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John Murphy had just stoked the fire and returned to his well-worn leather chair with his newspaper in hand when an urgent knock at the front door had him twisting in surprise.
It was nearly ten o'clock at night and the rain was quickly turning to sleet. This storm was supposed to hit the California Sierra Nevadas pretty hard by dumping a load of snow in the high country and plenty of it even in the foothills, so anyone with any kind of sense knew better than to be out and about. A bad feeling settled in his gut. There was no one he could imagine who would venture into this storm without good reason.
"John? It's me, Gladys."
The sound of his neighbor's voice, thin and reedy, alarmed him. It was too late for house calls of an ordinary nature and Gladysafter going through surgery a few days priorshould've been in bed resting.
He opened the door and Gladys offered him a weak and somewhat pained smile as she and three little girls were ushered in from the biting cold.
"What the hell is going on?" he asked yet immediately guided Gladys to his leather chair. "What in the Sam Hill are you doing out in this storm in your condition? You just had surgery, woman. Are you trying to kill yourself?"
"Don't yell at her. It's not her fault," piped up the middle girl whose short stack of wild hair was matted to her head. The poor kid looked like a drowned pixie. She rubbed at her pert nose but stared John down with attitude. "Daddy didn't stay long enough to listen that she was sick."
John ran his hand through his hair. "And you are? And who's your daddy?"
"We're the Dollings and I'm Taylor," the little tyke proclaimed, ignoring the nervous jostling from her older sister to be quiet. "Who are you?" she asked without hesitation.
"John Murphy," he grunted in answer. "And your daddy?"
Gladys broke in with a grimace. "This is Alexis, Taylor and the little one is Chloe. Oh, John, it's the most deplorable situation and I didn't know what to do. Look at them, the poor chickpeas, they're practically frozen to the bone and wearing nothing more than rags. I could throttle that irresponsible boy for this!"
"Throttle who?" John was growing more perplexed by the moment, but Gladys was obviously distressed enough without his blustering adding to it so he tried for patience. "Tell me what's going on here."
Gladys compressed her lips to a fine line. "My sister's grandson, Jason, God rest her soul that she never saw how badly he turned out, just showed up on my doorstep with the girls, saying he couldn't handle it anymore and he needed me to keep them for a while until he got back on his feet. More likely so that he can be footloose and fancy-free, is what I think but before I could talk some sense into him, he was gone." Her gaze softened as she took in the children's forlorn appearance but when she turned to him again, her expression was full of worry and embarrassment. "I didn't know what to do. I don't want to take them to the authorities. They are my family, even if only distantly."
The littlest, she couldn't be more than three he wagered, sneezed and he realized they were still standing there soaked. He went to the hall closet and returned with three blankets. Giving one to each girl, he told them to warm up by the fire while he tried making sense of things with Gladys.
"Start from the beginning," he instructed in a low voice so as not to scare the kids. "Where is their father and when is he coming back? Or how about their mother for that matter? They have to have a mother somewhere."
"Daddy said Mommy left us," Taylor answered before Gladys could. John turned toward Taylor and she continued, bundled in the blanket, despite several attempts by her older sister to shush her. She glowered at her sister. "Well, that's what he said."
"It's no one's business," the older one said, adding in a low tone, "Especially no stranger."
John looked to Gladys. "He split? No number, nothing?"
"Nothing. He barely took time enough to push the girls out of the car with their bag and then was off again. I tried to stop him but he was too fast for me." That last part came out accompanied by a trembling lip and John knew Gladys was ashamed of her weakened state. Under normal circumstances the older woman was like a hurricane but the last year had been rough on her and her age was starting to slow her down. He patted her knee in some semblance of comfort but he was certainly caught in a bad spot. It was clear Gladys was loath to involve the authorities but she wasn't in any shape to care for the kids herself.
John eyed the older girl. "Alexis, right? I take it you're the oldest?" She nodded warily. "How old are you?" he asked.
Alexis raised her chin. "I'm nine, almost ten. Taylor is five and Chloe is three."
So incredibly young. Essentially abandoned. John was at a loss of what to do. The closest he'd ever come to babies or children were his nephews and they only visited on holidays. Frankly, he was about as equipped to deal with these kids as a dog was to teach a cat how to fetch. But he knew he couldn't very well toss them out on their ears. Gladys had come to him for help even though the old girl was a little addled if she thought he was her best option. The girls stared up at him, waiting, and he realized he couldn't just stand there scratching his head.
"You need to get out of those wet clothes. If you don't already have pneumonia, you will by tomorrow," he grumbled, wondering what he could possibly find to fit three little girls. "And then, I think we ought to call Sheriff Casey, she'll know what to do for you guys."
"We're girls," Taylor corrected him.
"Sorry. My mistake. You girls," he said, moving to the phone.
Gladys stopped him with a hand on his arm, beseeching him silently as she said, "I know it's what we should do but no one says we have to do it this very second. Let's wait to make that call. Maybe Jason will be back tomorrow and everything will work itself out on its own. No sense in dragging in outsiders if we don't have to."
"You sure?" he asked, torn between wanting to make that call and wanting to reassure Gladys that everything was going to be fine. She nodded and his shoulders tensed even though he let out a gusty sigh. He turned to the girls. "Looks like you're going to bunk here tonight until we get things figured out. Alexis, I need you to help your sisters get settled in. The little one looks about ready to fall over, she's so tired. You been driving all night with your daddy?"
"I thought so. Your great-aunt Gladys is real tired. She's not feeling good right now. What say we look at this problem with fresh eyes in the morning?"
"I guess." Her arm went around the baby protectively. "Where are we gonna sleep?" she asked after giving the entire room a quick once-over as if assessing the space herself. "That couch over there is big enough, I s'pose."
"There's no need for you girls to curl up on the couch. You can sleep in the guest bedroom. There's a bed big enough for the three of you. All right?"
"I seepy, Lexie." The little one's mouth stretched in a yawn so big it nearly knocked her over, then an awful, wet-sounding cough followed that John had a feeling needed antibiotics to clear up.
"She sick?" He gestured at the little one and Alexis picked up her baby sister as if to shield her, although as thin as all the girls were it just made the whole scene more pathetic and worrisome. "That cough doesn't sound good."
"It's just a cough. She'll be fine," Alexis said, but there was something in those blue eyes that told him she was more worried than she wanted to let on and it made him wonder how long that baby girl had been making those wet, gurgling sounds in her chest. His gut reaction told him she needed a doctor. And he was rarely wrong when his instincts started to clang like cowbells. But he didn't think it warranted a trip to the emergency so there wasn't much he could do about it until morning. He shot Gladys a meaningful look and she gave an imperceptible nod telling him she knew where his thoughts were going and agreed.
"Time to hit the hay," he said.
Gladys smiled her gratitude and sank a little farther into his chair as if it were swallowing her up and he shook his head at the circumstances. He'd always had a soft spot for lost critters and rehabilitating abused horses was part of his livelihood, but he never figured his tender side might catch him three lost little girls. "All right, Gladys, you ought to be in bed, too. You can take the other guest bedroom."
"Are you sure?" she asked, but her expression filled with ill-disguised relief. "I don't mean to be making trouble."
He helped her out of the chair. "Who are you kidding, old woman. You're nothing but trouble."
His comment elicited a weak chuckle as she allowed him to walk her down the hall and into the cold bedroom. He got her settled with a few extra blankets and as he turned to leave so she could change and climb into bed, her voice stopped him at the door frame. "Thank you, Johnny. I know this isn't your idea of a fun time. Tomorrow, we'll get out of your hair. I'll figure something out. It's not your problem and I'm sorry for dumping it in your lap. I panicked a little. I know I shouldn't have but, oh, what a mess."
He nodded but otherwise remained silent. Gladys was the closest thing he had to a mother. If she had a problem, it was his problem, too. "See you in the morning, Gladys," he said and shut the door.
Returning to the living room where the girls remained, color returning to their cheeks as the fire warmed their frozen little bodies, Alexis ventured forward, surprising him with her question.
"Mister " Alexis said hesitantly. "Before we go to bed do you got anything we could eat? Bread or something?"
"Let me guess no dinner?"
Alexis gave a short shake of her head but didn't elaborate. A curse danced behind his teeth as he picked up clearly what she hadn't said. Probably missed more than a few meals here and there judging by the sharp points of their shoulders. Neglect was a form of abuse, too. He'd saved more animals from the brink of starvation than he cared to count but seeing the evidence of neglect in children made his stomach clench with disgust. This was why he kept himself apart from nearly everyone except for the handful of family he had. On the whole, most people disappointed and annoyed him. In this case, he went way past annoyed and straight into pissed off.
"Follow me," he instructed, his voice gruffer than he intended and he winced inwardly as he saw the baby flinch, her rail-thin arms clutching at her sister's neck. Ah hell he cursed himself for scaring her. These kids were traumatized to varying degrees but he could see the baby was particularly jumpy. He needed to treat them as he would a traumatized horse. Voice calm yet firm. Trying again, he said, "Let's see what we can rustle up."
He walked to the kitchen and flipped the light as he went. Reaching into the fridge he pulled out the beans and rice that he'd made earlier in the day.
Alexis had set the baby down to come and peer into the pots as he put them on the stove to reheat. "What's this?" she asked, her eyes wary.
"Beans and rice. All I got on such short notice. Take it or leave it."
Chloe scrambled to the table and climbed into the chair despite the fact that it was way too big for her small frame. The thick oak chair nearly swallowed the toddler but she didn't seem to care as she eyed the pots with blatant desire. "I like beans," she said.
Taylor joined her sister. "Me, too."
John looked to Alexis but she was too busy checking out her surroundings. When she took her tentative spot at the table, he surmised that beans and rice were okay with her.
He grabbed three bowls, heaped a mound of rice and then dumped a ladleful of beans on top and handed the girls their dinner.
They shoveled the food into their mouths without reservation and as one bite cleared the spoon, they were digging in for the next. He wanted to ask when they'd eaten last but a part of him didn't want to know. It would just intensify the burn that was already stoking his temper.
He decided to keep them talking in the hopes that the food would distract them into divulging some details about their situation. "So, where you girls from?"
"Arizona," Taylor answered, scooping the last of her beans onto her spoon with her fingers. She looked to him with her empty bowl, her small tongue snaking out to lick her lips. "Is there more?"
Alexis looked up from her bowl. "Don't be a little piglet."
Taylor shot Alexis a scowl. "I'm no piglet. But I'm still hungry."
John smiled and took Taylor's bowl. "There's plenty more where that came from. I made extra this time around."
He handed Taylor her refilled bowl and focused on Alexis who seemed intent on her supper yet John got the sense that she was covertly taking everything in.
"What's your mom's name?" he asked.
Alexis ignored John's question and, noticing that Chloe had stopped eating, pushed her bowl away. "We're tired. Can we go to bed now?"
"Chloe's not finished with her supper," he said.
Alexis squared her jaw but remained silent. He wondered what was going through her head.
Sighing, he decided this battle wasn't worth fighting. He wasn't going to get any answers tonight. He was looking into the face of a child who knew something about keeping secrets. He hated to think of what the kid was hiding from. "All right, no more questions. Bedtime."
The ranch house was plenty big enough for three small, uninvited guests and an elderly companion but the house rarely had so many people milling around, not since he and Evan were kids and their mom had once rented the extra rooms out to help make ends meet.