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Elizabeth Ransom struggled off the bus, carefully leading her toddler son down the stairs while carrying her baby in a pouch across her chest.
"This is his driveway, ma'am," the gentlemanly bus driver said as he held out her luggage. "You can't miss the house. It's the only one on this road."
Finding the house wasn't the part she was worried about. It was what would happen when she got there. "Thank you for your help. You've been very kind."
She looked down at her three-year-old. "Yes, Brady?"
"Where is my grandpa?"
"Just a little farther and we'll meet him." As the bus pulled away, she looked around at the tall weeds growing alongside the drive. "First we're going to stow our luggage here where no one can see them." She put the two suitcases behind the weeds, hoping that her son wouldn't ask why. She didn't have the heart to tell him they might not be staying.
She said a private prayer that her father-in-law would at least offer hospitality for a few days. She prayed too that Tom Ransom had heard of his son's death; she didn't want to break the news that his son had recently been killed in a car accident.
Forcing a smile at her child, she took his hand. "Let's walk to Grandpa's house, okay, Brady?"
"Is it very far, Mommy?"
"I don't know, honey, but the bus driver said it was at the end of this road."
"I'm cold, Mommy."
Early December in Oklahoma could be a lot worse, she knew; still, there was a biting wind. "If we walk faster, we'll get warm." She led her son down the road. After a few minutes he noticeably tired. "Keep walking, sweetheart."
As they picked up the pace, she heard the baby awakening and soothed her with her voice. Poor Jenny. Shewould never know her daddy.
On second thought, perhaps that was for the best, seeing as how Reggie Ransom was far from a model father. He'd walked out on them one afternoon, and she hadn't seen him since. Only when she managed to reach him and remind him of their existence did he bother sending any money for rent and food.
She always knew Reggie wasn't the type to be tied down by a wife and kids. He wanted a carefree life, wining and dining on the rodeo circuit where he was a star.
But Elizabeth had wanted a family to belong to so badly that she ignored her intuition and married him anyway, right after college. Especially after she found herself pregnant. She remembered thinking she was going to have everything she'd ever wanted.
Too bad Reggie hadn't felt the same.
As soon as they were married he told her he had to go back on the circuit.
Elizabeth kept them afloat with her teaching job, paying the rent and Brady's day care bills. But when she got pregnant with Jenny and took ill, she couldn't work. Money was tight. Now Jenny was six weeks old, but with the school year started, Elizabeth had to wait for the next semester to be hired.
She needed help now.
Tom Ransom was her only hope. She hoped her father-in-law could offer just a little to help them along.
"Mommy?" Brady grabbed her hand and tugged on it. "Mommy? Is that his house?"
She looked up, surprised to see a white clapboard house and several outbuildings in front of her. "Yes, I think so, Brady. It's very nice, isn't it?"
"Yeah!" After a moment Brady asked, "Do you think Grandpa will like me?"
"I'm sure he will. You look a lot like your daddy."
"Is that good?"
"Your daddy was a handsome man." She didn't mention her husband's deficits, his abandonment of his family, spending all the money he made on other women and booze. No child needed to hear that.
"Mommy, I see Grandpa! Can I go tell him it's us coming to visit?"
She shaded her eyes and looked up at a tall, rugged man standing by a pickup. "Honey, I don't think that's your grandpa. That man's too young. You'd better stay with me."
She refused to give credence to the fear that clawed at her throat. Had this man bought the land from her husband's father?
The man must have seen them, because he got in the pickup and drove down the drive to them.
"Are you coming to the ranch?"
The man looked to be in his early thirties, with dark-brown hair under a Stetson. A typical rancher, she thought. But was he an owner? "Yes, if if it still belongs to Tom Ransom."
Her sigh of relief was audible. "If you don't mind, we'd appreciate a ride to the house."
He nodded toward the passenger seat. "Get in."
She helped Brady climb into the truck and then pulled herself and her baby up, feeling old beyond her years.
"I'm Elizabeth Ransom. I've come to visit my father-in-law."
"You're Reggie Ransom's wife?" There was shock in his voice.
"He told his father about us?" she asked, feeling pleased.
"No, ma'am. If Tom had known you'd existed, he'd have brought you out here a long time ago."
So much for her good feelings. "I I hope he'll at least let us stay a few days."
The man only grunted.
He said nothing until they'd pulled up in front of the house. A large house, huge in comparison to the tiny one-bedroom apartment in which they'd lived.
"I'll come get you down," the man said gruffly. He hopped down and then came around to her door. "Hey, little guy, you want to come over here and let me help you down?"
"Okay," Brady said, climbing over his mother's knees. "Will you catch me?"
"Sure I will." When he took the boy to the porch, Brady looked at his mother.
In spite of her tiredness, Elizabeth scooted down off the high seat.
"I'll go tell Tom you're here." He turned back. "Just a minute. Where are your bags?"
"W-we left the bags in the grass by the front gate."
She followed him inside the back door, into the kitchen. Looking around the room, recently updated and spacious, she hungered for such a lovely working environment.
The man came back to the kitchen. "Tom's waiting."
"Thank you. Brady, let's go meet your grandfather." She took the boy's hand as he moved closer to her.
She followed the man down a long hallway, realizing for the first time that she never got his name. He stopped at the last door and opened it.
Elizabeth stepped into a large bedroom, where a man sat in a wing back chair in front of a glowing fireplace. He looked to be in his sixties, with a receding hairline pushing back his graying brown hair.
"Mr. Ransom," she whispered. "I'm Elizabeth Ransom, your son's widow. This is my our son, Brady, and our daughter, Jennifer."
"Come in, Elizabeth," he said in a small voice. "I'm glad to meet you."
"Thank you, sir. I'm pleased to meet you."
Tom shifted his gaze to the boy. "Brady? Come here, boy. You look like your daddy when he was your age."
"Yeah. And the little one?" he asked Elizabeth. "How old is she?"
"She was born six weeks ago."
"You doing all right? It's tough to make a trip when your baby is that young."
"Yes, she came a little early because of of the news I received."
"Tom, I hate to interrupt but I need to go get their bags." She'd almost forgotten that the man she'd met out on the driveway was in the room. "They left them in the grass by the gate."
"Okay, Jack, thanks."
At least now she knew his name. Jack.
When the door closed behind him, she knew the time had come to make her plea.
"Mr. Ransom, I'm here because " She ducked her head, unable to make eye contact. "Because I need help. I'll be able to get a teaching job for the next semester but but I don't know how we'll make it until then. I wondered if the kids and I could stay here."
"But he was doing well, wasn't he?" There was such sadness in the man's voice.
"I don't know. He sent me money every once in a while, but not often."
"So he left you broke?"
She pressed her lips together and dug in her purse. "Here's my copy of our marriage certificate. Yes, he left me broke."
"I'm sorry." Did she detect a note of anger in his tone? "I know he made a lot of money. He shouldn't have left you broke."
"I can get a job when the new semester starts, sir. It won't be forever that we'll hang on to your sleeve. I promise"
Tom held up a hand. "Don't worry about it. I've got lots of room here. Stay as long as you want."
Elizabeth blinked away the tears. "Thank you. I can keep the kitchen clean and do the housework while we're here."
"We usually have a lady come in to clean once a week."
"Who does your cooking?"
"Me and Jack just manage. We take turns, and sometimes we eat in the bunkhouse."
"I don't want to intrude, but I could cook for you."
"Don't feel you have to."
She smiled. "I'd be pleased to cook for you, Mr. Ransom."
"Let's make it first names, Elizabeth."
"Thank you, Tom."
He stood up and held out his hand. "Welcome home."
Jack Crawford revved the engine of the pickup as he wended down the driveway from the house. He'd seen the look on Tom's face when he laid eyes on his grandson. His old friend had been hooked like a fish at sunrise.
He shut the engine at the gate and got out to search for the woman's bags. Why would she hide them in the weeds? Probably so she wouldn't look too needy when she came to the door.
Instead she stood there, looking maternal, holding her son's hand and her daughter against her chest. The firelight had cast highlights on her light-brown hair and illuminated her tall, thin frame.
Not that Tom would notice those things about her. He'd been too focused on the kids.
Jack knew Tom Ransom too well. Beneath that crusty cowboy exterior beat the heart of the most righteous, kind and honorable man he knew.
Tom would do the right thing.
Starting today, the Ransom Ranch would have three new boarders.
Maybe the kids were just what Tom needed to come out of the funk he'd fallen into since his wife's death and his son's departure. He'd lost interest in the ranch years ago, then lost interest in most everything. If it hadn't been for Jack, he would've sold the ranch long ago. Jack had been making it viable, turning a profit on the 2500-acre cattle ranch, and keeping Tom going at the same time.
But now ?
No, Jack couldn't blame Tom. The woman and her kids were family, after all.
But where did that leave him?
"I've got your bags. Where do they go?"
Elizabeth started at the sound of Jack's deep voice behind her. She turned from the cabinets where she was checking out the cooking supplies. "I don't know. I didn't ask Tom."
He started for the hallway. "Come on. I'll find places for you. He needs to get some rest."
She gave him a troubled stare, then followed him. Beside her, Brady picked up the diaper bag. "I can carry this one, Mommy."
"That's wonderful of you, Brady. Your sister will be glad to have her bag with us." She followed Jack up the stairs. "Tom said we could live here for a while," she told him.
"Yeah, I thought he would."
"I offered to cook for the two of you. He said you took turns and sometimes ate in the bunkhouse. Which would you prefer?"
He swung around and gave her a studied look. He didn't exude the warmth she'd found in Tom.
"It depends. How well do you cook?"
She straightened. "I've been told I'm good."
Jack's eyes swept her, as if sizing her up. Before he could reply, Brady spoke up. "Mommy's pancakes are really good!"
"Is that so?" he asked, never taking his eyes off Elizabeth.
"Yeah, they're yummy. Baby doesn't eat them, but Mommy makes them for me."
"That's good enough for me. I'm up for pancakes."
"But we don't eat pancakes for dinner, Brady," Elizabeth reminded her boy, grateful for the diversion.
"What do we have for dinner, Mommy?"
"I don't know, sweetie. I'll have to see what they have."
"Trust me," Jack said. "We have everything you need."
There was something in the way he said it that made her think he wasn't talking about food. She cleared her throat and changed the subject. "What room shall we take?"