyes open.
Audra and Frank have been so attentive to us. It was dear of them to invite me out here after my illness and they have made sure to see to mine and the twins every need. Heath, you were right to insist that I come. The sea air has done wonders to help me recoup and I feel better every day.
But, oh my darlings, how I do miss you. I long to come home. Thomas, do you have you lots of stories to tell me about school? How I miss our little chats. Sean, is your sore finger better? Mama gives it a kiss, here catch!"
Sean held up his healing finger and Heath kissed it just like Meg would. He continued to read the letter, the minutiae of which made Heath, Thomas and Sean feel she was with them. Meg had a gift for writing letters.
Eventually, he paused and a blush swept over his face. "And the rest of the letter is just for me to read," he told his sons.
"Kissy, kissy stuff" Thomas teased again, like he had done before.
"Maybe,” Heath smiled. "Now both of you skedaddle whilst I read it." The boys ran off laughing and giggling whilst Heath returned to the letter and the intimacy and love it contained. Afterwards, he raised his eyes to the boys who were running and playing and then closed them again to imagine Meg here with them.
Before long, it was time to return home.
They took a leisurely pace as they did before. At the mansion, the boys ran into the house, Heath's dog came out to greet them and Victoria followed.
"Let Ciego look after the horses, Heath. There is a surprise for you upstairs."
Heath kissed his mother on the cheek and looked at her with a question on his lips.
"Upstairs," she repeated. "I'll see to the boys."
Heath took the stairs two at a time and then made short distance to his room.
Opening the door he found his darling Meg was inside.
"I couldn't stay away any longer," she whispered into his ear as he took her in his arms. "The four of us had to come."
"Four?" Heath stuttered, wondering if she meant.
She smiled as her secret was out.
"Four," she confirmed. "The doctor confirmed it yesterday."
“But you?” Heath started.
“Am perfectly well. I just needed some rest. Truly, Heath. I would not lie to you.”
“But another baby? Maybe it’s too soon after your illness”
“The doctor says not.”
Meg looked up at her worried husband. “Well, don’t. I am not careless about any of our health that I would not tell you the truth. Be happy instead, darling. I know I am. Come let’s go see the children.”
Still holding his hand she moved to leave, attempting to take him with her.
Heath pulled her back gently. “A few minutes. “ He pleaded. “I’ve missed you.”
Meg smiled at her boyish looking husband. Handsome and strong and yet vulnerable too where his family was concerned. Her illness had worried him, bringing back memories of the young wife he had lost, and though the circumstances were entirely different, it was natural for him to worry.
She sat down next to him and let him hold her until he was reassured, revelling in his embrace and the feeling of being with him again.
When the door opened a few minutes later they had just finished kissing. Thomas and Sean flew into the room and onto their parents’ bed, sending each parent tumbling backwards.
“Mama, Mama! You’re home!” Sean squealed.
Recovering, Meg sat up and hugged her son. “Well, I couldn’t stay away from my boys, could I?”
She gave a warm hug to Thomas whilst still holding on to Sean, drawing a well of maternal reserve from their love and affection.
Heath, mindful of Meg’s condition, stood up and stretched across to pick up his sons, giving her room to get up. A son balanced in each arm he leaned across to kiss Meg as she stood up.
“Ewww” the twins chorused, with exaggerated movement of their hands.
Heath just laughed and winked at Meg. “Let’s all go downstairs.” He announced. “Your mother and I have something to tell you all.”
Downstairs, Victoria was delighted. Nick too gave his congratulations.
A while later the tall rancher could be found looking over the plans of the house. A clink of glasses and the decanter announced the arrival of his younger brother.
“What are you looking at, Nick?” Heath asked absentmindedly as he found himself an easy chair and kicked off his boots, flexing his stockinged feet in the process.
“I’m looking to see how many more rooms we can add to the house.” Nick answered, putting his pencil down and picking up his own glass.
“You’re thinking of expanding?” Heath’s tone was quizzical.
“Just making sure we keep up with the current Barkley rate of expansion, little brother. And, of course, consider what lies ahead.”
Nothing much surprised Heath, but damned if the blond-haired Barkley didn’t nearly choke on his drink.