Link to Chapter 01
He’d been right. Nick’s anger had won out over his brain. From his immediate reaction, there was no way Nick could have thought through the situation before responding to Heath’s query from the doorway. But still the words hurt. If he’d had to do it all over again, he'd have waited to allow Jarrod and Victoria to finish their conversation with Nick. Better yet, he would have held off making his presence known until Nick had cooled down, just a little.
The blonde cowboy got what he wanted, a way to leave without anyone questioning him. He just hadn’t quite anticipated the full fury of Nick’s response. Now, a clinched jaw and sitting ramrod straight in the saddle indicated his struggle to convince himself the words didn’t matter, he’d heard them before, and worse. He hoped they would understand what he'd done, and ultimately find a way to forgive him. That maybe there was enough understanding in their fledgling relationships that they wouldn't grieve over his departure.
Putting his new family behind, Heath focused on Strawberry and the family he never had the chance to choose.
Sitting against the log with a battered coffee cup in his hands, Heath thought of his uncle and aunt. Family, he huffed at the thought.
The last time he’d seen them, he’d held a trembling Victoria in his arms. He knew he should have warned them off right then and there, but his first priority was to see his step-mother safely home.
As he had driven the carriage out of the dying town, he knew they’d never make the commemoration ceremony in time. Quietly, he’d waited, wondering if Victoria would tell him if she had found the answers she had so desperately sought while they were in the hotel bar.
Answers. Victoria spoke respectfully of her time with Hannah, and read the letter his mother had received from Tom Barkley. Her silence in regards to her time with the Simmons spoke volumes. He could only imagine the story that Martha had told. They were the first to forsake their obligations by refusing his mother support or offering words of comfort.
Sure they had given his mother a job at their hotel, but they paid barely enough for one person to live on, let alone a woman raising a child. Their demands forced Leah to work from sunup to sundown, back breaking work that ensured her knuckles were battered and bruised as she laundered their linens. Rooms dusted and floors mopped daily, whether occupied or not. And once supper was served, Leah was tasked with washing all the dishware and cooking utensils, as well as scrubbing the dining room and the kitchen floors. Never did his aunt or uncle lift a finger to help. Their derogatory words didn’t inflict the same kind of damage as the overseers’ whips on those southern plantations, but the intent was the same. They were meant to break a person’s spirit.
Many a night Heath laid in his trundle bed listening to his mother, sometimes singing, sometimes crying as she mended his torn pants or shirt before placing them in the laundry basket. He hadn’t understood the discussions that occurred around the kitchen table late at night, but he came to understand as he grew older.
In time, it wasn’t just his uncle and aunt who treated him worse than a cur. Before he was told he was no longer welcome to attend school, the children took up the taunts; finding pleasure in bullying him.
Leaning forward, he placed the empty cup on a stone in the ring around the fire and set the coffee pot aside, before stirring the embers and adding a log.
Remembering how ecstatic he was the day he came home to tell his momma he had a job as a charge boy at the mines. On payday, he’d proudly stand on the chair to drop his pay into the glass jar on the shelf. Hearing the coins ‘clink’ put a smile on his face that practically went from ear to ear.
A few years later, when the mine’s new owner stopped using children as laborers, Heath sought out a job at the livery. He enjoyed spending time grooming the horses and cleaning the tack for their owners, which earned him a few extra coins each day, on top of the money he was paid for mucking out the stalls.
That job lasted until the war came to Strawberry. He overheard a group of soldiers talking to a group of the miners about how much they’d get paid just for signing up, and then how much they’d receive each month as a soldier. It was a fortune to a child barely into his teens. But he was the man of the house, and it was his duty to help make life easier for his momma. If only he’d known then….
With wolves howling in the distance, Heath pulled the blanket over his shoulder and snuggled into the underside of his saddle for the night. His last thoughts before sleep claimed him were making sure his aunt and uncle realized that even though he was a Barkley, there would be no ‘free ride’. They would get as they gave – nothing.
Link to Chapter 03