ON THE OTHER FOOT
Chapter One - A Merry Meeting
Molly Barkley stood on the rail platform with her brother-in-law Heath. He scanned the crowd exiting the train which had just pulled into the station. "Sure you'll know them in all this crowd?" he asked.
"If I could see in all this crowd," Molly said. "Jarrod described them - Miss Knightly, a young woman with reddish-blonde hair and spectacles; her mother and her little sister. That shouldn't be too hard to find."
"I think I see them," Heath said, standing on tiptoe and gazing over the heads of the crowd. He took Molly's hand and pushed his way through the crowd. "Miss Knightly?" he enquired, tipping his hat.
"Yes," the young woman said. "You must be Mr. Barkley? Judge Barkley said you'd be meeting us."
"I'm Molly Barkley, Jarrod's wife," Molly said. "This is his brother, Heath. He's offered to help with the bags and get you settled in."
"This is my mother, Mrs. Knightly," Miss Knightly said.
Molly was taken slightly aback - she had been expecting an older woman, but Miss Knightly's mother was no older than herself. Sometimes she forgot that in the usual order of things she'd have had grown children by now. She recovered quickly and shook Mrs. Knightly's hand. "Please, call me Molly," she said.
"I'm Rachel," Mrs. Knightly said.
"And please call me Alice," Miss Knightly said. "This is my sister, Lena." She smiled down at the little girl whose hand she held.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Lena," Molly said, smiling and offering her hand.
Heath crouched down and pushed his hat back on his head. He held out his hand, "And so am I, Miss Knightly," he said, smiling crookedly.
Lena giggled and took his hand. "The pleasure's mine," she said, curtseying.
Heath laughed and stood. "How old are you, Lena?" he asked.
"Seven," Lena replied.
"I have a daughter your age," Molly said. "Her name is Emma. Perhaps you'll be friends." The group started to move away from the platform and Heath went to fetch the baggage. "I hope you like the house Jarrod found for you. It's near the courthouse so you can walk to the office."
"I'm sure we'll love it," Alice said. "I never had an employer go to so much trouble before."
"Well, it's a big move for you," Molly said. "We want to be sure you'll be happy in Stockton." She smiled impishly. "How did Mr. Carter take the news of your leaving his employ?"
"Well enough," Alice said. "He offered me a raise, but it's not only the money. We really prefer living in a bigger town, with more culture and opportunities. Yuba's just too out of the way. I know we'll love Stockton."
Heath met them at the carriage with the luggage. He loaded it in, then handed Alice and Rachel into the carriage. He picked up Lena and swung her playfully in. Lena tossed back her head and laughed. "I believe I like you, Mr. Barkley," she said.
Heath tapped her nose. "Me, too, Lena. Since we're all on a first name basis, why don't you call me Heath? I'd rather you did."
Lena looked at Rachel. "May I, Mommy?" she asked.
Rachel nodded. "If it's all right with Mr. Barkley."
Alice was grinning. "Made a conquest already, Lena? That's fast even for you."
"Oh, I like a girl who laughs," Heath said, assisting Molly into the carriage and climbing in himself. He flicked the reins and drove to a neat Victorian cottage on a quiet street.
Lena bounced and clapped her hands. "Oh, I love it!" she cried. "It has a yard and everything!" She leapt down from the carriage when it had barely stopped and bounded up the steps. Jarrod came out the front door, walking with a cane, and Lena pulled up short. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't know anyone was here."
"Quite all right," Jarrod smiled. "You must be Lena. I've heard a lot about you from your sister. I'm Jarrod Barkley."
Lena curtseyed. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Barkley."
The rest of the party followed more sedately. Alice introduced her mother to Jarrod. "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Knightly," Jarrod said.
"We're all on a first name basis all ready," Rachel said, "so please call me Rachel."
Jarrod bowed. "If you wish, Rachel."
"How are your injuries, Judge Barkley?" Alice enquired.
Jarrod waved his cane. "Much improved, although I still get a twinge when I laugh. I hope to dispense with the cane in a week or two. But come, let's not stand out here on the porch. Come see your house." Jarrod opened the door and led the party inside. "I had the movers arrange things as seemed sensible to me, but of course, you'll change them to suit yourselves."
Lena clapped her hands and ran upstairs, then swiftly ran downstairs again. "My room has a window seat, I've always wanted a window seat!" She ran upstairs again.
Jarrod laughed. "She certainly is a lively one."
Alice smiled. "Yes, she's a handful, but she's a dear, too."
"You will be dining with us tonight, won't you?" Molly said. "You don't want to cook after your long journey, and I'm sure Lena would like to meet our children."
"You've gone to so much trouble already," Rachel said. "We don't want to put you to any more."
"We've prepared for extra people, it will all go to waste if you don't come," Molly said. "Please do, we would love to have you."
"All right," Rachel agreed. "Let us freshen up first."
"Of course," Molly said and gave her directions. "Six o'clock? We dine early because of the children."
"That will be fine," Rachel said, giving Molly her hand. "We'll see you then."
Lena carried a bouquet of flowers to the front door and knocked. Jarrod opened the door and ushered her in, along with her mother and Alice, with a smile and a bow. He introduced them to the rest of his family: Lucas, his eldest son, thirteen years old; Emma, seven; Vicky, three; and Georgie, almost a year and just beginning to walk on his own. Lena curtseyed and offered the flowers to Molly, who smiled and curtseyed back. "Thank you, Lena, they're lovely. Emma, would you show Lena to the nursery? Remember, you're her hostess, so be sure she has a good time, all right?"
Emma nodded. "Yes, Mommy." She curtseyed in her turn. "Come with me, Lena." She led the other girl and her sister up the stairs.
Molly sighed as she watched them go. "If opposites attract, they ought to get on like a house afire."
"Now, Molly," Jarrod said, "you know she's much better."
Molly shook her head. "She's still so quiet."
"I think that may just be her nature, dearest. Not everyone's a chatterbox." He looked over at Heath and smiled. Heath grinned back.
Alice looked from one to the other. "Am I missing something?"
"I'm sorry," Molly said, leading the way into the parlor where Jarrod poured drinks. "It's family business." She handed Georgie to the housemaid. "Let the girls play awhile and get to know each other before you serve them their dinner, Mary." Mary nodded and carried Georgie up the stairs. Molly turned back to her guests. "It's not really dinner conversation, but perhaps you should know if Lena and Emma are going to be friends."
"We've only had Emma, and Lucas, about a year and a half," Jarrod explained. "They were working in the Paradise Mine."
Alice gasped. "You're not serious."
"I wish I weren't," Jarrod said. "If not for Lucas here, they might both still be there."
Or dead, Alice thought grimly.
"I didn't do much," Lucas said. "It was Dad who rescued us."
"You're much too modest, Son," Jarrod said. "You took great risks for Emma's sake - you deserve the credit."
Alice was silently thoughtful for long moments. "She's the same age as Lena - I had no idea." She shook her head. "No, that's not true. I had some idea." She grimaced as though with nausea. "To think I was a part of that. Another reason for changing employment."
"Well, it's ended now, at least in Paradise. Carter's even come around, thanks to Lucas, again." Jarrod put his hand on his son's shoulder. "He made quite an impression. But Emma had stopped speaking altogether when we found her. It's why Molly is worried about her now - she's still a rather quiet girl. Unless she's talking about horses." Jarrod smiled.
"I think if anyone could liven her up, it would be Lena," Heath said.
Alice smiled. "Yes, I think that's true."
"Shall we go in to dinner now?" Molly asked.
Conversation at dinner was more general. Alice and Rachel enquired about the theaters and music in Stockton, and the libraries. "What about the school?" Rachel asked.
"It's rather good," Molly said. "They got a new teacher last year, a Miss Jensen - she's done quite a lot for Lucas, who was several years behind. We think she'll be good with Emma, too."
"Emma hasn't started school yet?" Alice asked.
"She wasn't ready last year," Jarrod said. "Molly's been teaching her at home, so she won't be behind, at least scholastically."
"Well, with her big brother to look after her, I'm sure she'll do fine," Alice smiled.
The party adjourned to the parlor, where Emma and Lena joined them.
"Is Vicky in bed?" Molly asked Emma.
Emma nodded. "She fell asleep right after dinner. Mommy, may I give Lena one of my ponies? She doesn't have one and we'd like to ride together."
Molly smiled. "That's very generous of you, Emma dear."
Rachel shook her head. "Too generous. It's far too large a gift for us to accept."
Both girls' faces fell. "Perhaps you can lend her one when you want to go riding," Molly said. "I'm sure that would be all right?" She looked at Rachel.
Rachel nodded. "Of course. That's very kind of you."
Alice looked over at her mother. "You seem tired, Mother," she said. "Perhaps we should call it a night?"
"It has been a long journey," Rachel said. "If you'll excuse us?" she said to Molly.
"Of course," Molly said. "Thank you for coming. I look forward to getting to know all of you better."
"My mother and sister will be calling on you tomorrow," Jarrod said. "To welcome you to town and to invite you to my sister's going away party."
"Oh, is your sister leaving?" Alice asked.
"She's going on a scientific expedition to the Amazon in a couple of weeks," Jarrod said proudly.
"My, how exciting," Alice exclaimed. "But it seems strange to attend a going away party for someone you haven't met yet."
"You will," Jarrod said. "Besides, it will be a good opportunity for you to meet people. Audra has a lot of friends, I'm sure she'll be happy to introduce you."
"That would be wonderful," Alice said. "Thank you."
"My former secretary, Annie, will be helping you out in the office for the first week or so. Since you haven't worked as a legal secretary before, there are some things she needs to show you how to do."
"That's very nice of her," Alice said. "I do appreciate it." She took Jarrod's hand. "Thank you for everything. I'll see you in the office on Monday."
Jarrod smiled. "I'm happy you came - I've been looking for someone competent for quite awhile. You're a blessing, believe me."
"I'll walk you home," Heath volunteered.
"That won't be necessary," Rachel said.
"My pleasure," Heath said. "I wouldn't dream of letting you three ladies walk down the street alone after dark." He offered a hand to Lena. "May I?"
Lena giggled and put her hand in his. She kissed Emma's cheek when she said good-bye, and Heath walked them home.
"Thank you, Heath," Rachel said at the door. "It's been a pleasure."
Heath tipped his hat. "The pleasure was all mine," he smiled warmly.
Alice opened the door and shooed Lena inside. She closed the door after her mother. "Well, Lena," she said. "Did you have a pleasant evening?"
"Yes, Alice," Lena said. "Emma's sweet - I like her."
"That's good. Did you two talk?"
"Yes, we talked. Although her little sister kept chattering. Emma finally gave her a doll and she spent the rest of the time talking to it."
Alice smiled. "That's good, dear. Now you run upstairs and get washed up and ready for bed, and I'll come tuck you in, all right?"
Lena nodded and scurried up the stairs.
Rachel took off her bonnet and hung it on the rack. "What a nice family," she sighed. "I admit I was leery of your decision to come here, but I think this shall go very well."
"Thank you, Mother," Alice said.
"That younger brother seems interesting," Rachel began.
"Mother." Alice frowned. "No matchmaking. You know why I can't."
"You're being silly, Alice," Rachel said, in a tone that suggested this was an old argument. "You're only twenty-three. You're not on the shelf yet, if you don't want to be."
"It's the same old bind," Alice sighed. "I won't lie to a man who's wooing me, but when I tell him the truth, he skedaddles. Face it, Mother, I'm not marriageable. Just let me do what I can to support you and Lena and forget the rest. I'm happy enough, why shouldn't you be?"
"Because 'happy enough' isn't. I'm your mother - why shouldn't I want to see you settled and happy?”
"'Happy enough' will have to do. You'll just have to live long enough to see Lena grown if you want a wedding in the family." Alice took off her bonnet and went to tuck Lena in.
Rachel frowned and watched Alice climb the stairs. She sighed wearily and prayed that time and the Good Lord would do for her daughter what she could not.
Chapter Two - Hearts and Secrets
Alice was awestruck by the Barkley mansion when she and her family arrived for Audra's party. She'd had some idea that the Barkleys were well off, but she had not realized just how much so. She was stricken with a sudden attack of shyness until Victoria bustled over. "Rachel, Alice, so glad you could make it. And Lena, too, how delightful."
"Thank you for inviting me, Mrs. Barkley," Lena said.
"Of course," Victoria said, "we wouldn't want you staying home when everyone else is here. Emma is upstairs - I believe my granddaughter has arranged a little tea party. Silas, would you show the young lady where to go?"
The Barkley butler bowed and smiled. "I'd be happy to, Mrs. Barkley."
Victoria took Rachel and Alice by the arm. "Come let me introduce you. You already know my son Heath, this is my other son Nick and his wife, Samantha."
Nick grasped Alice's hand and shook it. "Delighted," he said. "I've heard so much about you." He gave Heath a sly wink and Heath rolled his eyes. Rachel smiled and Alice blushed.
"Nick, dear, stop it," Samantha chided. She offered her hand. "Don't mind my husband, he tends to be rather boisterous." She looked up at Nick, batted her eyes and smiled.
"Yes, Nick," Victoria said, "behave yourself in front of our guests." She patted Alice's hand. "Let's meet our other guests."
Audra apparently had a greater number of gentleman friends than lady friends, because the numbers were far from equal. Alice had no lack of dance partners - she danced with several gentlemen twice, including Heath. Well, she thought, she couldn't very well snub him in his own home, could she? That would be poor payment for all his kindness. She was bothered by his brother's revelation, but she tried not to show it.
It was late in the evening when she intercepted Silas in his duties. "Pardon me," she said, "but could you tell me which room upstairs my sister and Emma are in? I'd like to check on her."
"They are not upstairs any longer," Silas said. "The young ladies went out to the barn several minutes ago."
"The barn?" Alice asked. "They're not out there alone, are they?"
"No, ma'am. Miss Emma asked Mr. Heath to show Miss Lena the ponies."
"Ah, I see," Alice said. "Thank you. I'll go find them."
As she approached the barn, she felt her heart pound and her palms grow sweaty. Oh, dear, not now. She had no business feeling this way - it could only end badly. She put a hand to the door, then very nearly turned away, but she refused to give in to fear. She would just have to keep a firm hand on her heart, that was all. She pulled the barn door open and went in.
Heath and the two girls were standing by a stall, feeding carrots to a brindled pony. They all three looked up when she came in. "Alice!" Lena said. "Come meet Manchado. Emma says he can be my pony when we go riding. Isn't he sweet?"
"Yes, darling, he's sweet," Alice said. She turned to Heath. "Thank you for escorting them. I'm not sure it wasn't rude of them to ask you to leave the party."
Heath shrugged. "I don't mind - too many people."
"You're not with the social whirl," Alice said.
Heath smiled. "I enjoy smaller gatherings - a few friends, family. It's hard to know people in crowds."
"Yes, that's true," Alice said, turning and patting the pony to hide the flush she could feel on her face.
"That's enough carrots, ladies," Heath said. "I'd better get back to the house before Audra comes looking for me." He grinned ruefully.
Emma pouted, but Lena laughed. "I'll race you back," Lena said. Emma smiled and the two girls dashed out of the barn.
"Would you like to stroll in the garden before we go back?" Heath asked Alice.
Better get this over with. Quickly is best. Alice nodded and took the arm Heath offered. He led her to the garden and into the shrubbery.
"I was wondering," Heath began, "if I might call on you, from time to time."
Alice bit her lip and sighed. "No, Heath. I can't let you."
Heath was taken aback. "Why not?" he said. "You just got into town - you can't be spoken for already."
"I can't tell you why not. Please don't ask me."
Heath could hear the pain in her voice, and he looked down at her sympathetically. "Alice," he said, gently.
Alice started to weep. "Don't," she said. "Don't set your heart on me, don't be so kind to me. I can't bear it."
Heath reached into a pocket and offered her a handkerchief. He said nothing as she wiped her eyes. He led her to an arbor and sat her down, then sat beside her. "Now, what's wrong?" he asked. "It can't be so bad as all that."
Alice shook her head. "Please don't ask," she repeated.
Heath looked at her a long moment. "All right," he agreed. "Perhaps later, when you know me better. When you know you can trust me."
Alice sniffled. "No," she said. "But thank you for not pressing me."
Heath waited patiently for her to finish crying, then said, "Let me take you in the back way. The bathroom is at the top of the stairs, so you can wash your face before coming back down."
Alice almost began crying again at his kindness, but managed to keep her tears in check. "Thank you," she said, taking the hand he offered and letting him lead her to the house.
Lena fell asleep in the buggy on the way home, leaning against Alice, her head on the older girl’s shoulder. Alice put a protective arm around her, and hid her face in the little girl's hair.
"I had an interesting conversation with Samantha," Rachel began.
"Yes?" Alice asked, distracted by her own thoughts.
"Did you know she's been in prison?" Rachel said dramatically.
Alice sat upright. "You're joking."
"No," Rachel said. "She used to be a con artist."
"And she's married to a Barkley?" Alice said, disbelieving.
"She said the Barkleys were great believers in second chances."
"Are they?" Alice said thoughtfully. Rachel smiled smugly and flicked the reins.
Heath pulled the buggy up in front of the Knightly's cottage and Emma leaped out and ran up the steps. She knocked on the door and when Alice answered it asked excitedly. "May Lena come riding with me today? My uncle Heath will drive us to the ranch."
"Yes, all right, she may if she wishes," Alice said. "She's in her room - why don't you run up and tell her to change into her riding clothes?" Emma nodded gladly and ran up the stairs.
Alice walked down the steps and looked up at Heath sitting in the buggy. "I'm sorry about last night," she said. "I don't usually turn on the water works like that."
Heath leapt down from the buggy. "It's all right, Alice. You've nothing to apologize for."
Alice stood looking up at him, in awkward silence. "Friends?" Heath asked.
Alice sighed. "Yes, I'd like that. You've been awfully kind to us, I don't want you to think I don't like you. I do, it's just, well. . ." her words trailed off.
Lena and Emma came bounding down the steps. "Come with us, Alice," Lena said. "It'll be fun."
"I haven't been invited, dear," Alice said.
"I'll invite you, if you want to come," Heath said. "No expectations."
Alice looked up at him. Hope began to burgeon in her heart, but she did not know whether to welcome it or not. "All right," she said. "Give me a few moments to change."
At the ranch, Heath picked out a gray gelding for Alice, while the girls saddled their ponies. "No galloping, Emma," Heath warned, checking their saddles. "Not until Lena gets used to riding."
"All right, Uncle Heath," Emma said. "To the waterhole?"
"Yes," Heath said. "We'll water and rest the horses there before riding back."
Heath let the girls ride ahead so he could keep an eye on them as Alice rode alongside him. They spoke little until arriving at the waterhole, where they all dismounted and led their horses to drink. "May we swim, Uncle Heath?" Emma asked.
"Silly," Lena said, "we can't swim with Heath here."
Heath grinned crookedly. "I'll turn my back. I wouldn't want to encroach on your ladies' modesty." He sat down on the grass with his back turned to the water.
Lena looked at Alice. "Is it all right?"
"It is a hot day, and I think we can trust Heath not to peek," she smiled. "Yes, dear, it's all right."
Lena giggled and the two girls began peeling off their clothes. Alice went and sat by Heath, facing the water so she could keep an eye on the girls. The two waded in and began swimming, giggling and splashing, shiny and playful as young seals.
Face-to-face with Heath, Alice felt awkward and shy. They sat in silence for long moments. "You're not saying much," she said finally.
"To tell you the truth," Heath said, "I'm not sure what to say to you right now."
Alice ducked her head. "I'm sorry. I wish I could explain, but I've been burnt too many times already."
Heath pulled at the grass, tearing up handfuls and tossing them aside. "For what it's worth, the Barkleys have a few skeletons rattling around in the closet. None of us are perfect."
"My mother told me about your sister-in-law. Was she really in prison?"
Heath nodded. "Yes."
Alice sat thoughtful. "And none of you hold it against her?"
"No, why should we? It's over and done with. She loves my brother, he loves her. What else matters?"
Alice pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. I can't do this. I have to do this. She sighed. "Some people think my secret is worse."
"When you're ready," Heath said.
She straightened her legs out and crossed her ankles. She looked into Heath's eyes and said, "Lena's not my sister. She's my daughter."
Chapter Three - Long, Dark Nights
Heath leaned forward and kissed Alice softly on the lips. She started back and covered her mouth with her hand. "Why did you do that?"
"Because I want you to know that, whatever happens between us, what you just told me makes no difference."
Alice flushed. "How can it not?"
Heath gazed at her. "You really don't know? No one's told you?"
"Told me what?"
"I'm Tom Barkley's son. Not Victoria's."
Alice furrowed her brow. "But. . .she introduced you as her son."
"She's taken me in - sometimes even I forget she's not my natural mother. I grew up with my mother in the mining camps. I didn't know who my father was until I was grown, and she died."
Alice's eyes grew soft. "I'm sorry. I didn't know. How hard that must have been for you."
Heath shrugged. "Does Lena know?"
"She knows I'm her mother. I haven't told her about her father yet. I will when she's older."
"And she's not curious?"
"She trusts me enough to believe that I know what's best for her. I won't lie to her, but I'll wait until she can understand better."
"And in the meantime you carry on this charade," Heath said.
"I won't have my daughter called a bastard," Alice said fiercely. "I hate living like this, but I'll do anything for her, make any sacrifice, you understand?"
Heath nodded. "I can't say that I blame you. You've taken on a heavy burden. You must have been, what, sixteen?"
Alice nodded. "Only just. But she's no burden. She's a blessing. More than I deserve, maybe, but I'm not sorry I had her."
"No, of course you aren't." He took her hand. "But you do deserve more, far better than this. Does her father know?"
Alice shook her head. "I told him when I found I was with child - he wanted nothing to do with me, or her, after that. I don't want to talk about him - he's been no part of our lives. I've done the best I could - I'm thankful to my mother. Not many parents would have supported me, us, the way she has."
Heath nodded. "I don't think I've ever seen a happier child than Lena - you've done well; you should be proud."
"Of her? Of course I am."
"I meant of yourself."
Alice looked into his eyes. "You really mean that," she said, surprised.
"Of course I do," Heath said.
Alice looked at the sky. "Better get the girls dried off and head back if we're to make it back to town before dark." She stood up. "Thank you. You're far more understanding than I expected."
"You're welcome to stay for supper," Heath offered.
"Better not," Alice said. "Mother will be wondering where we've got to."
"Some other time?"
Alice smiled and shook her head in wonder. "I'd like that, yes. Thank you." She walked over to the waterhole and called to the girls to get ready to leave.
They rode back to the ranch and then to town in a silence that was companionable, not awkward. They dropped Emma off first, then drove to the Knightly's cottage. Heath helped Lena down from the buggy and offered a hand to Alice. Lena rushed into the house as Heath walked Alice to the door. "So now may I call on you?" he asked.
Alice looked up at him and nodded, unable to speak. He caressed her cheek, then bent down and kissed her lightly. "I'll see you at Church tomorrow," he said, then left, smiling.
Heath woke up drenched in sweat. He felt he had been dreaming, but could not remember what. He got up and dashed water on his head, then looked at the clock. Not quite two. He went back to bed, but could not sleep. He lay there and counted the ticking of the clock. When it became apparent that there was no more sleep for him that night, he went and got a book, but found he could not read - his mind kept wandering. He stood and began to pace in some agitation. He could not think what might be wrong with him - he was naturally a profound sleeper, not given to nocturnal stirring. Still, everyone had restless nights once in awhile. There was nothing to worry about.
Victoria looked at him with concern at the breakfast table. "Are you not feeling well, Heath?"
Heath shook his head. "I'm all right, just had trouble sleeping." He shrugged. "It happens."
"You look awful," Audra supplied.
"Thanks, Sis," Heath said dryly.
"Must be a woman," Nick teased. "That's the only thing worth losing sleep over." He smiled over at Samantha, who smiled back.
"Perhaps you should stay home from Church," Victoria suggested.
"I'm fine, Mother," Heath said testily.
Victoria frowned, but said nothing more.
After the service, Heath sought out Alice, looking pretty in a blue bonnet. She smiled warmly up at him. "We'd like to invite you to Sunday dinner," she said.
"I'm sorry," Heath said. "Audra leaves tomorrow - this is her last day home. I really need to be there."
Alice's face fell. "All right," she said. "I understand."
Heath took her hand and kissed it, then went to get into the buggy, wondering why he felt a sense of relief to have an excuse. He wanted to be with Alice. Of course he did.
Heath found no sleep that night at all. He went with the family to see Audra off at the railway station, then went about his duties at the ranch feeling oddly disconnected. Victoria looked at him worriedly at dinner, but said nothing. No sleep came that night either, and by the next morning Victoria was threatening to call the doctor. Heath put her off, but even he was beginning to worry about himself. He thought about calling on Alice, but put it off - he did not wish for her to see him like this. Surely he would sleep tonight. Then he would call, as he had promised.
But he did not sleep, or only fitfully, full of dreams he could not remember. He awoke in the middle of the night, lathered with sweat. He lay in bed, breathing heavily, until the first streaks of dawn tinged the sky.
Victoria did not have to press him - he drove into town to see Dr. Merar himself. But the doctor could find nothing wrong, for all his poking and prodding. He asked if something were bothering Heath, but Heath could think of nothing. To the contrary - he should be unusually happy. He paid the doctor and drove home, hoping that time and weariness itself would finally allow him to sleep.
But it did not. Day crept after day, night creeping after night - sleeping fitfully or not at all. His cheeks became hollow and his eyes sunken. He finally had to admit to himself that this had to have something to do with Alice and her revelation - there was no other answer. Something was stirring down deep and he would have no peace until he came to grips with it. But how?
He climbed the steps to Jarrod's house and rang the bell. Molly answered the door, gave him a concerned look at his disheveled appearance and held the door wide. "Come in and sit down, Heath," she said. "What can I do for you? You know Jarrod's in court?"
Heath nodded. "It's you I came to see."
"Mary," Molly called. "We'll be in the parlor. Please see that we're not disturbed." She led Heath into the parlor and closed the doors.
"Can I get you anything?" she asked. "Tea?"
"Perhaps a whiskey?" Heath said.
Molly frowned. "All right, but just one. You really shouldn't drink in your condition."
Heath nodded. "Don't worry, just one is fine."
Molly poured the drink and handed it to him. "Now, Brother, whatever is wrong with you?"
"I'm not entirely sure," Heath said.
"Something to do with Alice?" Molly asked.
Heath looked at her, surprised. "My, you're almost as good as Mother."
"I'm surprised you've come to me instead of her. You two are much closer."
Heath shook his head. "Too close, maybe."
"Ah," Molly said. "Perhaps you crave a little objective distance?"
"I crave something," Heath said. "I haven't slept in over a week, or when I do sleep I have dreams I can't remember and wake up in a sweat. And I'm not even sure I can tell you anything without betraying a confidence."
Molly sighed. "Perhaps you don't have to. Perhaps I already know. It's about Lena, isn't it?"
Heath looked startled. "She told you?"
Molly shook her head. "I think I knew when I saw them on the rail platform together. I raised my younger brothers after my mother died, and I thought I knew what it was like to be a mother, but I didn't, not until I had my own. There's a difference when you know you're responsible for someone, not just until they're grown, but for the rest of their lives. The feeling between them was motherly, not sisterly. I would guess that Victoria noticed as well - not much gets by her."
"Or you, either," Heath said. He sighed. "Why does it bother me, Molly? I ought to understand, if anyone can."
"It's strange how our past hurts can rise up and slap us, even when we're safe and happy. Just a couple of months ago I was having nightmares and sleepwalking because my man had gone into danger without me, just as all my other men had and not returned."
"I knew you were in a bad way, I didn't realize how bad."
Molly nodded. "So perhaps your caring for an unwed mother brings up feelings about your own mother."
Heath stood and began to pace. "I never blamed my mother," he said.
"Perhaps you should," Molly said.
Heath stopped pacing and stared at her. "What?"
"It takes two people to make a baby, Heath."
"I loved my mother," Heath insisted.
"Of course you did," Molly said. "But loving someone doesn't mean believing they have no faults. If you think that, you'll make a very poor husband."
"I don't care what anyone said, she was a good woman," Heath said vehemently.
"And Tom Barkley was a good man, by all accounts. I know Jarrod still misses him terribly, and I think the reason Audra was so aimless for so long was because she lost him just when she most needed his guidance. Still, he betrayed Victoria. Good doesn't mean flawless."
Heath stood in the middle of the floor, breathing heavily. Finally, he sat and buried his head in his hands. "She had enough to bear, without bearing any blame from me."
"But she's dead now, your blame can't hurt her," Molly said. "And if you deny her mistakes, how can you forgive her?"
Heath sat silently a long while, his face still hidden, and Molly realized he was weeping. She sat silently, too, respecting his grief. Finally, he raised his head and wiped his eyes. "I know this is hurting Alice," he said. "When she told me, I promised it didn't matter - that I would call on her anyway. And I haven't. I'm sure she thinks I've rejected her, just like she has been before."
"Then go to her," Molly said. "Tell her. Give her something to hang onto while you work this out."
"I can't let her see me like this," Heath said.
"Oh, so you can help bear her burdens, but she can't help bear yours?"
Heath nodded. "I want to be strong for both of us. Of course I do."
Molly shook her head. "I think you'll find that Alice is plenty strong. Strong enough to be a good mother to Lena, maybe even strong enough to be a good wife to you."
Heath stared off in the distance for a while, then stood and put on his hat. "Thank you, Molly," he said. "You've certainly given me plenty to think about."
"I know it's hurt you," Molly said. "I only hope it leads to healing you."
"Perhaps," Heath acknowledged. "Time will tell."
He walked out into the street, took a deep breath, and turned toward Alice's house.
Chapter Four - Ghost of Childhood Past
Heath mounted the steps and knocked at the Knightly's door. Rachel answered and stepped back, startled at his appearance. "Heath!" she said, concerned. "Have you been ill?"
It would be such an easy lie. "No," Heath said. "Is Alice home? I'd like to talk to her."
"She's at work," Rachel said. "But she should be home shortly." She opened the door and stepped aside. "Would you like to come in and wait for her?"
"All right," Heath said, stepping inside. "Where is Lena?"
"She's over at your brother's, playing with Emma. Can I get you something?"
"No, I'm all right," Heath said awkwardly. He was relieved a few moments later when the door opened and Alice came in, dressed in a starched shirtwaist and her hair in a businesslike bun. She started when she saw him, and expressions of hurt, anger and then concern crossed her face.
"Heath," she said. "Good to see you. Are you ill?"
"No," Heath said, tired of the question. "May I speak with you? Alone?"
Rachel nodded and bustled out. Alice sat on the sofa, arms crossed. "Sit down," she said.
"If it's all the same, I'll stand," he said. "I'm sorry I haven't come before, and I'm not sure I can explain why, but I want you to know that the last thing I want to do is hurt you."
"Well, you have," Alice said. "If you don't want to be with me, you don't have to, but don't say you do and then never come."
"I'm here now," Heath said. "I didn't want you to see me like this, but I think if I waited any longer, I might lose whatever chance I have with you, and I couldn't bear that."
Alice looked up at him, tears in her eyes. "Why didn't you come? I waited and waited, and Lena's missed you, too. She's very fond of you."
"Look at me. I haven't slept in days - something's eating at me, and I can't make you any promises until I figure it out."
"Something to do with me," Alice said. "About what I told you - and I thought you understood."
"Not directly, I don't think, truly," Heath said. "You know how you never want anyone to call Lena a bastard? Well, I was - often - my whole life. I even threw that word in the Barkleys' faces when I first came. There are old hurts here I need to get to the bottom of. Believe me, it’s not about you, it's about me."
Alice stood then, and put her arms around his waist. "I'm sorry," she said. "I've been so hurt, so angry. What can I do to help you?"
Heath wrapped his arms around her. "You're doing it," he said. He ran his fingers through her hair, undoing her bun, and buried his face in it. He held her so for long minutes, soaking up her warmth, her sweetness. Finally, he sighed and held her away from him. He looked into her face and longed to kiss her, but did not dare. Instead, she stood on tiptoe and kissed him, warmly and sweetly. He returned her kiss, then pulled away, smiling. "Thank you."
She smiled back. "My pleasure. Stay for dinner?"
He shook his head. "Not yet." He caressed her cheek. "Soon, I hope." He softly kissed her once again and then went home.
Heath rolled over in bed and sighed. Then he started, for sitting in an old rocking chair by his bed, darning a sock, was Leah. Not the middle-aged, broken Leah he had last seen on her deathbed, but the young Leah he barely remembered from his childhood. He gasped to see how beautiful she was - he had never realized she was so beautiful. "Mama?" he said.
Leah smiled and put away her darning. "Hello, Son."
"What are you doing here, Mama?"
"You called me. I've been trying to break through for days."
Heath rubbed his eyes. "Are you a ghost?"
Leah shook her head. "No, dearest, a dream."
Heath slumped in disappointment. "If you're a dream, then you can't tell me anything I don't already know."
She smiled. "Ah, but my son, you know a great deal. Ask me and see."
Heath sat up, turning and sitting on the edge of the bed, facing her. "All right, then. Why did you never tell Father about me?"
"Because he would have taken you away from me."
Heath shook his head. "Surely not, Mama."
"He was a good man. I know it's hard for you to acknowledge that - you still want to blame him for all your hurts, but he was. He wouldn't have let his son grow up in poverty. He would have come for you."
"Surely, then, he would have taken care of you, too."
"I didn't want his money," Leah said. "I loved that man, but he was married and I could never have him. You were all of him that I could hold on to."
"Why did you never tell me about him, then? Surely you knew how I hungered for a father, for a name?"
"For the same reason - you would have wanted to go to him. You were all I had in the world to care about. I couldn't have borne to lose even a small part of you."
"A person can love two parents, Mama. A person is supposed to love two parents."
"I was weak," Leah said.
Heath looked into her eyes. "Yes, you were," he said thoughtfully.
"But I loved you so dearly, you know that."
Heath nodded. "Of course you did, I've never doubted it. And you should never have doubted that I loved you, no matter what."
"I know, dearest. Now you know there are two things you have to do. The first is to acknowledge my faults and forgive me."
"Yes," Heath said, "and the second thing?"
Leah smiled. "You know what the second thing is." She caressed his cheek. "You've grown into a fine young man. I'm very proud of you, my darling boy. Sleep now." She kissed his lips softly and vanished.
Heath woke up and stretched his arms over his head. He looked at the clock and was startled to see that it was well past noon. He could not believe that Nick had let him sleep so late, but then he recognized that his big brother was neither stupid nor heartless. He smiled, rolled over and slept some more.
Heath leapt down from the buggy, wearing his best suit and carrying a bouquet of flowers, freshly cut from the Barkley garden. Lena was in the front yard, swinging on a rope attached to a tree. She jumped off and flew toward him. "Heath! Where have you been? I've missed you!"
Heath crouched down and she threw her arms around his neck. He stood, holding her and nuzzling her cheek. "I've missed you, too," he said. "Is Alice home?"
Lena pulled back, took in the suit and the flowers and grinned. "Yes, she is," she said. "Are you courting her?"
Heath nodded. "If she'll let me."
Lena hugged his neck more tightly than before. "Oh, I know she'll let you!"
Heath laughed and carried her up the steps and knocked awkwardly at the door. Alice opened it, looked him over and smiled. She took the flowers and tossed them aside, then reached up and kissed him. She drew him and Lena into the house and closed the door. This time, he stayed for dinner.