~ oOo ~

Sorry, I won't take up much of your time up here, but just wanted
to say thank you to those of you who have reviewed or added this
story to your alerts already. The chapters will all be roughly this
length for anybody wondering! Anyways…enjoy

~ oOo ~

Summary: When two little girls were allowed to walk

home from school one bright spring day nobody could've

predicted the events that followed. The way two families

were torn apart by the vendetta of a deranged man.

Nearly twelve years on, we'll watch as the two girls stolen

away from their homes at eight years old fight to take

back their lives. If only it were as simple as escaping. AU

Pinky Promises

Chapter One

It's odd, where a person's mind can wander when they're trying not to think about what is happening to them. When they're trying to ignore the bite of leather against their skin, the sting of a calloused palm on their leg. Over and over and over, a mind can switch off to the pain while remembering the happiness of a previous life. Of a life left behind.

Well, not left behind. Stolen.

~ oOo ~

Two pale limbs stretched out from beneath a thin cover, a strawberry-blonde head peeking out seconds later. Scarlett leisurely blinked, long lashes sweeping drawn cheeks. She'd been awake already when the booming voice began its yelling through the locked and barricaded door. With a soft, silent sigh she rolled her head on the pillow to face her still-sleeping companion.

Reluctance swirled through her like a cloud of mist, because Rosalie looked so peaceful and calm, eyes closed and face relaxed in blissful ignorance. As soon as she wakes it would crumble to make way for the tears, just the same as every other day. It was the reason she hadn't already woken her, instead lying in bed for the hour she'd been awake, cocooned beneath the falsely reassuring cave made with their blankets. It had hurt to lay so still, the welts in her back fresh, but she hadn't wanted to disturb Rosalie's sleep.

"Move it! I can hear your lazy asses are still in bed!"

This time Scarlett jumped in fright, accidentally startling Rosalie. The latter let out a yelp and shot upright. With her hands clutching the pale green quilt to her chest, eyes flying around the room in momentary confusion, tears burst into her large blue eyes before tumbling down her cheeks as she fell into the waiting arms. The girls knew this routine like the back of their hands.

"Good dreams, right?" Scarlett whispered softly into Rosalie's auburn-blonde hair.

"We were…" Rosalie breathed a drawn-out sigh. "We were back there."

The reminder made them shudder. Memories of happier days and sunny smiles brought them more sorrow than joy. But it was better that way.

"It's all right, Ro, you're ok."

Five long minutes later they untangled their arms and legs, sitting up to face each other. Scarlett fixed sea-blue-green eyes on Rosalie's teary blue, clasping her bare shoulders gently, the red straps of the camisole she was wearing having slipped down to hang against her upper-arms. "You're with me and you're ok. We're gonna go downstairs and get breakfast served, then do our chores so we can come back up here and be done with people. You hear me, Ro?"

Rosalie's heart gradually slowed to a normal rate, the tears abating and her breathing regulating. "You're the best, you know that?"

Scarlett's slight grin pulled a watery one from Rosalie, too, and that was when they knew they were as ready as they'd ever be to get up and get sorted for the exhausting day ahead. Rosalie unfolded her slim frame from the double bed, tugging on a thick gray sports hoodie to ward off the Montana chill as she headed for the small bathroom attached to their bedroom.

Meanwhile, Scarlett huffed a long breath and pulled herself together. It wasn't just Rosalie requiring her reassurance each morning.

"Well hello there, little one," she cooed, lifting the edge of the blankets up to peer beneath them.

A pair of wide, large blue-green eyes just like her own peered back at her, set in a small, heart-shaped face she knew from once upon a time.

Scarlett smiled, beckoning for the child to crawl up to her chest. Only once the little girl was nestled into her did she speak again. "Did you sleep well?"

Her only response was a slight nod against the curve of her neck, and a gentle sigh.

"Ok, well let's go potty, then see about some breakfast."

Rosalie was just finishing up when Scarlett stepped into the bathroom with the girl on her hip, their faces tipped towards one another.

"Morning, Marley moo. Did you sleep good?"

Marley nodded, lips curling up in a still-sleepy smile. Rosalie pressed a kiss to her mane of chocolate curls, passing the hair brush from her hand to Scarlett's so that she could comb out the knots in Marley's hair. Scarlett set it down on the back of the toilet, first taking time to allow Marley to go potty before using the toilet herself, then setting about washing both of their faces and hands. Marley had woken up somewhat by the time Scarlett got around to taming her curls, and was contentedly toying with the ears of her beloved Mister Eddie – a stuffed bunny who had definitely seen better days.

"So, babygirl, braids or bunches?"

Marley turned, cocking her head not unlike a confused puppy. Scarlett smiled, tickling the soft pink shell of Marley's ear.

"Bunches it is."

Happy with the decision, Marley resumed her twisting of Mister Eddie's ears, sitting perfectly still while Scarlett unsnarled her hair before restraining it in two long bunches, one either side of her head, with a pair of hair ties – one white, one yellow. Once the girl's hair was taken care of Scarlett brushed the tangles from her own, almost waist-length, hair. It was one of the few pleasures she had left in life. It reminded her of better days as the brush tugged through her soft tresses. She tried not to cry at the thought of the person who used to do this for her. Every morning and every night before bed. It was their routine, one they both cherished.

As Rosalie called through that it was time to head downstairs, Scarlett was reminded that it wasn't their routine anymore.

Just hers.

The pair trooped silently down the stairs, arms looped together between their bodies, Marley clinging to Scarlett's body like a limpet, her face buried in her neck once more. Scarlett's eyes swept the area as they moved, while Rosalie's stayed firmly trained on the dark wooden floor underfoot. When they reached the kitchen Scarlett and Rosalie released simultaneous sighs. They were alone.

"All right. Coffee. Sit."

Rosalie sat at the counter on a worn stool, getting to work weighing out ingredients while Scarlett busied herself making a fresh batch of coffee, pouring away the little left in the pot in lieu of making their own. No way would she risk drinking it.

"What time is it?"

"Er, we have about half-hour 'til the guys start getting down here."

By then, just after five am, they knew it wouldn't be long before a team of grumpy, sleepy men began arriving for their hot breakfast to energize themselves in preparation for a tiring day of work in the thick snow. Scarlett continued talking to Rosalie and Marley – only the former offering any verbal answers – while she worked. She encouraged Rosalie to keep her head in the present, not wandering in the past as it so often did. It was safer not to think of their past. At least not yet.

The girls worked in tandem, talking in hushed tones until Rosalie ran upstairs to fetch jackets for them to wear over their thin tops. Once the fire had been stoked the jackets wouldn't be necessary, but until then the extra layer was needed to keep out the cold let in by the draughty old house.

It was just after six and Marley had just had her first coaxed sips of milk when the first men took their seats at the tables in the dining area. During the winter months there were considerably less mouths to feed, so Scarlett and Rosalie weren't too worried they were a few minutes behind. They got to say their 'good morning's and hand out steaming cups of coffee at a leisurely pace. As usual, Scarlett did the majority of the serving while Rosalie hung back in the kitchen with Marley, whose grumpiness had begun to wane as she gradually woke up. Scarlett's habit of taking over the serving was just something she'd always done. It was all-but second nature to her, at this point.

"Thankin' you kindly, Miss." One of the stable hands grinned and tipped his hat at Scarlett as she poured his third cup of coffee in ten minutes. "You sure make a mighty fine coffee, Scarlett."

Her lips twitched upwards just a touch with her reply. "I have a lot of practice, Emmett. You lot go through coffee as quickly as we can make it."

There were chuckles all-round in reply despite the early hour. She knew for sure then that the master of the house had left. Nobody laughed when he was in residence.

A few minutes later, a quick glance at the clock reminded Scarlett that, if the men didn't get a move on, they'd be running late all day. Experience told her there'd be hell to pay if the schedule went out the window, even if it wasn't the men responsible who would take the punishment. With a wince, the blonde gently ushered the men away from their tables and empty plates, shooing them towards the door where piles of worn work boots, jackets, and scarves were heaped.

"Get going, then. It'll take a while for you to sort through that lot anyway."

Emmett rolled his gray-blue eyes with a wry grin and stood, gulping back his scalding hot coffee with barely a grimace. The familiarity made Scarlett smile.

"Yes, Ma'am. I suppose we'll be seeing you for lunch, then."

Once assured that she, Rosalie, and Marley – a firm favorite in the men's books – would be joining them for lunch, Emmett smiled wide. He always seemed pleased when the girls joined him and his fellow ranch hands, be it for mealtimes or outside in the barn. They occasionally ventured outside to join him in the barn if they'd been told to, and it always warmed Scarlett to see the ease with which the men interacted.

So uninhibited.

So opposite to how she and Rosalie acted.

So not important, Scarlett reminded herself, collecting the last of the dirtied plates to begin the clean up.

~ oOo ~

Later, Rosalie and Scarlett wrapped a large, fluffy blanket around their shoulders and sat near the fireplace upstairs, gazing out at the falling snow. Marley had created a nest of blankets and cushions, content to nap near to the older girls with the tip of her bunny's ear between her rosebud lips. With every puff of breath an escaped chocolate curl lifted before floating back to rest over her fire-warmed cheek.

Surrounded by six-feet high bookshelves made of the same wood as the walls, fire crackling and mugs of coffee warming their hands, Scarlett and Rosalie were the most relaxed they'd been all day. Lunchtime drew nearer, but with the food already prepared they had some time to take a break. After lunch they would be joining some of the men outside in the barn for a couple of hours. It kept them going, knowing they wouldn't be cooped up in the house all day.

One o'clock came and went. A fresh blanket of snow rested against the already thick cover, wind rattling the windows and seeping through the gaps to make the flames in front of the girls dance a sinister routine. Neither of them had an appetite, so instead of joining the men down below they sat in silence, ignoring the noise from the floor below and soaking up each other's freely offered comfort instead.

Rosalie broke the silence first.

Setting her empty mug down on the floor, she reached up to run gloved fingers through her reddish blonde hair. Scarlett's ever-watchful eyes caught the movement.

"D'you want me to braid it for you?" She whispered.

Rosalie barely hesitated for a second before nodding. She turned slightly so her hair would be easier for Scarlett to reach, baby-blue eyes sliding shut as Scarlett deftly split and twined together sections of her wavy hair in a neat French braid. The actions were soothing for the both of them. Something familiar.

The first time Scarlett braided Rosalie's hair was when they were six. When they were happy. Safe.

Rosalie couldn't return the favor because she got muddled, but she'd always enjoyed repaying Scarlett with other things. An extra bun here or there when they had the ingredients for baking, or an extra sandwich if they had enough that it wouldn't be noticed.

"Do you want to muck out or groom today?" Scarlett asked softly a moment later.

Rosalie rolled her eyes. "You always ask and I always say the same. You groom. I know you prefer it."

"But then you have to muck out. Are you sure you don't mind?"

They both know the only thing Scarlett finds any enjoyment in on the ranch is spending time grooming the horses, however fleeting or limited that time may be. What Scarlett didn't know was that Rosalie was all-too-ware of the sacrifices she made for her – or most of them, anyway – and thus took every opportunity she could to make her life easier in return. She saw the way Scarlett watched out for her constantly as well as Marley, the way she took any punishments coming their way without complaint. If she could give Scarlett this one thing, grooming the horses, she'd do it every day without a second thought.

"I swear I don't mind," she promised, leaning back onto Scarlett's bent knees as she tied the bands from her wrist around the end of the finished braid.

The slam of the front door bouncing in its hinges had the same effect as a bucket of ice water thrown over the girls. Marley flew up from her nest, eyes wide and filling with tears as she scampered across the floor into Scarlett's lap.

Only one person would be using the front door at this time, while the men were out working. Simultaneously Scarlett's body tensed fiercely before forcibly relaxing. Noisy, ominous footsteps could be heard moving across the bottom floor of the ranch house. From the entrance, to the smaller living area, then to the kitchen. The girls sat in deathly silence. Marley trembled against Scarlett's chest, clinging tighter.

"Scarlett!"

"Oh hell…" Rosalie breathed. The anger in the masculine yell was plain to hear.

Scarlett's heart thundered as she slowly rose, first to her knees, then her feet. Marley's fingers gripped her painfully. The soft blanket they'd been wrapped in moments before fell from her shoulders. It pooled in a red mess on the floor.

"I'll be back soon, ok? Go to our room and get our things ready for the stables."

Both girls' stomachs churned as they stared at each other. The outcome was inevitable. Deep down, they both knew it.

Tears burned Rosalie's eyes when Scarlett inhaled sharply, prying Marley's grip from her and whispering reassurances into her ear as she moved her to Rosalie's waiting embrace. Scarlett took a step backwards before forcing a tiny, meant-to-be reassuring smile and walking stiffly down the stairs like a woman walking to her execution. Just after a door slammed on the other side of the house, she called back for Rosalie to hurry.

A couple of minutes later, Rosalie curled around Marley in their bed upstairs beneath the cover, her face hot with fear, embarrassment, and hurt. Her knuckles turned white with the force she was using to grip the cover. Though neither girl ever mentioned it, Rosalie knew what happened when Scarlett was called to the study.

Especially in that tone of voice.

She'd seen the limp Scarlett sometimes tried to hide. She'd seen the bruises.

With the first hint of a raised voice Rosalie buried Marley's face in her chest and begun frantically singing a song she'd always remember. The fact that she hadn't heard it in over a decade meant nothing.

The words to this particular song would be engrained on her heart for as long as she lived.

And so she sang it. Over and over. And over. Until Marley had cried herself to sleep, and her own tears had saturated the pillow beneath her face.

~ oOo ~

"Calm down, boy. It's just me." With a slow, measured hand Scarlett smoothed the dark gelding's forelock, gazing into his solemn, chocolate brown eyes. "C'mon Bear, help me out, here."

He'd been skittish and nervous all morning, pawing at his stall door until Scarlett let herself in, yet he'd refused to let her brush him, which usually calmed the big brute. Every time she moved from her position at his head he spun, grumpily hitting her with his muzzle.

"What's wrong, huh?"

"Talkin' to that horse again?"

Rosalie heard Emmett's good-natured ribbing from the opposite end of the barn. Deciding to take a break from sweeping the feed room, she rested her broom against the nearest wall, reaching Bear's stall just as Scarlett tossed a week glare over her shoulder at the jovial stable hand leaning on the door. Rosalie's eyes danced away from his when he glanced down at her beside him.

"All right, Missy?"

The pair talked quietly for the next few minutes. Scarlett's perceptive eyes missed nothing. She caught the way Rosalie's cheeks flushed slightly at his attention, her tone soft but certain. It made Scarlett smile to see her calm.

Bear's mood eventually evened out enough for her to get him groomed, moving onto Rosalie's favorite Frisian mare, Pamplinas. The flighty mare always managed to amuse anybody who entered her stall. She'd been dubbed 'Pam' on account of her long Spanish name, loosely translated to mean 'moonshine', being a mouthful. The ranch hands often laughed at her ornery nature.

"What's for dinner tonight then, ladies?" Scarlett turned her head to look at Emmett, leaning against the open door next to Rosalie. They'd followed from Bear's stall to Pam's. As had Marley. She was sitting, silent as always, on the cobbled stone floor a couple of meters away from Emmett and Rosalie's feet. Her ears perked up at the mention of dinner.

"Lasagna sound good to you?"

The look on the man's face made both girls smile.

They could have predicted his reaction and the rest of the men would doubtlessly be the same. Their hearty appetites could always be counted upon. There was no such thing as wasted food or leftovers on the ranch, especially not during the winter when the temperature was so low. They all appreciated the hard work going into the meals as much as the heat the provided in their growling stomachs at the end of the day.

"Lasagna sounds great, Scarlett." He tipped his hat-clad head towards Rosalie, grinning impishly, "and I s'pose you did your tomato and chili sauce?"

At her hesitant nod Emmett refrained from reaching out to ruffle her hair like he wanted to. Something told him the gesture wouldn't be welcomed despite the rare half-smile she wore at the time. "Perfect."

A few minutes passed by, horses shuffling in their stalls, making sounds of greeting as the trio continued with their chores. Marley made the occasional rounds to give each of them nose-pats before climbing onto a bale of hay near Scarlett to watch her work. The majority of the other ranch hands were out in the snow, just a small group in the barn until the girls had to return to the house to prepare the sides to go with the lasagna they'd promised.

Emmett watched the girls hurry up the freshly shoveled path to the ranch house, waving. Scarlett's arms were wound tight around Marley at her chest, Rosalie clinging to Scarlett's coat to help keep them both upright. Emmett smiled to himself when they stepped inside safely, shaking his head as he turned to climb up to the hayloft. With them snug in their home, the boss back early from his trip, Emmett could relax, sure in the knowledge that no harm would come to the girls.

How wrong he was.

~ oOo ~

Around the dinner table hours later, Rosalie's stomach churned, unable to appreciate the food she and Scarlett slaved over. For the twenty-second time her eyes flicked upwards to Scarlett's face, the blossoming bruise on her right cheek making her wince. Rosalie knew it was her fault that they'd gotten back to the house late earlier. Only by a couple of minutes, but…long enough to stoke the boss' ire. Now she had to watch as Scarlett chewed as slowly as possible. Pain filled her eyes with every movement of her jaw, no matter how small.

Eventually, the girls had attracted more attention than the boss could handle.

"Girls, get started on the cleaning if you're done," he barked from the head of the table, hazel eyes flashing with annoyance. Heavy with a warning the girls weren't willing to ignore.

The pair stood immediately, hustling into the kitchen where tears sprung to Rosalie's eyes.

"Are you ok? Do you want me to—"

"It's fine, Ro. Calm down." She cast a pointed look at Marley, clinging to her leg with wide, Bambi eyes.

Scarlett ignored the half-full plates they'd carried out with them to grab an icepack from the freezer. They were normally used for the ranch hands' pulled muscles, but one would do just fine for her bruised cheek. She caught the worried, tearful gaze Rosalie was throwing her way and forced a tiny smile to try and ease it, internally crying out at the agony the gesture evoked.

It had been a bad day. The boss was particularly angry for some reason, taking it all out on her. It wasn't an unusual way for him to manage his anger, but it had been some time since she'd had to take two punishments in such quick succession, leaving her feeling on edge, tired, and petrified that he wasn't finished. Emmett's questioning hadn't helped either, pushing her to mumble that she'd fallen on the stairs because she hadn't been able to think of anything else on the spot, particularly not with Rosalie blanching behind him looking for all the world as though she about to blurt out the truth.

"C'mon then, let's get this done before he moans about that, too. You wash, I'll dry and put away."

Before Scarlett could move, Marley tugged at the hem of her top insistently. Unable to crouch, she discarded the icepack, held a breath, and lifted Marley with shaking arms, stifling the scream clawing at her throat. She didn't want the poor child to know how badly it was hurting to hold her close.

Marley cocked her head, questions swimming in her eyes. Scarlett didn't need her to speak to know what she was asking with her doe eyes.

"I'm ok, babygirl." Marley didn't look convinced. "I'm all right, just a little sore from doing lots of work. Can I have some 'mooches? It'll make me feel better."

Despite being the youngest of the trio, Marley was arguably the most perceptive. She never missed a trick, and she most certainly wasn't mollified by Scarlett's assurance that she wasn't hurting. She protested with a quiet whine, but leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to Scarlett's unmarred cheek before following it up with one to the tip of her nose. She hesitated before the last kiss. It should have been placed exactly where the purple was begin to show through Scarlett's pale skin.

"It's ok, baby, just be gentle."

With worried eyes, a kink between her brows, and pursed lips, Marley closed the distance between their faces and brushed a featherlight kiss to Scarlett's bruised cheekbone. It was gentle enough that it didn't hurt, and Scarlett pulled back with as wide a smile as she could manage.

"Thank you. I feel a lot better now."

Marley scowled, but didn't complain when Scarlett carefully slid her down to her feet, and she took a seat on a stool while Scarlett set about filling the big metal sink with sudsy water, fetching a drying cloth from the cupboard when Rosalie took over with the washing-up.

Rosalie didn't try to speak to Scarlett about her bruises again, she clearly wasn't going to discuss it, so she'd have to go along with her plan to pretend nothing was out of the ordinary. As she cleaned lasagna from the plates, it pained Rosalie to admit even subconsciously that the bruises Scarlett wore weren't out of the ordinary.

Even though the duo were quiet as they washed, dried, and put away the dishes that had been dirtied, their minds whirred. Rosalie couldn't stop picturing Scarlett's face as she tried to eat the lasagna she usually loved.

Whilst Scarlett's thoughts were altogether different. They centered around their approaching birthday.

They'd be twenty-one.

Then, as she often was, Scarlett found herself distracted by another birthday coming soon.

January thirtieth.

Unbidden, her eyes jumped to Rosalie's profile. Though the date would upset her, she knew it would affect Rosalie more. The day would be a somber one, just like it had been for most of their lives.

"And we'll have a new guy arriving on the seventh. A cook, too. I want them to be up to scratch before I let them loose in the spring."

Two vastly different shades of blue eyes collided with body-numbing fear spreading through the girls as they listened to the boss telling the men in the dining room about their new colleagues. It sent ripples of anxiety through them. It had taken a long time, but they'd gotten used to the eight men there over the winter. Hearing that there would soon be two more, one they'd have to work with if they were indeed a cook, scared them more than they'd like to admit. As if that fear wasn't enough their stomachs were set rolling at the sound of a familiar, deep, sickening chuckle. It always freaked them out, how he could be so callous towards them but jovial in other company. In Scarlett's head she often referred to his dual personalities – the first, the disgusting pig she and Rosalie were well acquainted with; the second, the cheerful boss and loving father.

Marley edged closer, leaving her stool behind and clutching Mister Eddie to her chest as she wound an arm around Scarlett's thigh.

To stave off the paralysis creeping up her spine Scarlett reminded Rosalie to keep going with the washing up so they could go to their room sooner rather than later, smoothing a hand over Marley's head to soothe her until they could snuggle in bed. The only place they felt even a measure of safety.

"Seven dollars, fifty cents. How much is that with the rest?"

"Um, a hundred and eleven dollars. It's not great, but it's a start."

Carefully wrapping the bundle of change together in a sock, Scarlett tied the top before sliding it into place beneath a loose floorboard before covering it with the worse-for-wear rug. As she gingerly got to her feet she reminded herself not to show the pain caused by standing on her stamped-on-foot. Instead, she forced a smile for Rosalie and a slack-eyed Marley, settling on the bed with a resigned sigh.

"It's something."

Rosalie hugged herself tight, gazing out at the falling snow. "I guess you're right. More would be better though."

It wasn't a question, so Scarlett didn't bother answering. She opened an arm to Marley, managing a small smile when she girl curled into her embrace and swiftly relaxed enough to drift off to sleep. She'd been fighting it for hours. Since they went to bed two hours before, at least. Once her breaths had evened out and her little limbs had relaxed, Rosalie helped Scarlett shift her to the head of the bed and tuck her in. They both knew she'd wriggle down in the night and wake in the center of the bed as per usual, but they pillowed her head at the headboard regardless and pressed kisses to her soft forehead before taking their places either side of her.

The ranch hands finally made their way to bed around nine.

Rosalie listened as Emmett and his room-mate Jesse closed the door to their shared room next door, then to the other guys talking in their six-man bunk across the hall. A smile pulled at her lips when she heard a soft mewling from the window.

She hopped up, mindful of the sleeping child in the bed, to let two chilly cats inside.

Violet, a tabby with large, pale blue eyes made herself comfortable on the chair in the corner while her companion, a fluffy ginger tom, jumped neatly onto the bed to curl into Scarlett's side. He emitted a loud purr that made both girls laugh softly despite themselves.

"Make yourself at home," Scarlett hummed teasingly, ruffling his baby-soft fur.

Over the next hour or so the room was cloaked in complete darkness. The girls took turns in the bathroom, changing into warm, worn pajamas before climbing back into bed. Charlie, typically stubborn, didn't move and stayed in his perfect haven between Scarlett and Marley. Scarlett bade Rosalie goodnight, shifting until she was completely hidden from sight beneath the covers. It was her usual technique for getting to sleep, burrowed so deeply into the bed that she was just a ball curled slightly off-center. It was probably where little Marley got it from.

Rosalie, on the other hand, liked to spread out with her eyes above the cover so she could see the room around her. Not unlike a sentry guard, she mused as she rested her weary head against the thin pillow, drifting slowly into the safe, longed-for world they used to inhabit but could only dream of now.