Led Astray

By: Sandra Brown

Chapter 1

If they didn't stop talking about it, she was going to scream. But they weren't going to stop talking about it. It was the one subject on everyone's mind and the chance of them switching to another was remote. The topic under discussion had carried them through the pot roast dinner. It was the type of meal usually reserved for Sundays, as though this were an occasion to be celebrated rather than lamented.

Sarah had outdone herself in preparing the food. There had even been hot, fluffy yeast rolls fresh from the oven to dip in the thick, savory beef gravy and a homemade pudding that was so rich, the calories fairly shouted.

But Jenny's tastebuds might as well have been dead for all she had enjoyed the meal. Her tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of her mouth with every bite, and her throat rebelled against swallowing.

Now, over coffee, which Sarah was pouring into the china cups with the yellow primrose pattern, they were still talking about Hal's imminent trip to Central America. The trip would encompass an unspecified period of time, virtually make him an outlaw, and probably imperil his life.

Yet everyone was excited about it, especially Hal, whose cheeks were flushed with enthusiasm. His brown eyes shone with expectation. "It's a tremendous undertaking. But if it weren't for the courage of those poor souls in Monterico, everything we've done and will do would be in vain. The honor belongs to them."

Sarah touched her younger son's cheek affectionately as she resumed her chair after refilling everyone's cup. "But you've instigated this underground railroad to help them escape. I think it's wonderful. Simply wonderful. But—" her lower lip began to tremble "—you will be careful, won't you? You won't really be in danger?"

Hal patted the soft hand that clung to his arm. "Mother, I've told you a thousand times that the political refugees will be waiting for us at the border of Monterico. We're only picking them up, escorting them through Mexico, and—"

"Illegally smuggling them into the United States," Cage supplied dryly.

Sarah glanced at Hal's older brother sourly.

Accustomed to such disdain, Cage remained unaffected by his mother's disapproving glance. He stretched his jean-clad legs far out in front of him as he slouched in his chair in a way that had always irritated Sarah. During his youth she had harped on his table posture until she was blue. Her lectures had never done any good.

He crossed one booted ankle over the other and eyed his brother from beneath a shelf of dust-colored eyebrows. "I wonder if you'll be so fired up with fanatic zeal when the Border Patrol slams your ass in jail."

"If you can't use better language than that, kindly leave the table," Reverend Bob Hendren snapped.

"Sorry, Dad." Unrepentantly Cage sipped his coffee.

"If Hal goes to jail," the pastor went on, "it will be for a good cause, something he believes in."

"That's not what you said the night you had to come bail me out," Cage reminded his father.

"You were arrested for drunkenness."

Cage grinned. "I believe in getting drunk occasionally."

"Cage, please," Sarah said with a long suffering sigh. "For once try and behave."

Jenny stared down at her hands. She hated these family scenes. Cage could be provoking, but she felt in this instance he was right to bluntly point out the risks of Hal's involvement in this venture. Besides, even she could see that Cage's derision was a response to his parents' obvious preference for Hal, who shifted uneasily in his chair. Though he basked in Bob's and Sarah's approval, their blatant favoritism made him uncomfortable as well.

Cage relented by erasing the smirk from his handsome face, but he continued arguing. "It's just that this labor of love, this mission of Hal's, seems like a good way to get killed. Why is he risking his neck in some banana republic where they shoot first and ask questions later?"

"You couldn't possibly understand Hal's motives," Bob said with a dismissive wave of his hand toward his elder son.

Cage sat up straighter and propped his arms on the table, leaning forward for emphasis. "I can understand his wanting to liberate people marked for death, yes. But I don't think this is the way to do it." Impatiently he ran a hand through his dark blond hair. "An underground railroad, escorting political refugees through Mexico, illegal entry into the United States," he said scoffingly as he enumerated the stages of Hal's mission by ticking them off his fingertips.

"And how are they going to survive once you get them here to Texas? Where will they live? What will they do? Have you thought of jobs, shelter, food, medicine, clothing? Don't be naive enough to think that everyone will welcome them with open arms just because they're from a strife-torn country. They'll be thought of as wetbacks just as all illegal aliens are. And treated as such."