DISCLAIMER: The Characters are the property of Spelling/Goldberg Productions and Viacom Entertainment. No copyright infringement is intended. The author retains the rights to the story.

TITLE: Fears, Secrets And Lies

RATING: PG-13 for subject matter

SETTING: 1985, nine years after the end of the series.

SUMMARY: Mary Kathryn Danko's new best friends are harboring a terrible secret, causing Mike and Jill to make adjustments in their family life.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: I want to thank Bridget for beta reading, as usual. Although this story is angst-ridden, the subject this time isn't Jill.

CHAPTER ONE: The New Neighbors

It was a cool early October day. Jennifer Gillis was driving home from the elementary school where she'd picked up her 10-year-old son, Thomas, 6-year-old daughter, Natalie and 8-year-old Mary Kathryn Danko, the daughter of hers' and her husband's best friends. Her newborn son, Eric, was sleeping in his baby carrier beside her. The kids looked out of the back window of Jen's car when she pulled into the driveway. There was a moving van parked in the street in front of the house across the street.

"Mom, somebody's moving into the haunted house," Thomas exclaimed in excitement as he pointed a finger out the window.

"Thomas, the Bendel house isn't haunted," his mother explained for what seemed to be the hundredth time. She turned off the engine and removed the baby from his carrier. "How many times do we have to tell you?" She told him as they all piled out of the car.

"Can we go over and introduce ourselves?" Mary Kate asked eagerly, anxious to see if the new family had any girls her age.

"Yes, but don't get in the way and don't stay over there too long," Jen advised, walking toward the house. "Thomas, hold your sister's hand."

"Mom, I'm not a baby!" Natalie protested.

"Either he holds your hand or you can come in the house," Jen told her daughter in a firm voice.

"All right," she agreed petulantly, placing her hand in Thomas' as the three children started across the street.

There were two little girls standing in the front yard as a man and woman removed things from the moving van and took them into the house. At first the five children all stared at each other shyly.

"Hi," Mary Kate greeted, breaking the awkward silence. "I'm Mary Kate Danko. This is my best friend, Thomas Gillis, and that's his sister, Natalie. They live across the street and I live over there." She pointed to a house up the street.

"I'm Michelle Raeford and this is my sister, Savannah. Everybody calls me Shelly," the older girl said.

"How old are you?" Mary Kate asked.

"I'm nine and Savannah's five," Shelly told them. The younger girl stared at them with huge solemn eyes but never said a word.

"I'm eight, Thomas is ten and Natalie's six. Thomas and Natalie have a baby brother named Eric. I don't know how old he is," Mary Kate admitted.

"He was born in September, stupid," Thomas chided as he gently punched her in the arm. He was bored, especially since there didn't seem to be any boys around.

"Shelly!" A man's voice shouted, causing all of the children to jump. "Stop standing around and help get this van unloaded! It has to be back by six! Savannah, get your ass back in the house like I told you to earlier!"

"We have to go," Shelly said fearfully.

"Okay. It was nice to meet you," Mary Kate said in a subdued voice.

The man continued glaring at them as they slowly made their way back to the Gillis'. .

Mike picked Mary Kate up from the Gillis' shortly after five. The moving van was still parked across the street when they walked into the house. He walked into the kitchen and got things out for dinner. "Did you do your homework?" He asked methodically as she sat at the table.

"Uh-huh. Thomas has new neighbors," she explained.

"I saw the moving van," Mike commented as he walked to the sink. "Why don't you come over here and help me? Your mom's going to be home in a little while."

Mary Kate pulled a chair over to the sink and began to tear lettuce for salad.

"Do the new neighbors have kids?"

"Two girls," Mary Kate told him.

"Hey, that's great! You'll have someone else to play with," Mike stated

"Yeah, maybe," Mary Kate replied glumly.

"What's going on?" Jill asked, walking into the kitchen and kissing first Mike and then Mary Kate.

"Nothing. Mary Kate was telling me about the new neighbors," Mike told her.

"I know. I saw the van. I didn't think the realtor was ever going to sell the Bendel place," Jill observed, pouring a glass of iced tea.

"Thomas says it's haunted," Mary Kate announced in a hushed voice.

"Mary Kathryn, there's no such thing. Do the new neighbors have kids?" Jill asked as Mary Kate rolled her eyes. She wished that just once she'd only have to tell a story one time.

"They have two daughters," Mike pointed out. "But Mary Kate doesn't seem too enthusiastic about having someone new to play with."

"It's not that. Their dad's kind of creepy," Mary Kate confessed with a grimace.

"Mary Kathryn, that's not a very nice thing to say! You don't even know the man," Jill admonished, getting plates out and setting the table.

"I don't have to know him. I'm telling you that he's creepy," she repeated.

Upstairs at the Raeford house, Shelly was lying on her bed looking out the window at the Gillis house. Over there everything looked bright and cheerful, while in her new house everything was as dark and gloomy as it had ever been. It had been that way in San Francisco, Phoenix, Las Vegas and the other towns they'd lived in over the years. She looked toward her doorway to find Savannah standing there.

Savannah had dirty blonde hair that hung past her shoulders in tangles. Her eyes were huge, dark brown and never missed anything. Shelly was the opposite in looks with her long brown hair and lighter eyes. She was far more open than her little sister, who was withdrawn and didn't speak. Savannah knew some sign language, but Shelly seemed to understand everything Savannah said without words.

"Tomorrow's the first day in a new school. Do you think everything will be better here?" Shelly asked hopefully.

Savannah came over, sat on the bed and rested her head on her arms.

"You can't tell, Shelly," Savannah signed to her. "It's not safe to make friends."

"Don't you ever want to have friends, Savannah? Just one time?" She asked in a small voice.

"We have each other. We don't need friends," Savannah signed.

"You girls had better be in bed," a voice boomed up the stairs. "If I come up there, there's going to be hell to pay!"

The next morning Mike dropped Mary Kate off at Jen's for the ride to school. Mary Kate looked across the street at the Raeford's but it didn't appear that anybody was up yet.

When Jen and the children came outside a short time later, Shelly and Savannah were getting ready to leave with a woman in a faded housedress and light jacket. The two girls were dressed in jumpers that appeared far too large for them.

"You kids get in the car," Jen instructed the children. She then walked across the street. "Excuse me. I'm Jennifer Gillis. I live across the street. My two children attend Irving Avenue Elementary. I take turns carpooling with the Danko's. They live in the white frame house up the street. I'd be more than happy to include your daughters in the carpool."

"I don't drive," the woman told her shortly, not bothering to introduce herself.

"That's okay. I don't mind taking them to school and picking them up afterwards," Jen stammered.

"If you'll excuse me, I need to get the girls to school so they can get registered," the woman snapped coldly, putting her hand in the small of Shelly's back to prod her into moving.

"Do you need a lift?" Jen offered.

"The girls need to walk so they can learn the route," the woman declined shortly. She and the two girls began walking up the street without looking back.

"Mom, Eric's crying and we're going to be late," Thomas shouted.

Mary Kate was sitting in her third grade classroom a little while later working on a math assignment when the principal walked in leading Shelly, who looked at Mary Kate and smiled in recognition. The principal spoke to the teacher for a few minutes before leaving the room. The teacher stood behind Shelly with her hands on her shoulders as they faced the class.

"Children, this is Michelle Raeford. She's joining us from San Francisco. I hope you all do your very best to make her feel welcome here," Miss Collier announced sternly as Mary Kate raised her hand. "Yes, Mary Kate? What is it?"

"Can Shelly sit by me?" Mary Kate asked.

"Oh, I see you already know each other," Miss Collier observed.

"She lives in my neighborhood," Mary Kate confirmed, nodding.

"Then I'll put you in charge of showing Shelly around," Miss Collier decided.

Mary Kate beamed proudly.

Shelly shyly took the seat on the other side of Mary Kate.

"I can only show you around until after lunch," Mary Kate whispered, leaning towards Shelly.

"What happens after lunch?" Shelly asked curiously.

"I'm in the Gifted And Talented Program. I take reading, grammar and history with the fifth graders," Mary Kate explained.

Meanwhile, the principal was looking over Savannah's transcripts. He finally looked at Mrs. Raeford.

"Why doesn't Savannah talk? I've checked her records and I don't see anything mentioned about any kind of hearing problems," The principal inquired..

"She's not deaf, she just doesn't talk," the mother corrected sharply. "They started teaching her sign language at her last school. She's very smart..much smarter than her sister."

"Mrs. Raeford, I just don't see how we can integrate Savannah into a kindergarten class when she can't even speak," the principal told her.

"Look, she can hear and she can spell. The law says you have to let her into school! I can't have her hanging around with me all day," the woman insisted, acting as if Savannah were part of the woodwork instead of sitting right beside her.

"Very well. You're right about the law. I'm just concerned about how cruel other children can be. Come along, Savannah. Let's get you into a classroom," the principal sighed, giving in to the inevitable. He got to his feet and motioned to her to follow him.

Savannah got to her feet quickly and followed him. Anything was better than going home.

Shelly sat with Mary Kate and several of her friends at lunch. She looked around anxiously for her sister. "What time do the kindergarten kids eat lunch?" Shelly asked worriedly.

"They eat first," Mary Kate answered. "Don't worry about Savannah. Mrs. Fields was my kindergarten teacher and she's very nice. I'm sure that's who she has. How long did you live in San Francisco?"

"Not very long. Have you always lived in the neighborhood?" Shelly asked, opening her milk.

"Ever since I was a baby. What does your dad do? My dad's a police officer, so is Thomas's dad and the man who lives next door to you. They've been friends for a long time, long before I was born, even," Mary Kate answered.

"My - my dad drives one of those big trucks," Shelly stammered, panic-stricken. "He's out of town a lot. Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

"I had a brother, but he died, so now it's just me," Mary Kate stated agreeably as she took a bite out of her sandwich.

"Aren't you lonely?" Shelly asked curiously. She couldn't imagine not having a sister.

"Not any more," Mary Kate smiled. "Can you come over after school? I have a great tree house. Thomas and I play in it all the time."

"My mom doesn't let us go anywhere. We have to be at home when my dad gets there," Shelly answered remorsefully. "And I'm not allowed to play with boys."

"Why not?" Mary Kate asked in surprise.

"Because my dad says boys are only after one thing," Shelly explained.

The other girls looked at each other in mystification, not knowing what she was talking about.

CHAPTER TWO: Suspicions Arise About The New Girls

When Jen pulled into the driveway that afternoon after picking up the children from school, Mary Kate noticed that her father's car was parked in the driveway.

"My dad's home early. Thomas, are you coming over later?" She asked, grabbing her book bag.

"After I do my homework. Are you going to be in the tree house?" He asked.

"Probably," she replied as she looked across the street and noticed Shelly and Savannah sitting on their front porch. "I think I'll go see if Shelly can come over, too."

"Great! Just what I need, a tree house full of girls," Thomas grumbled. "Don't you think they're kind of weird, Mary Kate? I mean, look at the way they're dressed."

"Maybe they don't have much money. Anyway, it's my tree house and I'll invite whoever I want over," she shot back.

"I thought it was OUR tree house. My dad helped build it, too, you know," he told her in a slightly hurt voice.

"Well, it's in MY backyard," she countered, not wanting to lose the upper hand.

"Fine, have it your way. I'll climb the fence after I finish my homework, but if they're up there, I'm coming back home," he announced, going toward the house.

Mary Kate carefully looked both ways before crossing the street to the Raeford's. "Hi," she called out as she approached the front porch.

"Hi," Shelly answered as Savannah just stared.

"I was going to go home and do my homework and then play in my tree house for a while. Can you come over?" Mary Kate invited.

Savannah poked Shelly and shook her head.

"What's wrong with your sister?" Mark Kate asked curiously.

"Nothing," Shelly snapped, glaring at her little sister. "My dad's going to be home in a little while. Then we have dinner and go to bed."

"But it's early," Mary Kate pointed out in surprise.

"My dad has to get up early in the morning, especially when he goes out of town. When he goes to bed, everybody has to go to bed," Shelly told her new friend.

"Maybe you can have dinner at my house," Mary Kate suggested.

"Maybe. I'd have to ask my mom, but if I come I have to take Savannah. I'm not allowed to go anywhere without her," Shelly stated, standing up and walking toward the front door with her sister in tow.

"That's okay. My mom and dad won't mind," Mary Kate said. "I'll wait here while you go ask."

Savannah launched into a tirade as soon as they walked into the house and shut the door. With a lot of gestures and signs, Shelly made out what Savannah was trying to tell her.

"They won't care if we eat somewhere else, Savannah! At least this way, we'll get something decent to eat. You can go or you can stay here with them. It's up to you," Shelly exclaimed, going to find their mother.

Mrs. Raeford was passed out in front of an old black & white TV, which was blaring a TV Game Show. Shelly took a deep breath and gently shook her mother awake.

"What do you want, Michelle? Is your father home, yet?" Mrs. Raeford asked blearily, opening one eye and staring at her older daughter.

"My friend Mary Kate's invited us to have dinner at her house. Can we go?" Shelly asked, crossing her fingers behind her back.

"Are there boys over there?" Mrs. Raeford asked suspiciously.

"Just Mary Kate's father," Shelly answered.

"You take Savannah with you and don't you go answering any questions! That broad across the street told me that this street is full of cops! I'll send your father over to pick you girls up at 7 o'clock and you'd better be ready," Mrs. Raeford warned.

"Yes, ma'am. We'll be ready," Shelly said, practically running out of the room before her mother could change her mind.

Mike was reading the paper when the front door opened and Mary Kate walked in followed by the other two girls. "Daddy, these are my friends Shelly and Savannah Raeford. This is my dad. Can they stay for dinner?" Mary Kate asked breathlessly.

"Yeah, they can stay for dinner," Mike agreed with a smile. "Have you done your homework?"

"Not yet. I was going to do it right now. I'm going to help Shelly catch up with her math," Mary Kate explained as the three girls walked toward the kitchen.

Shelly and Savannah looked around the Danko's home in awe. To the two of them, it looked like something out of a movie. Savannah stopped by the staircase, looking at some pictures of Mary Kate in a black velvet riding habit atop a beautiful chestnut horse. She looked at Shelly and made some signs.

"What's she saying?" Mary Kate asked.

"She wants to know if that's your horse," Mike replied.

"You know sign language?" Shelly blurted in surprise.

"Some. The horse actually belongs to a friend. Mary Kate takes riding lessons on him. Do you like horses?" He asked the girls.

"Savannah likes every animal. We want a dog, but my dad says they're too much trouble," Shelly explained.

Savannah glared at her warningly.

"We'd better get to our homework," Shelly concluded hastily. "Come on, Savannah."

After completing their homework the girls walked into the backyard where a huge black Labrador retriever greeted them. Savannah drew back in fear.

"He doesn't bite," Mary Kate explained with a smile as she reached down and scratched the dog behind the ears. "Well, he bites bad guys but he won't bite us," she amended.

"What's his name?" Shelly asked as they took turns petting the dog.

"Code Seven. We call him Seven for short," Mary Kate replied, leading them over to the tree house. "You're not scared of heights, are you?"

"Not me," Shelly replied.

Savannah shook her head in the negative.

The three girls climbed up in the tree and sat down on three plastic chairs that were up there. Savannah looked at her sister and signed something.

"Savannah says this must be what Heaven is like. You're lucky," Shelly told her friend.

"My dad can help your dad build a tree house like this if you want," Mary Kate offered.

"My dad doesn't like people poking around," Shelly exclaimed hastily, turning pale.

Savannah viciously pinched Shelly to get her to shut up before she got them both into trouble.

"Can Savannah teach me to sign, too?" Mary Kate asked hopefully.

Savannah smiled shyly and nodded.

The girls were sitting in the tree house practicing sign language when Mary Kate heard another car in the driveway. "My mom's home," she exclaimed happily, jumping up. "We'll be having dinner in a few minutes. Come on!"

Mike was finishing setting the table when the three girls ran into the house. "I did your job, young lady," he told his daughter sternly.

Mary Kate gave him a guilty look.

"It's okay," Mike reassured her affectionately. "Go show your friends where to wash up. Your mom's home."

"I bet your dad's going to give you an awful beating now," Shelly confided as they walked into the bathroom to wash their hands.

"Not for forgetting to set the table," Mary Kate remarked absently, turning on the water and scrubbing her hands with the soap.

Jill was in the kitchen talking to Mike when the three girls re-entered. Mary Kate introduced the girls to Jill before showing them where to sit. Jill was shocked by their appearance. They were both dressed in long jumpers that were far too large, making them look more like shapeless blobs than little girls. Their hair looked like it hadn't been combed properly in ages. Mike had made spaghetti, figuring that all kids liked spaghetti and he wasn't wrong. Both girls ate like they hadn't seen food in months. Shelly kept glancing furtively at the clock on the kitchen wall, feeling like time was running out. Both girls jumped when the doorbell rang an hour earlier than it was supposed to.

"That's our dad! We have to go!" Shelly exclaimed in a panic stricken voice, jumping up so fast that she almost knocked her chair over.

"Whoa! You girls relax. I'll get it," Mike told them, getting up and walking to the front door where a tall gangly man was waiting. The man had collar length dirty blonde hair and was dressed in dirty jeans and an old tee shirt. He looked too much like the smaller girl sitting at their dinner table for Mike to mistake who he was.

"My wife said my daughters were here. Tell them it's time to go," the man said in a loud voice as the two girls came running into the room, followed by Jill and Mary Kate. "Get your things and let's go. It's past your bedtime."

"Excuse me, Mr. Raeford? I'm Mike Danko, this is my wife, Jill and our daughter, Mary Kate. We were in the middle of dinner. I'd be more than happy to bring the girls home after we've eaten," Mike offered politely.

"I'm their father and I want them home, now! Michelle, are you deaf? Get your things, your sister and let's go!" Raeford snapped impatiently.

Shelly gathered her books together and the two two girls practically flew out of the door, their father following close behind them.

Mike slowly closed the door and looked at Jill, who was still standing with Mary Kate in the kitchen doorway.

"Mary Kathryn, let's get the table cleared off," Jill finally said, leading her daughter back into the kitchen.

Mike picked up the phone and called Terry first, since he lived next door. "Hey, it's me. Have you had any run-ins with your new neighbors?"

"Except for the fact he glares at me every time he sees me, no. Why?" Terry asked, looking at his girlfriend, Serena.

"Mary Kate invited the children over for dinner. He just showed up and demanded that they leave in the middle of the meal. He just about exploded when I offered to bring them home after dinner. He made some excuse about it being their bedtime," Mike explained slowly, trying to keep his voice down.

"Bedtime? Mike, it's six o'clock!" Terry objected.

"No kidding," Mike commented, rolling his eyes. "I'm just wondering if we should run a check on him...see if anything comes up," Mike wondered out loud.

"We can run it by Ryker and see what he says. I haven't seen or heard anything strange, but they've only been there a couple of days," Terry remarked. "Mary Kate okay?"

"I think she's just a little shook up. She did say last night that he seemed a little creepy. I'll find out what she meant," Mike replied. "Anyway, keep your ears opened and I'll talk to you later."

"Okay. Good night," Terry concluded, hanging up the phone.

Jill and Mary Kate were washing dishes when Mike walked back into the kitchen. He thought for a few minutes before walking over to the sink and standing beside Mary Kate, who was sitting on her knees on a kitchen chair.

"Mary Kate, you said something last night about Mr. Raeford being creepy. What did you mean by that?" He asked calmly.

Jill shot him a curious look.

"I don't know," she mumbled, staring at the floor. "He didn't want them outside talking to us. Shelly told me today that she couldn't come over and play if Thomas is here."

"Did she say why?" Mike queried in a curious voice.

"She said that her dad told her that boys are only after one thing." She looked up at Mike with wide eyes. "Dad, what's the one thing boys are after?"

"I'll explain that later," he hedged hastily, clearing his throat and tugging at his collar. "What else did she say?"

"That she can't go anywhere unless she brings Savannah with her," Mary Kate continued.

"That's not a problem. They're both more than welcome over here. Did she say why Savannah doesn't talk?" Mike asked.

"No, but I know she can hear. Savannah's smart, though. She did Shelly's math problems before Shelly did," Mary Kate explained, climbing off the chair and sliding it back to the table. "Can I have ice cream now?"

"Sure, go ahead," Jill told her, folding her dish towel and putting it on the counter.

At the Raeford house, things weren't nearly as pleasant. Mrs. Raeford jumped as the two girls ran into the house, followed by their very irate father.

"What were you thinking, letting them go to a neighbor's?" Jack Raeford bellowed at his wife, slamming the door furiously. "You let them start associating with the neighbor's and the next thing you know, this one's shooting off her mouth again and we lose another kid!" He shouted, jerking his thumb at Shelly.

"Jack, I'm sorry. I didn't see any harm in it and they knew you were picking them up," Irene Raeford meekly told her husband.

Jack Raeford looked over as Savannah's fingers began flying. "Stop it with that damn sign language!"

"She's trying to tell you something," Shelly explained quietly.

"Oh, yeah, Miss Smarty Pants?! And what would that be?" He asked sarcastically.

"She said that he's a police officer. So is the man next door and the man across the street," Shelly whispered, cringing.

"Do you mean to tell me that we've rented a house in a neighborhood full of cops?" He demanded as his face turned beet red. He looked at his wife in disbelief.

"Jack, I didn't know! The agent never said anything," Irene pleaded, slowly backing away from him.

"Yeah, and I bet you didn't ask, did you? You girls, get upstairs! I'll be up in a minute to deal with you," he snapped ominously as he slowly made his way towards his wife.

Both girls ran upstairs, too scared to argue.

Jill was lying in bed that night while Mike brushed his teeth. The two little girls were still very much on both of their minds.

"Did you see them at dinner, Mike? You'd think they hadn't eaten in months," she observed thoughtfully.

Mike came out of the bathroom and looked at her, toothbrush still in his hand. "Terry and I are going to talk to Ryker tomorrow about seeing if Raeford has any warrants on him," Mike said. He went back into the bathroom, rinsed his mouth and got into bed.

"I don't think he does, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's abuse going on," Jill commented.

"You noticed the dresses, too?" He asked quietly.

She nodded silently, reaching over and taking his hand in hers.

The next evening everybody gathered at Willie and Jen's house for their weekly potluck dinner. It was a night where everybody got together and brought a dish and caught up on what was going on. Tonight, however, the topic of conversation was the people across the street. Jen told the guys and Capt. Ryker about her run-in with Mrs. Raeford the morning after the family had moved in.

"She made it very clear that the girls were to have little or nothing to do with the rest of us. I told her that Mike and I'd be happy to include the girls in the carpool, even though she doesn't drive," Jen concluded as she picked up Eric, who'd started to fuss.

"What about their father?" Jill asked.

"You can't run a make on him just because he's strict, Jill. From what I remember my father was a very strict man, too, " Ryker told her.

"Eddie, there's strict and there's barbaric! I'm sorry, but there's something very strange about a man who'd make his children go to bed at six o'clock at night," Jill challenged her old friend.

"I noticed something else this morning when I was leaving to take the kids to school. Those girls have had the same clothes on for the past three days, with one addition this morning. They were both wearing long sleeved blouses and tights," Jen observed.

"You women are jumping to conclusions!" Ryker shouted. "It was cool this morning! Did you put long sleeves on your children before sending them to school?"

"Yes, but..." Jen started to say, still not used to Ryker's temper.

"Until you can come up with something more concrete, we can't do anything," he overrode, sympathizing with the two women.

"Yeah, Jen, if we go storming into their home like the Beaches of Normandy, they're liable to sue us for false arrest and anything else they can think of," Willie told his wife.

"The thing that's been bothering me more than anything else is the little girl. She can hear but she doesn't speak. I can't say why that bothers me so much, but it does," Mike told the group.

"She doesn't make any sounds at all?" Terry asked, stunned.

"I don't know. They were only over for a little while last night before the chief of the Gestapo came for them. She talks in sign language," Mike replied.

"Jen, if what you said about the same clothes is true, the school will step in," Jill remarked thoughtfully.

"Why should the school step in before we do?" Jen demanded. "What if something happens to one or both of those girls and none of us did anything when we could have?!" She cried, leaving the room.

"I'll be back," Willie said, getting up and going after his wife.

"You know, I thought we had these once a week get-togethers so we could relax...not talk shop talk," Terry observed.

"I agree with Jen. We're all going to feel pretty awful if something happens and we could've prevented it," Jill rejoined in a quiet voice.

The kids had been playing cards in Thomas' bedroom when they heard Jen come upstairs, followed a few minutes later by Willie. Mary Kate poked her head out of the bedroom door in time to see Jen run by, crying.

"What's wrong with your mom?" Mary Kate asked as the other two children stuck their heads out of the door.

"You kids go back to your game," Willie instructed sharply, going to their bedroom and closing the door.

"I think they were talking about the weirdoes across the street. I heard them talking about them last night when they went to bed," Thomas answered, sitting down and picking up his cards. "Are you guys in or what?"

"Stop calling Shelly and Savannah weird!" Mary Kate hissed.

"They are, Mary Kate. Even Natalie says so. Right, Nat?" Thomas asked his little sister.

"Savannah's in your class, right, Natalie?" Mary Kate asked.

"Nobody'll play with her," Natalie confided. "I tried, but she acts like she's scared. Today, the teacher was mad at her because her hair was hanging in her eyes. When the teacher made her brush it back, she had a big bruise on her forehead. She said she hit it on her dresser," Natalie finished.

The other two children stared at her in silence for several moments.

"What do you mean, she said? She's a dummy!" Thomas commented derisively.

Mary Kate elbowed him sharply in the ribs.

"Ow!" Thomas exclaimed painfully, doubling over. "What did you do that for?"

"She's not a dummy! She's probably smarter than you are! She talks in sign language and Shelly said she's been spelling since she was three! So who's the dummy now?" Mary Kate yelled, throwing her cards at him and storming from the room.

"Mary Kate, wait!" Natalie shouted, following Mary Kate. "You can't tell. Not anybody."

"Why not?" Mary Kate demanded.

"I promised that we wouldn't tell. I told her I didn't see what the big deal was if she hit it on her dresser. I told her how I broke my arm falling out of your tree house. I want to be her friend but she's scared. I think it's because she can't talk," Natalie concluded.

Mary Kate was suspicious of Savannah's reasons for keeping her bruise secret, but she reluctantly agreed to Natalie's terms, at least for the time being.

One cool afternoon about a week later, Jill was driving toward home in a light drizzle when something caused her to pause and want to take a closer look. She pulled up in front of the Raeford house to find little Savannah huddled on the front porch, wet and shivering. Jill parked her car and got out. At first the little girl shrank back when Jill approached.

"Savannah? What are you doing out here by yourself? Did you get locked out?" Jill asked gently, looking around. There were no vehicles parked in the driveway but Jill remembered that Mr. Raeford owned the only car. Jill took off her sweater and wrapped it around the shivering child. "Savannah, where are your mother and Shelly? Did you walk home from school by yourself?"

Savannah started signing something, but Jill shook her head in frustration. Mike knew some sign language, but Jill knew the alphabet and that was it. She knew if she had Savannah spell everything, they'd be there all day. She then thought of Mary Kate. Savannah and Shelly had been teaching the other three children sign language and -- being children -- they picked up very quickly. Jill held out her hand to the little girl, who shrank back in terror.

"Savannah, sweetie, it's okay," Jill soothed, gently stroking Savannah's forehead. "I just want to take you to my house so Mary Kathryn can help me figure out what's going on. Besides, it's cold out here and you don't want to sit out in the rain, do you?"

Savannah shook her head and reluctantly got in the front seat of Jill's car and they drove up the street to the Danko's. Mike and Mary Kathryn were in the living room, working on Mary Kathryn's piano lesson. They were both surprised when Jill walked in with Savannah.

"She was sitting on her front porch in the rain, alone. I don't know where her mother or Shelly is. She tried to tell me but I can't understand what she's saying," Jill admitted, looking at Mary Kathryn for assistance.

"She said her mother had to go to the school for a conference with Shelly's teacher," Mary Kate translated.

"Why didn't you wait for them?" Jill asked.

"My mother told me not to. She told me to go home," Mary Kate translated. "She also said she has to be there waiting when she gets home."

Jill looked at Mike, her eyes pleading for some kind of assistance. There was no doubt in either of their minds that something was going on in that house, but Mike knew that if he didn't tread carefully, things could get very ugly very quickly.

"Savannah, how about some milk and cookies?" Mike suggested gently.

Savannah violently shook her head no, absolutely petrified..

"Sweetie, it's going to be okay," Mike continued softly. "We want to help you."

"I don't need any help," the little girl stated firmly.

"Look, we know you're scared, but it's going to be okay. We have to know what's going on with you and Shelly. You want to help Shelly, don't you?" Mike asked.

"I can't talk to you. They'll take us away," Savannah signed, bursting into tears.

"Nobody's going to take you anywhere. Did your father tell you that?" Mike asked as the doorbell rang. Savannah's eyes were huge as Jill went to answer the door. She wasn't surprised to find Mrs. Raeford standing there with Shelly.

"Is Savannah here?" Mrs. Raeford asked bluntly.

"Yes. She was sitting outside in the rain," Jill snapped angrily.

"I told her the key was under the front mat. I had a meeting," Mrs. Raeford said, motioning for Savannah to come with her.

"Mrs. Raeford, Savannah is five years old! How could you even think of making her walk home alone and then waiting for you alone once she got there?" Jill demanded.

"I don't tell you how to raise your kid. Don't tell me how to raise mine," the woman exclaimed furiously, walking off in a huff.

Jill looked at Mike and Mary Kathryn, who were still sitting at the piano in stunned silence. "Mary Kathryn, go to your room and finish your homework," Jill told her daughter.

"But, mom, I've already..." Mary Kathryn started to say.

"Please, Mary Kathryn. I need to talk to your dad," Jill interrupted.

Mary Kathryn studied the faces of her parents and slowly got up to make her way upstairs to her bedroom.

Jill waited until she heard Mary Kathryn's door close before she spoke again. "Mike, there's got to be something we can do! Something is going on in that house! What kind of a person makes a five-year-old walk home alone and then expects her to wait in the house alone? What if the house had caught fire?"

"Look, let me talk to the captain again tomorrow and we'll see what our options are. Jill, it's not that we don't all agree that there's something going on over there, but we have to play this by the letter. No one's actually seen any evidence of abuse. Its all suspicion right now," Mike told her, walking over and putting his hands on her arms.

"Mike, forcing a small child to sit in the rain is neglect! I've called DCFS on children in the hospital for much less," Jill exclaimed, shrugging his hands off of her.

"Babe, believe me, I'm not being unsympathetic here. There's something about those two little girls...especially that one that eats at me. If I could, I'd go over there right now and take them out of that house, but I can't. You know the law. You've been bound by it often enough, too, as I recall," he told her.

The next morning, Mike approached Capt. Ryker, who was talking to Terry and Willie. He told them what had happened the day before with Savannah.

"Can't you pull some strings with DCFS and find out if there's been any reports on the family?" Mike asked.

"Danko, I can make some inquiries, but as you know, if there's been any action taken by the court, the records are going to be sealed," Ryker told the sergeant.

"Yeah, I know. I just want to know if there've been any investigations. My gut tells me that this family is a tragedy waiting to happen," Mike told the three men.

"Let me make some calls and I'll get back to you," Ryker agreed, walking off.

Later that morning, Capt. Ryker walked into the offices of the Department Of Child And Family Services. He had an appointment with a caseworker he'd worked with a few times before. He tapped on a closed door.

"Come in," a voice called cheerfully from inside. "Well, Capt. Ryker, I haven't seen or heard from you since your promotion. Please, come in. What can I do for you?"

Liz Carlisle was a tall, slender woman with shoulder length red hair and sparkling green eyes. She'd worked for DCFS for almost twenty years.

"I was wondering if you could do me a favor and check on a family for me," Ryker began.

"Eddie, for you, you know I'd do just about anything, but you know I can't go into case files without a court order," Liz told her old friend reluctantly, biting her lower lip.

"I don't want you to go into any case files. I just need to know if there've been any open investigations involving this particular family in L.A. County," Eddie clarified.

"Okay, give me a name," Liz agreed reluctantly, realizing it was important. She pulled out a pen and sheet of paper.

"Raeford, R-A-E-F-O-R-D. I don't know the parent's first names, but they have two children. Michelle and Savannah, ages nine and five, respectively. Anything you can find out would be a huge help, Liz. We have reason to believe that these children are in danger," Eddie finished.

"If you didn't, you wouldn't be here. Let me do some checking and I'll get back to you. It might take a little while," Liz told him.

Ryker was in his office a few hours later when his phone rang. He picked it up on the first ring.

"Eddie, it's Liz Carlisle. I talked to my supervisor. He said that unless you're investigating the family for suspicion, there's no way I can check to see if there's anything on them," Liz told him reluctantly.

"That's what I thought, Liz. Look, we're really concerned about these children. Isn't there anything you can do on your end?" Eddie asked his long-time friend.

"Sorry, Eddie. Not without a court order," Liz told him. "Did you run a want on them to see if there'd been any arrests?"

"Yeah, I did that already. There's not so much as a parking ticket on either one of them," Eddie admitted glumly.

"I'm sorry I couldn't be more help," she replied sympathetically.

CHAPTER THREE: Things Begin To Heat Up

Several days later the younger children were eating lunch at school. Natalie and Savannah hadn't exactly become friends, but they did eat lunch together. Natalie opened her lunch box and took out a sandwich and some carrot sticks, carefully noting that all Savannah had in front of her was a carton of milk.

"If you tell Mrs. Fields that you forgot your lunch, she'll buy one for you," Natalie offered as she started to raise her hand.

Savannah quickly grabbed her arm and furiously shook her head.

"Savannah, you have to eat lunch! My dad made me a peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich. It's my favorite, but you can have half of it, okay?" Natalie divided the sandwich in two as carefully as she could and held half of it out to Savannah, who finally took it.

"Thanks," Savannah signed.

Natalie smiled.

"Where'd you get your bracelet?" She signed, pointing to a beaded bracelet Natalie had on her wrist.

"Mary Kate made it in art class. I can show you how to make them. That way you can make one for yourself and Shelly," Natalie offered.

Savannah frowned.

"What's wrong?"

"My dad won't let me have anything that pretty," Savannah signed.

"This isn't as pretty as the one Mary Kate's mom wears. What're you doing for Thanksgiving? My grandparents are coming down to see Eric. They've never seen him before," Natalie informed her friend. "Are your grandparents coming to visit?"

"I don't have any grandparents," Savannah lied.

"These are my mom's parent's. My dad's parents are dead. I heard my mom and dad say that Terry's getting a swimming pool put in his backyard. That'll be a lot more fun than paying fifty cents at the community center this summer. Can you swim?" Natalie chattered.

"No. Who's Terry?" Savannah asked.

"Sergeant Webster. He lives next door to you," Natalie explained.

"Oh, that's who I thought you were talking about. My dad doesn't like him. He says he's just like your dad and Mary Kate's dad...always butting into things that don't concern them," Savannah signed so quickly that Natalie almost couldn't keep up.

"Savannah, would you like to have my bracelet?" Natalie asked, untying the cord.

"I told you that my dad won't let me keep it," she told Natalie.

"You could hide it and just wear it here at school," Natalie suggested, holding out the brightly colored beaded bracelet.

Savannah took it, although she knew she was inviting an awful beating if her dad found it, but she'd never seen anything so pretty. She wished that just once her and Shelly could have pretty things and parents who didn't always yell at them and at each other. She dreaded the upcoming holidays. She knew her father wouldn't be driving the truck so he'd be home with her mother and the two of them would probably start drinking, as usual. She and Shelly would be all right if they could manage to stay out of sight. Savannah knew that four days of steering clear of her father's wrath was going to be an impossibility.

The night before Thanksgiving, Savannah and Shelly were in Savannah's bedroom. Thinking that the coast was clear, Savannah took the bracelet out of her dresser drawer and showed it to her sister.

"It's pretty. Where'd you get it?" Shelly asked in a hushed voice, touching the bracelet.

"Natalie gave it to me. She said Mary Kate made it in art class," Savannah signed to her sister.

"Can I put it on? Please, Savannah? Just for a minute. I won't break it, I promise," Shelly pleaded.

Savannah reluctantly handed her the bracelet, all the while listening for their father's heavy footsteps on the stairs.

"What're you girls doing?" A sickeningly sweet voice asked from the doorway.

"Nothing," Shelly panicked, trying to hide the bracelet behind her back.

"What've you got behind your back, Michelle?" He asked in a demanding voice, approaching the bed.

Savannah took the opportunity to run past him down the stairs.

He grabbed the bracelet from behind Shelly's back. "Who've you been stealing from this time, Michelle?"

"Nobody! It isn't mine, it's Savannah's!" Shelly cried in a desperate voice.

"Do you really expect me to believe that? Savannah can't even talk! She's too stupid to steal anything! But, not you! No, ma'am! You're the one who got caught stealing milk and lunches from the kids at school! You're the one we always get the calls about! Well, no more! I'm done listening to the lies, Michelle!" He shouted, yanking his belt off.

Downstairs, Savannah cowered in a corner of the living room with her hands over her ears as she heard the sound of the belt striking Shelly. She could hear their father chasing after her as Shelly tried to escape the assault. Their mother just sat in her rocking chair and acted as if she didn't hear anything. Suddenly there was one final scream and silence.

A minute later their father appeared at the top of the stairs, his face ashen. "Irene, I need your help! Something's wrong with Shelly!"

Jill was working the 3 to 11 shift in the emergency room when the doors opened and Irene Raeford came running in with Shelly dangling from her arms. Jill had been imagining this scene in her mind but the reality was much worse than anything she'd ever imagined. Two orderlies ran up with a gurney and took Shelly from her mother.

"Mrs. Raeford, what happened?" Jill demanded.

"She was playing with Savannah and she tripped and fell down the stairs," Mrs. Raeford answered. "Please don't let her die."

"Put her in three," a doctor ordered. "Let's get the portable x-ray in here. What's the child's name?"

"Shelly, Michelle Raeford," Mrs. Raeford replied as she followed them to a trauma room.

"Shelly? Shelly, can you hear me?" He patted her hand for a minute, then glanced at the mother. "How long has she been unconscious?"

"Ever since it happened," the woman replied woodenly.

"Okay, get her out of here and let's get to work," the doctor ordered, as Jill followed him into an examination room.

After observing the little girl over carefully, the doctor knew he was looking at a battered child. He needed confirmation from the x-rays to prove it before he called the police and social services. Jill felt like crying as she waited for the doctor to finish his exam.

"We've seen them before, Mrs. Danko, but I don't think it's a sight we'll ever get used to," the doctor admitted sadly.

""She lives up the street from me. She's in my daughter's class at school," Jill admitted quietly.

"Have you see evidence of abuse?" The doctor asked sharply.

"Nothing that we could pinpoint..at least until now," Jill replied.

The technician came in with the x-rays. The doctor put them on the viewer and winced at what he saw. "She's got a spiral fracture of the right arm. That couldn't come from a fall down a flight of stairs. It can only come from somebody grabbing the arm and twisting it. And look at the other healed fractures. Call the police and DCFS and get them down here fast."

"There's another child," Jill ventured in alarm.

"What?" He snapped.

"She has a younger sister," Jill told the doctor.

"Did she bring in both children?" He asked as Jill shook her head. "When you call the police, tell them that the other child might be in danger."

Savannah wasn't in danger. In all of the chaos, she took the opportunity to run for help. Instead of running across the street to the Gillis', she ran up the street to the Danko's and frantically began ringing the doorbell. When Mike didn't answer quickly enough she took her small fists and pounded on the door. When Mike finally opened the door she ran past him and tried to hide.

"Savannah! What's going on?" He asked in alarm as he watched the little girl frantically looking around. "Mary Kate isn't here. She spent the night at her godfather's."

Savannah spotted some blank paper. She signaled to Mike that she wanted a pen. When he gave her one, she wrote in huge letters: HE HURT SHELLY.

Mike thought his heart was going to stop when he read the scrawled words. "Who? Your dad?"

Savannah nodded.

"Savannah, where is she now?"

Savannah wrote down two words: MOM HOSPITAL.

About that time, the phone rang. Mike grabbed it on the first ring. "Hello?"

"Mike, it's me. The police are on their way to the Raeford's. Mr. Raeford beat Shelly badly. I'm worried about Savannah. Her mother left her in that house with that madman," Jill said, almost in tears.

"Babe, it's okay. Savannah's right here," he assured her as the doorbell rang. "Baby, hold on. I have to get the door."

Mike opened the door to find a madman standing there.

"Is my daughter here?" Jack Raeford slurred.

At the sound of his voice Savannah ran through the kitchen to the sliding glass door. She lifted the latch and opened it, almost getting tackled by Seven in the process. She ran to the tree house and hurriedly climbed it. In the distance, she could hear sirens coming for her father. The last time she remembered being this scared was a long time ago...so long ago that she barely remembered it. She remembered having a brother back then. He was older than her and Shelly. There was an accident that night, too, and they'd all gone to a new family. After a long time, she and Shelly had gone back to live with their mom and dad but her brother never came back. Savannah didn't know why and she knew better than to ever ask.

"Mike?" Jill asked, hearing the commotion through the receiver. "Mike!"

Meanwhile, inside the house, Mike calmly placed the receiver on top of the tabletop and confronted Jack Raeford. He didn't know where Savannah had gone and he was thankful that Jill and Mary Kate weren't home.

"Savannah! Where are you, you little bitch!" Raeford roared.

"Look, Raeford, why don't we sit down and talk about this?" Mike asked in what he hoped was a reasonable voice, wishing that there were some way for him to get to his off duty weapon, kept upstairs in a lock box at the top of his and Jill's closet and away from Mary Kate. "I'm sure that what happened to Shelly was an accident."

"She steals and lies, you know," Raeford explained, staggering into the living room. "That was Ben's problem, too. I had to take care of the problem."

"Who's Ben?" Mike asked, puzzled.

"Ben used to be my son until a nosy social worker started sticking her nose where it didn't belong," Raeford answered, picking up objects and putting them back down.

"He was taken away from you?" Mike asked in a neutral voice.

"They all were. Ben and his two sisters. Shelly, who lies all the time and Savannah, who never stopped screaming. I hated little girls. I never wanted them. My father and mother had four sons. Irene was the only girl. I thought I was lucky, especially when Ben was born. Then, Irene had Michelle and it was all right really, because Shelly was a good baby...not like Ben. She didn't have colic and she slept all night. I actually thought we could be one big happy family. Me, Irene, Ben and Shelly. Just the four of us. It all fell apart as soon as Savannah was born. She cried non-stop, day and night. Then Ben and Shelly started getting in trouble at school for stealing," Raeford continued pacing the room as Mike heard the sirens getting closer.

"What were they stealing?" Mike asked in a non-committal voice, trying to keep Raeford focused.

"Milk and lunches from the other kids. We fed them at home, but we didn't have much money. It was embarrassing when social services came to the house. They just checked everything out the first time and told us about charity groups that would help us out. I'd rather we all went hungry before I went begging for food. It just got crazy with the kids stealing and the baby crying all of the time. I had to stop the stealing and the noise," Raeford explained, his eyes getting madder by the minute.

"So you beat the children?" Mike asked, noticing that the sliding glass door was opened.

"No, not all of them. Just Ben. He back talked me and I did just what my father would've done. I beat him with my belt," Raeford patiently explained as red lights stopped in front of the house. He spun around and stared at them for a few seconds, then glared at Mike. "You called the cops?"

"No, the hospital did. Give it up, Raeford," Mike advised as he approached the man.

Raeford lunged for him. Mike put two fingers to his lips and gave a shrill whistle. Suddenly, Raeford found he was pinned to the floor by almost 100 pounds of snarling black muscle and flashing white teeth.

"Okay, I give up! Get the dog off of me!" Raeford cried as Seven continued snarling and lunging at his throat.

"Okay, Seven! Good job," Mike said, grabbing the dog by his collar and giving him a signal to stay. Mike pulled Raeford up as Willie and Terry hurried in.

"Are you okay?" Willie asked, slapping cuffs on Raeford as Terry read him his rights.

"Yeah. I forgot I had Jill on the phone!" He sighed, picking up the phone. "Babe, I'm okay. They've got Raeford in custody."

"Where's Savannah?" Jill asked.

"I don't know. Let me find her and I'll bring her up there so the doctor can look her over," Mike told her.

"Okay. I'll see you in a little while," Jill told him, hanging up. She walked out to where Mrs. Raeford was still sitting in the waiting room, staring at the floor. "Mrs. Raeford? What happened?"

"I don't know. I didn't see anything. He went upstairs to check on the girls. I heard him yelling at Shelly, then I heard her scream and he said there was something wrong with her. Is Savannah all right?" She asked in a numbed voice.

"I don't know. We don't know where she is. Shelly has a broken arm and a severe concussion. They think she's going to be okay," Jill told the woman, all the while wanting to reach over and shake her until her teeth rattled.

"They're going to take them away, aren't they? Just like Ben," she mumbled.

"Probably. DCFS is on their way here now," Jill answered honestly, going back to check on Shelly.

Mike walked out in the back yard and looked around. "Savannah!" He called out as Seven bounded out the door and trotted over to the tree house. He sat there and whined. Mike walked over to the tree and looked up. In the dark, he couldn't see anything. "Savannah, are you up here?" He asked as a small head looked over the edge at him. Mike breathed a sigh of relief. "It's okay, sweetie. Why don't you come down and we'll go see Shelly?"

Savannah reluctantly climbed down the tree and followed Mike to his car, where they drove to the hospital. At the hospital, Mike talked briefly to Jill who told him that DCFS had just arrived and were anxious to take custody of both girls.

"Apparently the family has a history," Jill remarked bitterly. "They're going to take those two girls and separate them when all they have is each other."

"Excuse me, I need some help here," the doctor told them. "I can't understand anything this child is saying."

"I'll be back," Mike said, following the doctor into a treatment room where Savannah was sitting on an examining table. "Are you going to take x-rays of her?"

"Just, to establish that there's a pattern, but taking one look at her, I can already see that there is. She has burn scars all over her arms and legs," the doctor commented, forcing himself to smile at Savannah. "Okay, Savannah. Let's take a look at your throat."

The little girl violently shook her head.

"Savannah, it's okay," Mike reassured her. "He just wants to make sure that you're okay."

The doctor pressed her tongue down with the tongue depressor and shined a pen light down her throat. At that moment, an x-ray technician walked in followed by Jill. "Savannah, why don't you go with Mrs. Danko and Donnie? Donnie wants to take some pictures of your bones. That sounds like fun, doesn't it?" He looked at Mike as Savannah began signing furiously, causing Mike to smile.

"She said she knows what an x-ray is, stupid," Mike translated as Savannah hopped off of the table. He watched as she left the room with the two adults. "You know why she doesn't talk, don't you?"

"Someone forced caustic liquid down her throat. From the looks of it, it happened several years ago," the doctor told Mike.

During his 14 years as a cop, Mike had wondered what drove a parent to abuse a child. He knew he'd heard just about every excuse there was. He just wondered what excuse these people were going to come up for battering and torturing their children. He walked out into the waiting area where DCFS were questioning Mrs. Raeford along with Terry, Willie and Capt. Ryker. Mr. Raeford had been taken to the station and booked by another unit.

"Mrs. Raeford, what happened tonight with Michelle?" The man from DCFS asked as he pulled out a notebook.

"I don't know. The girls were in their bedroom when Jack went upstairs. I heard him yelling at Shelly, and then I heard him start hitting her. A few minutes later, I heard her scream and he came to the top of the stairs yelling that there was something wrong with her. Am I in trouble, too?" She asked, confused.

"Why didn't you stop him from hurting them?" Terry demanded.

"Stop him? I couldn't stop him because then he'd beat me," she explained logically. "He told me I had to watch them every minute because they'd tell the neighbors if I didn't. You're going to take them away, aren't you? Just like my Ben," she began to cry.

"You had another child that DCFS took custody of?" The DCFS worker, Mr. Martin, asked her, stunned.

"A son. He was seven years old when they took him. We think his teacher turned us in. They took Shelly and Savannah as well, but we got them back after we went to parenting classes," she explained.

"Why did you get the girls back and not your son?" Mr. Martin asked.

"The social worker said there was no evidence of either of them being abused. The foster family who had Ben was going to fight us for custody and he was happy with them, so we terminated our rights to him. Jack never forgave me for talking him into that. He can't stand the girls and I was never able to have another child," she told the five men.

"Who was it that forced lye down your daughter's throat?" Mike asked, wanting to knock this woman through a wall.

"It wasn't lye. It was bleach," she told him, looking at him blankly as if what had been forced down the little girl's throat made a difference.

"Okay, so was that you or was that your husband?" Mike sighed.

"Savannah cried all the time," she whined, not answering him. "The noise was enough to drive anyone crazy. I didn't know he'd done it until it was too late. I love my children."

"You don't love your children," Willie said bitterly. "I love my children. Mike Danko loves his daughter. If you loved your daughters, you would have protected them! You could've taken them to a shelter, or run away, anything, rather than stay in that house and let him torture them!"

"Easy, Gillis," Ryker warned. "Advise her of her rights and let's take her in."

Mike talked to Mr. Martin after the guys left with Mrs. Raeford. "What's going to happen to the girls?"

"Shelly will be here for a few days, from what I understand. I'll take Savannah to the children's shelter tonight and try to find a placement for both girls on Monday. There isn't much I can do over the holiday weekend," the social worker answered.

"Look, Mr. Martin, the only thing those two girls have right now is each other. And, Savannah can't communicate her needs well. Why don't you release both girls into my wife's custody and mine? They know us and they feel safe with us," Mike begged.

Mr. Martin stared at Mike dubiously for a few seconds. "I don't know, Sgt. Danko. You know one of the stipulations for placing a child in foster care is the child has to have a room of their own. Can you meet that requirement?"

"For tonight, yes. Savannah can sleep in the guest room and I have a study that can be turned into another bedroom. Look, I'm saving you guys a lot of trouble. It's going to be hard to place both girls together and also placing them with somebody who understands sign language," Mike argued.

"All right. I'll start the paperwork going, but for right now, you've increased your family by two," he smiled.

Before going home Mike and Jill went up to the children's ward to check on Shelly. They left a very sleepy Savannah at the nurses' station before walking onto the ward. Before going in, they'd talked to her doctor and were relieved to learn that there'd been no evidence of sexual trauma in either child.

Shelly looked so small lying in the white hospital bed, a heavy cast on her arm and a large bandage on her forehead. She stirred and woke up when she felt Jill's hand on her forehead.

"Hi, sweetie," Jill murmured, kissing Shelly on the forehead.

"Am I okay?" Shelly mumbled in a slurred voice.

"Yeah, you're going to be fine," Jill assured her, slight smile on her lips.

"Did you find Savannah's bracelet? I didn't mean for him to see it. Is she okay?" Shelly asked in a small voice as tears started sliding down her face.

"She's okay. We're going to take her to our house tonight. You'll be coming there in a few days," Mike told her.

"Where are my mom and dad?" Shelly asked in a confused voice.

"Don't worry about them right now. You rest and we'll come visit you tomorrow. Go to sleep now," Jill told her.

Shelly obediently closed her eyes and fell back to sleep.

Mike and Jill picked up Savannah and made their way to the parking lot. Savannah fell asleep in the backseat of the car before they'd even left the hospital parking lot.

"DCFS is going to release the girl's in our custody for right now," Mike told his wife quietly, glancing in the rear view mirror to make sure that Savannah was sound asleep. "I'll get the guys together and we'll clean the study out to use as a spare bedroom. Savannah can sleep in the guest room for tonight."

"What about Matthew's room?" Jill suggested. "At least that way they'd all be upstairs."

"I wasn't sure you'd want to use the baby's room," Mike admitted softly, stealing a quick glance at her.

"Mike, it's okay," Jill reaffirmed. She took his hand and squeezed it gently. "The least we can do is keep them in the same part of the house. Is Eddie going to talk to Mary Kathryn?"

"He was going to call Trap and fill him in," Mike said.

Jill got up early the next morning to prepare the dish she was taking to the Gillis' for Thanksgiving dinner. When she'd looked in on Savannah, the little girl was still sound asleep on the double bed in the guest bedroom.

Mike was in the living room talking to Mary Kate on the phone.

"Is Shelly going to be all right?" Mary Kate anxiously asked.

"She's going to be fine. We talked to the doctor this morning and she'll probably be out of the hospital before the end of the weekend," he assured her.

"I'm glad that they're going to be staying with us. What's going to happen to their parents?" Mary Kate continued.

"I don't know yet. Look, you can ask all of the questions you want when you come back home. Right now I want you to go get dressed, brush your teeth and enjoy the parade. Okay?" Mike instructed with a smile. He noticed Jill in the doorway and grinned up at her.

"Okay. I'll see you in a little while. Daddy?" Mary Kate said.

"What?" Mike asked warily.

"I love you."

"I love you, too, sweetheart. We'll see you in a little while," he smiled as he hung up the phone.

"If I know her, she's probably sorry she wasn't here," Jill chuckled as she sat down beside Mike on the sofa.

Savannah came down the stairs, looking around confused. The events of the previous night were still fresh in her mind but she didn't remember going to sleep in this house.

"Well, look who's finally awake," Mike greeted with a smile. "I bet you're probably hungry. Why don't we go into the kitchen and see what's there?"

Savannah followed Mike dutifully. "How did I get here?" She signed, tugging on his shirt as he got a cereal bowl out of the cabinet.

"We brought you here after the doctors examined you," he explained patiently. He opened the pantry cabinets and examined them closely. "Do you want Cheerios or Frosted Flakes?"

She pointed to the box of Cheerios.

"Am I okay? Is Shelly?" She signed with shaking hands.

"You're both going to be just fine," Mike reassured her, pouring her some cereal and then adding milk to it. "She said something about your bracelet. What bracelet was she talking about?"

"Natalie gave it to me. I told her I couldn't take it. My dad never lets us have anything pretty," she signed with one hand as she hungrily stuffed cereal in her mouth with her other hand.

"We'll go over and find it later when we find you some clothes to wear. Can I ask you some questions?" Mike asked.

Savannah hesitantly nodded.

"Do you remember when your throat got hurt?"

She quickly shook her head no. "Where's Mary Kate?" The little girl signed as Jill watched her from the doorway.

"What is she saying?" Jill asked in a subdued voice.

"She wants to know where Mary Kate is," Mike translated. " She'll be home in a couple of hours. We're going to go over to the Gillis' house for Thanksgiving dinner. Then we'll go to the hospital and see Shelly. The doctor told us last night they'd let you visit with her for a little while," Mike answered.

Savannah brightened visibly.

"I think the first thing we need to do with you after breakfast is give you a bath and find you some clean clothes to wear," Jill continued.

While Savannah was eating breakfast, Jill went upstairs to Mary Kathryn's room and opened the closet. In the very back were several dresses that Mary Kathryn had outgrown. She was going through them when she got the impression that she was no longer alone. She turned around to find Savannah standing right behind her.

"Come here a second, sweetie," Jill said as Savannah shyly approached. Jill held a few of the dresses up to her before selecting one that looked like an almost-perfect fit. "Do you like this?"

Savannah nodded eagerly, huge smile on her face.

"Okay, let's go get in the tub," Jill instructed.

Jill bathed Savannah and washed her tangled long hair. Even with crème rinse and detangler it was still difficult to get a comb through it. The little girl gritted her teeth and held on as Jill worked the tangles out of her hair. She wasn't sure the last time someone had even attempted to comb this child's hair. Finally after combing it and blowing it dry, she pulled it back and tied a dark ribbon into it. Savannah couldn't get enough of looking at herself in the mirror. She held the edges of the dress out and twirled herself around.

Mary Kathryn didn't have any shoes that she'd outgrown, so Jill had no choice but to put Savannah's battered sneakers back on her feet. It ruined the effect of the rest of the outfit but Savannah didn't seem to mind. Jill thought of asking Jen if Natalie had anything when they got to their house. The two girls were almost the same size.

They went over to the Gillis' later that morning. Jen introduced everybody to her parents and everybody made a fuss over Savannah, who didn't know what to make of all the attention.

"Jen, does Natalie have any shoes that might fit her? The sneakers kind of ruin the effect of the dress," Jill asked quietly, pulling Jen to one side.

"She has a pair of shoes that she wears to church that she's been complaining about. Let me go get them," Jen offered, going upstairs.

Eddie, Trap and Mary Kate arrived while Jen was upstairs getting the shoes.

Mary Kate spied Savannah and ran over to her side, engulfing her newfound friend in a hug. "Are you okay?" Mary Kate asked.

"I'm sorry I'm borrowing your dress," Savannah signed, panic-stricken.

"That's okay. You can even have it, if you want it," Mary Kate offered, looking at her dad.

"Can I really? Thank you! I've never had a dress this pretty," Savannah signed as she smoothed down the front of it proudly.

An hour later, they all sat down at the huge table in Willie and Jen's dining room. The whole group was there. Terry and his girlfriend, Serena, Eddie, Trap, Jen's parents', Willie, Jennifer, Mike, Jill and the four older children. Baby Eric was napping in his room.

"Willie, would you please say grace?" Jen suggested, smiling at her husband.

"Everybody please join hands," Willie instructed.

Savannah, sitting between Mike and Mary Kate, was hesitant to hold either of their hands until Mary Kate leaned toward her. "It's okay. We do this every year."

"For what we are about to receive, may we be thankful. Also for the company of old friends and new ones joining us at our table. Amen," he concluded as he began filling plates and passing them around the table.

"We have to work on your graces, William," Mike chuckled, taking a plate from his friend.

"At least it was better than the 'over the lips' one," Mary Kate piped up innocently as Terry nodded in agreement.

"Hey, next year, when you host the dinner at your house, you can say a three hour blessing. I wanted people to eat while the food's still hot," Willie commented, passing a plate to Terry.

Savannah looked at Mary Kate and signed something as all of the children and Mike started laughing.

"Okay, what did she just say?" Willie asked as his son and daughter covered their mouths.

"She said that you're funny," Mary Kate answered innocently as she picked up her fork.

"Oh, well, I'm glad somebody thinks so," Willie said as the rest of the table began to laugh.


It was a hot summer afternoon. Everybody was over in Terry and Serena's backyard, christening the new swimming pool. The five children were having a great time jumping into the deep end and playing 'Marco Polo.'

It had been seven months since the two Raeford children had come to live with the Danko's. For the time being, they were still wards of the state. Everybody had to undergo a period of adjustment. Shelly's arm healed without any permanent damage but both girls were still recovering from the psychological trauma they'd endured. They saw a therapist twice a week, which seemed to help. They were still trying to get Savannah to act like a six-year-old and not as nursemaid to her sister. Extremely bright, she was going to be moving into the gifted and talented program at school in the fall, along with Mary Kate.

Jack Raeford was currently in prison, serving a sentence for attempted murder and child endangerment. His wife was put on probation and was not allowed any contact with the children. Mike and Jill were hoping she'd terminate her parental rights as her husband had done, paving the way for them to adopt the two girls.

The three women were lying on patio chairs while keeping an eye on the children. Jill looked over at Serena and smiled at the sight of the ring on her finger.

"I can't believe Terry finally popped the question," Jill observed with a grin.

"I guess he figured he couldn't be a confirmed bachelor forever," Serena agreed.

The men got into the pool with the splashing children. Since teaching Shelly and Savannah how to swim, it had been almost impossible to keep them out of the pool. Savannah climbed on Terry's back as he swam by and tapped him on the shoulder. He looked at her and she made a sign.

"You want me to what? Dive down? To the bottom of the pool with you on my back?" He asked, stunned, as the little girl happily nodded. He grinned at the sight of her missing front teeth. "Okay, hold your nose and hold on tight."

The women smiled as the men indulged the kids, giving them all a much-needed break.

"So, tell me, Jill. Do you miss the days of peace and quiet in your house?" Jen asked curiously, picking up 9-month-old Eric as he started to cry.

"Sometimes, but you know what? Knowing that those girls are happy and that nobody's ever going to hurt them again makes it all worthwhile," Jill answered honestly..