Meg Stanhope stood in line with her family to greet her Aunt Victoria and young cousin, a cousin she had never seen and knew very little about other than he was Tom Barkley’s son.
To a young girl, the story of his arrival in the family nine years ago had the air of romance at the time of its telling. Aunt Victoria’s husband, who Meg only remembered as this tall, rather stern and heavily built man with a beard - fat she would call him - had fallen in love with a young innocent girl and from that union a little boy had been born. A boy who did not find his family for nearly eighteen years. Of course, the story was heaven sent for a young girl on the verge of young womanhood, her head ready to be stuffed with dreams.
Other than that though, and over the passage of time, Meg had not thought much of her Stockton cousins, old or new. Geographical distance had a lot to do with the reasons why. Visits to and from both families were rare, and the Stanhopes had yet to make a journey to California, or Heath to New York. Her memories of Jarrod and Nick were of young men, too old to be interested in her who was still a child and her memories of Audra were of a little girl who she had the tendency to mother and treat as one of her dolls. Their last visit had been twelve years ago.
Seeing the carriage approach up the long lime tree-lined drive leading up to the impressive house and come to a halt, Meg Stanhope, 24 years old, every bit the debutante, every bit a young woman of New York, took her first look at the mysterious cousin from out west.
The first thing she noticed was how tall and handsome he was; he was wearing a navy blue suit, a little creased from the journey, but the color suiting his own fair coloring. On his head he wore a light cream cowboy hat, so incongruous with their present surroundings and quickly removed in the presence of the ladies present. He held it nervously by the brim as he stood back from his mother waiting to be introduced to the family.
Almost immediately a shy smile graced his tanned features as he was introduced first to her mother and then her father. He was respectful on both occasions. A hesitant, soft sounding drawl emitted from his lips and she grew curious about its southern sounding origin.
She continued to observe the young cowboy as he was introduced to her brother who engaged him in conversation, though it was Harry who did most of the talking. And then it was her turn to meet him. First though, she greeted her Aunt who she kissed warmly on the cheek and was warmly embraced in return. She listened patiently as she was told she had grown into a beautiful young woman. Then the moment came for her to be introduced to Heath.
His shyness, the result of being center of attention threatened to ruin the moment so much so that she found it was her taking his hand and shaking it, then feeling his hand tremble from nerves she found herself doing away with formality and placing a kiss on his cheek, earning her laughter and censure from her family for embarrassing the boy. But she had not felt his embarrassment. Rather she felt a warm cheek, the brush of a returned unsure kiss, fleeting but there all the same, and then a wonderfully shy smile framed by sky blue eyes that looked shyly but directly into hers. She felt immediately they were going to be friends. She was determined they would be. Others viewing their display wondered if potentially there might be more and two grey sisterly heads turned to each other in agreement.
An hour and a half later and alone in his room Heath closed the door behind him and let out a huge sigh of relief. He had to admit he had been dreading meeting the family despite his own family’s assurances. Nevertheless, the journey from Stockton to New York had been a long one, giving time to think and Heath’s stomach had been churning at the thought of meeting them all as their destination approached.
Jarrod had been right though. The Stanhopes did not hold his birth against him. He had been welcomed, made a fuss of, told how handsome he was, had photographs of his children admired, and then been told that they were going to make sure he enjoyed every moment of his visit.
Already, his Cousin Harry had invited him for a morning ride and Meg had promised to join them on their early start. Heath had barely been left time to think but after an hour and half and a brief tour of the first floor of the house he must have shown signs of tiredness, because his mother had discreetly suggested that maybe now would be the time for him to retire and write to the boys of their arrival. It was Victoria’s covert way of telling Heath to take some rest and Heath had taken up on her suggestion gratefully.
Shown to his bedroom, a south facing room which included a view of the lake, he did not see Meg following him up the stairs and so was still leaning against the bedroom door letting out a sigh of relief when he heard a knock and Meg asking to come in. He found himself opening the door and standing back as she breezed in just as Audra might have done if the were at home.
“Are you really going to retire up here on this wonderful, sunny day, Cousin.” He heard her say as she set about placing his bags on the large bed to unpack his things. Heath had no time to object but his face blushed at the thought of a young woman unpacking his things. This was not his mother or sister after all, but she brushed off such gentlemanly concerns.
“This is my favourite room,” she announced as she placed some items on the dresser and then stepped towards the French windows and opened the door to the balcony, inviting him to join her. Heath found himself following. Nervously, he took out a cigarette and then went to put it away in her company, “No, please do.” She smiled. He nodded his thanks and continued lighting up.
“Beyond the lake is a summer house. We can ride over there tomorrow. And see! Over there we have a boat house. Do you sail, Heath?”
“No. My brother Nick went to sea though.”
“Ah yes, I remember Nick. Tell me is he still just as loud?”
“That he is.”
Both cousins shared a conspiratorial smile.
“Well, Harry and I will take you boating. Do you fish?”
“Yes,” Heath answered more enthusiastically.
“Oh Harry is going to love having you here, then. He loves to fish.. I can see that I am going to have fight him for your attention.”
She returned to the bags on the bed and began unpacking some more, stopping when she came across photographs of three children and a separate one of a very beautiful dark-haired young woman. “Oh your wife was so beautiful,” she exclaimed, her admiration genuine.
“Yes she was,” Heath confirmed gently taking the photograph from her and placing it on a table by the bedside. Meg watched his movements with interest. He was like an unopened book inviting her to read more.
Meg did not intrude any further. She simply passed him the photograph of his children which he placed next to that of his wife’s.
“Well, I will leave you now.” she said, taking his quiet reflection as cue to leave. “I just want to say I am so glad you are here.”
Heath, taken aback by her words, gifted her with a smile. “I’m glad to be here, Meg,” he replied and meant it.
“I’ll see you at dinner,” she smiled back as she opened and then closed the door behind her. Her hand remained on the door knob on her side as his went to reach out to it from his, intrigued by the new cousin and promised friend.
The next morning, Heath awoke to the sound of gardeners working outside his window, the head gardener giving out instructions. The open window was a necessity in the warm weather and Heath lay for a moment in the large period bed listening to the sounds of his first New York morning.
He had slept well, the long journey over the last few days having tired him more than he realized. He lay in a nightshirt, a concession to the strange house that he was in. He hated them as nightwear and could feel the material bunched up under the bed covers. Stretching his arms above his head he decided to get up, pushing the covers back and swinging his long legs to the floor. The nightshirt fell to its normal length as he stood up. He grabbed a robe ready to make his way down to the guest bathroom and stole a look out at the window. He was looking forward to his morning ride.
Outside in the hallway he hoped to make his way to the bathroom without discovery, but stopped off at his mother’s room to wish her good morning. He knocked but got no reply.
“Aunt Victoria is already up and has eaten breakfast.” Heath turned to see his cousin, Harry in the hallway.
Harry laughed, realizing his cousin had no idea of the time. “Heath, it’s ten after eleven.”
Heath was mortified. It was one thing to oversleep at home, or even at Jarrod’s but as a guest in a strange house and on his first morning?
“Don’t worry.” Harry saw his cousin was upset, “Here you set your own schedule. We can go riding later if you wish, but bathe and have your breakfast first. There is no rush.”
For Heath who was use to getting up at sun up most mornings and doing a half-mornings work before breakfast, this new schedule was alien to him and yet, sleep was something he was doing in abundance lately.
“Meg?” Heath inquired, wondering if she was still able to accompany them.
“I’m afraid Meg had a dressmaker’s appointment to go to in the city. We won’t see her till dinner, I‘m afraid as she will be dining with a friend.
Heath nodded, understanding that his own tardiness had upset the planned day.
He continued down to the bathroom, ran the tub and sank into the hot water. He bathed quickly determined not to inconvenience the family, or staff any more than he had done already.
Downstairs, he found his mother who tilted her cheek upwards to receive his morning kiss.
“Sleep well, sweetheart?” She inquired without a note of censure in her voice.
“Like a log it seems,” Heath replied with humour to cover his embarrassment.
Victoria smiled. “It’s what you are here for, so do not begin the day with an apology. Your Aunt fully understands, don’t you Elizabeth?”
“I would be greatly offended, young man, if you did not treat this house as your home." His aunt replied. "Your mother and I are determined that you will have nothing but rest and relaxation here with hopefully a little young fun too. Now, let me tell Cook you are ready for breakfast.” As she got up and swept past her nephew, she brushed a hand passed his cheek. ‘Oh my, that face of yours is set to break many a New York heart.”
Once she went out of the room, Heath sent his mother an embarrassed look.
“Get use to it,” his mother replied with a smile. “You have created quite an impression.”
Harry was as good as his word and ready to go riding when Heath was himself ready. He allowed Heath to pick out a horse and the two cousins raced their horses across the estate with Heath winning despite the different saddle. Harry accepted his cousin was the better horseman, the man was obviously born to ride.
In the city Meg Stanhope had finished her dressmaker’s appointment and was now travelling across town to lunch with her friend, nervous and excited at the same time whilst in his rooms William Freemont prepared his seduction. The Stanhope girl was his - he gave out a satisfied smile.
‘Meg!” William Freemont welcomed as she stood at the door. “Come in,”
Meg was hesitant. This was the first time Meg had visited William’s room and she stood nervously, not sure if she should cross the threshold, not sure if she should even be here. She reassured herself that she loved him and that he loved her. It was just lunch; yes but lunch in his rooms. Her mind fought a battle, the winner undecided and decided only when he stepped forward and pulled her into his arms.
Heath having returned from his ride, beads of sweat across his brow and cheeks flushed red found himself ushered back upstairs as soon as he got home to rest once again. He reasoned he was feeling fine. In fact the ride had done him good, but the pressure mounted and he found himself battling not just his mother but his aunt and uncle too. Eventually, he agreed on a compromise. “Just for an hour,” he made his mother agree. “I have already slept half the day away. What‘s the point of me being here, if all I do is sleep?”
“Heath dear, we are here for four months.” Victoria reasoned back. “There is time to do everything that you want to do and also rest. You know what Doctor Merar said, you have to strike a balance between the two.”
“Not sure those scales are evenly balanced at the moment,” Heath retorted with a teasing smile on his lips.
“Maybe not,” his mother conceded, “but they will in time. Now go. I’ll wake you in an hour, I promise.”
Once more Heath climbed the stairs, his cousin accompanying him part of the way, before breaking off to his own room to get bathed and changed, their joking and laughter filtering down the stairs to the older generation.
“Sounds like the boys are getting along just fine. Now where‘s that daughter of mine.” George Stanhope commented, returning to his paper.
His wife sighed, “You know Meg has gone into town for that dressmaker’s appointment. She will be back for dinner.”
George Stanhope nodded, suddenly remembering and returned to hide behind his paper, leaving the two sisters to take a stroll around the garden, his wife taking her walking stick to assist with her hip.
Upstairs, Heath rested once more in the large bed that for the next few months would be his, sleep taking a while to come to him as he thought of his boys and little girl. He wondered what the twins would be doing now and then realized that they would be at school. Audra would be looking after little Cate, a role she enjoyed. Just the thought of not seeing them at the end of the day speared a hole in his heart. It would be two months before Audra would be able to bring them out East and he wondered if he would be able to last that long without seeing them.
Whilst Heath rested, Meg lay across town in her lover’s arms, thinking of the life they would have together. She was certain of her love for him and now he had confirmed his own love for her. She knew she should feel shame, she was lying in bed with a man who was not her husband but it had felt so right. How could love expressed between two people be so wrong? And it was love. She was so sure of that. She could not have given herself to a man she did not love. Those were her last thoughts as she fell asleep in his arms, expressing his name on her lips. William Freemont, sleep having claimed him far sooner, thought none of such thoughts. Meg Stanhope who he had courted with false promises was simply another conquest.
“Wake up, lazy bones!” Meg announced, opening the shutters wide to let in the day.
Heath came too slowly, blinking his way into the day.
He was not surprised to see his cousin standing over him, hands on hips.
“You!” he snarled, his tone playfully aggressive. This had become a routine of the past week.
“Yes, Me!” Meg replied, her happy face in contrast to his more sullen one.
Over the weeks the cousins had struck up an easy friendship, their relationship as cousins as comfortable as the relationship Heath had with his own sister, Audra.
Meg was not above teasing her more quiet cousin and Heath on his part would let her. Their respective mothers had watched their relationship grow, sadly given up speculating on any possible romance. It seemed set that the two young people would be friends, good friends, but nothing more. Still, seeing Heath find two more friends in Meg and Harry pleased them both.
Heath, under threatened assault from a pillow Meg had claimed from his bed sat up and laid back against the remaining pillows.
“Are you always this cheerful?” he grumbled.
“Pretty much, Grumpy.” She replied. “Goodness, Old Man. What’s there to be miserable about on such a beautiful day. Here I have brought your breakfast and mine too so you don't eve have to go downstairs. See we can eat it here. We’re going fishing and you Sir, are going to teach me. Harry won’t. He absolutely refuses which is terribly inconsiderate and unfair of him I think.”
“Man must have a good reason.”
“Now what reason could he possibly have.”
“I doubt he would have to stop at one.”
“Oh you!” Heath felt the pillow hit his head and his chuckling began.
Meg got up to get the breakfast trays for them both.
“Have to pay a visit first,” Heath declared.
Meg nodded, unconcerned.
“Then turn around,” Heath prompted when his cousin failed to do so.
“Oh really!” She exclaimed. “I do have a brother, you know!”
“I am not your brother. Now turn.”
Meg turned to allow him to get up. He grabbed a robe quickly and made himself decent. When she saw him leave the room, she continued preparing their breakfasts which were both served and ready when he came back into the room. She pushed him back into bed and rested the tray over his lap.
“Looks good.” He smiled, seeing the array of food before him. “Not sure, I can manage …” His words were broken off by her censure.
“Heath Barkley! In order to get well, you must eat. And I intend to see that you eat whilst you are here and that you return to Stockton with more meat on your bones, possibly even fat!”
“Yes, ma’am,” he drawled tucking in with a fork and a napkin to hand.
She pulled up a chair and placed her own tray on a side table as her cousin ate his breakfast without further objection. She chatted with ease and observed the progress he made with his breakfast. His health was important to her. She noticed how his robe fell partially open at the top and the bronzed chest crested by dark curly hair peaked out from under the crisp brilliant white of his open necked night shirt.
She did not know how long her eyes rested on the sight but she was grateful her cousin had not noticed. Her thoughts turned to William. He was as dark as Heath was fair, not nearly as handsome and not nearly as tall. His skin was as pale as Heath was tanned, his face whiskered whereas Heath’s was bare. Still, he captured her heart. It had been three weeks since their relationship had changed. She wished she could share what had happened to her with her new friend but knew it was not possible. The thought struck her that maybe Heath would not approve, maybe even consider her a… Her face grew sad at the thought. Why was love so hard? Why had William not proposed yet?
Heath helped Meg hook a fly on the end of her fishing line. “Why do I get the feeling I am going to be doing this all morning.” He whispered. Harry gave him a look that said, ‘Rather you, than me.”
Meg smiled a beautiful smile. “Because you know I can’t possibly touch such awful things.”
“Remind me why you have come fishing with us.” Heath drawled back to her.
“I am wonderful company. You know you would miss me if I was not around. Besides I aim to show that this fishing is not a skill but simply good luck. Watch me catch a fish first. Just watch me.”
“First you have to cast your line.”
“Show me then.” Meg challenged.
Heath stood up and with practiced ease cast his own line into the still water with the gathering flies hovering above, a further allure to the fish below.
“I can do that.” Meg said assuredly, then demonstrated poorly by getting the line all tangled up in some nearby bushes.
Without a word Heath put his fishing pole down, letting the line and the bait do its work and went to untangle the miscast line, unhooking it from the branches behind.
Meg threatened him not to say a word and he obligingly stayed silent on the subject, allowing only the smile curving his lips to make comment. It got her gander up but she refused to give him any satisfaction by replying and when the line was untangled she accepted without word his help in casting the line. He stood behind her, getting her body and movements to mirror his, his stance, the movement of his arm, the grip on the fishing pole, his hand over hers, his cheek brushing the top of her hair, until she melded into him and the motion of casting the line became fluid and seamless in its execution.
He coughed. “I think you’ve got it.” He stumbled out, suddenly aware of the proximity between them. He returned to his own line, sat down next to it, drew his legs up and the fishing pole too.
Fishing was his favourite sport, he loved the quiet and reflection it allowed and the stillness of the lake. His thoughts turned to his late wife Cate. She had not liked the sport. Could not understand the need to be quiet and chatted continuously to him throughout. He didn’t really mind. He loved her and missed her now. He wondered if the heavy grief that followed him everywhere would ever leave him. Sometimes it crushed him.
The three friends fished the afternoon away, Heath the first to catch a fish and then a second. Their thoughts were kept private and unshared.
Meg was devastated.
“William. Will you not answer me?”
“I have nothing to say.”
“But the baby.”
“I will make arrangements.”
“Arrangements? What arrangements. Marriage?”
“To get rid of it. I know a doctor who will help.”
Meg could not believe her ears. She was scared, feeling fear like she had never experienced before, increasingly finding herself alone but instinctively protective of the child that was inside her. Her hands spread to her belly, placing a barrier between her and William‘s threat. “Our baby! You want to get rid of our child! No! I won’t let you! It’s a child, William. An innocent child! It has as much right to live as you and I have. What has happened to us William? I love you. I would not have allowed myself to…if I had not loved you and thought that our lives would be together.”
“You were convenient. You held my interest for a while. Meg, it was fun, but marriage was never on offer.”
“But your parents. My parents. They expected.”
“I repeat, nothing was offered. As to your parents. They need never know. We can handle this conveniently without anyone knowing.”
“Conveniently? Handle it? Have you no feeling for your child?”
“If I remember I didn’t have to force you. You were quite willing.”
“You told me you loved me.”
“I’ve told many women I have loved them. They are just words.”
He did not have time to finish his sentence. A fierce slap ended his words. Meg ran to the window and cried. What was she going to do? What had she done? How had she fooled herself that she loved him and he her. He was cold, uncaring, untroubled by his deception or the fate of the child. Her happy world had become bleak. She had fallen dreadfully and now she had to pay. There was no one she could tell, no where she could turn. She ran out of the room, slamming the door behind him, finding herself on the street, ignoring the carriage and running down the sidewalk to heaven knows where. She didn’t care. Not even when she stumbled to the ground. It was what she deserved.
The next morning Meg lay curled up in bed, distraught and not having slept. She had returned to the house unobserved the previous evening and gone straight to her room. Somehow she had managed to avoid dinner, feigning illness of a different kind than what really ailed her. Her mother had visited her as had her aunt, both times she had assured them she would feel better in the morning. Left alone, only her shame and thoughts of what she was going to do occupied her mind. Running away seemed the only answer. She could not bring shame on her family. She could not admit what she had done. Her family deserved better than that.
It had been eight weeks. She knew without seeing a doctor she was with child. What doctor could she honestly see? The family doctor would not be able to keep her confidence and on her part, well there was no way she could admit her shame. Who could she tell? Who could she turn to? As soon as she had realized her condition for sure she had gone to William, distraught, unable to think her next steps, but sure he would marry her; that he would know what to do. His reaction had stunned her.
That he had offered to help get rid of the child, pay for and arrange it, turned her blood cold. In all her panic and shame she had never thought once of an abortion. Life was precious, God given, no matter the sin. She feared for hers and the child’s future but she knew without doubt she could never harm the small life nurturing inside her. Nevertheless, she was in shock. Desperate. What means did she have to support the child? Could she face life on her own, away from the love and protection of her dear family, away from all the comfort she had known. Where would she go?
Her life had been incredibly privileged, protected, everything to hand and so very far removed from what the future now beckoned. She could not go to friends. After the treatment from William, she felt sure that they and society would turn its back on her. Had she the strength of character to remove herself from such a world. She would have to find lodgings and work. What could she do? And yet, what alternative was there? She curled up even more in her nightgown and sobbed heavily into the pillow.
Heath was concerned for his cousin. She hadn’t smiled much these last few days, or said much. No longer was she willing to travel with him on outings, go riding, or even share a walk. He realized he had been lonely without her.
He sat playing chess with his mother, his attention to the game impaired by thoughts of what could be wrong. For something was definitely wrong, of that he was sure. Should he go to her? His mother had played down her non-appearance at dinner the previous evening, alluding to the fact that Meg was suffering from no more than a twenty-four hour thing. Heath remained concerned, and more importantly unconvinced.
He went out for ride, the rest and the relaxation he was getting away from the ranch was doing him good. Maybe the family had been right. From here he had been able to get a different perspective. He’d certainly not had to worry about the ranch. He did miss his children though and couldn’t wait for Audra to bring them out East in the next week He couldn’t wait to show them the sights, take the boys fishing and see how much little Cate had grown. Meg had helped him pick out a new outfit for her and presents for his sons.
He brought his horse to halt and slid down off the saddle, allowing the mount to graze untethered whilst he strolled down to the lake shore. There he sat for a long while, chewing on a piece of grass, his thoughts filled with family, home and Meg. Something was wrong. Very wrong. And being the man, the friend that was, he decided he would help if he could.
Returning to the ranch later he learned that she had gone out. “Where? Is she well enough to go out?” His concern was that of friend.
“Much better, Heath. Harry has gone with her so she will be fine.” His aunt reassured him. "Now come young man. You owe me a game of chess.”
Heath found himself following, obliging his aunt, though his game was once again affected by his thoughts of Meg. He lost the game and declined a second, deciding to write some letters to Nick and the children instead.
“Heath has seriousness to him, Victoria,” Elizabeth observed as she put the pieces away from their game.
Victoria's eyes followed her son as he walked out of the room with his familiar and easy gait. “He thinks about things deeply, Elizabeth. And, of course, he is missing the children so very much. It will be good for him when they get here next week. More settling, you'll see.”
“He is a son to be proud of, “ Elizabeth congratulated, thinking of the qualities of the man she had come to know only recently.
“That he is.” Said Victoria with pride. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
“Strange how things come to pass, Torie - Tom’s son finding such a solid home in your heart. At this great distance and without having seen him, I use to think it was your kindness that allowed you to accept him into the family, that you did it for Tom. Then your letters spoke of your love for him. You always filled your letters with news of the children and Heath was there right along side Jarrod, Nick and Audra. You made no distinction. You took pride and joy in telling me about him just as much as the others, sometimes more I think. Now, I can see why. He is a rare man. A good man with so many qualities, and his family including you, his mother, mean everything to him.”
Victoria smiled and took her sister’s hand. “Thank you, Elizabeth. Thank you for recognizing just what a remarkable man he is.” The two sisters took a stroll out into the conservatory and from there into the garden, their talk filled with family, Heath and memories of years gone by.
Meg, sat with her purchased rail ticket in hand. She would have to meet Harry shortly and yet her thoughts or her gaze could not leave the ticket in her hand. It did not matter where she was going. It was enough that tomorrow she would be leaving to a destination, as far as her family were concerned, unknown. She had tonight to get through, then she would leave in the morning before the house awoke. Her bags were secretly packed, she had been to the bank and withdrawn everything that she had from her account. There was no turning back. To stay any longer would only lead to discovery. It was now just her and the baby. She prayed for God's help.
With great fortitude Meg came down to dinner that evening. It was the hardest thing she had to do, because it would be the last time she would dine with them for a long time, perhaps ever. She forced herself to smile, to engage in conversation, but all the time her heart was breaking. She did not want to leave this family she loved, or the friend who sat to her left and who with sweet manners had stood up as she came into the room and helped her with her chair. Now she felt his hand squeeze hers under the table, offering support without knowing why it was needed, but offering it just the same. He was so different to William, so considerate of her feelings. She squeezed the hand in return in gratitude, drawing strength from it and giving him a reassuring smile.
She listened as this normally quiet man talked more than she had ever heard him done before. He did it so skilfully too that her own less engaging performance at dinner did not become the main subject for concern. Later as the men stayed behind for brandy and cigars she felt her knight at hand again to help her with her chair and remain standing until she and her mother and aunt had left the room. Yes, all men did that, at least in her social acquaintance, but there were something innate not taught about the way Heath performed such social sensibilities. How she missed her friend of these last few weeks; how she would miss him in the time to come.
She retired to the drawing room with her mother and aunt, declined a game of cards, preferring to watch them both play a game, memorizing the studied face of her mother which would have to hold her a long time. She was her mother’s only daughter; distraught at how she was going to upset her. She tried to bury her sadness in reading a book lest her mother and aunt become suspicious of silent tears. The words on the page meant nothing. After an hour, she could bear it no more and escaped to the conservatory where away from her family and everything she was leaving behind she let her tears fall.
When the men rejoined the women sometime later, Heath spotted his cousin was missing. Rather than draw attention to her absence he began a discreet search for her. With his mother and aunt engaged in a card game, his cousin excusing himself to go to his study and his uncle quickly falling asleep behind his paper as though he was at his club, his absence did not cause a stir.
Searching the garden Heath quickly found the person he was looking for. The smile on his face in finding her quickly faded into even greater concern when he saw she was crying. She sat back in the dark, not wanting to be found and when discovered quickly attempted to hide her tears from him by walking away. Her attempt came to nothing as he gently caught her and guided her back. He found a seat on which they could both sit. Cupping her chin gently he turned her face to look at him, a smile once again returning to his face.
"Hey now! What's this?" he said, attempting to keep his voice light and reassuring and offering her his crisp white handkerchief to use. "We can't have tears spoiling your pretty face."
Again, she made an attempt to get up. She felt a moment more and she would tell him everything under the assault of his kindness. Gently, he stopped her. He had stood back all day. No longer. Whatever it was, he would help her.
Prevented from leaving, she sat down and buried her head in her hands and the handkerchief he had given her sobbing uncontrollably. The damn broken, the tears just would not stop. Heath stood up and went to close the door so they could be alone and unheard. Returning to the seat he pulled her limp form effortlessly into his arms. She sobbed into his shoulder whilst his right hand reached up to comfort her by rubbing her back and his soft words told her to let it all out.
"Oh, Heath," she cried despairingly, her reddened eyes imploring him to take away her pain. "I've made such a mess of things. I.... I.... just don't know what to do.”
“Tell me what has happened,” Heath soothed into her ear, his warm breath blowing wisps of her pulled back hair fluttering as he spoke.
“I can’t!” She implored.
“Yes you can. It’s Heath remember. You can tell me anything. Friends remember.” Though she could not see it, his face gifted her a reassuring smile.
She continued to sob. “I can’t.”
He did not press but continued to hold her. He felt every shudder, every intake of breath as she tried to control her crying but whatever it was had a hold of her good. This was something desperate, he was beginning to realize that.
“Meg. Please. I can’t see you this way. Your parents…”
“Must not know….” she uttered out of panic.
“Then tell me. Let me be the one to help.”
At first he thought his words had no affect, then ever so slowly he felt her head turn and into his ear she whispered out of desperation. “I've got to get away. Will you help me?“
Heath kept calm in the face of such a request.
“Will you tell me why?”
“I can’t. Don’t ask me, Heath. Please don’t ask me.”
“I have to Meg. You have to tell me what has happened? Has someone hurt you?” He tried to keep the anger out of his voice at the idea that someone had hurt her. She wanted to go away and he had to anchor her to him somehow.
“I can’t tell anybody. Not my parents, not Harry, not even you. There's no way I can stay here now. Not now... not like this. You've got to help me get away."
She fought to protect him from hearing the sordid truth about her. They had grown so comfortable with each other in the last few weeks that in telling him she feared how he would react and that their friendship would be lost for ever. After several minutes and encouraged by his constant reassurances she finally relented and facing him began to relate her sorry tale.
He listened quietly and without interruption, moving only to wipe away fresh tears from her face. When she stopped he stood up slowly and walked away a few paces to the window where he remained in thoughtful silence.
The next few minutes seemed endless punctuated only by the onset of rain which pattered heavily against the windows of the moonlit conservatory. She was convinced that in telling him their friendship was lost. She was totally unprepared for how badly that felt and how empty it made her feel..
After a few moments he came back and sat down next to her. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," she nodded, trying to read his eyes and through them his thoughts. His opinion of her meant so much to her and she couldn't bear to be anything less in his eyes now. "I'm sure." she continued. "Even if I wanted to doubt it, I can't do anymore," she added, her head hanging in shame at what he must think of her.
"I see," Heath sighed.
"And him?" Heath continued, his eyes looking away as he bit back the anger he was feeling. "Will he stand by you?"
It was there, she felt. There in his voice. The disappointment.
She shook her head despondently. "No, He would prefer me to get rid of it. He doesn’t want anything to do with me or the child. He said it was an inconvenience that could be dealt with."
As a child of an unmarried union himself the statement speared Heath deeply.
"What about you, Meg? Do you love him?"
"Love!" The words were said with such hatred and contempt. “Until the moment he told me he would arrange for a ….. I believed I did. Now, I just don’t feel anything. I'm empty. I know now that his intentions were false and that he never really cared for me. Not after.... " Fighting to control the tears which would not be controlled, she continued through sobs, "You see now why I need to get away. I couldn't bear to bring this shame on my family. I simply have to get away and never come back."
Heath took her hands in his. "Meg, look at me." She refused to look up. Finally, he turned her face upward to look at him. "You don't need to run away. If you'll have me, we'll be married as soon I can arrange it. I promise I'll take good care of you and the baby. We can say the baby's mine. He, or, she can be raised a Barkley and as our child. No one will know it is not mine"
She looked at him in astonishment, scarcely able to take in his words, or his offer and then unable to let him make the sacrifice it would mean uttered the words emphatically, "No! No, Heath. I won't let you do that." She broke her hands free from his own, freeing him from her. “I can’t let you take responsibility for what has happened, or the baby." She cried, walking away from him turning to add, “You honor me, Heath, but I am not deserving of that offer. Help me get away tomorrow, that is all that I ask.”
Heath followed her over to the window where she stood and together they looked out at the rain that had settled in for the night. The clap of thunder and lightening in the sky mirrored the crisis played down below. With soft, determined words he pleaded once again: "Meg, listen to me, please. I know what it's like to grow up without a father. How hard it was for my mother who had to work as well as raise me. She faced it alone, not knowing where the next penny would come from, not knowing if there would be food on the table that night. She loved me dearly and I loved her, but a child never gets over that kind of beginning. He carries it to the day that he dies, like a cattle brand burnt into his hide. It's not the fact of what he is but how people treat him, and people can be cruel. I cannot see another child go through that. Not when I can do something about it."
"But, you don't love me!" She shot back. "I know you are still grieving for Cate. I know what you still feel for her and it's right that you should feel that way. What you had with Cate was very special. She‘s here, deep in your heart. You said it yourself, you are not ready to marry again." She saw his reaction to words he had spoken only the other day being quoted back at him. He had confided the words to a friend, not knowing how events would change. "We are friends, Heath. Good friends.” Meg continued, her voice soft for she could see his hurt. “I will not trap you into marriage, or take advantage of your kindness. You do not have to apologize for your existence, Heath by becoming protector to the baby and me." She caressed his cheek and he held on to it
"Is that what you think, Meg? Do you really think that is what I am trying to do by asking you to marry me?"
"Isn't it? Until you found me here crying, marriage between us had never entered your mind.. We love each other, Heath, but not in that way. Not in the way it should be between a man and a wife. To marry you now would be to further the mistake already made. My mistake, Heath. My shame.” The strength to say such words came from deep within. She could not hurt him. Not Heath. Not her gentle, noble friend. She let his hand go for a second time.
Heath did not move away, but stood staring out of the window, staring deep into his own thoughts. “Meg, I am not promising it won’t be an adjustment for both of us, but we can begin as friends. I care for you very much and will for the baby. It’s more than just providing the child with a name. A name’s easy. Raising a child is what counts. My mother couldn’t love me more, or me her, but I never knew a father. I will always regret that. It left a hole. Marry me and I will not let you down.”
Meg’s tear-strained eyes lifted to the steady sincere ones of Heath’s and she caressed his cheek. His eyes were making a life-long promise to her. He was certain of what he was doing. She knew then she would never know a more decent man than this man who stood in front of her, or a more honest proposal. “Yes,” she finally answered.
A kiss was not exchanged in the way of traditionally betrothed people.. Instead, he grasped her small hand in his large one and squeezed it. They were two now. Immediately, she felt its strength transmit to her own.
Later, Heath encouraged Meg to say goodnight to her family so as not to arouse concern and then an hour later made his own leave to go up to his room. He had much to plan and much to think through.
Meg had been drained by the last 24 hours and had welcomed the opportunity to retire early. Before she did she reassured her mother that she was fine. She felt her mother grip her hand in a concerned way. “Are you sure, my dear. I‘ve been worried about you?” Her mother’s eyes had not missed her daughter’s quietness. Meg had smiled in return. “I am now, I promise.” They shared a kiss goodnight and Elizabeth Stanhope, happier in her own mind, watched her daughter retire upstairs. She and her daughter would have a good talk tomorrow.
When Heath retired later, no one suspected anything was wrong; it was expected that the young man whose health they were all concerned about would retire at his usual hour. Elizabeth had noticed he was looking much improved lately, he was sleeping less, eating better and doing well it seemed from the relaxation he got from being there. That evening he had been very animated - much to their surprise. It was delightful to witness this talkative Heath; it was like he was opening up to them more and that was a good sign, a sign he was accepting them as family and feeling more at ease. Meg had a lot to do with that she suspected.
She imagined how he fitted in with Jarrod and Nick, those two contrasting brothers. Both as dark as Heath was fair, and eight and four years his senior. Truth be told, his character was a bit of them both, she could see a little of each in him, but mostly his character and personality were very much his own. Heath was his own man, not some copy of his elder brothers. He brought his own qualities to the table and the family were richer because of it. She understood her sister’s pain at learning Tom had been unfaithful and had worried initially that taking Heath in, her sister was setting herself up for further heartache not to mention daily reminders of Tom’s betrayal, but Victoria had proved bigger than the hurt in not only taking in Heath but loving him truly as her son. She had watched the relationship between mother and son during their stay. No one would know that they were not birth mother and child. The love flowed between them. It was all that Elizabeth needed to see to satisfy herself that her sister had done right.
She regretted that romantically nothing had developed between the boy and Meg. Meg was twenty-four and Elizabeth worried for her. Her daughter deserved someone special and it was easy to see Heath was that someone special. Yes, as a mother, Elizabeth would have liked something to have happened, but it hadn’t and unlike other mothers, Elizabeth would not force her daughter into a marriage that she did not want. Meg had to decide. For Meg, it had to be love, or nothing. Elizabeth did not like the Freemont chap and did not think it serious on either part.
Upstairs whilst Meg slept, Heath had taken off his jacket and tie and unbuttoned his shirt, letting it hang loose. He stepped out onto the balcony in his stockinged feet and breathed in the aftermath of the storm for a few minutes, letting it wash over him. He furthered his stay by lighting up a cigarette and drawing on it, allowing his mind to try and sort out what had happened, what still had to be done.
The cooler breeze billowed his shirt and Heath welcomed the cooling effect on his hot skin. His mind tried to navigate the traffic of thoughts that was crowding his mind; his commitment to Meg, his children and how they would feel about a new mother in their lives, the baby to come, not his child, but another man’s. He was accepting this child, just as his step-mother had accepted him. The enormity of what she had done struck him as though for the first time, and it served to increased his respect for her. What would his brothers think? The question was redundant concerning Nick. Nick's every word was predictable. Of Jarrod’s he was less sure. In the end he knew they would both support him, but the journey from here to that point would prove tricky. He would have to protect Meg from Nick’s ire. His brother's bark maybe worse that his bite, but the bark could be fierce whilst it lasted.
Tomorrow he would have to seek out a preacher who could marry them; he hated deceiving the family but to delay had consequences if he was to pass the child off as his own. He had promised Meg it would be so and her protection he discovered meant everything to him.
Seeing Heath's anger to towards Freemont and what he had done to Meg, she had begged him not to seek Freemont out. She did not want Freemont to change his mind about seeing the child. She feared that if he knew Heath had offered his protection to her and the child, Freemont would perversely want to claim the baby as his own. Above all, she wanted to protect her unborn child from his own father. It had taken Heath time to agree, his instinct was to take his fists to the man, but eventually he acquiesced out of respect to Meg. His anger however did not leave him.
He returned to his room, spending time at the writing desk before finally retiring to bed where sleep was slow to come.
Meg’s exhausted slumber, led by the worry of the last weeks did not last more than a few hours. She grew restless as consciousness and troubled thoughts flooded her mind. Alone, away from Heath, the doubts returned, the depth of the night magnifying them more.
She was wrong. Wrong to involve him! Wrong to marry him! This wasn't his problem and yet he had made it his own and what’s more she had let him. She had entrusted him with her secret, knowing that he would never reveal it to anyone, not even his own family.
When he had come upon her in the conservatory she had been at her lowest ebb. After that evening she would not see her family again. She would be alone with her unborn child and a future unknown. It had overwhelmed her. It had defeated her.
Then he had walked in. His words kind, his voice full of concern, his eyes steady and seeking the truth, his physical support ready to be leaned on. She doubted she could have revealed her circumstances to anyone else, certainly not her own mother who she loved dearly. Something about Heath demanded honesty and she had opened up her heart to her new friend.
Maybe it was because there was no history between them that in the end she had been able to confide in him. She valued his opinion of her and felt sure she would lose that when he learned of her story.
Instead, he had turned her life completely around; offering her marriage and a name for her baby. His name. She felt so safe with him. The mess she had made of her life in these last few weeks, he offered to sort out, he would arrange everything. Did such knights in shining armour exist? In Heath Barkley they did.
She remembered the touch of his hand on hers as he held her, its tenderness and strength all at the same time. When he held her hand, he held her safe, he held her. She needed that now. She needed to feel his strength again because it fed her own. She was so lost without it. She rose from the bed, grabbed a blanket from a nearby chair which she wrapped around her against the chill of the night and the chill of her thoughts, and left her room in search of his. She had to feel it again. She had to feel him.
It had been so easy. She had walked down the hall, turning the corner and past each door until she had come to his, propriety ensuring that the rooms of an unmarried man and woman were kept far apart.
Turning the door knob she walked into his room. An open window and the moonlight that shone through it paved her way. He was sleeping. She watched him unobserved, taking in the man she was going to spend the rest of her life with. She found him hypnotic. He was her future and she his. What kind of a future would it be?
Snuggling into the blanket she sat on the edge of his bed and waited to see if he stirred. When he did not, she carefully lay down beside him, instantly curling up into a ball beneath her warm blanket, absorbing its warmth and the sense of peace and protection which emanated from the man who slept soundly behind her. If her actions were bold, she did mean them to be so. She simply needed to be there. "Please God," she prayed. "Let what we are doing be right. I don't want to ruin his life as well, but God forgive me, I need his strength. I need him."
Some hours later Heath woke up to find Meg sleeping next to him. Shock registered. What was she doing there? What if someone found them together? His first instinct was to wake her up and then concern filled him. What had happened? How had she found his way to his room, and why? He lay back on the pillow, wondering what he should do. He was protective of her honour. He knew he should get her back to her room. He sat up a little, enough to try and wake her.
Gently, he tried to rouse her, “Meg, Meg…Wake up,” he said softly. He received no response. Meg was sleeping soundly. He tried again. “Meg, dear, you can’t stay here.” His hand gently shook her, this time eliciting a response.
“Mmmm,” she responded, still along way from awake.
“Meg, it’s Heath,” He continued. “I need to get you back to your room.”
His words were made redundant when still more asleep than awake she turned over and snuggled into him, pinning him back to the bed. Her arm reached across his bare chest and her head pillowed there, sleep and the warmth of his body claiming her with ease.
Heath sighed, not sure what he should do. Pinned back his arms stretched above his head, away from contact. Slowly, his right arm came down to hold her. Her thin nightgown pressed next to his bare skin. “We’ll be alright, Meg. I’ll look after you,” He promised as he lay awake protecting her throughout the night and thinking about their future together.
In the morning, he eased out of bed and carried her unobserved back to her room before the rest of the house began waking up. Then he quickly got dressed, went downstairs and made his way to the stables. He needed to ride. He needed to think.
Later, as he entered the dining room , Heath was relieved to find Meg alone. "Morning Meg." He said, kissing her awkwardly on her cheek which just as awkwardly she raised so that she could receive it. Their intimacy during the night felt exposed in the cold light of the day and both were embarrassed.
Gathering some breakfast he did not really want, Heath sat down next to Meg and placing the napkin on his lap uttered in a quiet voice, "Meg, we need to talk."
‘Here it comes, she thought. He's regretting his decision. What must he think of me, now? Climbing into his bed like some brazen hussy! Maybe he thinks that's how it was between William and me. Oh God!’
Seeing her reaction, Heath attempted to ease her distress.
"All I mean is, that we have to make plans.... about the wedding."
"Heath". She said, trying to read his expressive eyes. "About last night... I'm sorry. If anything has changed because of it, please tell me now. I will understand if you are having second thoughts and I won't hold you to your proposal," she said, not sure who she was trying to convince the most.
Heath remembered his earlier doubts and looked at the woman before him. The fear in her eyes betrayed the brave words she'd just spoken. He reached out to take her hand which rested on the table and clasped it tightly in his. "I've not changed my mind Meg." His voice was strong, purposeful and calm and instantly she took renewed strength from it, "But we do need discuss things. Arrangements will need to be made quickly."
She relaxed as he took control and began to map out what they needed to do.
"Meg, my dear. Marrying me is going to bring about many changes. It will mean moving away from your family and joining me in California for one. Then there are the children to consider and what we will say to our families."
"Heath. You're worried about me leaving my family and how I will cope thousands of miles away from my home?"
Heath nodded. He knew what he was talking about. Hadn‘t he too left his old life behind to live with his father‘s family. "It will be a big adjustment Meg. But I‘ll be there and my family will be around to help us."
"Will they support us, Heath?“ The question had foundation. “What will your family say?" Her voice became worried and fearful. "They're obviously going to resent me for tying you into a marriage you never wanted. Seriously, Heath. I don't want to cause a rift between you and them."
"Meg. You won't." He reassured her. "I'm not promising this is going to be easy. It isn't. We are going to need time to adjust to the change in our relationship. But I will do my best to be a good husband to you Meg and together we'll face the future together, whatever it brings."
He paused and grew more serious for a moment. "When we marry though, Meg, it must be with the knowledge that eventually it will become a true marriage between us. A marriage that functions in name only will lead only to bitterness and resentment towards each other. Marriage is more than friendship."
She didn't need him to expand. "Heath? What about Cate? Whatever develops between us, you must know that I will never resent the place she already has in your heart."
Heath said nothing but acknowledged her words with slightly moistening eyes as he remembered his dear Cate.
Collecting his thoughts he continued. "Meg. If we tell our families about our plans to marry then they will expect us to wait so they can organize a family wedding that may take weeks to arrange. Therefore, we must elope to get married so that we can take advantage of your early condition. In a week's time the children will be here. I have to send word to stop them coming. I think it best we get married as soon as tomorrow and then after a few days we can return to tell the family and make arrangements to travel to Stockton. We can deal with their reactions afterwards and arrange to travel to Stockton with mother."
"What about the baby, Heath? What will we tell them and when?"
"I suggest we deal with their reactions to our marriage first. When we've settled back at the ranch and the dust has settled, then we will tell them about our baby."
The minister and his wife's beaming faces were in marked contrast to the strained smiles of the couple he had just married.
Throughout the ceremony his jolly, rotund and rosy-cheeked wife had observed the bride's nervousness and noticed the way she constantly looked up and referred to her new husband for guidance and support. No family to support them she mused. The couple must be eloping was her next thought. No wonder they both look nervous! ‘No doubt the girl's father is already in hot pursuit, shot gun in hand.’ The wife of a country preacher loved the romantic edge.
While her husband completed the formalities of payment and issuing the marriage certificate she took a closer look at the new Mr and Mrs Barkley as they stood together not managing to hide the relief in their faces as the marriage certificate was eventually handed over to them. ‘Poor things. Maybe they had to get married?’ She speculated. She looked at the young woman's belly for evidence that she may be correct. ‘Ah well, he looks like he will look after her. He hasn't left her side for a minute. If she is with his child, he has stood by her. Many do not.’
"Enough Nellie Hanson," she chided herself, "You're just an old romantic. Now go ahead and congratulate the young couple before they go." Seizing the opportunity as minister's wife she placed a fond, motherly kiss on both their cheeks, noticing how they both blushed under the attention.
To a chorus of good-byes and wishes of good luck, Heath assisted his wife into the rented buggy and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. Then picking up the wedding bouquet of wild flowers he'd picked for her that morning from the Stanhope estate he gently returned it into her hands. He didn't miss the exquisite smile she graced him with as she accepted it. Saying goodbye and thank you to the preacher and receiving yet another kiss from the preacher’s wife Heath climbed up to join his wife and flicked the reins to signal the horses to move, unaware of the journey they were about to embark on, or the future that lay ahead.
Approaching the remote cabin that would be their retreat for a few days from their families, Heath turned to his silent young wife and said: "Meg. We're nearly there, dear. You've not said a word all through the journey. Are you alright?"
Turning to her new husband of just a few hours Meg finally broke the silence she had been holding during the journey and said: "Yes, Heath I'm fine. I'm sorry I've been so quiet. It's just that.... Well, this is our wedding day.‘ She paused before continuing, ‘And.. And I miss the fact that, because of my actions, none of our families can be present."
"I'm sorry too, Meg. Today, should have been the happiest day of your life. I wish I could have given you the day you deserved."
Meg inwardly scolded herself for her selfishness. All through the day she had been thinking about her own lost dreams and never spared a thought for the man, who in marrying her, had sacrificed so much more.
Attempting to bridge the gap her silence had caused between them she said. "Heath. Thank you for the flowers. They're beautiful.... And your mother's ring...." She slowly fingered the wedding band he'd earlier placed on her finger. She had not known until today that he had always worn it on chain next to his heart. It had not been Cate’s. For Cate he had bought a special ring. No, he had kept the plain, inexpensive ring in memory of his mother, taking it off her finger after she had died. Now it served to bind Meg and him together in the eyes of God. She was not to know she would value that ring above all others.
An hour later Heath pulled up the lantern lit buggy in front of the cabin as nightfall began to settle. Helping his wife down he saw her set off to enter the house on her own. Gently stopping her progress with a restraining hand he bent down to scoop up his bride and carry her across the threshold. It was a small gesture but triggered something in them both, something that neither one had anticipated. Still holding her in his arms, their profiles lit only by the spreading moonlight, he leaned in to kiss her tenderly on the lips. Emboldened by the darkness of the room, her lips responded to his light touch and sought to deepen the kiss.
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