Despite her mother's
warnings, Jenny Matley returns to her birth town to meet the father she
didn't know existed accompanied by her father's representative, Jared
Russell. Joy turns to terror for both Jenny and Jared as the memory of
a twenty-seven year old event struggles to the surface. Its revelation
could cost Jenny her life and destroy the love Jared and Jenny have
found in each other.
scratched the back of his neck where his dark hair scuffed the collar
of his shirt. He sure could do with a haircut. He wondered if he could
slink out the back door to get one. Frankly, he didn't know how much
more of this he could stand.
Why in the
world did Martin
Ducane drag him into this? Sure they were friends and business
associates. And, yes, Jared had known Martin since the day Jared was
born. But this was crossing a line. This was personal, family business.
his weary eyes. Bullshit.
That's not what bothered him. Their families had always been
close...personal didn't matter. It was the fact Jared knew Martin
wanted his support and approval, and that wasn't something Jared could
give in this situation. Nope, he had to agree with Martin's sister on
He opened his
eyes on another
sigh. Verna Ducane hovered over her brother, fists on slender hips,
neck jerking forward with every word. She looked like a chicken gone
haywire. Jared would have laughed if things hadn't been so serious.
is the most absurd
idea I've ever heard. Surely you can't be serious?"
bobbed hair and gave Martin her back. It was an old ploy meant to
belittle the wheelchair-bound man. But Martin simply stared up at her
calmly through golden brown eyes bracketed by laugh lines.
In fact, if
Verna would only
turn around, she'd see the amusement flickering there. It was Martin's
defense against the fates that had put him in this situation
thirty-four years ago. That and his patience were hard won, Jared knew.
He admired the man for many things, but mostly for his honesty on this
and his triumph over his own demons. His refusal to feel denigrated
only made Verna angrier and more frustrated.
toward Jared, neck
working overtime. "You talk to him. Tell him how crazy this is." She
jerked her arm at her brother.
into space while he
pondered a response to diffuse the situation.
Verna snapped her fists to her sides
turned Martin's way.
He definitely sympathized with the sixty-year-old man. Losing one of
his kids would kill him. And, just like Martin, he'd leave no stone
unturned until he found that child. But
how much you want
to find Jenny, but I think you may be opening yourself up for a lot of
before her brother,
resting her palms on the stubs of his thighs. Tears puddled in her
Martin. How can you expect to find her after twenty-seven years?"
her and gave
Jared a look so filled with pain Jared winced.
you do if one of
your kids disappeared? Wouldn't you use every resource available if it
were your child? Cody's almost the same age as Jenny was when I lost
her. Just how would you feel if he disappeared?"
What could he
say when he'd
argued those same points with himself just seconds ago?
to her feet. All
pretense of sympathy disappeared. "For crying out loud, Martin, you act
as though the child was kidnapped. Her mother ran off with her. I told
you Audrey was no good before you married her. You should've divorced
her the day she ran off. Why have you bothered to continue the
marriage? She was only after your money."
stretched himself to his
full height and let his six-two intimidate her as she had tried to do
with Martin. "If she was after his money, why would she run away?"
Her reply was
a flustered stomp
of her foot as she turned away to stare out the patio doors. She acted
fourteen, not fifty-eight.
call turned him
back to the older man who looked haunted, sad. It took all the
willpower Jared possessed not to break eye contact.
"You've got to
been trying to find Jenny and Audrey ever since they left. I've
exhausted every means available to me with no luck. I have to try this.
It's my last hope."
From her perch
by the patio
doors, Verna snorted.
shoulders sagged. What
more could he do? Martin's mind was set. He was going through with this
no matter what. The least Jared could do was support him.
understand. Probably more
than you realize. And, even though I don't necessarily agree with your
decision to have the story told on nationwide TV, I'll support you all
"Will you go on the show with me to tell what you know about that
condition." He sat
on the edge of the coffee table next to him.
He let his
hands dangle between
his knees, but never broke eye contact. "Deanna and I discussed this a
lot before she died. We decided the only way to effectively protect you
from treasure hunters was for me to screen anyone who claims to be
"God bless both of you for caring. I agree."
He added a
smile Jared didn't
return. Martin had to know he meant business.
I'd hate to fight
with you about this."
chuckled. "I don't know
why. With that determined look on your face, you'd probably win." He
pulled back. "The crew will be here day after tomorrow to film...about
nine in the morning."
Frank's death will
serve no purpose," Verna snapped out. When they merely stared at her,
she muttered a curse and stormed from the room. The tension went with
at Martin to see
if he felt it, too. Martin just stared at the space vacated by his
there are still times
I can't believe she's gone." His voice was sad, far away.
"Well, maybe this time you'll find her."
a gaze his way.
"I wasn't talking about Jenny. I was talking about Deanna."
settled over Jared
like a blanket on a hot summer day. It happened every time someone
brought up his wife's death. He knew he'd never really get over losing
Deanna. After all, he had loved her for twenty years. But, considering
how much she'd been suffering, he couldn't help feeling she was better
off passing away.
almost a year now,
the emotion from
his throat. "Margaret will be a year old in three weeks."
A sigh heaved
shoulders. "At least she died the way she wanted to. I miss her, but
I'm glad she's not suffering anymore."
too." He glanced at
the grandfather clock in the corner of the airy living room as it
chimed the hour of four. "I've got to get back to the ranch. I'll see
you Wednesday morning."
Martin saw him
to the door.
Their discussions now centered on business at Jared's cattle ranch and
the oil wells Martin's company had drilled there. But Jared's mind and
heart weren't with him. Bringing up Deanna had left him in a solemn
mood. During the thirty-minute drive home, his thoughts stayed with
her. Grief gnawed a fresh hole in his stomach.
was supposed to
last forever. They were to have children, build their ranch and oil
business, see their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and grow to
an indeterminate old age before slipping gracefully into infinity
together. Fate had a different agenda.
inoperable brain tumor shortly after Cody's second birthday, ruining
all their dreams. In helpless agony, he'd watched his beloved wife
struggle with the increasing pain. She slowly wasted away.
was too good or too
expensive. Despite what doctors said, Jared tried everything to cure
her until, one tearful evening, Deanna put a stop to it all. She wanted
to die with dignity and the request she made of Jared sparked one of
their biggest arguments.
In the end she
managed to win. That same evening Deanna's wishes were granted as Jared
reluctantly set out to make her pregnant. It became a nightly ritual
until her pregnancy was confirmed. Her doctors insisted on abortion,
explaining that pregnancy in her debilitated condition would kill her.
Deanna steadfastly refused. She was going to die anyway; why not do so
bringing new life into the world?
Jared got none
of the joy or
expectation out of the pregnancy that he had when his other five
children were born. He couldn't forget this child's birth would take
from him the woman he had loved.
At times he
himself blaming Deanna, the child, and himself for what was to happen.
His feelings did an abrupt turn the day Margaret was born. Deanna
summoned the strength to birth her fourth daughter, then smiled with
affection when the infant was placed on her belly.
grasped her husband's
hand, and Jared swore he detected an ethereal glow about her face.
more pain. Jared,
the pain is gone! I feel so good. It's beautiful, honey. So beautiful."
She closed her
eyes and drifted
away from him.
No more pain.
alone made everything worthwhile. Deanna died the way she wanted, her
pain was gone, and she'd left behind a beautiful baby daughter. It
somehow made her inevitable loss easier for him and the children to
away tears as he
pulled into the driveway of his sprawling one-story brick house. The
kids sure didn't need to see him crying. They had their own grief to
work through without being burdened by his. Plastering on a smile, he
pushed open the door of his Dodge Ram 4x4.
four-year-old Cody were playing catch in the front yard. Cody dropped
his mitt and sprinted toward his father. His tousled blond hair flapped
in the wind. Looked like someone else could do with a haircut, too.
approached more slowly.
Jared reached down to scoop up the boy then smiled at his oldest
daughter. She was the image of her mother with flowing waves of
chestnut hair framing a delicate heart-shaped face and dark blue eyes
that danced with humor. She was going to be a wonderful woman.
"How was your
"It was pretty
good." A smirk
lifted one corner of her mouth as she cast a shy gaze to the freshly
mowed lawn at her feet. "Guess what?"
could answer, Brad
bounded from the barn. He wiped sweat from his forehead with the back
of his arm. "Hey, Dad, did you hear? Isn't it great? Imagine, my sister
the homecoming princess of her class."
her older brother
a glare then reached up and twisted her finger around a lock of his
mahogany hair. She tugged at it hard enough to make a point.
"Big mouth. I
haven't told him
while he extricated
his hair from her grasp. "Don't be upset with me, Kath. Can I help it
if I'm proud of my little baby sister?"
Russell, you make me so mad." With narrowed eyes, she shoved her face
in front of his. "I'm barely one year younger than you. That doesn't
make me your little baby sister."
the baby sister,"
Cody reminded them all. The other three laughed.
is." Jared set
him on his feet. "Nice job on the yard, Brad... Homecoming princess,
huh?" He swooped Kathleen into a hug.
"And I bet she
thumped his chest.
"Looks like we
have a busy month
ahead." Jared tucked her under his arm.
around. "And don't
forget the county fair."
Jared gave him
smile. "I haven't forgotten."
How could he
forget when all
twelve-year-old Colleen had talked about for months was entering her
calf in the county fair? And Leona had been moping over which preserves
to enter in the canning competition.
At that moment
lumbered to the front porch. Her large, black body took up a good
portion of the doorway.
come eat this
dinner or do I throw it out?" She waddled back inside without waiting
for a reply.
ever carry out
that threat?" Brad asked.
here almost three
years and hasn't yet." Jared waved them toward the house. "But let's
not tempt fate."
Colleen." Cody dashed
to the barn a short distance away. Seemed like the boy was always on
the move, even in his sleep.
"Pam's in one
of her moods again
tonight." Brad fell in step beside them.
and studied the
ground while he rubbed the back of his neck. How could he deal with a
troubled eight-year-old who missed her mother? He sure had no answers,
and his patience was wearing thin.
He saw her the
moment he crossed
the threshold. The double doors to the living room were open and Pam
was sprawled on the floor watching television.
But she made no
move to join them.
to the television
and turned it off, earning a scathing look from his daughter.
"I said now."
reluctantly pushed herself
to her feet and scuffed her way to the dining room-kitchen area across
the hall. Jared followed her pouty departure, fighting the urge to
paddle her with each step.
appeared in the archway,
Margaret flashed him a crooked grin from her highchair. His anger
herself into her
chair, and he took his seat beside the baby. As he sat, Margaret began
a chorus of excited "Daddys," the two small house dogs hovered around
his chair, and the four yard dogs took a stance by the glass doors to
the patio. Another meal in the Russell house was about to begin.
itself was nothing to
brag about--Leona only to knew how to fry meat--but at least they were
filled their plates with fried chicken and mashed potatoes. "She said
she wants to bake Margaret's birthday cake if you don't mind, Dad."
"I'll call her
"I don't see
why nasty, old
Margaret has to have a birthday party anyway." Pam pushed peas around
Jared tried to
feeding Margaret, not his mounting irritation. "We celebrate your
birthday. Why shouldn't we celebrate hers?"
her fork to her
plate. Peas and mashed potatoes catapulted across the table. "Because
Margaret is a murderer! She killed my mother! I hate her!"
a menacing stare
in her direction. "You know that's not true. Your mother was dying long
before Margaret came along. Margaret is a gift your mother gave us
before she had to leave."
"Then God can
take Margaret and
give me back my mother." Tears pooled in her angry blue eyes.
really hurt Momma if
she heard you say that," Colleen quietly replied as she picked up peas.
Pam hung her
head. Tears fell to
her lap. The discussion was over for now, but Jared was certain it
would come up again.
silence at the table
for the next several minutes while each person concentrated on food and
Pam sniffled. Leaving Margaret to her own determined way of shoving
food in her mouth, Jared turned to his own meal and tried to lighten
"Looks like I
might be on TV in
a couple of weeks." The comment served its purpose. Even Pam looked up
"Are you gonna
be a TV star?"
Cody's face brightened.
chuckled. "No, nothing
like that. You know that show that helps solve crimes and find missing
Well, Martin contacted the producer in the hope of finding his
daughter, Jenny. They'll be here day after tomorrow to film and I told
Martin I'd tell what I remember about that night."
"She's my age.
I seen her
picture," Cody said.
her head. "Cody,
that picture is real old. It was taken when Dad was a kid. Jenny is all
grown up now."
she's old as Dad?"
out a laugh. "Yes,
as ancient as me."
"Oh, Dad, you
know what we
mean." Kathleen restored order to Pam's plate, then focused on her own
meal. "What do you remember about that night? Weren't you and she
were. I used to help
babysit her. Our parents were good friends even then." He shoved a
forkful of potatoes in his mouth.
"So what do
you remember?" Brad
leaned forward, waiting for an answer.
that over. What
could he recall about the night Frank Ducane died and Audrey Ducane
disappeared with Jenny? Was it enough to help Martin find his daughter?
For some reason he never could clearly remember that night. Trying to
dredge up the memories always made him feel...well, odd. Fearful?
Vulnerable? Just plain bad?
He tried to
shrug off his
unease. He'd promised Martin and couldn't go back on that now.
stares that awaited
his response, Jared focused on his plate.
"Well, let me
see... There was a
bad storm that night. Your granddad and Martin were out of town on
business. Grandma, Aunt Claire, and I decided to stay at the Ducanes to
weather out the storm. The electricity went out. Jenny wanted to sleep
with me because she was scared. But when a big clap of thunder hit, she
wanted her mother. I took her there.
Verna were on the
landing outside Audrey's bedroom. The sliding doors were shattered.
Jenny started screaming. My mother told me Frank Ducane had fallen out
the window over the railing to the ground...he was dead. Next morning I
woke up and Jenny and Audrey were gone."
missing. Something else happened. But...what?
He crinkled his forehead as he tried to fill in the blanks.
to me." Brad
shrugged. "Maybe Audrey gave him a little push."
to say if you
didn't know her. Audrey was one of the gentlest women I ever knew." She
was always ready with a hug or praise. Always the first to boost the
ego of an awkward thirteen-year-old.
"How can you
know if the person
you find is Jenny?" Colleen asked.
"I intend to
check her out
myself by asking to see her mother and any childhood photos she may
have. She also has an identifying scar."
asked in unison.
had inherited their
mother's sense of humor. No matter how the story came out, he was sure
to be teased. He cleared his throat and continued.
"She came down
the slide at the
park and landed on a broken beer bottle. She had to have stitches. It
left a crescent moon scar on her bottom."
erupted around the
"I doubt she'd
let you see it
now," Brad said.
will, if he pours on
that Russell charm." Kathleen nudged her toe against his leg.
his head and tried
to ignore them. After a few more jabs the badgering stopped.
"I hope the
show finds her. It's
really sad." Colleen propped her chin in her hand and sighed.
too...for Martin's sake."
his half-eaten meal
away. Flashes of that long ago night had ruined his appetite. Forcing a
smile he didn't feel, he helped Margaret find her mouth.
Maybe the show
would lead to
nothing. Maybe Audrey and Jenny were dead, too. His heart raced at that
thought and he quickly shoved it away. But imagining them here and
alive was just as unsettling.
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