A Heart Filled With Joy
*An Alternate Universe story regarding how Heath came to live on the Barkley Ranch.
Victoria Barkley strolled through the parlor with Audra on her hip. The nine-month old baby caught sight of her father in the foyer. She smiled a toothless grin and cooed; reaching for the man who was reading the mail the ranch foreman had brought back from town.
The golden haired girl shrieked when her father didn't take his eyes off the letter he was reading for the third time. She kicked her legs, arching and bucking from her mother's side.
"Tom," Victoria scolded in a light tone, "your baby girl wants your attention."
Victoria saw her husband swallow hard. When he turned to look at her his face was as white as the petticoats underneath their daughter's dress. But more than his pale features it was his eyes that caught Victoria's attention. Blue eyes filled with regret, pain, devastation, and fear. She'd seen him like this only one other time throughout their married life. That day almost two decades in the past now, when he told her their firstborn child, eight- month old Thomas Alton Barkley Jr., had died from the measles.
Remembering that heart-wrenching day, and associating her husband's current demeanor with that event caused the woman's voice to quiver.
Tom, what is it? Is Jarrod all
right? Is that letter from him?"
Jarrod had been born ten months after Tommy's death. He was eighteen now and had started college in San Francisco two months earlier.
"No." The man's voice was so soft Victoria had to strain to hear him. "No, it's not from Jarrod. It has nothing to do with Jarrod. Please...I...Victoria, I have to talk to you. Please put Audra down for her nap and meet me in the study. Tell Silas...tell him we're not to be disturbed no matter the reason."
"But, Tom, what is it? What's--"
There was an odd note of defeat to the man's voice.
"Just do as I ask, Victoria. Please. I'll explain...I’ll explain when we're alone."
Was it Victoria's imagination, or did her husband's shoulders slump just a little as he turned and walked to his study, the letter hanging limply in his hand?
Audra gave a grunt of indignation over being ignored by her father. Victoria kissed her pale head.
"There, there, baby girl. Don't you fret. Papa will be his old self again by the time you wake up."
Thirty minutes later Victoria made her way to the study. She'd changed Audra's diaper, nursed her, rocked her to sleep, then laid her in the crib. Like Tom had requested, Victoria found Silas and told him she and Mr. Barkley weren't to be disturbed. She asked the black man to keep an ear out for the baby, though Victoria was certain the discussion Tom wanted to have with her would draw to a close long before Audra woke up.
Victoria entered the massive room Tom used as his office. The man was sitting at his desk staring out the big windows that faced the front of the ranch. The whiskey decanter sat in front of him half empty. He poured another shot down his throat.
"Shut the door, please."
Victoria did as her husband requested. He stood and led her to one of two overstuffed chairs angled in front of the fireplace. A silence filled the room that was so long and so uncomfortable it reminded Victoria of their first date back when she was sixteen and he was a shy young man of twenty. The bold teenage girl had given way to a bold thirty-nine year old woman. In some homes a woman would be chastised by her husband for speaking before being spoken to. But those rules didn't apply to Victoria Barkley’s household.
"Tom? What's going on? What's got you so upset?"
The man leaned forward in his chair. He cast his gaze upon the oak floorboards. He kneaded his forehead, then ran his hand through his dark short beard and across his mustache.
"I...Victoria, you have to believe me when I tell you I love you with all my heart and soul. I fell head over heels for you on our first date." Tom lifted his head, his blue eyes boring into his wife's. "You know that don't you? You know I love you more than life itself."
"Yes, Tom. I know that. I've never doubted it for a moment. Haven't doubted it through twenty-one years of marriage."
Tom reached over and took his wife's hand. Tears swam in his eyes when he squeezed it. "You are still my beautiful Victoria. You always will be."
"Tom...please. You're scaring me. Tell me what's wrong, sweetheart."
The man released his wife's hand and stood. He walked over to the windows.
"Nine years ago I spent a few months
in Strawberry setting up our mining interests there. Do you remember that?"
"Certainly. It was the one and only time you were away on business for more than two weeks. Jarrod was nine, Nick just a little guy of five. They both missed you terribly. As did I."
The man smiled a moment thinking of his handsome sons. Jarrod was a grown man now and studying law. The spitting image of Tom Barkley minus the beard, many were fond of saying. A son any father would be proud of. Intelligent. Thoughtful. A skilled debater; and rabid in his interest for politics. Jarrod was going far in this life. Tom Barkley had no doubt his oldest son would someday be a well-known, well-respected man.
Then there was fourteen-year-old Nick. Dark and brooding, hot tempered, impetuous and playful. He looked like Victoria's father yet had his Grandpa Barkley's personality. Already he was a crackerjack shot with a rifle and had an eye for horses that made him the envy of men three times his age. Like his older brother, Nick was a smart young man, but didn't care too much for applying that intelligence to his schoolwork. Instead he wanted to run the Barkley ranch along side the father he worshipped. The only way Tom was able to keep his teenage son in Stockton's schoolhouse was by telling Nick he couldn't be a full partner in the ranch operations until he earned his graduation certificate.
"I love our boys so much,
Victoria. They’re the light of my
life. And little Audra. The baby girl we hadn't expected. She's my joy. You know that, don't you?"
"Yes, Tom, I know that. But you were talking about your trip to Strawberry. Does the letter you received today have something to do with our mines there? Is there a financial problem of some sort we need to discuss?"
"There's a problem, yes. But it's not financial in nature." The man heaved a sigh and continued to stare out the window with his back to his wife. "When I came home from Strawberry all those years ago my right arm was in a sling. I'd been shot."
Victoria wasn't sure what her husband wanted her to say. Yes, he'd been shot by a vengeful man who wanted to own the mines Tom purchased. Not only had Tom taken a bullet in his right shoulder, but he'd also been shot in his right side just below his ribcage. That was part of the reason he'd been gone so long; and part of the reason why Victoria had paced the floor at night when three weeks went by without any word from him.
"I told you then that a friend offered me shelter, tended to my wounds, and helped me get back on my feet."
"Yes, you did."
"You never asked me who that friend was."
"Well...no. I guess I didn't. I was so relieved when you rode in that day, and the boys were elated and climbing all over you, and then when I saw the sling and saw how pale and thin you were...well with all the other questions that came to mind it just never occurred to me to make any inquiries about your friend. I assumed he was a man you did mining business with."
“My friend...” Tom turned to face his wife. "My friend, Victoria, my friend wasn't a man. My friend was a woman. A woman name Leah Thomson."
Before she even asked the question Victoria had suspicion she knew the answer. Her heart thumped in her chest, her throat suddenly as dry as an Alabama cotton field.
"What are you saying?"
"I...I don't know what made me do it. She saved my life. She came upon me in that alley and somehow managed to get me to my feet. We stumbled along, me more unconscious than not, until we arrived to her home. I would have bled to death had she not found me. Strawberry had no doctor back then. She took care of me. Tended to me until I was well enough to travel."
"And you had to find some way to repay
her for her kindness. Is that what
you're telling me, Tom Barkley?"
"It wasn't like that. Honestly it wasn't. I don't...I was out of it for over a week. Loopy from the pain. My mind wasn't clear. I know that's not an excuse. And I'm not asking you to excuse what I did."
"Did she know you were married?"
Tom shook his head.
"No. I never told her. At least not then."
"Not then? What do you mean? Have
you seen this woman again?"
"No. Never. Not since the day I rode out of there. But after I returned home and was healed I...I wrote her a letter."
Victoria stood. She paced in front of the fireplace.
"So you wrote her a letter and
what? Professed your love, but told her
it would create too much of a scandal if you left your wife and sons?"
Tom crossed the floor in three strides. He grabbed Victoria by the shoulders, his eyes pleading with her.
"Victoria, no. No, it wasn't like that."
"Then maybe you'd better tell me what it was like."
"I told her it was mistake on my part. That I was married to a woman I loved very, very much. That I was the father of two young sons I adored. I told her I was sorry. So very sorry for leading her to believe anything but that. I told her our...our time together wasn't her fault, but rather mine. I thanked her for being so kind hearted and for helping me, a complete stranger. I told her I wanted her to forget me and go forward with her life. To find a good man who would love her as much as I love you."
Tom dropped his hands and walked over to his desk.
"Here. Here's the letter I wrote her. It's part of what came in the mail. Read it for yourself."
Victoria took the letter her husband handed her. It was dog-eared, the writing faded and smudged, as though it had been read, and cried over, many times since the day it arrived.
The words on the paper were almost identical to the ones Tom had just spoken. When Victoria had read it through to the end she handed it back to him.
"You said this is part of what came in the mail. What else came?"
"This was folded inside another letter addressed to me. It was written by a close friend of Leah's. A woman by the name of Rachel Caufield. I met her when I was staying with...staying in Strawberry. She was quite a bit older than Leah, and was as much of a mother to her as she was a friend.
"I see. And why did Rachel feel the need to write you?"
Tom tried to put his arm around Victoria only to have her shrug his hand off her shoulder.
"Victoria, please. Let's sit back down here together."
The woman would not allow her husband to lead her to the chairs. She made him sit alone and in silence for several minutes before finally joining him. She perched stiffly on the edge of her seat, when Tom tried to take her hand she yanked it away.
"Tell me why this Rachel felt the need
to write you and enclose that letter."
"She enclosed the letter as proof, I suppose, of her newfound knowledge of my relationship with Leah."
"Yes. She mentions in her letter that she suspected we had an..."
"Go ahead, Tom, say it. An affair. You had an affair."
"It wasn't like that."
"Oh it wasn't, was it? Well, I don't know what else you'd call it. You can sugar coat it any way you please, but as Mr. Shakespeare was fond of saying, a rose by any other name is still a rose."
"Okay then, an affair. Rachel suspected Leah and I had engaged in an affair. Nonetheless, that wasn't confirmed until the day Leah...the day Leah passed away."
"Yes. Rachel said she got sick last winter. From what she says in her letter I would guess Leah had some sort of cancer in her internal organs."
"If you haven't seen or had contact
with this...with Leah, since you left Strawberry nine years ago, what would
make Rachel write you about her death?"
Tom reached for his wife's hand again. This time she let him take it. The man had to clear his throat before he could speak. And even then it was hard for him to get the words out.
"It seems as though there's a
child. A boy eight years old. Rachel says...she said Leah told her on her
death bed that the boy is mine."
A horse whinnied and the sound of a man’s shout drifted in through the open window before Victoria spoke again.
"A child,” she repeated, her voice devoid of emotion as though she was in shock. “An eight year old child.”
"Would you like to read the letter? It's on my desk. Maybe...maybe it will help to--"
Victoria jumped to her feet as tears streamed down her face.
"No, Tom, it won't help! Nothing will help me right now."
"Victoria, please. Please listen to--"
The woman eluded her husband's grasp. She threw the study door open and fled the room, Tom at her heels.
"Victoria! Victoria, wait! Please, sweetheart, we have to talk!"
The sobbing woman charged up the stairs, flying by Nick who had just come from putting his schoolbooks in his room.
"Mother? Mother, what's--"
Before Nick could finish his question he heard the door to his parents' room slam shut. Audra gave a startled cry from the nursery.
Nick looked at Tom. In all his fourteen years he'd never seen his father so upset. So flustered. Nor had he ever seen his mother cry before.
"Silas!" Tom yelled. "Silas!"
The black man trotted in from the kitchen.
"Please see to Audra. Mrs. Barkley...Mrs. Barkley isn't feeling well. See if Phillip's wife will watch the baby for a few hours for me."
Phillip was the Barkleys’ ranch foreman. He and his wife lived in a two story frame farmhouse by the barn.
"Yes, Mr. Barkley. I'll do that."
Nick watched as Silas disappeared into the nursery. He turned back to his father.
"Father, what's wrong? Why was Mother crying? Is she sick? Has something bad happened?"
Tom hesitated before answering his son. Would he be making a mistake to tell Nick what had occurred all those years ago in Strawberry? Yet hiding it from him would be unfair. Hard work on the Barkley ranch had caused Nick to grow up fast. He was mature for his age. Intelligent and fair minded. Hiding the truth from him would be a disservice to the boy. Eventually Nick would find out. The last thing Tom wanted was this type of news to come to his sons by way of anyone but him.
"No, Nick, your mother isn't
"But you just told Silas--"
"Never mind what I told Silas. This is private. Private family business.
Come into the study with me, please.
I need to talk to you."
Twenty minutes later another bedroom door slammed in
the Barkley house.
So much for Nick and his fair mindedness.
That night Tom Barkley ate supper alone. He couldn't get Nick to come out of his room, and as far as Victoria went he didn't even try.
Tom was finally forced to face his wife at nine o'clock that evening when the hungry Audra was fussing to be nursed. Victoria wouldn't speak to him as she went about seeing to the baby's needs. She was gone a long time when she left to put Audra in her crib. Tom began to wonder if she was coming back, or if she'd chosen to sleep in one of the other bedrooms.
The rancher was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner of the master bedroom when his wife finally returned. He watched as she sat at her dressing table and brushed her dark hair out in front of the mirror.
"I wish I knew how to make this right with you," he said quietly.
"I wish you did, too." Victoria gave her hair three more strokes
then set the brush aside. She turned to
face her husband. "You talked to
"What did you tell him?"
"The same thing I told you. The truth."
"Has he been out of his room at all
"No. He wouldn't come down for dinner, and he refused the tray I had Silas bring up to him."
"I'll talk to him in the
"What are you going to tell him?"
"I don't know, Tom. I just...I don't know."
"Are you going to leave me?"
"You'd deserve it if I did. You'd deserve it if I walked out of here
tomorrow with Nick and Audra. You know
that, don't you?"
"Yes. I know that. I shattered your trust in me. I...that's why I never told you about Leah. I wanted to. So many times I wanted to come clean and tell you the truth. But I knew how angry you'd be. More importantly I knew how hurt you'd be. It was a mistake on my part. A horrible mistake. A terrible lapse in judgment. I just...I just thought if we could get through the rest of our lives without you ever having to know then you wouldn't be hurt by my foolishness."
"But we can't run from our mistakes,
Tom. Or lie to hide them. Isn't that what you always tell your
Victoria looked into her husband's
eyes. "Have there been
"Other women you mean?"
The man shot out of the chair and dropped to his knees in front of his wife. He grasped her hands in his. She could feel the calluses from the hours and hours of hard work it took to build this ranch into what it was today.
"No, Victoria. No. Never. And there never will be. You're my one true love. You have to believe me."
Victoria hadn't seen tears run down Tom Barkley's face since the day they buried baby Tommy nearly twenty years ago.
"I'm so afraid you'll leave me. I can't live without you. I love you so much. And my...my stupidity has hurt you so. Has shattered all that we had."
Victoria brought a trembling hand up and ran it through her husband's hair.
"It hasn't shattered all that we had, Tom. But it's shattered an important part of it."
The couple clung to each other then and cried together. Long after their tears dried they remained locked in a firm embrace. Tom didn't make any move toward the bed until his wife took him by the hand and led him there. He blew out the lamp, then climbed in beside her fully clothed. He put an arm around her waist and pulled her close. Victoria felt Tom’s tears trickle down her neck as he cried silently into her hair.
Victoria lay awake that night long after her husband fell into a fitful sleep. It was after midnight when she reached for her robe at the end of the bed. She put her feet in her slippers and silently exited the room. She picked an oil lamp up off a hall table and lit it before entering the nursery.
The woman stood over her baby daughter. The child was asleep on her stomach; her thumb firmly encased in her little mouth. Pale yellow curls ringed her round head like a custom-made cap. Victoria envied Audra her innocence. The little girl would never have to be aware of her father's indiscretions if they chose not to tell her.
Victoria ran the back of her hand over a chubby cheek.
"Oh my sweet baby daughter, how would I ever get through this pain without you? The Lord must have known what he was doing when he surprised me with your presence in my womb."
Victoria stopped in Nick's room next. He was asleep, too, but his mother saw the dried tears on his face.
"My Nick," she whispered. "Already so strong and brave at fourteen. Already so quick to hide your pain from those around you. Already so quick to be a man. But you learned today that being a man means you pay a price for your wisdom. Oh, Nicky, how I wish I could have protected you from the knowledge you now have. How I wish your father could have stayed on the pedestal where you have always placed him at the end of each day. How I wish you hadn't been forced to see your hero tumble from his perch."
Victoria bent and placed a light kiss on Nick's temple. She left the room as quietly as she'd entered. She made her way down the stairs to Tom's study. His desktop had been cleared, but she knew where he would have put those letters. She set her lamp down, opened his middle drawer and pulled the letters out. She reread the first one he'd written to Leah Thomson nine years earlier. Once again Victoria needed to see for herself that he really had spoken of his enormous love for her, and that he voiced his regret and pain to Leah at initiating the affair.
The next letter was harder to read. It took her a long time to have the courage to unfold it. She pulled her lamp closer to the paper.
Dear Mr. Barkley,
I don't know if you'll remember me or not, but my name is Rachel Caufield. I was a good friend of Leah Thomson.
Leah passed away on August 20th. She became ill last winter and only got worse as the months progressed. She grew so thin there was nothing to her but skin and bones by the time the good Lord took her. She had so much pain in her stomach that she couldn't eat.
I am writing to tell you I found a letter from you amongst Leah's personal papers. I have enclosed it. I am also writing to tell you Leah left behind an eight-year old son. Leah never told me who the boy's father was until her last day on this earth. Shortly before she died she said you are his father, Mr. Barkley, though to tell you the truth I had suspected that from the moment nine years ago when she told me she was pregnant. As you will recall, Leah was every bit a lady. She had never been with a man before you, sir, nor was she ever with one in all the days since you left.
Heath Morgan Thomson, as the child is known, is as sweet as any eight-year old boy can be. He was his mother's joy and she loved him with all her heart, as he loved her. Leah entrusted Heath's care to me and our friend Hannah. I love Heath as if he were my own child. Hannah feels the same way. But neither of us are young women and I have always believed that a boy needs the influence of a father in his life if he's going to grow up to be a decent man.
Leah has no other living relatives but her brother Matt. He and his wife live here in Strawberry and have been after me to let them raise Heath. Leah would not have wanted that, Mr. Barkley. Matthew Thomson is a nasty, dishonest man. Heath will have a hard life if he's ever forced to live with his Uncle Matt. Forgive me for speaking ill of the man, but I know what he wants. He has always been lazy and shiftless. He will no doubt put Heath to work in the mines before the boy reaches his twelfth birthday, and then demand the boy's salary from him. Mark my words, the only reason Matt wants that child is so he can live off him.
If I do not hear from you I will not bother you again, nor make trouble for you. Leah wouldn't have wanted it that way. I will do my best to raise Heath and keep him out of Matt Thomson's home. I know you have a wife and at least two sons. Maybe by now you have more children so Heath would not be so important to you. However, I cannot end this letter without telling you what a loving, intelligent child he is and how any father would be proud to call him son, just as his mother was proud to call him son. His little heart has been broken since Leah's death. I think he feels very alone.
Victoria paid no attention when the Grandfather clock in the foyer struck one a.m. At one-fifteen her husband stuck his head in the study.
She looked up when he entered the room. His blood shot eyes and rumpled clothes reflected the troubles on his mind.
"Sweetheart, what are you doing down
here by yourself at this time of the morning?"
"I had to read Rachel's letter."
"What are you going to do about the
"I was planning on discussing that with you in a few days. It's not a matter of what I'm going to do with him, it's a matter of what we decide to do together."
"There's no matter of deciding. You must go to Strawberry and get him. He'll live here with us."
Tom walked over and perched a hip on the corner of his desk.
"I wasn't going to ask you to do that, Victoria. I can make regular visits to Strawberry to see him. I can give Rachel money to provide for him. All the money she needs and then some. Later, when he's older, I'll send him to the college of his choice. Perhaps then he can visit us here and get to know his brothers and sister."
"But that's not what you really want to do, is it."
"It's not a matter of what I want to
do. It's a matter of what's easiest on
you and the children."
"Tom, life is never easy. There are always bumps in the road. If Heath comes here to live with us now
Audra will never know the difference.
And as far as Jarrod and Nick go...well, like I said life is never
easy. Never without its disappointments
and heartaches. Perhaps it's time they
"I think Nick learned it today."
"I think he did, too."
Victoria folded the letters and returned them to Tom's desk drawer. She stood and crossed to the windows where she stared out at the full moon. She felt her husband walk up behind her.
"I know what kind of a town Strawberry is because I've been in mining towns with you before," Victoria said. "For the most part they're filled with rough men who put little value on education. Men like this Matt Thomson Rachel speaks of in her letter. We have so much to offer that little boy. It would be a shame if any opportunities bypassed him simply because we didn't have the courage to stand up and do what's right. Simply because we tried to save face by hiding him fifty miles away."
The woman turned and looked into her husband's eyes.
"It's not his fault, Tom. It's not that little boy's fault that he was born."
"I know. And not for one moment have I thought it is. Believe me, I know whose fault it is."
"He has no one now except two old ladies who were his mother's friends, and one uncle that doesn't sound like he's fit to own a dog let alone raise a child. You have to bring Heath here. He deserves to be a part of this family. He deserves to know his father, his brothers, and his baby sister."
he does. But what about you? One way or the other you'll be forced to
become mother to a child who isn't yours.
To a child who...a child who might break your heart every time you look
gave her husband a soft smile. "No
child of yours could ever break my heart." She laid a hand on Tom's chest.
"He's just a little boy of eight years old. A little boy whose mother has died. He must be so scared, Tom. So afraid of what the future holds for
thought of that, too."
else have you thought of?"
told you what I think we must do for Heath.
What do you think?"
"The exact same things. If you ask me not to bring him here I won't. I've already told you the other options I've considered in terms of providing for him and getting to know him. But I'll admit that's not what I want to do. My heart has been breaking for that child ever since the letter arrived. I feel so guilty. Guilty for his sake. Guilty for yours. I just...I wish Leah would have told me long ago. I don't know what I would have done had I known any sooner, but maybe it would have been easier on all of us if this had come up when Jarrod and Nick were too young to understand the whys and wherefores."
"Possibly. But there's no use in wondering what might have been." Victoria paused. "Tom, I have one question I need to ask you before you make arrangements for Heath to come here."
"Are you sure...absolutely sure this
child is yours?"
Tom thought back to the first night he'd made love to Leah Thomson. He wasn't going to tell his wife in so many words that the woman had been a virgin, but when he nodded his head she understood what he meant. He couldn't explain further as to how he was so certain that Rachel was telling the truth when she said Leah hadn't been with another man after Tom left Strawberry, he just instinctively knew it was fact. Granted, the love affair had been a short one, but there was a goodness about Leah, a pureness that was hard to define with the spoken word.
"All right then," Victoria stated. "Heath must be brought here as soon as possible. There's simply no choice in the matter."
"I want to go see Jarrod first. I need to talk to him. I want him to read the letters just as you have. I'll go to town tomorrow, buy a ticket for Friday evening's train, and wire Jarrod to let him know I'll be arriving in San Francisco on Saturday morning."
"Did you offer to let Nick read the letters?"
"No. I pondered it, but he's only fourteen. I wasn't certain if they’re something he should be privy to."
"He needs to read them, Tom. They might help him understand."
"I don't think anything's going to
help Nick understand right at the moment.
He's not speaking to me."
"It will take him time to mend. He's suffered a big blow. After all, you’re his idol."
"I was his idol, you
"No, that's not what I mean.
You'll always be Nick's idol.
But he's learned one of his first lessons on the road to
"And what lesson is that?"
"Even idols are human. They make mistakes. They disappoint us. They don't always live up to our expectations
and it's not fair of us to ask them to."
Tears filled Tom's eyes. "I never wanted to disappoint my son. To fall short of his expectations."
"I know you didn't, but you're not perfect, Tom. No man is. Maybe it's time Nick learned that."
"I wish he didn't have to. At least not yet."
"I wish he didn't have to, either. But such is the way of the world. I don't believe God thrusts things like this upon us for no reason."
"What do you mean?"
"If Tommy had lived you'd have three sons. Now Heath will be joining us and you’ll have three sons. Maybe that's the way God meant for it to be."
Tom pulled his wife to his chest. He held her tiny body firm within his embrace and placed kisses in her soft hair. Tears ran down his cheeks preventing him from making a reply to her words.
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Two weeks later Tom Barkley left for Strawberry. His visit with Jarrod went far better than his discussion with Nick. But then Tom had expected it would. Jarrod was levelheaded and calm. He had been since the day he was born. And possibly by virtue of his age he understood better than Nick the temptations adult men face as they navigate their way through life. Nonetheless, Jarrod wrote his mother a letter that deeply touched her heart when he offered sympathy for the pain she was enduring and told her how much he loved her.
Jarrod agreed with Victoria on the issue of Heath being raised on the Barkley ranch. He summed up his thoughts on that issue in one sentence said to his father.
"His life will be so much richer by knowing you, Father. By experiencing your love for him, and Mother's love as well."
Though Nick had returned to working beside his father after school and on weekends he continued to give Tom the cold shoulder. For now Tom let him be. Nick seemed to be at his happiest when they discussed together the day-to-day workings of the ranch. When he was told Heath would be coming to live with them he didn't greet the news the way Jarrod had.
"But why?" Nick asked both his parents behind the
closed doors of the study one week before Tom was due to pick Heath up from
Rachel. “Why does he have to come live here?"
"Because he's your brother," Victoria replied.
"Half brother." The teenager glared at his father. "He's my half brother."
Victoria's voice was firm, her tone allowing no room for argument.
"Nicholas, there are no halves in this household and there never will be. Heath is your brother, end of discussion. And as your brother his place is in this home with all of us."
"But you're not his mother. You shouldn't have to raise him."
"No, Nick, I'm not his mother. But his mother is dead which means I'm the closest person to a mother Heath will ever have. I know this is hard for you to understand, but when a man and woman marry they make a commitment to one another to see each other through the hard times. No minister on this earth can define for you what the hard times will include. Sometimes they include situations like this. Sometimes they mean a man or a woman takes part in raising a child that is not theirs by birth."
"You just said a man and a woman make a commitment to each other when they get married."
"Yes, I said that."
Nick pushed himself out of his chair. "Well it looks to me like Father didn't uphold his end of the bargain."
"Nick!" Victoria chased after the teen who was already taking the stairs two at a time. "Nicholas, get down here and apologize to your father!"
"Victoria, no." Tom joined his wife in the foyer. "Let him go. He has the right to say what he feels. Maybe it will help him heal a little if he gets some of this off his chest."
Although Victoria didn't normally stand for impudence from her children she had to admit Tom was correct. Nick needed the freedom to say what was on his mind. She just prayed he held his tongue and temper when Heath arrived.
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Victoria didn't know why she had butterflies in her stomach the day Tom was due home with Heath. After all, she'd successfully raised her oldest son to adulthood and wasn't that many years away from being able to say the same about her younger son. Of course it wasn't just meeting Heath that caused her to lose her appetite, but as well the knowledge of the months of speculations and wagging tongues his arrival would prompt. Tom had already met with the ranch hands. He hadn't gone into any detail about Heath, but simply said he would be leaving for Strawberry to bring his eight-year old son to the ranch to live. He had also talked to Silas.
Victoria was no fool. She knew the men would immediately know Heath was the product of an extramarital affair. She had no choice but to accept that fact, but hated the thought of the gossip that would soon be flying around Stockton. Nonetheless it couldn't be helped. She wasn't going to lie about Heath and say he was a nephew or the child of a distant cousin who had recently passed away. That would be a disservice to the boy, and wouldn't show Jarrod and Nick the honest man their father really was. Tom Barkley felt it was important that a man own up to his mistakes. He proved that to Nick the day he faced their ranch hands and announced Heath's impending arrival.
Victoria parted the dining room curtains. She'd been watching for the buggy all afternoon. She walked back into the parlor where Audra sat on a blanket playing with the toys scattered around her chubby body. Nick came down the stairs.
"Mother, can't I go now? I've been cooped up in the house all afternoon. I wanna go check on those heifers in the north pasture."
"You 'want to go', Nick. Not 'wanna go'."
"Okay, I want to go."
"I realize that. But no. You stay right here until Father returns."
"Come on, Mother. I can meet this kid at dinner. I don't need to be here when they drive
Victoria turned from where she was sitting on the floor beside her daughter.
"First of all we need to get something straight. He's not ‘this kid’. He’s your brother and his name is Heath."
Nick flopped down on the sofa and crossed his arms over his chest.
"Heath. What kind of a stupid name is that anyway?"
"I happen to think it's a very nice name. Very unique. It sounds strong, don't you think? It sounds like the name of a man you can depend on."
"Mother, he's not a man. He's an eight year old boy."
Victoria gave her son a pointed look. "You're right, he is. And don't you forget it."
that supposed to mean?"
"It means that I'm asking you to set your anger aside and think of how you'd feel if you were in his place. That child was raised by just his mother, Nick. Until last week when your father wired Rachel, Heath had no idea who his father was. Until last week he had no idea he had siblings. He's eight years old and his mother is dead. Now a man who’s a complete stranger to him is taking him out of the town he's grown up in and bringing him to a family and place he doesn't know. Think about how frightening that must be."
"I wouldn't be scared."
"You can say that with all the bravado you want, but you would be. You'd be more than scared. You'd be terrified just like I imagine Heath is. And that's why it's important that you be here when Father arrives. I want Heath to meet the whole family all at one time."
"What about Jarrod? He's not here."
"Jarrod's not here because he's away at college and has exams this week. He'll be back at Christmas. But more important than Jarrod is you, Nick."
Why am I so important?"
"Because you're closer in age to
"Oh no.” Nick shook his head. “No. If you think I'm gonna be some kind of playmate to an eight year old you'd better think again."
"And if you continue to talk to your mother with such a smart mouth you'll get the opportunity to remember what the bathroom soap tastes like."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. It's just that I've got better things to do than babysit an eight year old city boy."
"Strawberry is hardly a city."
"Nonetheless, you'll be the one who rides back and forth to school with Heath and helps him get acquainted with the other children. You're going to be a big part of his life whether you want to be or not."
"Do I have a choice?"
Victoria heard the buggy stop in the front of the house. She scooped up Audra and placed the baby on her hip. She patted Nick's knee as she passed him.
"No, you don't have a choice. Now come on. Father's home. Let's go greet him and your brother."
Victoria pretended she didn't hear the mumbled, "My brother my eye. The only brother I have is Jarrod."
Victoria made Nick wait with her in the foyer. As much as she wanted to rush outside she resisted the temptation. She didn't want to overwhelm Heath any further than he already had been. She heard Tom talking before the door opened.
"And we'll need to set you up with a horse once you're all settled in. Your brothers rode Ginger when they were your age. She’s gentle and patient, the perfect horse for a young man learning to ride. She's been lonely ever since Nick got Coco. She'll love having a boy pay attention to her again."
If Heath made a reply Victoria didn't hear it. She found herself holding her breath when the door swung open.
The woman's eyes immediately fell to the child who was standing so hesitant and small next to her husband. If she had any doubts he belonged to Tom Barkley they were dispelled right then. No, he didn't have Tom's features or dark hair, but rather he was the spitting image of Tom's father, Theodore Barkley, and Tom's younger brother, Theodore junior, whom everyone called Thor. Heath had the same handsome Scottish highland looks and coloring his grandpa and uncle possessed. No doubt he'd someday turn the heads of every woman he encountered just like Thor had in his younger days, and as it was rumored Grandpa Barkley had when he was a young man. The child's hair was golden blond with strong red highlights, his lashes long and strawberry blond. He had Ted Barkley's nose as well, straight and a little flat on the end. And he had one thing in common with his father, the baby blue Barkley eyes that had been passed on to Jarrod and Audra, too.
Tom urged the boy in the house by placing a light hand between his thin shoulder blades. He closed the door and smiled.
"Victoria, this is Heath. Heath, this is my wife Victoria."
Prior to Tom leaving to pick Heath up he and Victoria had discussed how the child should address her. They'd come to no firm conclusions and decided Heath would have to decide that for himself.
Victoria held out her hand. The boy dropped his eyes to the floor as he placed his small hand in hers. She could feel him trembling and bent to hug him. He was so scared all she wanted to do was comfort him, assure him everything would be okay. But as she moved so did he. He took a step backwards leading Victoria to conclude he wanted no part of her hugs.
She straightened and offered him a smile in
place of a hug. "Heath, I'm
pleased to meet you."
She had to strain to hear his reply.
"Pleased to meet you, too,
Tom continued with the introductions. "And this pretty little lady on Victoria's hip is your baby sister Audra."
Heath glanced up at the grinning baby but didn't make a comment about her one way or another.
"And this strapping young man is your brother Nick."
Victoria looked at Nick and cleared her throat. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes when he held out his hand.
Heath's hand disappeared into Nick's. "Hi."
"And I've told you about Jarrod, your oldest brother," Tom said when the brief handshake came to an end. "He's away at college in San Francisco. He's quite anxious to meet you, but won't be able to come home until Christmas."
Though Heath didn't move his head Victoria could see him taking in every inch of the foyer, his eyes roaming from floor to ceiling.
"Tom, why don't you get the rest of Heath's things and we'll show him to his room."
Before her husband could reply Heath reached for the tattered satchel Tom was carrying. The child stood straight up, his chin jutting forward. For the first time his eyes met Victoria's and in them she saw the Barkley pride.
"Everything I have is in here."
Tom nodded at Victoria over the boy's head. By looking at the satchel the woman estimated Heath couldn't have more than two pair of pants, two shirts, a nightshirt and some undergarments in there.
"And I'm wearing my Sunday suit because
Rachel said I should."
Victoria smiled. The black suit coat was worn at the elbows. The arms of the coat barely reached Heath's wrists, the pants stopped just above his ankles, and both knees possessed small patches.
"I see that you are. And it looks as though you've been growing like a weed because it barely fits you. If I remember correctly boys your age love nothing better than a good, home cooked meal."
Heath's eyes dropped to the floor. "I won't eat much, ma'am."
Victoria and her husband exchanged glances. Tom put his arm around Heath.
"Heath, in this house you can eat all
you want. You can have as many helpings
as you like. No one goes away from our
table hungry. Do you understand?"
Heath wouldn't look at his father but he did nod his head.
"Okay then, now that we have that settled I'll show you to your bedroom."
The boy's eyes flitted from the foyer, to Tom's study, to the gunroom, to the parlor, and then to wide, curving staircase.
"Where's the other people who live
"Other people? There are no other people except your
brother Jarrod and Silas. Remember I
told you about Silas? He helps my wife take
care of the house."
For the first time Victoria saw animation on the child's face.
"This house is all yours? Every single room of it?"
Tom chuckled. "Yes, every single room of it. Though it's not just mine. It belongs to Victoria, and Jarrod, and Nick, and Audra, and you as well."
"Wow! This is even bigger than the hotel in Strawberry. Lots bigger. And prettier, too."
Tom held out a hand that Heath readily took.
"Come on then, let me give you the grand tour so you'll know where everything is." The man looked over his shoulder. "Nick, come along with us."
Nick scowled. "I already know where everything is."
"Nick!" Victoria scolded.
"Well, I do. Besides the horse and buggy need to be put away. I'd rather do that."
"And I'd rather you go with Father and show Heath his room."
"Victoria." Tom shook his head at his wife, then looked to his teenager. "All right, Nick. You go ahead and take care of the horse and buggy. As long as you're so anxious to be outside you can also do your other chores."
Nick gave the door an unnecessary slam as he stomped out. Victoria knew his anger had nothing to do with the chores he'd been told to do. Telling Nick he had to work outside amongst the animals and ranch hands was hardly something he deemed punishment.
Victoria hoped the reason for Nick's bad manners were lost on Heath. She realized that wish was not to be the minute she looked at the little boy's face. She had no doubt he fully comprehended what was going on, and she could tell he was blaming himself for it.
The woman smiled, putting a hand on Heath's back. The second she touched Heath she felt him stiffen and sidle toward Tom. Victoria allowed her hand to fall.
"Tom, go ahead and show Heath his room, then the rest of the house. After that he might like a treat from the kitchen."
"Aren't you coming with us?"
"No. No, I need to change Audra's diaper and put her down for her nap."
The man leaned forward and kissed his wife on cheek. In her ear he whispered, "Just give him some time. He's scared. This is all new to him."
Victoria nodded. She watched her husband guide Heath up the stairs. By the time they hit the landing and were on their way up the second short set of stairs that lead to the bedrooms she could hear Heath chattering away again about the size and beauty of the house.
Victoria kissed Audra's head, taking in the baby sweet smell of her.
At least Heath is already comfortable with Tom. Hopefully in a few short days he'll feel the same way about me.
For the time being Victoria concentrated on tending to the needs of her baby. She smiled when Audra wrapped her chubby arms around her neck.
"You've already learned hugs always make a person feel better; haven't you, baby girl."
Victoria left her final thought unspoken. That she hoped Heath would soon learn the same thing.
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By the time the family sat down to supper that night Heath had been given a tour of the house and barns. Victoria felt sorry for both Nick and Heath when Nick entered the dining room and scowled at the boy. Heath had no way of knowing he had taken Nick's chair when he'd sat down on Tom's right side. Before Nick said something hurtful to his new sibling Victoria pointed to the chair on Tom's left.
"Nick, why don't you sit there."
"But that's Jarrod's seat."
"Since Jarrod isn't here I doubt it will make any difference to him if you take it."
"And what about when he comes home at Christmas?"
"When he comes home at Christmas he can sit right here next to me."
"But that's not how it's always been.” Nick glared at Heath with open contempt. “Why can't he sit next to you starting right now?"
Heath's eyes flicked between Nick and
Victoria. He started to rise from his
seat. "I can eat somewhere else. I can eat out in the barn."
"Oh please," Nick mumbled under his breath.
Tom tried to make a joke of the whole thing.
the barn? You really want to eat in the
barn with the horses?"
"I don't mind."
"Hmmm. In the barn, huh? And how much hay and water should we give you?"
The child didn't smile at Tom's teasing. He shrugged his thin shoulders and dropped his eyes.
much you want."
Tom reached out a hand and placed it atop the eight- year old's head.
"Heath, I was kidding you. You're not going to eat in the barn, and I'm sure Silas has something better for us than hay."
Silas entered from the kitchen bearing a platter of roast beef and a bowl heaped high with steaming mashed potatoes.
"I surely do, Mr. Barkley."
"I'll second that, Silas. The food smells wonderful."
"Thank you, sir. I'll be back with the rest."
Tom patted the seat of Heath's chair. "Now you go ahead and sit here." He reached over and pulled out the chair on his left. "And you, Nicholas, sit right here."
"We'll worry about Jarrod when he
comes home. There's plenty of room
around this table for everyone to sit where they want to. And right now I want my two boys
named Nick and Heath sitting on either side of me."
Victoria stood and carried the two empty chairs at the table to separate corners of the room. She smiled as she reseated herself.
"See. Now that solves that, Nick. We have just enough places for all of us and this way you and Heath will be sitting between both Father and myself."
Nick glared across the table at Heath. "So does that mean someone will be
eating in the barn when Jarrod comes home?"
"No." Victoria took the bowl of green beans Silas handed her. "That means we'll return one chair to the table and Jarrod will sit by the mother who has missed him very much."
Victoria caught the smile Tom threw her way. She'd been married to him long enough to know he was silently thanking her for her mother's wisdom and diplomacy.
Tom helped Heath fill his plate. The boy didn't refuse anything he was offered leaving Tom to wonder if he thought he didn't have that right, or if he was really that hungry. Within ten minutes the man realized Heath, despite the snack Silas had fed him three hours earlier, must have been famished. He cleared his plate then readily accepted more when Tom offered it to him.
Nick snorted. "I thought you said you didn't eat much."
Heath's fork stopped on its way to his mouth.
Tom shot his teenager a stern look. "That was uncalled for."
"I was only kidding."
"You didn't sound like you were only kidding. And speaking of that, I would advise you to alter the tone of voice you've been using in recent days. I don't like it. Your mother doesn't like it. And it will no longer be tolerated. Do I make myself clear?"
Nick's hazel eyes slid from his father to Heath.
Tom turned to the blond boy. "You go ahead and finish eating, Heath. Then if you still want more you're welcome to it."
"I don't have to have more. I just thought we were supposed to eat all
"You know. In case there won't be any food for a couple of days."
"No food for a couple of days?"
Heath forked a green bean. With a child's honesty he explained, "Yes. Sometimes we ran out of food before Mother got her pay check."
"Oh. I see." Tom swallowed the lump in his throat as he reached out and placed a hand over Heath's. "Well, that won't happen here because all the food on this table we grow ourselves. You never have to worry again about going without a meal, son."
"I wasn't worried. If it happens it happens. Mother and I did okay for ourselves. We took care of each other."
Tom squeezed the boy's hand. "I'm sure you did."
Victoria felt tears well up in her eyes at the child's matter-of-fact words. If only Leah Thomson had notified Tom when she'd discovered she was pregnant. Regardless of what Victoria's feelings were about the affair, it pained her to think this little boy had sometimes gone to bed hungry.
Without breaking the stride of the spoonful of mashed potatoes that were headed to Audra's mouth Victoria glanced at Nick. Though he was trying to hide it she could tell Heath's words had gotten to him as well.
I know you've been terribly hurt by your father's actions, Nick, but you need to accept this child as your brother. You need to realize he's been forced to live a hard life because of Father's mistake. And you need to realize how very lucky you are.
Deep down Victoria knew Nick probably did realize all those things. Whether he'd ever be able to come to terms with the existence of this new brother only time would tell.
Heath's eyes lit up like it was Christmas when apple pie was served. Victoria suspected dessert wasn't a normal part of any meal he'd experienced in the past. Something so simple as pie fresh from the oven seemed to relax them all. For the first time since Tom had broken the news of Heath to them the family lingered around the table after dinner. It seemed like months had passed since Nick had spoken to his father with a civil tongue. But while Victoria and Tom sipped hot coffee, and Audra sat in the highchair playing with her wooden blocks, Nick engaged his father in a discussion about cattle prices. Thirty minutes later the conversation began to wind down. Victoria looked at her husband, then shifted her eyes to Heath. At some point during the past half hour he'd laid his head on the table and fallen sound asleep.
Tom smiled at the blond boy. "I'd say someone has had a long day."
The man stood. As gingerly as possible he scooted Heath's chair back from the table.
"I haven't carried anyone to bed since Nick used to do this same exact thing when he was Heath's age." Tom got the boy positioned so Heath's head was resting on his shoulder. He looked across the table and winked at Nick. "I'll have to confess I've missed it."
Victoria wasn't sure what she saw in Nick's eyes as Tom carried Heath up the stairs. Jealousy. Envy. Anger. Probably all those things and a dozen more feelings she couldn't identify.
The teenager turned to face his
"A parent's heart holds more room for love than can be defined with the spoken word. No one will ever take your Father's love away from you. He has plenty of it to share with all his children."
"I know that."
"Are you certain?"
Nick did his best to smile as he rose from the table.
"Yes, Mother, I'm certain."
The dark headed boy tweaked Audra's nose, then bent to hug his mother. He held onto her a long time. She ran a hand through his hair and kissed his cheek.
"I know it's difficult, sweetheart. Believe me, I know it's difficult. But be patient. Time is the great healer of all wounds."
Nick kissed Victoria's forehead as he stood. She wondered why she hadn't noticed before how tall he'd gotten in recent months. How thick his shoulders had become. How broad his chest had grown. In those brief seconds she saw a glimpse of the man he would become.
"I'll be fine, Mother," he said
with a maturity that had been missing in recent weeks. "But what about you? Will you be all right?"
"Yes, Nick. I'll be all right."
Nick squeezed her hand then walked away. Victoria hoped her assurances brought a measure of peace to Nick's fourteen-year old heart.
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Victoria was dressing for bed when Tom entered their room at ten o'clock that night.
"Who won the checker game?"
"I'm glad you suggested the two of you
play. He needed some of his father's
undivided attention tonight."
"I know. I'm sure it will be a struggle for him until Heath feels comfortable
with all of us."
"And a struggle for you as well."
"What makes you say that?"
Victoria turned down the covers and climbed in bed. She watched as her husband stripped his clothes off.
"Heath will demand a lot of your
attention in days to come. Nick's not
going to like that. At least not for a
while. The burden of giving both of
them what they need is going to fall largely on you."
"As it should considering I'm the one
who brought this trouble upon us."
"I wouldn't exactly call Heath
Tom leaned back against his pillows and smiled.
"No, neither would I. He's a hard little boy not to like. Despite all he's lived without he's got such a loving spirit."
The man looked at his wife.
"When I was helping him unpack he
pulled out a wooden train engine. It
was the only toy he had with him. I
asked him where the rest of the train was.
Do you know what he told me?"
"That Santa Claus can't afford to
bring toys to every child every year.
He said he got the engine for Christmas when he was four and Santa
hadn't been able to come back yet because other boys and girls needed
"I know. It about broke my heart.
But like the comment he made at the supper table about sometimes going
without food he said it very matter of factly.
As though he'd long ago accepted his lot in life and wasn't going to
feel sorry for himself nor allow anyone else to feel sorry for him."
"His mother deserves credit for that."
Tom reached for his wife's hand. "I'm sure she does."
"How about clothes? What does he need?"
"Everything. Shirts, pants, socks, underwear," the man winked at his wife. "And a new Sunday suit."
Victoria chuckled. "Yes, I could see that. Before he starts school you'll need to take
him to town and get him clothes and shoes."
I thought that was your department."
"Generally it is. I shudder to think how you'll dress the
child without my influence, but this once I'll relinquish that duty to
"Can I ask why?"
"Because he doesn't feel comfortable with me."
"He will in time, sweetheart."
"I'm sure you're right. If I remember correctly eight-year old boys
are quite resilient. Nonetheless, for
now it will be easier on Heath if you see to his needs. When he's ready...well when he's ready to
accept me in the role of Mother I'm sure he'll come to me."
"I'm sure he will, too." Tom lifted his wife's hand and kissed her knuckles. "He'd be a fool not to."
"You haven't had a chance yet to tell me about your trip to Strawberry."
Tom stayed four days at the hotel in Strawberry. He and Victoria had agreed he needed to spend time getting acquainted with Heath before bringing him to the ranch.
"Overall it went well. Rachel and Hannah had prepared Heath for my arrival as much as they could. The first day I was there I joined the three of them for supper. Heath was very shy. And very frightened, too, I'm sure. Rachel was wonderful. She seemed to instinctively know what to do to help him adjust. She asked me to stay after supper and suggested Heath and I play a game of Old Maid. She and Hannah discreetly disappeared. She invited me back for breakfast the next morning. I walked Heath to school, then was waiting for him when school let out. Again I had supper with them and stayed until it was time for Heath to go to bed. We repeated this routine the third day, and by Thursday Rachel suggested he not go to school but simply spend the day with me. That was the best thing we could have done. I asked him to show me the sights Strawberry had to offer. That's when he first started to open up. He gave me a tour of the town, pointing out every nook and cranny. He's an observant little fellow, I'll tell you that. There's nothing that goes on in that town he doesn't know about. And I doubt there's a person he doesn't know. We had a nice day. A very nice day. It was Rachel who decided I should leave for home with him on Friday morning."
"How did that go?"
"It was difficult. Up until then I'm not sure if Heath fully
understood I'd be taking him away from Rachel and Hannah, or if he'd allowed
himself to believe I was just a nice man who had come to visit and would soon
be leaving again. I'm guessing the
latter because Rachel told me she’d been honest with Heath about my
intentions. He cried when he had to hug
those two women goodbye. They cried,
too. And to tell you the truth I felt
like crying. Right then I wondered if I
was doing the right thing. I almost decided
I should leave Heath with Rachel and work out a visitation schedule with
her. She must have known that's what I
was thinking because as Heath clung to her waist and sobbed she looked at me
and said, "Mr. Barkley, you're doing the right thing. You're doing what Leah would have wanted you
"And I'm sure you are, Tom. We knew this wouldn't be an easy transition
for any of us. Most of all for
"I know. But I'll tell you it broke my heart taking him away from
there. He looked so small and scared
sitting in the buggy beside me as he left behind everything and everyone he had
"Did his uncle come say goodbye to
Though he did search me out at the hotel and ask for money."
"Money? Whatever for?"
"For the care he and his wife had
"But I thought he'd been left in the
care of Rachel and Hannah."
"By Leah's request he had been. Believe me, Matt Thomson is everything Rachel said and then some. The man's a scoundrel and a liar. I wouldn't want my boy within two hundred feet of him. I ended up giving him fifty dollars just to get rid of him."
"That was generous."
"He didn't seem to think so, but I
really don't care. And here Rachel and
Hannah, who are struggling to provide for themselves, didn't ask me for a
"Did you give them what we agreed upon
Before Tom left for Strawberry he and Victoria had decided to pay the women five hundred dollars for the care they'd given Heath.
Though both of them tried to refuse it.
Rachel said she felt like Heath was her own child, and Hannah said you
can't pay a person for love that comes from the heart."
"They sound like good women."
"They are. They've both had their share of troubles in this life. Rachel has been widowed for many years. She and her husband had five children. None of them lived beyond the age of three. Hannah is a runaway slave from Georgia. Her husband and two young children were killed by their master a good number of years ago now. Or at least that's what Rachel told me."
"So Heath was all they had."
"Yes. They love him very much, and he them. But Rachel made the correct decision when she wrote me. Neither of them are young women, Victoria. Whether they would have lived long enough to raise him to adulthood is anyone's guess. And after meeting Leah's brother I can understand why Rachel didn't want to risk Heath being forced to live with that man."
"Perhaps after Heath has adjusted to us and his new home you can take him back to Strawberry on a periodic basis to visit Rachel and Hannah."
"I plan to do that. And Rachel promised him she'd write to
him. I think that made the leaving a
little less painful for him."
Tom rolled on his side and wrapped his arms around his wife. "Thank you."
"For wanting me to bring Heath
here. Now that I've met him I can't
imagine going through life without him as part of our family."
"He looks so much like your father and
"Yes, he does. Although Father will kick my behind when he
finds out about all this he's going to be so proud the minute he lays eyes on
that boy. How many times have we heard
him say that he's waiting for a grandson who looks like a Scotsman?"
"Let me see,” Victoria chuckled, “every time I announced we were going to have a child and every time each one of your sisters announced she was going to have a child. Out of twenty-five grandchildren now it's quite ironic that Heath's the only one with Grandpa Ted's coloring and features. Ironic, and perhaps part of God's plan to make the road of acceptance a little easier for the rest of the family."
"When do you plan on telling them,
"I haven't even thought about it. Certainly not until after the new year. We’ve been planning that trip to Philadelphia for next summer so both our families can see Audra. I imagine I should leave a few days before you and the children so I can talk to my family privately."
"That sounds like a good idea. But for now let's not dwell on it. We're clear across the country in California. There's no need to deal with family opinions at this moment."
"You are my everything." Tom kissed his wife's lips. "Your wisdom has made me the man I am today."
"I wouldn't go quite that far."
"I love you, Victoria Elizabeth Deeds
Barkley. I love you for all the gifts
you've given me including the gift of acceptance for that little boy asleep
down the hall."
Victoria lay back on the bed and allowed her husband to remove her nightgown. For the first time since Rachel’s letter arrived the couple made love.
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The role Tom Barkley took as parent to Heath was more active than it had been with Jarrod and Nick when they were young boys. Tom and Victoria agreed it would be best for Heath to get acclimated to his new environment before they enrolled him in Stockton's school. The first week the boy was with them he had Tom's undivided attention once Nick left for the day. Heath followed Tom wherever the man's working day took him on the vast Barkley acreage. By Saturday Heath had learned to ride the old roping horse Ginger, and had taken it upon himself to clean the horse stalls, keep the tack room in order, feed the barn cats, and look after Jarrod's huskies, Chief, Cheyenne, and their newly born brood of five pups. When Tom praised the boy for his work ethic Heath simply shrugged his shoulders.
"I worked for Mr. Carvers at the livery stable in Strawberry."
"Yep. Since I was six. Every day before school and after school, and all day on Saturdays. I wanted to earn money so my mother wouldn't have to work so hard."
Tom smiled at the boy while placing a tender hand on his head. The more he was with the child the more insight he gained regarding what Heath's life had been like prior to Leah's death. Though she'd struggled to make ends meet, it was obvious by things Heath said that he was Leah’s pride and joy.
Like Tom promised Victoria, he took Heath to shop for a new set of clothes on Saturday. Though Heath never asked for anything specific, Tom was well aware the boy's eyes never wandered far from the cowboy hats and boots. While the storeowner wrapped their purchases Tom walked over to his son.
"I see you've taken a liking to some things over here."
Heath looked up. "That hat is just like Nick's. And those are the kind of boots he wears."
"You're right." Tom stroked his beard, pretending to be deep
in thought. "I don't suppose you'd
like to own a hat and pair of boots yourself."
"No. You bought me enough already. More than I've ever had in my whole life. I just like looking at these."
"Well, I'd say you need to do more than look. A true Barkley never leaves home without a hat on his head and boots on his feet. Go on. Pick out the ones you want."
"Really? Can I?"
Tom helped Heath find boots that fit him. It wasn't lost on the man that his son had chosen boots identical to Nick's. He expected the same choice when it came to the hat, and was surprised when Heath veered from the black hats like Nick wore to the tan ones Tom favored.
"I like these."
"Are you sure? I thought you wanted a hat like
"No." Heath slipped his hand into Tom's. "I want one like you wear."
Tom ruffled the boy's hair. "One like I wear, huh, pardner? All right then, you shall have one like I
Heath wore his hat and boots out of the store. Tom piled the rest of their purchases in the back of the wagon then took his son by the hand and led him across the street to the Chocolate Drop.
Heath had been with them one week. By no means had Nick warmed to him yet, but you wouldn't have known it by Heath's devotion to his older brother. He made certain Tom bought an equal number of chocolates for Nick. He took the two bags his father handed him.
"I'll keep Nick's safe for him until
we get home."
"I'm sure Nick will appreciate that."
"I'd save some of mine for Audra, but I don't suppose she eats chocolate yet. I don't think she has any teeth."
Tom smiled as the boy skipped ahead of him. Heath was so relaxed when the two of them were alone together. He hoped some of this magic lasted when they returned to the ranch. The child was still shy and reserved around Victoria. Though she didn't comment on it, Tom could tell Heath's demeanor bothered her. She'd always been such a loving mother, such a strong presence in her children's lives. He knew she must be wondering why Heath had erected a barrier around himself where she was concerned.
Heath talked nonstop about the sights he'd seen in Stockton on their ride home. He shared his chocolates with his father until Tom declined to take any more.
"I bought those for you."
"I don't mind sharing. It's more fun that way."
Tom looked at his son, marveling at this kind-hearted child Leah Thomson had raised all by herself.
"Well, in that case I'll take another one." Tom popped a chocolate in his mouth, caught it on the end of his tongue, and stuck it back out at Heath. The eight year old laughed the first real laugh Tom had heard since they'd met one another.
"This has been the best day I ever
Tom worked the candy back in his
"What was the best part of it? Your new hat? Or the boots? Or the
Heath leaned into Tom's side. "Being with you. That was the best part
of it. Just the two of us
Tom wrapped an arm around the boy. "Well, thank you, Heath. You don't know how good that makes me feel."
"You're welcome." Softly, as though he was afraid he'd be
punished, the boy added, "Papa."
This was the first time Heath had addressed his father by any name at all.
"Is that what you'd like to call me?"
"If that's all right. I've always wanted to call someone
that. My friend Tony at the Strawberry
school, that's what he calls his father.
I always liked Tony’s papa. He
was nice to me."
"I'm glad to hear that. Tony's papa sounds like a good man. I'd be proud to have you call me Papa."
"I'd call you Father like Nick does,
only I don't think Nick would like that too much."
"I don't know," Heath shrugged. "I just don't."
The pair traveled in silence for a few minutes. Although Heath didn't offer to explain what he meant, Tom realized in that one sentence how perceptive the child was to the events occurring around him.
"Heath, you're a very generous boy as evidenced by your willingness to share your candy with not only me, but with Audra as well. Nick...well right now Nick is having some difficulty sharing me with you. In time that will change."
"That's okay. I know I'm just an orphan boy. Not like Nick. He's your real boy."
Tom pulled back on the reins. When the horses stopped he looked down at his son.
"Who told you that?"
"My Uncle Matt."
"When did he say this?"
"The day we left Strawberry. He came to see me at Rachel’s house. He said you'd never love me like you love your other boys. That I'm just a charity case."
"Son, you have to believe me when I tell you that isn't so. What your Uncle Matt said was wrong. You are my real boy, Heath. Just as much as Jarrod is and as much as Nick is. I love all my sons equally."
"And Audra, too?"
"Yes, and Audra, too. I love all my children. And when I say all my children that means you as well."
"I thought that might be true."
"Yep. Because if it wasn't true you wouldn't have bought me these crackerjack boots and this hat."
Tom pulled Heath to his side. He lifted the cowboy hat and placed a firm kiss on Heath's head. "It is true, Heath. And don't you ever forget it."
Heath turned in the wagon seat. He wrapped his arms around Tom's neck. The man felt Heath's lips brush his cheek.
"I won't forget it, Papa."
Tom Barkley smiled the rest of the way home.
Heath jumped from the wagon when it stopped in front of the house. He ran around to the back, taking the packages Tom handed him. Together they entered the house laden with the new clothes. Heath set his bundles on the marble table in the parlor. He spotted Nick figuring cattle prices at the dining room table.
"Nick! Nick! Look what Papa bought me. Boots just like yours! And I got candy for you, too."
Nick brushed the white bag aside. "I don't want any candy."
"But it's yours. I asked Papa to buy--"
"He's not Papa! That sounds stupid. We call him Father."
Heath shrank back as though he'd been slapped.
Nick turned at the sound of Tom's voice.
"Well, it does sound stupid. That's not your name."
"If that's what Heath wants to call me then it is my name. At least to him it is."
"That comes as no surprise." Nick shoved his chair aside. He took in Heath's new boots and hat, and then the packages piled high on the table. "Evidently Heath gets whatever Heath wants."
"Nicholas Jonathan, in all your years on this earth I have never taken my belt to your backside and it’s been a good long time since you felt my hand there as well. I thought you were too grownup to receive a child’s punishment, but now I’m beginning to doubt that. Let me warn you right now, young man, if your attitude doesn't change my belt and your hide are going to hold a meeting.”
"Go ahead! I don't care and it won't change how I feel." Nick glared at his younger brother. "Nothing's been the same since we found out about him anyway." The glare was transferred to Tom. "And need I remind you, Father, that certainly isn't my fault."
"I have had enough of your mouth, young man." Tom's right hand reached for his belt buckle. Heath ran to him.
"No, Papa! No! Please don't beat Nick!"
"I'm not going to beat him. I'm simply going to give him what he's asking for. A good old-fashioned spanking."
"No! I don't want you to! You can take me back to Strawberry. I'll live with Rachel. It'll be better that way for everyone!"
Victoria entered from the kitchen.
"What will be better for everyone? And what's all the yelling about?"
The anger radiating between Tom and Nick told Victoria the story more clearly than words could have. She saw Tom's hand resting on his belt buckle.
Victoria's teenager brushed by her. "Ask Papa."
"Nick!" Tom yelled.
The teenager never turned around.
"If you want to wale on me with your belt you know where to find me. I'll be in the barn."
When the kitchen door slammed Victoria turned to her husband.
"Did you tell him you were going to take your belt to him?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I told him. And if I do he deserves every wallop he gets with it."
"No, Papa. Please. Don't beat
Any questions Victoria had were easily answered by the packages she saw heaped on the table, the new boots and hat Heath was wearing, and his use of the word papa.
The man held up a hand. "Victoria, no. Not right now. I don't want to hear it."
"I was simply going to suggest that perhaps
it would be wise if both you and Nick cool off a bit before you have any type
of...discussion with him."
"I should have my discussion with him
now, while I'm still good and angry."
"And I think you should wait."
Heath's eyes traveled from one adult to the other. For the moment he'd been forgotten.
A long silence prevailed before Tom turned on one boot heel.
"I'm going for a ride. I need to check those fences along the north pasture. I'll be back in time for dinner."
Heath flinched when the front door slammed. He backed away from Victoria as though he knew he was the cause of the most recent upset and was fearful she would punish him for it.
Victoria crossed to the window and watched Tom ride away. She'd almost forgotten Heath was still in the room with her. When she turned around and caught sight of him she tried hard to smile and push aside her concerns over Tom and Nick.
"I see you and your papa had a successful shopping trip."
Like he always did when Victoria spoke to him Heath hung his head. "Yes, ma'am."
"Come along then. Show me what you bought while I help you put it away."
"I can put it away by myself."
"You don't want me to help you?"
"I can do
it by myself, ma’am."
"All right then," Victoria sighed. "But will you at least let me get Silas
to help you hang up your new shirts so they don't wrinkle?"
"Yes, ma'am. If that's what you want, ma'am."
Victoria had to admit it hurt her to see Heath so willingly climb the stairs with Silas while offering the black man a piece of his candy.
What am I doing wrong, Lord? Why does this little boy dislike me so?
The woman stood at the bottom of the stairs long after Silas came down and reported all the clothes had been neatly stowed in their proper places. She could see Heath's door open just far enough for an eight-year old boy to peer through the crack. She had no doubt he was looking to see if she was within sight. She waited a long time before finally walking away. It didn't surprise her to hear a set of boot heels tread down the stairs seconds after she'd rounded the corner of the study, nor was she surprised when she heard the front door open and shut.
BV BV BV BV BV BV BV
For the first time since Heath arrived the Barkley family attended church. As Victoria dressed that Sunday morning she found herself dreading the moment she and Tom would appear together in public with their new son in tow. She was certain word had gotten around Stockton by now as to Heath's origins. Nothing made for better gossip than a scandal befalling a well-to-do family. She wondered how they'd be greeted by their friends and neighbors, but decided no matter what she'd hold her head high and make it clear her loyalties remained with her husband.
Victoria couldn't help but conclude the minister's sermon had been written especially with them in mind. His topic was family. Victoria didn't think she'd ever heard the man preach with more passion.
"We often think of the word 'family' as being narrowly defined by the people we sit across the breakfast table from morning after morning. But a true family is forever changing and growing. Sometimes that change is defined by a new member joining the family. Sometimes change occurs when a loved one is called to heaven. More than anything else, family is a feeling. A feeling of being connected by the same roots, the same bonds, the same shared experiences."
The minister smiled at Heath before his eyes took in the congregation.
"Most of all the word family means love. And God's book tells us love knows no boundaries. Love doesn't care who our mother is, or who our father is. Love comes from the heart. In your lifetimes all of you will give love to many people. Not all those people will be related to you by blood, nonetheless the feeling of family will exist between you. Take that feeling with you as you leave today. Remember that your neighbors make up part of your family as well. Your community family. Remember God's command; love thy neighbor as you would love thyself. Your neighbor may make mistakes, but forgive him for being human just as you would want him to forgive you."
Victoria thought the handshakes and smiles bestowed on her in the churchyard were filled with more warmth and kindness than usual. She saw sympathy in the eyes of a few women, and pity in the eyes of two or three, but for the most part she was given silent support from the friends she and Tom had known for so long.
Opal Manners had been Victoria's best friend since they were girls growing up together in Philadelphia. The woman managed to pull Victoria away from the crowd, the two walking toward the Barkley carriage together.
"Oh, Victoria, I wanted to stop by and see you all week, but Garland kept telling me to keep my nose out of things that are none of my business."
"The next time Garland tells you that
you tell him I want a visit from my dearest friend. I certainly could have used your ear this
"Are things going poorly?"
"That's a hard question to answer."
Opal glanced over her shoulder. Heath was holding onto Tom's hand while the man stood talking to Garland and other ranchers.
"Has the boy been a trial?"
"Heath? No. Not at all." Victoria shifted the sleeping Audra from her hip to her shoulder. "As a matter of fact he's a very well behaved child."
"He looks just like Tom's father. And like Thor. He's the spitting image of Thor."
"Yes, he does favor both his grandfather and uncle."
"He's a handsome little lad, that's
Victoria made no reply.
"What? Pardon me?"
"I said Heath is a handsome boy." Opal studied her friend. "Victoria Barkley, something is wrong. Now don't lie to me and tell me things are okay when the look on your face tells me the exact opposite is true." The woman dropped her voice. "I know you must be furious with Tom. So hurt by what he did."
"I am. I'm furious, I'm hurt, I'm...a thousand things I can't identify. But I'm slowly learning to forgive him. Nick on the other hand...Nick is angry with his father and angry with Heath. It's been a difficult week to put it mildly."
"I'm sure it has. And I'm sure you'll have some difficult weeks yet to come. It's not easy for any child to adjust to a new brother or sister. You have to look at it from Nick's point of view. With Jarrod gone away to college he was the only son at home. Heath's presence has changed that fact, and changed Nick's place as youngest son in the family."
"There you go again, springing your
own special brand of...what do you call it?
Psychology? Springing your
psychology on me. Really, Opal, you
must quit ordering those books from Boston."
"Laugh at me all you want, but it's
true. A large part of a child's
personality is based on his or her position in the family. That's why my Franklin had such a difficult
time when the twins were born. Not only
was he no longer the baby of the family, he was also no longer the only
"Well, whatever the reason, I'm sure Nick will eventually adjust.” Victoria’s eyes traveled until she spotted her teenager at the far side of the churchyard. Normally he would be right beside Tom taking part in whatever discussions the man was having with his fellow ranchers. But not this Sunday. On this Sunday it was Heath who stood beside Tom while Nick elected to stay as far away from his father and brother as possible. Victoria absorbed the significance of this as she finished her sentence. “He has no choice in the matter. Heath isn't going anywhere."
"What about you? Do you have a choice?"
Victoria swayed back and forth, rubbing Audra's back with her palm.
"If you're asking me if I'm leaving Tom the answer is no. If you're asking me if the thought has crossed my mind, then the answer is yes. But for a lot of reasons I've chosen to stick by him. Number one, because he made a mistake and I know he loves me. He's made that quite clear these past few weeks. And number two, because right now, more than any other time in his life, Nick needs to see his mother and father as a united front. When I first found out about Tom's...relationship with Heath's mother, I considered taking Nick and Audra to Philadelphia, but you know as well as I do Nick would hate living there. Absolutely hate it. He loves the ranch. Ranching is all he's talked about making his life's work since he was six years old. And he's at an age where his father is the most influential person in his life. I'd be doing more harm than good if that's the choice I made, Opal."
"I couldn't agree with you
more." The woman looked up to see
her husband waving her to their buggy.
"I've got to go. When are
you putting Heath in school?"
"He starts tomorrow."
"Good. I've already told Rhodes and Raleigh they're to make Heath feel welcome."
"Thank you. You don't know how much that means to me."
Opal kissed Victoria's cheek. "I'll stop by on Wednesday after the children are off to school. I'm sure we have a lot more to talk about."
"I'm sure we do, too. I'll have Silas make us lunch. Tom has an appointment here in town that day. We'll have the house to ourselves. We can rattle on like a couple of old biddies all afternoon."
"Good. I have a feeling that's just what the doctor ordered."
Opal gave Victoria's hand a squeeze, placed a light kiss in Audra's curls, then gathered her skirts and hurried for her husband's buggy. Victoria watched as Opal climbed in amongst her two daughters and three sons. The girls were young ladies now of eighteen and nineteen. Franklin was a year younger than Nick and one of his closest friends. The twins were Heath's age. Victoria prayed Heath would quickly form a bond with Rhodes and Raleigh.
Maybe things between Heath and Nick will improve if they share a friendship with Opal's boys.
Before Victoria could ponder that further it was time for her own family to be loaded in the Barkley carriage.
Later that afternoon Victoria stumbled upon Heath sitting on the parlor floor playing with Audra. She stepped back into the shadows of the dining room, listening to the one sided conversation he was having with the baby.
"Reverend Miller is nice, Audra. He shook my hand after the service and told
me he was glad to meet me. He didn't
stare at me, or point at me, or whisper behind my back, like some of the other
people did. He even said I look like
you. Do you think that's true? I guess it might be. We both have blond hair. No one else has blond hair, not Nick or
Papa. I don't know what color hair
Jarrod has 'cause I haven't met him yet.
I hope he wants to be my friend.
Nick...I want Nick to be my friend, but he doesn't like me
much." Heath stacked another
wooden block on the tower he was making for his little sister. "Reverend Miller preached a good
service. He's not boring like Reverend
Holmes is. Reverend Holmes preaches at
the Strawberry church. He puts everyone
to sleep, even Rachel. Though she'll
deny it if you ever come right out and ask her. But Reverend Miller, I liked him. He talked about family and how lots of different people can be a
part of your family. I knew what he
meant 'cause me and Hannah and Rachel were a family after my mother died. I really miss them, Audra. They took good care of me, and I took good
care of them, too. Rachel told me
so. Lots of times she did. But now I'm part of your family even though
Papa's the only one who wants me here.
Maybe you want me here, too, but you're too little to tell me that just
yet. Maybe you'll tell me someday,
Victoria slipped up behind the boy. "When Audra is older I'm sure she will tell you how much she wants you here."
Heath jumped, knocking over his tower before Audra got the opportunity. The baby squealed with delight at this new game while the boy scrambled to his feet, words spewing out his mouth in a panic.
"I didn't give her anything she shouldn't have. I didn't feed her, or try to pick her up, or let her play with anything sharp."
"Honey, that's fine," Victoria soothed, not certain why Heath was suddenly so frightened. "You can play with Audra any time you like."
Victoria reached for Heath but he backed away from her.
"I've got chores to do. Chief and Cheyenne need to be fed."
The woman dropped her hands. She tried to keep the hurt off her face. She couldn't quite keep it out of her voice.
"All right. You go ahead then."
As usual when he was alone with Victoria, Heath fled the room as fast as his legs would carry him.
Victoria shook her head as she eased herself to Audra's blanket.
"All I wanted to do was tell your brother that I want him here as well. Why won't he give me a chance, Audra?" Victoria put the baby on her lap. She rocked back and forth while placing a kiss on the top of Audra's head.
"Oh, why won't Heath give me a