Heath stood from checking his pony’s hooves and he ran his hand over her sleek, black coat. Looking up at the hot sun, he removed his hat and wiped his brow on his blue chambray shirt sleeve. His pony, Gal wasn’t holding up as well as he had hoped she would and though he was still hours away from the Barkley Ranch, there was no doubt in his mind that his trusty mount would get him there.
He was in no hurry and the long trip would give him time to think and put things in perspective. More than anything else, he wanted to have a clear head when he arrived at the ranch because the trip to the orphanage in Strawberry had left him shaken and on edge and he needed time to sort through everything he’d found out from Sister Theresa.
He had always liked Sister Theresa and he tried to get back to the orphanage as often as possible to visit her. Upon this last visit, however, he was disturbed to find that Sister Theresa was gravely ill and though she couldn’t possibly have known Heath was coming, there was no doubt in his mind that she had been expecting him. He had been escorted to her bedside when he’d arrived and one look at her told him she only had hours to live.
Her usually red, robust cheeks were now pallid and sunken in as the disease ravaging her body consumed her from the inside out. The once plump woman was now a skeletal figure, a mere shell of her former self and the bright eyes that seemed to laugh and sparkle whenever she looked at Heath, were now unblinking portals of death. Heath had cried when he’d seen her and she had comforted him, assuring him that she was going to a better place and that even with her passing, she would always be with him. He had stayed with her until she had taken her last breath, and when the life had finally left her body, he had sobbed, sobbed in a way he hadn’t since he was three years old and she had picked him up in her strong, comforting arms and soothed him. But now those arms could no longer comfort him. They would never hold him again and keep the world’s injustices at bay. In passing, she had taken a part of his soul with her but she had also given him a new life. With her final words and the gift of an old, tattered bible, she had told him more about himself than he had ever known. Finally, for the first time in twenty-four years, he knew who he was and where he had come from. He would finally get the answer to the question he’d been asking himself all his life: “Why?” He wanted to know why it had all happened the way it had. What had he done so wrong that would make someone abandon him at three days old and allow him to spend the next fourteen years of his life in the Strawberry Orphanage? The conditions at the orphanage had been horrendous and there had been no escaping the starvation, the daily beatings and violations or the eighteen-hour days of hard work. His one saving grace had been when Sister Theresa had started visiting the orphanage once a week and for the few hours that she was there, he knew he was safe. He knew they couldn’t get to him and make him submit to their will while she was there. Those few hours each week with Sister Theresa were the only bright thing in his life he had to look forward to and it was the only reason he had survived the orphanage until finally, at the age of fifteen, he had run away from the orphanage and lying about his age, had signed up to go off to fight in the war. The first few months in the war had been satisfying and for the first time in his life, he had felt like a worthwhile human being. But then, the unthinkable had happened. He had been captured and sent to a prison called Carterson and he soon learned that Carterson Prison was everything the orphanage had been, only ten times worse. There wasn’t a day that went by while imprisoned that he didn’t ask himself the question: “Why?” The only thing he didn’t know at that time was, whom to ask it of. He had no name, nowhere to look, no idea who he was or where he had come from. None at least until earlier that day when he’d visited the orphanage and on her deathbed, Sister Theresa had handed him a bible that held the name he’d sought and the place he should look. Finally, he would be able to ask “Why?” and get an answer back. Hell, he would demand an answer back and he wouldn’t leave until he’d gotten one. His entire existence had been a living hell and someone had to account for that. Someone was going to give him the answer he wanted if it were the last thing he ever did. Looking up, he now knew that the answer to his question was at the Barkley Ranch, and he wouldn’t stop until he got there. Mounting up, he headed south with one thing in mind, to confront his demons.
Victoria Barkley sighed happily as she looked around the table at her loving family. Seated at the other end of the table was her loving husband of thirty five years, Tom Barkley. To her right were her handsome sons, Jarrod and Nick and to her left was her lovely daughter, Audra. The years had been kind to the family and they had worked hard for everything they had, never asking for favors or handouts. They had put thirty five years of blood, sweat and tears into making the Barkley Ranch what it is and Tom and Victoria were proud and content to know that their children would carry on after they were long gone. There had been many trials and tribulations over the years but the family had always come together as a solid unit and through strength and love, had overcome the many obstacles that had come up along the way, making them the loving family that they were today.
The family bowed their heads as Victoria said grace and thanked God for their many blessings. She had a lot to be thankful for and she traveled to the Stockton Church daily to light a candle and say a prayer. She couldn’t ever remember a time in her life that she were happier and looking across the table at her husband, she saw all the love in the world reflected in his eyes at he gazed over at her. Even after all these years, the man still had the power to make her feel desirable and beautiful with just one look. Giving him her secret smile, a promise of things to come later that evening, she joined in the lively conversation with her children as Tom looked on proudly.
As dinner whined down and the family adjourned to the study, Silas answered a knock at the door and looked curiously at the tall, blond, blue eyed cowboy standing on the doorstep, twirling his hat in his hands.
“Yes? Can I help you?” Silas asked.
“I’m here ta see Mrs. Victoria Barkely,” Heath drawled in that slow way of talking that was exclusively his. “Could ya let her know she has a visitor please?”
“And who may I say is callin’?” Silas asked politely.
A lopsided smile that didn’t reach his eyes, graced Heath’s lips as he said, “Just tell ‘er the prodigal son has returned.”
Silas frowned as he gave the cowboy the once over. “Wait here please,” he said.
Heath nodded and looked into the foyer. He had never seen anything like the Barkley Mansion before, let alone been invited inside one. He could see how well the Barkleys had done for themselves and pain and rage coursed through him, almost blinding him to his ultimate goal. Taking a deep, shaky breath, he tried to calm his nerves and his rage and he reminded himself why he was there. The swishing of skirts brought him out of his reverie as he watched a petite, regal, silver-haired lady approach him.
“Yes? May I help you?” Victoria asked, as she walked up to him and suddenly, the blood drained from her face as she gasped in shock. For a second, she thought she was seeing a ghost and she felt as if she had taken a step back in time, twenty-four years ago. It was twenty-four years ago that she had visited the Barkley mines in Strawberry for Tom while he was handling other Barkley affairs in San Francisco. Tom was obligated to the San Francisco deal and couldn’t get away as he was overseeing the purchase of ten thousand acres to add to the Barkley holdings. Tom had wanted to send Duke to Strawberry to handle the business with the mines, but Victoria had insisted on going, saying that it was important for the miners who worked for them to see either her or Tom there in the flesh. Tom had finally acquiesced and his stubborn, determined wife had gone in Duke’s stead.
It was a long time ago and Victoria had been younger and feeling vulnerable and undesirable to her husband who worked longer hours back then and rarely came home anymore. It had been a mistake on her part, one that she had always regretted and one that her conscience had paid dearly for but it was a mistake that she could not undo. She had had an affair, a very short affair with a tall, blond, blue-eyed cowboy who had made her feel like the most desirable woman in the world. The cowboy had fallen in love with her and had asked her to leave Tom, take her boys and go away with him so that they could be married. He had thought she was in love with him as well and was heartbroken when Victoria told him that she was still in love with her husband and couldn’t leave him. The cowboy had accepted this and had promised her he wouldn’t make trouble or come between her and her husband and he never had. He had left her graciously and she found out two months later that he had also left her with child. Victoria’s world came crashing down around her. She and Tom hadn’t slept together in three months so there was no mistaking whose child she was carrying. She had worked herself into a frenzy over the next few months, worrying, crying, barely eating or sleeping and when the time had come to build a flume on the ten thousand acres purchased in San Francisco, Victoria had urged Tom to go, knowing that he would be away for six months or more. After he’d gone, Victoria had written to her sister in Denver, asking her to take Jarrod, then five and Nick who was three at the time, into her care for a while. She had no choice but to confide in her sister and her sister had agreed to keep her nephews until Victoria had the baby and made arrangements for it.
Victoria had traveled back to Strawberry and with the help of the Mother Superior, she had taken refuge in the convent where she’d stayed until she’d given birth to a beautiful, golden baby boy. Victoria had confided in Mother Superior about who she was and who the child’s father was. The kind hearted woman had listened to her sympathetically and compassionately without judging her and Victoria had sobbed uncontrollably as she handed her baby boy, whom she’d christened, Heath, over to Mother Superior.
Victoria had been given a bible by the Mother Superior in which she’d written down who she was and the details of her son’s birth. She handed the bible to Mother Superior and told her to keep it for her upon her return. Three days later, Victoria received word that the convent had burned down and there had been no survivors. She had taken a surrey back to Strawberry and had wept as she stood over the smoldering embers and charred bodies of the women and children who had called the convent their home. She had placed a marker for baby Heath in the cemetery where the other bodies were buried and she visited the marker every year on his birthday, telling Tom that she was traveling to Strawberry to keep track of the mines. He had never questioned her and she had never told her loving husband of her affair, nor of the child she had borne and lost and now, looking up into the pale, blue eyes staring down at her, she knew that Heath hadn’t died in the fire after all as she had always believed. Looking up at this tall, handsome stranger, she knew this was her son and the product of an affair she’d had twenty-four years ago. She knew by the sparkle in his eyes and the lopsided smile on his face, both of which were identical to his father’s, that the past had finally caught up with her. It was time for her to pay her dues, time for her to answer all the questions she saw in his troubled blue eyes and she knew by the smirk on his handsome face, that he wasn’t going to make it easy for her.
He walked inside and closed the door behind him as he leaned back against it and folded his strong arms over his broad chest.
“Hello, Mother,” he said, in that slow drawl, so reminiscent of his father’s. “It’s a pleasure ta finally meet ya.”
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