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Luke Duncan idly scanned the metallic streamers that hung over the cash register of the grocery store's lotto and photo counter. It looked to him as though the booth contained enough lottery tickets for half the smallish town.
"Feeling lucky?" the clerk asked, following his gaze to the lottery tickets.
Luke glanced at the sacks of groceries resting in his cart. "Actually, I need to pick up my pictures. Name's Duncan."
She nodded and turned to a drawer holding the developed pictures. As she did, he maneuvered his cart to the end of the counter to clear a path for the other customers. It was clever of the store's management to position the photo and lottery counter so close to the exit. The location made it easy for patrons who had already paid for their groceries, to pause and purchase a bit of the state-run fantasy.
"Did you say Duncan?" the clerk asked, sifting through the drawer.
He leaned over the counter, trying to read the names on the plump yellow envelopes. "Yes, Luke Duncan. I brought in my pictures about a week ago. Should be two packages."
"Here's one of them," the clerk announced, placing the packet on the counter. Eager to look at the photos, Luke opened the envelope, letting the pictures spill out into his hands.
The clerk rummaged a bit more, then spun back around with the other packet in her hand. Her flirtatious smile faded as her brows drew together. "Isn't that your cart?"
Distracted by the pictures he was viewing, Luke didn't glance up. "My cart?"
"Look!" She pointed toward the exit.
Belatedly, he saw what she was talking about. "What the ?"
Luke spotted a young boy wheeling his grocery-filled cart out the door. Shock held him still for a moment, then he hollered.
The boy turned for an instant. But instead of slowing down, he began to run, pushing the loaded cart across the lot with remarkable speed.
Luke watched for a few seconds in disbelief, then fumbled with the slippery pictures filling his hands. Dropping the photos on the counter, he barely paused. "Keep an eye on these, will you?"
The clerk, looking equally dumbfounded, nodded.
Luke tore off toward the door, still unable to believe the boy was stealing his groceries. That sort of thing didn't happen in their midsize Texas town. Greenville was big enough that you didn't know everyone, but small enough that you could leave a cart of groceries unattended and expect it to be safe. But that same cart of groceries was barreling across the busy street.
Luke sprinted the length of the parking lot, but the light was red when he reached the curb. Fast-moving cars and trucks filled the road since it was shift change at the local machine works factory.
Luke's feet scarcely remained on the concrete as he waited to cross the street, determined to catch the little thief. But when the light changed and the traffic cleared, the boy wasn't in sight.
Muttering to himself, Luke thought he'd lost his quarry, but then he caught a glimpse of the cart as it whipped around a corner. Luke bolted across the street, gaining speed as he neared the spot he'd last seen the cart. But when he turned into the alley, it was empty.
Then his eyes narrowed. One screen door in the deserted lane stirred ever so slightly, possibly the result of being slammed shut. Luke approached cautiously. It occurred to him that the boy might not be working alone. Perhaps it was a ruse orchestrated by an adult who wanted bigger pickings than groceries.
His gaze alert, Luke pushed open the door. It was dark inside, but as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior, he could see that it appeared to be an abandoned store. Empty metal racks and cardboard boxes were scattered through the musty space. But there were no signs of an ambush.
Still, Luke didn't lower his guard as he stepped farther inside. Then he spotted itthe shiny metal of a grocery cart gleaming through the dust motes. Although it was partially pushed behind a curtain, there was no mistaking the distinctive buggy. The kid was clever, but not clever enough. He'd picked the wrong sucker to steal from.
Luke ripped open the curtain. "All right you " The words died away as Luke stared at the young robber. The terrified boy stared back at him defiantly as he shielded two younger children, a boy and a girl. As Luke fumbled for words, the girl burst into tears.
The child who had stolen his cart pulled her closer, but she continued crying.
Luke knelt down, patting her shoulder. "It's okay now, no need for tears. No one's going to hurt you." Then he met the oldest boy's eyes. "Why don't you tell me what this is all about?"
For a few moments the boy stood mute, his mouth set in a stubborn line.
Luke, however, didn't back down.
Finally the boy wavered a fraction. "You didn't need this stuff."
Seeing how frightened the children were, Luke kept his tone mild. "That's not the issue. I want to know why you stole my groceries."
"They gotta eat!" the boy burst out.
Luke stared at the child, a sickening pit forming in his stomach. "What do you mean?"
"We don't have no food," the youngest boy explained.
The pit in Luke's stomach hardened. "Were you planning to take the groceries home to your parents?"
The oldest boy momentarily looked panicked, then his mouth thinned again, a determined if futile gesture.
The younger boy wasn't as stoic. "We don't have no parents."
For a moment, Luke just looked at the children. "Why don't you tell me your names?" he urged finally, heartsick at their plight.
"I'm Troy," the youngest boy offered.
Luke nodded, then smoothed one hand over the girl's matted hair. "And how about you?"
"Hannah," she managed to say, her tears beginning to subside.
Luke leveled his gaze on the oldest boy.
Reluctantly the child spoke. "Brian Baker."
"And I'm Luke Duncan. Where have you been staying?"
Brian's gaze traveled to a few ragged sacks on the floor.
Luke had to take a deep breath to hide his shock. Luckily the August nights were warm, otherwise the kids could have become seriously ill. Straightening up, he withdrew his cell phone. "I'll call the police and get you some help."
"You can't do that, mister!" Brian hollered, before Luke could dial.
"You can't!" Hannah echoed, then started sobbing again.
"Whoa!" Luke replied. "I just want to get you some help."
"They'll separate us!" Brian shouted. "We can do just fine on our own!"
Luke's gaze encompassed the bare, dirty space. "I can see that. But if your parents abandoned you"
"They didn't!" Brian shouted in reply.
"Mama died!" Troy told him. "She wouldn't just go off and leave us!"
Even more perturbed, Luke slowly lowered the phone. "When did she die?"
"couple weeks ago," Brian answered sullenly. "They were coming to take us away when we left."
"Maybe the authorities had found relatives who could take you in. That doesn't mean you'd be separated."
"They were going to put us in foster homes," Brian replied. "Separate foster homes. We heard 'em."
"What about your father?" Luke asked gently.
"He died a long time ago," Troy told him solemnly. "When I was borned."
Luke glanced from face to face, seeing pain, terror and worsea disheartening lack of hope. No doubt they were hungry and tired as well. "Okay, I won't call the police. For now.''"
Brian looked suspicious but relieved. Luke considered his options and knew he had only one. "You're all going home with me."
"We don't want nothin' from you," Brian asserted. "We'll pay you back for the food."
"I have a better idea. We'll take the groceries to my house and cook some supper. Then you can help me figure out how to work my Wii."
Although Troy looked intrigued, Brian was still resistant. "We're fine here."
Hannah hiccuped. "I'm hungry."
Obviously torn, Brian stared first at his younger sister, then at Luke.
Taking charge of the situation, Luke tugged the cart from behind the curtain, turning it toward the door. After shifting the groceries, he picked up Troy and deposited him in the cart. Then he lifted Hannah to rest on his hip. Luke kept his tone mild as he met Brian's gaze. "You coming with us?"
With no other choice, Brian nodded.
"Where are your things?" Luke asked.
Brian shrugged and again Luke felt his heart constrict. Not even a change of clothes among them. "Traveling light has its advantages."
Brian nodded, but Luke could see the boy's throat working, either from gratitude or shame. Casually, Luke draped one arm over Brian's shoulders. "I'll need your help to get the younger ones across the street."
Brian straightened up and nodded, obviously relieved to be assigned some responsibility. Briefly, Luke wondered at the hand of fate that had placed these kids in such a predicament. Then he concentrated on getting them out of the alley.
It didn't take long to get them into his Tahoe, a roomy SUV. Luke wasn't certain if it was fatigue or fear that kept the children quiet once inside.
Within a few minutes, Luke drove the short distance from the grocery store, then stopped the SUV in front of his rambling, old Victorian home. The large house looked imposing, but he'd purchased it for a song, doing most of the renovation and restoration work himself. It had proven perfect for both his home and his veterinary practice, which was located in the front of the house.
"You live here?'" Troy asked, obviously impressed by the proportions of the house.
Luke unbuckled their seat belts. "Yep. It gets kind of drafty in the winter, but otherwise it's okay."
"Okay " Brian repeated in awe, staring up at the third-floor dormer windows of the attic.
Luke wanted to chuckle at their reaction, but realized the children would think he was laughing at them. Instead, he handed each one a sack of groceries, then shepherded them up the walk.
Once inside, they stared upward at the impressively tall ceilings. Luke remembered a similar feeling when he'd first stepped inside the house. Then it had been run-down, in danger of being condemned. But he had seen past the ramshackle condition to the possibilities contained beneath layers of peeling paint, torn wallpaper and threadbare carpet.
"Put the sacks on this table," Luke instructed, showing them an old drop-leaf hall table that had once belonged to his grandparents.
Although they complied, each one was trying to take in the unusual house. "Who else lives here?" Brian asked, still gaping.
Just then several dogs started barking ferociously. All three children turned to stare.
"That you, Luke?" Wayne Johnson called out from the clinic portion of the house.
"Yep! Come on out here."
Curtained French doors swung open. A fortyish man stepped out, wiping his hands on a towel. The volume of the dogs' barking increased with the opening of the doors. Wayne carefully looked over the trio of children. But he didn't show more than mild surprise. "Howdy."
The kids responded with a variety of greetings.
"I don't suppose you all are here to help me with the critters," Wayne commented.
Luke smiled, realizing his assistant had accurately assessed the situation. His calm demeanor was helping defuse the tense atmosphere.
"Critters?" Troy asked.
"Yep. Dogs, cats, a raccoon, couple of ducks and even a snake."
The kids faces reflected varying shades of fascination.
"Snakes are icky," Hannah announced. But the boys didn't look as though they agreed.
Relieved to hear her speak without crying, Luke sent his assistant a look of gratitude. "Tell you what, guys. If we can talk Wayne into giving you the grand tour, I'll start some supper."
"Be my pleasure," Wayne told them. "Course I might need a volunteer or two to help with the ornery animals."
Their eyes grew even rounder as they trailed Wayne into the clinic.
Not bothering with the groceries, Luke strode quickly into the kitchen. In moments he was dialing the phone. His sister, Rachel, a social worker for the county, answered her office phone on the first ring.
Quickly he filled her in on the situation.
"Do you want me to send someone to pick them up?" she asked, concern filling her voice.
He paused. "Actually, Rach, I want to keep them here until you can find their relatives. That shouldn't take too long. I was hoping you could get me some sort of temporary permission."
"They've been through so much already. They're scared to death of being separated. They were tired, hungry. And if you could see their faces."
Rachel's own compassion was felt in the sigh that reverberated over the phone line. "Enough said. I'll see what I can do."
"Thanks, Rach. Oh, do I need to call the police, let them know the kids are here?"
"No, I'll take care of that. If they're telling the truth, there'll be a record of the mother's death."
"Why would kids lie about a thing like that?"
"You forget, I've seen more kids in trouble than you have."
"Granted. But I don't think these kids had any trouble until their mother passed away."
"Maybe not." She hesitated. "Luke, you've been bringing home straysanimals and peoplesince preschool. Don't get too attached. This won't be more than a temporary solution."
"Yeah, I know. And that's all I want. You're bound to turn up some relatives soon. But until then, someone needs to give them a break. Besides, I have a sister in Social Services who can pull a few strings."
"Actually, I think that's called a conflict of interest. I can probably get you the temporary permission, but I can also guarantee that if anything more is involved, my supervisor will assign the case to someone else faster than the ink can dry."
"Do what you can, sis."
"Don't I always?" Rachel questioned wryly. "I'll get back to you as soon as I can."
After thanking her, Luke retrieved the groceries from the front hall and started cooking. Having been raised with seven brothers and sisters, he'd learned early on how to cook huge meals. While he chopped and diced, Luke called his oldest sister, Mary. Hearing about the orphans' plight, she offered to bring pajamas and clothes, which was what he had been hoping she'd do. Since she had five children of her own, she had plenty of hand-me-downs.
Soon the aromas coaxed the children back from the clinic to the kitchen. Luke's dogs, Bentley, a golden retriever, Miles, a border collie mix, and Ginger, an undefinable mix, followed them. His cats, Spencer and Kate, made separate appearances.
It was clear from the children's ravenous appetites that they'd missed many meals. They'd barely finished eating when his sister Mary and her oldest daughter rang the bell. Apparently, Mary had called his other sister, Ruth, who came by shortly afterward with three of her children.
There was something about a big family that defied quiet.
In typical Duncan fashion, the house vibrated with noise as they opened boxes filled with clothes, blankets, pillows and toys. Not much later, his brother, Peter, arrived in his pickup truck. It was loaded with a set of bunkbeds his children had outgrown along with a twin bed he'd collected from another brother, Matt, who had ridden along to help unload and set up the beds.
The children looked overwhelmed by all the people and attention. Just then the doorbell rang again. It was Rachel, his younger and favorite sister.
She shook her head as they entered the living room, gazing at the confusion. "How'd they find out about the kids?"
"My big mouth," he admitted. "I was just hoping for pajamas and a change of clothes."
Rachel didn't restrain her chuckle. "You know what they're like. Didn't you tell them this was just for a few days?"
"Yep. I don't think anyone was listening, though." His gaze sharpened. "I hope you're not here in person because you have bad news."
She screwed her face in a noncommittal expression.
"It's not exactly bad." The doorbell rang yet again. Luke muttered briefly beneath his breath. "What now? Or should I say who now?"
"Luke" Rachel began.
"In a minute. I'll get rid of whoever that is and be right back."
Luke yanked open the door, but his greeting was never uttered.
Kealey Fitzpatrick stood on his front porch, looking as stiff and uncomfortable as she had on their disastrous blind date months earlier. But what was she doing here?
Then it struck him. He turned to stare at Rachel, who had trailed him to the door.
"I tried to explain," Rachel began.
"Explain?" he growled.
"I told you the case would probably be assigned to someone else."
Someone else, yes. Kealey Fitzpatrick, no. The woman had the warmth and personality of tumbled marble. Still, he kept his voice low as he turned back to Rachel, so that only his sister could hear. "If this is some sort of convoluted way of trying to fix me up with her again"
"No, Luke. It was just the luck of the draw. I didn't have any control over who my supervisor chose."
He groaned, then turned back to Kealey, reluctantly opening the door wider. "Come in."