“Hey,” the man called. “I need to talk to you.”
Julia walked faster. So did he. The stroller wheels slogged in the mud. Julia leaned into her task. Carson tried to help, clutching the handle with both mittens and pushing hard.
“I’m a reporter. I just want to ask you a few questions.” He increased his speed.
There was no way they’d get away with the stroller bogging down in the muck. Julia reached into the stroller and picked up the baby. “Run, Carson. I don’t think he’s a reporter.”
One glance at Carson told her he didn’t believe the man was with the press either. Carson darted for his house.
Clutching the baby to her chest, Julia broke into a run. There were no cars in any of the driveways between them and the house. No one was home from work yet.
At her side, Carson’s boots splashed in the mud. The little boy’s short legs couldn’t cover much ground, and Julia couldn’t go any faster carrying Faith. The man was gaining on them. AnnaBelle ran between them, barking. Julia’s lungs burned. She slipped in the mud and nearly went down.
“Hurry,” Carson cried. He grabbed her sleeve and pulled. Julia straightened out her legs, but she’d lost precious time. The man was closer. She could hear his ragged breathing as he sprinted toward her.
A whimper slid from her lips. Her shoes hit the pavement. A few seconds later, she heard his boots scrape asphalt. No! Barely thirty feet separated them.
What could she do?
He was going to catch them. They didn’t stand a chance of escape. Maybe if she slowed him down, Carson and Faith could get away. She couldn’t fight him off carrying the baby, and Carson had no chance against a full-grown man. AnnaBelle barked, but Julia doubted the retriever would attack.
“Carson.” Still running, she shoved the baby toward Carson. “Can you carry her?”
He nodded, stopping to take his sister before waddling toward the house with his heavy burden.
“Get help!” Julia moved between the man and the children. Facing the threat, she backed toward the house, praying that assistance came before the man hurt her. Her body shook. He ran closer. She trembled as her gaze locked on his face and registered his fury.
With her mind occupied with estate paperwork, Hannah flipped through financial statements at her brother’s desk. She reached for a paper clip. Lee kept them in a small, misshapen bowl at the edge of the blotter. To Daddy from Carson was carved into the cavity in sloppy, lopsided letters. The vessel was roughly formed, obviously by childish hands, and cracked, but Lee had displayed it proudly. Hannah surveyed the office. Where had he gotten the money? She couldn’t think he’d been involved in anything shady. Not Lee. But why had he indebted his family to buy this monstrosity of a house and lease a BMW? He’d never been concerned with prestige or image in the past. Had ambition finally snagged Lee the way it tugged at Hannah and Grant?
How could Lee be gone?
A sob slipped past her lips, and from there her control broke. She covered her face with her hands and fought the tears, but it was no use. Her breakdown had been building since she found out about her brother’s death. There was no holding it back now.
She reached for a tissue and blew her nose. Thankfully, Grant was out of the house, and Julia had taken the kids to the playground. Hannah would hate to be another source of sadness for Carson. The prospect of outdoor play had put him in a happy mood. A glance at the clock on the computer told her Grant could be back any time. She blotted her eyes. She needed to get it together. He needed her help, not one more person to cry all over him.
Most days it took all her effort to smile instead of swear. What happened to Lee was wrong on a base level. He was the good guy, kind and considerate. The one who’d visited Dad in the nursing home while the rest of the Barrett clan chased their dreams all over the globe. As far as Hannah traveled, she’d always known Lee was here. He had things covered. He was home base. She could return at any time and things would seem unchanged.
But that was all over. Lee was dead.
Pain welled up inside her chest, creating pressure that restricted her breaths. Since her mother died, it was fear of this feeling, this helplessness, this sense of all being lost that made her a loner. The fewer people she loved, the lower her risk of experiencing this overwhelming sadness again.
A frantic scream snapped her attention to the front window. She jumped up and crossed the tiny room. Fear gripped her belly like fingertips on a ledge at the sight though the glass. Beyond Lee’s driveway, Julia and Carson were running toward the house. A man chased them, gaining ground.
Hannah ran for the door. Her socks slid on the hardwood as she bolted down the hall and yanked open the front door. In the street ahead, Julia handed the baby to Carson. The girl put herself between the younger children and the threat. The dog stood at Julia’s side, barking. Hannah leaped over the front steps.
Hell, no. He was not getting that girl.
Hannah burst forward, sprinting down the driveway toward the children.
The man whirled, taking off in the opposite direction. Hannah passed the children and chased him, anger fueling her long legs. Mud soaked through her socks. She cranked up her speed.
He cut across the park toward a white van. Hannah turned onto the grass just as he leaped into the vehicle and took off with the squeal of tires on pavement.
She stopped, shaded her eyes, and squinted at the license plate, but it was covered with mud.
She noted the make and model of the vehicle. Winded, Hannah wheezed back to the house. She needed to get back in shape. Julia and the kids huddled on Ellie Ross’s front porch. In front of them, Julia’s grandmother sat on the step. Nan’s booted, broken foot was extended on the concrete. A shotgun lay across her lap. With her left wrist in a brace, she gripped the gun with one hand, using her knee to hold up the barrel.
Hannah stopped on the walkway that curved to the steps. “Is everyone all right?”
Though fear shone in her eyes, Julia nodded over the baby’s head on her shoulder. Carson lunged off the step and threw his arms around Hannah’s waist. She hesitated, her hands hovering above his shoulders for a minute, before folding him into an awkward hug. The kind of love Carson offered terrified her with its strength and wholeheartedness. Was she capable of returning that much affection? What if she messed up?
Grant pulled into the driveway and jumped out of the minivan. “What happened?”
“Julia took us to the park. A man chased us.” In a single breath, Carson abandoned Hannah for Grant’s strong embrace.
Hannah was simultaneously disappointed and relieved.
“I’m calling the police.” Hannah turned toward the house, away from Grant and Carson and the baby clinging to Julia, away from the responsibility, the dependency.
“Already did that,” said Nan.
“Did you call Ellie?” Grant asked.
Nan shook her head. “No. She’s on her way home from dropping off some files at the office. I didn’t want her driving upset.”
Hannah eyed the shotgun across the older woman’s knees. She approved of the old lady’s spunk, but doubted Nan could even fire the gun if necessary.
“You bet I can fire it,” Nan said.
“Honey, I didn’t need to read your mind to know what you were thinking.” Nan held a hand out. “Would you be a dear and help me up?”
“You aren’t supposed to put any weight on that foot.” Grant set Carson down.
“It was an emergency.” Nan shrugged, but pain lined her face. She unloaded the gun, putting the shells into the pocket of her cardigan.
Grant scooped her off the step and turned toward his brother’s house. “Let’s all stick together. It’ll be easier when the police show up. Julia, could you get your grandmother’s crutches?”
Julia handed Faith to Hannah. She folded the baby close, trying to ignore how much she liked the scent of baby powder. Hannah had only been here a couple of days, and these kids were already burrowing into her heart. She was clearly not meant to be in charge of children. They’d been in her care for an hour, and she’d failed them. Grant couldn’t run one errand without Hannah putting the children in danger.
Clutching Faith close to her chest, Hannah herded Carson into his house. Grant went back to the adjoining family room and set Nan on the sofa. He stowed her shotgun on top of the refrigerator, out of Carson’s reach.
Hannah slid into a kitchen chair. Faith babbled in her ear. The baby wailed for ten hours every night for no reason, but being chased down the street by a strange man thrilled her.
Carson and Julia took chairs at the table, too. Grant crouched down in front of them. “You’re both all right?”
He removed Carson’s coat and boots and put them by the back door. Julia removed her outer garments as well. She shivered and sat next to her grandmother. Nan wrapped an arm around the girl’s shoulders.
“Somebody needs a change.” Grant took Faith out of the room.
Hannah looked down at her feet. Her formerly gray socks were black and soaked through. Her feet tingled, almost numb with cold. Mud spattered her jeans.
AnnaBelle announced the cop’s arrival with a bark and a wag.
Detective McNamara. The cop’s expression was shuttered, as usual. He’d kept his cool when she’d practically cross-examined him the other day, too. Didn’t anything tweak this guy? His gaze swept over the children at the table. Was that a spark of anger in his eyes? Maybe he did have emotions.
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