“Mother! I found it. I found the box of ornaments!” Nick bellowed as he thundered down the stairs with a carton box full of Christmas ornaments.
“Nick will you keep your voice down,” Victoria admonished. “Your brother is trying to sleep.”
“Oh sorry,” he apologized in a hushed voice. He set the box at the bottom of the Christmas tree that Victoria and Audra were both busy trimming.
“Nick could you see about straightening the trunk. It’s leaning too much to the right.” Victoria took a few steps backwards to study the angle. “That’s it. It’s perfect.”
“Bless you,” Victoria directed at Nick.
“I didn’t sneeze.”
Victoria glanced at Audra shook her head. “I didn’t either, Mother.”
A loud sniffle echoing in the back caused her to turn around. “Heath! Did Nick wake you?”
“I’m used to Nick’s bellows, Mother. Boredom woke me up,” he wheezed between coughs. He flumped down in the armchair to blow his stuffy red nose. “ I needed to get out of that room. I’d like to give you a hand with the trimming.”
Victoria hunched on her heels in front of her ailing son to run a hand on his forehead. “You still feel a bit warm.”
“I’m okay, Mother,” he assured with a lopsided grin and a sniffle.
She smiled back with a loving stroke on his flushed cheeks. She frowned with worry at the heat still exuding from his skin, a sign that the virus still had a stranglehold on its host. “You want some lemonade? Silas made some in the kitchen.”
“I’d love a cup.”
“I’ll get it for you, Heath,” Nick offered obligingly. “I was going to get myself some more eggnog anyway.”
“Nick that will be your fifth cup!” Audra remarked in disbelief.
“So?” he shrugged. “I’m working here. I need nourishment.” As Nick walked to the kitchen, a knock on the door halted his step. He went to open it. “Duke! Everything alright with the supplies?”
“Yes we just got back from town. Here’s the mail,” he gave Nick the stack of envelopes, “and this package is addressed to Heath.”
Nick balanced the small square box in the palm of his hand and eyed it suspiciously. “Thanks Duke. I’ll give it to him. By the way, you can tell the men they can take off now if they want. They’ll be paid a full day’s work.”
“Thanks Nick. They’ll sure appreciate that.” Duke tipped his hat in gratitude and left for the bunkhouse.
Nick scrutinized the box for any return address as he ambled back to the living room. “Heath, this package’s for you.”
“For me?” he rasped. “Who is it from?” He stood from his chair to move towards Nick.
“Don’t know. There’s no return address.” He handed the package to his curious brother whose brows creased in perplexity at the name Heath Thomson Barkley.
“Thomson Barkley,” he wondered to himself, confused as to who would be using both family names.
“Well, open it!” Nick egged on with a clap on the back that elicited a hacking cough out of Heath. “Oh sorry, Little Brother.”
“Nick, be careful,” Victoria chided.
“Maybe you should wait until Christmas morning to open it,” Audra suggested at Heath’s apparent hesitation.
“Nah! No fun!” Nick argued. “Besides he can’t wait, right Heath?”
Heath flashed Nick a wicked grin. “You’re right.” He ripped the brown paper wrapping and opened the box. He stared catatonically at the white-pearl necklace nestled in a cushiony velvety cloth. A tidal wave of emotions washed over him at the sight of the jewel he recalled giving to his fiancée on the eve of their wedding, a few hours before she was slaughtered. The shock sent his senses reeling and triggered a fainting spell. His head started whirling, followed by a deafening humming in his ears that caused him to lose consciousness.
“Wooooooooaaaaaaaa!” Nick caught Heath’s limp body before it hit the floor.
“I knew it was a bad idea for him to get out of bed. Nick you take him upstairs to his room. Audra you go ask Duke to send one of the men for Doctor Merar.”
“Right away, Mother.” Audra rushed out the door while Nick carried his insentient brother up to his room with Victoria in tow.
No sooner had Nick laid Heath in his bed that Victoria was bundling him up with blankets and a thick quilt. She asked Nick to pour water into the washbowl and dip a hand towel in it. After wringing it of its excess water he handed the damp cloth to his mother who gently applied it against Heath’s forehead. He startled awake at the touch and startled to cough.
“Shuuuuuuu…it’s okay Heath. Take slow breaths,” she coached with a mollifying tone of voice. “That’s it. Easy.” She gently stroked his cheek until the crisis passed.
“What happened?” he rasped, his panicked eyes darting between Victoria and Nick.
“You conked out,” Nick said.
“You took one look at the gem inside the package and you went out like a light.”
Heath let out a sigh of despair and sank deeper into his pillow. “Then it wasn’t a dream.” On the verge of tears, he turned his head away to hide his emotions.
“Heath, what is it?” Victoria asked with great concern. Her heart was aching at the tears that pearled down her son’s cheeks. “It’s that necklace. It brought back memories, didn’t it?” With a sniffle, he slowly turned his pained expression back to her. She raised his chin and willed his bleary eyes to hers. “It might make you feel better to talk about it.”
Heath shut his eyes to squeeze the last of the tears out before taking a deep breath. “It belonged to my fiancée.”
“Your fiancée!” Nick exclaimed. “You never told us you were engaged to be married.”
“No because I shut it out of my mind.”
Nick aired a quizzical frown at Heath’s confession. “I don’t understand.”
“She was murdered on the day we were to be wed.”
A small gasp of horror escaped Victoria’s lips at that horrifying revelation. Shocked and dismayed, she put a hand against her heart and took a deep breath. “Oh my Heavens!” she gulped. “Do you know who killed her?”
Heath shook his head. “I thought it might be someone who had it in for me and took revenge on her. So I stayed around hoping he would show up and we could face off in a duel of some sort. He never did. The sheriff of Cloverville never did find who it was that slaughtered her.” He paused to swallow the lump of emotions caught in his throat before he continued, “She was going to wear the necklace on our wedding day. When they found her…” he faltered to take a deep breath, “ her mutilated body, the pearls around her neck were gone.”
“Son of a….” Nick cut the curse with a fist on his mouth. He shut his eyes to curb the anger stirring within him.
“When was that, Heath?”
“About sixteen months before I came here. I had managed to bury the nightmare in the back of my mind but when I saw the necklace,” he paused to gulp and inhale deeply, “ it all came flooding back,” he coughed.
“I bet it did. Do you think whoever sent you that necklace could be tied to the murder?”
“No doubt about it. No one else could have had it except for the man or men who killed her. They addressed it to Heath Thomson and it wouldn’t surprised me if it came from Cloverville where Mary was killed.”
“By why now? Why seek you out after all this time?”
“I don’t know, Nick.”
Audra entered the room. “Jim is riding into town right now to get Dr. Merar,” she informed. She walked up to the bed and heaved at sigh of relief at Heath’s awareness. “You’re awake. You gave us quite a scare downstairs.”
“I’m sorry, sis. Guess I was weaker than I thought,” he said with a strained lopsided grin.
“Speaking of weak, we should let Heath get some rest before the doctor arrives.” Victoria stood from the bed and beckoned Nick and Audra out the door.
“If you don’t mind Mother I’d like to stay here for a spell.” Nick’s eyes spoke his mind as to his exact intentions.
Victoria read the concern in the hazel eyes and nodded her approval. She squeezed his hand and said smilingly, “Don’t tire him. We don’t want your brother making a turn for the worse.”
“I won’t,” he smiled reassuringly, squeezing back the hand.
Once Victoria left the room and closed the door behind her, Nick took a seat by Heath’s bed and poured him a glass of water.
“No thanks, Nick. I’m okay,” Heath waved the glass away and let out a small cough.
“Ok. Out with it.”
Heath’s first reaction to Nick’s straightforwardness was that of puzzlement. He stared at his big brother who sat patiently with arms crossed against his chest, waiting for him to speak his mind. His raised eyebrows wrung a flicker of a smile out of his blond sibling, for he knew exactly what Nick was thinking. “You know what I wanna do.”
“I have an idea. Three conditions apply though: First, not before Christmas; second not until you get rid of those sniffles and third…I’m coming with you.”
“This doesn’t concern you.”
“The hell it doesn’t!” Nick barked. “You’re my brother. What nags you nags me too. You hurt I hurt. You go I go. You got that?”
Nick flashed a smirk at Heath who nodded his gratitude before closing his eyes. It wasn’t long before he drifted off under the watchful eye of his concerned brother. Minutes later Victoria ushered Dr. Merar into the room and left him alone with his patient. Nick followed her out the door and down the stairs where he picked up his gun belt off the coat rack and buckled it around his waist.
“Nick, where are you going?” Victoria asked.
“I’m gonna ride into town to see if I can get a lead on where that package came from. I’ll be back in time for dinner.” He grabbed his Stetson, bent down to kiss Victoria on the cheek and walked out the front door.
Nick tethered Coco to the hitching post in front of the ticket station and walked over to the teller. “Hey Charlie!”
“Hi Nick! How’s Heath doing?”
“Still hacking his lungs out but he’ll survive.”
“I know he will,” Charlie chuckled. “You say hi for me.”
“Something I can do for you?”
“Yeah. The package Duke picked up earlier.”
“The one for Heath?”
“That’s the one. I wanna know where it came from. There was no return address on it.”
“Let me check.” Charlie reached up on the top shelf to retrieve a large black book and opened it to today’s deliveries. “Heath Thomson, there it is. It was a special delivery from Salt Flats.”
“Salt Flats?” Nick’s eyes instantly narrowed in confusion. “Are you sure?”
“That’s what it said on the slip.”
“Would you happen to have the sender’s name and address?”
“No, not here, but maybe they have that information in Salt Flats. I can enquire for you.”
“I’d be mighty obliged. I really wanna know who sent that package.”
“Sure thing, Nick. I’ll wire Slat Flats right away. Should take a few minutes.”
“I’ll mosey on down to the saloon to grab a beer. I’ll be back in a spell.”
As Nick started to walk away, a young auburn-haired, brown-eyed woman with a suitcase in hand stepped up to the teller. “Excuse me.”
“Yes ma’am. What can I do for you?”
“I was wondering if you could tell me where I might find Heath Thomson? I was told he lived around here.”
“Hold on a sec.” Charlie thrust his head out the window and shouted down the street. “Hey Nick! Nick!”
“This lady here is looking for Heath.” He retracted his head inside and addressed the woman, “That’s his brother.”
“His brother?” she exclaimed in surprise before turning to the dark-haired cowboy walking up to her with a suspicious look on his face. “You’re Heath Thomson’s brother?”
“That’s right. I’m Nick Barkley.”
“I’m Eleanor Rowland.”
Nick tipped his hat. “Nice to meet you, Miss Rowland. Why do you want to see my brother?”
“I wanted to know if he received the parcel I sent him.”
Nick shrunk back at the news. “You sent him that package?”
“Yes I did. Judging by your reaction it’s safe to assume he received it.”
“He got it alright. He conked out when he saw the necklace.”
“I imagine it was a shock.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“I tried inserting a note but seeing how it’s a fairly long story I preferred explaining it in person.”
“Well I’m on my way back to the ranch. I’d be happy to drive you there.”
“Very nice of you Mister Barkley. I just need to check in at the hotel first.”
“Alright.” Nick relieved her of her suitcase. “I’ll show you the way. It’s just two blocks down the street.”
Nick glanced back at Charlie. “’Bout that wire. You can forget it.”
Charlie nodded and went about his business as Nick escorted the alluring woman down to the hotel.
“My brother was pretty upset when he got that necklace. Said it belonged to the woman he was gonna marry.”
“You knew her?”
“Not personally but my brother did. He’s the one who killed her,” she said bluntly, causing Nick to freeze in his spot. She stopped and turned around to see her escort’s dark eyes boring into her. “That’s why I need to speak to him in person. That isn’t exactly something you can say in a letter.”
“I…I guess not,” Nick stammered. He drew in a deep breath to recover his bearings and collect his thoughts before resuming his walk down to the hotel alongside the captivating stranger that his instincts were warning him to keep at bay.
While Eleanor checked in at the hotel, Nick went down to the livery to rent a surrey. Once he hitched Coco to the buggy, he drove it down in front of the hotel where he assisted the pretty gal up the front seat.
They assailed each other with questions during the ride to the ranch. Ellie learned of Heath’s good fortune while Nick got a glimpse into his brother’s past and the great loss he suffered as a result of her brother’s sick infatuation to Mary.
Ellie gaped pop-eyed at the sizeable white mansion standing majestically before her. She marvelled at the impressive domain that stretched as far as the eyes could see. Although genuinely happy for Heath she nevertheless felt a twinge of envy at his good fortune, a feeling she willingly buried in her heart for fear of jeopardizing her chances at a possible romance with her old friend.
Nick assisted her down the surrey, then picked up her suitcase and escorted her to the front door. “Mother!” he shouted, the house resounding with his booming voice, prompting Victoria to hurry out of the living room with her hands waving about.
“Nick, tone down your voice. Heath is sleeping,” she chided.
“Is he alright?”
“He’s still running a slight fever. Audra is sitting with him.”
“Mother, this is Eleanor Rowland. She’s the one who sent Heath the necklace.”
Victoria’s shocking reaction to her identity elicited a chuckle out of Nick. “Mother, relax. She’s not the killer.”
Victoria flashed a slight embarrassing smile at her transparency.
“She came to Stockton to give Heath answers to his questions about Mary’s death.”
“I’ll sure he will appreciate that. Do you know w….” Victoria was cut in mid sentence by a loud banging and Audra bursting out of Heath’s bedroom.
“Mother, come quick!” she shouted frantically. “Heath is choking.”
Nick dropped the suitcase on the floor and dashed upstairs. The two women hiked up their skirts and followed suit.
Nick bounced into the room and shot straight to the bed where Heath was doubled over, gagging, his eyes popping out of their sockets and mouth gaping as he tried to suck in breaths. Nick sat on the bed and started clapping the choking man on the back. “Come on Heath, cough it out.” Heath shook his head frantically. His eyes took on a hunted look as he slowly felt himself drifting away. The deafening ringing in his ears drown out the voices urging him to spit the phlegm caught in his throat. The room became dark, then disappeared altogether when the curtain came falling down on him despite Nick’s desperate attempt to unclog his airway. His head slumped forward and his shoulders sagged.
“Nick, his lips are turning blue,” Audra shrieked.
Nick grabbed Heath from behind and massaged his neck, hoping to trigger a gulp or a retch. When all attempt failed, he held his sluggish brother with one hand around his waist while he reached inside his mouth to pluck out the mucus with his fingers. His method proved successful, eliciting one dry heave after another until Heath spewed out the last of the sticky substance. He gasped in a shuddering breath and let his head slump backward onto Nick’s shoulder.
“That’s it, breathe,” Nick encouraged while he wiped the sheen of sweat covering his brother’s face with his hand, brushing his damp hair back and rocking him gently to the sound of wheezy but even breathing. When the crisis passed, Victoria plumbed up the pillows and assisted Nick in easing Heath’s head on them. Nick then vacated his place for his mother to sit and dab at her son’s face with a wet cloth.
Audra was rooted to the spot with tears welling up in her eyes. She felt like breaking down and cry but couldn’t. Equally shaken by the close call, Nick wrapped his arms around her shivering body and held her in a tight clench, emboldening her to spurt it all out. She buried her face in his chest and wept. “I didn’t know what to,” she sobbed. “My God what if you hadn’t been there?”
“Shuuuuuuu, it’s okay, ” he mollified, rocking her in his arms. “Heath is fine now.”
Eleanor remained by the door trying to collect herself after witnessing the near death of her friend. She dared not step forward for fear of upsetting the family of her presence. As she gazed at the still form on the bed receiving tender ministrations from the silver-haired woman, she felt a pang of jealousy. How she longed for the loving touch of a mother while growing up. She and her brother had been dumped on their father’s cousin doorsteps one morning where they were raised in an abusive home. She and her sibling escaped the nightmare when she was barely twelve. He turned to a life of crime in order to put food in her stomach and clothes on her back. Her brother tasted blood at a very young age and continued to assuage his hunger throughout his life by slaughtering innocent souls standing in the way of his goals. His volatile temper was the cause of several accidental deaths for most of which he was hunted by the law. He had managed to elude suspicion on Mary Dobson’s death, but Ellie knew better.
She was roused out of her thoughts by a faint moan. She stretched out her neck to see Heath’s eyelids fluttering.
Nick and Audra stepped closer to the bed and leaned forward to smile their greetings at the glassy blue eyes. “You okay?” Nick asked.
Heath gulped and nodded feebly, moistening his lips as a sign of a need for water. Audra poured him a glass that she handed to Nick. He sat on the bed and slid one hand behind Heath’s head to hold it still while he assisted him in taking a draught of water. When Heath nodded his OK, he eased his head back onto the pillows. “What happened?” he rasped.
“You nearly choked to death, that’s what happened. I had to go in there and pluck the slime out myself,” Nick described with a slight disdain.
“Sorry,” Heath coughed.
“Ain’t nothing to be sorry about, Little Brother.” He tapped Heath lightly on the shoulder. “You rest now.”
“No. No sleep. I’ve had enough.”
“Feel like having a visitor then?”
Nick motioned to the doorway where Ellie was standing. “Hello Heath.”
“Ellie?” He squinted to make out her face. “Is that really you?”
“You remember me?”
“How can I forget the woman who was my lifeline?” He held out his hand to beckon her in. “Come closer. Let me look at you.” As if on cue, she approached the bed to clasp the hand offered. “You look positively radiant. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Neither have you.”
“Sorry. I must look like a mess.”
“Don’t apologize. Even sick you are still an attractively handsome man. ”
“What brings you to Stockton?”
She glanced at Nick standing to her right who nodded his consent. “The necklace.”
“I’m the one who sent it to you.”
Heath’s mind was sent whirling with dozens of conjectures. He closed his eyes and shook his head in bafflement. “I…I…I don’t understand.”
“It’s a long a story.”
“I bet it is,” Heath answered on a light scathing tone.
“Do you feel up to it, Little Brother?”
“Maybe it would be best to talk about it when you feel better,” Victoria suggested.
“Yes, I think you’re right.” When she tried to remove her hand from Heath’s he gripped it harder.
“No! I want to know now!” Heath snapped huskily, swallowing a grating cough threatening to gush out.
An ominous silence swept the room, prompting everyone to leave except for Nick whom Heath insisted be present to bear witness to Ellie’s account.
“You remember my telling you about my brother Jake?”
“The wanted man? Yes.”
“He’s the one who murdered Mary.”
Astounded by the news, Heath elbowed himself up in his bed and gaped. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I didn’t know at the time. He confessed to the murder just recently, a few weeks before a bounty hunter killed him. He told me about his infatuation with Mary and how he tried to convince her to run away with him and forget about you. He was obsessed with her. When she snubbed his advances, he…”
“He killed her,” Heath finished the sentence for the choked up woman.
She bit her lower lip and nodded. “He said that if he couldn’t have her, no other man would.”
Heath’s eyelids dropped like lead as his heart sank at the vision of his lovely Mary being slaughtered by this madman. He flumped his head down on the pillows and heaved a heavy sigh. He stared at the ceiling as he tried to contain his vials of wrath threatening to pour out.
“When I cleaned out his things at his cabin, I saw the necklace. I enquired around about you and heard you’d moved on to Stockton. I hesitated in sending you the item, knowing it would be a shock to you but I had to. I figured you needed closure.”
“You were right. I needed to know. It doesn’t lessen the pain but at least I know who did it and why.” Heath closed his eyes to squeeze out the tears. “God I loved her,” he sighed mournfully. The emotional lump caught in his throat triggered a bout of coughing that required Nick’s assistance in stopping it. When Heath caught his wind back, he turned to Ellie and asked, “Will you be in town long?”
“I was planning on staying for a few days. Why?”
“I would appreciate knowing a bit more about your brother and Mary.”
“Heath do you think that’s wise?” Nick asked with concern.
“Nick, I need to know everything that went on; otherwise I won’t have complete closure. Besides it’ll give me and Ellie a chance to catch on the last three years.”
“Alright,” Nick agreed reluctantly, eyeing Ellie suspiciously before crossing to the door. “If you need anything, just send your friend downstairs to get us.”
Nick grumbled his welcome and closed the door. He couldn’t shake the feeling that Eleanor Rowland was not the woman she pretended to be.
On Christmas morning, Nick assisted a wobbly Heath down the grand staircase. It felt good to be out of bed and dressed in clean clothes. The nasty virus still resided inside its host but potent medicine and extreme bed rest had loosened its grip in time to partake in the traditional Christmas family brunch.
“Look who’s up?” Nick happily announced to the family gathered in the living room.
Victoria met them halfway to clasp her son’s hand. “Heath! How are you feeling?”
“I’m better, Mother,” he assured with a weak smile, leaning forward to give her a kiss on the cheek before he allowed Nick to help him settle down on the couch. He protested when Nick grabbed his ankles to stretch his legs on the sofa.
“Ah, ah, ah! Doctor’s orders Little Brother. He agreed to one trip downstairs providing you lie down.”
Heath grumbled and folded his arms across his chest. “Can I at least open my presents?”
“Of course. I’ll bring them to you.” Nick mantled his brother’s form with the blanket that Victoria handed him.
“I don’t know why I all got dressed for if I’m gonna be wearing this blanket,” Heath griped.
“Quit yacking! You don’t want to end up back in that bed for another week, do ya?” Nick’s answer came in the form of an annoyed sigh. “I thought so.”
“Isn’t Ellie supposed to join us for brunch?” Heath queried, surprised that she wasn’t part of the assembled company.
“She is,” Audra informed, walking over to her brother with a gift in hand. “Jarrod is bringing her. They should be here shortly. Here,” she gleefully placed the present on Heath’s lap. “This one’s from me.”
He flashed her a grateful lopsided grin before he eagerly tore at the wrapping paper to open the box. His jaw dropped at the sight of a shiny-leathered saddlebag. He gingerly pulled it out of the box to marvel at the fine craftsmanship. “Audra, this is too much. Look at that work!”
“I was so anxious to see if you’d like it. Nick told me that you often mentioned you needed a new saddlebag.”
The front door opened, momentarily averting the gazes off Heath’s present as all eyes turned to the foyer.
“Here we are!” Jarrod ushered an enthrallingly beautiful Ellie into the living room. She wore an exquisite crinoline and silk peach dress with a heart-shaped neckline that Audra had helped her choose for the special occasion. Ellie’s glinting eyes raked the room for any sign of Heath. Her heart rejoiced at the sight of him lying on the couch. She greeted Victoria, Audra and Nick before making her way to the man whose opinion of her choice of clothes mattered above anyone else’s.
“Ellie, you look ravishing,” he enthused, his heartfelt compliment making the young woman blush and bow her head shyly.
“You like the dress? Audra helped me picked it out.”
Heath reached out to clasp her hand. “It’s beautiful. I’m so glad you accepted to extend your stay to celebrate Christmas with us.”
“I don’t have any family and you’re the closest friend I ever had.” Heath’s bewitching blue ocean eyes that stole her breath away and captured her heart mesmerized her. She was frozen to the spot, drowning in the genuine appreciation that his gaze was expressing.
In the background, Nick hawked to purposely interrupt the tender moment that for some unknown reason he found very disturbing. Victoria shot him a disapproving stare and with a slight toss of the head, she beckoned him to follow her into the kitchen.
“I will go see if Silas has finished making the eggnog. Nick, will you come with me, please?” she asked authoritatively.
No sooner had they entered the kitchen that Victoria scolded her son about his impertinence. “Why did you that?”
“Hawk on purpose to interrupt your brother and his lady friend?”
“I didn’t like the way they looked at each other.”
“Why Nick, you wouldn’t be jealous?”
“No f’course I’m not jealous!” he snapped, miffed by his mother’s remark. “I just don’t trust her.”
“Would your feelings have any relevance to the fact that she is the sister of the man who murdered your brother’s fiancée?”
“That and I don’t trust her, final! I have this gut feeling she’s here for more than just the necklace.”
“Yes, perhaps the other reason is that she wished to see Heath again. After all she did help him through his bereavement. They were the best of friends.”
Nick found it difficult to cast aside his unfounded suspicion. He had a sixth sense when it came to his little brother. Whenever a bell would go off, it usually meant trouble. The ringing was deafening and as hard as he tried he couldn’t turned it off. He heaved a long drawn-out sigh to rid himself of the last speck of annoyance he carried inside before he silently went to pick up the eggnog bowl sitting on the kitchen counter.
“Nick please, this is Christmas. Don’t make trouble for anyone. Let’s enjoy this time together in harmony. Besides Eleanor will be leaving in three days.”
Nick smiled reassuringly at his mother and nodded his assurance that he’ll be a good boy.
They walked back to the living room where Eleanor had Jarrod, Audra and Heath enthralled by tales of mischief-makers who stayed at her boarding house in Cloverville. Nick tried to join in the laugh but as hard as he tried his smile would come out jaundiced.
“Say Nick, I was wondering if you could replace me for a few days next week?” Heath asked from the couch where he was now sitting next to Ellie.
“Why? Where are you going?”
Heath flashed a friendly smile at Ellie and squeezed her hand. “I intend to ride back with Ellie to Cloverville and stay at her boarding house for a few days.”
“Oh!” Nick was shocked by the news, a reaction that Victoria quickly noticed in his stance. She stepped up to her dark-haired son and placed a hand on his arm as a reminder to remain composed. “Sure, no problem.”
“I was under the impression that you lived in Salt Flats,” Victoria remarked. “That’s where the package came from.”
“Yes Mrs. Barkley. I mailed the necklace from Salt Flats because I was there cleaning out my brother’s cabin. But that’s not where I live.”
“You…you don’t mind if I tag along on this trip?” Nick ventured to ask, his question receiving a disturbing stare from Ellie.
“No, I don’t see why not,” Heath shrugged. “But why?”
“Well I kind of wanna drop by Paul Crayton’s place on the way. There’s been talk of his having caught some great horse specimens and I thought maybe I could check them out,” he lied convincingly.
“Great idea,” Heath approved, not sensing the deceit in Nick’s voice contrary to Ellie.
At Heath’s request and Victoria’s hospitality, Ellie agreed to prolong her stay in Stockton for the duration of Heath’s convalescence. Victoria wanted Dr. Merar to give her son a clean bill of health before he could be permitted to travel to Cloverville. The wide-open spaces were beckoning him. He longed to poke his nose outside and walk the grounds with Ellie but was still too weak to stand on his own wobbly legs without assistance. Ellie eased herself into the role of nursemaid much to Heath’s delight and because of her soothing effect on his impetuousness, Victoria had no cause to hide his clothes like she had so many times before to keep him confined to bed. Ellie ensured Heath followed the doctor’s instructions to the letter.
If the blossoming romance was pleasing Victoria in was very unsettling to Nick. One stare into Ellie’s piercing cat-like eyes would sound his inner alarm; his brotherly instincts would scream ‘ devil in disguise’, urging him to heed her every move.
On the very day Heath was pronounced fit as a fiddle, the young Barkley invited his friend on a small tour of the ranch. After hitching up the buckboard and taking the picnic basket that Silas had prepared, he assisted his pretty companion in the front of the buggy and drove away under the wary eye of a concerned brother. So deep in thought was he that he didn’t hear the pad of footsteps behind him.
“Nick, what’s troubling you?” Victoria inquired of her son’s disquiet countenance.
“Same old thing. I don’t trust her.”
“Has she given you any reason to distrust her?”
“I just have this…this growing suspicion that she’s not what she appears to be.”
“Could it be that you are overreacting?” she opined with a knowing smile.
Nick chuffed out a thick breath. “Could be. It’s a nasty habit I can’t kick specially when it comes to Heath.
She laced her arm with his and gently leaned her head against his broad shoulder. “Eleanor is a wonderful girl. Think of what she did for your brother after Mary’s death. She kept him from lapsing into a depression. She was there for him. She never wavered.”
“I know. I should be thankful that she was such a good friend to Heath and still is. It’s selfish of me to begrudge them their pleasure.”
“If I promise not to let it show can keep at least hold some suspicion of her until I know for sure she’s on the level?”
Victoria lifted her head and with a hand cupping his chin, she said smilingly, “You wouldn’t have it any other way.” Nick tilted his head sideways to welcome his mother’s kiss on his cheek.