Announcing his arrival, Nick entered through the oak door, his hands full of a crate, his muscles rippling under his black shirt from the power used to take the box of wood into the parlor. Walking past the family members, he took the box to the end of the room which’d been cleared the day before. Conversation which stopped at his loud entrance, started again, this time it was full of curiosity and questions.
“Nicholas, what is in the crate?” asked Victoria, placing a kiss on her returning son’s cheek.
Smiling into her gray eyes, Nick boasted with pride, “This is the latest thing, Mother.”
Jarrod stood up from where he’d been examining the lettering on the side of the wooden crate, “Is this written in German, brother Nick?”
Audra and Gene were plying their older brother with questions, their curiosity at the surprise in this magical season, left the two youngest quivering with anticipation. Holding up his gloved hands, the rancher raised his voice, quieting the youngest in the room.
“You’ll know in a little while, if you’ll permit me some privacy. I’ll let you know when I’m done with this family surprise.”
Victoria asked pointedly, “You are planning to wait to reveal the surprise until all family members are present, correct, Nicholas?”
Biting back the automatic scathing remark on the tip of his tongue, Nick shrugged, “If he’s not here in time, so be it.”
Raising an eyebrow, Victoria placed her hands on her tiny waist, not moving from her spot and pinning her son with her look of reproach.
“Fine, Mother. I’ll wait til he’s here.” stated Nick, hazel eyes flashing. Satisfied, Victoria allowed herself to be shooed out of the parlor with Gene and Audra. Jarrod rolled his eyes at exasperation of Nick’s stubbornness before following the others, leaving Nick turning crimson with a simple statement.
“He has a name and it’s Heath, Nick.”
“Jarrod, just go so I can get started on this.” snapped Nick at his brother’s broad back, his joyous mood gone with the reminder of his newest sibling.
The blonde, a spitting image of his father’s brother, was still here. The blonde hadn’t left the ranch after these past months of grief, past months of struggle, past months of fighting his way into his family.
The dark haired rancher brother bristled and balked at the new relationship, the others in the family readily accepted with open arms while Nick hardened his resolve as time past. If Nick had his way only his real family would be sharing the Christmas season together.
Heath’s eyes were filled with indecision and his heart filled with longing as he worked on the last section of fence. Taking out his pocket watch, he sighed at the time, finding himself more hesitant to return to the ranch lately or rather more hesitant to return to the mansion he wanted so desperately to call home.
Home. The word was not a term he used to describe where he slept, the ranch fit better. It would never be home as long as there remained a remnant of pain, a remnant of denial associated with his presence.
Climbing up on Gal, he turned the Modoc and headed back to the mansion. Again, he felt the longing, the driving desire, the need for acceptance. Closing his eyes, he struggled against the strong need which overwhelmed him on occasion, frightening him with its intensity. He’d never felt anything so strong, anything as powerful as this need.
The need to hear Nick Barkley address him as brother, with the same tone of respect and acceptance he used for Jarrod and Gene, left the blonde shaking his head. Taking a deep breath, he nudged Gal into a trot, fighting the urge to bypass the large ranch and keep heading south instead.
Reaching the barn, Heath dismounted and groomed his faithful mount, smiling at Duke’s warm greeting. Speaking while the curry brush worked its way over the dark horse, Heath advised the foreman of his progress on the task Nick assigned him for the day.
Duke listened and held open the stall door as Heath exited. Closing the door, Heath leaned against it as the foreman suggested quietly, “Heath, you’re one of the bosses. You don’t have to explain your work to me. It should be the other way around.”
Laughing harshly, Heath retorted, “I’m not one of the bosses, Duke. Nor ever likely to be.”
The stark pain in the sapphire eyes shook Duke to his center being and he placed a comforting hand on the blonde’s shoulder, offering firmly. “He’ll come around, Heath. He always take the longest to wake up and smell the coffee. It’ll take some more time, is all.”
Pushing away from the stall door, Heath smiled slightly and patted Duke on the shoulder, “There are some mountains even the strongest men can’t climb, Duke. Night.”
Duke watched as the newest son shuffled across the expansive yard to the grand oak door. Heath stopped in front of the wood panel taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders, rolling his head around to alleviate the sudden build up of stress. Preparing himself mentally, Heath reached for the gold knob and opened the door.
Putting his hat and gunbelt on the round table in the foyer, he smiled slightly at the Barkley matriarch motioning him towards the study. Puzzled he walked over and she lead him into the room with the other members who smiled at their newest member.
“Heath, do not go into the parlor after you come downstairs from cleaning up. Nick’s in there and he’s got a family surprise to show us.” smiled Victoria keeping her hand on his arm.
“Nick wants me there?” asked Heath surprised. His eyes studied the gray eyes of the tiny woman beside him, the truth revealed in them and he sighed. “I see, ma’am. I’m tired so I’ll just go to bed.”
Turning to leave, Heath was stopped by the firm grasp on his arm and the steely gray eyes, her voice firm as her hold on him. “Heath, you are a member of this family as much as any of us. I want you there to partake in everything this family does. Together as a family. You will clean up and you will be there with the rest of us!”
Jarrod bit the inside of his lip to stop the chuckle threatening to escape at the shocked look which flew across Heath’s face at his mother’s words. She hadn’t spoken to him in such a manner since he’d been here. It was the manner of a mother speaking to a child.
For a brief moment of time, Heath was taken back to Strawberry and to a time when another tiny woman’s firm tone of voice was heard. Realizing he’d been staring down at his stepmother, Heath nodded and whispered before leaving to clean up, “Yes, ma’am.”
Victoria sighed and watched the tan vested back leave, his steps taking him from her sight and she leaned back when Jarrod appeared behind her, holding her shoulders with his hands.
“They need time to work it out between them, Mother.” suggested Jarrod quietly, his rich deep voice soothing to her worried soul, his words only for her ears.
Reaching up and holding the hands on her shoulders, she whispered, “How much longer do you think this will go on? A week, two weeks, two months? I think Nick is running out of time, Jarrod and then where will we be left if Heath leaves?”
“I wish I knew, Mother. I wish I knew.” admitted Jarrod with a whisper placing a kiss on her silver hair before walking his mother to the sofa and handing her a sherry.
An hour later the family was growing restless of waiting, Gene napped in the chair, having already received Nick’s wrath once when he shouted for him to hurry up.
Heath stood and looked out the french doors, his eyes taking in the stars in the clear sky, his mind on everything but the house he was in. Victoria and the others turned when Nick came to the door, exclaiming they could all now enter the parlor. Audra and Gene rushed out of the study with Jarrod following, admonishing the two to wait for their mother and brother. Victoria set her glass down and waited, seeing Heath hesitate before he offered his arm as one of her sons would have done had they been there in the room.
“Why, thank you, Heath.” smiled Victoria taking his arm and placing a kiss on his cheek, winking. “If we lag behind, do you think Gene and Audra will have a fit?”
Laughing, Heath’s eyes sparkled and he grinned, “If ‘havin’ a fit’ was the name of a racehorse, I wouldn’t bet against it, ma’am. It’d be a sure thing.”
Enjoying the laughter and sparkle in the blue eyes, Victoria joined him in his moment of merriment and they walked out to the foyer. Jarrod saw the flash of jealousy on Nick’s face and raised an eyebrow in ponderance. Gene and Audra fidgeted with excitement, the two danced around like there were ants in their britches.
Nick stopped the family from entering and cleared his throat. “This is said to be the rage in all of Europe and the east coast. It’s a new thing which is supposed to be a large booming business in a few years. I’m proud to say we are the first in Stockton to be the proud owners of a genuine Artificial Christmas Tree.”
Leading the way into the foyer, everyone stopped to stare at the tree at the end of the parlor. Walking closer, the mouths of the viewers stayed open, their eyes wide as they took in the spectacle in front of them.
Nick was proudly proclaiming these new trees were metal wires forming the distinctive Christmas tree shape. The branches made of metal also were covered with goose, turkey, ostrich or swan feathers dyed green to resemble the pine needles. This tree could be used year to year. All you had to do was take it apart and store it away.
Victoria couldn’t take her eyes from the monstrosity wondering how she was going to get Nick to take it down and replace it with a genuine fresh smelling tree without hurting his feelings.
Audra couldn’t stop the tears which sprang into her eyes at the sight of the hideous tree before her. Reaching out with a shaky hand, she cringed at the feel of the feather needles.
On his hands and knees, Gene intently examined the tree from the underside, wondering why in the world someone would ever want something like this instead of the real thing. Who would think to build such a thing? He also wondered why in the world did Nick think it was nice to look at.
Jarrod felt a rush of anger surge up in him and he glared at Nick who was unaware of the scathing look. Every year the brothers would go to the mountains, stay in the cabin and cut down the best tree they could find for their mother. It was a Barkley tradition which now seemed to have been passed over this year. Passed over so one brother would not have to spend time with a brother he didn’t want to acknowledge.
Heath crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head from side to side, his sapphire eyes running over the tree from bottom to top, top to bottom. He could hear the excitement and pride in Nick’s voice and sighed to himself. He’d like to be able to share the excitement of the moment with his older brother but knew it wouldn’t be received well. Hell, he was almost willing to lie and say the ugly tree looked beautiful if Nick asked him to.
Audra brushed the tears from her cheeks and whined, “Nick, this doesn’t even look like a real tree.”
“Sure it does, Audra.” assured Nick, placing an arm over her shoulders. “You just need to put your decorations on it and the star on top.”
Snorting, Gene shook his head, “Nick, even that won’t help. Maybe its fine for some fancy folks but I like a real tree that smells like a tree. This one smells like paint.”
“Heath, what do you think?” asked Audra, her eyes glistening with tears as she looked to her newest brother for his opinion.
“What would he know about finer things? He grew up in the streets. He’s probably never seen a decorated tree before.” sneered Nick, the words leaving his mouth before his mind comprehended the hatefulness behind them.
“NICK!” shouted Victoria and Jarrod, Gene and Audra stared at Nick, incredulous at the tone of voice directed to their new brother.
Heath’s head snapped up and his hands clenched, furious blue eyes nailed into the hazel eyes filled for the first time with apology. The younger man’s words, icy, crisp and cutting.
“He didn’t have to be born with a silver spoon in his mouth to know what’s real and what’s not! I’ve seen a decorated tree with candles, bulbs shining and sparkling from the reflection of the candles, the star on the top reminding us of the babe’s birth. The Christmas season is a time of love, peace and honor. A time for family, a time of compassion. You, Nick Barkley, should know above all else this is the real meaning of this season. NOT the gifts and certainly NOT who has Stockton’s first hideous metal tree made out of feathers! ”
Turning, Heath strode from the room and up the stairs, the mansion shook from the velocity of the door banging against its frame. The iciness in the room stayed as the family filed out, one by one until only Victoria and Nick remained.
“Heath is your brother, Nicholas. You can fight it all you want but it is the truth. Only a fool would fight the truth.” stated Victoria leaving her son standing in the parlor, his brow furrowed and his head shaking at the venom which’d left his mouth in a season of giving, a season of caring.
Long after he denied entry into his room after the knocks on his bedroom door, Heath stood at the window, his mind not resting, his stomach in knots. He’d been furious at the sneer of contempt behind the declaration of Nick.
It was not so much the words as the inflection of the words. All his life, he’d heard the same emotion woven in with the words spoken to him. All his life, he tried to develop a thick skin to ward off the hurt others wanted to inflict with their tongues. All his life and it seems things never change.
Moving to open his closet, he sat on the wood floor and didn’t fight the tears which sprang into his eyes. Illuminated by the bright moonlight shining through the uncurtained window, on the floor were six colorfully wrapped gifts, the ribbons ended in large bows on the top of the gifts. It was three weeks til Christmas and his gifts to let his family know what was in his heart were all complete.
Even in the midst of the turmoil, the fights, the shouted words, the throwing of fists, he’d been looking forward with anticipation and giddiness to participating in the holidays with his newly found family. He’d been looking forward to sharing in their traditions, sharing his own past holiday traditions and to seeing their faces on Christmas morning when gifts were exchanged.
He loved this season.
For he was a person who looked forward to giving, looked forward to bringing joy and happiness into the eyes of others. He loved this season for it’s magic and warmth, the blanket of love it would wrap around a person. He loved this season for the kindness to humanity it stood for, the hope it brought to the world.
He loved this season, this holiday.
Leaning the side of his head against the closet door frame, Heath closed his eyes and smiled remembering the Christmases shared with his mama, Rachel and Hannah. Gifts made, never bought, were exchanged with each other. The time spent working on the gift with each sew of a needle, each knit or crocheted stitch, each carving of the wood reflected the love they had for each other. Even after he earned money, the tradition of making gifts remained.
Each year they had a tiny Christmas tree. Heath would drag the tree home from the mountains and their small family would decorate with ornaments they made together, sitting at the table and laughing, sharing the good memories of that year and the past with each other. Throughout the year, if any of them found a piece of cloth, a piece of metal or anything which could be used in this yearly tradition it would be put in a box and stored away for that special day of togetherness.
The reading of the story of baby Jesus on Christmas eve, the waiting up until the darkest of the night to search for the star which lead the way. Christmas morning, the singing of carols and hymns as dinner was prepared, the holding of hands and giving thanks for each other, were recovered from his memory. The love they felt for each other would grow tenfold under the cover of the magical season or so it seemed.
Letting the tears fall from his eyes and run down his cheeks, Heath felt the loss deep within him. The feeling of love, the feeling of togetherness was what he missed the most. The three fine ladies who raised him were gone and he was alone. He was surrounded by family, but not completely wanted there, not completely welcomed.
Yes, he’d been quivering with anticipation, looking forward to the holidays, the family togetherness and the magic the season wove hoping for a miracle…receiving no miracle, receiving only pain and anguish instead.
Long after the rest of the family left the parlor and dinner was served without Heath at the table, Nick sat with his head in his hands in front of the fireplace.
He loved this season, this holiday.
He loved watching as his family opened the gifts he found for them, the joy in their eyes, the happiness from the thought behind the present. This season offered so much more than all the riches in the world combined. It was magic, it was mystical, it was loving, caring and above all giving.
Yes, Nick Barkley, Stockton rancher, brother, son, kid at heart loved this holiday above all others and yet, as he sat alone with the night passing, the warmth of the room dwindling away from the lack of fire burning in the large fireplace he felt as if he were the only one on the face of the planet. He felt terribly alone, his thoughts causing him physical pain, his eyes teared with salty drops of moisture.
In the start of the magical season of love, he actively wounded another person, not with weapons but with words. All he could hear were the venom laced words he spewed out and the icy coldness in Heath’s response. The large man felt his body shake, his heart searched deep within itself at the knowledge he’d lashed out causing the younger man such pain.
Searching within himself, he came to the realization and understanding he’d been wrong. He’d been wrong to slur the insult at the innocent man. He’d been wrong to fight against him. He’d been wrong to take his anger out on him instead of their father who wasn’t here. He’d been wrong to feel jealous at the sight of his mother on his arm, the sound of laughter they shared and the love in the eyes of his siblings when they looked at the blonde. He’d been wrong to cut his brother to the quick.
Seven months and this was the first time he’d thought of Heath in this way. It had been seven months of turmoil, seven months of grief when it should have been seven months of happiness, seven months of brotherly bonding, seven months with the blonde by his side instead of pushing him back away as if he carried a plague.
Wiping the emotion from his eyes, Nick stood up and glanced once more at the newest rage sweeping Europe and the east coast, shaking his head as if seeing the object for the first time.
‘Damn, that is ugly.’
Leaving the parlor and slowly climbing the staircase, he stopped outside the room next to his and hesitated when no light appeared under the door. Realizing how late the hour was, he lowered his hand and promised himself in the morning he’d speak with his brother, Heath.
In the seven months since the blonde arrived in the valley, he’d worked and labored on his family’s ranch, relishing the manual labor, loving the land beneath his feet. During this time, his friendships with a few select people grew and flourished. His gentle nature, his caring for people was a trait inherited from his mother.
In the seven months since he arrived, he spent countless hours helping those less fortunate, never asking for anything in return, only happy to be able to relieve those struggling with a burden. He knew the burdens they faced, he’d experienced it himself. He didn’t give money, he gave of himself, his talent for building, creating and fixing things broken.
Rising earlier than normal since he hadn’t really gone to sleep, Heath sat in the kitchen sharing breakfast with Silas. The older black man became one of the blonde’s closest friends and his sturdiest supporter during the past months. Their quiet early morning conversations ranged from the bible to the wonders of the world. Today was the day, Heath would visit the church Silas attended to repair the bell tower on the steeple.
Silas saw the saddlebags in the young man’s hands when he entered the kitchen and took his place across the table from him. Heath saw the question in the dark eyes and sighed, opening one of the leather bags and pulled out a brightly wrapped package, placing it before the older man.
“Mr. Silas, this is for you. I’ll be leaving today and wanted to give this to you myself.” said Heath quietly. “I thank you for the hand you extended in friendship and will never forget it.”
“Mr. Heath, where’s ya’ going?” asked Silas realizing the day he feared would happen was here, the day the middle son would drive away the newest.
“First, I’ll be fixing the bell tower as promised and then I’m heading south.” informed Heath fighting the sadness filling him as he stood, nodding at Silas’ request for him to wait. Smiling at the older man who returned a few minutes later with a small package which he placed in the blonde’s hand. Holding onto the strong hand after he placed the gift in it, Silas blinked back his tears after the blonde drew him into a hug.
“Bye, Mr. Silas.” whispered Heath turning quickly, fleeing out the backdoor of the mansion and leaving the older man sending his prayers upwards for the special man sent to them, praying for a miracle to stop his flight.
As Heath was climbing up onto the roof of the church with his tools in a burlap bag, the Barkley family gathered around the dining table. Silas entered the room carrying the food in, fighting the tears in his eyes when he gazed upon the empty chair across from Nick and beside Audra.
“Where’s Heath?” asked Nick, his stomach yearning for food, his eyes on the empty chair across from him. “He never sleeps in.”
Victoria jumped when Silas unceremoniously and uncharacteristically roughly placed the silver container of bacon and sausages on the table. Surprised at the emotion in the older man’s eyes, the grand lady put a hand on his arm after she pushed her chair back and stood.
“Silas, what’s wrong?” questioned Victoria, her words shifting all eyes to the two people. “What is it?”
Taking a breath, Silas shook his head, “Mr. Heath’s gone. He done left tis morn’.”
“WHAT?” exclaimed Nick, his face turning gray from the sick feeling in his stomach.
“I hope you’re happy, Nick!” shouted Audra rushing out of the dining room in tears. Gene and Jarrod glared at their brother, neither man happy with this morning’s development. Jumping out of his chair, Nick stood by the older man and asked earnestly.
“Where’d he go? Silas, do you know? Please, tell me.” pleaded Nick.
Seeing something in the hazel eyes he hadn’t seen since the blonde arrived, Silas was urged by Victoria also to relay what he knew.
“Heath was gonna fix ta church steeple fore headin’ south.” stated Silas, his words sending Nick running from the dining room with Jarrod and Gene following.
The three brothers rushed into the barn, saddling their horses and leaving the ranch in a flurry of dust. Duke watched from the bunkhouse porch, leaning against one of the pillars and wondering if the brothers would be able to catch up with the man who’d left hours earlier.
None of the brothers spoke, their horses galloping towards town, each man sending up the same prayer, asking to be in time to stop the brother who was leaving. Heath finished nailing the last board in place and put the tools in the bag, pushing himself up onto his feet. If the blonde’s feet had been on the ground, he’d have been able to prepare for what was about to occur. If his feet were on the ground, he’d have felt the tremor growing beneath the solid ground.
As it was, Heath was unprepared for the shaking of the building which caused him to loose his footing and slide on the shingles slick with morning dew as he made his way across the top of the steep roof. Reaching the church yard, the three men below steadied their mounts, their hearts leapt in their throats at the sight of their falling and tumbling brother.
“HEATH!” screamed Nick, terror in his voice overriding the sound of the earth shaking and the two brothers’ shouts by his side.
Unable to stop his slide, Heath tumbled down the steep roof towards the edge. His mind remembered for a brief moment how he always wondered how a bird felt during flight and thought he’d be finding out soon. The scream of his name with Nick’s voice startled him as his hands reached out and fingers grabbed onto the gutter at the edge of the roof.
Extreme blinding pain shot through his left shoulder as he hung there suspended thirty feet above ground, swaying, crying out a guttural sound from the anguish. The pain in his limb quickly becoming unbearable and he reached up with his right hand, his fingers missing the gutters edge two times before latching on.
Hanging off the side of the building, the roaring in his ears subsided slightly and he realized someone was calling his name. Holding on with both hands, he tried to put his feet against the building and raise himself to no avail, the bottoms of his boots were too slick.
“HEATH, HOLD ON!” shouted Gene from below, his words not receiving response, his hands clenching at the helplessness he felt, deathly afraid for the brother above him.
Unable to keep the weight on his left shoulder any longer, Heath let his left hand loose and screamed. “NICK! HURRY, NICK!”
“HERE, HEATH. I’M HERE!” called Nick from above him. “HOLD ON!”
Jarrod wondered if the blonde realized he’d called for the man he so wanted acceptance from, wondered if Heath realized what he’d just done, wondered if they’d reach him before his strength left him.
“I CAN’T!” called Heath, the pain in his voice evident to his brothers. “NICK!”
“YES, YOU CAN!” commanded Nick tying the rope around his slim waist.
Throwing the rope around the steeple, Jarrod wrapped it around his body and braced his feet against the wooden structure, nodding at Nick who did a controlled slide to the edge of the roof on his backside.
“HEATH! ONE SECOND MORE!” shouted Nick, lowering himself beside the blonde, Jarrod using all his strength on the rope and the leverage the steeple provided.
Nick wrapped his arms around Heath and held onto him tightly. The pressure on his injured left arm made Heath cry out and Nick called up as the blonde passed out in his arms.
The dead weight of his brother was a struggle for Nick to hold onto. Keeping his fingers entwined, he clenched his teeth and focused on holding on, not letting go, praying they’d both reach the ground without falling to it.
Slowly releasing the length of rope, the two men were lowered to the ground where Gene stood with the minister and Dr. Merar who’d witnessed the fall and life grab onto the roof’s gutter. Reaching up, the three men took the limp man from Nick’s arm and lowered him to the ground. Nick called up to Jarrod and knelt beside Heath on the ground.
Howard quickly examined the blonde and stated, “Dislocated left shoulder, Nick. I’m gonna pop it back in place while he’s unconscious.”
Nodding, Nick watched the physician pulling on the limb and working it until it returned to its natural spot, binding it in place to hold it still. Looking up at the feel of a hand on his back, Nick was surprised to find Jarrod beside him.
“How’d you get off the roof so fast?” puzzled Nick.
“Nick, it’s been at least fifteen minutes since you hit the ground.” said Jarrod quietly, lowering his eyes to the blonde whose head was moving. “He’s waking up.”
“Heath!” called Nick running his hand over the blonde hair, smiling at the slightly opened eyes.
“I must be in hell.” groaned Heath, his body throbbing unmercifully.
Jarrod chuckled and Howard smiled at the look on Nick’s face before taking a bottle out of his bag and leaning over Heath. “You dislocated your shoulder, Heath. It’s going to be painful and I want you to take this laudanum.”
Shaking his head, Heath pushed the spoon away, “No, don’t need it.”
“Heath, take the pain killer.” said Nick softly, his hand on Heath’s right shoulder.
“No.” groaned Heath trying to push himself up with one hand, unable to from the darkening edges of his vision which suddenly closed his eyelids.
“Stubborn..mule headed..just wait til you’re awake again.” mumbled Nick pulling the smaller man to a sitting position and holding him against his chest. “Gene, get the horses. Jarrod, you and Gene hand Heath up to me, we’ll take him home.”
Jarrod smiled at the protectiveness in Nick’s gestures, his words and in his eyes. Howard handed Jarrod the bottle of laudanum and advised of the dosage. Gene returned with the horses and within a matter of minutes all three brothers were leaving town, headed back to the ranch.
Nick spoke quietly into the ear of the blonde closest to him, his arms holding Heath tightly in front of him. The sight of the near death of the blonde left him shivering from the chill running up his spine.
Nick knew the moment Heath woke back up, the tension in the blonde made his body rigid and his right hand grabbed the reins, stopping Coco. Sitting forward, Heath clenched his jaw and tried to look back over his shoulder at the man behind him. He’d known who it was from the mount and the leather gloved hands on the arms which were wrapped around, holding him in the saddle.
“I can ride.” growled Heath angrily, his right hand gripping the saddle horn.
Nick looked over at Jarrod who sighed and nodded, neither brother wanting to have a discussion out on the trail, preferring just to get their injured member home.
“Okay, Heath.” replied Nick, his voice calm and soothing. “Gene, bring up Gal for Heath.”
Heath frowned at the tone of Nick’s voice, the voice was void of anger, void of rebuke. Two leathered hands helped the one armed cowboy off Coco and up onto his own horse. Nick waited til Heath was settled before patting the jeaned leg and mounting Coco.
Jarrod and Gene looked down, their eyes on the dusty trail, both unable to keep the smiles off their faces at the mixed look of puzzlement, confusion and wariness on the blonde’s. Nick smiled into the sapphire eyes and motioned for him to lead the way to the ranch.
Nudging Gal with his heels, Heath glanced again at Nick, the frown deepening the furrows in his forehead. The setting down of each of the hooves making him realize how good the soft bed was going to feel. Heath sucked in his breath at the pain shooting through him as they neared the ranch.
The pain in his body certainly had not overridden the questions in his mind. Every once in a while, he’d glance at Nick who was riding on his right and wonder if he’d hit his head on the way off the side of the church, trying to remember what exactly happened and how he only ended up with a dislocated shoulder. Suddenly, Heath stopped Gal and Nick quickly asked as he looked at his blonde haired, paining brother.
“What’s the matter? Heath?”
Closing his eyes, Heath realized the thought that’d been nagging on him, the thought which’d been caressing his mind when the pain wasn’t overwhelming him.
“Heath!” exclaimed Nick, reaching over and putting a hand on the blonde’s back, glancing over at Jarrod on the other side.
Opening his eyes, Heath wiped a hand over his face, his voice tired while he questioned, “Why, Nick? Why’d ya’ do it?”
“Do what?” replied Nick, not sure exactly what Heath was asking, not sure if he was talking about the past seven months or the past twenty four hours. “Heath?”
Shaking his head to clear it of the darkness threatening again, Heath whispered, “I..don’t”
Nick grabbed onto his right arm when Heath swayed in the saddle, his paling face was now sweating from the onslaught of pain. Jarrod jumped down and climbed up behind the injured man, pulling him back against him, reassuring his younger brother. “We’re almost home, Heath.”
Shaking his head, Heath mumbled before letting the pain take him away, “Not..my..home.”
Jarrod glanced over, the wounded anguished look in the hazel eyes of Nick telling him the depth of pain the mumbling caused. Nick reached over and squeezed Heath’s hand, his voice quivering.
“It will be, little brother.” promised Nick.
Moving forward again, the three men breathed with relief as they entered the ranch yard and stopped in front of the mansion. Duke ran over at the sight of the double ridden horse, reaching up and freeing Jarrod of his burden. Raking his eyes over the unconscious man, the foreman looked up into the hazel eyes of his boss.
“Nick, you didn’t, did you?” groaned Duke, afraid to hear the answer.
“No! He almost fell off the Baptist church roof.” explained Nick. “There was an earthquake and Heath stopped his fall by grabbing onto the gutter. Any damage here from the quake?”
“We didn’t feel an earthquake, Nick. Nothing happened here.” stated Duke helping Nick carry Heath into the house, the women and Silas rushing up the stairs to prepare his bed.
Placing Heath in the soft bed, Duke left the family to themselves, hoping the morning would find the boy still with them. Jarrod and Nick explained what happened after they readied Heath and covered him with his sheets.
Victoria closed her eyes in a brief prayer of thanks, brushing her fingers through the blonde hair. Heath stirred under her touch, his eyes opening and taking in the concerned faces gathered around him.
“Sorry, ma’am.” sighed Heath trying to push himself upwards. Her small hand pushing him back gently onto the pillows and holding a spoon of laudanum in front of his mouth. The others watched the battle waged between the two sets of eyes, gray and sapphire eyes stared into each other, the gray eyes won and the medicine was administered.
Nick sat by the bed, the painkiller taking the blonde quickly into sleep. His eyes never left the man lying prone, bandaged and still. Nick was waiting for his brother to wake. He was waiting to right his wrongs, to explain the feelings in his heart to the man he’d almost lost.
Moaning softly at the pain flaring in his injured shoulder, Heath reached up and swiped a hand over his face before opening his eyes and staring at the man in the chair beside the bed.
“Nick.” mumbled Heath, slowly pushing the blankets down and moving his legs to the side of the bed.
Rushing over, Nick stood in front of the blonde, his fists resting on his hips. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Snorting, Heath used his right hand to hold himself in a sitting position on the side of the bed, his eyes closing for a brief moment while he gathered himself. Nick shook his head and crossed his arms, cocking an eyebrow when the blue eyes glared at him.
“What do you want?” asked Heath, his mind preparing himself for the return to normalcy of Nick’s feelings he’d expected upon their return to the ranch.
“I want to know where you think you’re going.” stated Nick, not moving and blocking the path to the bedroom door.
“I’ll go anywhere I damn well please.” snapped Heath, his mood of the moment as dark as the night which showed outside his window. “But for now, I plan on going to the water closet. Okay with you warden?”
Biting back the retort which sprang to his tongue, Nick nodded and stepped back from the bed, realizing the usually calm, gentle man he’d witnessed in the past seven months was hurting and in pain. Also add to the equation his confusion at Nick’s presence, the dark haired man received a rush of guilt for the time they could have spent as brothers and not adversaries.
Heath frowned at the emotions in the hazel eyes and shook his head before pushing off the bed, his body swaying from the residual effects of the laudanum and dizziness. He felt the strong hands grab onto him and steady his body.
“Easy, little brother.” warned Nick gently hearing a sharp intake of breath from the man he was holding. Looking at the pale face, he saw the shock in the blue eyes before the man pulled the curtains and shut him out. “Here let me help you.”
Shocked, stunned, elated, wary, yearning…these heavy emotions rushed through Heath at the two words which had stolen his breath and almost sent him to the floor in surprise. Taking a shaky breath, he gathered his resolve and displayed his poker face, not sure if the man beside him had a momentary slip of the tongue or did he really mean to bestow the two word title.
Nick knew he was responsible for the emotions he saw and promised as soon as Heath was back in bed, they were going to have a long talk or he hoped Heath would listen as he talked.
Ten minutes later, Nick closed the bedroom door and turned the chair around to straddle it, his forearms resting on the back while his eyes took in the blonde sitting up against the headboard.
“What?” whispered Heath straightening out the blanket feeling as if he were a rabbit and Nick the wolf.
“I’m sorry, Heath.” said Nick, his voice loaded with apology.
Glancing over, the blonde nodded before looking away, shrugging his right shoulder. “For what?”
“You were right, the tree is ugly, or what did you say it was?” prompted Nick. “What was the word?”
“Hideous.” corrected Heath glancing down at the sling on his arm. “Nobody said it was ugly.”
Smirking, Nick nodded in agreement. “No, but it sure as the hell is, don’t you think?”
“Why ask me? You haven’t cared for my opinion the past seven months.” snapped Heath. “What do you want, Nick?”
Seeing the anger and hurt in the blue eyes, Nick sighed and left the chair. Moving to the bed, he sat beside the younger man and smiled slighty.
“I was angry for what you represented. You were a reminder of the wrong our father committed against his marriage vows, against mother.” admitted Nick, holding up a hand to stop the words Heath was preparing to unleash.
“I was also jealous. Jealous of the love and attention you were receiving from mother and my brothers and sister. My family. I saw you as a threat, as an enemy trying to steal them from me. A grown man was afraid and used that as an excuse to lash out. I was wrong. You’re not a threat.”
“I’m not trying to steal anything from you, Nick.” sighed Heath. “I’m still planning on leaving as soon as I can. I don’t fit in here.”
“YES YOU DO!” bellowed Nick before running his hand through his hair. “Those are my words, not yours. You belong here in this family, on this ranch as much as any of us. I’m to blame and I should have done this seven months ago.”
Suspicion flared in the blue eyes before he inquired, “Done what?”
Nick held out his hand and motioned for the blonde to grab it. The warmth created by the combining of the two hands was felt by both and a wide smile spread across Nick’s face.
“Welcome to the family, brother Heath.”
Heath stared into the hazel eyes welcoming him, the anger, the fury, the pain of his arrival and presence was missing. Only acceptance reflected in their depths. His heart pounded in his chest, his stomach lurched and he briefly hoped this wasn’t a dream.
Firmly grasping the hand in his, Heath tilted his head slightly and drawled, “You must have done something good this year, Nick.”
Nick puzzled at the statement, “What are you talking about? I don’t follow you.”
“You must have done something good to get me as a Christmas present this year.” elaborated Heath innocently releasing the hand he was holding and leaning back against the pillows.
Smirking, Nick chuckled, “Whatever it was, believe me, I’m thankful. I’m just sorry it took so long for me to see you as my brother and not an enemy.”
Heath looked down and winced at the pain in his shoulder, deep in thought for a few minutes before glancing back up and sighing. “I gotta know, Nick. How long will it last? A week, a month, a year? How long til you get tired of hearing snide remarks about the bastard brother sired by your father? How long til you get tired of the looks the rest of your family has been receiving?”
“Our family, Heath.” corrected Nick brusquely, glaring into the sapphire eyes, daring him to contradict the truth. “You’re my brother and that’s all there is to it!”
“Up til now, you haven’t seen it cause you haven’t been looking or listening. The real world is tainted and you’ve just taken off your blinders. Are you sure you want this Nick? Are you sure you can handle it? Cause I’m not so sure.” stated Heath quietly, clenching his jaw as his shoulder throbbed more with the wearing off of the pain killer. “It’s not always easy to turn the other cheek and let things roll off your back like water does on a duck’s.”
Standing up, Nick poured a dose of medicine and handed it to the blonde, giving him a water chaser to alleviate the foul taste of the amber colored liquid. Sitting back on the bed, Nick nodded in agreement.
“You’re right, Heath. I haven’t been paying attention cause I just wanted you gone and I looked the other way. I didn’t care how people were treating you or what was said. I didn’t even pay attention when the others talked about you. I was wrong and well, no more little brother. I know what’s right and you’re staying! Anybody who don’t like it can be hanged.” ordered Nick firmly.
Fighting the drowsiness the pain medicine brought on, Heath smiled slightly at the steel tone of the spoken words, his thoughts and tongue becoming muddled, slurring his words before he fell back to sleep.
Laughing, Nick smiled down upon the sleeping man, his hand reaching up and tousling the blonde hair. “I know, little brother, but thanks for clarifying.”
Reluctant to leave the room, Nick straddled the chair, his chin on his forearms as he studied the man sawing wood before him. Hearing the rustle of material, he smiled at the small hand on his back and the gentle kiss placed on the top of his head.
“Ah, Mother, I was such a fool.” sighed Nick heavily.
“I know, Nicholas.” whispered Victoria moving over to the bed, pulling the sheet up higher before sitting down and meeting the hazel eyes. “What you do from this point on is all that matters, son. Heath can be the partner you’ve always wanted in running the ranch. Someone to share the load and responsibilities, the joys, the heartaches. He’s like you in so many ways, Nick. And now that you’ve opened your heart, you won’t be disappointed.”
Nodding, Nick smiled, “Yeah. Would you mind if us boys go up to the lodge and get you a real tree for a real Christmas next week?”
Tears filled the gray eyes and she smiled, “I was hoping you’d say that.”
Escorting his mother from the room with an arm around her waist, Nick asked, “You didn’t like my surprise, Mother?”
“Well, let’s say it’s a bit too new for this old fashioned lady.” stated Victoria leaning against her strong son and enjoying his chuckle of amusement as they descended the staircase and stopped in the parlor.
“Heath was right, Mother. It’s hideous.” agreed Nick looking down into his tiny mother’s eyes. “What could I have been thinking?”
Smiling at her tall son, Victoria explained, “Nick, you weren’t thinking with your heart and now you are. It’s as simple as that.”
“I’ll take it down and get it out of here. Do you think we can give it to someone? How about the orphanage?” suggested Nick.
“That’s a wonderful idea. They can’t have a real tree with candles because of the danger. We can get a bunch of ornaments and garland together. I think the children will like it.” said Victoria, her mind running already with ideas of how to enhance the tree’s look.
“I don’t know, Mother.” said Jarrod overhearing the conversation, stopping to place a kiss on her cheek. “It may scare the little children.”
Rolling his eyes, Nick growled, “No more than when you play Santa, Pappy! That vision always gives me nightmares.”
“Nick, I’m wounded at your revelation.” smirked Jarrod, eyes twinkling with amusement. The knocking on the wooden door stopped their conversation and Jarrod waved off Silas who was headed to open it. “Good afternoon, Mr. Timmons.”
Nodding the older man entered the foyer and took off his hat, greeting the family members and handing a basket to Victoria. “Mrs. Barkley, I’s heard Heath got hert t’day. I’s powerful sorry ta hear it, me’n the wife like him ta have this.”
Surprised, Victoria accepted the offering and smiled, “Why thank you, Mr. Timmons. I’m sure Heath will be touched by your thoughts of him. I’m afraid he’s resting right now but would you like to come in for some coffee.”
“Nah, I’s got ta git back fore dark.” smiled the old man, staring into Nick’s eyes while he added firmly. “Heath’s a good boy. He’s help’n us lots when I’s broke my leg. Good day, Mrs. Barkley.”
Seeing the older man out, the family members glanced at each other, their eyes turning as one and looking up towards the closed door where the blonde slept. Nick frowned and ran a hand over his chin.
“Heath ever mention helping out the Timmons’ to you, Jarrod?”
“No.” answered Jarrod. “It sounds like him though. Silas says he’s been helping out at their church for a while. The last storm damaged it quite a bit and Heath fixed most of it with supplies the parishioners purchased.”
Victoria smiled, “I’ll just sneak this into his room while he’s sleeping. It’ll be a nice surprise for him when he wakes up.”
Watching their mother climb the stairs, Nick put a hand on Jarrod’s shoulder and steered him towards the parlor, “Com’n Pappy, you can help me put this thing back in the crate while we plan to take a trip to the lodge next week.”
“All of us?” asked Jarrod.
“Damn right all of us!” exclaimed Nick firmly, his eyes wide with happiness and excitement of the upcoming trip.
“For pete’s sake, stop it!” growled Heath slapping the hands reaching to help him, his left arm still encased in a sling but each day found it healing and growing stronger.
Nick scowled and let his hands drop to his sides, “I was just trying to help.”
Heath shook his head, lowering his eyes which wanted to brim with tears at the wounded tone in his brother’s voice. He wanted to shed tears of happiness at the voice loaded with concern instead of repulsion and anger.
“Sorry, Nick. I know you wanna help but I can get dressed myself.” apologized Heath raising his eyes and staring into the hazel ones. “Thanks though.”
Nick smiled and nodded, he found the last week he couldn’t get enough of the blonde, hearing him talk, hearing his laugh, seeing the sparkle in his eyes. He was still kicking himself for the last seven months of fighting this man before him, the realization of how special the blonde was almost came too late and a frown darkened the tanned face.
“Boy howdy, you could curdle milk with that face.” teased Heath quietly, seemingly able to read and understand the thoughts of the man before him. “Don’t look back, brother, only look forward.”
The quiet words shook the gloominess away and a strong hand clasped the back of Heath’s neck, the touch preceding a gentle shake and a wide smile, “To our future together, brother Heath.”
Flashing a lop-sided grin, the past months of strife and difficulties seemed a lifetime ago and Heath nodded his agreement to the promise, not able to speak from the emotions searing in him. Completing the buttoning of his shirt, Heath was greeted with a wide smile from his brother before he agreed to Nick’s help with his coat.
“Now, Nick, remember you promised I could ride up to the lodge on a horse. Our two studious brothers are riding in the wagon, right?”
Nodding, Nick walked to the door and opened it, “Right, little brother.”
Heath’s steps faltered for a moment at the title even though he’d heard it a lot in the past week, the two words able to fill him with raw emotion like the first time he’d heard it.
“Just making sure you weren’t gonna welch on me, big brother.” winked Heath moving past the rolling eyed man in the doorway. “Remember, you still owe me twenty dollars.”
“Be nice, it’s Christmas!” scolded Nick with a chuckle, descending the staircase by the blonde’s side.
“Christmas or not, you gotta pay!” retorted Heath firmly before grinning at the family waiting at the bottom of the stairs.
“It’s about time, Nick and Heath!” groaned Eugene with a wink towards Jarrod.
Jarrod smiled from the side of his mother. “Yeah, I thought ranchers always rose earlier than us paperpushers! Seems that’s an old wives tale, Gene.”
Victoria and Audra listened to the jabs back and forth, the sounds of male voices filled with teasing and respect, lightened their hearts with love. Walking over, Victoria checked to make sure the coat on the one armed man was secure before placing a kiss on his cheek.
“Heath, do try to keep your brothers out of trouble.”
Blushing at the show of affection, Heath grinned into the loving gray eyes, “Yes, ma’am. Though I’d say you’re almost asking for a miracle with these three.”
Holding onto his hand, she smiled, “Perhaps and since we received one miracle this wonderful season, I’ll have to take what I can get. Have a wonderful time.”
The two people smiled at each other, seemingly unaware of the others around them who’d stopped to watch the display of family between a mother and a son. Each of them feeling warmth at the scene, each knowing how the two people felt about each other. Suddenly becoming aware of the scrutiny they were receiving, Victoria took a turn kissing each of her sons’ cheeks with Audra following with a hug.
Leaving the mansion, Jarrod and Gene climbed onto the wagon seat, both smiling at Heath’s puzzled expression at the horse saddled beside Coco. Nick looked into the confused face of the blonde beside him, keeping the smile off his face as he growled.
“Hurry up, Heath! Daylight’s awasting!”
“Nick, where’s Gal?” stammered Heath pointing to the red stallion which he’d gentled for the army at the request of a major who wanted it for his daughter’s birthday.
Putting a large hand on Heath’s shoulder, Nick whispered, “I thought you could use an early Christmas present. Took some doing but he’s all yours!”
A stunned look replaced confusion in the blue eyes at the whispered words, his back felt a light shove and his feet moved forward, his hand reaching and feeling the power beneath the red coat of the animal as he stroked it.
“Nick!” choked out Heath, blinking his eyes to clear them of the moisture threatening to spill out, he’d been heartbroken when Nick wouldn’t keep the stallion on the ranch after he asked.
The emotion in the one word filled all the eyes watching with tears, the tone of love, of wonder, of longing said so much more than a whole dictionary of words could. Nick squeezed the shoulder of the blonde shaking with emotion beside him.
“Com’n little brother, I’ll help you mount up.” suggested Nick, his words turning Heath to look at him, the love shining in the deep pools for him taking Nick’s breath away.
Wrapping his brother in a hug, Nick whispered in his ear. “I knew he’d be a good horse for us but I didn’t want you here. I’m sorry for hurting you, Heath. You deserve all the best this world has to offer and I’m gonna make sure you get it.”
Patting the strong back, Heath gathered himself and whispered, “I only need what you got to offer, Nick. Thanks, brother.”
The presents opened hours ago, the smiles and kisses of the family still lingered on his cheek when Heath rose and crept downstairs. Poking the logs in the fireplace building them back up to a flame, the blonde stared into its depth before walking and standing in front of the decorated three. The light from the fire dazzling on the ornaments, the sparkle spreading a smile across his face.
He couldn’t believe he’d ever be happier than he was at this moment in time, his soul calmed, his heart full. The bonding with his brothers, all of them, at the lodge had him wishing in a way the year would pass quickly so the tradition could happen again.
The gray eyes which filled with tears when he whispered mother in her ear, the happiness in the tiny woman who’d taken him into her heart, the remembrance of that magical moment caused his blue orbs to fill again, his emotions making the tree shimmer in his vision.
An arm across his shoulder startled him for a brief moment but Heath knew right away who it was with the simple gesture and the large hand laying over his shoulder.
“Thank you for reminding me of the real meaning of Christmas.” whispered Nick tousling the blonde hair and chuckling at the low growl emitted from the smaller man.
Gray eyes spied on the two boys, standing with arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, the love and magic of the season shining all around them as they gazed upon the tree.
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