A Forever Kind of Love

KS Anderson

 

Chapter 1

Aidan Kelly stepped over the blackened remains of a kitchen chair and glanced back at his partner. “No doubt about it this time. Smell the hint of gasoline?”

Jeff Proust hunkered down, his gloved fingers sifting carefully through the rubble. “You’re right, there’s no way this was an accident. Do you think she set it herself?”

Aidan scanned the gutted kitchen again. “If she did start it, why didn’t she get out…why risk her own life? She was in really bad shape when the paramedics put her in the ambulance.”

“Talk is, she’s down to four boarders, so money’s probably tight.” Jeff stood up and pulled at his crotch. “Damn…I hate these new coveralls. They’re hotter ’n hell.”

“It’s your fault we got them,” Aidan retorted. “You bitched for years that no one knew we were investigators in our old ones.”

“Yeah…well…this denim is too heavy for Missouri summers. It’s only May, and I’m already roasting. The chief should have ordered those fancy red ones we saw at the convention in Nevada.”

Aidan pushed up his regulation white helmet. “If you’re finished with the fashion commentary, could we get back to work and figure out the point of ignition?”

“Kelly! You in there?”

Jeff shot Aidan a questioning look. “What in hell’s the chief doing here? You call him in?”

“Not me. In here, Chief,” Aidan shouted.

“Come outside for a minute, Kelly,” the chief yelled back. “I’m not suited up and I need to talk to you.”

Aidan frowned at his partner. “Wonder why he wants me. You’re senior man. You should be talking to him, not me.”

“He’d rather talk to the wall,” Jeff replied, grinning broadly. “From the day I married his sister, he’s done his damnedest to pretend I don’t exist.”

“Must make for interesting family get-togethers.”

“Tell me about it. You’d better hustle; he doesn’t sound too happy.”

Aidan handed his partner the incident clipboard and stepped cautiously through the blackened debris in the kitchen until he made it into the hallway. Once there, he spotted the dark silhouette of his boss standing in the open doorway at the entrance to the house. “What’s up, Chief?” Aidan asked as he strode toward him.

Without a word, Ben Miller, a tall, almost gaunt man with thick gray hair and matching mustache, gestured at Aidan to follow him. When Miller reached the farthest end of the covered porch that fronted the Victorian boardinghouse, he turned and waited, hands on hips, his mouth a grim line.

Aidan tensed, wondering what in hell he’d done. His boss was a tight-ass on a good day, and right now he looked ready to ream someone out. Aidan stopped a few feet from his boss and crossed his arms, tightening the navy material over his wide chest.

“I want answers,” Miller growled. “This is the third fire on this property in the last six weeks.” He pointed a finger in Kelly’s face. “You put the grass fire down to kids. Then a few weeks back when her shed burned down, you thought it might be insurance fraud. Now I get a call that Sarah Farnsworth’s kitchen is gutted, and the lady herself is unconscious in the hospital…maybe comatose. Still think she’s trying to rip off her insurance company?”

Aidan forced down his rising temper. “We’ve just started the investigation, Chief.”

“You’re not on goddamn trial here. Tell me what you have so far.”

Aidan rocked back on his heels, choosing his words carefully. “The boardinghouse has only four male tenants, so it’s at half capacity, and has been for the last six months. There’s still a slight smell of gasoline in the kitchen, so that’s likely the accelerant. At this point we’re calling this arson, suspect unknown.” He paused a moment. “Do you know anything about Sarah Farnsworth that might help us out?”

Chief Miller’s gaze narrowed to hard flint. “I’ve met the woman a few times. She approached me when she and Marnie Spencer decided to set up the soup kitchen downtown. She’s a smart woman and a good person. I can’t see her burning down her own kitchen for a few measly dollars.”

Aidan nodded and wisely kept his mouth shut.

“From what I hear, the only relative Ms. Farnsworth had in the area was her mother, and Lilah Farnsworth’s been dead for over ten years.” The chief ran a hand through his short-cropped hair. “Check around the house and see if you can find an address book. Maybe she has some other relative we can call. Poor woman’s going to need some support.”

“Will do, Chief,” Aidan said, stifling his jolt of surprise. Notifying relatives was not part of his job description. “If I do find any names, I’ll pass them on to Judy Spencer,” he added, referring to their station captain.

Miller’s nostrils flared. “Why? You think calling relatives is woman’s work—beneath you, Inspector?”

Aidan stiffened. “No sir.”

“Then get it done,” the chief snapped. “I want your preliminary report on my desk before the end of the day.” Without another word, he strode away.

Jeff stuck his head out the front door, and then ambled down the porch, a sly grin splitting his face. “Oo-whee! He’s sure in a snit. What in hell did you do?”

Aidan shook his head. “Damned if I know. He told me to search the house for information about possible relatives and make the notification.”

Jeff’s brows rose. “Really? You? That’s not protocol.”

“Exactly.” Aidan stared off in the distance, barely noticing the rest of the firefighters organizing the hoses and equipment around the truck. “Something’s off about this whole business.”

“You think we’ve got a firebug on our hands?”

Aidan frowned, his dark eyebrows drawn into a tight V over his brooding blue eyes. “Yeah…that too.”

“Well, what you don’t need is another ball-busting from the boss. I’ll focus on the fire; you get inside and see if you can find out if Sarah Farnsworth has any family.”

Aidan nodded and headed back inside.

* * * *

In the upstairs front bedroom, Aidan found a small leather address book in a night table by a queen-size four-poster bed. He sat down gingerly on the gold brocade comforter and opened the book. Flipping slowly through the pages, he recognized some names of people he knew, all residents of Wentsworth, Missouri, until he came to one unfamiliar name and address. “Burlington, Vermont,” he read aloud. “Halfway across the country.” He pulled out his cell phone, punched in the number, and leaned back to wait for Andrea Morgan to pick up.

* * * *

Dre Morgan reached into the box of her Ford F-150 pickup, lifted out two gallons of paint and winced, the protesting muscles in her upper arms reminding her she was due a long soak in a hot bath. She’d spent the last several days painting twelve-foot ceilings and her arms and back hadn’t stopped complaining all morning. After crossing the small parking lot, she ambled down Main Street and headed for Morgan’s Paint and Supplies, the family business started by her grandfather and now run by her father. One day it would probably be hers. Reaching the store, she glanced through the large front window and noticed it appeared empty. She gripped both cans in one hand and pushed through the door, calling out, “Where is everybody?”

“I’m in the back room,” a voice yelled back.

Setting the two cans on the service counter, she headed down an aisle toward an open doorway at the back of the display area. Once there, she grinned at the man lounging in an old swivel chair, his work boots resting on the edge of an oblong wooden table. “You not working today?”

“It’s a slow-moving day,” Richard Morgan drawled. “What’re you doing back so soon? I thought you’d be out at Mrs. Culpepper’s till suppertime.”

“That was the plan.” Pulling a ball cap off her head she swiped at a few loose blonde curls on her damp forehead. “Is it just me or is this hot for May? Maybe those idiots in Washington should come to Vermont if they want to talk about climate change. This has to be the hottest spring in years.”

“It’s just you.” Rich grinned and eased his feet to the floor. “You were born hot. It’s a beautiful New England morning, so stop your grousing.” He pointed to a large coffee pot on a nearby tray. “Want some?”

“Half a cup.” She pulled out one of the old wooden chairs at the table and sat down. “Where are the boys?”

“They got the contract to do that new apartment building on Salt Avenue. Jacob’s over there now, checking out the electrical, but Jon’s still up at the school. You wouldn’t believe the mess those kids made in the girls’ bathroom.”

“Oh yes I would,” she said drily. “I’m a girl—remember?”

Her father set a steaming cup of black coffee in front of her, his brown eyes teasing with banked laughter. “I have a vague recollection. When you bother to get out of the jeans and old shirts you always wear, you clean up pretty good.”

Dre snorted. “I’m a housepainter, Dad. I’d look pretty damn stupid if I showed up for work in a silk camisole and linen slacks.”

“Don’t swear, Andrea.” The laughter died in his eyes. “You know I don’t like it.”

“Sorry, Dad,” she said automatically. It was an old, ongoing battle between them, one that long ago lost its heat.

She blew into her steaming mug. “Where’s Granddad? The store was empty when I came in. Someone could walk right in and steal you blind.”

“In Burlington? I don’t think so.” Rich eased back in his creaking chair. “He’s out back, rummaging through the shed. He lost his favorite crescent wrench again.” He sipped his coffee, and then asked, “So, why aren’t you out at the Culpepper place? I thought you still had four rooms to do out there.”

She grimaced. “The lady of the house can’t make up her mind to save her life. She was adamant she wanted the ceilings in the dining room painted white, but now she wants them charcoal gray.”

“Gray? Didn’t you talk her into painting that room Balmoral red?”

“I did. The room will be spectacular if I ever get to the walls.”

“Gray ceilings will make it look—”

“Dark, dingy, dirty.” She nodded. “My thoughts exactly. After some arm twisting, I finally convinced her to let me paint the ceiling a warm almond. That’s why I’m back. I’ll add a tint to the white, and then get back out there before she changes her mind again.”

“I warned you about being a painter. If I had a dollar for every time—”

“A customer changed her mind about the color she wanted, you’d be rich. I know, I know.” She chuckled. “I like being a painter, Dad—even if some of my customers drive me insane. I know you wish I’d trained as a carpenter like you wanted, but isn’t it enough that I took that cabinetmaking course?”

“I suppose.” He shot her a contrite smile. “Are you ever sorry that you went to trade school instead of college? You had the marks. You could have—”

“Could have, would have—makes no difference.” She leaned forward and patted his hand. “Stop second-guessing yourself. You did the right thing by pushing us into trades. The boys and I are never out of work, even with the downturn in the economy. Do you know how many out-of-work college grads there are?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think my own failure to make a good living as a teacher colored my perspective. The boys are an easy fit in the trades, but I still worry about you.”

“Well, don’t,” she said, rising to her feet. “I love my life.” She picked up her mug, took a long swig of coffee, and headed for the sink. “I’m my own boss, I make good money painting other peoples’ houses, and I’m starting to build up a clientele for my tables.” She turned to him, smiling brightly. “Did I tell you I met the new doctor that joined the Montrose Clinic?”

“No. Does he want you to paint the clinic? It sure needs it.”

“No…we did not talk about painting the clinic. He saw the harvest table I built for Mrs. Foster and he wants me to do several custom pieces for his new house.”

“Custom pieces.” He whistled in appreciation. “That sounds expensive.”

“It will be.” She laughed as she rinsed out her mug. “Count on it. The man wants a twelve-foot dining table and it’s going to cost him a mint. He also wants—”

A soft ringing tone filled the room. She set down her mug and pulled a slim cell phone out of her front jean pocket. “That’s mine. Probably Mrs. Culpepper wanting to paint the ceiling avocado green.” Seconds later, after answering the call, she shot her father a puzzled look. “Who are you again?” She listened and shook her head. “I think you have the wrong number. I don’t know anyone in Wentsworth, Missouri. Why…?”

Her head jerked up when her father’s coffee cup shattered on the kitchen floor. Distracted by the noise, she didn’t hear the caller’s next words. “What was that you said?” She stiffened, her eyes widening. “Who did you say?” She shook her head slowly from side to side. “I can’t talk right now,” she managed to get out. “I’ll have to call you back.” She ended the call and stared at her father.

“Wentsworth, Missouri.” He ran a hand over his head, his face pale. “Your grandmother lived in Wentsworth, but she’s long gone. Was that your mother?”

“No…some guy calling from the Wentsworth Fire Department. The fire marshal’s office, I think he said.”

“Fire Department?” Rich scrambled to his feet. “What did he want?”

“I don’t know. When he asked me if I knew a Mrs. Sarah Farnsworth, I was so flustered, I didn’t know what to say.”

“Call him back,” he ordered. “Maybe something happened to her.”

The panic in her father’s voice caught Dre off-guard. She knew the bare bones of her parents’ divorce and always assumed her father had long forgotten her mother. She stared at him for another few seconds, wondering how much more she didn’t know, and then redialed. “Andrea Morgan here,” she said when the man answered. “When you called a few minutes ago you mentioned Sarah Farnsworth. Who are you again and what do you want with me?”

“My name is Aidan Kelly. I’m an inspector with the fire marshal’s division of the Wentsworth Fire Department. Do you know a woman named Sarah Farnsworth?”

“Sarah Farnsworth is my mother. Why? What’s wrong?”

“There was a fire at Ms. Farnsworth’s home. She’s been hospitalized.”

As she continued to listen to the deep, almost gravelly voice on the other end of the phone, Dre’s gaze sought her father’s. “I don’t see what I can do—”

“What you can do is fly out here to Missouri and be with your mother. She has no one else.”

Her lips tightened at the man’s tone. “Look, mister—what did you say your name was again?

“Inspector Kelly.”

“Yes, well, Inspector Kelly, I haven’t seen or heard from my mother in over twenty years, so I have no intention of rushing out to Missouri just because some stranger calls and tries to make me feel guilty.”

“Ma’am, she’s unconscious, maybe in a coma. We’re not sure when, or if, she’ll wake up.”

Dre wrapped an arm across her midriff and glared at the far wall. “I see.” Her mouth tightened as her mind raced. “Well…if I can get a flight, I’ll try to be there sometime tomorrow.” She listened a few seconds more and ended the call.

Rich took a step closer. “What happened?”

“Something wrong with one of the boys?” a gruff voice demanded. Lloyd Morgan, an older, more grizzled version of his son, stepped through the doorway, his gaze shifting back and forth between Dre and Rich. “What’s going on?”

“The boys are fine,” Rich assured him and shot Dre a hesitant look.

“A fire investigator with the Wentsworth, Missouri, Fire Department called me and—”

“Missouri! What’s he want calling here?”

“Granddad, if you’ll listen a moment I’ll tell you.” She took a deep breath. “There’s been a fire at Mom’s house and she’s been taken to the hospital. She’s unconscious, maybe in a coma.”

Lloyd Morgan glowered, his thick gray eyebrows beetling over his narrowed eyes. “So, why’d he call here?”

She shrugged. “Since Mom has no relatives in the area, he suggested I fly out there to be with her.”

“I hope you told him where to go,” Lloyd bellowed, his face flushing an alarming red.

“Calm down, Dad,” Rich said. “Do you need one of your blood pressure pills?”

“I don’t need any pills,” his father snapped, batting at the air. “Though, God knows, just thinking about that woman makes my blood boil.” His eyes homed in on his granddaughter. “Did you set him straight?”

Here it comesWorld War III. She took another deep breath. “I told him I’d take the first plane out.”

“You did not!” the old man roared.

“Dad, enough,” Rich admonished.

“You can’t let her go,” Lloyd said. “You know what that woman’s like. She’s a no-good, two-timing hussy who took drugs and abandoned her family. Why would you want Dre involved with the likes of that?”

Rich winced and rubbed at his forehead. “She wasn’t an addict, Dad. She just…dabbled a little.”

“Dabbled my eye,” Lloyd scoffed. “How many times did they have to pump her stomach?”

“Dad, don’t. Not now.” Rich took a step toward his daughter, his hand outstretched. “It’s not as bad as he’s saying.”

She frowned. “You told us she left because she wanted to be a singer.”

“Singer my eye!” Lloyd snarled. “She wanted men and drugs—in that order. The singing was just her excuse to get out of town.”

She stared at her grandfather for a telling moment, and then deliberately lowered her voice. “I’m sorry you’re upset, Granddad, but I am going to Missouri. Right now I have to get home and call the airlines.” She pointed a finger at her father. “But before I leave, you and I are going to sit down and have a long talk. It’s about time you told me the truth about my mother.”

“Long past time, if you ask me,” Lloyd interjected.

“For God’s sake, Dad!” Rich’s face was pale with apparent anger. “For once will you please butt out?”

Lloyd harrumphed and left the room.

Dre exhaled a long breath. “You’re going to pay for that.”

“Don’t I know it.” Her father dropped into his chair and closed his eyes.

“I meant what I said. We have to talk before I go.”

He opened his eyes and met her gaze. “Yeah…I guess it’s time. You sure about this? Going to see your mother, I mean?”

She shrugged. “Doesn’t seem like I have a choice. Apparently she has no one else.” She hesitated. “Unless…you want to go?”

His mouth tightened to a grim line. “That door closed a long time again. I have no intention of opening it again.”

“Something tells me there’s a lot more to this story than I ever supposed.” She leaned down and dropped a light kiss on her father’s cheek. “If I’m going to see her again after all these years I have to know the truth, Dad.”

“Which truth?” he asked, sounding old and weary. “Mine…or hers?”

“I’ll start with yours.” She took a few steps toward the door and then turned back. “You know, I don’t think I’d even recognize her if I passed her on the street.”

Her father exhaled a long breath. “Just look for a beautiful blonde surrounded by men. Chances are, that’s your mother.”

* * * *

Aidan put his cell phone away and headed back downstairs. At the entrance to the burned-out kitchen he told his partner, “I just spoke to a woman in Vermont by the name of Andrea Morgan.”

“Is she a relative?” Jeff asked.

“Turns out she’s Sarah Farnsworth’s grown-up daughter.”

Jeff whistled in surprise. “Is she coming here?”

Aidan shrugged. “Says she is, but I got the impression she wasn’t too pleased by my call. She said she’d be here sometime tomorrow, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Always the cynic where women are concerned.”

Aidan snorted. “For good reason, as you well know.” Hands on hips, he glanced around the kitchen and then pointed to the burned-out stove. “We have a fire pattern in that corner…and a hint of gasoline in the room. What have you figured out so far?”

“I’ll show you what I found.” Jeff hunkered down, his gloved hand sifting through a small pile of debris. He picked up a piece of burned cloth and held it up for Aidan to smell, and then pointed to the remains of a black pot. “Way I see it, he put the pot on the stove, probably filled it with cooking oil. Then he draped a dishcloth across the burners…probably soaked it in gasoline.” He glanced up, his narrowed gaze searching the empty window frame by the stove. “Maybe he pulled one end of the curtains off the rod, and let it drape down near the dishcloth…made a path for the fire to jump.”

Aidan nodded, following the path his partner was laying. “Makes sense. It’s sure starting to look like arson.”

“That’s my take. Considering this is the third fire on this property, I think we’ve got a firebug on our hands.”

Aidan pulled out his cell phone. “I’ll call the fire marshal and let him know.”

Jeff stood, a scowl darkening his face. “I hate those buggers with a passion.”

Aidan grinned. “You talking fire marshals or arsonists?”

Jeff grinned back. “We haven’t had a firebug around here in years. Let’s hope that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Those bastards only get meaner as time goes on.” He cocked his head. “What’s your take? You think Sarah Farnsworth’s behind this? For the insurance money, I mean?”

Aidan surveyed the mess and shook his head. “No…I just don’t see it. She’s in a coma, for Christ’s sake. Who would do that to herself?”

“So, who are we looking for?”

Aidan frowned. “Someone who knows her routine. I talked to one of the four men who live here—you know that reporter guy from New York who works for the Gazette?”

“You mean Darren Vasic?”

“That’s the one. He told me all the men are usually out of the house by nine, nine-thirty tops. He said on Thursdays, Sarah’s usually gone too, but this morning she had a touch of the flu and decided to stay home.”

“So…the house should have been empty.” Jeff scratched at his jaw. “Looks like we’re definitely looking for a firebug.”

“Right,” Aidan confirmed. “One with a grudge against Sarah Farnsworth.”

Jeff chuckled. “Hell…that could be half the women in the county.”

* * * *

Shortly after six, Dre parked in front of an old Federal-style brick house. Built by her great-grandfather, it was the house she’d been raised in as a child. Like generations of Morgans before her, the house was still home to three generations of her men. The house she couldn’t wait to move out of five years ago on her twenty-third birthday.

After phoning the airlines and dealing with an accommodating ticket agent, she’d managed to book a direct flight to Missouri from the airport in Burlington. In a matter of a few hours, including one time-zone change, she’d land at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport—the closest airport to Wentsworth, Missouri. She’d also booked a rental car and made a reservation at the St. Louis Renaissance, a hotel close by the airport.

After packing light and closing up her small apartment, she was ready to tackle her father.

Dressed in clean jeans and a short, lightweight leather jacket, her long blond hair loosely tied at her nape, she opened the back door and stepped into the warm kitchen that had always been the heart of the family home. She sniffed the air and smiled in appreciation at the delicious aroma of roast beef. “Any more of that left?” she asked the four men sitting around the table. “I forgot to eat.”

Jon, the younger of her brothers, and a curly-haired shorter version of his father, shot her a disbelieving look. “Like you conveniently forgot three nights last week?”

“The way you scrounge for food, you might as well move back in,” her other brother, Jacob, retorted. He grinned, revealing double dimples, and shoveled another bite of roast beef into his mouth.

Her father stood and dropped a kiss on her cheek. “Ignore these fools and sit yourself down. I’ll get you a plate.”

Settling into the chair by her father’s that had always been her spot, she grabbed a small bun from the bread basket and ripped it in two. “So, Jacob, I hear you and Jon will be doing the electrical and plumbing at the new doctor’s house.”

“How’d you know?” Jon asked, frowning. “We just finalized the deal this morning.”

She tossed him an enigmatic smile. “I hear things.”

“Spill,” Jacob demanded. “Did you get the contract to paint the place?”

“How’d you meet the guy?” Jon cut in.

“Whoa, one at a time.” She slathered butter on her bun. “To answer Jon’s question, Dr. Kane happened to see a table I made at a friend’s house and called me. So, last week I met him at his new house. While we were talking, I happened to mention that I also do contract painting. So, in addition to placing an order for three custom tables, he hired me to paint the interior of his house when the rest of the contractors are finished.” She paused, and shot her brothers a sly grin. “Oh…and I might have given you boys a plug.”

“And here I thought he hired us because he heard we did good work,” Jon groused.

“He did,” Dre agreed. “He heard it from me. So you owe me one.”

Her father placed a heaping plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, and fresh green beans in front of her. “Eat up. You know what airplane food is like.”

Both her brothers’ heads bobbed up.

Jacob shot her a quizzical look. “You going somewhere?”

“She’ll explain later,” Rich cut in. “Right now, let her eat.”

Ten minutes later, when her father offered her a piece of store-bought apple pie, she shook her head. “I’m stuffed. But I wouldn’t mind a word with you in private.”

He nodded and grabbed his mug. “Pour yourself a coffee and we can talk in my office.”

“In his office.” Jon grinned and nudged his brother. “Sounds serious. You on the carpet, Dre?”

“Mind your business,” Lloyd growled, interjecting his first words of the night. “You’ll find out what’s up soon enough.”

Jacob frowned. “I don’t like the sound of this. What’s going on, Dre?”

“Give me ten minutes to talk to Dad,” she said, pushing back her chair, “and then I’ll fill you in.”

* * * *

Rich settled into the chair behind his desk and leaned back. “What did that guy who called tell you about your mother’s condition?”

“Very little,” Dre replied. “Other than Mom’s in the hospital, apparently in a coma.” She stared at her father. “Your turn,” she prompted. “It’s about time you told me what happened between you and Mom.”

He seemed reluctant to meet her gaze. “I guess you have a right to know.” He rubbed his forehead for a moment and then looked up. “I hate to admit it, but your grandfather is right about your mother. She ran around on me almost from the day we married…did drugs…and even wrecked our first car when she was drunk. She got into all kinds of trouble.”

“Why didn’t you leave her?”

He shrugged. “I loved her. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but I really did. I was going to kick her out when you were about three, but we found out she was pregnant with Jacob, and that was that.”

“Why did you get married in the first place?”

He grinned sheepishly. “She was pregnant with you.”

Her eyes narrowed. “My fault then.”

“No, baby, no.” He leaned forward to grab her hand.

“Sorry, Dad. Bad joke. It’s just…I can’t picture you with someone like that.”

“Do you remember her at all?”

She shook her head. “Not really.”

He exhaled a long breath. “It wasn’t just that she was beautiful. She was exciting, brimming with sensuality. She captivated me from the moment we met.” He shook his head. “Unfortunately she had that effect on many men.”

She let a few seconds pass. “Why did she leave?”

“The truth? She hated living in this house with my parents, hated the fact that I made so little money as a teacher, hated being a wife, and…”

“Hated being a mother?”

“That too.” He shot her a sad smile. “Though she said she was leaving to make a career for herself as a singer.”

“A singer?” She frowned. “Funny…I don’t remember her ever singing to us. Was she any good?”

“No. That was the problem. She had lots of ambition and very little talent. I came home from work one day and she was gone. For the next two years she’d call now and then, but she never came back. Though I did go out west once to try and bring her home.”

“You did?” Her eyes widened.

A hint of red crept up his neck. “She’d been gone about two years when she called me from Las Vegas. I went out there and found her working in some dive on the edge of town.” He winced and looked away. “That’s when I knew it was over.”

She squeezed her father’s hand. “That bad?”

“Worse.” He hesitated, his voice dropping. “Granddad’s right…she was prostituting herself. Men were pounding on the door the whole time I was there.” He shook his head in distaste. “I gave her the thousand dollars she wheedled out of me, and came home and filed for a divorce.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t go out there,” she whispered. “I don’t want to dredge all this up again.”

“No, you have to go.” He pulled her to her feet. “But keep your wits about you, and don’t give her any money. She’ll suck you dry if you do.”

“How much should we tell the boys?”

“Just the bare bones. No need for them to know more than that.”

She nodded and followed her father back into the kitchen.

“Well?” Jacob asked.

Dre sat down and told them about the call. “This inspector wants somebody to go out there and take responsibility for Mom until she’s on her feet again.” She grinned at her brothers. “And I guess that would be me.”

When they offered to go with her, she shook her head. “You’re both up to your eyeballs in work. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything.”

Her grandfather cleared his throat, his gaze locked on Dre. “You be careful around that woman. Keep your eyes open and your wallet closed.”

When Rich groaned his father waved him off. “It’s time these kids know the truth. You hid it from them long enough. She may have given birth to them, but Sarah Farnsworth was no kind of mother.” He glared at his son for a long, telling moment. “You weren’t the only one she hurt. It near killed your mother the way that woman treated her. Maybe you forgot, but I never have.” The old man stood on quavering legs and moved around the table. Bending down, he hugged his granddaughter, a rarity for him. “Take care of yourself,” he whispered, “and come home safe.”

Eyes stinging with unshed tears, Dre stood and smiled at her men. “I have a plane to catch, so I’d better go.” She kissed each in turn and headed for the door.

“I’ll walk you out,” her father offered.

“No, don’t. I’ll call you tomorrow night as soon as I’m settled.” With a final wave, she left the room.

Lloyd glared at his son. “It’s a mistake to let her go.”

Rich shrugged. “I couldn’t talk her out of it.”

The old man noisily cleared his throat. “Let’s hope that woman doesn’t get her claws into our girl.”

Rich frowned. “Dre’s smarter than that.”

Lloyd snorted. “That’s what I said about you.”