Letters from Owen – Part Five, plain

Letters from Owen, Part Five

Copyright 2017 Tabatha L. Haddix

All rights reserved


Part One | Part TwoPart Three | Part Four

The House on Toad Hollow Road

The text from Jonah came early, barely past seven in the morning. Owen was already up and having some freshly brewed coffee as he thumbed through the online edition of his favorite local-ish newspaper. He’d popped one of Sarah’s breakfast casseroles in the oven when he got up, and it would be ready to come out soon—just in time for Sarah to come in and maybe some of the grandkids with her.

Though he was perfectly capable of cooking simple meals, they both liked something a bit heartier for breakfast these days. Ordinarily, one of the casseroles would feed them for close to a week, but today, with Easton, Colin, and Sadie in the house, Owen knew there wouldn’t be a scrap left.

“Maybe I should have gotten the fruit salad out from last night, too,” he mused as he picked up his phone. As he read Jonah’s message, he frowned. “Well. That’s interesting.”

“What is?” Sarah asked as she came into the kitchen.

Owen filled the mug he’d readied with cream, then passed it to her. “Jonah’s message. He’s found us something.”

She paused, curiosity lighting her eyes. “Oh? Where is it?”

Turning the phone around, Owen showed her the map. “Right next door to him and Molly.”

“Are you serious?” She took the phone. “How much land? How much money?”

“Thirty-six acres, small house that needs torn down or heavy rehab, a hair under two hundred grand.”

“And it’s right next door to them?” Sarah pulled her chair out and sank into it slowly.

“It hasn’t even officially hit the market yet.” A surge of excitement ran through him, and he watched Sarah, who was watching him with pursed lips. “Feel up to a trip?”

She laid the phone on the table and took a drink of the coffee. “What do you think?”

He laughed. “I’m excited. It may turn out to be nothing but…”

Sarah was shaking her head. “If it’s the place I’m thinking of, it’s not nothing. It’s something indeed. Remember that little house that sits on the hill, the one that the property fades back into a hollow behind it? Judging from that map and the picture he sent, I think that’s it.” A sparkle of pure giddiness lit her eyes. “Call him.”

Owen was already pulling up the phone app.

“Good morning, sir,” Jonah Sutton said as Owen put him on speaker. “I figured I’d hear from you sooner rather than later. How are things on the mountain?”

“Fine as frog’s hair. And in the valley?”

Their granddaughter Molly’s husband laughed. “Fair to middlin’. What do you think?”

“Is it really right next door to you all?” Sarah asked. “Is it the property with the house with the little hollow behind it? And why is it a hollow there in Tennessee, and a holler here in Kentucky?”

Jonah chuckled. “Yes to both, and I have no idea to the latter. The gentleman whose family has owned it for decades has decided to head for the warm, sunny beaches in Florida. He knew we’d been looking, so he came to me first. He’s planning to go to a realtor next week and list it.”

Sadie came into the kitchen just then, still half asleep from the looks of her. “What smells so good?” she asked just as a knock sounded on the front door. Reversing course, she headed down the hall, calling, “I’ll get it,” over her shoulder.

“Ten dollars says that’s Noah, come for the baby. I’m surprised he wasn’t here before dawn,” Owen murmured. To Jonah, he said, “How’s your schedule the next few days, yours and Molly’s?”

“She’s working today and tomorrow, off Friday, and I’m here at home, working in the shop. I have a deadline on a commissioned basket. That said, you know you’re always welcome here regardless of our work schedules.”

Owen knew better than to suggest they get a hotel room. “We might have some tagalongs.”

“We haven’t changed the layout of the house since you were here,” Jonah said, teasing. “There’s plenty of room. When are you coming down?”

He exchanged a glance with Sarah. “Let me call you back on that one once all the troops are assembled. Thanks for the heads up.”

“Yep. I’ll be around—just give me a buzz.”

Noah, Sophie, Easton, Colin, and Sadie came in as he was ending the call. Noah and Sophie were cooing over the baby as though they’d not seen her in weeks, never mind that it had been less than twelve hours since they’d left her with Easton.

Owen simply shook his head and shared an amused, knowing look with Sarah. “Do one of you kids mind getting the casserole out? It should be ready any second. And the fruit salad is in the fridge. Set that out, too.”

Colin and Easton moved to do the tasks as everyone else came to the round table where Owen and Sarah sat.

Sadie took the chair beside him, resting her head on her folded arms. “It’s too early to be awake,” she said around a yawn.

He brushed her hair back, marveling at how fast she was growing up. “You could have stayed in bed.”

“Nah. I might miss something.”

He chuckled, then looked across the table at his oldest grandson who was talking to the baby. “Is she in one piece, Noah?”

“Of course, but I do think she missed us,” he said. He nodded his thanks as Sophie handed him a jar of baby food and a spoon. “What do you all have going on this morning?”

“We were thinking of taking a trip, actually,” Sarah said. “We just spoke to Jonah. It looks like he’s found something.”

As though someone had pressed pause, all the activity in the room came to a halt, save Baby Owen, who was happily trying to stick her fingers in the jar of food.

Noah absently moved it out of her reach. “Property?”

Owen gave a single nod. “With a house that may or may not be habitable. It’s right next to Jonah and Molly.”

“Oh.” That was all. Noah was frowning.

After Noah’s baby sister had made her move to the little town of Burning Springs, Tennessee, permanent earlier in the year, Owen and Sarah had started visiting the area. The cold winters of Eastern Kentucky were starting to bother Sarah, and the place was close enough that they didn’t have to travel far, spending too many long hours in a car or plane to get there. If traffic was good, the trip could be made in under three hours.

Though he and Sarah had never seriously considered relocating, they’d both been surprised by how at-home they felt in the small town. The reasons for its appeal to Molly had been obvious immediately.

“It reminds me of how Hazard used to be,” Sarah had told him as they returned from their first trip south. “I’ve missed that thriving small-town feel. I didn’t realize how much until this week.”

To his everlasting shock, Owen discovered the same about himself. For a man who’d spent most of his life as something of a recluse, the insight was a bit startling.

After they’d returned home, they’d let that epiphany sink in. In late April, they’d returned to Burning Springs for Molly’s wedding. After the ceremony and reception had taken place at Molly and Jonah’s home—which was known locally as The Lodge—Owen and Sarah had surprised everyone by renting a cabin near the middle of town and staying for an additional three weeks.

By the time the stay was over, they were both enchanted with the area. Making the decision to look for a sizeable piece of property on which they could build a second home had been stunningly easy. Breaking the news to the family that they’d be moving for at least part of the year, on the other hand, had not.

“When are you heading down?” Sophie asked, her voice quiet.

“We’ve not decided yet,” Sarah replied. “Soon, though. Maybe even today. There’s no time to waste, especially with it being so close to Molly and Jonah. It’ll go on the market next week. We’re getting an early look because Jonah’s neighbor came to him first.”

“Do you want some company?” Colin said, coming over to stand beside the back door.

“Don’t you have to work?” Owen asked.

He sighed. “Probably. I think Em has some weddings we’re shooting this weekend.”

“I don’t have to work,” Sadie said with impertinence as she poured herself a short coffee, then added enough sugar to make Owen wince.

“Me, either,” Easton said as he got plates down. “Since the office is closed this week while Syd and Sawyer are on vacation with the kids, I’m free.”

Owen squeezed the back of Sadie’s neck. “There are two. What’s your schedule like?” he asked Noah.

“Tight. We’re finishing up a huge kitchen this week.” Noah owned a custom woodworking shop that he ran with his brother Eli. “Are you still thinking of building?”

“If the land suits, yes. We might get down there and see that the house is fine for another year, but if not, we’ll need to get a move on.”

“You sound awfully sure that this property will suit,” Noah said.

Sarah touched his arm. “Let’s all get some food.”

“Actually, I should go. Eli’s meeting me at the house to load up the trailer.” Noah handed Baby Owen to Sophie, giving them both kisses. “Love you. Have a good day.”

“Love you too,” Sophie told him. She glanced at Owen.

He was already on his feet, knowing this information was difficult for his grandson to take in. “I’ll walk you out.”

They didn’t say anything until they were standing beside each other on the porch. Looking at Noah was somewhat jolting now and again, as it was very much like a mirror peering into the past. Owen’s stamp—as Sarah liked to call it—was all over the boy. His build, the way  he stood, even the mannerisms he used when he was aggravated—like rubbing the back of his neck, which he was doing now—were carbon copies of Owen himself. Their similarities didn’t end with their looks, either. Of all his children and grandchildren, Noah was the most like Owen in personality and temperament. Owen understood very well the turmoil Noah was feeling right now.

“It’d be bad enough if you were thinking about moving to London, you know, and it’s only a hair over an hour away. But three hours…” Noah sighed. “It feels like the end of the world.”

Owen put his arm around Noah’s shoulders and hugged him close. “It’s a good town.”

“I know. And you’d only be there part of the time. Until you decide to stay, and then the mass exodus of Campbells starts. The whole family would be down there within two years, guarantee it, with the possible exception of Pip and her brood, and Ben and Ainsley.” He gazed out across the land.  “I always thought Sophie and I would raise our family here on this farm. Now though, I get the feeling we won’t be doing that. This move is going to be inevitable. Also, as I’m being ridiculous and emotional and all those things ordinarily reserved for women, I’m going to go use some power tools and hammer nails.”  He sent Owen a sardonic smile.

“I can’t argue with you that it’s inevitable,” Owen told him quietly. “This idea of establishing another house, even if it’s only for part of the year, it feels right. I never thought I’d say that.We might well get down there and discover we want to make it permanent. For right now, however, we’re going to be quasi snow birds. Sarah hurts too much here in the winter. It’d be stupid to stay here just because this is where we’ve always been.”

“I know. I’d never ask or expect you to do anything that hurts her. As I said, I’m being ridiculous.” Noah stretched. “In the end, it’ll work out. Too, if you really need me there, I’ll drop whatever I have to. I hope you know that.”

“I do. Go on and get to work. We’ll talk soon.”

As he watched Noah head toward the barn and the path behind it that led to his house a short way down the ridge, he sighed. “This isn’t going to be easy, but the right way isn’t always the easy way. I wish it could be.” But Owen hadn’t made it to his eighties and not learned that lesson the hard way. He knew the change would be worth the effort, however, and he was eager to actually get it underway.

~ * * * ~

With Sadie and Easton in tow, Owen and Sarah made their way to Tennessee, where they met with Orland Freel, the property owner.

“I’m old, and it’s too much work,” the sixty-seven-year-old said bluntly that evening. “I’m ready for some bikini-watching. The house isn’t in bad shape, but I’ve not put much into how it looks in the last ten or fifteen years. After my divorce, I stopped messing with gee-gaws and stuff.”

The house didn’t look terribly bad from the inside, just lived-in and somewhat neglected. That said…

“Would you have any objections if I had a couple of my grandsons take a look?” It wouldn’t affect whether they wanted the property—Owen was fairly certain from the look on Sarah’s face she was as interested as he—but it wouldn’t hurt to know what they were getting into beforehand.

“Not at all.”

“Good. How does the property line run?” he asked as they stepped out onto the screened-in back porch.

“See that fence?” Orland pointed to the chain link in the distance. “It goes up to the tree line, then swings all the way back around in a big arc. Jonah’s property bumps up against it on the left here. He’d probably be able to show you better than I could. The boy has an affinity for the woods, in case you weren’t aware.”

Owen smiled. Jonah was a shape-shifter, something Owen doubted Freel knew. “I’ve noticed that about him. Who owns the other properties around you?”

As the man detailed his neighbors, of which there were only two aside from Jonah and Molly, Owen watched Sarah. She was well pleased with what she saw, and he could practically see her itching to get her hands on the place.

“Mr. Freel, how soon are you wanting to move?” she asked when he stopped for breath.

“The sooner the better, at least from my perspective. It could take a while for the bank to come through with the financing, given the size of this place and uh… well, you know. You two aren’t spring chickens, I mean.”

Owen hid his amusement at her narrowed gaze. “I think we’ve got that covered, the financing. We’ve been looking for a place for a while now, and we have those ducks lined up in a neat row. Sarah’s been good at pinching pennies through the years.”

That was the truth—but buying the property wouldn’t hurt their finances. They’d not lived extravagant lives, and Owen’s books had done very well. If they came to an agreement on the property, they’d pay cash. Freel didn’t need to know that, however.

When his phone rang a couple of  minutes later, he excused himself. “If you want to look around more, make yourselves at home. I’ll be on the front porch.”

Once he was gone, the four of them meandered toward the back of the yard, which ended in a copse of trees about a hundred feet back from the house.

“What do you think?” Owen asked the group.

Sadie lifted her nose to the wind, inhaling deeply as she closed her eyes. When her lids lifted, her eyes had shifted more toward the wolf than human. With a blink, they were normal again. “I’d love to run in these woods.”

Sarah smiled and hugged her. “I’d love to see you get a chance to run in these woods. This is perfect. It’s exactly what we’ve been looking for. If we’re lucky, we might be able to snatch up a couple other parcels too, from the sounds of things.”

“Maybe. Easton, what do you think?” Owen asked.

He shrugged and looked back toward the house. “I’m eager to see what the rest of the property looks like, but Jonah’s not going to steer  you wrong. The house needs some elbow grease, but with a few trips down here, us kids could get you in good shape for the winter.”

“But what do you think?” Sarah asked gently.

His smile was a bit sad. “I wanted to hate it. Noah’s not the only one of us who hates to see you all think about moving. But this is really nice. Shoot, if I had the money, I’d buy it. Maybe you can rent me a corner or something.”

Owen rested his hand on Easton’s shoulder. “I think that could be arranged. Let’s go talk to Mr. Freel.”

Easton looked at Sadie. “Do you mind if we explore?”

“Not at all. Just be careful. Give us fifteen minutes?”

“We could head back through the woods to Jonah’s,” Sadie said. “It’d be a good trip.”

Sarah grinned. “As long as Easton directs you, you should be fine.” Sadie’s lack of a sense of direction was notorious within the family.

She saluted Sarah. “Yes, ma’am.”

As they walked back to the house, Owen took Sarah’s hand. “I’m really excited about this. You’re sure this is the place you want?”

She leaned into him. “Absolutely. I was drawn to it months ago, you know. I would like to consider building a new house. This one is still solid, it seems, and it’d be perfect to set up as a guesthouse down the road. Maybe next spring we can break ground—or sooner, depending on what turns up.” She laughed. “At our ages… we’re crazy old fools, Owen Campbell, but I’m excited too.”

“Good.” He stopped and hugged her. “As to the rest, we’re not old. Crazy, maybe. Fools? Never. I love you, Sarah Jane. Let’s go buy a house.”

“Which room do you want to break in first?” she asked, her tone sassy, as they went around the side.

Owen had to stop again, he was laughing so hard. “I’ll leave that up to you. Breaking in rooms… and you called us old.”

When she smiled, she was as beautiful to him as she’d ever been. “Someone has to keep you on your toes.”

He kissed her. “You certainly do that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”


June 21, 1970

The day after Sarah’s thirty-first birthday, Owen awoke to the sound of her being sick in their bathroom. The house was otherwise quiet, as the kids were all with Jack and Gilly for the weekend. Still half asleep, he threw the bedcovers back and stumbled to the closed bathroom door to check on her.

“Sarah?”

“I’m okay,” came the weak response. “Need a minute.”

“I’ll be right back.” He made a quick trip to the half bath under the stairs, coming back in the bedroom a couple of minutes later as she was opening the door. “What’s going on?”

She shook her head and crawled back in bed with a groan. “Stomach’s upset. I just need to rest.” She curled up, bringing her knees up to her chest. “Ugh, I hate nausea.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. Do you need anything?” He sat beside her on the bed and started rubbing her back.

“No. That helps, the rubbing.”

She was pale, her mouth pinched, but she didn’t feel warm. Owen brushed her hair back off her face and neck, running his hand over the soft tresses.

After a few minutes, she sighed. “I guess this means our plans for the day are shot.” Since they were sans children for the weekend, they’d intended to spend the day picnicking and hiking a couple of hours away at Cumberland Falls.

He shrugged. “Not necessarily. I’m sure we can find something to do close to home. I’m more concerned with making sure you’re feeling all right. Is the nausea any better?”

She carefully sat up, shoving pillows behind her. “I think so, yes. It was awful when I woke up.” She shuddered. “It seems to be fading now. Maybe it was something I ate last night.”

“Maybe.” Owen studied her. Her color was much better, and she didn’t seem as tense. He stretched out across the foot of the bed with a yawn, scratching his belly. “Why don’t we laze around for a bit and play it by ear?”

She ran her foot along his arm. “I thought you wanted to see the Falls.”

“I don’t think they’re going anywhere,” he told her with a wink. “Besides, we have a few hundred acres of our own here. If you feel up to it, there are still a few places I’ve not shown you. We could have a nice hike, then come back here and strip naked and chase each other around the house.”

Laughing, she moved so that she was lying across him. “How’s that different from any time we spend away from the kids?”

Owen grinned. “It isn’t, but it’s always fun. I’ll never turn that opportunity down.” He traced her cheek. “It’s been a while since we spent any time in the studio, you know.”

Since they’d moved into the farmhouse, Owen’s studio had largely been used for his work space. On special occasions or when they needed more privacy than their bedroom in the farmhouse afforded them, they liked to spend time out there.

Eyes soft, she brushed her hands across his chest. “It has, hasn’t it? Hmmm, you know… the more I think about it, the more staying home sounds better and better. We’ve been neglecting that bed. Shame on us.”

“We might have to spend all day between the sheets out there to pay the proper penance,” he said as she settled over him in a more provocative position. When she touched him intimately, her smile wicked, he sucked in a breath. “I take it you’re feeling better.”

“I’m getting there.”

He arched his back and let her take him over. “So am I.”

~ * * * ~

By late morning, Owen could hardly believe Sarah had been sick. She’d bounced back so well, he’d hesitated only briefly when she suggested they hike to an isolated meadow on a distant part of the property. As they walked, he kept letting her get a bit ahead of him so he could admire the way her cut-off shorts fit. He was also taking her measure physically—her curves were different in subtle yet familiar ways, and Owen was starting to put two and two together.

After they had Rachel, they’d decided to call it quits on the babymaking. Given that it was easier for Owen to get snipped than it was for Sarah, that’s the route they’d taken. Aside from some apprehension early on following the procedure, he’d not given pregnancy a second thought. That was three years ago or thereabouts.

If his suspicions were correct, though, pregnancy was very much going to be the hot topic of conversation in the next few days and weeks.

He knew men in his situation—husbands who’d gotten vasectomies only to find their wives pregnant—might instantly leap to certain conclusions. While he’d admit his first reaction had been doubt, it was more of himself than Sarah. A “you’ve got to be losing your mind to think this” kind of doubt.

But the more he watched her, the more he was certain. There was a particular way her walk changed when she was pregnant, even early on, and she had it. Then there was the fullness in her hips and breasts that had caused her a bit of embarrassment earlier when she’d not been able to fit into the clothes she’d wanted to wear. The early morning nausea simply clinched it for him.

The thing was, he didn’t know if Sarah even realized she was pregnant. He’d often heard that people didn’t see or know things they weren’t expecting, but pregnancy? Then again, she’d had her period a couple of weeks ago. He could be wrong… but he didn’t think so. Now, all he had to do was figure out how in the world to break the news to his wife.

Chapter Two

How do you feel about the number five?

Eight little words written on a scrap of paper torn from his sketching journal. Eight little words that would shift his marriage and his family’s life again. Words that Owen had chuckled as he’d written, as he was both amused and enchanted by the thought of adding a fifth child to the already-chaotic mix that was the Campbell household. Dollars to donuts, this one would be another girl.

“What are you smiling about over there?” Sarah asked. She was lying on her back at his feet, lazing about on the blanket they’d spread out under a tree.

With her hair spread out around her, her bare arms and legs gilded by the sun, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life. Even on her worst day, he thought so, but today she was especially dear to him.

“You and peanut butter.” He added some shading to the sketch he was drawing of her.

Sarah laughed, twirling a blade of grass around as she looked at him. “I guess now that I’m an old lady, I like it again.” She’d developed an aversion to the stuff while pregnant with John, and she’d not eaten it since.

“Old lady?”

She rolled onto her side, the move doing interesting things to the way her blouse fit her bust. When she saw him looking, she stuck the grass in her cleavage.

He flipped the page and started a new sketch. “Don’t think I won’t put it there.”

“I’m sure you’d like to put it there,” she said.

Owen stared at her, shocked, his cheeks growing hot. “Sarah Jane!”

She dissolved into laughter. “Am I wrong?”

Shaking his head, he refused to answer. “Going back to you being an old lady. I’m older than you. What does that make me?”

“Sexy as all get out and fun to tease.” She knee-walked up to him, then sprawled across his lap. “Show me?”

He turned the sketchbook around so she could see. The image was mostly circles and lines still at this point, the idea of a picture more than anything. “I’ll finish it later,” he said as he set the book and his pencil aside. He slipped the scrap of paper out of the back so that the edge was easy to grasp when he needed it.

“I’m sorry about the Falls,” she said as she tickled his belly button through his T-shirt.

“I’m not. I love spending time with you like this, just the two of us.” He ran his hand up her arm, moving to trace her lips, her chin, her nose. “I have a question for you.”

Sarah caught his hand and kissed it. “Ask away, sir.”

Instead, he pulled the paper from the book and handed it to her. He didn’t dare take his eyes off her face as she read.

Brow wrinkled, she tilted her head. “What do I think… about the number five? Um, it’s okay I guess. I’ve never spent much time contemplating it, really. Should I?”

Owen smiled softly. “I think you should.”

Lips pursed, her own smile questioning, she gazed up at him. “Why?”

Gently, he laid his hand on her abdomen between her hips. “Sarah, I think you’re pregnant.”

For several seconds she stared at him, and then she burst out laughing. She couldn’t speak from laughing so hard.

Owen simply watched her, waiting for her amusement to fade. It took a couple of minutes. “I’m serious,” he told her as she sat up. “You have every single symptom.”

She wiped her eyes. “Except I had my period, and you’ve been snipped.”

With a sigh, he rested against the tree. “I don’t know what to say about the first, but as to the second, you know vasectomies can fail. It’s rare, but it happens, and that’s in normal men. It has to be that much more likely considering what I am. I think things have been reconnected. With all the shifting back and forth between human and wolf or deer, I think the surgery got undone.”

“You’re really serious.” Amazed, perplexed, she slowly shook her head. “Owen… pregnant?”

He shrugged. “Number five.”

“Six,” she corrected softly.

“I know.” He closed his eyes briefly, the thought of the child they’d lost before Rachel stinging his heart. “I think you’d best plan to go in to see the doctor Monday.”

“What if I am? What if you’re right?”

He smiled. “Then I start praying it’s a boy?” When she shot him an incredulous look, he laughed. “It’s a baby. We’re good with kids. I think we’ll figure it out.”

“You wanted to stop at four.”

“Yeah, well. I’m adaptable.” He brushed a loose strand of hair off her cheek. “How do you feel about having five rug rats underfoot?”

“I don’t know. I… five hellions running around seems monumentally overwhelming compared to the four we have, but… we do produce lovely children, don’t we?”

“Yes, we do, not just in looks either. I wouldn’t trade our family for all the peace and quiet in the world. I say bring it on.” He kissed her softly. “What do you think the chances are that this one’s a boy?”

Her grin was impish. “Given how desperately overrun you are with two princesses? Slim to none, I hope. Pregnant. I still think you’re imagining things, you know.”

Owen was absolutely certain he wasn’t. “Want to bet me?”

“Oooh, that sounds interesting,” she said, settling into his lap as she rested against his chest, her fingers playing with his hair. “What kind of terms?”

He kissed her more deeply. “I’m sure we can come up with something amenable.” He’d also be certain to set the wager up in his favor, because this was one bet he was guaranteed to win.


August 26, 1970

Fifteen minutes, one quarter of an hour, ten miles. Enough time to drive from the farmhouse on top of the mountain down to the schoolhouse in the valley. Hopefully enough time for Owen Campbell to get a handle on his temper.

With a frustrated sigh that sounded more like a growl, he rubbed his face and shook his head, glad he was alone in Sarah’s car. “Probably not enough time. Damn it, Emma… Two fights in less than a month. What in the world are we going to  do with you?”

He’d been working in his studio, in the middle of planning out a complicated sketch that would be the centerpiece of his next book when the phone rang. A few minutes later, Sarah came out of the house and started through the garden, frowning. He’d happened to catch sight of her, and a shiver that told him there was trouble crossed his shoulders when he saw that frown. Setting his pencils aside, he’d headed downstairs.

“What’s wrong?” he asked when she came into the studio.

Propping her hands on her hips, she shook her head. “Your daughter has gotten in another scuffle. This time, she busted a boy’s nose on the playground.”

Owen wished he could say he was surprised. “Is she okay? Is he?”

School had only been in session for a couple of weeks, and already, seven-year-old Emma—a first-grader this year—was starting to get a reputation as a brawler.

“Apparently. One of us has to go down there.”

His curse was a bit more virulent than Sarah was used to hearing from him, and she raised her eyebrows.

“I’m sorry,” he said, stepping over to her. He rested his hands on her shoulders, then touched her belly where their fifth child was nestled safely. “It’s frustrating, that’s all. You aren’t feeling well, and I just got this scene laid out. She’d better have a good reason for this, or I’ll ground her for a month. She’s going to  have to learn that actions have consequences.”

Sarah caught his hand. “I can go.”

Owen was already shaking his head. “I’ll handle it. You need to be resting.”

During her other pregnancies, she’d not had a lot of discomfort or trouble. This one had been more difficult. She’d not had a lot of nausea, but neither did she have an appetite, and the amount of fatigue she was having was worrisome to Owen. She was only about four months along, and her symptoms had kept her home. She’d given up her part-time job at the library, not up to the task at the moment. For Sarah, that was startling, and even her doctor was keeping a closer eye on her than usual.

“Don’t lose your temper, okay?” she said, kissing him briefly.

He scowled down at her, then stole another kiss. “I’d never. Want anything while I’m out?”

“Surprise me.”

“Yes, ma’am. I shouldn’t be long.”

Now, as he parked in the visitor’s spot next to the building, he sighed again. “How’s the prayer go? Serenity, courage, and wisdom? Yeah. Whoever wrote that didn’t have children.”

But as he walked to the door, he reminded himself that as frustrating as his kids could be on occasion, he’d not trade or change a single one of them—with the exception of possibly cooling Emma’s temper down just a smidge. Aside from gentle swats to their behinds if they did something dangerous, Owen had never laid a hand on them in anger. That wasn’t about to change.

It took him all of five seconds to spot his little dark-haired troublemaker. She was sitting on a bench outside the office, her brother John beside her. From the looks on their faces, they both knew Emma was in trouble. Concerned, exasperated, and even a bit proud—John was guarding Em as though protecting her from the world—Owen slowly walked over to the bench.

Emma froze, and her throat worked as she swallowed. In that moment, seeing her trepidation, he wanted to assure her she wasn’t in trouble. There was a reason Sarah usually handled these things. She was better at being a disciplinarian than him.

She had laughed at that idea when he’d told her. “Are you kidding me? I have to work hard to keep our little hellions in line. They obey you with a look.”

He scoffed. “They respect you too.”

“I know, but they adore you. They don’t want to disappoint you.”

That revelation had him fighting back tears—that kind of relationship with his kids was one Owen had only dreamed of having before they were born. He’d been afraid he’d turn out to be too much like his own father, who’d ruled the house with a firm hand more than love. Owen didn’t take the responsibility lightly either, which was one reason he was struggling so hard now to find the right words as he looked at Emma’s downcast head.

“Emma Jean Campbell, look at me.”

Biting her lip, she met his gaze bravely, with some defiance but no belligerence.

“Young lady, what in the world am I going to  do with you? Are you okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

Hunkering down, he shoved his hands through his hair. “Tell me what happened.”

“There’s a new girl, Zanny. She’s old Mrs. Franks’s granddaughter, you know?” Emma scowled when he nodded. “Burke Lockhart was being mean to her. He pushed her and she fell down. The teacher wasn’t doing anything, and she knows Burke picks on the little girls. She’s sweet on his daddy, so she lets him do whatever he wants. He works for the power company, and she thinks he’s a big shot.”

Anger ran through Owen. Maybe Emma was wrong and this Lockhart kid was just really bad at playing with others. Regardless, the teacher needed to get her head out of the clouds and do her job.

“You two sit tight. I’m going to go speak to the principal and your teacher.” He stood, kissing Emma’s forehead and ruffling John’s hair. Crossing the hall, he stepped inside and greeted the secretary. “Edna.”

“Mr. Campbell. This time, she did what she should have,” the older woman said in a low voice that wouldn’t carry as she picked up the phone. “He’s not a bad egg, but the boy needed knocking back a step or two. You didn’t hear that from me. I’ll let Principal Montgomery know you’re here.”

“Thanks.”

In two seconds, the door to the inner office was opening and the principal was gesturing Owen inside. “Here we are again.”

Owen sent him a warning look and one to Miss Hammonds—Emma’s teacher—as well, then focused on the sullen boy sitting in a chair along the wall. Arms crossed, his nose was red and his lip was fat, and dried blood stained the front of his shirt.

“What happened?” Owen asked, wanting to hear the other side of things before passing judgment.

“Oh, it was silly,” Miss Hammonds said, fluttering her hands. “Burke was playing with the girls, and he got a little too enthusiastic. That’s all. Emma flew off the handle at him. He didn’t mean for Suzanna to fall.”

The gaze Owen leveled on her was none-too-happy. “Burke, is that true?” When Miss Hammonds started to speak, he held up his hand. “I’d like to hear it from him.” Crouching down in front of the boy, he softened his voice. “Answer me, son.”

Burke studied him, wary. “I didn’t mean to hurt her, but I pushed her on purpose,” he confessed quietly.

“Emma tells me that you’ve been doing that to the smaller girls quite a bit, and that no one has called you on that behavior.” Owen ignored the teacher’s outraged gasp. “Is that the case?”

Cheeks ruddy, Burke ducked his head and gave a single nod. “Yes, sir.”

Owen briefly closed his eyes, hoping he wasn’t about to lose that temper he’d fought so hard to rein in. “You do understand that’s wrong, don’t you? Men aren’t supposed to hurt girls. We’re supposed to protect them. Pushing them, pulling their hair, calling them names… that’s beneath us, Burke Lockhart. You’re better than that.”

Strictly speaking, he didn’t know that to be true, but he hoped it was. Straightening, he looked to the adults. “Burke, why don’t you wait outside? And remember what I said, all right?”

The boy nodded, his head still down, and quietly left the room.

Owen closed the door behind him, then leaned against it, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared at Miss Hammonds. “He doesn’t seem to have a smart attitude or a smart mouth. He seems ashamed of what he did. What I want to know is why in the name of what’s holy you haven’t done your job and stopped him?”

Her face had turned about as bright red as Owen had ever seen on a person. Before she could answer, Mr. Montgomery gave a frustrated huff and snapped his fingers.

“Well, Janice, I’d like to hear the explanation myself.”

“I beg your pardon, but I do my job well, thank you very much.”

“Not if you’re letting him pick on kids, you don’t—especially the littlest girls. From what I hear, you’re involved with the boy’s father. Maybe you’re playing favorites because of that. Maybe he needs to be moved to a different room. It’s early in the year, so it shouldn’t affect him. He doesn’t deserve to be allowed to become a full-blown bully.”

Owen didn’t enjoy using the favoritism card, but he wasn’t about to sit back and let the woman squirm out of her responsibilities. Not when his children were affected.

“Maybe you should be concerned with your daughter’s behavior. Seems to me, you’re in a glass house throwing rocks, Mr. Campbell,” she retorted.

“I’ll never punish my daughter for standing up for herself or for others,” Owen said quietly, his voice cold and precise. “She needs to learn to control her temper, yes. But both of these fights she’s been in were because she felt she had no choice. I don’t think my daughter is the problem here.”

Mr. Montgomery’s face had become a thundercloud. “Neither do I. Janice, you and I will discuss this at length as soon as we get these kids settled. Emma won’t be getting in trouble for this, Mr. Campbell. I’m sure you’ll take care of disciplining her at home.”

Owen inclined his head, quietly furious with how things had turned out. “I’ve heard good things about you, Miss Hammonds. It’s one of the reasons we wanted you to teach our children this year. But if Burke Lockhart isn’t moved out of your classroom by the end of the week, my children will be.” He looked at Mr. Montgomery. “You’ll see to that.”

The other man gave a terse nod. “I will.”

“Where’s the girl Burke pushed? She’s a neighbor of ours down the hill, I believe.”

Mr. Montgomery’s face tightened. “She’s in with the nurse getting patched up. And yes, she lives nearby your family. I was getting ready to call her grandmother to tell her what happened.”

Owen checked his watch. It was approaching two o’clock. “Given how late it is, I’ll take the kids home with me. If you want, and if it’s all right by Mrs. Franks, I can take Suzanna with me as well. It wouldn’t be any trouble. Oh, and John’s still with Emma outside. I’ll probably need to smooth things over with his teacher about him having missed class.”

The principal waved a hand. “She’s aware. Janice, why don’t you go check on Suzanna, then find Emma and bring her in here? I do still need to have a word with her.”

Without speaking, Owen opened the door for her.

“Close it back, please,” Mr. Montgomery said with a sigh once she’d gone. “She really is a good teacher, one of the best we have. She just has her head all wrapped up in hearts and roses right now. Burke’s parents are divorced—recently, I  might add—and his father has taken a shine to Janice. I’m afraid you’re probably right about the favoritism. I apologize. I should have seen this before now.”

“That’s probably why Burke’s acting out,” Owen said, feeling a pang of sympathy for the boy. “Is there another class you can move him to?”

He nodded. “Mr. Chatham would be a good fit, I think. He’s tough, but he’s kind. Has four rough and tumble boys of his own, so he works well with them.” He assessed Owen. “How much do you know about Suzanna Franks’s situation?”

Owen shrugged, not wanting to gossip. “I know it isn’t ideal, that her parents are splitting up.”

“They are. Divorce is becoming more and more common these days, and I surely hate that for my students. Suzanna’s a quiet little thing, a really sweet girl. It might do her some good to be befriended by someone as… outspoken, I guess is what I’m trying to say, as Emma.”

For the first time since he’d walked in the room, Owen felt the hint of a smile forming. “She’s an absolute hellion, but she has a good heart. Sarah and I will keep an eye on how that friendship idea plays out. Emma could use a quiet influence, and it sounds like Suzanna could use a friend. Her grandmother’s getting up there in years a bit, so it’d be nice if the girls were friends for a couple of reasons.”

When Emma came in, Mr. Montgomery sat in the chair beside her. “I have a plan that I’d like your help with,” he told her.

Emma looked at him, then to Owen. When he winked, she blew out a breath. “Okay. What’s the plan?”

“It sounds to  me like Burke doesn’t fit so well in your class, so for everyone’s benefit, I’ll be moving him to another teacher’s class tomorrow. That should help things, don’t you think?”

She nodded vigorously. “He’s a troublemaker.”

The declaration was delivered with such solemnity, it struck Owen’s funny bone. He had to almost turn away to keep from laughing.

Mr. Montgomery cleared his throat. “Be that as it may, what I need your help with is this—once Burke is away from your class, I need you to not react quite so vigorously. In other words, don’t come up swinging, young lady. Look for other ways to solve differences first, all right?”

She scowled and looked to Owen. “Daddy?”

“He’s right, and you know that we’ve talked about this at home. Fighting should be the last resort, not the first.”

Her shoulders slumped. “Okay. I’ll try.”

“That’s all we can ask,” Mr. Montgomery said. “I need to call Suzanna’s grandmother, and then I’ll cut you all loose.”

Once Owen had his three kids and Suzanna—who went by Zanny—in the car, he marveled at how quiet Zanny was. He could tell she didn’t know what to make of Emma and her brothers, but her reaction was more awestruck fascination than discomfort. After a stop at the local dairy bar, where he treated the kids and picked up a peanut butter milkshake for Sarah, they headed home.

By the time they pulled off the road and started up the driveway, Emma and Zanny were giggling in the backseat. Owen smiled. He was glad to see their bond starting to build. It would be interesting to see where that friendship went in the coming years. So far, Emma hadn’t really been taken with other kids at school, though she got along well with most of them. He’d not been blowing smoke when he’d told the principal she could use a friend.

“Here we are, gang. Drop your stuff off, say hi to your mom, and we’ll escort Zanny home.”

As they got out of the car, Sarah stood from her chair on the porch. He hoped she’d be able to drink the milkshake—he’d gotten a large just in case, as the sweet treat was nearly the only thing she could stomach these days.

Once the kids were heading toward the path that led to the bottom of the mountain, he spoke to her quietly. “Emma’s a strong girl, smart as a whip. She was protecting Zanny. We can’t punish her for that.”

“No, but we can’t ignore it either.” She accepted the shake and his kiss. “I might make her favorite meal as a reward.”

“She’s just like her mother. I still think about what you did to Tony DeWitt that day in the library and laugh. I’ll herd these cats down the hill and back, and then we can talk more in depth.”

Sarah smiled. “I’d forgotten about that. Rachel and I will keep things under control here. Say hi to Mrs. Franks for me, please. Let her know that Zanny’s welcome whenever.”

“Will do.” He stole another kiss, then hurried to join the kids. He knew a lot of men who’d take Emma out behind the metaphorical shed for what she’d done, and that knowledge broke his heart. Thinking about how he’d been angry earlier sent a pang of regret through him, but he also knew that he had to forgive himself for being human. How he’d handled her had turned out well enough, and he’d not made her feel bad for doing what was right.

You aren’t your father,” he thought as he walked behind the kids, watching as his three offspring pointed out this or that to Zanny. He sent a thanks out to the universe or anyone who might be listening for giving him the serenity, courage, and wisdom to not channel Hank Campbell today, for being his own man, and for having the good fortune to end up with the family he had.  Owen was a blessed man, and today he realized exactly how blessed he was.