A nipping cold breeze whipped Nick, sending a chill up his spine as he exited the general store with a sack of potatoes slung over his shoulders followed by the ever so obliging store manager who carried a box loaded with flour and sugar sacks.
“There you go, Nick. That’s the last of it,” Harry announced with a wide beam on his face, knowing this sale alone was to allow him to meet this month’s budget by a large margin.
“Thanks for helping me carry this load, Harry. Normally Heath does it but he’s over at Livvie’s picking out a package for Audra,” Nick smirked, cracking a grin ear to ear.
“You mean he’s in there, alone?”
“Yep!” he squeaked.
“Nick, that’s cruel. Think about it. That poor boy in a woman’s…,” he faltered at the word, “…under things store?”
“Awwww he’s gonna be awright. That kid’s tough. But just to prove that I’m a good brother I’ll give him ten more minutes. If he’s not out by then I’ll go in and rescue him.” Nick chaffed, his amusement evident on his devilish expression. “Might rescue him,” he added with a smudge of glee.
“He’s pretty special to you, isn’t he?”
A thoughtful smile graced Nick’s lips at the question. “Yeah, more than any one could possibly imagine. I like having a little brother tagging along.”
“His probation’s almost over.” Harry reminded, receiving a scornful glare in return.
“Know that me and my family never considered Heath to be on probation,” Nick peeved in spite of himself, conscious of the fact that Harry’s comment didn’t bear offence “He can come and go as he pleases.”
“Sorry Nick I only meant in the legal sense. I didn’t intend to offend you.”
“It’s okay,” Nick signed in repentance. “I’m sorry I leapt down your throat. I know ya didn’t mean anything by it. We’re tying hard to shield that boy from the wicked stares and the condescending whispers in town. He’s not letting on that it bothers him but I know it does.”
In a friendly tap on Nick’s shoulder, Harry conveyed his compassion for the man whose life changed for the better since meeting with the young reformed bank robber. “He’s gained a lot of respect in this community, you must know that.”
“Not enough for my taste.”
Across the street Heath was seen exiting the ladies’ lingerie store with a white rectangular box underneath his arm. Looking both ways to check for traffic he ambled up to Nick with a bounce in his step and a smug on his face.
“So how did it go?” Nick asked with a hint of tease.
“I got it.” He presented Nick with the box. “It’s all in there. And it’s mighty pretty too,” he emphasised to rain on Nick’s parade.
“You mean you looked at it?” Nick was stunned that a man would have had the audacity to peek at a lady item inside the store in plain view of all those stiff-necked shoppers.
“Sure did. I had to make sure it didn’t have any tear.”
Nick threw Harry an astounded look. “And you didn’t have any trouble?”
“Trouble? Boy Howdy I sure did.”
“I knew it!”
“I had to fight ‘em off with a stick. The gals thought I was buyin’ this stuff for my Mrs. When I told them I wasn’t married, boy howdy! You should have seen them.”
“What? What did they do?” Nick urged, his curiosity itching to get the whole story.
“They was swarmin’ ‘round me like bees to honey. All pretty maidens houndin’ me to ask them out on a date.”
“Awwwwwwwwww you’re pulling my leg,” Nick dismissed, though a doubt persisted on the veracity of Heath’s account.
“I ain’t lyin’ Nick. Just ask Miss Livvie. She’ll tell ya.” Heath said with a light choke as he strove to maintain candidness about his outlandish story.
In the background Harry was also trying hard to suppress his laughter, knowing little brother was pulling a fast one of big brother for sending him in the dragon’s lair unprotected.
“I’m not going in there!” Nick bellowed. “I’ve got my pride.”
“You don’t know what you’re missin.”
Nick’s brow furrowed deeply as he stared at the amused face before him. Out of the bolt, he grabbed Heath in a playful chokehold and tousled his hair. “Awwwwwwwww you! You had me going there for a while. Admit it, it was a nightmare.”
Before Heath could answer, Nick’s attention was drawn to a vision of loveliness walking down the boardwalk. She stopped at Livvie’s to browse through the window display.
“Would you look at that,” Nick rhapsodized, his senses growing numbed that caused him to lose his grip on Heath.
“Across the street, that brunette doing window shopping.” Nick motioned toward the lady in question.
Heath let out a whistle. “Boy Howdy! She’s a fine-looking gal,” Heath agreed as he slicked his hair in place and straightened his shirt. He started to walk toward her when Nick clawed at his shoulder.
“And just where d’ya think you’re going?”
“I’m gonna have me a date with her.”
“Aren’t ya going way ahead of yourself, boy? She could be married.”
“Only one way to find out.”
“Anyway I saw her first.”
“That may be, but I’m gonna talk to her first,” Heath countered with the same humour.
“Heath, let me explain the concept of being a little brother. Little brothers sit in the background quietly and…”
“Watch their big brothers make a jackass outta themselves?” Heath interjected with an innocent look that elicited a chuckle out of Harry, much to Nick’s frustration.
“You got it half right. He watches and learns. Now you sit there,” Nick pushed Heath down on the wooden bench, “and be a good boy.”
“You’re gonna scare her off.”
“No chance of that happening,” Nick retorted with bursting confidence.
“Nick it’s obvious she’s more the quiet, gentle, sweet charismatic blond type,” Heath rubbed in with a simper.
“Don’t flatter yourself Blondie.”
“Fine then. Let’s wager a bet. Fifty dollars says she’ll go out with me.”
“You’re on!” Nick clasped Heath’s hand in a hearty handshake to seal the deal. “May the best brother…the best dark-haired brother…win.”
“If you’re so sure of yourself then ya won’t mind if I go first?”
“But of course. Go right ahead. I insist,” Nick quipped with a wave of the hand.
Heath flattened two loose locks of hair on either side of his temples before putting on his hat. With a taunting smug at Nick he tipped the rim to get a rise out of him and homed in on his target across the street.
His step faltered as he neared the entrancing woman, fearing his introduction needed some polishing before engaging the conversation. One look at her and his heart was captured. He hawked silently to clear the lump in his throat and gave himself a mental spur to move on. After checking for a wedding band on her finger, he uttered the familiar, “Howdy!”
“Oh, hello,” she greeted back with a bewitching smile that made Heath weak in the knees.
“Fine lookin’ dresses,” he pointed out to the window display.
“Yes, but very expensive too,” she humoured, sensing the customary icebreaker used by many gentlemen.
“I ain’t never seen ya ‘round before. Visitin’?”
“Not quite. I’m the new schoolteacher. I’m staying at the hotel for the time being until I find a suitable property.”
“My sister Audra mentioned sumpthin’ ‘bout that.”
“Audra Barkley is your sister?”
“That’s right. I’m Heath Barkley.” He offered a hand that she shook in return.
“I’m Nicole Warner. Please to meet you.”
“You said ya was lookin’ at buyin’ a property ‘round these parts?” Heath asked, getting a nod in return. “I know a couple that might suit your fancy, big or small.”
“Just big enough to lodge two people.”
“Two people?” Heath gulped nervously; his dream shattering at the very thought of this woman already being spoken for.
“My son and I,” she reassured, seeing the worried expression melting into a lopsided grin of relief.
“And ah…ah…your husband is not with ya?” he hemmed and hawed, cringing at his straightforwardness.
She could hardly conceal her mirth at the inference behind the question. “I’m not married,” she smiled. “The boy is my sister’s son. I adopted him when she died.”
“Oh I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“I know you didn’t,” she reassured with a heartening smile that sent Heath’s senses reeling.
From a few feet away Nick and the store manager watched the unfolding scene with absorbed interest. “Think she’s going to go for him, Nick?”
“He’s got charisma I have to give him that. But she’ll turn him down. You wait and see.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it. He seems to have her in raptures.”
“Yeah, well, talking is one thing; asking a girl out on a date is another. Ah there he comes.” Nick squinted hard to read Heath’s features as he walked towards him. The grim face spoke of the obvious rejection the young Barkley met with. “So? Turned you down, didn’t she?”
“Why d’ya say that?”
“That face. It’s so long it’s dragging in the dirt.”
“Oh that’s for ya, Nick. I’m sorry but ya owe me fifty bucks.” Heath handed out his hand and wiggled his fingers tauntingly. “Come on, show me the money, bro.”
“She agreed to go out with ya?” Nick arched an eyebrow in suspicion.
“Sure did. Tomorrow night at the Cattlemen’s. Now I need that dough to wine and dine her in style. Come on, fork it over.”
Nick flashed an irritated look at Harry who could barely suppress a guffaw. With a loud grump, Nick reached into his vest pocket to take out a fifty-dollar bill. “Awright, I’ll give you this round, Little Brother, but know that the game is not over.”
“Whatever ya say, Nick.” Heath humoured, winking at Harry who shook his head in amused disbelief.
At the hotel, Nicole entered her room quietly, heedful not to make a noise that would wake her precious boy. She padded up to the bed and gazed at his angelic face as he slept soundly. As she pulled the blanket up to his shoulders, Jenny, her trustworthy friend and babysitter, walked in from the adjacent room. “Nicki, you’re back! Did you buy anything?” she asked perplexed as she scanned the room for packages.
“No. Nothing caught my eye.”
“You weren’t gone very long.”
“I know. Maybe tomorrow.”
Jenny stepped closer to catch the beaming glow on Nicole’s face. “What’s happening to you?”
“What, what do you mean?”
“Am I?” she affected innocently.
“And you dare say nothing caught your eye,” Jenny quipped. “Okay, who is he?”
“His name’s Heath Barkley and he’s asked me out on a date tomorrow night. We’ll be eating in the dining room so I can be near Daniel. I know it’s your night off and I wouldn’t want to impose on you to babysit.”
“Impose?” Jenny snapped. “Nicole Warner you know better than that. Danny comes first. I love that boy as much as he was my own.”
“I know what you mean. But I’ll be fine, really. I’ll get Daniel to bed early and ask that we get a table in direct view of the stairs so I can keep an eye on the room.”
“Nonsense. I will stay with Danny. You have fun. You deserve it, girl.”
“Not many men want to get involved with a single mom. Heath didn’t flinch when I told him about Daniel. In fact I could tell he was kind of relieved to find out he was my son and not my husband,” she laughed reminiscently, her eyes shining with a renewed confidence of a bright future for both her and Daniel.
“You do know who the Barkleys are?”
“That’s the first thing you learn when you come to this valley. But money doesn’t matter much. It’s what’s inside that counts,” she sighed dreamily.
“I hope it works out for you. I mean it.”
“Thanks. I do too.”
At the ranch, Heath was fussing over what shirt to wear. He stood before the mirror to inspect one choice after the other; his aggravation growing with each new shirt that he deemed worse than the one before.
“Heath, you about ready yet?” Nick queried as he enter the room.
“Just ‘bout. These damn shirts don’t seem to fit none,” he huffed out as he smoothed out the crease in his sleeves. “Look at those crimps!”
“What are ya talking about? This shirt is smooth as silk. You’re fussing too much, boy. If you keep this up I’m gonna take that woman out in your place.” A sly grin crossed Nick’s face at the remark that was guaranteed to cure Heath’s obsession.
“No way! I planned to show up, whether snow, hail or rain, even with this wrinkled shirt on.” Nick chortled. “It ain’t funny!”
“If you’re so obsessed with this tiny crease, why not ask Silas to iron it out for you? It’ll only take a couple of minutes.”
Heath hesitated at first but took one last glance in the mirror and dismissed the flaw. “Nah! I’ll wear this one.”
On the other side of Stockton, a twitchy maiden was wearing her friend to a frazzle with a similar obsession.
“Does this dress look okay to you?” Nicole asked anxiously.
“Yes it does. So did the ten others you’ve put on,” Jenny answered with a marked annoyance. “If you keep this up you’re going to be late for your date.”
“I think I’ll wear the blue one. Orange is two striking, don’t you agree?”
“That dress is not orange, it’s peach and it’s fine.”
“Mama, you look beautiful,” her young boy exclaimed as he stepped into the room.
“You really think so, honey?”
Daniel nodded, his eyes sparkling at the stunning sight before him. “You look like an angel.”
The comment tugged at the mother’s heart, making her oblivious of her fixation on the dress. She bent down to lift her precious boy into her arms and planted a smacking kiss on his cheeks.
“Awwwwwwwwww mom,” he whined, wiping the kiss off his skin. “I’m too old for that.”
“Oh you are?” she humoured good-naturedly. “I have news for you. Your mom plans to kiss you till you’re all grown up and have a family of your own.”
“That long?” The boy’s reaction elicited a chuckle out of both ladies.
“I believe your date is here,” Jenny informed from the window where she stood watching the street below.
Quickly, Nicole put her son down and hurried to the dresser for a last peek at her make-up. “I guess this is it.” She sucked in a deep breath and held it to enfold her nervousness in one mass that she expelled in one drawn-out exhale. “I can’t believe how nervous I am.”
“You’ll be fine, Nicole,” her friend emboldened; her words of encouragement receiving a seal of approval from Daniel.
She clasped both their hands to tapped into their pool of overflowing confidence that tonight’s event would be crowned with success. One knock at the door and already she was weak at the knees. Amused, Jenny went to open the door and bade the visitor enter.
“Hello Heath,” Nicole greeted timidly.
“Hi,” he croaked, his voice hoarse from the gush of emotions rushing to this throat. He slightly lowered his head to look down at his hat he held with trembling hands. He began fidgeting with the rim as he searched for the right words to say. “Are…,” he hawked, “are you ready to go?”
“Just about. But first I’d like you to meet my dear friend Jenny Prescott.”
Heath turned to the woman standing to his right and bowed his head. “How d’ya do ma’am?”
“It’s nice to meet you, Heath.”
“And this is the man in my life.” She turned to her son. “This is my son, Daniel.”
Heath stepped over the five-year-old boy and hunched down on his heels before him. “Well hello there, pardner.” Daniel blushed and giggled before disappearing behind her mother’s skirt to hide.
“He’s a little shy,” Nicole defended.
“That’s normal for a boy his age.” Heath’s genuine statement set her mind at ease and actually won him praises. He had scored his first point on Nicole’s scale of the perfect gentleman. “Shall we go?” He presented his arm that she gladly accepted. Together they walked out of the room, followed by Jenny and Daniel who watched them climbed down the stairs arm in arm.
“He seems nice,” Jenny opined. “What do you think, Daniel?” His answer came in the form of a dispassionate shrug in which she detected a smudge of jealousy.
It wasn’t long before Heath and Nicole forged a special bond, one that carried their conversation far beyond any topic they ever imagined could be broached on a first date.
“When the doctor told Katherine she had an incurable illness she came to me with her special request that I adopt her son. I admit I hesitated at first. I mean this is not like taking care of your neighbour’s pet while they’re away.”
“That’s for sure,” Heath agreed, his attention riveted on the angelic face that he could hardly peel his eyes from.
“That’s how I became a single mother and don’t regret it one bit.”
“Why should ya?” he asked a bit bemused by the edge of cynicism in her tone.
“People talk. A single mother with no husband?” She glanced up at him with a knowing look.
“Oh, that. Well if it’s any consolation I know exactly how it feels.”
It was Nicole’s turn to be perplexed by Heath’s statement. “I don’t understand. How do you mean you know how I feel?”
“I was born without a father myself. My impoverished mother raised me by herself and love was ‘bout all she could give. I was known as the town bastard and believe me it was hell on a boy to be branded as such. When my mama died I left Strawberry and joined up with…” Heath faltered at the blunder he was about to commit.
“Let’s just say I strayed and got lost for a while ‘til I found my brother who took me home.”
“You lived in Strawberry?”
“Yeah. Know it?”
“Yes I do. In fact my family lived nearby. A town called Elko.”
“I’ve been to Elko a few times, but just passed through.” Heath shifted in his seat as the memories began gnawing at him. He took a sip of wine and glanced toward the kitchen for any sign of the waiter with their orders.
“If you don’t mind my asking who was your mother?”
“Her name was Leah Thomson. The most beautiful woman in the world,” he said wistfully with an errant tear trickling down the corner of his eye.
The name sent Nicole’s senses reeling. “So your name is Heath Thomson Barkley?”
“That’s right.” His brow furrowed at the blood draining from his date’s cheeks. “You awright? You look a lit’le flushed.”
“I’m…I’m fine,” she stuttered nervously, trying hard to conceal her anguish. Luckily the waiter made his way toward their table to serve their orders. The interruption provided temporary shelter from the questioning stares shot at her from across the table.
Against his better judgement Heath decided not to push the matter further as he expected to catch another window of opportunity at a later time.
Later that evening Heath left Nicole with a chaste goodnight kiss on the cheek and a promise to take her and Daniel on a picnic after church tomorrow. Although she tried to mask her anxiety behind a contrived smile Heath could see right through the façade. Again he refrained from delving into this sudden change in disposition but made a mental note to raise the subject at another time.
Nicole entered her room and swiftly closed the door behind her. She leaned against the frame and closed her eyes in despair. “God it can’t be. What are the odds? It can’t be that Heath Thomson. Say it isn’t so,” she implored, glancing at the ceiling to evoke God’s mercy on her soul. “It can’t be.”
During Sunday church service Nicole and Daniel were invited to sit in the front pew that the Barkleys usually occupied every week. Heath would keep glancing Nicole’s way to catch her eye but she remained stoically concentrated on the preacher’s speech, hanging on his every word. Heath sensed an ill wind that he suspected he might have triggered last night during their conversation about their respective childhood.
It was Daniel who severed the ominous silence between them when, during the boring sermon, he began squirming in his seat.
“Daniel, what’s the matter?” Nicole asked in a whisper.
“I need to go bad, mom.”
“It’s okay. I’ll take him,” Heath offered obligingly. He clasped the boy’s hand and led him down the aisle before Nicole could voice a protest.
Outside, Daniel pulled at Heath’s hand as they neared the hotel. “Can we go look at the horses?”
“I thought you needed to go bad?”
“Nah, I just said that so I could leave. Church is boring. I don’t need to go there to pray to baby Jesus. I can do it at home. He listens to every one no matter where they are, doesn’t he?”
Heath was taken aback by the wisdom coming out of such a young mouth. “I reckon so,” he answered waveringly; afraid to steer the boy on a different path than the one his mother had drawn for him. “What does your mother say?”
“She’s the one who told me that. I can’t figure why she drags me to church when she knows I can talk to baby Jesus from my own room.”
Heath squatted down before Daniel and took both hands in his. He paused to carefully weigh the consequence of his next words before uttering them. “You know Daniel, church is the house of the Lord, Jesus’s daddy. It’s his home. A place to worship him and thank him for all the wonderful things he’s done. We can be closer to him there.”
“I guess you’re right,” the boy relented, though with a bit of reluctance.
“Attaboy!” Heath tousled the boy’s hair and lifted him in his arms. “I promised once church is over I’m gonna take ya see plen’ny of horses. If your mama agrees I’ll even take ya on a ride with me, wouldn’t ya like that?” Heath’s answer came in an enthusiastic nod and a beaming grin, sealed with a warm hug.
“Thank you Heath.”
“Awwwwwwwwww you’re welcomed Daniel. Come on, let’s go back to your mother. And we won’t tell her about our lit’le talk.” Heath put a finger to his lips that the giggling boy mimicked.
Nicole was disarmingly distant during the picnic. She would indulge in Daniel’s every whim with a flicker of a smile without so much of a glance at Heath who went out of his way to incite her to join in the fun.
Victoria had been watching the interaction between her son and his new ladylove from the moment she was introduced. There was no mistaking Heath’s besotted look, but for some reason she found it hard to read Nicole’s as she appeared genuinely smitten with Heath, though she refrained from giving free reins to her emotions.
She saw an opportunity to be alone with the young woman when Heath took Daniel riding. She wasted no time in engaging in a casual conversation about the beautiful weather they had been graced with on this fine Sunday afternoon before broaching a more earnest subject that would eventually lead to the heart of the matter.
“Enjoying yourself Nicole?”
“Oh yes, very much Mrs. Barkley. This is lovely place and the weather is perfect. I know Daniel is ecstatic.”
“I see he and Heath have bonded already.”
“Yes and that’s what’s amazing. Daniel has never taken to anyone so quickly before.”
“Heath has a special gift with children.”
“Is it true he didn’t grow up on this ranch?” Nicole hazarded to ask as her heart ached to seek out answers for questions that were consuming her.
Victoria was slightly jarred by the offhandedness of the question that bore semblance of a court interrogation rather than a casual query. “That’s right. His brother Nick found him one day and brought him home.”
“That’s what he told me,” she sighed reminiscently, though with a hint of sarcasm that pricked at Victoria. “I just don’t think it’s going to work out between us.”
“You barely know each other. You have to give it time.” Nicole’s silence prompted Victoria to jump directly to the burning question. “Something is bothering you”
“Yes but I can’t talk about it.”
“Can you talk to Heath?” Nicole closed her eyes as her heart shattered at the question. “It’s obvious Heath is very fond of you. I haven’t seen him this happy in a while.”
“He is a wonderful man. A beautiful human being. I’ve known him a couple of days and already I believe I’m falling in love with him.”
“Then why won’t you believe things can work out between you two? Is it because of Heath’s parentage?”
“Oh no Mrs. Barkley, how can you ask that?” Nicole was appalled by the insinuation. “It’s just…it’s just too complicated.”
“What is? Being in love? Contemplating marriage and family?”
“In this case, yes.”
Before Victoria could delve deeper into this baffling mystery Heath returned with Daniel. No sooner had he assisted the boy down the saddle that the small wonder ecstatically ran to his mother to relate his rewarding experience on a horse.
“Mama, Mister Heath said he would take me riding every weekend and even show me how to ride my own pony if you say it’s okay. Oh please mama, say yes. I promise I’ll be good and do all of my chores without complaining. Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease.”
Victoria could see Nicole was over a barrel and scrambled to find a way to squeeze herself out of this tight spot that Heath had placed her into. Quickly she proposed taking Daniel for a walk through the peach groves to allow the estranged couple to clear the air between them. Heath gave her mother a grateful nod of the head.
“Let’s take a walk, shall we?” Heath suggested, offering a hand to give Nicole a hoist up, which she gladly accepted. He clasped her hand and led her away from the picnic area.
“Nicole, did I do or say somethin’ to upset ya?”
“No you didn’t Heath. Why do you ask?”
Heath shrugged. “Well, ya’ve been awfully quiet today. I can’t help thinkin’ that maybe I might’ve said somethin’ wrong last night to make ya hate me.”
“Hate you? Never.”
Heath stopped and stood before her, willing her eyes to his. “Then what is it? Tell me so I can make it right again. You must know by now that I’m quite smitten with ya.”
Nicole refused to lock stares, as the overwhelming rush of emotions was sure to betray the secret her sister has entrusted in her. “I’m fond of you too, Heath.”
“Then what is it?” he insisted, shaking her shoulders lightly to spur her into confessing.
“Please Heath,” she cried, trying to wrench herself free from his strong grip. “Please let it go.”
“I can’t Nicole, I’m sorry. I need to know what’s eatin’ ya up. It’s killin ya and it’s killin’ me.”
“No, I can’t. Please.”
“Alright!” she shouted angrily. “You’re Daniel’s father!” Her scorching look bore a hole into Heath who stood numbed in shock by the staggering revelation. As his grip lessened she was able to jerk herself loose and ran away in tears.
No sooner had Nicole left his sight that he swirled on his heels and swiftly caught up with her. He grabbed her forcefully, forcing her to stare him right in the square of the eyes. “Don’t ya sprin’ that bombshell and walk away from me,” he spewed out.
“I’m sorry,” she wailed. “I didn’t mean to. I…I just.”
“Please,” Heath begged on a calmer tone. “Please let’s sit and talk ‘bout this. I need to know what the hell you’re talkin’ ‘bout.” He held out his hand to clasp hers but she wavered. “Please.” Finally she allowed him to take a gentle hold of her hand and he escorted her to a tree where he assisted her down against the trunk, after which he sat beside her and waited patiently for her to speak.
With dewy eyes, a heart bursting at the seams and emotions spiralling out of control she glanced heavenwards to seek her sister’s forgiveness for purging her soul to Heath. With a heavy sigh, she spoke, “Do you remember a woman by the name of Katherine, famously known as Miss K.?” she asked with some reservations.
Heath searched his memory, combing through his mental files to retrieve the woman’s face. “She was a…” he faltered at the word.
“A saloon girl, that’s right,” she finished, bearing no shame. “She was my sister. Only I didn’t know she made a living out of entertaining cowboys until she called me on her death bed.” She turned to face Heath, but her eyes would not meet his. “She told me about this handsome blond that she fell in love with in spite of herself.”
“She made quite an impression on me too. I reckon that’s why I chose to see her three times during that same week. But ain’t no way I could’ve left her with a kid. I was careful,” Heath defended ferociously.
“That’s what all men say until accidents happen,” she scoffed.
“I swear to ya Nicole I never…”
Nicole shushed him with a hand on his arm. “It’s okay. What’s done is done. No sense dwelling on the past. You were just passing through to rob that bank, weren’t you?” Slowly she raised her inquisitive eyes to lock with his shameful blues.
Nicole nodded. “Katherine told me. That’s why she couldn’t tell you about the baby when she learned she was with child. Before she died, she had me promised to keep her secret. I agreed to raise Daniel as my own son.”
“I see. What d’she die of?”
“Some rare blood disease. I didn’t make the connection when you first told me your name. I figured there were dozens of men named Heath and the fact that you were a Barkley, well….”
“Yeah,” Heath smiled reminiscently, switching to a more comfortable position as he began relating his wild encounter with Nick. “It’s weird how life works. I was barely ten when I lost my mama. I had no other family to speak of so I wandered ‘round tryin’ to become a man. I was a hotheaded mixed up kid when I joined up with a gang of outlaws that took care of me. Strange as it sounds they were the best thing to a family I ever had.” Nicole rubbed his arm to convey her sympathy. “Then I met my brother Nick. He was in the bank we was robbin’ and later followed us.” Heath chuckled. “Foolish man. He could’ve got himself killed and almost did. There was a cave in and most of the guys was killed. Nick took me back to his ranch and just wouldn’ lemme go. Then Mrs. Barkley found out who I really was. I just couldn’t accept it. Fought it with every gut in my body. In the end they won me over. I guess I was tired of fightin’ against sump’thin’ I wanted and needed; a family to call my own.”
Nicole leaned into him and brushed a soft hand against his cheek. “That’s what Katherine saw in you; a righteous man waiting to find his true calling. Heath you are a beautiful human being. I’ve only known you for a few days and already I think I’m falling in love with you,” she professed freely, though slightly surprised by her outspokenness.
Heath’s head shot up at the confession. “You are?” he asked expectantly with an elfish lopsided grin.
“I am. But know that I will ever hold you responsible for Daniel. In fact if I hadn’t broken down you would never have found out.”
“But I wanna be a part of his life…if ya’ll lemme.” Heath stated with a light pleading tone.
“I don’t want you to feel obligated to him or to me for that matter.”
“Nicole, I loved you the moment I laid eyes on ya. It ain’t ‘cause of Daniel that I wish to court ya.”
She caught sight of Daniel and Victoria in a sidelong glance and smiled. “I think he’d want that very much.” Then she returned her gaze to Heath and added, “So would his mother.”
Heath started leaning in to steal a kiss when Daniel bounced up excitedly, holding up two fuzzy peaches. “Mom, Heath! Look at my peaches?” He handed one to Heath and one to his mother. “They’re good for you.”
Both Nicole and Heath humoured the child by sinking their teeth into the juicy fruits. In the background Victoria’s heart brimmed over with joy at the blissful expression shining on her son’s face; an elation she had longed to see glowing since regaining the use of his legs following a near-fatal shooting.
As days cascaded down a beautiful romance blossomed between Heath and Nicole. Their happiness was contagious, infecting many including big brother Nick’s who finally garnered enough courage to strike up a conversation with Russ Adelson’s daughter, wrangler Sarah Evans, a spunky cowgirl that was branded too hot to handle. Sarah knew she had found her match but would not allow this stallion to tame her so easily. It was one battle of the wits after the other until the filly finally yielded and accepted her mate, much to her father’s surprise. Russ Adelson could die a happy man knowing his only daughter would be well provided for.
“Okay, you can look now,” Heath said to Nicole who had kept her hands over her eyes with growing anticipation of her beau’s surprise.
“Why are we here?” she asked quizzically.
“It’s your new home, Nicole. Yours and Daniel’s,” Heath informed excitedly. “Come,” he clasped her hand. “lemme show ya the inside. I had a few men do som’ repairs ‘fore you could move in. Come.”
“Heath you’re not serious!” she remonstrated, though her tone betrayed her true emotions. “This is too much!”
“Nonsense! You said it was your dream house when we first visited it?”
“Yes but…it was only an infatuation, not to be considered seriously.”
“Heath, it’s too much. I was only daydreaming.”
“Well consider it a dream comin’ a reality. Come with me.” He wrapped his arm around her waist and led her to the front porch. “You even got a swing on the porch. I put that one in, so we could sit together and look at the stars.” Heath said with a mischievous grin
“Heath Barkley, what am I going to do with you?” She shook her head in disbelief.
Heath enlaced her in his arms and pressed his lips firmly against her strawberry-red ones, deepening the kiss until her knees started to buckle. “Anything you want.” he drawled in a whispering breath.