Heath heard the sound first. Like a shower of gravel hitting the window. Of course why would that be happening at this late hour? Heath in his semi sleep decided it wasn't and went back to sleep. His stirring had disturbed Meg's sleep and she mumbled something before snuggling into his arms and going back to sleep. Heath kissed the top of her head and pulled her into him.
A few moments later Heath heard the same sound. His subconscious really wanted to ignore it. Hell, he wanted to ignore it. But he couldn't. A third shower of stones against the window and he knew he had to get up. As he got up, his movement disturbed Meg. "Sorry, darlin'," he apologised as he eased himself out of bed.
Heath moved to the window, opened the drapes and the window and peered down into the moonlit darkness below. It was his brother Nick.
"Nick. What the hell are you doing down there?"
"Well that's a fine welcome. Up to three months ago I lived here, or have you forgotten?"
Heath looked across to the clock. He could barely make out the time, but was sure it had gone midnight. "Have you seen the time?"
"Not lately.” Nick’s impatience was obvious, “I don't know if it has registered yet. But it's the middle of the night. Get that butt of yours down here and open the door. I don't want to wake Silas."
Heath sighed. Whatever it was he knew Nick would probably keep him up half the night telling him about it.
"Is it Nick?' Meg asked sleepily.
"Nope, just Nick."
"Doesn't sound good."
"Go back to sleep, darlin‘. He can sleep in his old room if it comes to that."
Heath moved to the door.
"Pants!" Meg advised.
Heath looked at his undressed state and went to chest of drawers for some sleeping pants in order to make himself decent.
"It's cold, put a robe on." His wife counselled again. Heath grabbed his robe.
"Go back to sleep, darlin‘. I won't be long."
"Yes you will. Be sure to make a fire if you stay up. I'll ride over to see Jenny tomorrow if it is what I think it is."
"It's only been three months."
"Three months is like three years with your brother. I'm surprised they have lasted this long."
"We don't know it's that."
A further shower of gravel against the window indicated Nick's growing impatience.
"We do now."
Heath opened the door, went down the corridor, his progress checked by the sound of one year old Rosie crying. He stopped in the nursery and rather than run the risk of Rosie waking up her siblings, picked her up along with her warm blanket and carried her downstairs, locating the key to the front door and opening it to a clearly unimpressed Nick.
"Well, you took your time. A man could freeze out here." Bellowed Nick, giving no concession to the late hour, or the baby present.
"Well you didn't." Heath answered laconically, his more pressing concern being to see to what was upsetting Rosie who was now red cheeked from crying.
"I need a brandy. Coming?" Nick announced, taking off his thick coat, draping it and his hat over a near chair and finding his way to the drinks cart.
They were joined by Jarrod who was visiting and who had come awake with the disturbance. "Ah, Nick. So good of you to choose a convivial hour to visit. Want a hand there, Heath?"
Heath gratefully passed over Rosie who went to her uncle without question, her crying subdued somewhat, a hand rubbing her tear-stained eye as she took in the presence of her Uncle Nick and his loud voice. His hands freed, Heath went to light the fire. He then went to fetch some water for his baby daughter whilst Nick poured them all drinks.
"No Jenny with you?" Jarrod teased as he exchanged funny facial expressions and sounds with his one year old niece who now up, was ready to play.
"No, Jenny is not with me."
Heath returned with the water and Jarrod carefully gave it to his niece who drank from it greedily, tears being thirsty work. "Whoa now little niece. Your Papa won't trust me again, if we don't do this properly. You got to drink it nice and slow." That earned him a kid brother's smile from Heath who would trust his brother with anything.
Nick showed his continued impatience at not being center stage. After all, he'd rode here during the cold night, waited for his kid brother to finally get up and answer the door, now both of his brothers showed little urgency in finding out what was wrong.
Though the fire had barely got going he went and stood in front of it, rubbing his backside so as to get some feeling back into it. Heath joined Jarrod in sitting down. Rosie checked where he sat and happy he was in sight, continued her play with her Uncle Jarrod, her little fingers clasping at the rich material of his robe.
Eventually, Jarrod spoke. "I take it you and Jenny have had a falling out."
Nick snorted. "You could put it like that."
"Are we allowed to ask the circumstances?"
"I have absolutely no idea why!"
"It all seem to start over nothing. She accused me of being insensitive. Not taking enough interest in her. I ended up with a cold dinner and being told to go sleep in the spare room."
"And, of course, you came here?"
"Well, obviously she doesn't want me around her."
"Yes, naturally that would make you come back home. I must say, Nick," said Jarrod standing up and returning Rosie to Heath with whom he exchanged a smile at their brother's expense, "It must be a record."
"A record? What do you mean?"
"Well, I at least thought the marriage would last longer than ... let me see, how long has it been? Three months."
"Three months, two days and six hours."
"There speaks a new husband." Jarrod dryly observed, as he lit a cigar and went to stand by the fire to get some of its warmth.
Heath set Rosie down on the floor where she held onto his leg for a minute before exploring on her own, grabbing things on the way so that Heath was kept busy following her around.
"I just don't know what's got into the woman. What does she want from me? I built her a house, bought her that new horse that she wanted. She has me."
"Well, of course that makes all the difference."
"What do you know? You haven't even got round to asking Felicity to marry you yet."
"Well, neither am I a husband who finds himself without a bed or a wife tonight."
"I have a bed...Don't I?" Nick queried, suddenly not to sure and looking to Heath for affirmation.
"You do. Your old room does not have the vacant sign on it yet. Brothers," he yawned, picking up Rosie and putting his half-finished drink down. "I'm going to put Rosie back in her cot and then I'm going to join my own wife in bed. I'll see you both in the morning. Goodnight. Say goodnight Rosie."
Jarrod and Nick waved goodnight to their niece and watched father and daughter climb the stairs. "Another drink, Nick?"
"Why not." His brother replied, plopping himself into a chair and kicking off his boots.
Jarrod sighed. "It was too soon for Nick to need a lawyer yet."
"Yes Mother," Heath acknowledged as he joined her at the breakfast table, first giving her a kiss on the cheek. They were the first ones down.
"But why?" Victoria's realized her words were coming across sharp and tempered them slightly. "Not that I am not happy to see him. But why is he here and without Jenny?"
"I think he and Jenny had a falling out." Heath explained, preferring for the explanation to come from Nick rather than himself who still knew very little.
"Then he needs to fix it in his own home, not return here like some teenage bride." Victoria replied in true Victoria Barkley and uncompromising style. She never interfered in her sons' marriages and was not going to start taking sides now.
Heath's lips curled at that last remark.
"It's not funny, Heath."
"No Mother it isn't."
Victoria saw that Heath did not remove the smile or the merriment in his blue eyes. "Oh well, maybe it is a little.." And the two, alone for the moment burst out laughing.
Their laughter was stopped short as one by one Heath's children, ambled in for breakfast, the older ones dressed for school.
When the children, now seated - the smaller ones with a helping hand from their father - saw their Uncle Nick sit down with them, questioning looks went immediately to their father.
"Your uncle is just visiting." Their grandmother answered for Heath, relaying to not just them but their uncle a clear message.
Nick hmmphed loudly and reached for the eggs.
"Morning Mother, Heath, children... err... and Nick." Jarrod greeted as he too came in for breakfast. His face wore a deeply amused look which Nick knew only too well and could see was directed his way.
"Morning." Nick growled back.
Heath Jr who was four and a half waited for his Uncle Jarrod to sit down next to him and then informed him that Uncle Nick was just visiting.
"Thank you for informing me Master. Barkley. Tell me. Do you think your Uncle looks a bit unwell this morning?
"I think he's grumpy, Uncle Jarrod. He's growling a lot."
"Growling, you say."
"I am here, you know." Nick growled right on cue, scaring Heath Jr right off his chair and under the table so that only his white knuckled hands remained clinging on to the table.
"For goodness sake, Nick. Do you have to scare the boy?" Jarrod shot back, assuring Heath jr that his bad Uncle Nick did not mean it and helping the boy back on to his chair again. Heath Jr. took some persuasion.
Nick was mortified. He did not realize how out of sorts he was, the last thing he wanted to do was scare the boy or any of the children. A still uncertain Heath Jr. resurfaced and Nick immediately apologised.
"You're not angry with me anymore?" Heath jr asked, his eyes wide trying to seek the truth and his bottom lip quivering.
Nick was crestfallen. He loved these children like they were his own. His bad temper at his own situation had spilled over to the children and he had in the process terrified them.
He got off his chair and walked around to his little nephew determined to convince him that he was really good ole' Uncle Nick again. Heath Jr did not make it easy. His appealing eyes threatened to spill over with tears.
"Oh Lord!" Nick thought, "How do I fix this?"
The whole family waited to see.
Each of the brothers stood up as Meg came into the room and remained standing until she had sat down.
"Good morning Nick." Meg said pointedly but not devoid of concern for she did love her brother-in-law, it was just that, like the rest of the family did, she grew exasperated with him sometimes.
"Good morning." Nick replied, his voice low and respectful out of self-preservation, aware that a lioness protected her cubs.
Little Josh who had witnessed his older brother being scared by his Uncle Nick immediately climbed down off his chair, bottom first, and sought out the sanctuary of his mother's lap. Only when he felt his mother's protective arms around his waist did he raise his huge doe eyes to watch his uncle carefully. While trying to make amends with one little Barkley Nick felt himself under scrutiny from another. He was moved to say something. Not always his best move.
"Ah Little Josh, you don't have to be scared of me too. Look it's Uncle Nick. You love your Uncle Nick, right?" And as if to emphasise the point he grinned widely, only to be honest it wasn't one of his best grins. In fact it was downright scary in its intensity with the consequence that both Little Josh and Heath jr began to cry.
"Nicholas Barkley! Just what are you doing to my children?" Meg demanded, perplexed at the tears that were not there before.
Josh turned around in her lap and whispered. "He growled, Mama. And then he pulled a horrible face. Like this!"
Nick struggled to recognise himself from the description and to defend himself to the lioness. "A funny face? I didn't. I just tried to..."
"You did too, Uncle Nick," eight year old Samuel corrected, sealing his fate. "After you scared Heath Jr."
"Well I didn't mean to. Come on now kids. It's me! Your Uncle Nick. If I stop growling, will you forgive me?"
"You got to promise," Heath Jr said solemnly.
"You have my solemn word, young Heath." Nick promised still kneeling on the floor.
"Well alright then," Heath Jr conceded still not favouring his uncle with a smile.
Nick didn't push it.
"Nick, old boy," He heard Jarrod say behind him. "You better get up before you stay like that permanently.
A chastised, rather embarrassed Nick got up feeling the eyes of Meg and young Barkleys on him.
Heath went to his brother's aid. "Nick. If you head out to the barn I'll join you in a minute. We can ride over to those fences that need fixing this morning."
"But you haven't had your breakfast?" Meg addressed her husband.
Heath bent down to give her a kiss and ruffle Josh's hair. "Neither has Nick. I'll ask Silas to pack us something. We won't starve. Don't be too hard on him. He in a fix and doesn't know quite how he got there."
Meg gave him a confirming smile. "I'll take the children to school and drop off at Jenny's on the way home. Maybe I can find out what the problem is?"
"Sure hope you can." Heath opined. He was looking for a solution as much as Nick was, perhaps more.
"Go. I'll see you later."
The kissed again and Heath left.
Nick took one last forlorn look at his uneaten breakfast. His stomach growled and Heath Jr. gave him a look.
"That was my stomach, not me." Nick protested. It was fortunate he did not witness his mother's, Jarrod's and Meg's smiles.
Heath listened with sympathy to his brother's hunger pangs which had accompanied them like the wind section of an orchestra along their ride. "Here," he announced, throwing his brother a bag that contained sandwiches.
"Thanks," Nick said gratefully.
Quickly, not bothering to remove his gloves, he dipped his hand into the bag, grabbed and then sank his teeth into a sandwich. It was the best sandwich he had tasted.
"Couldn't listen to those hunger pangs of yours anymore," Heath joked, getting a sandwich for himself though with more restraint.
"I didn't mean to upset the kids," Nick broached, after taking a further bite.
"I know you didn't. There just a might young to understand yet."
"Think Meg will forgive me?"
"She always has up to now."
"You make it sound like it's a regular thing."
"You make it a regular thing, Nick."
"No, I don't... I don't, do I?"
The two rode, eating more of their sandwiches, both silent, Nick contemplating Heath's words.
After a while, Heath spoke. "Feel like talkin'? We got a ways to go yet." No reply came from Nick for a good few minutes then finally he said:
"You do this marriage thing pretty well, don't ya, Heath?"
Heath was taken aback. "How do ya mean, Nick?"
"Well, you and Meg. It's like you've always been married."
"Well, I've been married longer than you."
"No it's more than that. You two are very similar. You think alike. Me and Jenny, well we're like fire and water. And yes I know I'm the fire, but sometimes she makes me feel like the water. Ways I see it, ya never did buck against the saddle. You took to marriage like it was the most natural thing."
"Are you bucking against the saddle, Nick?" Heath didn't joke. He genuinely wanted to help his brother.
Nick didn't respond for a few minutes then pulled up his horse, forcing Heath to do the same. When Nick dismounted and walked over to the waters edge of the river flowing by the road they had been travelling, Heath watched for a moment and then did the same.
Nick let out a long sigh. "I reckon. A bit. Heath, tell me. When you were first married to Meg, didn't you... especially when you hand't expected to get married."
"Didn't I what?" Heath creased his brow, wondering what Nick was driving at.
"Didn't you just want to break free every now and then."
"No." Was Heath's honest answer.
"No? Not ever?
Heath picked up a stone to skim across the water and the two brothers watched it bounce lightly across the surface several times. "Nick, I like being married. I like sharing my life with Meg."
"Well I do too!"
"I'm taking you mean with Jenny not with my Meg." Heath smiled, unable to resist teasing just a little.. "Nick, what is this? You're acting like a stallion that don't want to be broke. You and Jenny had a long courtship. Reckon the time to express doubts was then, not now."
"I don't mind being broken, just not all at once. Marriage it needs some adjusting to. I mean the honeymoon was great. The month after and the month after that."
"So what's happened this month to change your mind. It's usually the bride who runs home to Mama."
"That ain't funny." Nick snorted, skimming a stone himself across the water, improving on Heath's previous attempt.
"I left because she no longer allowed me in the marital bed."
"There was always the spare room."
“Nick Barkley does not sleep in the spare room."
"No he checks out of the house. Not a good move Nick." Said Heath, picking up another stone.
"And how would you have handled it?"
"I wouldn't have got out of the marital bed in the first place, Nick."
Nick stared out to the lake. "How I am going to fix it, Heath?"
"First you got to ask if you want to be married to Jenny."
Nick turned, "Of course I do. I love her! I just need to learn how to do this marriage thing. I need time."
Heath resisted a laugh. Nick sounded like some virgin bride. And Nick sure was no virgin. "Something must have sparked the trouble between you too." Heath said perceptively.
"What makes you say that?"
"Because I know you Nick. Jenny didn't kick you out of bed for nothing. What did you do?"
"You need to know?"
"Reckon you better tell me, if you don't want to end up a permanent houseguest at the ranch."
Nick sighed heavily. "Well, okay then. But you just laugh once and I'll throw you into that river."
Nick talked and Heath listened. Quiet followed. Then ever so imperceptibly Heath began to laugh. Nick didn't notice at first, he was too busy looking out across the river, wondering about the wisdom of having told Heath. But the damn had been broken. Heath's laugh grew and grew until he was holding his sides, bent double with the pain. He never saw his brother coming. All he felt was himself being lifted, carried several yards down the jetty and then thrown into the river. It took him several moments to resurface. And Nick wasn't laughing. But Heath still was. Nick growled loudly, knowing he shouldn't have told his brother.
Whilst Heath was emerging dripping wet from the river, on another part of Barkley land Meg had bundled the children into the wagon and was driving them to school. The children were full of questions.
“But why is Uncle Nick staying with us Mama?” seven year old Leah asked. “Doesn’t he like his new house?”
“Because.” Ten year old precocious Cate said, emphasising the word.
“Because what?” Leah enquired, no wiser.
“Well it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Cate continued, a captive audience listening to her every word.
“It’s not obvious to me,” a more knowledgeable thirteen year old Thomas replied, feeling as though his uncle needed some defense.
“Nor me,” Sean added, joining forces with his brother.
“Nor me,” Heath Jr added.
“Oh what would you know!” Cate said dismissively of the four year old boy.
“I know a lot.” Heath Jr declared. “Papa said I was learning all the time.” He added with four year old defiance.
“Well you don’t know about this.” Cate refused to give up her platform of self-importance now that they were all listening. She hadn’t be told to sit down by her mother yet, but she knew that would be coming sometime soon so she hurried up. “Clearly, Aunt Jenny wants a divorce!”
“Cate that will be quite enough." Meg tempered. "Please sit down for the rest of the journey. We will be coming into town shortly.”
“But Mama! When Mr. Montague left his wife, they got a divorce! Uncle Nick has left Aunt Jenny so they are bound to be getting a divorce.”
“Your Uncle Nick and Aunt Jenny are not getting a divorce. Now, children I do not want you mentioning any of this at school or to your friends. You must promise me. Your Uncle Nick is just staying with us for a few days. Now promise me.”
“Promise Mama,” the children chorused.
Meg waited for Cate to answer. It was a while coming but it came under Meg's refusal to continue without it. “I promise Mama.”
“Good. Now settle down.”
“I need to go.”
“Oh Josh. Alright, little one. Just give me a minute.”
Meg stopped the wagon, applied the break and asked the children to stay in the wagon whilst she saw to Josh, finding a nearby tree for privacy that must have been used for a similar purpose before, certainly by one of the little Barkleys.
Cate was dying to say something more about her theory regarding Uncle Nick but having promised her Mama not to talk about it, she obeyed. It was difficult though.
Josh ran back to the wagon, his pressing call of nature no longer a pressing matter and with help from his brothers let himself be pulled up into the wagon. With Meg seated, the journey continued. She could almost hear the children’s minds working overtime about their Uncle Nick. Thank heavens the younger ones were not at school yet. The older ones could be trusted to hold their tongue.
The wagon sailed into town and Meg navigated the busy streets until they reached the school house which was where Jenny use to work.
One by one the children tumbled out, Sean and Thomas quickly finding their friends, Cate, Samuel and Leah pausing longer to say goodbye, Heath jr and Josh wondering why they couldn’t join their brothers and sisters at school.
“Not this year,” Meg laughed as she fetched Heath jr back. "Next September I promise." Josh hadn’t moved from the wagon but his doe eyes were clearly on the fun being had in the school yard. The children were playing a game of tag and he desperately wanted to join in.
“Now be good and your father will be here to pick you up after school.” Meg counselled as she kissed each one goodbye.
As she bent low to Cate to give her a kiss, Cate took the opportunity to whisper into her mother’s ear. “I am right, aren’t I, Mama? About Uncle Nick I mean. I promise I won’t say anything.”
“No Cate you are not right." Meg whispered back firmly. "Now stop your worrying and your speculation about your Uncle Nick and Aunt Jenny. Everything is going to be fine.”
“Alright Mama, if you say so.”
Meg gave her daughter a firm eye. “I do Cate. Now please it’s a private matter for your uncle and aunt and it needs to stay that way, do you hear me?"
Cate nodded, understanding her mother’s words. The school bell sounded and she took hold off her brother and sister’s hands and together they went over to the school house steps to line up to go into school.
Meg sighed, hoping that Cate’s penchant for painting things bigger than life did not come true this morning. The worst thing Nick and Jenny needed now was to have their separation made public.
Heath stripped out of his clothes, pooling water where he stood. Without ceremony he took his clothes to the end of the jetty and wrung out the excess water, repeating the process several times. First the long johns, then the pants, his favourite pair at that, next his shirt and finally his beloved vest. His hat had mercifully escaped the dunking, having tumbled off his head as Nick had lifted him up.
Nick stared at his long limbed, muscular brother stooped over the jetty’s edge, the temptation to push him again still strong. For as Heath carried out his unexpected morning laundry, he was still chuckling, still very much tickled by what his brother had said.
“Enough already,” Nick shouted across to him barely able to contain his rage.
Heath began whistling. “You said something, Nick?”
“Look, you’ve had your fun. I’ve had mine. Now let’s get going.”
“I would Nick, but my clothes are wet and what I‘m wearing is all I have.”
“Yeah, well. Count yourself lucky I didn’t do worse.”
“I’m standing buck naked Nick and my clothes are wet. How much worse could it get. I feel pretty foolish right now.”
“Sure do. Of course, you could help.”
“I can? How?”
“Pass me a blanket. I might not have a change of clothes but at least the blanket will give me a bit of warmth.”
Now Nick felt guilty. It was a warm day, but not when you weren’t wearing any clothes and were wet. Nick quickly moved to get the blanket and then took it up to the jetty to where Heath was standing.
“Here,” he growled, taking Heath’s wrung out pants in exchange. “I’ll start hanging these on those bushes over there. They should be dry soon if we get going.”
Nick proceeded to hang out all of Heath’s clothing whilst Heath wrapped the blanket around his middle and then sat down on the jetty with his feet overhanging the edge. Nick joined him in due course.
“Nick. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. Well in any other circumstances maybe I would have laughed myself.”
A smile curved Heath’s lips. Sitting as they were, Heath’s clothes hanging out to dry, him dressed only in a blanket and Nick as he was, the absurdity of the situation hit them both.
Nick lips also began to smile, and soon both brothers were chuckling.
“You got to admit it’s funny. Surely, Jenny understood.”
“I think what it is proverbially called , is ‘the last straw.”
“At least it wasn’t a woman’s name.”
Nick wasn‘t so sure. “Uttering your brother’s name when your wife is making love to you is not something I would recommend. I’d no sooner said it, than I found myself pushed out of bed. That wife of mine can sure pack a punch.”
“What on earth made you call out my name? I mean I love you dearly brother but you are the last person on my mind when I am with my Meg.”
“Believe me brother I don’t usually think of you. But, I’d been thinking about that darn problem up on the South Pasture. You know we’ve been going back and forth over what to do with it, not meeting eye to eye on it. Well, I’d been thinking about it all evening and suddenly the solution occurred to me. That’s when I uttered your name, but it came out all kind of strange if you know what I mean, because Jenny was nuzzling my ear.”
“You know ….strange.”
Heath began to giggle. “Oh that kind of strange.”
“Then we started a row about how my mind was more on the ranch than on her and that lately I haven’t being paying her enough attention. She started bringing up other things.”
“Apparently, I’m loud around the house.”
“We’ve been telling you that for years, Nick.”
“Apparently it’s a crime to go town to play poker.”
“Poker or the arms of a beautiful wife, that’s a tough one, Nick. “
“I don’t pay her enough attention.”
“Not if you‘re thinking about the south pasture and me, you‘re not.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“Nick it’s not a question of sides. You admit you feel a bit trapped.”
Nick heard his own words come back to him.
“I love her, Heath.”
“No one’s doubting that Nick, except maybe Jenny right now.”
“So how do I fix things.”
“Nick, I reckon your crime was not so great. Sounds to me like things have been building for a while. Of course, you acted like a right chump by walking out.”
“You’re still not taking sides, huh?”
Heath smiled and continued. “Marriage is about compromise, Nick. Jenny’s not really asking you to change, or give up the things you like, just share with her more. It’s a question of balance. I reckon you’ve done a pretty good job of putting a self-imposed yoke around your neck and pulling it tight. Stop worrying about your loss of freedom and you‘ll see you haven’t really lost it, just exchanged it for something better.”
“I know that here,” Nick exclaimed, pressing his hand to his heart, “It’s just my head doesn’t realize it yet.” He thought on the matter for a time before turning to Heath and saying, “Thanks Heath. You’re not bad for a kid brother.”
“Do you really mean that Nick.”
“Yep. I mean it.”
“Will you do me a favour then. You know because we are so close.”
“What do you want?”
“Fetch me my long johns, will you?”
Heath’s contact with the water was sudden. Nick had done it again.
After dropping the children off at school and running a few shopping errands in town , Meg arrived with Heath Jr and Josh at Nick and Jenny’s house somewhere approaching noon. The children had been good all morning and were eager to get down from the wagon and play with Uncle Nick’s dog, Jack.
As if on cue, Jack came bounding round the house and jumped up at the wagon just as eager for them to get down. Meg helped them down. First Heath Jr and then Josh. Jack began licking their faces and both boys giggled under the attention they both got.
“Now don’t go far boys.” Their mother cautioned them. “Your Aunty Jenny and I will just be on the porch.”
“We won’t Mama,” both boys promised. Meg sighed pragmatically, realizing that both boys would be ready for the tub by the time they got home.
“Meg!” Jenny greeted, swinging open the porch door, her hands shedding the apron she had just been wearing and then tidying her hair so it was neat again.
“Oh and you brought the boys! Josh, Heath Jr, come here now and give your aunt a kiss.”
Both boys scampered across and planted a kiss each on their aunt’s cheek. Jack followed his friends.
“Well, I bet you two are thirsty.” Their aunt correctly guessed. “Would you both like a drink of my lemonade?”
“Yes please!” The boys chorused.
“Good. Well you all sit down whilst I go fetch it.”
She disappeared behind the swing door which creaked closed and whislt she was gone Meg under the shelter of the porch removed her sun bonnet and she and the boys sat down. Jack found a spot where he could be pampered by both boys.
“Mama. Can we go and play again?” Heath Jr asked.
“Yes dear. After you had your drink. Come here whilst I brush your hair back. I think I will have to cut it when we get home.”
Four year old Heath Jr toddled across from his chair and climbed up on to his mother’s knee. He lay his head down on her breast whilst she teased his soft blond hair straight. He was nearly asleep when his Aunt Jenny returned with a tray of ice cool lemonade.
Meg gently teased him awake. “Come on darling. Have your drink and then you can go and play.” She helped him hold the glass proffered by Jenny and told him to slow down when he tried to drink too quickly. Then when the glass was drained, she dropped a kiss to head and he shuffled off her lap. The two boys went off to play.
“So.” Jenny pronounced as she found herself alone with Meg and unable to avoid the quizzical eye of her best friend and sister-in-law. “Has my Nick been served his eviction notice yet?”
Meg laughed. Whatever else had happened, Jenny had not lost her sense of humour.
“Not yet. Though Heath Jr and Josh gave him a hard time this morning for which he is still doing penance.”
“Those little angels. Why?”
“Jenny my dear. Your husband is missing you and he is like a bear with a sore head, wondering how he ended up this way.”
“Let him miss away.”
“You miss him too.“ Meg gently rebuked her friend. “He doesn’t understand yet how he is there and you are here and when he doesn’t understand he….”
Both women laughed and the two wandered over to the porch railing arm in arm to watch the boys playing.
“Those two are simply too precious. All your children are. I must remind myself to have a little Josh and Heath Jr too.” Jenny enthused.
“Oh, you are planning on children then?” Meg teased.
“Will be the doting father, of course.”
“I tell you,” Jenny opined, pouring Meg and herself another glass of lemonade. “He better have grown into the role of husband by then.”
“Nick. Yes I know.”
“The man you fell in love with.”
“Oh I love the big chump, right enough. He just FRUSTRATES me so.”
“And he didn’t before?”
“A wife expects to exert a positive influence once married. It goes with the territory.”
“It will take a lifetime. You and Nick are only just starting out.”
“Did he tell you what happened?”
“I bet he told Heath.” Again Jenny laughed, imagining Heath‘s reaction. She did not think less of her brother in law for the incident. It was after all not his fault. Jenny could never be jealous of Nick and Heath’s close bond. “When I think, it’s funny now, but at the time I didn’t consider it so.” She proceeded to tell Meg the story. When she had finished, both women were laughing.
“Oh dear, Jenny. No wonder you pushed him out of bed.”
“You should have seen him.” Jenny’s mind went back to the scene. Nick sitting there on the floor, not quite understanding how he had travelled from bed to floor with such speed.”
“He did. But we argued. Well, I argued. Nick didn’t have much say in the matter.”
“Nick has two passions, Jenny. You and the ranch.”
“I know that. I just don’t want him confusing the two especially when we are…”
“You are center in his heart and always will be. You only have to listen to him when he talks about you. And his face takes on a look that has never been there before.”
“You know it does.”
“A wife likes to be reminded.” Jenny softened as she smiled at the antics of her two nephews. She couldn’t wait to be pregnant, but she had the babies’ father to sort out first.
“I think he feels constrained by marriage. I know he loves me. But this marriage thing. Well, that is more tricky.”
“Well, he’s not managing the separation from you any better.” Meg replied, giving her blunt appraisal of Nick‘s efforts so far.
“We’re not separated!” Jenny was both surprised by the statement and suggestion that her marriage was in disrepair.
“Well, you’re here and he‘s there. You’re not together that‘s for sure.”
“But we will be. I am just giving him thinking time.”
“You’re giving Nick thinking time? What will he do with it?“
“Hey now! That’s my husband you are talking about there.”
“A husband belongs with his wife.” Meg was unapologetic.
“Does that mean he’s getting his eviction notice?”
“Not yet, but he will be iff’n you don’t sort it soon.”
“Meg Barkley, I thought you were my friend.”
“I am. That’s why I want to see you two back together.”
“Hmm.” Jenny opined again. “Well, Nick Barkley had better plan on winning me back.”
“I don’t know. But it had better be good. I want those babies soon and I don’t plan on having them without Nick Barkley!”
“I’ve got to win her back!” Nick was more than agitated by Meg's casual telling of the information.
Meg nodded, wondering why her husband was all wet. It was the early afternoon and Meg had just returned from Jenny’s with the boys and news of Jenny‘s stipulation.
“Nick, why is my husband all wet?” She said, whilst taking off her bonnet.
“Huh?” Nick looked at his brother who was not completely dried off yet.
“He fell in the water.”
“Fell in the water?”
“Twice? He fell in the water twice?’
“What? Yes twice.”
“Would you mind telling me how?”
Nick thought for a minute, contemplating not Meg‘s question but what Jenny had said. “Later, Meg,” he eventually said. “I’m borrowing your husband for a bit. We won’t be long.”
Nick didn’t answer. He dragged a non-comprehending and very damp Heath off and up the stairs. The poor boy had not even had chance to say hello to his wife.
“Where are you going?” Meg shouted after them as they climbed the stairs.
“I need your husband to help me win back my wife.” Nick shouted back down. “Don’t worry I’ll return him later.”
“What are you taking a bath for? “ Nick’s impatience was running as high as the water Heath was running. “’ You’ve already been dumped in the river twice. You‘re clean enough. We need to get going.”
“I’m cold, Nick. I’m taking a hot bath to get warm. And since I don’t trust you around me and water any more, I‘d rather take it alone. Now, if you don’t mind I’m taking a bath.”
Nick felt himself promptly ejected from the bathroom and found himself standing on the other side of the door. Words could not describe the look on his face or the frustration he felt.
Sensing his brother was still outside the door Heath shouted. “Go down stairs Nick. I’m not coming out until I am good and ready.”
Nick snorted. “Well you better make damned sure it’s today. This is my marriage we’re talking about.”
“Your marriage Nick, not mine.” Came back the reply followed by Heath whistling, increasing Nick’s ire.
Meg came up the stairs, saw the scene, resisted commenting and fetched Heath a change of clothes from their bedroom.
“Why is Nick standing guard outside? She whispered as she closed the bathroom door behind her and exchanged the clean clothes for the damp ones Heath had shed.
“Come here and I’ll tell you.” Heath beckoned and then in a low voice told her what had transpired and what Nick needed him for.
Meg couldn’t suppress the laugh the image immediately brought to mind. “Oh no! Oh Heath! What will you do?”
“I don’t know but I got me between here and Nick’s place to think of something.”
“Well good luck, dear. I hope you do. Though I have to say, you have never done that for me. We‘ve been married nearly eight years and I have never had you….”
Later that afternoon, the two brothers set off. Heath was normally an enthusiastic horseman, but was certainly not enjoying his ride out to Nick and Jenny's house on this occasion. Once already, he had tried to turn back but Nick had caught up with him and threatened to take Charger's reins if he tried it again.
"You're kidnapping me!" Heath protested with some exaggeration.
"I'm borrowing you. There's a difference." Nick shot back.
"It won't work." Heath offered, referring to Nick's plan.
"It will." Nick insisted. His mind and journey firmly set.
"You'd do better on your own." Heath was still not giving up.
"Nothin' doing kid. You're coming with me and that's that."
Heath sighed. Having been dunked in the river twice that day he was not going to take any more risks. Not now, anyway. At least he still had the reins of his horse so escape still seemed a possibility.
Nicks mood was as exuberant as Heath's was despondent, confidence swelling that his plan would work. He waved off Heath's concerns. As usual he was right and if found wrong the fact would not be proved until after the event. It was Nick’s way.
His more reserved brother nursed his own feelings on the subject.
When they finally reached the house Nick virtually had to drag Heath off his horse. As it was Heath attempted to climb back on Charger several times before Nick finally got him grounded.
“Here,” he said passing Heath the instrument which to Heath was becoming more like an instrument of torture given what he was required to do.
The instrument protested with a loud and out of tune twang as it was pressed to Heath's service.
Nick's faced creased when he heard it.
"Sorry Nick. I'll fix it,” Heath apologised.
Nick raised his eyes in frustration and busied himself to see if Jenny was about. From his hidden location he spied her on the porch mending his shirt. In typical fashion he took male satisfaction from the fact that it was his shirt she was mending.
“Perfect!” he thought. “You ready Heath?”
“Err. No.” Heath said weakly. He mentally measured the distance between himself and his horse. He could make it in ten long strides.
Nick was having none of it. “Play!” he demanded as he prepared to emerge from where he was hiding and serenade his wife back into his life.
Heath began to strum the guitar, an instrument he had learned during his time in Mexico and which he only occasionally played.
Nick’s voice was deep and rich and thankfully tuneful. In family gatherings it was his voice that stood out. He used this now to woo back his wife. His voice carried across to the porch as he approached on foot.
Heath, deeply embarrassed followed a little behind.
Jenny recognised the voice instantly and stopped her sewing. She understood immediately what was going on. The sight of her husband approaching with reluctant brother in tow made her want to giggle but she resisted. It would not do to ruin what after all might never happen again. She decided to savour the moment, though she felt for Heath’s acute embarrassment. How typical of Nick to rope Heath in to what was his problem.
She watched as Nick, confident that he had got his wife’s attention and perhaps even back her heart met her at the porch railing and serenaded her deep into her eyes. It was beguiling and Jenny was not immune to her husband’s charms and hazel bedroom eyes which were full of promise. She loved the man after all. He leant forward, she leant forward, lips almost touching. Quickly, she moved away, remembering she was suppose to be teaching him a lesson. He was not going to win her back so soon.
Nick’s face fell. He almost had her. What had changed her mind?
Jenny, needed to be distracted from her husband and turned her attention to Heath.
“You feeling pretty foolish there, Heath?”
“Nothin’ pretty about it.” Came back the reply.
“You want to go home?”
Heath did not need any further encouragement. He left Nick and Jenny to sort out their own problems.
Jenny faced Nick. “You want to talk now, or would you prefer to go on singing?”
“I did it for you.”
“I know you did, dear. But I think talking is what we need to do now. Come inside.”
“Am I staying?”
“Depends how well you do talking.”
Later that evening, Heath got up from his chair. Meg put down her darning and walked with him to the door.
“It’s turned midnight. I reckon Jenny must have taken him back.” Heath opined, looking for endorsement from Meg.
“Looks like it,” Meg agreed, wrapping her arm around Heath’s middle.
“I’ll lock up.”
Meg nodded releasing him so he could bolt the door.
They began making their way upstairs.
“So how long do I have to wait to be serenaded?” Meg teased as she felt her husband’s arm wrap around her.
“You want serenadin’, darlin‘?” Heath finished his question with a kiss. “Just wait till I get you in the bedroom.”
...until Nick does it again
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