Suddenly he felt the woman yanked away from him. His hair was gripped by unforgiving hands and his head shoved forcibly under water. Momentarily stunned, instinct kicked in and made him fight back. Still the hands held him down. They were merciless in their intent. He choked. He spluttered. He fought to get his mouth to the surface and fill his lungs with precious air before the blackness took over. His fight turned desperate, his hands and arms flailing above the surface of the water. Still his assailant wouldn't relent. Moving into a state of semi-consciousness, Heath relaxed into Death's seductive pull on his body. It felt good. No struggle. No pain. His body slumped in the water, no longer offering up any resistance.
"Heath! Heath my boy! Heath... I didn't mean it. Oh God, I swear I didn't mean it."
Heath's insentient body was dragged up from its watery grave and laid gently on the ground. The man whose hands had worked to kill, now worked feverishly to clear the blocked airways and forcibly expel the water from the unconscious man's lungs. Minutes seemed like hours as he waited to see if God would grant his wish. Fearing the worst, his face lit with joy when his efforts were rewarded and Heath turned over and coughed up the water which had slowly been choking him. Gasping, Heath struggled to get into a kneeling position and desperately searched for air to fill his vacuous lungs.
The other man watched on in tortured hope as the pain in Heath's lungs slowly lost dominance and subsided with each increased intake of air. Spent in his efforts to breathe, Heath collapsed in bruised heap, naked on the ground.
Nick moved to him instantly. He cradled his brother's upper body in his arms and bent his face down close to Heath's. Weeping uncontrollably at the realization of what he had done, guilt overwhelmed him.
Glaring at the woman in front of him, her undergarments dripping pools of water into the parched, hungry sand, his voice grew to a thunder and raged.
"Damn you woman!" His voice was filled with undisguised contempt. "You're to be my wife! How could you betray me with my brother? Look! See what I have done to him. I nearly killed him! All because of you....."
The woman knew she was cornered and like a wounded animal filled with fear chose to go on the attack.
"Nick, darling!" Her voice was laced with false emotion. "You must believe me! It wasn't me! I tried to fight him off. Look! Can't you see on his chest where I tried to stop him?" You must believe me. I could never betray you. I love you Nick."
Nick moved Heath's arm to look at brother's chest and saw the puncture marks caused by her nails. He flinched at the sight. Her nails had dug deep. As the blood mingled with the water and began to dilute, Nick wished his pain could dilute in the same way.
The cuts were deep, suggestive of brute force being used and a struggle. Nick shut his eyes to block out his thoughts. If it was true? If it was true.....? His mind struggled to comprehend. If it was true, they could no longer be brothers. Heath would be dead to him and he would never see him again. This brother who he loved more than life itself. This brother who was the other half of himself. This brother who he would be forced to disown and never see again. The tangible pain he felt cut through his heart like a sharp knife.
"You do believe me Nick, don't you?" The woman wasn't quite sure. Momentarily she won Nick's attention away from his brother but then Heath began to shiver and Nick's face turned back to his brother. Worry overcame his rage.
"Nick!" Her tone was indignant, demanding of his attention, and ignoring of Heath's condition.
"I've got to see to Heath." He said, refusing to meet his fiancee's look. "Heath gets ill real quickly. He doesn't have the strength to fight off what others can do easily. I've got to get him dried off and warmed up, else that chill will take a hold of his lungs."
Ignoring the pain which had speared his heart, he cleaned and dried his brother off as best as he could. Looking around for something to dress his brother's wounds he turned to the woman who had since dressed and barked sharply:
"Tear off a slip of your dry blouse and pass it over here quickly. I need it to bind these wounds."
He quickly tore of a slip of his own shirt as he waited for her to comply.
Continuing to resent the attention he was giving his brother and unsettled as to whether he had believed her, she chose not to argue the point and reluctantly did as she was told.
At length, the early evening coolness gave way to the chill of the oncoming nightfall. Nick struggled to keep a fire going which would give much needed warmth to his brother. He could see from Heath's countenance that the fire was having little effect.
"I've got to get him warm somehow," His mind was weary with the day's events and unresolved issues. He had barely spoke to her unless to bark orders. He moved over to his brother and ran a hand over his brother's fevered brow.
"Can't..... get ......wa...rm."
Heath muttered in a brief moment of lucidity. Nick pulled up the blanket to Heath's chin, and patted his brother's shoulder. Laying down beside his brother, he pulled him into the warmth offered by his own body. As he did so, Heath groaned out the woman's name. "Lisette... Lisette..."
Nick instinct was to recoil away at this new hurt his brother's words caused him. The searing pain shot through him like a slowly drawn jagged knife. Still he held on to Heath who drifted off into a uneasy sleep, not knowing that behind him his brother silently wept.
In the morning, Nick was relieved to find Heath's chill had abated and a calm had replaced his fever driven chills. Although his brother remained unconscious, Nick was reassured by his regulated breathing and the way his eyes reacted more positively to light. He got up slowly and looked up to the sky. It was another blisteringly hot day. Already, the heat was oppressive and promised to get worse as the day wore on. He had to get help for Heath and the only way he knew of doing so, was for them to keep moving. Eventually, they would come to a road that would lead somewhere.
With tired, blistered feet he walked to the creek, knelt down and hungrily lapped up the water until his thirst was quenched. After dabbing his sunburned face and parched lips, he let the water settle and looked hauntingly down at his own reflection. He did not like what he saw. Not the man, nor his actions. Recalling the events of yesterday all too vividly, his mind consciously recoiled for a moment until he forced himself to confront what he had done. Here at this creek. In this water. To his brother. His heart sank with the weight of his guilt.
He became aware of her presence as she knelt down and joined him, eager to satisfy her own thirst. Hot, dusty and tired, her beauty was still breathtaking. He grew angry as his body betrayed him, and worst still that she saw. After dousing her face with the cooling water, she rolled over on to her back and let her hair trail down into the water. As she did so, her movements accentuated the fullness of her breasts against the tightness of her blouse. Seductively, she let a wet hand trail down her neck and across her heaving breasts. She knew his eyes followed their path and a triumphant smile crossed her lips. She had him. He was hers again. She pulled him down into a kiss. He responded, his hands encircling her waist and then traveling up to the soft curves of her breasts. He was drowning.. drowning....just like Heath had been drowning.... Heath!
Feelings of self-loathing overtook him again. He pulled away from her sharply, the taste of her lips still on him. Their taste grew bitter. With the back of his hand he wiped it away with disgust.
"Get yourself ready, we'll be moving out in ten minutes."
Moving slowly, their limbs not fully recovered from their previous day's ordeal, Nick and the woman walked on, as the barren sand under their feet slowly gave way to more fertile land. They had to stop several times as Nick struggled to carry the dead weight of his brother over his shoulder. Heath had moaned incoherently but thankfully had no made no further mention of Lisette's name. Nick responded with pacifying statements, hoping his words would help ease the younger man's distress.
Occasionally, Heath would become lucid and would ask why he was being carried. "I'm n...not a baby, Nick. P... put me down!" He would protest. The next moment his body would sag against Nick's own. And so the cycle continued. Each time it broke Nick's heart a little more, for Heath seemed to have no memory of the incident that had taken place back at the creek.
God how he loved this boy. It cut him to the core to think Heath had betrayed him. He wasn't sure he could live a life without Heath in it, and yet this brother who he held dear above all others had betrayed him with his own fiancee. Nick had seen it with his own eyes. He replayed the scene over in his mind. Heath, naked in the water. His body entwined with hers. Lisette dressed only in her undergarments, the water making her apparel redundant and transparent. He blocked out the image as the memory of them together threatened to overwhelm him.
He could sense she was falling behind again. Stopping, Nick carefully laid his brother down and waited for her to catch up. Taking his canteen, he slowly dribbled water into his brother's mouth. Heath swallowed some before falling into an restless sleep. Nick sighed loudly, wondering how ill his brother would become. Guilt consumed him, reminding him that it was his fault.
"How is he?" she said as she approached the temporary camp.
"Like you care!" Nick mood was unforgiving. She took the brunt of the anger meant for himself.
"Nick, I didn't do this! If you remember it was Heath who forced himself upon me."
"So you say."
"You saw! You saw with your own eyes!"
"I saw... I saw...I don't know what I saw." Nick couldn't bring himself to admit what he had seen.
"The cuts.. why would I do those to him unless I was trying to defend myself? You heard him yourself.. he cried out my name."
"Heath would never force himself on a woman!"
"Until now..........you saw him do it Nick...If you don't believe me, then at least believe your own eyes, he was about to..."
"About to?" Nick eyes burnt into her. For a moment she hesitated.
"Do I have to spell it out? He .... he was about to rape me! Your darling brother there was about to rape your future wife!"
Lisette Riveaux, the future Mrs. Nick Barkley, was not French as her name implied, in fact her whole name was a fabrication. Oh, there was a tenuous link attached to it somewhere, her birth name being Lizzie Rivers, but otherwise, Lisette Riveaux was a fictional invention she adopted many years ago to purposefully distance herself from her past.
Lizzie Rivers grew up dirt poor and never forgot it. It shaped her life from her earliest realization and crystallized her heart into an impenetrable rock which felt and cared for nothing. Indeed she felt robbed of her true destiny and came to resent anything, or anyone, which reminded her of her humble beginnings.
A pretty child, she grew up to be a striking beauty. Early on she learned to use her beauty in a calculated way, a means to an end and a way out of her stifling poverty. Not for her the hard, honest life of her parents. She firmly believed she was destined for better things.... and if destiny needed a little help sometimes, she wasn't one to stand in its way.
As she completed the drudge of her daily chores she used to dream of the attractions of a big city, a fine house and servants to wait on her. She would do whatever she needed to achieve her dream.
She was the youngest of seven children born to a hard-working dirt farmer and his wife. Though only in their early thirties when their last child was born they looked at least twenty years older, the harshness of their life etched into their sun-dried, weathered faces. For all their struggles they were a loving, honest couple who loved their children deeply. Six of their children appreciated it, the seventh only came to resent it and the life they offered. Aged seventeen Lizzie Rivers walked out of the door and out of their lives for ever. Cruelly and simply she erased them all from her life.
Reaching the "big city" she didn't exactly find the streets paved with gold. Instantly though, she felt at home in the hustle and bustle that went on there. This was where she was meant to be. Here she would make or steal her fortune, whichever came easiest.
But the city could could be cruel as well as enticing and in a few days without work she was cold, hungry and tired, and struggling to find a place to stay. With only a few pennies in her pocket she stopped outside the building she'd been directed to as a place that might offer her work. Lively piano music and laughter spilled out on to the street. It drew her inside, her eyes widening at the red and gold furnishings, the half-dressed women and men cavorting inside. Lizzie Rivers had never heard of a bordello before, but within a week she had found her true calling and never looked back.
Her hardened heart meant that she never had to engage emotionally with her clients and that suited her perfectly. Homing in on the middle-aged and elderly rich men, seeking escape from their nagging and long-suffering wives, she used her charm to part them from their money making a sizable amount of money on the side.
The years rolled into each other and in 1870, when she was twenty-two years old, she met the man who would provide her with the fortune she craved. Lansford P. Bellway was fifty-seven years old, rotund, fat to you and me, very rich and equally gullible where a pretty face was concerned. A pleasant, unobtrusive man, he had made his fortune through a series of trading posts which he'd built up into a thriving concern. He was a widower, childless and a perfect target for the predatory Lizzie.
Within three months of their meeting, Lansford, unconcerned about public opinion, asked her to marry him and she quickly accepted. Two weeks later she entered his large house and quickly took possession of it, his fortune and his life. Lansford Bellway never stood a chance.
The marriage lasted a year before Lansford finally gave in. One night he simply went to his bed and conveniently died. Oh, there'd been a period of illness beforehand, but effectively his heart was broken by the indifference of her own.
Lizzie Bellway. She bristled at the name. If she never liked Lizzie Rivers, Lizzie Bellway or Mrs. Lansford P. Bellway didn't impress either. Fixing on a name that she felt suited her and gave her an air of class she settled the house and the affairs of her late husband and emerged as Mrs. Lisette Riveaux, twenty-three year old widow and woman of substance.
In the next seven years she slowly adopted a dual life; one, the life of respectable widow, whose past she kept successfully hidden (of course, there was the occasional past client who remembered her, but usually they conspired to keep her secret for fear of being incriminated themselves), the other was as silent owner of the most fashionable and frequented bordello in town. Managing the profits proved far better than working for them and in a short space of time she had increased her widow's fortune significantly. It wasn't enough. It would never be enough. She set her mind to finding a new husband, a man as far removed from Lansford. P. Bellway as she could possibly get. The scene was set for Nick Barkley.
Nick and Heath arrived in Carson City that morning exhausted from their train journey and in need of a long hot bath, a good meal and relaxation. Work being done on the railway line meant that they had endured several delays and Nick's temper had been tested to the limit with Heath silently taking the brunt of it. They were in town to discuss a business deal that would hopefully widen both the cattle and wine growing interests of the Barkley holdings. Unusually, therefore, they had both decided to take the trip together.
Refreshed from a long bath and a late afternoon nap, they sauntered down to the hotel dining room later that day, joking and contemplating how they would spend the rest of their evening. Nick was keen to try out some of the local entertainment on offer at the much talked about new bordello, the one that had half of Carson City's residents protesting and the other half eagerly partaking. It had been a long day and he had that important meeting tomorrow. What better way to relax?
Heath was less keen, not that he didn't enjoy a little night entertainment too, he never said he lived in a cave, but his mind was also preoccupied with the meeting the next day and he was keen to keep alert and clear headed. This meeting, if it came off, was of major importance to the rest of the family. Nick, his mind already decided, pressed him to change his mind and at length Heath agreed to accompany his brother. Their meal finished, they walked into the night air and headed for the other side of town.
Entering the delights of the richly furnished establishment the brothers were soon singled out, the girls relishing the find of two handsome men in their midst.
Partners picked, the two brothers separated and slowly headed upstairs to the bedrooms. Heath had insisted on rooms far away from each other and as such, he and his girl continued up to the next floor. Seeing his brother close the door behind him, Heath smiled a lopsided grin as he thought about the two occupants on either side of Nick's room. His brother was a loud man by nature and that applied to everything he did. Heath chuckled as he continued his journey.
Reaching the top of the stairs, Heath stopped momentarily, his attention caught by the opening of a door and a woman emerging from one of the rooms. She was about twenty-seven years old, was raven haired and had a voluptuous figure. He thought he'd never seen anyone more beautiful in his life.
The girl at his side who had been looking forward to her night of passion with the handsome young man became aware of his gaze and quickly fought to regain his attention. Pausing at the door to their room she claimed his lips, glazing her tongue seductively across his lower and then upper lip. As she did so, she teasingly undid the buttons of his shirt.
With a silken touch she slowly ran her hands over the broad muscular chest, drawing a gasp from him before lowering her hands to loosen the belt of his pants. Heath was transfixed and offered no protest, his tongue matching her playful dance before plunging into the depths of her mouth.
Unfastening the belt and the buttons on his pants she eased her hands slowly under the fabric and across his firm cheeks and heard him moan into her mouth at the contact. She knew she was being watched by the raven headed beauty who had not moved from her position and smiled triumphantly as she let the tall stranger begin a slow trail of kisses down from her mouth to the base of her neck. She saw the older woman bristle. She knew that the woman wanted what she had. She opened the door and led Heath safely into the room and away from her clutches, closing the door behind them.
The next day, the Barkley brothers completed their business talks disappointed that matters were left unresolved and that they would need to return the next day. Both men ate their evening meals trying to work out how they could make their arguments for the deal more convincing. They were deep in conversation when Nick spotted her enter the room.
Transfixed, his hazel eyes followed her as she was escorted to her table. She quickly became aware of his attention and once seated acknowledged him from across the room with a brief but breathtaking smile. Her escort was a distinguished if elderly elderly man and Nick though many years his junior was immediately jealous. Somehow he would strive to make an introduction with her and it was with great reluctance that he returned to the discussion with his brother and the business in hand.
Lisette Riveaux, looked across at the two gentlemen engaged in conversation. The one whose interest she'd acknowledged was dangerously good-looking. Even though he was sitting down she could tell he was lean and tall. The rakish look in his eyes a few minutes earlier suggested an appreciative eye for the finer things in life and that undoubtedly included her. He'd definitely be fun she concluded.
She cast her eyes to the second man who was deep in conversation. She caught her breath as she did so. There was something familiar about the handsome man who unlike his friend and everyone else in the room had failed to acknowledge her entrance. Blond with the most amazingly lit sapphire eyes, she found herself looking into a true Adonis. She grew unsettled at the way his indifference affected her.
Resolving to get to know them both better she tactfully returned her attention to the elderly escort sat down beside her. Dutifully she feigned interest in the gentleman's conversation and laughed at his boring words, all the time thinking of the two men across the room who had captured her attention.
Ask a group of people who knew him if they thought Nick Barkley was an intelligent man and to a person they would all give a resounding yes. Now ask the same group the question about Nick where a woman was concerned and they would without exception reply with a resounding no. Even his brothers would ask to plead the fifth on that one.
Few men were respected as Nick Barkley was, not just for his intelligence, love of life and good heart, but for his honesty and loyalty too. Many a man would walk taller if they could walk in Nick Barkley's shoes for a day. Not always, but just occasionally though Nick's heart and head resolutely missed each other when it came to the deadlier form of the fairer sex. This was just one of those occasions.
On this bright sunny afternoon Nick was walking towards his destiny, and on reflection, it would have been better if he'd been walking the other way. For destiny came in the shapely but deadly form of Lisette who was coming up the sidewalk from the other direction. As she walked she knew exactly the impact she had on the men who stepped aside gallantly to let her pass by. Equally, she knew all their wives would give them grief over it when they got home.
Seeing her approach, Nick was not immune and fell for her hook, line and sinker!
"Why, hello again." He said, affecting an introduction after her coy apology for "just bumping" into him.
"Again?" She questioned, as he removed his hat in a sweeping gesture, knowing there had been no previous introduction between them both. She noticed immediately his eyes had come to a halt at her overflowing cleavage which she brought further attention to by bringing slender fingers up to twirl a pendant which rested just as the lush hills began to rise.
"Uh?" Nick replied, momentarily dazed. Realizing where his gaze was lingering, he quickly moved to assume control of the introduction again. "Well, perhaps it wasn't a formal introduction we achieved last night at dinner but I can sure make up for it now. Nick Barkley's the name. Nick Barkley of Stockton, California."
"Lisette Riveaux.. Mrs. Lisette Riveaux." She replied, struck by the broad smile that crossed the tall man's lips and his commanding presence.
"Mrs?" Nick couldn't hide his disappointment.
"Widow." She clarified. "My husband passed away some years ago, I'm afraid."
"Oh I'm real sorry to hear that Mrs. Riveaux." Nick inwardly crimsoned at the insincerity of his words, secretly delighted that she was no longer attached.
"Forgive my boldness, Mrs. Riveaux, but perhaps you would accompany me for a little afternoon tea at the hotel we both dined at last night. That's if you have nothing more pressing to do. My brother and I have just concluded a successful business deal and a little afternoon tea in the presence of a beautiful lady would be a fine way of celebrating."
So that was his brother not his friend last night Lisette surmised, all the time maintaining a sweet smile on her lips.
"Congratulations Mr. Barkley. And will your brother be joining us?"
"He'll be along shortly." Nick replied. Much as he loved his brother Nick hoped his brother would stay well away at this moment. He offered his arm and they walked in silence to the hotel just across the street.
Stopping in front of the hotel, Nick took a quick look around for his brother. Seeing no sign, he returned his attention to Lisette. "Shall we go in?"
"Thank you Mr. Barkley. I'll be happy to help you celebrate your success." She allowed him to escort her in, privately pleased that her conquest had gone according to plan and so easily.
Nick and Lisette spent the the next hour having tea and becoming better acquainted before reluctantly parting and agreeing to spend the next day together. Heath had not been able to to join them having been delayed with some last minute business, but he was brought up to date with events by Nick later that evening. He was unable to explain the bad feeling he felt but something told him things were not quite right.
Events conspired against Lisette and Heath meeting the following day as he had set out early for a local ranch to look at some horses. Disappointed, frustrated and not a little annoyed she concentrated on the more immediate task of ensnaring Nick Barkley. Her plan had to be quick, timely and effective in the knowledge that he wouldn't be in town for very long.
Spending the day together Lisette employed all her charm, skill and womanly guile to draw him into her web, all the time allowing Nick to think he was in control of the seduction. Bedazzled by her beauty he made the fatal error of mistaking lust for love and knew only that had to have this woman.
Over the next few days he frustrated his brother by extending their stay from two days to a week, ignoring Heath's protests and letting her occupy his every thought, decision and moment of time. No amount of arguing from Heath would dissuade him from his objective and by the end of the week he had decided to make her his bride.
"Why Nick, this is so sudden!"
"I know my dear but I'm in love with you and I think you feel the same way." He tried to read her reaction and hesitated, unsure of what she was going to say. With unaccustomed nervousness he pressed on, adding clumsily: "Heath and I have to return to Stockton in three days.. I've extended our stay as long as I can. If I don't return on Monday, Heath will go on ahead without me."
"You always do what your brother says?" She teased, hiding her annoyance at the influence the blond held over his brother, sensing the younger brother would cause her trouble.
Nick blustered a moment, "Well no... hmm... No, of course not! Heath and me are partners, we have obligations back home."
"You own the ranch? Between you that is?"
"It's a family ranch."
"Oh I see."
"You haven't answered my question."
"As I say it's so sudden."
"You need time?"
She moved away from him for a moment. His heart sank. It was sometime before she returned to where he was seated on the grass.
"I would love to marry you Nick.. but it's all so quick. I would have so much to do before I could leave with you."
Nick wasn't hearing. All he heard was her acceptance. He reached up to her and pulled her down into a searing, deep kiss which she matched with equal passion. Left breathless as the kiss ended, she speculated on the fun she would have being married to a man as passionate as Nick Barkley and ensnaring the brother too. After all, didn't she always get what she wanted?
Back at the hotel Nick quickly located his brother in the dining room and after a suitable period of time discussing how Heath had got on at the ranch he tentatively broached the subject of his engagement and waited for his brother's response.
Heath Barkley was blessed with a good poker face that could still instantly and not give anything away. He wore it now as he continued to finish his meal and sip slowly at his wine. Nick waited, not once pushing Heath to hurry his reply though the urge to do so remained powerfully strong. It mattered dearly what his brother thought.
His meal finished, Heath dabbed his mouth with a napkin and slowly pushed his chair away from the table, allowing just enough room for him to cross his long legs as he looked directly at his brother, his face still not giving anything away.
"Kinda sudden, ain't it Nick?" He said finally in the familiar slow drawl that the family never tired of hearing and which through its quiet, slower delivery always made Nick listen, so different was it to his own. If Nick was the storm Heath was its calm and often it was Heath's voice he listened to the loudest.
Nick expected that Heath would be cautious but knowing it didn't dispel his disappointment. He watched Heath light up a cigarette and draw slowly from it whilst his left hand played casually with a dessert spoon which had gone unused on the table. In vain, Nick waited for the lopsided smile to appear on his brother's face to signify some kind of acceptance on Heath's part.
Nick sighed loudly and Heath sensed his brother's hurt.
"I'm sure Heath ..... Never been more certain." Nick eventually said, "Hell! I know it's been quick.... okay damned quick, but Heath I tell you boy... I'm absolutely sure. I can't get her out of my head... I know she's the one for me."
"And how does she feel Nick?"
"She loves me too.... She said the same thing about it being sudden but we both know this is the right thing to do.. We ain't kids. We know what's in our hearts."
"It's been all of one week Nick! Are you really certain.... Certain enough for a lifetime'! Cuz that's what it'll mean. When all said and done you barely know each other."
"You sound like Mother," Nick sniped back.
"Consider me in loco parentis." Heath teased him with a lop-sided smile. There it was Nick thought, but I wanted the smile back then, not now. I wanted his blessing.
"I don't meant to put a dampener on your happiness Nick.. God knows if she truly makes you happy I will support you all the way.... Maybe not as you expect it sometimes, but it will always be there." He clapped Nick on the back. "Anyway, why do you need to marry so damn blasted quick? If you're set on this why not wait until we have got back to Stockton? You know Mother and Audra will never forgive you if you deny them a chance to organize a big fancy wedding. Think about it, Nick. It can't hurt to wait a few weeks."
Heath's calm exterior was in stark contrast to the unease he was feeling inside. This whirlwind romance had him worried. His sixth sense about his brother's welfare wouldn't let it rest. He continued to influence his brother to delay the wedding until they reached Stockton and was finally rewarded when Nick reluctantly agreed.
Downcast, Nick lost interest in the rest of the evening and retired to his room.
The next day Nick called on Lisette to explain why he wanted to delay the wedding. She listened quietly as she sat, pouring them both some tea. Unable to sit he paced the room venting his frustration. The more he paced, the calmer she appeared. It was all a facade. Inwardly she seethed at both the interference and influence of this younger brother.
Presently she spoke.
"But of course, Nick. What your brother suggests is only correct. We have been selfish to only consider our own feelings and happiness. It's only right that your family would want to attend and be involved."
"What about yours, my darling?" Nick replied as he returned to embrace her, realizing all of a sudden that he knew very little about his future bride.
She was momentarily taken aback. Her family? She hadn't thought about her family in years. Why did he have to mention them? Thrown back to a time and place she had long buried she resented him for forcing her to remember now.
"My family are dead......." The words just rushed out and she immediately became aware her tone had sounded harsh as soon as she registered the shocked look in Nick's eyes. She moved quickly to correct her mistake. Adopting a softer tone she said quietly "They died of the fever when I was a small child." She hoped her play acting would be convincing. Nick Barkley was no fool. Above all she couldn't have him dig into her past.
Nick's questioning look softened into a comforting one. He took her small hand in his and pressed it gently, kissing her softly on the lips. "I'm sorry, my darling. I didn't intend to rake up sad memories. I'm so proud of you, my dear. In a few weeks, you watch, you'll have a new family to embrace you and hopefully," He paused for a moment, considering their future together, "happier memories to come when we start a family of our own."
She blushed and then smiled sweetly. Too sweetly, not quite masking the horror his words caused her. A family! Children! We'll just see about that. She privately seethed.
"Nick, darling." She said presently, as she moved around the room trying to control her anger. "You've talked so much about Heath and it's obvious he means a lot to you and you to him.... I'm just wondering if I'm ever going to meet this little brother of yours."
Nick caught up with her and pulled her into his arms. "Well, what about right now?" He said, kissing the top of her head, luxuriating in the smell and feel of her hair. "He's over at the hotel now. We can tell him about what we've agreed before making arrangements for traveling to Stockton. Just wait," he enthused. "Just wait till you see the ranch... there ain't no more beautiful site on God's green earth, 'cepting you, my dear."
"You're sure you know which one of us comes first in your heart, Nick?" She teased before adding, "Nick, darling. Why don't you let me see Heath on my own this morning." He looked surprised. "I mean darling," she continued. "Perhaps if he meets me I can reassure him about his concerns about us. It will give us a chance to get to know each other and settle any awkwardness he may feel for raising the subject. Whilst I am doing that you can make the travel arrangements for us all to return to Stockton tomorrow."
Nick's face broke into a broad smile and he kissed her deeply, appreciating the effort she was making to get on with his family. "What would I ever do without you, my dear?
"Can you tell me the room number for Mr. Heath Barkley, please?" The hotel manager looked at her guardedly "I'm his sister-in-law," she quickly added to offset his growing suspicion.
"Would you like me to tell him you are here, madam?"
"No, thank you. He is expecting me." She replied, the lies just rolled of her tongue with practiced ease.
"Room 14." The concierge replied. "It's on the first floor."
Lisette Riveaux knocked on the door and waited for Heath Barkley to answer. Not receiving a response she knocked again. Still nothing. After several moments she cautiously opened the door and stepped into a half-dimmed room, lit only by sunlight escaping from a half-shuttered window.
Her eyes took a few moments to adjust to the different level of light. Once they had adjusted she quickly became aware of his sleeping form on the bed in front of her, his nakedness only half-covered by a softly draped sheet covering the lower part of his body.
He was turned on his side, his hand casually cradling the pillow against which the left side of his face was resting. A soft breeze filtered in through the shuttered window and caused his hair to ripple as if being stroked by the caressing hand of a satisfied lover. He stirred slightly and unconsciously shifted his position so that he turned over on to his stomach, the movement causing the sheet to fall from his nude frame and onto the waiting floor.
She caught her breath at the male beauty before her. Mentally, she traced the outline of his body wishing that instead of her mind her hands could explore his body for real. It was the first time a man had affected Lisette this way and she was aware that in his presence she lost all control.
She didn't like it but she felt powerless to stop the way he affected her. In a way she knew he had the power to bring her down. She struggled to collect herself and regain her composure but somehow she did. She had plans. Plans which included Nick Barkley and ensnaring this man. She silently left the room and closed the closed the door behind her.
"I'm afraid I knocked on the door of Mr. Barkley's room but received no answer," she lied only half-convincingly as she returned to the hotel reception desk. "I was assured he would be in. Please could someone check his room, and if he is there, ask him to join me in the hotel lounge."
"Of course, madam, I'll have someone go up immediately," the manager replied. "Please may I have your name so I can let him know you are here."
"Lisette Riveaux." She replied. "And thank you." She gifted the manager with a dazzling smile, Away from him, away from his room, she felt her confidence return and in control again.
Intrigued by this unaccompanied visit of his brother's fiancee, Heath dressed quickly once he had been woken.
The hotel manager had gone to his room in person and found the occupier sleeping soundly. Noticing the man's undressed state, his experienced eye searched the room for evidence of company. Satisfied the man was alone, he woke him quickly and appraised him of the lady's presence in the hotel lounge.
The man seemed disorientated but then quickly moved to get up. As the hotel manager left the room to allow the young man to get ready he detected the faint scent of perfume which he'd also discerned on the woman downstairs. Allowing himself a knowing smile he closed the door carefully and discreetly returned to his post.
Quickly finding a secluded part of the near empty lounge Lisette waited for Heath to appear. She did not have to wait long. Heath, still not knowing what his future sister-in-law looked like asked the hotel manager to direct him to where she was seated. The man did as instructed, privately amused by the young couple's efforts to conceal their obvious intimacy with each other for the sake of appearances. If only they knew the things he had seen in his ten years in the hotel business.
Heath followed him into the well furnished hotel lounge but then came to an abrupt halt when he saw the face of the mysterious Lisette Riveaux suddenly come into view. For sitting in front of him was the beautiful raven haired woman he had admired at the bordello.
Realizing the hotel manager was still present Heath nodded his thanks to the man and struggled to calm the thoughts that were racing though his mind.
The growing silence was broken by the sound of her voice. It was sensuously seductive and he was under no doubt that it was being directed wholly at him.
"Well, if it isn't the elusive Heath Barkley." She said presently, inviting him to sit down in the seat next to her. He consciously sat in the chair opposite. If it affected her she chose not to let it show. "I was beginning to think you were deliberately avoiding me." She teased as she extended her hand, her voice softening and therefore the intended rebuke with it.
Heath's innate manners, momentarily forgotten, unconsciously kicked in. He stood up and extended his hand to shake hers. "My apologies ma'am, I understood you knocked on my door and couldn't get a reply..... I thought Nick would be accompanying you."
"Well," she graced him with a beautiful smile. A man would have to be blind not to be affected by it and Heath wasn't blind. "I asked Nick to see to the final arrangements for our journey tomorrow. But between you and me," she said conspiratorially, "it was really a pretext to meet my new and very handsome brother-in-law."
She watched the young man blush. Did he realize the blush only added to his attractiveness? Perhaps not. Still it did all the same. She took out a lace fan from her purse and fanned herself, aware only of the sudden heat in the room. "Nick told me of your concerns about the haste of our wedding and so... Well, I hope you don't mind, but I thought if we got to know each other a little better I could help allay some of your fears."
Heath sat back down in the chair opposite, its position slightly set back from the rest of the room. He watched her silently as she poured tea for them both whilst he twirled his hat uncomfortably in his hands.
"My brother told you of my concerns?" He said presently, coughing slightly to clear his throat.
"Why yes, and I can quite understand your reasons for wanting us to wait. I'm afraid we were so caught up in the whirlwind of our romance we hadn't stopped to consider Nick's family."
"Or your own?" Heath said probing. He thought he saw a moment of unease cross her face.
"Unfortunately, I no longer have any family. They died when I was very young," she qualified and then moved swiftly on, "But I am very much looking forward to getting to know my new family and would dearly love, Heath," she paused, " to count you as a friend, as well as a new brother."
Heath placed his hat on the table and moved forward to accept the tea that he was offered. He was acutely aware it was not the only thing he was being offered as her small hand brushed teasingly along his.
"Won't you find it difficult to leave Carson City? I understand you have business interests and a house here. You'll find it very different in Stockton and on a working ranch." Heath, carefully watched for her reaction. She didn't bat an eyelid.
"Not all all, Heath. My interests, as you call them, can be managed in my absence and the house can be let until it is sold. Really, there's very little to keep me here and prevent me from marrying Nick" Her last statement was said almost as a threat. Both were aware that the other was verbally fencing around the other. She was certain Heath knew something about her. She sensed he didn't like her and that he didn't think she was good enough for his brother, but she was unaware still that this was the man that she had seen at the bordello.
Moving forward, she placed a hand on Heath's knee. "I promise to look after him Heath. I know you are concerned out of your love for him. You know? He is very lucky to have the two of us looking out for him."
Heath noticed she didn't remove her hand from his knee and so did it for her. She gave him a false smile.
"And what of your other interests, Lisette?"
"Other interests, Heath?" Was he now going to reveal his hand? He knew something. Just what, she didn't know.
Heath contemplated her beauty a moment. She was truly beautiful. Nick's type exactly. On closer acquaintance that beauty was becoming ugly. "Your bordello interests, ma'am? Won't you miss them?" He saw her shut the fan quickly and twist it aggressively in her hands.
Lisette Riveaux was never a woman to waste words on a lost cause. "How did you know?" she said without any emotion.
"I saw you the other night. Nick and I were paying a nightly visit to your establishment and I saw you coming out of one of the rooms."
So he was the man with Ellie. Laughing, she took a moment to smooth out her dress whilst she collected her thoughts.
"What do you intend to do with your information, Heath? It's clear that you haven't told Nick yet. He's is quite besotted with me, or hadn't you noticed?"
"I noticed." Heath replied flatly, refusing to be drawn any further.
Frustrated by his silence she quickly surveyed the room and rose from her chair. Her skirts swished as she moved across to his own chair and sat down on one of the winged arms.
"You know Heath?" she whispered seductively into his ear. He felt her warm breath and her slender hand ease down his chest and further below. "Nick would never need to know. This could be our little secret." Leaning down she captured his lips and kissed him passionately, savoring the moment and allowing herself to remember the man she'd seen lying naked upstairs. Heath didn't fight back as she purred into his ear. "You've only got to say the word and I can be yours."
Heath was drowning and succumbing willingly, his own lips responding to hers, his large hands finding her slender waist and drawing her into her lap as he leaned further into her kiss and its spiraling depths, ignoring the danger within.
Her hands held his face possessively, one breaking free to run wildly through his hair, loving the feel of it, wanting more of him.... wanting the man she had seen naked upstairs to make love to her. She felt his kisses find a path down her neck and then back up again up to her lips. So many men had trailed that path before but none like this.
Just before he pressed his lips to hers she saw hunger in his eyes, hunger for her. Breathlessly, she moaned into his mouth, "Take me upstairs."
Her words hung in the air. The kisses stopped and he moved his face away from hers. She felt herself held at arms length and saw a look of confusion and self-disgust sweep across his face, followed quickly by her old enemy, Guilt.
She fought against the resistance of his arms and claimed his lips once again. This time he kept his lips closed and he pushed her away. She clawed her way back desperate to resume contact, to possess him again. She'd lost.
Her suggestion they retire to his room had been enough to jolt him back to reality, for him to remember what he should have remembered in that first instance; the brother he was betraying. He'd almost given into her. Who was he fooling? He had given into her. His body had betrayed him and he felt nothing but disgust. As his head hung low against his chest she slapped him hard across the face, drawing blood from the right corner of his mouth.
"You'll learn Heath Barkley that I am not a woman to be crossed! I offered you everything. Everything! You'll soon learn what it is to reject me!" She got up and straightened her clothes.
As she settled her skirts, a chilling mantle of calm descended, belying what has just taken place. "I suppose you intend to tell Nick what you have learned about me. Be a might hard now."
"Nothing happened... it didn't go any further." Heath said trying to convince himself more than her.
"Nick's not to know that."
Heath's head jerked up. "He'll not believe you. I'll tell him the truth."
Her venom came up in full flow, almost choking her. Standing over him she let rip.
"Mark my words, Heath Barkley, Nick will choose to believe me over you! You think you can tell him of my bordello interests. No doubt you think you can dig deeper and find out about my sordid past, but one word from me about what just happened here and he'll cut you out of his life. I know how much you mean to each other as brothers. I also know how jealous he can be." She laughed. "Move on Heath, Your time has gone. I have him now!"