- 27. The Widow’s Rancher – 26
- 28. The Widow’s Rancher – 27
- 29. The Widow’s Rancher – 28
- 30. The Widow’s Rancher – 29
- 31. The Widow’s Rancher – 30
- 32. The Widow’s Rancher – 31
- 33. The Widow’s Rancher – 32
NADIA picked up the pile of clean clothes she recently finished ironing and made her way upstairs. For once silence filled the house, being the time of day when Diggory and the boys were still out finishing the chores, but too early for her and Katy to start preparing the evening meal.
When she reached the landing, she moved along the hall until she came to Sissy’s bedroom. Her heart wrenched for the poor girl after the scene in the garden this afternoon.
She knocked on the door and twisted the handle a few seconds later, careful to be quiet in case Sissy had fallen asleep. She’d gone off to her room to practise her reading after she delivered Dawnie and Ed their drinks and slices of cake earlier. Nadia expected her to hang around the barn with them the same way she did most afternoons, but instead she returned to the house and retired to her room.
But when Nadia pushed open the door and stepped inside she found the room empty except for one of the two kittens Tynan had presented to Sissy during the first week of her stay. The sheets and blankets on the bed were still neat and unrumpled from when she’d made it this morning.
Nadia turned around, hoping to find the girl tucked up in the chair by the window, but there was no sign of her.
Apprehension whispered over Nadia’s senses. She walked over to the wardrobe and opened the heavy wooden door. Her heart sank at the lack of clothes inside. The new green cotton dress and matching hat she’d bought Sissy in town a few days ago were missing. Her shoes were gone, too.
Nadia’s gaze went to the chair again and this time she noticed the china doll Diggory gifted Sissy after a trip to town was also missing.
Nadia scanned the room again and this time registered the disappearance of the blanket from the bottom of the bed. The only thing Sissy had insisted on taking when she left her father’s shack. It had been made by her mother when Sissy was a little girl and she always kept it close.
A horrible realisation hung heavy in Nadia’s chest. Sissy had run away. Nadia guessed the place the girl intended to head for was the last place she should go.
She dropped the clean washing on to the bed, ran from the room and hurried down the staircase, her heart drumming in her chest. Only one person, she believed, could make everything right. Only one man she trusted to bring her girl home.
She shot out of the front door and hurried across the porch, scanning the yard for her husband.
“Diggory! Where are you?”
Diggory turned in the entrance of the barn at the sound of Nadia yelling his name. Not finishing his conversation with his foreman, he hurried across the yard as she ran in his direction. He caught her in his arms, noting the anxiety and terror lining her features.
“It’s Sissy. She gone.”
“What do you mean gone?”
“She witnessed the awful scene between me and Miss Moore this afternoon. She heard the way the woman referred to her parents. The awful things she said. Sissy was upset, but I told her to ignore Rebecca and Hester. I knew she was distressed but I never thought she would run away.”
“Are you sure she has?” he asked as worry transmitted into his own stomach. “Have you checked she’s not around the place somewhere? Perhaps she’s visiting the new puppies in the small barn.”
Nadia shook her head.
“Her dress and hat are missing from the wardrobe. And her blanket. Diggory, it is precious to her. It’s all she has of her mother. I know she’s run away. I just know it.”
Diggory pulled her to him, squeezing her for a moment.
“I’ll find her, Nadia. I’ll bring her home. Do you think she’s returned to your cabin?”
“She’ll go back to the shack. Please, you have to stop her. She can’t return to her father. He’ll hurt her, I know he will. She’s scared of him, Diggory. I’m certain he beats her . . .”
Dawnie appeared from nowhere, his face set and determined.
“I’m coming with you.”
Diggory placed a brief kiss on Nadia’s forehead, wanting to reassure her.
“Dawnie, go saddle the horses. We’ll head for Nadia’s first and then the shack. If she’s not at either place we’ll split up.”
“We want to help, too.” Alfred and several other men came forward, all of their faces full of worry.
Diggory took charge.
“Spread out and check the barns in case she’s hiding. There’s a chance she might just want to be alone with her thoughts.”
“What should I do?” Nadia asked.
“Stay here and wait. She may come back. If she does, she’ll need you. When the boys come home tell them what’s happened. Hopefully one of us will be back with Sissy before then.”
Nadia’s heart ached at the notion of Sissy alone and upset. Her eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, Diggory. It’s my fault. I should have talked to her.”
He wrapped her in his embrace once again.
“We’ll find her, darling, I swear. Then you can talk all you want. I’ll search the whole countryside if I need to.”
He kissed her again, then left her on the porch. Five minutes later, he and Dawnie rode out of the yard. The sound of the horses’ hooves pounding the dry ground echoed in the yard.