Heath was forty-one today and they were celebrating his birthday at the Barkley mansion which for over twenty years had been his home. They were celebrating something else too. Heath's childhood had left him with a legacy of ill-health and at twenty-seven Howard Merar had warned the young cowboy that he would not live beyond forty unless he reduced his workload and gave his body some slack. It had been a crushing blow to the outwardly fit cowboy who loved the outdoors and ranch life in particularly.
Reaching forty-one marked a triumph over that diagnosis, a swift rebuke to a future mapped out with infirmity and early death. It had been a hard lesson but Heath had reached a compromise and done what the doctor had said. Just as much as when he was twenty-seven his weakened lungs would always be suspect but over the years his good sense and his family's care had helped improve his constitution so that the old doctor was now satisfied that Heath could look forward to a long life.
Heath surveyed the room as his conversation with Nick and Jarrod drifted into the recesses of his mind. His blue eyes were searching for his large family scattered to the four corners of the room. Standing to his near right were his two eldest sons by his late wife Cate. Recalling her from the place she would always have deep in his heart, he took a few moments to visit with her a while as he once again remembered the wonder of her scent, the soft touch of her skin and the smile that always graced her lips at the slightest encouragement. It had been sixteen years since she had died and he still missed her, the pain never quite going away or his willingness to lose hold of her memory. He carefully placed her back in his heart with the promise to visit again soon.
His gaze returned to the couple's two sons standing tall, full grown and no longer their little boys. Sean was nineteen and studying law with a view to joining his Uncle Jarrod in practice once he was qualified. As tall as his father, Heath found himself looking at a mirror image of himself as he was at the same age. All his children favored him in appearance but Sean most of all, and yet it was his twin, Thomas, who resembled his father most in character, right down to the reflective and studied silences, quiet intelligence and dry wit. Thomas loved the ranch in the same way Heath and Nick did and felt the pull of its land on his heart just as deep. Both Nick and Heath knew he was the future into which they would one day hand over its care. Both brother's knew the land would be in safe hands and would grow under his stewardship.
Heath's eyes moved across to his eldest daughter named after her late mother and who at sixteen had turned into a real beauty. He noticed the boys dance attendance and felt momentarily sorry for them. He loved his daughter dearly but his former spitfire had turned into a feisty young woman of strong will and character. Her future husband would have to match her strong character to earn her respect and Heath envisioned the gentleman callers who would undoubtedly fall at the first post. The day he marched his daughter down the aisle and gave her hand to her future husband was a day he secretly looked forward to much as he loved her.
Next came twins, Leah and Samuel who at thirteen couldn't be more different in character. Leah was undoubtedly a daddy's girl. A bit of a tom-boy, more at home helping her father around the ranch and clearly uncomfortable in the very fancy dress her mother had bought for her on her latest trip to San Francisco. Heath smiled at the way she fidgeted with the yards of lace that decorated it and knew that she longed to be back in her jeans and overalls. A tom-boy she might me but she was on the verge of becoming a beauty just like her older sister and he wistfully regretted the thought of her growing up and her heart moving on from her childish adoration of him.
Samuel in contrast made his dislike of his ranch chores patently obvious, forever having to be cajoled and reminded of jobs only half done. But Heath knew his son's future lay away from the ranch in a world of books and the growing field of education. His son possessed a sharp and intelligent mind and Heath resolved to give him the chance of education that he never got. They enjoyed a good relationship and would often spend hours together in the Barkley library enjoying each other's company while they both read in silence.
Heath had to search for his next three children. Nothing unusual in that. Heath junior was nearly eleven and as usual looked guilty of something. A tell-tale red dye on his new shirt gave clues to the immediate suspect. A half-eaten bowl of strawberries rested on the table and standing next to them junior was looking quite green. He knew he'd be defending junior's latest escapade to the boy's mother later that evening and would be required to have a stern talk with his son in the morning under her watchful gaze.
Victoria, ten and Josh, nine snuck out from under the table and were similarly sporting the same evidence of strawberries around their reddened lips and the front of their smart clothes. The thought that his children might need Jarrod's legal defense against their mother's wrath suddenly crossed his mind for a moment before seemingly reading her son's thoughts, his own mother removed all three culprits away from the scene of the crime.
His younger children, Rosie seven and Clara six, had long since gone to their beds, their button noses partaking of their usual goodnight ritual of rubbing tips with their father's in giggling glee. The sound of their infectious laughter still tickled his ears. Sleeping upstairs in his crib was his youngest child blissfully unaware of the noise and festivities down below. His stomach full from his mother's milk, young Nicholas Jarrod Barkley hadn't yet give his parents his present, an uninterrupted night in which child number twelve would be conceived. Heath's careful strategy for ten children had now been usurped by the more superior campaign of his wife's who knew just how to break down the walls of his defenses. Tonight, as always, he would surrender willingly as their passion for each other would combine to form the life of their new child and reaffirm their love.
Heath's eyes met with Meg's as she too searched the room for him. She stood to his far right but never any distance from his heart. She was the finest woman he knew and he loved her deeper with each passing year. They had married under strained circumstances, hoping to forge a marriage out of friendship and respect. What they found was an untapped well of emotion, deep physical attraction and true love. They were friends, lovers and soul-mates, their lives intertwined and their roots deep. As midnight struck, the two of them left their respective parties and found their way into each other's arms where their lips met in a deep kiss. The music signaled the final dance of the evening and the two lovebirds danced in each other's arms whilst the rest of the room and their children looked on. Their eyes saw only each other as the final chime of the grandfather clock sounded and midnight gave way to the new day and the sunrise that would follow.