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"You could have given Maya some hope."
Jesse stiffened at the sound of Clay's quiet voice behind him.
The memory of their sister's stricken expression had seared Jesse's conscience. He knew he'd been out of line, but the last thing he needed was his younger brother beating him up about it.
He'd been doing a pretty good job of that all by himself.
"Maya's been worried sick since Tommy ran away," Clay pointed out. "All she needed was to hear you say you'd find her son and bring him home."
"I did say that."
"'I'll bring him home either way, Maya.'" Clay's voice deepened—an exaggerated imitation of Jesse's low baritone—as he recited the words Jesse had spoken just before leaving the house. "In my opinion, you could have left two little words out of that promise."
"I don't remember asking for your opinion." Jesse tightened the cinch on Saber's saddle before leading the gelding from the stall. "Is it fair to give Maya false hope?"
"Now, are you asking my opinion?"
Jesse scowled. Since Clay's unexpected return to High Plains a month ago, his brother claimed to have changed. Jesse didn't believe it for a second. Not when Clay still managed to get to him like a burr under a saddle blanket.
"Maya needed encouragement. Would it have been so hard to give her some instead of being… Mr. Gloom and Doom?"
Jesse felt the sting of the insult. "You're telling me what Maya needs?"
"I know I messed up by leaving." Clay met his gaze. "But that's all in the past now."
Clay's jaw tightened, the only outward sign that Jesse's words had found their mark. "If I remember correctly, you were always the glass half-full guy in the family."
That was before his glass got tipped over—and stepped on.
"I can't tell Maya that Tommy's all right if I don't know it's true." Jesse wanted to believe they'd find Tommy safe and sound. The whole family—Jesse included—had embraced the precocious little boy. Even before Maya had married Gregory Garrison, and they'd started formal adoption proceedings, Tommy had become part of the family. As far as Jesse was concerned, signing the adoption papers was merely a formality. He'd been "Uncle Jesse" for months.
But he had to deal with facts, whether anyone else wanted to or not. And the facts—that Tommy was only six years old and had been missing for three days—didn't exactly tip the balance in their favor.
When they'd discovered Tommy had run away, volunteer search parties formed immediately, to comb the area. Colt Ridgeway even arranged for a search-and-rescue dog to aid in the effort. But the ranch's vast acreage—ordinarily a source of pride for Jesse—had worked against them.
After Tommy disappeared, Maya had taken a quick inventory and found that he'd taken some food, his coat and a backpack. The discovery had eased their minds—for the first twenty-four hours. But as resourceful as the little guy had proven to be, a coat wasn't enough to ward off the December wind penetrating the sheepskin lining of Jesse's jacket. And food eventually ran out….
Jesse decided to change the subject before he said something else he might regret. "Be sure to tell Nicki that I appreciate her willingness to watch the triplets again today, while I look for Tommy."
"She knows." There was a glint in Clay's eyes. "And don't you mean while we look for Tommy?"
Jesse stepped out of the barn and stopped short at the sight of Sundance, an ornery pinto mare, saddled up and ready to go. Her pinned ears let him know she wasn't very happy about the situation.
He hesitated, tempted to change his plan in order to watch Sundance send his brother into orbit. Maybe another time. "You remember the lay of the land. It would make sense for you to take another group out."
"It might," Clay agreed. "But I'm going with you."
"I'll make better time by myself."
A shadow crossed Clay's face, but then he shrugged. "Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto."
"And Edgar Bergen had Charlie McCarthy," Jesse muttered.
"Do I need to remind you that I'm a grown man and 'you're not the boss of me' anymore?"
Hearing the familiar quip made Jesse's lips twitch. Clay had hurled those words at him frequently while growing up. There was a reason he'd wanted to break away from the rest of the search parties and go it alone. But for some reason, Jesse found himself giving in.
The gleam of laughter in his brother's eyes brought back memories of a time when they'd actually been at ease in each other's company. Before Clay dove into teenage rebellion and turned his back on everything Jesse believed in.
They'd come to an uneasy truce at Thanksgiving, when Clay asked if he could move back to the ranch. Jesse guessed the request had something to do with the lovesick look in his brother's eye whenever his new fiancée, Nicki Appleton, came into view, but some things were hard to let go of. Clay had walked away from his birthright once before. What was to say he wouldn't do it again?
As they passed the house, Jesse saw Maya step out onto the wide front porch. Regret sawed against his conscience again. Not because he'd spoken the truth but because it had hurt his sister.
"Give her some hope," Clay had said.
How could Jesse explain that he and hope had parted company six months ago? If the road to hope led to disappointment, what was the point?
By the time they reached the gate, Maya was waiting for them.
Jesse had to force himself to look his sister in the eye.
When he did, the light he saw shining there was a far cry from the worry that had darkened those eyes earlier.
"Michael just called." Maya no longer referred to the minister of High Plains Community Church—her new husband's cousin—by his formal title. "He and Heather Waters are organizing a candlelight prayer vigil for Tommy this evening. He said the people who can't physically join in the search felt led to join together and pray. I know you and Clay are going to find him today, Jesse. I can feel it. God is going to show you the way."
Jesse tried to hide his frustration. Maya's faith had always been her North Star, pointing toward the truth. Not too long ago, his sister's unwavering conviction would have challenged him. Strengthened him. But now the only thing her words stirred inside of Jesse were the ashes of what remained of his dreams.
"Keep believing, Maya." Clay came up alongside her. He leaned over the saddle and pulled her into his arms, ruffling her hair as if she were Tommy's age. "God knows exactly where Tommy is. And you're right. We're going to find him. By nine o'clock tonight you'll be tucking him into bed."
Jesse wanted to put a muzzle on his brother. How could Clay get Maya's hopes up like that? Was he the only person in Kansas who was willing to face things the way they were, instead of the way he wanted them to be?
Maya aimed a grateful look at Clay and her smile came out in full force. For the first time in three days.
Jesse clicked his tongue and Saber agreeably stepped forward. The minute they passed through the gate, he nudged the gelding into a canter.
Unfortunately, Clay caught up to him before Jesse's temper had time to cool. "Was that really necessary?"
Clay didn't pretend to misunderstand him. "Yes."
"You shouldn't let her hope for the best."
"And you shouldn't let her imagine the worst," Clay retorted.
Hadn't they already had this conversation?
Jesse wondered if they'd ever see eye to eye on anything.
He tamped down his anger, bit his tongue and forced himself to focus on the reason he'd teamed up with Clay in the first place.
After the boy disappeared, the county sheriff had organized the search, dividing up Jesse's property on a map and assigning each group of volunteers a certain section. Given Tommy's age and size, they'd started close to the ranch house and gradually expanded the search to include the hills and grazing land.
The teams had met back at the ranch after a fruitless search earlier that morning, and when the sheriff instructed everyone to recheck the areas they'd already searched, a shiver of unease had skated through Jesse.
Staring down at the map, he had had an overwhelming urge to scrap the grid and go with his gut. And his gut told him not to waste time covering the same ground again.
He just hadn't expected his brother to tag along.
They rode in silence until Jesse turned his horse down a worn cow path.
"Where are we going?"
"The river," Jesse replied curtly.
To his surprise, his prodigal brother followed without a peep. Accustomed to Clay chafing every time Jesse took the lead, he found he couldn't let that slide. "No argument? No 'do you really think a kid Tommy's age could have made it that far on his own'?"
Jesse twisted around in the saddle to stare at his brother.
"It's a long shot," Clay continued. "I mean, you went to the cave on horseback and Tommy is on foot."
Jesse's mouth dropped open. "Cave?"
"Oh, don't look so surprised. It wasn't much of a secret. I followed you there all the time."
"You followed me." Jesse couldn't believe it. He'd been certain the secret hiding place he'd discovered had actually been a secret.
The ranch had been his playground as a child, and he'd explored every inch of it. And not always with his parents' permission or his siblings' knowledge, either. At least, he thought it had been without his siblings' knowledge.
"Of course I did." Clay's shoulder lifted in a casual shrug. "But I knew you wanted to be alone, so I let you think you were."
Wanted to be alone…
Bits and pieces of a conversation he'd had with Tommy suddenly trickled through Jesse's memory like the beginning of a rock slide. And then it all came crashing back.
Thanksgiving Day, Tommy had complained that Layla, Maya's three-year-old daughter, was always following him. In the name of male bonding, Jesse had sympathized and told Tommy that his irritation was perfectly normal. He confided that as a boy he also had times when he needed to get away from his younger sister and brother.
"Did you go to your room and lock the door?" Tommy had asked.
Jesse had laughed at the question. He and Clay had always shared a bedroom, so there'dbeenno privacy there.
That's when he mentioned his favorite "thinking spot" had been a secret cave, its location marked by a strange U-shaped tree whose roots formed the ceiling of the hideaway.
Jesse's mouth suddenly felt as dry as dust. What he'd failed to mention to Tommy was that the last time he'd checked the cave—about five years ago—it had collapsed.
"Jesse? What's wrong?"
Instead of answering, Jesse urged Saber down the hill.
"I really appreciate you helping out at the last minute, Lori."
"I'm glad you called." Lori Martin flashed a quick smile in Nicki Appleton's direction as she peeled off her coat and hung it on a colorful, rainbow-shaped wall peg. "I worked today and missed the e-mail about the prayer vigil."
"Reverend Garrison pulled it together pretty quickly, but when I offered to oversee the nursery tonight, I had no idea there'd be such a large turnout." Nicki smiled and blew a wisp of curly blond hair out of her eyes. "I definitely have my hands full in here. I'll give you a choice, though, since you came to my rescue tonight. Do you want to give the triplets their bottles or play demolition derby with the boys over there in the corner?"
Instinctively Lori moved toward the three infant seats arranged in a semicircle on the floor where Nicki sat. Sure enough, there were the Logan girls, a trio of adorable little blossoms dressed in various shades of pink.
She hadn't seen them since October, when she'd volunteered to take a turn in the nursery during the morning worship service. She'd been thrilled at how much the girls had changed—but a little taken aback that the strong connection she'd felt for them hadn't.
As a nurse who provided specialized care for premature infants, Lori walked a fine line between providing the best care possible while not letting herself get too emotionally attached. But from the moment she'd witnessed those tiny girls in the incubator, she'd fallen in love.
Maybe it was because Marie Logan, the babies' mother, had spent more time sipping coffee and flipping through magazines in the family lounge than she had sitting next to her daughters' cribs.
Lori tried to be understanding. It was never easy for a new mother to be released from the hospital and have to leave her children behind. But right from the beginning, Marie seemed to be consumed with her own needs rather than the needs of her daughters. She treated the nursing staff as if they were her personal servants, and her constant criticism frequently brought the aides to tears.
At the end of one particularly stressful morning, Lori took Marie aside and asked if she could pray with her. Marie's bitter response chilled her.
"The reason I'm here is because God is punishing me for my mistakes. It's not like He's going to listen to anything I have to say."
Before Lori had a chance to convince Marie that wasn't true, the woman had fled from the room. Several days later, Marie's body was recovered in the wreckage from the tornado.
Rumors flew around the pediatric ward that Marie had left her husband and the babies shortly before the tornado struck High Plains. Lori didn't want to believe it, but the day Jesse Logan had arrived to take the triplets home, she'd seen the truth etched in the deep lines fanning out from his eyes.
Midnight-blue eyes that were a perfect match to the ones staring solemnly up at her.
"I'll feed the triplets." Lori reached for Sasha and was rewarded with a beautiful heart-melting baby grin.
Only three and a half pounds at birth, Sasha had been the smallest of the trio. She'd also fought the hardest to survive.
By the time Sasha left the hospital—a full week after her two sisters—she'd stolen the hearts of the entire nursing staff.
"Are you sure?" Nicki raised a teasing brow. "They remind me of a nest of baby birds who all want their dinner at the same time."
"I help, too." A bright-eyed, pajama-clad toddler drifted over and hugged Nicki's arm.
"That's the truth." Nicki gave her foster daughter an affectionate squeeze. "Kasey has been a big help with the babies over the past few days."
Lori grinned as Sasha latched on to the bottle with both hands, as if she hadn't eaten for days. "When did you start taking care of the Logans?"
"It's not permanent. I've been helping out with the girls while Clay and Jesse look for Tommy Jacobs." Nicki's expression clouded. "That's why they organized the prayer vigil tonight. He's been missing for three days and… it's taking a toll on the family."
Lori imagined that was an understatement.