At first blush on Christmas morning, eight–year-old Nicholas Barkley streaked down the stairs to the living room to start unwrapping his presents. With eyes twinkling with ebullient anticipation, he picked the biggest box and began tearing at the wrapping paper when a booming voice resounded in the room.
Startled, Nick swirled on his heels to see his father standing under the arch with a scold on his face. “You must wait until everyone is here.”
“But Audra and Jarrod won’t be up for another hour. I can’t wait that long,” Nick whined. His fingers were itching to rip open the box he suspected contained his train set.
“You won’ have to. Your mother is waking them up right now. They’ll be down in a couple of minutes. Why do you go to the kitchen and ask Silas to fix you a glass of orange juice?”
“I’d rather stay here and count my gifts.” Nick turned his greedy eyes back to the heap of colourful presents adorning the bottom of the glittering tree.
It wasn’t long before the rest of the family showed up. Victoria was first to slink down the stairs wearing an exquisite peach nightgown that Tom had offered her a day early. Four-year-old Audra followed a few steps behind hugging her rag doll and toting a small blanket. As for sleepy head thirteen-year-old Jarrod he was dragging his weary body and yawning his head off.
“Why did we have to get up at the crack of dawn?” Jarrod complained in a loud yawn. He sank into an armchair and propped his head on his fist to rest his eyes. “You afraid the gifts might get stolen?”
Tom moved closer to his grumpy son and patted him on the back. “Cheer up, Son. It’s only for one day.”
“All right!” Nick whooped. With eyes shining with ecstasy he proudly displayed the train set for the family to see. “I got it! Santa brought me my train set like I asked.”
Little Audra dropped her blanket and doll on the floor and staggered to her brother busy unwrapping another gift. “Hey! It’s mine!” Nick snapped at his baby sister who stood, frozen in fear. Her bottom lip curled up and trembled. “Ahhhhhhhhhhh don’t start crying now. I’m sorry Audra. I didn’t mean it.” His eyes raked the presents to find one with his sister’s name on it. He picked it up and put it at her feet. “Here. This one’s for you.” He sat Audra down on the floor and pulled at the ribbon to make it easier for her to open the box.
Tom and Victoria settled on the couch to savour the precious moment. Tom wrapped an arm around his wife as she nestled up to him with eyes beaming with joy at her children’s happiness. This Christmas they had managed to find every toy mentioned on their lists, with the exception of Nick’s wish for a little brother. Victoria hoped that Tom’s surprise gift waiting out in the barn would compensate for their inability to fulfil his dream.
“Where is he?” Nick asked his parents with eager anticipation. “Where’s the little brother I asked Santa for?”
Tom turned to Victoria with a worried frown. “You show him,” she smiled.
“Nick, you can’t just ask for a brother like that. It takes time,” Jarrod mocked.
“Jarrod!” Tom scolded with a slight shake of the head. He stood up and clasped Nick’s hand. “Come with me. I have another present for you?”
Nick’s face lit up at the prospect of meeting his little brother. He was somewhat baffled when his father brought him to the stables. “Don’t tell me you’re keeping him in here?”
“Look over there.” Tom pointed to the appaloosa in the far end stall. “He’s yours, Nick.”
“I don’t want a horse,” Nick huffed. “I want a little brother. Where is he?”
Tom squatted down and held Nick’s hands. He drew in a deep breath to summon his courage to tell the sad news that was bound to devastate the boy. “Nick, there is no little brother. Not yet anyway.”
“Santa always brings me the gifts I want.”
“He just could fill out this tall order. That happens you know.”
“No!” Nick barked, twitching his hands free from his father’s grasp. He could feel his temper flaring up.
“He brought you this horse instead to make up for his failure to grant you your wish.”
“I don’t want the damn horse!” He spat angrily.
Tom stood upright and glowered at his son. “Nick, watch your language!”
Nick bolted out of the stables and burst into the house. Before Victoria could ask him what happened, he strode up the stairs to shut himself in his room. He flumped down on his bed and started pummelling his mattress. When the last of his anger was expelled, he buried his face in his hands and cried, “why?”
Three days elapsed with young Nick still sulking. For hours he would remain cloistered in his room, coming out only for meals and occasional trips down to the water closet. His silence was a welcomed relief on the ears, albeit worrisome for his parents who were at their wits end. They were grasping at straws as to which method to employ to bring their son out of his doldrums.
One afternoon, Nick’ sudden shift in moods led him to wander outside the house and to the stables to visit with his new Appaloosa kept in the far end stall. He pushed a crate against the slat and stepped on it to reach a more comfortable height
“I’m sorry, chum. I didn’t mean anything it when I said I didn’t want you,” he confided in his equine friend while petting him on the head. “Just that I didn’t ask for a horse. But don’t you worry none. I aim to take good care of you.” As if on cue, the horse nodded his head, swished its tail and nuzzled at Nick ‘s arm.
Back at the house, Victoria rapped on the Nick’s bedroom door. “Nicholas, may I come in?” When she didn’t get an answer, she nudged the door open. “Nick?” She scanned the room for any sign of her boy before closing back the door. She shrugged, thinking he may have gone to the bathroom.
“Looking for Nick?” Jarrod asked as he walked past her in the hallway.
“Yes. Have you seen him?”
“I saw him creep out to the house about twenty minutes ago.”
“Did he say where he was going?”
“I didn’t ask. I didn’t talk to him. Just saw him.”
Jarrod gallantly offered his arm to his mother. “May I escort you downstairs, lovely lady?”
“Why yes you may, sir,” she replied smilingly, tucking her arm into his.
Jarrod parted ways with his mother to head to the kitchen while she continued on to the study where Tom was at his desk, reviewing a contract for the purchase of a new gold mine in Rosedale. Victoria balked at the idea of interrupting, seeing how engrossed he was in his work. As she turned to leave, the swish of her skirt broke into Tom’s concentration. “Victoria, is that you?”
She peeked her head back in. “Yes, Tom. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“Nonsense! You never disturb me. Besides I need a break.” He tossed the contract on the table, stretched and stood from his chair. “Is there something on your mind?”
“He’s still in his room?”
“No as a matter of fact Jarrod said he saw him going to the barn.”
“I told you he’d come around.” He wrapped her arms around her shoulders and escorted her to the living room.
“It’s a start but I thought maybe you could bring him along on your trip to Rosedale next week.”
“I don’t know. It’s an awful long ride for such a little boy.”
“First, your son is not that little. Second, you could go by train. It’ll be faster and thus allow you an extra day to spend together as father and son.”
“I see where you’re going with this. You think I’ve been neglecting the boy these past few months?” He assisted her down in her favourite armchair after which he stepped over to the decanters to pour himself a drink.
“No Tom, that’s not what I’m saying. You are a wonderful father. You’ve been there for the children when they needed you. No I’m saying a change of scenery might be good for Nicholas. And it could be an opportunity to strengthen the bond between you two. That boy looks up to you, Tom. You’re his hero.”
Tom walked back to Victoria and stood behind her chair to place a hand on her shoulder. “And he’s mine. All my children are. Maybe that’s why I spoil them so.” He smiled obligingly and squeezed her shoulder. “Okay. I’ll go ask him.” He quaffed his drink and set the glass on the coffee table. He bent down to give her a small kiss on the lips before heading out to the stables.
Tom’s heart brimmed over with pride and joy at the sight of his dark-haired son lovingly grooming his horse. He was standing on his toes, stretching his arm to reach the horse mane that he combed with great care. “There you are Freckles. Doesn’t it feel good?” the horse swished its tail in agreement.
“Is that his name, Freckles?” Tom asked with a light chuckle as he made his way to the stall.
“Yeah. ‘cause he’s got all those spots on him.”
“Very appropriate.” Tom ran a hand over the horse’s mane to inspect his son’s work. “Nice work on the grooming there son.”
“Thanks. I still have to do his coat.” Nick jumped off the crate to pick up another brush.
“So I take it you like him?” Nick nodded his answer and hopped back on the crate. “Want me to help you?”
“S’okay. I can do it by myself,” Nick replied on slightly miffed tone as he resumed his grooming.
“I’m sure you can. Say Nicholas I was wondering if you’d like to go with me to Rosedale next week?”
“What’s in Rosedale?”
“For one there’s huge lake at the outskirts of town where you and I could do some serious fishing.”
“No, Jarrod won’t be coming with us this time.”
Nick’s face lit up at the prospect of enjoying some quality time alone with his father, the man he set on such a high pedestal. Not that he minded Jarrod’s company, but fishing wasn’t really big brother’s idea of fun. He would much rather spent his days with his nose buried in law books then sit in the wet grass waiting for the fish to bite.
“Okay. Can I bring Freckles with me?” he asked with eager expectation.
“Not on this trip. I’m sorry.”
Nick’s little face fell at the thought of having to leave his new friend behind. Picking up on his son’s dismay, Tom quickly reassured him that Duke and the hands would take good care of him during his short absence. When Nick nodded his consent, Tom held out his hand.” Come on. Let’s go tell your mom.”
Nick bounced off the box and clasped his father’s hand. He turned to his horse to wave goodbye. “I’ll be back later, Freckles.”
A week passed and on this day, the family drove into town to see Tom and Nick off at the train station. Victoria held little Audra in her one arm as she hugged her husband with the other, exchanging a small kiss on the lips. “Have a safe trip, Tom. Be sure to keep a watchful on Nick. You know how mischievous he can be.”
“Don’t you worry. You said it yourself; he’s not a little boy anymore. He’s a young man. He’ll behave, won’t you Nick?” Tom addressed his young son as he ruffled his hair.
“Ahhhhhh dad!” Nick grunted, tossing his head to the side away from his father’s hand. He raked his fingers through his hair to comb it back before accepting a kiss on the forehead from his mother. Little Audra excitedly stretched out her arms, yearning for a hug from her favourite brother. Nick cringed at having to kiss his sister but nevertheless managed a tiny peck on her cheek, which made Audra squeak with delight.
On the last boarding call, father and son climbed aboard the private car and waved goodbye as the train started to chug away.
During the journey to Rosedale, Nick’s mood suddenly turned sullen when the sight of two young brothers holding hands at a train stop reminded him of Santa’s failure to honor his wish for a little brother. Thereafter, Nick kept to himself, spending the rest of the trip confined to the rear compartment where he willingly withdrew into a fantasy world away from the painful reality.
After arriving in Rosedale, a disheartened Nick lagged behind his father who led the way to the town hotel to rent a room for their three-day stay. Once unpacked in their room, tom brought Nick to the bank where he was to meet with the director to discuss the matter of the bank draft to be issued in the name of the Cranton Company for the purchase of the gold mine. Nick made no effort to hide his boredom at having to sit through a mind-numbing business meeting while he could be out there exploring the area. Tom was first reluctant to acquiesce to his son’s request, having promised Victoria to keep a constant eye on their mischievous boy, but upon Nick’s assurance that he would not wander off into the street and remain seated by the door, the father agreed.
Nick sat on a bench near the bank entrance and soaked up the atmosphere of the teeming town. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped at the sight of two saloon girls parading in the middle of the street. He stood and stepped up to the railing to get a better look at two of the most alluring women he’d ever seen. His stare dwelled on the two beauties until an infant boy dashing across the street caught his attention. Nick watched him scurry off to the livery stable and disappear inside.
“Dammit it, Alex, you were supposed to watch him!” The stone-faced man chided.
“I was. I just turned around for one second and he slipped out,” defended the young sheepish man.
“Find him!” he commanded ferociously. “When I get my hands on him I’ll give him the whipping of his life.”
Nick gasped in horror at what he just heard. He could feel his blood boiling and his temper flare up at the thought of this barbarian whipping an innocent child. When they came to him asking if he’d seen a five-year-old blond boy jumping over the front yard fence of the orphanage, Nick pointed them in the opposite direction. He waited until they were out of range to hurry across the street to the livery stable in hopes to find the frightened boy.
Nick ensured that the coast was clear, looking both ways before crossing the street to the livery stables.
“Hey kid!” Nick called out in a hushed voice so not to draw the stable boy’s attention pitching hay on the side of the barn.
“Hey kid, where are you? I know you’re here I saw you.” Nick treated very carefully, scanning every inch of the stalls. “I’m not going to hurt you. I want to help you.” A few straws floated down in front of his face. He looked up at the hayloft and smiled wickedly. Surreptitiously he proceeded to climb the wooden ladder up to where he knew the blond kid was hiding. With his bare hands Nick burrowed his way through the heap of hay only to be bitten fiercely on the hand.
“Ouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuch!” Nick cried out in pain. The little boy seized the opportunity to scramble out of his hiding place to reach the ladder, but Nick was faster and grabbed a hold of him. “Don’t be scared kid. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Anyone in there?” the stable boy shouted from the barn door.
Nick had his hand pressed firmly against the blond’s mouth, his eyes flashing a stern warning to keep quiet.
The stable boy gave the place a quick look around. He shrugged and resumed his work.
The orphan tried to wrench himself free from Nick’s grip “Take it easy kid. I’m here to help you. Calm down!” Nick blasted as he tightened his grip on the squirming boy. “You don’t want that man to see you and squeal to the orphanage, do you?”
The boy froze at the word ‘orphanage’ and stared at Nick quizzically. “That’s right. I saw you hop across the yard fence. They are looking for you but I sent them the wrong way. I don’t want these monsters to find you. I’m here to help you, kid. Believe me.” Nick loosened his hold when he felt the boy relax in his arms. “My name is Nick Barkley. What’s yours?”
The blond studied Nick’s features warily. He wanted to ensure the boy sitting before him could be trusted and thus waited for that sense of security to creep over him before answering his questions the only way he knew how.
“You don’t have a name or you don’t want to tell me?”
The blond continued to stare inquisitively into the mesmerizing hazel eyes smiling at him. “Alright. How about I call you Swifty?” The kid crinkled his nose at that quaint name. “Yeah, you’re right. Stupid. How about Jake?” The blond shook his head.” Then tell me your name.” The boy lowered his gaze. Nick cupped his chin to will the sad eyes to his. “You can’t talk, can you?” His answer came in a silent cry. “God! What did they do to you?”
Nick felt strangely drawn to this young orphan as though he’d known him all of his life. What was it about that face that looked so familiar? The pained blue eyes were boring a hole in his soul and jarring the very core of his being. “I’ve got to get you out of here.”
The child trembled at the mere thought of being thrown back into the lion’s den. He shook his head violently, his face distorting with utter fear as he pushed himself back against the wall and curled up. Nick crawled over to the frightened boy to soothe his anguish. “Don’t be afraid, kid. I told you I’m not going to snitch on you. I just want to bring you back to our hotel room where you’ll be safe.” The boy shook his head and tightened his arms around his bent knees.
Nick inched forward to place a hand on his head. “Hey, look at me, Kid. Look into my eyes.” Nick waited for the boy to stop rocking and lift his eyes towards his reassuring smile. “You trust me?” The boy quivering lips narrowed in a straight line as he searched the answer in the mirror of Nick’s soul. Finally he gave a light nod of the head. “Believe me I won’t let those snakes sink their fangs into you. You are coming back with me and my dad. We have a big ranch with lots of horses. You like horses?” The boy nodded his head. “You’ll like living with us. I’ve got a dad and a mom, a big brother and a little sister. She’s a pest but I like her.” A small giggle escaped the blond’s lips when Nick playfully tousled his hair. “You stay put. I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere now or they’ll get you for sure,” Nick warned sternly before crawling over to the wooden ladder. As soon as Nick’s head disappeared, the orphan burrowed his way through the heap of hay inside which he concealed himself.
Nick made his way to the tack room where he snatched a saddle blanket and a cowboy hat before returning to the hayloft. “Hey kid, where are you?” The boy poked his head out from under the hay. “Nice hiding place you got there,” Nick remarked amusedly. “Here.” He handed the blanket and hat to the blond who wiggled his way out of the stack of hay. He looked at Nick with a puzzled expression. “You put these on so no one will recognize you when we cross the street to the hotel. It’s a disguise.” Nick assisted the boy in mantling the blanket over his shoulders. He chuckled at the hat that was obviously a size too big for the small head. “Don’t worry about it, kid. You look great. The important thing is that no one recognizes you. Are you ready?” The boy nodded and clasped the hand that Nick offered.
Nick helped the boy climbed down the ladder and once on the ground he readjusted his disguise before taking his hand and leading him out of the barn.
They ambled across the street with a natural gait. Although Heath’s appearance elicited a few titters out of passers-by, the two made it to the hotel with no one being the wiser. Luckily the clerk was absent for his desk making it easier for Nick to sneak the boy into his room.
“Now I have to leave you here for a few minutes while I go back to the bank and wait for my dad to finish his business. I promised him not to stray. If he finds out I did he’s going to spank me.”
Heath cringed at the thought of his friend getting a whipping on account of him. He clutched at his leg, not wanting to let go. Nick peeled his arms off his limb and crouched down in front of the boy, holding him tightly by the shoulders.. “Listen. You’ll be safe here. No one is going to find you. I will be back with my dad.” Heath shook his head frantically. “Hey, it’s okay. My dad is great. He won’t tell on you either. I’ll ask him to make you my little brother, would you like that?” The blond’s euphoric smile reached his ears as he nodded his head. “Okay. You stay here and don’t answer to anyone. If someone should enter, you can hide in the closet over there,” Nick motioned with his head. “You understand?” After the boy nodded his acknowledgement, Nick stood and crossed to the door. “We won’t be long. You stay put, ya hear?”
The second Nick shut the door the boy scurried over to the closet. He closed the door and huddled in a corner, drawing his knees up to his chest to rest his chin on them. He wanted to minimize the risks of being found before his friend’s return.
Nick hurtled down the hotel staircase and hurried out the door to get to the bank. He stopped dead in his tracks and his eyes widened in alarm at the sight of his father standing on the boardwalk with his fist on hips, scanning the street with a steely look etched on his face.
“Uh-oh” Nick exclaimed with a grimace knowing he was in for a good spanking. He took a deep breath and edged towards Tom who was carving him up with a glare of contempt. “Nicholas Barkley, what did I tell you?” he scolded with his arms folded across his chest.
“To wait for you outside the bank,” he answered sheepishly. “I’m sorry dad but I had to help him.”
“What are you talking about?”
Nick clasped his father’s hand and pulled at it. “Come with me. I’ll show you.”
“Nicholas Barkley what are you up now?”
Inside the hotel room Nick’s heart leapt to his throat realizing the boy was missing. “Dad he was here!”
“Who was here?”
“That boy who ran away from the orphanage,” he explained as he frantically began searching under the bed. When he turned around, much to his relief, he saw the blond poking his head out the closet door. “There you are! Come here!” Nick stretched out his arm for the boy to clasp his hand. “Kid I’d like you to meet my dad.”
Tom hunched down before the frightened little man who cowered away from him and hid behind Nick’s legs, clawing at his pants with a vice-like grip.
“It’s okay kid. Don’t be afraid.” Nick peeled the little fingers off his pants and squatted down in front of the trembling child. “My dad’s a good person. He won’t hurt you.”
The boy risked another glance at Tom who smiled. “What’s your name, son?”
The blond lowered his eyes and shyly buried his face in Nick’s shoulder. “He won’t talk, dad. I don’t know his name.”
“You say he ran away from the orphanage?”
“Yes. I saw him jump over the fence and run to the stables. I promise I wouldn’t tell those monsters where he was.”
“The people at the orphanage. I heard them say that they would whip him good if they ever found him. We can’t let that happen, dad. I told him he could be my new little brother.”
Tom sighed. “Oh Nicholas, it’s not that simple.” He said as he hoisted himself up on his feet.
“Yes it is. I know that orphans don’t have any mom and dad to take care of them. Mom can be his mom and you can be his dad. I’ll be his big brother. I asked him and he said yes,” he looked at the blond who was staring at him with adoration, “didn’t you kid? You want to be my little brother?” The blond acknowledged with a firm nod.
“I need to find out who he is.”
“No!” Nick shouted, making the boy flinch at the booming voice. He bolted upright and lunged at his father. “You can’t tell them. They’ll hurt him bad,” he beseeched.
Tom sat on his heels and gripped his hysterical son’s shoulders. “Listen to me Nick. I won’t say a word to anyone, I promise. I just want some background information on your friend, that’s all.”
“And then we can take him home with us?” he asked expectantly with a sniffle.
“We’ll see about that. Right now I need you both to stay here until I get back. Don’t go anywhere. Nick I’m counting on you not to disobey this time.”
“I won’t dad. I promise.”
Tom crossed to the door. Before leaving he cast one last look at the young blond whose face seemed familiar. His instincts were urging him to protect that little boy at any cost.
He went up to the orphanage and enquired at the front desk about the missing boy. The bearish intendant was standing nearby when he heard Tom speak of their runaway. “Did you see him?” he asked brazenly.
Tom turned to one of the monsters his son had been referring to. “No I haven’t. I just heard you were missing a young boy and I’d like to help you find him if I can. But for that I need a little more information on his age, name and possibly his background.”
“Why his background?”
“It might provide me with a lead on where he might have gone. Relatives, friends…”
“He just has an aunt. She put him here when her husband died two years ago. The boy was living with them since his mother passed away when he was 10 months old. She couldn’t take care of the bastard anymore so she dropped him on our doorstep. I doubt he could have run back to her. She lives in Strawberry. A half-a-day ride from here.”
Tom cringed at the word ‘bastard’ the arrogant intendant used with such airiness. It was painfully obvious the man didn’t take too kindly to children. “What’s his name?”
“Heath. Heath Thomson.” The name Thomson struck a chord with Tom. Could he be Leah’s son? “Story is his mother slept with a stranger and got stuck with the bastard.” Tom’s heart pounded against his chest as his mind quickly did the math between the boy’s age and his last trip to Strawberry where he met the charming Leah Thomson who nursed him back to health after his brush with death. Images of those three months began dancing before his eyes, slowly drowning out the intendant’s rambling about the blond’s mischief.
His son Nick was right. They had to bring that kid home. He promised to keep quiet about the boy’s possible heritage until after he talked with Martha Simmons.
Tom returned to the hotel to hear peals of laughter wafting down the hallway. Opening the door to his room he smiled at the two boys in the midst of a pillow fight.
“Boys! Boys!” Tom chastised. “I don’t want to ruin your fun but how about toning it down a little so they don’t throw us out of the hotel before tomorrow?”
A breathless Nick tossed his pillow aside and sat on the edge of the bed. “Okay dad. Sorry. But it’s all the kid’s fault, here” Nick teased with a playful swat on the head. Heath flung his arms around Nick’s neck and jumped on his back. “Want another piggyback ride?” The boy nodded. “Okay hold on. This stallion’s pretty ornery.”
“Can you postpone that ride? I need to talk to you,” Tom asked on a solemn tone.
“Sure dad,” Nick answered with a wary expression as he let the little buckaroo slide off his back. He sat Heath on the bed next to him while Tom pulled up a chair and took a seat in front of them. “I found out who that boy is. His name is Heath. He was just one year old when his mother died and thereafter his aunt and uncle took him in. When her husband died, the woman brought the boy to the orphanage because she couldn’t care for him any longer.”
Nick’s face crumpled at the thought of his friend losing his mother at such a young age. “What about his dad? Why couldn’t he take care of him?”
Tom lowered his gaze in shame and took a deep breath. “They don’t know who or where he is.”
Nick looked at Heath sitting to his left with a puzzled frown. He strained a half-hearted smile and tousled his hair. “We can’t leave him here.”
“No we can’t.”
“You mean it?” Nick gushed. “He can come home with us?”
Tom shut his eyes and gave a nod of the head. “But we’ll have to sneak him out of town. Are you up to the challenge?”
“You bet I am!”
Tom gave a grateful tap on Nick’s leg before rising from his chair.
“Say dad, did they tell you why Heath can’t speak?”
“They don’t know. He came to the orphanage mute. They assume he was born that way.”
“I’ll teach him how to talk. You’ll see. He’ll be jabbering away in no time,” Nick spoke with an unwavering confidence.
“I’m sure you will Nicholas. Just make sure none of that bellowing rubs off on him,” he chaffed as he playfully ruffled his son’s hair.
“Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad! I don’t bellow. I just have a healthy set of lungs. That’s what mom says.”
“Oh, is that what she calls it?” Tom continued to mock. “Listen can you two keep it down while I go downstairs to get us some supper?”
“We’ll be good, won’t we Heath?”
“Heeeeeeeeeath,” the boy slurred.
“Hey, he talked!” Nick enthused.
“He sure did.”
“He can speak. He just has to learn how.”
“You start teaching him while I go get us some food.” Tom crossed to the door and cast one last glance at his dark-haired cherub already hard at work with his pupil. He felt a prick in his heart at the thought of Heath being his own flesh and blood. He feared Victoria’s reaction to the boy’s features would be similar to his. Was he doing the right thing by bringing the orphan home to live with them? Would his wife approve and even want to raise another woman’s child? He set those worries aside for the time being to concentrate on a plan to sneak the blond out of town tomorrow with no one being the wiser.
Dawn was barely mantling in the sky that Tom was up and all dressed up. He gently tugged at Nick’s arm to rouse him. “Nicholas,” he whispered in the slumbering boy’s ear. “Nicholas, time to wake up, son.”
“Wh…what?” Nick drawled with his eyes still shut tight.
“You need to get up. We have to leave soon.”
Nick stirred and rolled over on his back. He pried his heavy eyelids open. “It’s still dark out, dad,” Nick griped with a yawn.
“I know that’s why we need to get a move on before anyone is up.”
Nick blinked to clear the haze in his eyes before shaking awake the sleeping boy curled up next to him. “Hey Heath. Wake up boy. We’re leaving.” Nick tittered at the annoyed groan. “I know it’s a drag but it’s the only way. You don’t want to return to the orphanage, do you?” Heath rubbed his tiny fists against his eyes and shook his head. He stretched out his arms for Nick to help his out of bed. In his friend’s arms, the little groggy boy leaned his head against the strong shoulder as Nick carried him over to an armchair. He sat him down and gently tapped his cheeks to fully wake him. “Come on Heath, wake up. We’ve got to get your clothes on.”
“You get dressed, Nick. I’ll handle Heath’s clothes.” Tom grabbed the boy’s pants draped over the back of a chair and squatted down in from of the child to slip them on his legs. Heath’s funny beady eyes elicited a chuckle out of Tom. “You’re watching me closely, aren’t you? You’re making sure I don’t put your pants on backwards?” Tom’s elfish wink wrung a lopsided grin out of the distrustful boy.
It wasn’t long before father and sons snuck out of the hotel to the awaiting wagon in front. Nick and Heath hopped in the back and crawled under the tarp while Tom took his seat in front. “Are you all settled back there?”
“We’re ready, dad,” came the muffled voice from under the tarp.
“Here we go.” He cast one last suspicious look around to spot any prying eyes lurking in the shadows before he flicked the horses at a light amble. Half a mile down the road the boys poked their heads out from underneath their place of concealment to drink in the beauty of the landscape displaying before their eyes. During their journey to Stockton, Nick boasted about his home and family to the boy who was clinging to his every word, his blue eyes shining with wonderment.
When they finally arrived at the ranch, Tom barely had time to halt the horses that Nick excitedly leapt out of the wagon to fall into his mother’s awaiting arms. “Mom!”
“Nicholas!” she clenched him into a warm motherly hug. “How was your trip?”
“It was great!” he bubbled over with ecstasy. “Wait till you meet Heath.”
“Who?” Victoria asked with a puzzled frown. She turned to Tom who smiled embarrassingly.
“We have a passenger.”
She cocked her head in confusion before setting her sight on the blond boy nick was assisting off the back of the wagon. He clasped his hand and walked him over to meet his mother. “Heath, this is my mom.”
“Heath? Who is he, Tom?”
“A runaway orphan we ran into, rather Nick, ran into in Rosedale.”
“He’s Leah Thomson’s son,” Tom bluntly informed his wife, cringing at her expected reaction to the name.
She put a hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp. “Leah?” she stared at her husband to seek confirmation. He nodded his head and placed a hand on her arm. “I know what you’re thinking. The same thought has crossed my mind.”
“Oh Tom, no,” she quavered.
“Ah Nick why don’t you bring Heath to the barn and show him your new horse?”
“Yeah! Come on Heath. You like horses, don’t ya?” Heath nodded and stretched out his arms to get a piggyback ride, which Nick was all too happy to oblige.”
When the boys were out of range, Tom turned to his wife with a rueful expression. “I’m not sure but I think he is. I visited the orphanage and they told me that his mother died when he was barely one year of age and that later his aunt dropped him off at the orphanage when she could no longer care for him.” He sighed heavily to summon the courage to continue. “I couldn’t let Heath go back to that awful place, Victoria. I suspect they were beating him. He can barely talk. That child has obviously been abused. You should have seen how readily he took to Nick and vice versa. Your boy has already adopted him.”
Victoria closed her eyes to squeeze out the tears. “Oh Tom,” she breathed out, her hushed voice choked with emotions. “There’s no doubt about it. He is your son.”
“She never said anything. She could have told me she was with child,” Tom lamented.
“You could have checked to make certain she wasn’t pregnant,” Victoria countered harshly. “I should have made you return to Strawberry but I was afraid of what might happen. Would I wind up losing you to that woman who could give you the son I lost?” she ended on a sob.
Tom enlaced his grieving wife in his arms and held her for the longest time before speaking softly in her ear. “Victoria, I’m so sorry. I love you so much.”
She pulled back and wiped her tears. “Do you know what happened to Leah? How did she die?” she quavered as she tried to recover her poise.
Tom shook his head negatively. “All I was told is that she died when the boy was barely 10 months of age. Thereafter Leah’s brother, Matt, and his wife took him for a while before dropping him at the orphanage.”
“What about that woman who was with Leah?”
“Hannah James? She wasn’t a blood relative and I doubt she could have been able to care for the boy all by herself.”
“Poor dear,” Victoria grieved with a glance toward the barn.
She closed her eyes and held up her hands. “Don’t, Tom. Let us not talk about it anymore. I had a hard time coming to terms with the affair. I understand that you were amnesiac but that doesn’t erase the fact that you held another woman in your arms and left her with child.”
“What about the boy?”
“He’s not returning to the orphanage that’s for sure. He’s staying with us until we can proceed to the legal adoption,” she said straightforwardly, much to her husband’s delight.
He smiled gratefully before pulling her into a warm embrace. “You’re a great woman, Victoria Barkley.”
“I know,” she teased. Disengaging the clench, she gazed into his dewy eyes and spoke from the soul. “That boy is a part of you and therefore a part of me.” She sandwiched his hands between hers and placed them over her heart. “He’s our son, Tom.”
He slid one hand from her grasp to hold it to her cheek, gently rubbing his thumb against the skin. “He’s a lucky boy.”
“Lucky indeed. Do you realize if you hadn’t gone to Rosedale when you did? You were meant to find him and bring him home where he’ll be loved and cherished and grow healthy with his siblings. I see that Santa has granted Nicholas’s wish for a little brother after all?”
“He did, didn’t he?” Tom tittered before leaning forward to give her lips a tender loving kiss. She tucked her arm in his and together they ambled to the stables to check on the boys.