- 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
- 34. The Widow’s Rancher – 33
- 35. The Widow’s Rancher – 34
Nadia jumped up from the wicker chair, clutching the quilt Ed had wrapped around her earlier to keep out the worst of the night chill. She scrutinised the dark landscape in front of the house but saw nothing.
“How do you know?” she asked, not daring to hope but desperate for news. For over an hour, they’d sat waiting for the two men to return, every minute passing with agonising slowness.
“You can hear the horses if you listen,” Zachariah said, getting up out of his chair. All the Rorke boys waited with her on the porch for their father’s return, each of them worried over the young girl they’d taken into their hearts.
“There,” Ed said, pointing into the darkness with knowing eyes.
Nadia followed his gaze and finally made out the shadowy shape of two riders coming towards the house. Her heart thudded wildly in her chest as she sought a sign to indicate they’d found Sissy. Please God, she silently begged. Let them have found her. Please let her be well.
“Looks like all three are home,” Ed said, walking to the edge of the porch.
Hope and relief flooded her body when she saw the young female sitting in front of Diggory, his arms around her as he kept her in place on the moving horse. He’d found Sissy and brought her home − just the way he’d promised.
Her knees weakened and she almost fell back down on to the chair, but a strong arm wrapped around her shoulders and held her upright.
“All right, Ma,” a kind voice said above her head. “Why don’t you rest a minute until Pa gets here to take over? Don’t think he’ll be too pleased with us boys if we let you fall down now Sissy’s home.”
Nadia turned to Tynan with a thankful smile. The biggest of all the boys, he was the kindest.
“You called me Ma.”
“It’s what you are, isn’t it?” he asked with a smile. “Some women are born mothers, and I say you are one. Doesn’t seem to make a difference to you whether you birthed any of us or not. You’ve mothered us all since the day my father carried you through the door. Never suspected he had a romantic nature.”
Touched by his kind words, she smiled again.
“Thank you, Tynan.”
He glanced down at her, then his fingers nudged her shoulder.
“Have you got your strength yet? Because our little sister needs you, I think.”
She stiffened her knees and nodded, her attention going to Diggory and Dawnie as they pulled the horses to a stop. She unwound herself from the quilt and quickly descended the steps. She waited for Diggory to help Sissy down from his horse, before she rushed over and tugged the young girl into her arms.
“Oh, child, what were you thinking? Scaring us all.”
She wrapped the quilt around Sissy’s shivering body and pulled her close again. Relieved to have her in her arms once more, with closed eyes she breathed in the scent of the rose soap Sissy always used.
“I’m sorry, Miss Nadia,” Sissy began, embarrassment and regret clear in her voice.
“Hush. We’ll talk once we get you inside and fed. You must be starving.”
Diggory was standing in the glow of light from the porch, quietly watching them both.
“Where did you find her?”
“At your cabin, sitting on the porch struggling to make a decision whether to go inside for the night or come back here.”
“I wanted to come home,” Sissy mumbled into Nadia’s neck. “But it was getting dark and I was scared I’d lose my way. I thought if I went to your cabin, I could walk home in the morning once the sun came up.”
“And give us all a sleepless night fretting over you,” Nadia scolded gently. She hugged Sissy tighter. “Promise me you’ll never run away again. No matter what.” “Those women . . .” Sissy began.
“Are not important,” Diggory stated firmly. “If someone upsets you then you talk to me or Nadia. But you do not run away. Swear it to me.”
Sissy pulled away and looked over her shoulder at the man who had found her. “I promise, Mr Diggory. I’m sorry.” He nodded.
“I know. You told me plenty on the ride back.”
Nadia patted Sissy on the shoulder.
“Go on up to your room and change out of your clothes. Have a wash and get your nightclothes on. I’ll meet you in the kitchen with your supper. Not one of us has eaten.”
Sissy did as Nadia told her, only pausing to give Dawnie and the Rorke boys a small smile before going inside the house.
Nadia slumped as the emotions of the past few hours finally left her. Her girl was home and safe.
“Thank you, both of you.”
Diggory closed the space between them.
“It’s over, darling. She’s back here and well.”
“Was she really thinking of coming home?” Nadia asked.
The last thing she wanted to do was force Sissy to stay with them if she didn’t want to. She wanted to protect the girl, not imprison her.
“It was the first thing she said when we found her sitting on your porch crying her heart out. She just wanted to come home. You’re her shelter, her warmth. Hard to give up that kind of love at any age. Especially when you are young.”
He gave her a squeeze and then nodded to her to go inside the house.
“It’ll be fine. Trust me.”
She nodded, but paused as her foot touched the bottom porch step.
With a glance back at her husband, she said, “I do, Diggory. I trust you more than I have any person in my life.” Diggory smiled.
“I know you do.”