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Authors: Judy Christenberry

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“I wasn’t questioning him. He volunteered the information.”

Mike put up his hands to still the argument. “Sarah, we’re not trying to harm you or your siblings. We’re just trying to find out what happened. Believe it or not, we want to protect you.” Once Sarah settled down a bit, he continued. “Do you have papers giving you the right to remove your brother and sister from their home?”

“If he gets the kids, he won’t take care of them! He might—might even hurt them!”

At that, Anna began crying, and Brad questioned their judgment in speaking so candidly in front of the young girl.

Sarah picked her up and held her tightly. “Please, Sheriff! You can understand! I couldn’t help my mother anymore, but—but don’t let him take the kids!”

“Sarah, are you over twenty-one?” Mike asked.

“Yes, I’m twenty-four.” She wiped her cheeks, but the tears kept coming.

“If you have to go back to testify against
your stepfather, I’ll try to help you get custody of the children. I can write a letter to the judge in support of that action. We’ll keep the kids here if you go testify. If they don’t give you custody, I’ll—I’ll look away for a day or two so you can disappear. Okay?”

“You promise?” she asked.

“You have my word.”

“Thank you, Sheriff. They’re good kids.”

“I can tell that.” He smiled at Anna. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he crooned to the little girl. “No need to cry.”

Brad thanked Mike. “Is that all you need for tonight? I think Anna is pretty tired, too.”

“Yeah, that’s all for tonight. I’ll check with the Denver PD to see if they’ve got an Ellis Ashton in custody.”

“Then, Sarah, if you’re ready, we’ve got an empty bedroom for you two to share tonight. Want me to carry Anna?”

“No, thank you. I’ll carry her.”

Brad picked up the suitcases and led the way down the dimly lit hall. He opened the farthest bedroom door and turned on the
bedside light. “There are extra pillows and a quilt in the closet, in case you get cold during the night.” He told her where to find the bathroom and fresh hand towels. All the while Sarah just stood there, holding Anna. She looked frozen to the spot, almost shell-shocked. He couldn’t even imagine what she’d been through, how awful it must have been, how terrified she was. An urge to reach out to her and wrap her in his arms suddenly overtook him, hard and strong. He took a step toward her, but she backed up.

Looking at him, her brown eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot, she shook her head, but said in a small voice, “Thank you, Brad. Thank you for helping us.”

Brad rose the next morning and showered and shaved, then dressed. After that, he headed for the kitchen, where he knew he’d find his brother cooking breakfast.

“Morning,” he greeted Nick as he stepped into the doorway.

“Morning.” Then Nick continued before
Brad could say anything. “You got back kind of late last night, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but—”

Robbie raced into the kitchen, interrupting what Brad was going to say. Following him was Davy. “Daddy, look!”

Nick looked at his son and suddenly realized Robbie wasn’t alone. “What the—”

“That’s what I was going to tell you, Nick,” Brad hurriedly said.

“He belongs to you?” Nick asked. “Something you forgot to mention, brother?”

“No, he’s not mine, but I brought him here. I found him and his sisters camping out on the government land last night.”

“That’s not allowed,” Nick said.

“I know that, but—
Anyway, I put out the fire and I brought them here to talk to Mike.”

Brad was glad he got those words out because he heard more steps coming down the hall.

Sarah and Anna came into the kitchen. He noticed how much they looked alike, the same coloring and facial features.

“Good morning,” Sarah said softly.

“Hello,” Nick said. “I’m Nick Logan.”

“I’m Sarah Brownly and this is Anna. And also Davy. If we’re intruding—”

“Not at all. Have a seat. I’ll have breakfast ready in a minute.” Then he looked at Brad. “Can you get some silverware and drinks for our guests?”

“Sure.” Brad got the silverware and poured three glasses of milk. After he brought those to the table, he filled a mug of coffee for Sarah and put it on the table. “Have a seat,” he added.

Brad hoped Nick would not ask questions. He could explain the events while they rode after breakfast.

Nick didn’t say anything until he’d dished up breakfast for everyone. But when he sat down to eat, he asked, “Where are you from?”

Sarah didn’t want to tell him, but after a look at Brad, she replied, “Denver.”

“It’s an unusual month for a vacation with kids. Won’t they be missing school?”

Sarah looked at Brad, a plea in her gaze.

“I’ll explain after breakfast,” Brad said. “Eat up, Sarah. Nick wants to get the kitchen clean before we go.”

“I’ll be glad to clean the dishes. I don’t know what—
I mean, I’ll be waiting to hear from the sheriff.”

Nick looked at Brad, as if wondering if he could trust Sarah.

Brad said, “That’d be good, Sarah, if you don’t mind. The kids can watch cartoons while you work.”

“Can I stay home and watch cartoons, too?” Robbie asked eagerly.

“No, son. You know you have to go to school. Mommy would be upset if you stayed home for no reason.”

“Aw, Daddy. Why—”

“Eat up,” Nick ordered.

They had all finished in a couple of minutes. Nick took Robbie out to wait for his school bus, planning to meet Brad in the barn afterward.

As they left, Brad turned to Sarah. “My
sister-in-law is sleeping in. Can you cook breakfast for her?”

“All right. Thank you for reassuring Nick without—without upsetting the kids.”

“No problem,” Brad said as he walked out of the house.

In the barn he saddled both horses and waited for his brother.

Minutes later he arrived, and he was barely in the saddle when he blurted, “Okay, what’s the story?”

Nick might not have been prepared for the violent story, but Brad held nothing back. He told his brother as much as he knew.

In the end, Nick could only shake his head. “What a story.”

“I know. And I only saw them because I caught a flicker of a fire. I stopped and went back. I put out the fire and told her she had to take the kids and leave. It was pretty obvious she thought she could just tell me she was leaving. I called Mike and he said to bring them in.”

“She’s lucky you found them,” Nick said.
“Been a shame if they’d made it away from the father and been attacked by the bears out there.”

“That’s what I told her.”

But as Brad rode out beside his brother, he couldn’t help wondering if he’d really brought Sarah to safety.

CHAPTER TWO

S
ARAH
wondered if this ranch was as safe a place as the Logans and the sheriff had told her. She hated to think she’d led her brother and sister to more danger. After checking on them in the family room, where they were watching television, she returned to her kitchen chores.

She would’ve done a lot more work in return for the night’s sleep at a good bed and breakfast. Lord knows she couldn’t have gone without rest again. After running, she’d driven half the night and then parked in a rest stop to close her eyes for a few minutes, sitting up on watch for most of the first night. Then there was last night’s fiasco in the national forest.

She hadn’t thought about bears.

Thanks to Brad Logan, she and the children had been taken care of. A safe house, warm beds and good food. What more could she ask for? Sighing, she realized she owed Brad a lot. And to think she’d been angry at him when he barged in on her makeshift campsite last night. The sternness she’d seen in his eyes had softened to concern, then sympathy. She didn’t want his sympathy, just his compassion. And the handsome cowboy had offered it.

After sweeping the kitchen floor, she heard footsteps coming down the hall. Her unknowing hostess, perhaps?

The brown-haired pregnant woman came through the door and stopped in her tracks when she saw Sarah. “Hello?”

“I’m Sarah. Your brother-in-law let us stay last night. May I fix you some breakfast?”

“No, I—
Well, okay, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course not. There’s still some hot coffee if you—”

“No, the doctor says I can’t have coffee.
I’ll take a cup of tea, though, with milk and sugar in it.”

Sarah not only fixed her the tea, but made toast, bacon and scrambled eggs. After she served the woman, she said, “I’m sorry if I startled you before—”

Abby held up a hand. “It’s fine. I just wasn’t expecting anyone to be here.” She picked up her fork. “So, did you meet my husband this morning?”

“Yes, he cooked breakfast for all of us. I volunteered to clean the kitchen to repay him.”

“That was nice of you. Do you want some coffee? It won’t bother me, I promise.”

“I’d love another cup. I was saving it for you.” Sarah got up and poured the last cup of coffee and sat back down again.

“Are you a friend of Brad’s?” Abby asked.

“No. We’re—we’re on the run from my stepfather. He—he killed my mother two nights ago. I was afraid he’d kill all three of us if we didn’t get out of there.”

Apparently Abby wasn’t expecting such a gruesome story. She nearly dropped her
teacup and her eyes flew to Sarah’s. “Oh, no! I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you,” Sarah said, blinking rapidly to hide the tears that sprang to her eyes.

“You said we. Who are you with?”

“My two half siblings. They’re watching TV in your family room.”

“How old are they?”

“Five and nine.”

“You certainly have your hands full, don’t you?” Abby reached across the table and patted her arm, and the gesture was Sarah’s undoing.

She broke down, releasing all the fear, anxiety and tension of the last few days in a flood of tears.

“These are good cookies.”

Little Davy sat at the kitchen table munching on the homemade sweets that Kate, Abby’s mother-in-law, had sent over. Even Anna seemed to like them, though she sat quietly.

After her breakdown, Sarah had brought
the children in to meet their gracious hostess. Abby took to the children immediately.

“I’ll tell her you like them,” Abby said. “She’s a wonderful grandmother to Robbie.”

Sarah smiled. “I’m sure she is. Is he her only grandson until your babies are born?”

“Yes. Nick’s the only married child of her brood.” After a minute, Abby looked around the kitchen. “I probably need to think of something for lunch.”

“I think you should just tell me what you want done.”

“I can’t ask you to do that!”

“Yes, you can. You know your husband doesn’t want you risking your babies.”

“Well, yes, but—
Do you mind?”

“Of course not. Just tell me what you have in mind. I’ll fix it.”

As Sarah got up, the phone rang. She looked at Abby with a question in her eyes.

“Yes, please,” Abby said with a smile.

Sarah answered the phone. “Logan Ranch.”

“Is this Sarah?”

“Yes.”

“This is Kate Dunleavy, Mike’s wife.”

“And Robbie’s grandmother?”

“Exactly. You’ve learned all of us already, haven’t you?”

Sarah said, “Do you want to talk toAbby?”

“Yes, please.”

The telephone had a long cord and she carried the receiver to Abby.

While Abby was talking, Sarah took a quick inventory of what food they had on hand. The stocked cupboard and refrigerator were astounding for Sarah. She wasn’t used to such abundance.

Abby said goodbye and Sarah was beside her to take the phone back to the wall.

“Kate’s bringing over a casserole for lunch. We just need to cut up a salad.”

“Okay.” Sarah quickly got to work. Setting the table for six, she put the salad out and heated up some black-eyed peas. When Kate arrived, everything was ready.

“You did all this?” Kate asked. “Abby, you know you shouldn’t. I was going to do the work.”

“I didn’t, Kate. Sarah did everything. Isn’t she great?”

“She certainly is.” She walked over to the newcomer and put out a hand in greeting. “Hello, Sarah. I’m glad to meet you.”

The woman, who looked to be in her fifties, with graying light-brown hair, was so welcoming that Sarah returned her handshake. “I’ll—I’ll go call the kids.”

Kate watched the young woman leave the room. “Mike says she’s a good person.”

“I think so, and she’s had a horrible time of it. Does Mike think he can help her?”

“Yes, he thinks so. He’ll tell her his news after we all eat. He doesn’t want to talk in front of the children.”

“Oh, of course—”

Sarah entered the kitchen, followed by Anna and Davy. Anna pressed closer to Sarah. Davy didn’t seem too concerned.

“Kids, this is Kate, the cookie lady,” Abby said.

“I like your cookies!” Davy said with a big smile, which Kate returned.

“I’m glad. It’s nice to meet you, Davy. You, too, Anna.”

“Come on, kids, sit down at the table.”

“I like Robbie,” Davy said, grinning.

Kate seemed thrilled. “Perfect,” she said. “Maybe Mike’s idea will work out.”

Sarah’s head snapped up. “What idea?”

Mike entered at that moment. “Hi. How’s everyone doing?”

Sarah nodded to Mike, smiling a little. “We’re fine.”

“Good. I’m starved. Are you ready to eat?”

“You’re always hungry,” Kate teased her husband. But she held out a seat next to hers at the table.

Sarah could barely eat. She was too concerned about whatever idea the sheriff had come up with. She was grateful when the meal ended and she took her siblings back to the family room.

As soon as she entered the room, she turned to Mike. “Did they arrest him?”

Mike sighed. “Yeah, but you were right. Ashton told them he didn’t know who killed
his wife. He said he was knocked out and couldn’t help his beloved wife.”

“I told you he lied.”

“And he wants to know what happened to his children.”

Sarah’s hand flew to her chest. “No! I told you. They can’t go back to him.”

Mike tried to calm her down. “I just told you what he said. However, the police did a thorough job. They’re holding him in jail until he can make bail for $250,000. They’re hoping he won’t.”

“Good.”

“They also want to interview you.”

“No!” She felt as if she were on a seesaw, up one minute, down the next with the type of news Mike delivered.

“Sarah, you remember what I said? I talked to the police about you being appointed guardian of Anna and Davy. They agreed to pursue that for you, if you’ll come talk to them.”

She blinked her eyes, staring at her hands, clenched tightly in front of her. “I—I can’t!”

“I think Brad would go with you. I’m going to talk to him in a few minutes.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because you need someone with you, Sarah. It won’t be an easy thing.”

“I know—and what about the kids?”

“Well, I thought they might like to go to school while they’re here. I’ll set it up. It will be hardest on Anna. Davy will have Robbie to go to school with.”

“But I can’t leave them! It would be too hard for them.”

“It will be even harder if you don’t get custody.”

Abby took her hand. “We’ll take care of them, Sarah.”

“But you’re supposed to rest,” Sarah protested.

“If they’re at school all day, I can rest.”

The sheriff looked at Sarah. “You have to answer this question. Is it worth going to testify against Ellis Ashton? You’ll get custody of the kids and keep them safe.”

When he put it that way, Sarah knew there
was really no choice. She drew in a deep breath and said, “I’ll go. But I don’t need to bother Brad. I can manage on my own.”

The sheriff shook his head. “He’s going with you, Sarah. It’s part of the deal. Nick and Abby will take care of the kids and Brad will take care of you.”

“I don’t want him to take care of me! I can manage on my own.”

“Why don’t you want him to go?”

“The only man in my family killed my mother. Why would I want anything to do with any man?”

Mike drew a deep breath. “He’s just escorting you, keeping you safe. So you can come back to your siblings.”

“I—I don’t know what—”

“I’m thinking you should leave Monday morning after the kids go to school.”

“Their first day? No, that’s impossible! Anna can’t—
She’s very shy!”

“It’s all right,” Kate said. “I’ll take her to school that morning and make sure she’s happy. Abby will be here to help.”

Sarah looked around the room at all the encouraging faces. “All right. I can tell her you’ll go with her?”

“Of course.”

Mike stood and kissed Kate goodbye and thanked Sarah for her cooperation. Then he left.

“Can you tell us what the children wear to school? Is there somewhere we can buy something for her to wear?”

“Yes. I can take you and Anna, and Davy, too, this afternoon, if you want.”

“Thank you, Kate. I think it will help Anna feel good about herself.” She just wished she knew how to pay for the clothes.

Nick and Brad came into the house for lunch a little later, only to find it empty.

“Where’s Abby?” Nick mused out loud.

“I don’t know. I guess we’re on our own today.”

“If she’s gotten involved with those people you drug in, I’ll—”

“Hi, boys,” Mike called as he stepped into the kitchen. “Are the ladies out?”

“Yeah,” Nick said in angry tones.

“Do you know where they are?”

“No. They didn’t even leave a note.” Nick couldn’t believe his wife would disappear without leaving word of her plans. Not in her condition!

“Hey, here’s a casserole I can warm up. I think there’s enough for all three of us,” Brad said.

“Ah, that’s one of the casseroles Kate made,” Mike said. “I’ll set the table.”

“How did you know about the casserole?” Nick asked.

“I had a quick lunch earlier with the ladies. But I didn’t get enough to eat,” Mike assured Nick and Brad.

Nick shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, I’ll make us something to drink. Is coffee okay with both of you? I think the wind got colder today.”

It wasn’t until they were finished eating that
Brad realized it was unusual for Mike to be out there during the day. He asked his reasons.

“I came to talk to Sarah,” he explained.

“Why? Is something wrong?”

“No, not really, but I need some help.”

Nick spoke up. “To do what?”

“To escort Sarah to Denver.”

Neither man seemed upset.

“Who you gonna get?” Brad asked.

Mike just looked at him.

“Oh, no! Not me. Don’t you have any deputies to handle the job?”

“You know I don’t have as many deputies as I need to take care of the county. I can’t send one of them away.”

“But I think she’ll feel better with a deputy.”

“That’s why I’m going to deputize you before you go,” Mike assured him with a grin.

Sarah was sitting at the kitchen table that afternoon, trying to make sense of her life the past few days. Not that she was complaining. She seemed to have fallen into a good situation. Abby had offered her the job of
housekeeper for at least three months at a generous rate plus room and board for all three of them.

Kate had taken them all shopping, even Abby, and she’d charged all the clothing for Anna and Davy, promising to take it out of Sarah’s salary after she’d insisted. Sarah had bought more than she should, because the two kids had so little, but she didn’t regret it. It was little compared to what they deserved.

All their lives Anna and Davy had suffered from their father’s behavior. Even with Sarah living there and providing food, it wasn’t enough. Children shouldn’t have to live the way her siblings had.

The kitchen door opened and Brad walked in.

She jumped to her feet. “Do you need anything?”

Brad looked at her in surprise. “No, I was just going to get some water. The wind is cold at night, but the temperature is warm this afternoon. I was going to get a couple of bottles of cold water.”

“I’ll get them for you,” Sarah said.

He stood there while she got the water.

“Uh, where did you go today? We didn’t see anyone when we came in for a late lunch.”

“But you found the leftover casserole, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, Mike said Mom made it.”

“Yes, she brought lunch for all of us. Did Mike eat lunch with you, too?”

“Yeah, you’d think he couldn’t handle two lunches. I keep thinking it will catch up with him, but it never seems to.”

After a second, Sarah got up enough courage to ask if Mike had talked to him about going to Denver.

“Yeah, he mentioned it.”

“Did you say yes?”

He looked at her then and she noticed the dark eyes with gold flecks that matched his dark brown hair, the lines at the corners of his eyes, no doubt from working outside on the ranch. He was a handsome man. A man’s man.

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