Heath sat down on the bed shocked at the news. His fingers clutched at the material of the bedspread under him, scrunching the fabric up into a tight ball as he did so and making his knuckles turn white in the process. He tried to take the news in, struggling to gather his thoughts, struggling to understand the ramifications of what the doctor had said. All he could see was the bleakness that lay ahead. He was only twenty-seven years old. A widower with two boys and a girl, a young family who needed him. They'd lost their mother dammit. And now their Pa? A Pa who may not be around to see them grow up, a Pa who let them down.
Heath didn't see the beads of sweat forming on his brow or the signs of panic rising within, but Howard did. He sat down beside the young man of whom he was extremely fond and patted him comfortingly on the back in a fatherly gesture.
"Heath, I know it's come as a shock. It's not the news any young man wants to hear. I'd give anything to tell you it was different. But, you know? With careful management and good sense you can still live to see those children of yours grow up and grandchildren dance on your knee. But only if you cut back the workload you have now."
Not getting a response and perhaps not expecting one, he continued, knowing that Heath was trying to absorb the news. "Heath, you have to understand that over the years each infection has set you back. Your lungs are just simply getting weaker with everyone. Each time you've been laid up, your recovery time has taken longer, this one has been the worst by far." Heath looked up to him and as if to confirm the doctor's diagnosis, coughed violently taking several minutes to calm. Howard fetched him a glass of water which his young patient gladly drank. Sitting beside Heath again, the doctor continued. "You put yourself at risk by the long, hard, physical work you do, most especially in the winter. Your body just can't take it anymore, son.
"Heath, it pains me to tell you this, but you don't have the constitution of your brother, Nick. Those years you spent in the mines as a child have scarred your lungs and each infection just makes them worse. Now with time, a reduced workload and plenty of rest you can live a good life, but if you choose to ignore my advice then.." his voice trailed off and as it did so he found Heath filling in the missing words.
"I won't live pass forty."
"Yes," Howard confirmed, his voice deliberately showing no emotion so as to emphasize the gravity of the situation. "Now, do you want me to tell your Mother and the family and leave you up here to rest?"
Heath nodded, worn down by his illness and the grief he had felt for the last two years since his beloved Cate had passed away. They had married young, Heath just turned twenty-one and Cate, just seventeen. He remembered Nick telling him they were far too young and Jarrod suggesting they wait, only Mother had supported them and given them her blessing. And she was proved right. They had loved each other and the twin boys that followed. Only death had come between them, claiming his beloved in childbirth.
It was some thirty minutes later when his Mother came up the stairs to his room and seeing him sleeping, his right hand holding a picture of Cate, she pulled the coverlet over his shoulders and let him sleep on.
Nick pulled up the buggy to a halt outside the school steps and stepped down to wait for the end of class and the appearance of his five year old nephews first out the door. After the day he'd had with their father, he looked forward to them talking ten to the dozen as they always did and not giving him a moments peace all the way home. Damn that brother of his, he thought, as he reflected the latest in a long line of arguments they'd had that week. I only wants what's best for ya, Heath. And indeed he did. And what's more Heath knew that. But, it didn't excuse, in his eyes, what Nick had done.
It had happened as it always happened - with the best of intentions. They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and the Barkley ranch was fast resembling that road. All well intentioned, each missing their mark. Heath had gone to do something and Nick had stopped him, ordering one of the men to do it instead. To Heath, it didn't matter that he'd been lifting the bales of hay and getting increasingly breathless as a result, in his eyes Nick had shamed him in front of the men.
At a distance, Nick could now see what he had done and how he could have acted differently. He was above all an impetuous man, a man who loved family first and foremost, and without reservation a large proportion of that love was directed at Heath and the business of keeping him well. The whole family had been cut by the news that Dr. Merar had imparted little over a month ago, but none more so than Nick.
He hated what he couldn't control and that which wasn't in his power to put right, but the way he saw it, this was something Heath and the family could control provided his stubborn younger brother did as he was told. Okay, so Nick had done what he did best and would probably do so again; he'd stepped in and shouted his mouth off before thinking through how it would appear to Heath. But that boy, didn't he know he wasn't helping the situation any? What did he have? A death wish?
These and other thoughts occupied Nick's mind as he waited in the school yard and were instantly interrupted the moment the school bell signaled the end of day. Expecting to see Sean and Thomas hurtle through the school doors, he was surprised when he didn't see them. Watching child after child leave the school, he began to worry that something had happened to them.
Going up to one of the children, he asked: "Have any of you seen my nephews, Thomas and Sean today?"
"Sure Mr. Barkley," Davey Atkins piped up. "They're both inside with Miss. Franklyn."
"Why, they do anything wrong?" Nick asked, somewhat guardedly.
"Depends Mr. Barkley."
"What do you mean, it depends?"
"Depends on if you like fish? Bye Mr. Barkley. I gotta go."
Nick was left standing as the school yard emptied. "Fish?" he thought. "Now, just what have those young rascals done now?"
A few minutes later, he came out of the school carrying a fish bowl containing two goldfish which Sean and Thomas had volunteered to look after during the school vacation.
Sean tugged on Nick's pant leg as Nick placed the fish bowl down on the floor of the buggy to help Thomas up on to the seat. "Uncle Nick?"
"It could have been worse."
"How so, Sean?"
"We could have been looking after the stick insects. Thomas really wanted to look after those."
Nick gave Thomas a questioning look.
"I did Uncle Nick," Thomas replied. "But Billy Marshall beat me to it."
Thomas went to pick up the fish bowl, but fortunately Nick got to it in time, just as it threatened to spill over and the fish with it.
"Somehow boys I think the fish will be enough of a challenge."
"This one's called Nick and this one's called Jarrod," Sean said enthusiastically.
"Why didn't you call one after your Pa?" Nick responded, not sure whether he should be flattered or insulted that they'd named a fish after him.
"Neither of them looked like Pa." Thomas stated with obvious logic.
"Oh yeah!" Nick said peering into the bowl. "And just which one of them is supposed to look like me!"
A week later, Heath waited patiently in Jarrod's office for his brother's meeting with a client to finish. Idly, he watched his two boys play in a corner of the room, his mind preoccupied with what he wanted to ask Jarrod. He'd already asked Nick and got an ear-bashing for his trouble, but the old bear had finally acknowledged and then granted his request. He just needed Jarrod to agree and then he would finally have peace of mind.
Thomas, in need of a cuddle, climbed up on to his father's knee and snuggled in closely as his father's arm wrapped around him in a protective embrace. As was his way his small children's hand began playing with his father's mouth, fingering first the bottom lip and then the upper. Every now and then Heath would catch his small finger in his mouth and pretend to swallow it, before letting a playful grin sweep across his face as he saw his son giggle from the attention. Thomas loved his father, and he liked these moments the best.
Sean who was full of curiosity wandered over to where his Uncle Jarrod's secretary, Miss. Stirling, was studying some paperwork.
"Don't be disturbing Miss. Stirling, Sean," his father's voice censured.
"I won't Pa. Promise."
"It's alright Mr. Barkley. He's not a bother." Miss. Stirling reassured the handsome younger brother of her boss. Taking out a couple of pieces of paper from her note pad and some crayons she invited both children to do some drawing. Thomas looked up at his papa. "Can I, Papa?"
"Yes, just play quietly so Miss. Stirling can get on with her work."
Thomas climbed down and joined his brother at Miss. Stirling's desk. Silently, his eyes saying thank you, he took the paper and crayons offered and followed Sean to sit down on the floor where they spread their respective papers out. Waiting until Sean started drawing first, a characteristic of Thomas' where his brother was concerned, he then set about drawing a picture of some horses on the ranch.
Time passed and without knowing it Heath fell asleep. He did not wake until he felt the gentle tap of his brother's hand waking him up.
"Sorry Jarrod, must have fallen asleep." He looked around for the children and found them gone. He started to panic and Jarrod swiftly put his mind at rest.
"Don't worry, Heath. Miss. Sterling offered to take them to the drug store. No doubt she's indulging them now. You wanted to talk, brother?"
Heath attempted to sit up straight. "Yeah, if you've got a moment. I know I should have made an appointment."
"You don't need to make an appointment to see me Heath. Come into my office, I'll get us both a drink and you can tell me what this is all about."
Heath followed silently and shut the door behind him.
"And you've discussed this with Nick?"
"Well, can't say we discussed it exactly. More like I asked and he set off on one. Least from where I was sitting that's how it seemed. Suppose I should have expected it. He doesn't like to consider the future. Won't accept that it could happen and that I have to make plans."
"You've been getting better though Heath. Everyone can see that. I know it's not been easy. I know you'd rather be out there full-time, but, if limited, you still you get to work on the ranch."
"And sleep. Boy, do I sleep!"
"That's to be expected." Jarrod reasoned. "It's a way of giving yourself chance to heal"
"I know that Jarrod," said Heath with some irritation. Jarrod chose to ignore it like the elder brother he was.
"I'm sorry. I'm downright irritable to be around these days and I apologize for that. Just don't seem to be able to control it. Mother, wants to take me away, you know? Feels the break would do me good. Did she mention it to you?"
"She did. Are you going to go?"
"Thinking I might. Nick will probably be so glad he'll pack my bags for me."
"He won't. He barks the loudest at you, Heath, because he cares."
Heath shuffled uncomfortably. "I know." He moved the conversation on. "It's a part of the family I've never met. Mother's family, I mean. Think they'll take to me alright? I mean, me being...."
Jarrod stifled a sigh. Only occasionally now did the circumstances of his brother's birth create a lack of confidence in Heath. He chose to be positive. "I know they will. You'll love Aunt Louisa, and then there's the cousins, Harry and Meg. My, I haven't seen Meg since she was thirteen. She'll be all grown up now. You'll like them, Heath. And what's more they'll like you." He saw Heath blush a little. "Are you taking the children with you?"
"Nope, best not to take the boys out of school, but I sure will miss 'em. We've not been separated since.. well you know since ....."
"You've done a fine job with them since Cate died, Heath. We're all proud of you."
"Then will you agree to be joint guardian with Nick should anything happen to me?"
It was a job Jarrod would never want to fulfill, so much did he want Heath to live a long life and enjoy his family growing up. But Heath needed his assurance right now; needed to know that his brothers would look out for his children should anything happen to him. And so with a smile that masked his heavy heart, he stepped forward to pat his brother's back and said. "Proud to Heath. I'll draw up the papers and get them signed before your trip."
Victoria Barkley's visit to her family was now in its eighth week and she marveled at how her youngest son, at first unsure of himself with this new branch of the family, had soon settled in and was getting on famously with his new cousins. A particular friendship had grown between Heath and her niece, Meg, and they could often be found in each other's company. As all mothers do, she and her sister, Louisa, speculated on a romance forming between the two, but there was no evidence to suggest it. Just a friendship, albeit a very special friendship.
A moment of regret passed between the two sisters. "It would have been nice," sighed Louisa, getting up to pour another cup of tea for her sister. "Though cousins there is no blood link between them and they do seem very well suited. But if it's not to be, it's not be. No amount of matchmaking, speculative or otherwise, is going to change that."
Victoria straightened her skirts, "Yes, I'm sorry too. It was a nice dream while it lasted, but you know Louisa, I don't think Heath is ready to marry again just right now. He and Cate were very much in love, inseparable really, and I don't think he's ready to let her go."
"How old was she when she died, Torie?"
"Just twenty-one. It's had to believe it's been over two years since she died. The twins were just three and, of course, little Cate...." her voice trailed off remembering the night they had welcomed little Cate, who was to have been called Leah, and then after her mother's death giving her life, Heath with tear-strewn eyes, determined that she would be called Cate instead, after his wife.
"He must have been heart-broken, truly heart-broken." Louisa sympathized.
"He was.. Still is... But, a few months ago, his and the twins' birthday in fact, it felt like things were improving, that he was at least able to look forward again. That was until he grew sick and once again, his life turned upside down."
"Such a blow for a young man like Heath to be given that news. I'm not surprised he has found it difficult to adapt."
"But he has to adapt," Victoria tone toughened and then once again softened as she said, "I won't lose him. I won't see him go to an early grave. Not Tom's son.. not my son."
Louisa came over and wrapped her arms around her younger sister and comforted her for several moments. "It won't come to that, Torrie. If I've learned anything about Heath Barkley in the past few weeks, it is that he doesn't give up on life. You and that young family of his will keep him going and whilst it is difficult now, it will get easier for you all."
"I hope so Louisa, I truly hope so."
Searching the garden Heath quickly found the person he was looking for. The genuine smile on his face in finding her quickly faded when he saw she was crying. An attempt to hide her tears from him and walk away came to nothing as he gently pulled her back. Guiding her to the summer house, he found a bench on which they could both sit. Cupping her chin gently he turned her face to look at him, a sweet smile once again returning to his face.
"Hey! What's this now?" he said, attempting to keep his voice light and reassuring. "We can't have tears spoiling your pretty face."
"Oh, Heath," she cried despairingly, her reddened eyes silently imploring him to take the pain away. "I've made such a mess of things. I.... I.... just don't know what to do. All I know is I've got to get away. There's no way I can stay here now. Not now... not like this.You've got to help me get away, I just don't know what to do."
Seeing the gravity of her despair Heath no longer tried to keep his mood light and begged her to tell him what was troubling her.
She fought not to do so. 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 reassurances she finally relented and began to relate her sorry tale.
He listened quietly and without interruption, moving only occasionally 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 and she was convinced that in telling him their friendship was lost. She was unprepared for how badly that felt.
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.
It was there, she felt. There in his voice. The disappointment.
"And him?" Heath continued, his eyes looking away as he bit back the anger he was feeling. "Will he stand by you?"
She shook her head despondently. "No, He doesn't want the responsibility, or anything to do with me. He said he would deny it, if....."
"What about you, Meg? Do you love him?"
"Love!" The words were said with such contempt. "Oh maybe I thought I did back then, but 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 wouldn't look up. Finally, he turned her face up 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.. will be raised a Barkley and as our child. No one will know any different."
She looked at him in astonishment, scarcely able to take his words in and then uttered the words "No! No, Heath. I won't let you do that." she said, getting up to walk away from him and the offer he had made. "I can't let you take the blame, or be responsible for the baby and me."
Heath followed her over to the window and together they looked out at the rain that was now beginning to pitter patter heavily against the panes of glass. The gray clouds circling above mirrored the crisis that had now entered their lives. With honest emotion he said in a quiet voice marked out only by the soft drawl that emphasized certain words: "Meg, listen to me, please. I know what it's like to grow up without a father. How hard it was for my mother and me. A child never gets over that kind of beginning. He carries it to the day that he dies. It's not what he is but how people treat him. 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. "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 was very special, and lasting. You said it yourself, you are not ready to marry again." She saw his reaction to his own words being quoted back at him.
It was true, in their growing friendship Heath had opened up about his love for Cate and his unwillingness to consider marriage again. He was still hurting and she saw that hurt once again return to his eyes. Moving forward to caress his cheek her words became softer in the realization that she had just added to that hurt. "We are friends, Heath. Good friends. I will not trap you into marriage out of some misguided loyalty you feel arising from the circumstances of your birth. You don't have to apologize for your existence or make myself and the baby part of that apology."
Clasping the hand that was still caressing his cheek he held on to it. "Is that what you think, Meg? Do you really think that is what I am doing by asking you to marry me?"
"Isn't it? Until you found me here crying, marriage between us hadn't even entered your head. We love each other, yes, but not in that way, not in a way that marriage would work for us. To marry now would be a mistake, even for the sake of the baby, or to save my reputation.. Heath, you're a good and honorable man and I thank you for your offer but this is not the answer and I won't let you do it." She moved away but he stopped her.
"I still want to marry you."
"But why, Heath? What can you get out of it? A wife and a baby, neither of whom are yours?" He words were intended to be harsh, intending to put him off. He wouldn't retract his offer and so she had to. "You would come to resent us. I can't let you do it."
"Marry me, Meg."
He came closer. "Marry me and let me protect you."
"No!" She tried to keep her resolve from failing her. "No, Heath. I can't let you. It wouldn't be right."
He came closer still. "Marry me."
She looked into his crystal blue eyes and saw the strength there, strength that she needed now. "Yes," she said finally.
Neither of the newly engaged couple slept easy that night. Meg, tossed and turned berating herself for saying yes and not refusing Heath's kindness. This wasn't his problem and yet he had made it his own and what's more she had let him. She had trusted him with her secret, knowing that he would not reveal it to anyone, not even his own family, without her permission.
Rarely had she met a man of such honor. She had hoped he would help her to get away and start a new life, though where she would go or what would become of her she really had no idea. Rational thoughts became lost in the panic of finding she was with child and that her lover had abandoned her. Heath had gone beyond her expectations of him; he had offered to marry her and bring up another man's child as his own. Not an empty gesture but a noble one on which he intended to follow through. She had no doubts that he would keep his word, or that he would do his utmost to make her and the child happy and safe, she only doubted that she had the right to let him.
In much the same way, sleep eluded Heath. He found it hard to understand how he was feeling now. He was still very much in love with Cate. He had no wish to find another wife though he knew from his own mother, the mothers of Stockton made matrimonial plans for him by the week.
Now, he was not only taking on a new wife, but a child too. Another man's child. It made no matter, he would love the child in the same way he loved his own. He knew that without question. And yet, what of Meg? He loved her as a friend, but he knew he was not in love with her. Would love eventually grow between them? Had he done right by asking her to marry him, not taking no for an answer? Would they come to love or despise each other in the years ahead? These and other questions raced around his mind as he fell at last into a deep sleep.
It had been so easy. She had walked down the hall, past each door until she had come to his. Turning the door handle she entered his room and saw that he was sleeping. Wrapping the blanket she had collected from her room around herself she sat on the edge of his bed and waited to see if he stirred. When he didn't, she carefully lay down beside him and instantly curled up into a ball beneath her blanket, a sense of peace and protection emanating from the man who slept soundly behind her. "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."
It was 3am in the morning.
"Meg," Heath whispered.
A slight moan escaped her lips in response.
He raised himself up on one arm and leaned over her, gently shaking her so as to try and get her to wake, the surprise of finding her in bed next to him superseded by the need to get her back to her own room before anyone discovered them.
"Mmmm?" She turned towards the voice, her eyes closed, her ears only just registering the soft drawl calling her name.
"Meg, you can't stay here. Come on, let me help you back to your room."
As though it was the most natural thing in the world she leaned into him, pushing him back down on the bed, seeking out the comfort she would find in his arms. Understanding what it was that she wanted, his arms swept around her as she snuggled into his body and his lips came down to kiss the top of her head in a reassuring gesture. "It'll be alright," he sighed, "You don't have to worry. I'll look after you. We're going to be just fine."
Hearing the words she wanted, she settled back into a sleep, leaving Heath to consider life with the woman who was now lying in his arms.
As he entered the breakfast room the next morning, he 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 didn't 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 John 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 strength from it, "But we do need discuss things. Arrangements will need to be made quickly."
She relaxed as he then took control of the situation 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. There are the children to consider and what we will say to our families."
"Heath. You're worried about about me leaving my family and how I will cope thousands of miles away from my home?"
"It will be a big adjustment Meg, but my family will be around to help and support us."
"What will your family say Heath?" 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'll try 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 and eventually kill the feelings we develop for each other."
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 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 fancy 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, mother and I are scheduled to return to Stockton. If you and I get married now 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'd just wed.
Throughout the ceremony his jolly, rotund wife had observed the bride's nervousness and noticed the way she constantly looked up to and referred to her new husband for guidance and support. No family to support them she mused. The couple must be eloping. No wonder they both look nervous! No doubt the girl's father is already in hot pursuit, she thought, her mind becoming increasingly carried away by the romantic edge it gave to nuptials that had just taken place.
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. Poor things. Maybe they have to get married? She looked at the young woman's belly and tried to make out if her thoughts were correct. Ah well, he looks like he will look after her. He hasn't left her side for a minute. If she is, think of how bonnie their children will be.
"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 to place a fond, motherly kiss on both their cheeks she noticed with some amusement how the boy blushed. "Oh my! You're a heart-breaker, you," she mused quietly.
To a chorus of good-byes and good luck, Heath assisted his wife into the buggy and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. Then picking up the wedding bouquet of wild flowers he'd picked for her that morning 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 minister and receiving yet another kiss from the minister's wife Heath climbed up to join his wife in the borrowed buggy 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 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 sure you're feeling 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 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 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 didn't know that until today he had always worn it next to his heart.
An hour later Heath pulled up the 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. Checking her progress with a gentle restraining hand he bent down to scoop his bride up in his arms and carry her across the threshold. It was a small gesture but served an entirely different purpose. One that neither had anticipated. Still holding her in his arms, their profiles lit only by the growing 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.
The sunlight burst through the window and woke Heath from his slumber. With a finger and thumb the young groom rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he slowly came to. Then hearing the steady breathing of Meg next to him he looked over to check if she was still sleeping.
She lay on her front, a slender arm stretched out across his bare chest, her hair a mass of natural curls cascading down her bare back, the hint of a breast peeking out from where her arm was raised. Careful not to disturb her he lifted her arm from where it was resting and eased out of the bed which in the space of a night had changed their relationship for ever.
Gently, he placed the exposed bare arm on the pillow on which he had been sleeping. He saw her stir only for a moment and then just as quickly saw sleep reclaim her. Covering her with a blanket which had fallen to the floor during the night he quickly gathered his strewn clothes and padded barefoot out of the bedroom and into the living room.
He shivered momentarily at the sudden chill of the room. A fire should have been lit the night before and the room now suffered because of it. Abandoning the need to dress for a moment he placed his pile of roughly gathered clothes on a nearby sofa and knelt down to start a fire with the dry logs kept by the hearth.
It took several minutes to get the fire going and for a few moments as the flames took hold Heath pondered what had developed between him and Meg last night. The speed and level of passion had surprised them both, a couple married that afternoon but with no romantic interest between them.
A marriage of convenience yesterday, what was it today? Love? They had wanted each other the moment his unplanned kiss had developed into something deeper. But when did passion become love? Had it become love? Physical needs they both had but could they meet each other's emotional ones. How would she wake this morning? Embarrassed? Unable to speak to him? What?
The previous night had re-opened emotions in him which he felt he could only have for one woman and that woman was dead. She was still there though, still close to him, but this morning something was different, Meg was there too. Feelings which he felt had been dormant since the death of his wife were slowly emerging. He enjoyed the role of being a husband and had missed the intimacy that marriage between two people could bring.
When he first offered marriage to Meg it had been out of sympathy for her circumstances and because he cared for her as a dear friend. Eventually, he hoped their marriage would develop beyond friendship but in his mind that was something he had expected to happen later, not sooner. He had been thrown by the depth of his feelings and desire for Meg.
Standing up after warming himself by the growing fire, he tensed momentarily as he felt her soft arms wrap around his chest and her body snuggle in closer. A kiss on his back followed by several lighter ones told him all he needed to know. His first marriage he had considered a blessing. Could it be possible he would be blessed in a similar way twice? There on the rug in front of the fire they confirmed their fledgling love once again.
The train on which the newlyweds and Victoria Barkley had boarded that morning was fast approaching Stockton and for the last sixty minutes had been running parallel with the Barkley ranch for the final leg of its journey.
Meg sitting by the window and opposite her husband marveled at its vastness and beauty, unable to comprehend that all this land could belong to just one family. Though she was used to her own family owning land, rich farming land at that, it paled in comparison to the tens of thousand acres that made up the Barkley ranch.
She turned towards her husband and was struck by the permanent smile of contentment gracing his face and recognized for the first moment in their brief marriage that he had truly come home. His home and now their home, the place, God willing, where they would raise a family and spend the next fifty years.
Heath unaware that his wife was watching him soaked up the view and let himself feel at one with the land. How he had missed this place and missed working it. Until now he hadn't quite realized the pull it had on his soul. Just as much as his brother Nick, this was the only place he wanted to be. Remembering Dr. Merar's cautionary words he ached to be working out there by his brother's side.
Suddenly he became aware that he was being watched not just by Meg, but by his mother too. Like a child caught with his hand in the candy jar he blushed guiltily realizing that his face read like an open book. Stretching across to hold Meg's hand he asked if she was feeling alright knowing that the journey had tired her and caused her to retire and lie down part way through.
"I'm fine darling," she replied, the term of endearment coming easily to her lips. He smiled. It was early days yet but their intimacy of the last few days and the fact that their friendship for each other was changing into something stronger made the future look bright.
Four days ago they had returned from their honeymoon and steeled themselves for their family's reaction. Their family's hurt at their elopement was obvious and pained them both, but quickly it became apparent to the young couple that both sides of the family approved of the match and had indeed openly wished for it.
If any of them suspected anything about the couple's wish to get married quickly, none spoke of it, but Heath knew he would be a fool if the thought hadn't crossed their minds. Everything had been so sudden.
His mother proved a practical and stalwart ally, moving quickly to congratulate them and putting Meg immediately at ease. She looked forward to Meg calling her Mother instead of Aunt and talked of the ranch and the family in such familiar terms that Meg immediately began to feel at home.
Now as they approached Stockton Meg waited anxiously to meet her cousins Nick, Jarrod and Audra, of whom she had only distant memories, but her greatest anxiety was reserved for meeting Heath's children. How would they react to a new mother and someone else in their father's life. These and other questions occupied her mind as the porter announced Stockton as the next station.
As the train finally stopped at the station, Sean and Thomas immediately broke loose from their uncles and ran eagerly to meet their father as he stepped off the train. Before turning to help his wife and mother down, the overjoyed father knelt down and opened his arms as first one son and then the other ran into his embrace.
Oh how he had missed them. He knew he would, but nothing had quite prepared him for how the absence would hurt. He had vowed whilst away that he wouldn't be parted from them again. Oh he knew they had been well taken care of, and their letters to him and those of their uncles had kept him in touch with them and what they had been doing, but Heath knew that above all he was a family man, children, mother, siblings and now wife. The children formed the very heart of that family and it had been a mistake to leave them behind.
Before long the children were talking ten to the dozen and Heath found it difficult to stand up, so reluctant were the children to let him go. Eventually, he explained that he wanted them to meet somebody very special and finally able to stand he slowly helped Meg descend the few steps of the train.
"Sean, Thomas," he addressed. Both boys removed their hats in the presence of the lady their uncles had explained would become their new mother. Heath continued, careful to read their reactions, "Boys, I want you to meet your new mother. I know she's been looking forward to meeting you."
Sean and Thomas looked up at the beautiful woman who was now their father's wife. Each holding their hat close to their small chests, it was Sean who rather clumsily nudged Thomas forward. Receiving the prompt Thomas stepped forward and put out his small hand which Meg immediately took in her own. "Please to meet you, Mo....th...er."
Meg bent down to the polite young gentleman, immediately smitten by him and his brother. "Oh Thomas, what a fine looking young man you are, I can see how you must be a help to your father and uncles around the ranch."
Thomas beamed immediately upon hearing the words and looked up at his father. He felt sure he grew two inches under his father's watchful pride. Soon he was joined by Sean who similarly went to shake his new mother's hand. Meg, could see that the little boy was nervous and immediately put him at ease, telling both boys how handsome and smart they looked and how she looked forward to being their mother if they would let her.
It was obvious that both boys where overwhelmed by the occasion but also very much wanting a mother. Asking for a kiss from them both, both boys readily provided one and were soon absorbed into her embrace and the full skirts of her fine dress.
Unable to believe how easily they had accepted her, Meg looked up at Heath with tears in her eyes, vowing to protect and love these children as her own. Just as Heath had accepted her baby as his, Thomas and Sean had found a quick route to her heart. She hoped little Cate would feel the same.
Witnessing the scene Jarrod stepped forward to help his mother down from the train. "Mother," he exclaimed as he bent low to kiss her newly moistened cheek. "Welcome home. Did you have a good journey?"
"Thank you Jarrod. Yes we did. But we're all very tired and ready to head out for home." She replied, aware that her eldest son's eyes held many questions about his brother and Meg, none of which would be answered now.
"Mother." Jarrod said half-teasingly. "I think my little brother has a lot of explaining to do."
"Not now, Jarrod. Give him time and he will. There's more to this than he's letting on but press him now and he'll shut up like a clam. What they both need now is time and our love and support."
Jarrod nodded in agreement and chose to let the moment pass. His brother Nick on the other hand, who stood close by, well he was a different matter.
Nick tried to get a handle on his emotions as he waited his turn to see the brother he loved more than life itself and whose absence he had felt so keenly during the past few months.
How he missed that boy and worried for his health. He remembered the pain he felt when Heath had explained Howard's diagnosis and the tears he had to fight back at the time. Ignoring his brother's protests his mother hen instinct had kicked into service and he had worked tirelessly to reorganize winter schedules to lessen the load for his brother.
The months in between had done nothing to lessen his worry, the geographical distance only adding to his concern. He needed his brother home where he could protect him and remained impatient for Heath's speedy return.
Witnessing the children greet their father and their introduction to Meg, he struggled to understand how the marriage had taken place so quick. Done and dusted in the space of the week his little brother was now returning to the family fold. A fold in which he would have to answer to his brother, Nick.
Like a grumbling volcano Nick paced uneasily on the platform. Then at last the moment presented itself. His two nephews were engaged in excited discussion with their grandmother and new mother and Jarrod was preparing the buggy for their return. A moment of awkwardness hung in the air as Heath and Nick looked at each other, the younger one knowing that Nick would be annoyed and hurt; annoyed that he had married without telling him; annoyed that he might be making a mistake or that the marriage wouldn't survive the return home; above all he would be worried for him; worried for his health and that for a few weeks he had been outside his protective reach.
Sometimes the relationship with Nick could prove claustrophobic, particularly since his illnesses had become more frequent, but Heath knew that he wouldn't swap his brother for the world. The minute Nick had accepted him, he gained his greatest friend in life.
"I guess congratulations are in order," Nick began, clearing an imaginary frog from his throat beforehand.
"I guess," Heath replied, his head hung low, his eyes watchful of Nick's.
"Come here," Nick growled out, the affection in his voice unable to be contained any longer.
Heath moved forward and Nick pulled him into a powerful embrace, one which he maintained for several moments, needing that time with his brother. Clasping Heath by the back of the neck, he spoke directly into his brother's ear. "You happy, Heath?"
Heath nodded. "More than I have a right to be, I guess. You'll like her Nick. Just give her a chance."
"As long as you're happy little brother, that's all that counts with me. Have you been well?" Slowly he loosened his embrace so he could take a good look at his brother. Heath nodded again, but Nick noticed a little tiredness around the eyes.
"It's good to see you Nick. I've missed you, you old bear."
"Why you! Less of the cheek baby brother. Now how about introducing me to your wife. And then, little brother, when we get home there is one little Cate Barkley who I am eager to return to her father's care.
"Couldn't handle her, huh?"
"Heath, there ain't nobody who can handle that spitfire of a child. Who she takes after is anybody's guess!"