Authors: Judy Christenberry
A man she could fall for.
But she couldn’t. Not now.
Before he could answer, she blurted, “I don’t need you to go. I can manage on my own.”
“You need an escort.”
“It’s ridiculous for you to leave your job to go with me. I’ll be fine.” She turned away from him and pretended to wipe the cabinet.
“I’m going. Mike’s going to deputize me, so my presence will be official.”
“There’s no need.”
“How big is Ellis Ashton?”
“I just wondered if he’s scary.”
“He’s not quite as tall as you, but he’s big enough around to make two of you.”
“Hmm. I guess he could take me in a fight.”
“Probably not. He’s slow…and dumb.”
Brad gave a half smile. “So, maybe I could take him?”
“Maybe. But it’s neither here nor there. There will be no fighting!”
Brad shrugged his shoulders. “I was just thinking.”
“Well, don’t think. Just tell Mike no.”
“Why don’t you want me to go with you?”
“I don’t know you! You’re more of a stranger to me than my stepfather!” And what she did know—how good-looking he was—was a danger.
“Sarah, I’m going along to protect you.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“You want to compare muscles?” Brad asked with a grin.
“You’re being silly!”
Brad turned serious. “Even if your stepfather were a ninety-pound weakling, you need someone with you, to lend moral support if nothing else.”
“I told Mike I could go alone. He’s holding Anna and Davy as hostages! What more does he need to guarantee that I’m coming back?”
“Maybe he thinks you’re planning on dumping your responsibilities and cutting loose.”
Sarah immediately headed for the quickest exit.
“Why are you running away? Was I too close to the truth?”
She whirled around and charged back to him. “How dare you even insinuate that! Don’t you ever say that to Davy and Anna!”
“Are you planning on coming back?”
“Yes! I won’t dump Davy and Anna on your family! Unless—unless I can’t come back,” she said, ending in a whisper.
“Of course you’ll come back. That’s why I’m going. To make sure you do.”
“If—if something happens to me, will Abby find a home for Davy and Anna? I know your family won’t have room, but—but maybe a nice family in the area? And keep them together?”
“Quit worrying about it, Sarah. You’ll be back in a couple of days, and things will go on just like they’ve been doing.”
“Abby hired me to be her housekeeper,” Sarah informed him.
“That’s good. You seem to do the work well.”
“I guess. She’s offering me too much money.” She named the dollar amount.
“I guess Nick figured it in the budget. It’s
worth it if it keeps Abby from going into labor early.”
“Yes. I’m grateful for the work…and for her taking in the kids. Kate said she would come over after school and fix them a snack and make a casserole that Nick could take out of the oven.”
“That sounds like a good plan.”
Sarah collapsed at the kitchen table. “I don’t know what to do!” she exclaimed, covering her face with her hands.
Brad sat down beside her. “You do what Mike tells you to do. He’s older and wiser. He won’t steer you wrong.”
“You have a lot of confidence in him, don’t you?”
“He’s married to my mother. We wouldn’t have let her marry him if he wasn’t a good guy.”
She gave a bitter laugh. “You think you’re always in control, don’t you?”
“Most times. My family has lived here for over a hundred years, leaving me with a great tradition and enough money to make it.”
She got up from the table and turned away from him.
“Yes, well, that’s not our family.”
“Why did your mother marry the man?” Brad asked, still sitting at the table.
“Alice was widowed and didn’t have any job skills…and she had a teenage daughter—me.”
“Did he drink then?”
“Yes, but he kept it under control. At least for a year or two. Then he’d just stop off for one beer that turned into four or five. He’d drag home about eight or nine and roar for his dinner.”
“That sounds sad. I guess you didn’t have much of a life then.”
“No. I never knew if he’d come home drunk or not come home at all. It was embarrassing.”
“When you moved back home, how old were the kids?”
“Anna was six and Davy was two.” She’d had no choice, really, but to leave the city and move back in. Her own life wouldn’t
have been worth living if she knew her siblings were in danger.
Brad stood and moved to Sarah’s side. “Don’t worry, Sarah. Nick and Abby are going to take good care of your little family.”
didn’t want anything to go wrong with her first evening meal.
Heavenly aromas from her baking casserole gave her hope that the ingredients she’d found in the cupboards were perfectly blended. The peach cobbler cooling on the countertop could’ve been a magazine photo; she only hoped it tasted as good as it looked. The house was clean, the laundry done. The only thing left was passing muster. Muster being the approval of the Logans.
When she heard the men coming in, she felt her stomach flip. Nick came in first and then Brad. When they breathed the air, they came to an abrupt halt.
“Who’s been cooking?” Nick asked. “If it’s Abby, I’m going to let her have it.”
Sarah turned from the counter. “It’s not Abby. It’s me. She’s taking a nap. Do you want to wake her?”
Nick’s expression relaxed and he left the kitchen to find his wife.
Brad looked at the perfectly set table and the cobbler and nodded in approval.
“Would you like some coffee?” she asked him, ripping her eyes from his tall, solid body, muscular arms and thighs.
“You’ve made coffee, too?”
“Yes, it just finished perking.”
“Yeah, I’ll take a cup.”
“I don’t know what exactly you want done every day. I should have asked you earlier, but if you’ll tell me if I’m forgetting things, I can do them.”
“Do you really know how to cook?”
Nick came into the room carrying Abby. He sat her down in a chair and teasingly
said, “If those babies get any larger, I don’t think I’ll be able to carry you.”
Sarah wasn’t surprised when Abby burst into tears.
Nick, however, was startled. “What’s wrong?”
Even Brad knew the problem. “Bro, you can’t tell her she’s too big. She’s trying to bring two children into the world.”
“No! Of course not!” Nick said at once. “I was just teasing, honey. You’re doing fine!”
“Of course she is, Nick,” Sarah said, coming to stand by Abby’s chair. “And she hired me to be the housekeeper for three months so I can do what needs to be done and she can rest.”
“Can you do those things?” Nick asked in surprise.
“You can let me know when I don’t do things right.”
Then she opened the oven and took out the casserole. It had browned to perfection. She brought the casserole to the table, then went to call Robbie and her siblings.
In a few minutes, the kids came into the
kitchen. All that time, Nick had been making up with Abby. From her hidden smile, it seemed she enjoyed watching him grovel.
Stifling her own smile, Sarah brought hot rolls and a salad to the table. She felt the tension build up once again as she watched the Logans dig in.
After his first bite, Brad asked if she’d made the casserole.
“Yes, of course. Is there something wrong with it?”
He shook his head and took another forkful. “Not a thing. It’s great.”
Sarah exhaled a tight breath.
The meal was perfect, just like she wanted, right down to the cobbler. The company was perfect, too. The Logans talked and shared their day’s experiences, and the meal passed in easy conversation.
She didn’t miss her stepfather yelling at her and the kids, and threatening them. She didn’t miss it one bit.
* * *
Brad kept thinking about how well Sarah had fit into their household. From what she’d said, he hadn’t expected her to understand how things were done here at the ranch.
After watching a TV program, he’d come back in the kitchen to find it spotless. He even found cookies in the cookie jar. Waiting until his brother wandered into the kitchen, he sat down with a cup of coffee at the table.
Nick looked at Brad. “What are you eating, Brad?”
“Cookies.” He held up an oatmeal raisin. “Sarah’s doing a great job, isn’t she?”
“I won’t know until I taste the cookies,” Nick said.
He joined Brad at the table with a mug of coffee and bit into one of the cookies. “Yeah, I think she’s doing a good job.”
Before Brad could answer, Sarah appeared at the doorway. “Oh, I didn’t know you were hungry again.”
“We shouldn’t be,” Nick said. “Dinner was great.”
“Thank you, but if you need me to do something else, don’t hesitate to tell me.”
“Just keep the cookie jar full!” Brad said with a grin.
“I will. Um, Abby wants some cookies and some milk.”
“I should’ve told you that she likes a late night snack. That’s my fault.”
Sarah fixed a tray, then carried them out to Abby.
“Is Abby doing all right?” Brad asked.
“Yeah, if I can just keep her down until it’s time.”
“Aren’t twins supposed to come early?”
“Yeah, but the longer they go in the womb, the healthier they are.”
“And one is a boy and one is a girl?”
“Yeah, fraternal twins.”
“Is Robbie excited?”
“No, he’s more excited about Davy. Of course he can see Davy. Right now, he doesn’t really understand why his Mommy doesn’t spend time with him.”
“I guess, and he thinks when his mommy has the babies, he’ll get to play with them.”
“Well, after a while. Sarah said she’s going to be here for three months. That will give Abby time to recuperate.”
“I hope so. Mom said it takes a bit longer. And I want Abby completely recovered before she does anything.”
“You may need to hire Sarah for a little longer.”
“We’ll see how things turn out.”
Nick held out another cookie to his brother.
On Monday morning, breakfast was served by Sarah with no complications. Nick enjoyed not having to cook it himself. He expressed his appreciation.
Sarah thanked him, but she seemed too worried to appreciate his words.
“Is anything wrong, Sarah?” Brad asked.
She stared at Brad. “Nothing except that I’m leaving my siblings here with people I’ve only known for maybe five days, and they’re starting school. And I’m going to face the
man who choked my mother to death. Other than those things, everything is fine.”
About that time, Kate and Mike entered the kitchen. Kate hurried over to Sarah to reassure her that everything was okay.
Brad didn’t say anything else. He excused himself to go change into a nice shirt so he wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb in Denver. When he came back into the kitchen, Sarah stared at him.
“What’s wrong?” Brad asked.
“I thought—I mean, you look nice.”
“Thanks. Are you ready to go?”
“No, I have to finish the dishes first.”
“I’ll do them while you get ready,” Brad offered.
Before Sarah could decline, Kate stepped in and shooed her away from the sink. “I’ll handle this, Sarah. You go get dressed.”
When she finally left the kitchen, Kate turned to Brad. “Did you pack extra clothes, son? You know, this could take as many as four or five days.”
Brad shrugged his shoulders. “I guess I’d better pack more. You’d better tell Sarah that, too.”
Kate had just finished the dishes and she volunteered to talk to Sarah.
Brad grabbed a leather jacket in case it got cold. Then he added a couple of dress shirts and ties along with a sports jacket. At that point, he figured he was done. He took his suit bag and hung it in his truck.
When he came back to the kitchen, he saw Sarah standing in the kitchen, telling Anna what a nice time she would have at school and that Kate would take her to her new class.
“She’s going to do fine, Sarah. Don’t you worry.” Kate put her arm around the child. “I’ll stay with you as long as you want me to, Anna.”
Sarah gave the woman a hug. “Thank you, Kate.”
Brad tapped her on the shoulder. “Are you ready to go?”
When she whirled around, he could see the tears swimming in her eyes. “Yes, I can go now.”
“Good. You want something to drink?”
She was trying to wipe away her tears. “Yes, that will be fine.”
He grabbed a couple of cold drinks without asking her choice. He didn’t think she’d make a choice right now.
“Where are your things?”
“In—in my room.”
He found the small suitcase and brought it out to the door. But Sarah still hadn’t moved.
“Ready?” he asked again.
With another look at the children, she finally moved out to his truck.
They drove in silence for half an hour, Brad not sure if she wanted to talk about what she was about to do in Denver. He figured it was best to get it out in the open and then move on. The silence was killing him. “Are you worried about talking to the police?”
She ducked her head and said, “No,” in a soft voice.
Finally she said, “Will they give me guardianship of the children?”
“Mike said they’re planning to. You need to ask that up-front. Sometimes police don’t do as they promise.”
“That’s—that’s not right!”
“I know it’s not. But Mike thought I should tell you that. Maybe they’ll be fair and treat you right. Just be sure you get their promises in writing.”
She squared her jaw. “Believe me, I will!”
A few minutes later, Brad realized Sarah had gone to sleep. He figured that was a good thing. She probably hadn’t been sleeping well. She seemed to be vacuuming and washing everything within reach.
Maybe after she faced her stepfather and received temporary custody of her siblings, she’d relax a little bit. It was a heavy load to be responsible for two kids before she’d even married. It would take a man with broad shoulders to take on that load.
He looked again at her. She was certainly beautiful, curled up in his truck seat. Soft, feminine, loving. With two children.
Focusing his gaze back on the road, he kept on driving.
* * *
When he pulled up to the motel the police had recommended to them, Brad reached over and gently shook Sarah’s shoulder.
“We’re here. I’m going to go in and get us a couple of rooms, but I didn’t want to leave you sleeping.”
“I don’t need to go in with you?”
“No. I’ll take care of it.”
After he closed the door, she slumped back against the comfortable seat. She couldn’t believe she’d slept all the way to Denver. But she thought maybe she needed the sleep. She felt better now.
Tensing up when she saw Brad returning, she drew a deep breath.
“We’ve got two rooms on the second floor,” he said as he got in the truck and started the engine.
When he parked his truck by an entrance with stairs, she opened her door and reached in the back seat for her suitcase.
“I’ll get it,” he told her, but she ignored him. With a frown, he got his hanging bag and came around the truck to meet her.
She asked him her room number.
“You have room two-fourteen.”
“What’s your room number?”
She didn’t say anything as she went up the stairs. When she reached two-fourteen, she waited for him to open the door.
After he did so, he gave her her key. Then he left to go to his room, which was next door.
She’d just put her bag down and was looking around the serviceable room when she heard a knock. Suddenly realizing their rooms shared a connecting door, she opened it.
Brad lounged against the door frame with a cell phone in his hand. “I was going to call home and thought you’d want to talk toAbby.”
He punched in the numbers and waited for someone to answer. “Hello? Hi, Abby. How are things there?”
After a moment, he said, “Yeah, I’ll let you tell her.”
Then he handed the phone to Sarah.
“Abby? It’s me, Sarah.”
“I wanted to tell you what Kate told me about Anna. She was back here by ten because Anna was so comfortable. Her teacher made her feel good and helped her meet another student so she would have someone to eat with and ride home on the bus with.”
“Oh, Abby, that’s so wonderful! I was worried about Anna. She doesn’t usually adapt so quickly.”
“I knew you’d be worried, but your chicks are doing fine. Call back this evening and we’ll put both of them on the phone.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to be a bother.”
“It will be good for the children, too. They’ll want to know that you’re in touch.”
“Thank you, Abby. Are you staying down?”
“Of course. Kate came and fixed me breakfast and fixed a lunch and put it in the fridge. I just finished it. I think my hunger is growing!”
“If it is, it’s because the babies need it.”
“Thanks, Sarah. You know exactly what to say.”
“Okay, take care of yourself.”
She handed the phone back to Brad. After a moment, he hung up. But he still stood in the open doorway.
“We didn’t stop for lunch,” he reminded her. “Are you hungry?”
“I can wait.”
“Nope. I’m not going to eat by myself. I’ll give you five minutes. Then I’ll knock again.” He walked out and closed the door.
Sarah knew Brad was used to being in control, but she wouldn’t let him control her. Then again, he had driven her here.
This time when he knocked, she opened the door and smiled at him. “I’m ready.”
They walked toward the restaurant next door, which the desk clerk recommended.
“By the way,” he said as they crossed the lot, “Mike said for me to pay for everything. He thinks we’ll be reimbursed by the police.”
She stared at him. “Are you sure?”
“That’s what Mike said.”
“But just in case, I probably shouldn’t spend too much. They might not pay for everything.”
“Yes, you can, Sarah. Leave that for Mike to worry about.”
“But he’s trying to help me. I can’t—”
“Want me to call and ask him?” Brad asked, pulling out his phone.
“No! No, I don’t want you to call him.”
“Then plan on eating a decent lunch. You need to be strong when you testify.”
“Am I going to testify? I thought I’d just talk to the police and—and tell them what I know.”
“I thought Mike had prepared you.”
“Not to testify.”
“What you’ll do is talk to the police and then testify in a hearing to determine that your stepfather should be remanded to stand trial.”
“And then I’ll be finished?”
He shook his head. “If they hold him for trial, you’ll have to come back and testify again.”