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Instead of attending to China and Khy, Baird bore down on her. "What happened to Ariel?" he demanded.
Cullen McKay stepped protectively between them. "It's not as if any of this is Ardith's fault."
"Get out of my way," Northcross said with a snarl and pushed past McKay.
Ardith steeled herself to confront him, raising her head, feeling her cheeks burn with fresh emotion.
"Is Ariel really dead?" he demanded.
"Yes," she confirmed.
"Goddamnit, Ardith, tell me what happened."
Ardith had honed the words as if they were a blade, whetting the edges until they gleamed, until she was sure that when she wielded them they would slice down to the core of him. But as she opened her mouth to speak, she became aware of the children weeping only a few feet away.
She wasn't the kind of person who could deliberately destroy a man, was she? Especially in front of his children. Yet the temptation was fierce, a long-banked fire burst into flame. He'd earned this; he deserved it.
Still, she hesitated. Then she deliberately blunted the thrust, fumbling for other words, less damning words. "I--I think it's best that we discuss this later."
He might not care what the children heard, but Ardith did. She didn't want them hurt by something that was strictly between their father and her.
"We need to get everyone settled," she replied, glancing toward her niece and nephews. "I'll be glad to answer your questions later. In private."
The reason for her reluctance seemed to penetrate Baird's rancor. His shoulders shifted, losing a bit of their rigidity. "But why are you here?"
She swallowedhard, his ingratitude one more mark against him in the tally she was keeping. "I'm here because Ariel asked me to bring the children to Wyoming. It was her last request."
Baird's eyebrows angled down over the bridge of his nose. "You were with her when she died? I didn't know she meant to see you on her way through Boston."
Was it possible Baird didn't know she and Ariel had made their peace some years before, that they'd been corresponding? But then, he'd been gallivanting from one end of the world to the other. How much could he have known about Ariel's life?
"Ariel came to my uncle's home in Concord when she fell ill," Ardith explained, stepping forward to gather Khy up and dry his tears. She slid a comforting arm around China's waist.
"Hell, Northcross," Cullen McKay broke in. "Let the woman alone. She's gone to substantial difficulty to bring your children here to you. Show a little appreciation."
Baird scowled and turned back toward the house.
"Papa?" China asked, leaving the shelter of Ardith's embrace and taking his arm. "Papa, is this really going to be our new home?"
Baird looked down at his daughter as if he was not certain where she'd come from. Then, as if returning to himself, he nodded and led them across the narrow, covered porch. "Perhaps until fall."
Ardith couldn't help wondering if there wasn't going to be a good deal more to keeping her promise to Ariel than she'd ever anticipated.