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Brad Logan was late.
He should have left his friend's wedding back in Pinedale hours ago, and now he was still twenty miles away from home. His brother would be angry if he woke up Abby. Though they had a couple months to go before being born, the twins in her belly were already not letting her sleep.
Because he was speeding by, Brad almost missed the flicker in the pasture to the left, a bit of land the Logans rented from the government. Braking to a stop, he backed up to see if it could be true. He thought everyone knew not to have a campfire on government land.
There it was, almost hidden behind a small hill. He had to snuff it out.
His headlights picked up tire tracks leading off the macadam. Following the tracks, he came upon a darkened old car and the offending campfire right beside it.
Only after parking his truck and walking up to the fire did he notice the young woman who sat beside it, obviously in deep thought.
Startled, she jumped, losing her balance on the rock on which she sat. Getting up, she dusted off her rear, sputtering, "Wh-who are you?"
"The name's Brad Logan. My family rents this land from the government. You're not allowed to camp here. And you're definitely not allowed to have a campfire."
"We're not doing any harm."
"Lady, it's been a dry year. We can't take any risks of a forest fire. I'm sorry, but the fire has to go." He kicked dirt onto the fire, but the woman stopped him.
"If you knew how long it took me to get that fire started, you wouldn't so cavalierly destroy it!"
He shook off her hand. "Look, you don't even have any business being out here. We've had bears down this low. What would you do if a bear attacked you? You need to go back to Pinedale and get a motel room."
"No! No, I can't!" The woman appeared distraught.
"I don't Money is tight!"
"There's a campground at Yellowstone. I doubt they're crowded on an October night."
"Uh, yes, thank you."
Something in her face told him she wouldn't be going to Yellowstone, despite her verbal acceptance. Wherever she went, he couldn't leave her here.
"Do you have any water?"
"Yes." She turned toward her darkened car.
"I need it to be sure the fire is completely out."
Disbelief shone on her face when she spun on her heel. "You're going to pour it on the fire? I don't have much and the kids will need it in the morning."
His eyes darted around the car. "You've got kids here?"
She gave a brief nod, backing away from him. "Look, we'll go, but I need what water I have."
"Where are the kids?"
"Lady, you need to do a better job raising your kids!"
"And you need to mind your own business!"
Not knowing what else to do, Brad took out his cell phone and called the sheriff. After filling him in, he asked, "Shall I bring her in?"
He was watching the woman as he spoke and when he mentioned taking her in, her eyes opened wide and she immediately began gathering the few things she had out. "We'll be on our way!"
Before she could reach her car, such as it was, Brad caught her arm. "The sheriff said for me to bring you in."
"But we haven't done anything!"
"Then you won't mind talking to the sheriff, will you?"
"Yes, I do mind. I don't want to leave the kids."
"Of course not. We'll take them with us
in my truck."
"No! I can't leave my car here!"
"If the sheriff says it's okay, I'll bring you back in the morning."
He walked over to the old car and looked through the window to see two kids sleeping in the two seats.
"Where were you going to sleep?" he asked the woman.
"That's none of your business!"
He opened the car door, waking the children. "Hi, kids. Your mom has agreed to come to our ranch for the night. Is that okay with you?"
A small girl, maybe eight or nine, and a little boy who looked to be about five, the same age as his nephew Robbie, stared at him.
The children looked out for their mother, and he realized he'd never introduced himself. "Sorry, I forgot to tell you who I am. My name's Brad. We'll take my truck to the ranch. Okay?"
"Is that your truck?" the little boy asked, getting on his knees and looking out the window.
"Yeah. Do you like trucks?"
He nodded. "I can ride in yours?"
"Sure. Ask your mom."
"But she's not here."
Brad turned to look at the young woman. "She's not your mother?"
"No," the little boy said sadly.
Just what the hell was happening here? Brad wondered. Not wanting to upset the boy, he said calmly, "Well, buddy, why don't you come ride with me? She'll follow us."
"Will you come, Sarah?"
"Yes, Davy, I'll follow you. I'm not leaving you behind."
The little girl got out of the car and moved to Sarah's side. "Sarah, I don't think you should let Davy go with him. We don't know him."
She put her arm around the girl and smiled. "It's all right, Anna. We're going to follow right behind."
Then the woman moved closer to Brad and whispered, "Don't even think of trying to take Davy from me."
"I won't, as long as you follow me."
She moved away from him and hugged the boy. Then she and the girl got in the old car and started the engine.
Brad helped the little boy into his truck and fastened the seat belt for him. "Davy, I'm glad you're going to ride with me. I don't like riding alone."
"Okay, we'll be home in twenty minutes."
But after five minutes, he noticed the woman Sarahwasn't behind him. He made a U-turn and found her car dead on the side of the road. "Davy, I need to see if I can help her. Sit here."
When he got to the car, Sarah had tears running down her cheeks.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Quickly she wiped her tears away. "I'm fine."
"Do you know what's wrong with your car?"
"Okay, why don't you and Anna come get in my truck with Davy. We'll see what we can do about your car tomorrow."
"Wewe need our suitcases."
"Where are they?"
"In the trunk. I'll get them."
Despite her independence, Brad retrieved the two suitcases from the trunk and put them in his truck.
"Here, Anna, let me help you up," Brad said to the little girl. Then he turned to the young woman, but Sarah had already climbed up into the backseat.
"Put your seat belts on," he directed as he got behind the wheel. "We'll be at the ranch in a few minutes." He pulled out onto the highway.
None of his three passengers responded. The children looked like they'd gone to sleep, but he could see Sarah watching his reflection in the rearview. When his eyes met hers on the mirror, she diverted her gaze.
She looked to be in her early twenties, with light brown hair that framed her face and fell to her shoulders. Her eyes were big, though in the dark he couldn't detect a color. Under ordinary circumstances, Brad suspected it would be a beautiful face, but right now worry and tension had painted dark circles under her eyes and tightened her mouth.
He wanted to ask Sarah who the children were to her, and why they were in her care, but he gave her her way and was silent for the rest of the ride.
When he got to the house, he turned to her with an arm across the seat and said, "My sister-in-law is seven months pregnant with twins. She has trouble getting back to sleep if she wakes up, so I'd appreciate it if you're quiet."
Sarah got out of the truck and helped Anna down. Then she opened Davy's door and helped the little boy.
"What are we doing here?" the woman asked. "I thought you were taking me to talk to the sheriff."
He'd taken her to the Logan ranch, his home. The sheriff, who happened to be his mother's second husband, had agreed to meet him there.
"This is my family's ranch. The sheriff's meeting us here. That's his car."
At the mention of the sheriff, her face seemed to blanch. "Are you all right?"
Her eyes, when she looked at him, were dark brown. "We didn't do anything wrong."
For some reason he felt compelled to reassure her. Maybe it was the way she obviously cared for the children, or because he'd discovered a soft spot for damsels in distress. Either way, he motioned with his hand for her to follow him.
He opened the door to the kitchen and allowed Sarah and the children to enter. The sheriff was sitting at the big oak table. "Mike, this is Sarah, Anna and Davy."
Mike stood. In his early fifties and with gray hair, he still cut a formidable figure. "Hello. I'm Mike Dunleavy, the County Sheriff. Have a seat. Would you like some coffee?" He nodded toward the counter, where he'd obviously put on a fresh pot as soon as Brad had called.
"No, thanks. But c-could the kids have some milk?" Sarah asked, as if asking a big favor.
Brad spoke up. "Of course. I'll get it."
After he had delivered the two glasses to the children, Mike began his questioning. He started with her name.
"Are you on vacation?" he asked Sarah.
She pressed her lips together. Then she said, "Sort of. I lost my job andand we decided to move."
"And those are your only bags? Your only belongings?"
She kept her gaze lowered. "Yes."
"Are these your children?"
Again she hesitated. Only this time it seemed minutes had passed before she finally shook her head.
"Where are their parents?"
"Anna and Davy are my half siblings. Our mother died recently."
Mike raised his brows. "I'm sorry," he said in a gentler tone. "It must be hard for you. For all of you."
Sitting across from her, Brad saw the tears form in her eyes. If she was lying, she was a damn good actress.
The little boy, who'd been quietly sitting, drinking his milk, slid from his chair and tugged on her sleeve. "I'm sleepy, Sarah."
She took Davy into her lap. Anna scooted her chair close to Sarah and leaned against her, too.
Again Brad was struck by the tenderness that Sarah displayed toward the children. He couldn't help but feel sorry for the kids. "Davy, my nephew is about your age. He has an extra bed in his room upstairs. Would you like to sleep in it?"
Davy looked up at Sarah for permission. When she nodded, he asked Brad, "Won't he mind?"
"I doubt he'll wake up before morning. Come on. I'll show you." Brad led the little boy to the bedroom.
At the open door, Davy hesitated. "I think I want to go back to Sarah."
"Why don't you just lie down for a little while? Sarah's going to be fine."
After a moment's deliberation, the comfy bed won out. Davy climbed up into it and settled under the blanket. He glanced over at Robbie, still sound asleep in his own bed.
"Does he have a mommy?" Davy asked, pointing at the boy.
Brad nodded. "Uh-huh. My sister-in-law, Abby. She's asleep in another room with her husband, Nick. He's my older brother. He's in charge of this ranch."
The boy considered his reply. Then said, "My mommy's in heaven. My daddy killed her. He's in Denver."
Though he spoke the words quietly, they struck Brad with the force of a warrior. He had to hold onto the bedpost to keep from reeling back. Scores of questions assailed him, but he knew now was not the time to voice them. If what he said was true, this little boy had been through enough. He deserved to sleep like an angel. Sarah could answer the questions.