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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Chapter 1

The rest of the way home, the boys were trying to get the young boy to tell them what was going on. All he would say through his tears was to repeat what he had said earlier, "She hit me and threw me out."

He appeared to be a year or two younger than the twins and maybe a year older than TJ. I knew I would have to call CPS, since he had said it was his foster mom who was responsible for his present condition, but I was not looking forward to that conversation.

It was nearly half past six when we arrived at the house. As we entered, the smells of Gilda's cooking seemed to have a positive effect on the boy. At least his sniffles seemed to diminish. When Gilda noticed him, she gave me a questioning look. I shrugged my shoulders and mouthed, "I'll tell you later."

I motioned for the twins and Chris to follow me into the living room and to bring our stranger with them. I told TJ, Peter and William to go get ready for supper. I sat down on the couch and patted the space beside me indicating for him to sit beside me. He hesitated for a moment, but after getting nods from the three musketeers, he sat down. The twins and Chris sat down cross legged on the floor in front of the couch.

"Son, will you tell us your name?" I asked.

"Luke," he said, almost in a whisper.

"It's good to meet you, Luke," I said. "These are my sons, Lenny, Larry and Chris. The other boys who were with us are TJ, Peter and William. William's last name is Baker. All the other boys' last name is Johnson. Will you tell me your last name?"

"It's Fredrick, Luke Fredrick," he said, not so quietly this time.

"Well, Luke Fredrick, we're glad that you are here," I said. "Now, since our supper is about ready, why don't you go with these three," pointing at the three sitting on the floor, "and get washed up for supper. They'll show you the way."

The three musketeers scrambled up and ushered Luke up the stairs. I went to the kitchen to let Gilda know as much as I did about our guest. When I told her the story of how we ran across Luke, she chuckled and said, "Lose one, gain one," and went back to fixing the meal. I went to get washed up for supper as well.

"Donald phoned to say he was going to be late," Gilda said, when I returned. "And Lenore is over at Jeannie's and Ginny's house. I'll bet she spends the night."

Supper was simple, but delicious. Gilda had fixed meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and some fresh green beans she had gotten from a roadside stand. Dessert was banana pudding. Luke ate as if he hadn't eaten in a while, but then my boys ate just as much and they had a big lunch and a snack on the way home from Houston. Luke joined the rest of the boys as they took their dishes to the kitchen and loaded them into the dishwasher. He hadn't said much all through the meal, but he did give Gilda a hug when everything was cleaned up. "Thank you," he said.

Gilda choked out, "You're very welcome, Luke. I'm glad you enjoyed it."

"Luke," I said, as I walked with him into the living room, "who was your foster mom?"

"Do I have to tell you?" he said.

"Yes, son, I really need to know. I promise that I am not going to take you back there," I said. "I will have to call CPS and let them know you are safe or I could get into a lot of trouble."

"Okay," he said. "Her name is Gladys Romans."

"Does she have any other children that she takes care of?"

"Uh huh, there are three others. Two boys and a girl."

"Do you know the address of the home?"

"Yeah," he said and gave me the address.

I was surprised because it was at least three miles from where we picked him up. "Who is your case worker?"

"Her name's Gloria Garver, but I haven't seen her since school was out."

That caused my anger level to elevate. Case workers were required to make contact with their charges at least once a month. If what Luke said was true, he hadn't seen her in nearly three months.

"Why don't you go find the other boys and see if they will show you their dogs? I think they are upstairs playing video games."

Someone must have been listening to us, because before Luke could start up the stairs, there were six boys coming down them. I watched as they grabbed his arms and steered him out through the patio door and took off running for the dog run. I went to call CPS. I knew there was someone who would answer the phone even at this time of the evening.

I checked my contact list and dialed the number for the after-hours number for the local CPS office. It took six rings before someone answered the phone.

"Child Protective Services," the voice on the line said. "If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911."

"My name is Crane Johnson. This evening as we were driving home my sons and I stopped to pick up a young boy alongside of the road. He was crying. He said he was in foster care. I wanted to report that he is safe with us in case someone had reported him missing."

"What's the boy's name?"

"Luke Fredrick. He appears to be about 12 or 13."

"Why isn't he in his foster home?"

"He informed us that his foster mother hit him and threw him out."

"I sincerely doubt that is the case. Did he tell you the name of his foster mother?"

I gritted my teeth and said, "Yes, he said her name is Gladys Romans."

"I've located his case in the computer. I see that his caseworker is Gloria Garver and she visited him Thursday of last week."

"Sir, to whom am I speaking?" I asked.

"Sorry, I should have told you, it's Clay Hayes."

"Well, Clay Hayes, according to Luke, he hasn't seen his caseworker since school was out. That's beside the point at the moment. I'm sure we will revisit that piece of information at some point in the future. For the moment, I'm more interested in what is to become of Luke."

"We don't have anyone available to come and pick him up and return him to his foster home. If you could possibly bring him into the office, we could make up a bed for him on the floor someplace. I could also ask the sheriff to come get him," Clay said.

"That's totally unacceptable," I said. "He will remain here with me and my sons for the night. I will call and speak with his caseworker in the morning. Please leave a message for her that I will call."

"Very well, but this is highly irregular," Clay said.

"You might also suggest that Gloria Garver contact the CPS attorney before she speaks with me in the morning. Goodbye." I hung up the phone and sat at my desk pondering the situation. The only things that I was certain of were that Luke was not going to be placed back into that foster home and that Gloria Garver and I were going to have a heart-to-heart talk.

I started to go check on the seven boys when Donald arrived. It looked as if he had a bad day. Gilda saw him arrive and immediately wanted to know if he had eaten. He hadn't, so she began to warm up the meatloaf and the rest of the meal while he went to change clothes and wash up. I continued on outside to see how the boys were doing. The seven of them were throwing Frisbees for the dogs to catch. Sometimes the boys fought the dogs to catch the disks. Luke had joined right in with the others. He was getting as grass stained as the others were from falling on the ground and wrestling with the dogs. It was good to see him smiling and laughing with the other boys.

I went back into the house and sat at the table while Donald ate his meal. "I hear we have a new boy in the house. Are you going to keep him?" he asked with a grin on his face.

"Bite your tongue," I said, laughing. "We really don't need another boy in the house."

"What do our sons say?"

"I'm afraid to ask," I said, sighing. "I don't want to know their answer. Besides, we know very little about him other than his name and caseworker's name. Oh, and we know the name of his foster parent." I went on to relate to him the conversation that I had with CPS.

"Sounds as if the caseworker has some explaining to do if what Luke told you is in fact true," Donald said. "What do you plan to do when you contact them in the morning?"

"I'm not sure," I answered. "I think I might have a talk with our favorite PI and see what he can dig up on Gloria Garver and the foster parent, Gladys Romans. One thing is for sure, if Luke was being abused in the foster home, he will not be going back there."

"I need a glass of wine. I had a really crappy day," Donald said, after he finished his meal.

"Pour me a glass while I call Jack Hogan," I said. I went to my office and dialed Jack's home number.

"Hello," a female voice said.

"Carolyn? This is Crane Johnson. How are you?"

"Crane, we're fine. We haven't seen you for a long time," she said. "Jack was saying the other day we should get together before the summer gets away from us."

"Let's make it this weekend. I assume that Jack Jr. hasn't gone back to college as yet."

"No, he's leaving Tuesday. I assume you called to speak with my husband," Carolyn said.

"Yes, but it's nice talking with you," I said. "I'll work out the details with Jack about this weekend."

"Crane," Jack said, when Carolyn handed him the phone, "what's on your mind?"

I explained to him what was happening and asked if he could do a quick background check on the two individuals in question.

"I can probably get some preliminary information by late Monday or sometime Tuesday," he said. "It won't be thorough, but it will probably give you enough information to help out. Now, what's this about a get together this weekend?"

"I thought we might get together on Sunday afternoon at the ranch and ride horses, have a picnic and maybe grill something. The weather forecast is for sunny and warm conditions."

"What should we bring?"

"Let me have Hildy and Gilda get together and plan the menu and then they'll call and talk to Carolyn and work things out. There will be about 30 people if all the people at the ranch come. We don't have 30 horses, but there are enough to share and take turns," I said.

"I'll get back to you with any information I dig up on those two people as soon as I have anything," Jack said.

I went back into the living room and Donald handed me a glass of red wine. I saw through the patio door that it was beginning to get dark, so I sat my glass of wine down and went to round up the boys. They didn't put up too much of a fuss. I think they were worn out from all the running and romping with the dogs. I think they spent most of the time on the ground from the looks of their clothes.

Luke was hanging back, trying to hide behind the other boys as they started into the house. When he saw me looking at his clothes, he sniffled, "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to get my stuff so dirty. I was having fun with the dogs and everybody."

As I wrapped my arm around his shoulders he shuddered and tried to pull away. "You didn't get any dirtier than those guys did," I said. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up. I'm sure we can find some clothes that will fit you. These three outgrow their clothes almost before we get them home from the store. Guys, take Luke with you to your room and all of you get your showers taken. Gilda and I will dig up some of your old things for him to wear."

I went to the kitchen where Gilda was making sure that it was immaculate, and talking to herself. I explained what I had in mind for our Sunday afternoon picnic and asked if she would coordinate with Hildy and Carolyn Hogan to plan the meal. You might also call Rosie and let her know what the plans are. I could see her mind beginning the planning even before I brought up the need to find some clothes for Luke.

"Oh, yeah," she said. "I have a lot of their old clothes packed away in a box. I was going to ask you if I could take them to the church. They are having a clothes drive to give to the poor families."

"Right now, we have a young man who will need some underwear, socks and other clothes since he and the others appeared to spend most of their time on the ground while playing with the dogs," I said. "He'll need some pajamas for the night as well. For the time being, hold off on taking the old clothes to the church."

"What's going to happen to him?" she asked. "I heard you telling Donald about him."

"I don't know," I said with a sigh. "I feel sorry for the boy, but I'm not ready to take on raising another one at this point."

I went back into the living room and picked up my neglected glass of wine and sat down on the couch beside Donald. I sat there, sipping my wine and thinking over the day's events. I was going to miss Joel being here and worried that he might not fit in with other college students. I knew he was bright and could compete academically at the college level, but my concerns were if he would fit in socially. I was hoping that Jeremy would help in that regard. Luke was a big question mark.

"A penny for your thoughts," Donald said, after a while.

"I don't think they are worth that much," I responded. "I was thinking of Joel and missing him. It's going to be an adjustment."

"We'll all miss him," he said. "He's a great kid and you can be proud of the fact that you rescued him and gave him the love that helped him bloom into the fine young man that he is. Let's talk about Luke. If we don't keep him, how can we make sure that he is placed in a foster home that truly cares for the children placed with them?"

"I can't answer that," I said. "What I can do, and I should have thought of this sooner, is to call Darcie and see what contacts she still has in CPS. She may be able to provide some guidance on possible adoption options for Luke. For the moment, I'm assuming that Luke doesn't have any parents or relatives that are eligible to adopt him. I can probably find that out in the morning when I speak with his caseworker. Excuse me, I think I'll go call Darcie now."

I went to my office and placed the call to Darcie. When the call was answered, it was Darcie. I explained the situation that we were confronted with and asked her a series of questions. "Do you know anything about Luke caseworker, Gloria Garver?"

"Only by reputation," Darcie answered. "She is not one of the best caseworkers. Some of my friends at CPS say she is lazy. She has been scolded several times by the CPS judge for not submitting her reports in time for them to be reviewed before the monthly hearings. This is all hearsay. I have no firsthand knowledge."

"I'm not of a mind to let Luke go back into his current foster home if what he has said is true. With your contacts in the adoption world, do you know of any family that might consider an adoption?"

"I can think of a couple off the top of my head," Darcie said. "Of course, they are always looking for babies to adopt. Older children are always hard to place. Let me do some searching when I get to the office in the morning. I'll call you."

"Thanks, Darcie," I said. "I need to stop by and see what's going on one of these days."

As I was leaving the office, Gilda arrived with an arm load of clothes. "I think these will fit Luke," she said.

I took the clothes and started up the stairs to the boys' room. I could hear laughter coming from their room before I even got there. I knocked on the door before I opened it. The sight was indeed rather funny. One of the twins had given Luke a pair of their pajamas which he was now wearing. They were way too large for him and he was having a hard time keeping the pants from falling down.

"I think these may be a better fit," I said, barely able to keep a straight face.

"These are kinda large," Luke said, grabbing the pair of pajamas that I was holding out. He walked quickly into the bathroom trying not to trip over the legs of the pajamas he was wearing. It wasn't long before he emerged wearing the replacement pajamas. They were still a bit large for him, but he wasn't having any trouble keeping the pants from falling down. I placed the rest of the clothes that I had brought for him on one of the desks.

"Now," I said, "we have to decide on sleeping arrangements."

"He can sleep with us," Lenny said quickly, getting nods of agreement from Larry and Chris.

"You only have three beds and there will be four of you," I reminded them.

"Lenny and me can sleep together," Larry pointed out. "We do sometimes, anyway."

"I think we should let Luke decide where he would like to sleep," I said. Turning to Luke, I continued, "You can have a room to yourself, if you like. Or, you can stay here with these three."

"Um, I think I'd kinda like to stay here," Luke said, looking at me with pleading eyes.

"It's settled then," I said. "I think Gilda has some fruit ready for your snack and then it's brush your teeth and off to bed." The mention of a snack had my three heading for the door. Luke followed suit. I checked to see that there was a new toothbrush for him to use before I also headed downstairs.

"Donald went to see Lenore and tuck her in bed," Gilda said. "He said he'd be back shortly."

All seven of the boys finished their snacks and headed upstairs to their bedrooms. I told them I would be up shortly to tuck them in and say goodnight. When Donald returned from seeing his daughter to bed, we went upstairs to the youngest three's bedroom. As it had become a usual occurrence, we found TJ reading a story to Peter and William. We waited until he came to the end of a chapter before we tucked them each into bed and kissed their foreheads goodnight.

The bedroom with the four boys in it was a bit noisy as we approached. They were talking and laughing. We hesitated outside the door for a moment before we knocked and opened it. Larry and Lenny were sitting on the side of one bed and Luke and Chris were sitting on another one facing the twins. They all looked up as we entered the room. Luke quickly slipped under the covers on the bed he and Chris had been sitting on and pulled them up to his chin. Chris went back to his bed and the twins both slipped under the covers of Lenny's bed.

"Are you comfortable?" I asked Luke.

"Yes, sir," he mumbled.

I straightened the covers on his bed and brushed the hair out of his eyes. He was in serious need of a haircut. "If you need anything in the night, one of these guys can help you," I said. I went to the twins' bed, leaned over and kissed each of their foreheads saying goodnight. I did the same with Chris. Donald said goodnight to all of them and we left the room closing the door behind us. We stood there a moment to make sure that they were going to stay in bed.

We heard a voice say, "Does your dad always kiss you goodnight?"

"Yeah, he likes it," I heard Lenny reply.

"I wish I had a dad," Luke said.

I think both Donald and I were choked up as we walked down the back stairway in silence.

"I've had enough excitement for today," I said. "I'm going to bed."

"Good idea," Donald agreed.

I woke early Friday morning and went to see if the coffee was ready. I should have known, Gilda was already up and beginning breakfast preparations.

"Good morning, Gilda," I said, and then headed for the coffee maker. I could see that the first pot had already been brewed.

"Good morning," she replied. "Have you decided what's going to happen with Luke, yet?"

"No," I said. "There is too much we don't know about his situation. Much as I empathize with the boy, I'm not convinced that taking him in on a permanent basis is the right thing to do. I'll have more information after I talk with his caseworker this morning. If what he said about his foster mother is true, I can assure him that he will not be going back there."

"Good," she said with a knowing smile. "Breakfast should be ready in about twenty minutes." She turned and went back to her preparations.

I finished my first cup of coffee and went upstairs to wake the boys. TJ was sitting up in bed when I opened their bedroom door. "Hi, dad," he said.

"Well, good morning to you," I said. "You think we can roust these two so you all can go down to breakfast? Maybe we should get some cold water and pour it on them." I heard some giggling from under the covers from both Peter and William. "Well, maybe some tickling will do." I first reached under Peter's covers and started tickling his ribs.

Through his giggles, he said, "Don't, you'll make me pee." He threw the covers off and ran for the bathroom.

I started for William's bed, but he was not having any of the tickling and raced after Peter.

"Make sure you wash your hands before you go down for breakfast," I said as I left the bedroom.

I was surprised when I entered the three musketeers' bedroom. Larry and Lenny were both in bed with Luke. The three of them were awake and talking quietly. Chris was absent and I assumed he was in the bathroom.

"He was scared," Lenny said. "He doesn't want to go back to that foster home."

"Yeah, you won't make him. Will you?" Larry added.

"I can't make any promises, but I'll do all that I can to see that he doesn't go back there. I have to call his caseworker this morning and I'll see what we can work out," I said. "Now, everybody get your hands washed. Gilda should have breakfast ready by the time you get down there."

Force of habit, I started heading for Joel's bedroom before I caught myself. "It's going to take a while before I stop doing that," I thought.

By the time I had walked back downstairs and poured another cup of coffee, the seven boys were sitting at the table. Gilda brought a plate piled high with pancakes and started putting two on each of the boys plates. She quickly returned after taking the empty plate back to the kitchen with another plate of sausages and dished them out. The boys smothered their pancakes in butter and maple syrup. Luke was a little hesitant until he saw what the other boys did. All talking had ceased as the breakfast was consumed.

"Anyone want another pancake?" Gilda asked.

Luke looked around at the other boys before he said, "Can I have another? They're awfully good."

"Of course you may," Gilda said. "How about another sausage?"

"Yes, ma'am, please," he said, giving her a smile.

After the breakfast dishes were cleared and loaded into the dishwasher, Larry approached me as I was reading the morning paper and drinking my coffee. "Can we go swimming, dad?"

"You need to wait a couple of hours. I have to make some phone calls and I don't want you in the pool without an adult present," I said. "Why don't you show Luke the music/weight room? Maybe he would like to play video games while you wait."

It was nearing nine o'clock, so I went to my office and placed the first call of the day. I dialed the number and the call was answered by a female voice, "Cross and Associates, how may I direct your call?"

"My name is Crane Johnson. I would like to speak with Benjamin Cross, please."

"Mr. Johnson, it's been a while since you've called the office," the voice said. "Mr. Cross just walked in. I'll let him know you're on the line."

"Crane Johnson, it's been a while," Benjamin said, when he picked up the phone. "What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into this time?"

"I don't think it's me that is in trouble this time, at least I don't think so," I said. "I was wondering if you had someone available that might be able to help a young boy we picked up yesterday evening." I went on to explain the circumstances surrounding Luke as I knew them. "It's very short notice, I know. I plan on calling his caseworker shortly and it would be much appreciated if there was someone who could advocate for Luke. I cannot allow him to be placed back into a situation where he may be abused."

"You're correct. We can't allow even the possibility of being placed back into an abusive environment. I think we can help you. One of my new attorneys just happens to have a hearing in Comal County at two this afternoon. Let me have him stop by your place. He lives in San Marcos so it shouldn't take him too long to get there. I'll call him as soon as we hang up. He wasn't coming into the office this morning. His name is Antonio Ricci. If for any reason he can't be there, I'll ring you back. But, my friend, it does sound as if you have gotten yourself into trouble. Goodbye."

"Benjamin, I hope you are wrong," I said to the dial tone.

I waited another half hour before I made the call to the CPS office. After being put on hold for several minutes, the receptionist came back on the line and informed me that Ms. Garver was not in the office. "When do you expect her to come in?" I asked.

"I'm not aware of her schedule," the receptionist said. "I can leave a message for her to call you."

I gave her my contact information and that she needed to call me about one of her cases.

I was on my way to the kitchen for another cup of coffee when the phone rang. I picked it up in the kitchen. It was Antonio Ricci. "Mr. Johnson, I can probably arrive at your home within the hour. I need to confirm the directions to your house."

I gave him directions from San Marcos to the house and made sure that he understood them. For someone unfamiliar with the area, finding the house was not always easy.

"It looks like you need another cup of coffee," Gilda said, holding out a steaming cup.

"Thanks, before the day's out, I might need a whole pot." I sat down at the table and picked up the newspaper. I hadn't gotten around to reading the financial pages. I had just started reading them when Hildy and her family arrived with Lenore.

"The girls wanted to go swimming," Manfred said. "Well, I kinda suggested it."

"Great, the boys were asking earlier if they could go, but I have phone calls to make and I'm expecting a visitor a little later," I said. "I'll go get the boys and tell them to get suited up. You are planning on watching them, I hope."

"Oh, yes," he said. "I wouldn't let anything happen to my girls."

The boys didn't waste any time getting into their swimsuits. They even found one that fitted Luke. I introduced Luke to the Strasser family before they all headed out to the pool.

"Is he a keeper?" Hildy asked.

I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders as I went to answer the telephone. "Hello."

"I'm Gloria Garver. I had a message to call a Crane Johnson. May I speak to him?"

"I'm Crane Johnson."

"Is Luke Fredrick there?"

"Yes, he is."

"Is there any reason I should not have you arrested for abducting him?"

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