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Katie (Orlan Orphans Book 16) by Kirsten Osbourne (1)

Prologue

Aaron Cavett looked both ways down the corridor, then inserted his key into the lock and slipped into his office. As he shut the door behind him, he breathed a sigh of relief. He walked to his desk, pulled open the lowest drawer, and pulled out his lunch sack.

It had been an exceedingly long Wednesday at the Robert Ballinger Institution for Boys, the orphanage and school at which Aaron presided as headmaster. He pulled out the ham sandwich he had hastily packed that morning.

As he opened his mouth to take a bite, there was a loud banging on the door.

Aaron sighed, set the sandwich down, and stood up, opening the door.

“Headmaster Cavett! Headmaster Cavett! You won’t believe what I found by the pond!” Jacob Piper, one of Aaron’s youngest pupils, squealed. “Come quick!”

“Quickly,” Aaron corrected. He looked wistfully at his sandwich sitting on his desk, but followed Jacob dutifully. “You still owe me one page on how your actions yesterday affected your fellow students, Jacob.”

Although he was only six years old, Jacob was extremely intelligent. However, his quick wits were more likely to get him into trouble at the Robert Ballinger Institution for Boys, where Aaron served as Headmaster. Aaron did his best to see that Jacob stayed focused on his schoolwork.

Outside, Jacob took hold of Aaron’s hand and tugged him toward the pond on the outskirts of the school’s property, near the woods. Aaron shivered and wished he had thought to bring his coat. “Hurry, Jacob. I have work to do.”

Aaron made it a point not to choose favorites, but it was difficult not to have a soft spot for Jacob. He was precocious and funny, and despite his proclivity to find himself in trouble, Aaron knew the boy had a good heart.

Jacob pointed to a rustling near the edge of the pond. “Look! Look!”

Aaron peered at the spot where he’d seen movement. “What is it?”

Jacob bent down and plunged his hand into a pile of leaves. When his arm emerged, he held a skinny frog, its legs protruding from his hand. “It’s my new pet! His name is Freddy!”

Aaron shook his head sternly. “Jacob! You know pets are not permitted on the grounds. Put that poor creature back and let’s get back inside. We’ll both catch cold in this weather.”

Jacob looked up at Aaron, eyes beseeching. “Please, Headmaster? I’ll take care of him and feed him and take him for walks.”

“I don’t think frogs—” Aaron began.

“Headmaster, you’re always saying I need to focus. I think having a pet would make me focus. And you could take him away from me if I misbehaved. Please, Headmaster Cavett? Please?” Jacob begged.

Aaron fought the urge to laugh. It would be highly inappropriate, given his position as headmaster. He needed to lay down the law. But something inside him made him want to go easy on Jacob. And the boy did have a point. Aaron welcomed anything that would help the boy focus on his lessons.

Aaron pursed his lips. “I’m not sure.”

“The code of conduct says no dogs, cats, fish, rabbits, or turtles are permitted,” Jacob pointed out. “Frogs are not mentioned.”

Aaron sighed. Ever since he’d taught Jacob to read, the boy read anything he could get his hands on—and somehow, it always ended up coming back to haunt Aaron. “Fine, Jacob. You may keep him for now. We’ll assess later this week whether or not you can keep him.”

“Oh, thank you, Headmaster Cavett! You’re my favorite Headmaster of all time!” Jacob jumped up and down, still holding the squirming frog. “Oh, Freddy, we’ll be best friends!”

“Back inside before we freeze to death, Jacob,” Aaron instructed.

Jacob could tell that his headmaster meant business, so he followed him back into the imposing brick building.

As they passed through the halls, Aaron noticed something strange. The halls were empty. The boys should have been returning from their lunch break and re-entering their classrooms. He quickened his pace, looking into every classroom to check.

As he turned to explore another corridor, a gangly body flew into him.

Aaron gasped and staggered back. He took a deep breath and straightened himself, frowning. “No running in the hallways!”

Jenkins, one of the oldest boys, stood up straight and looked Aaron in the eye. “Yes, sir. I’m very sorry, sir. I wanted to make sure I could take my books with me to Texas!”

“Texas?” Aaron furrowed his brow, feeling exhausted. What kind of new prank were the boys up to? His stomach growled, and he remembered his forgotten ham sandwich.

“Mr. Ballinger just told us that he sold the building, sir. We’re being sent to a different orphanage, one in Texas. We have to pack by nightfall!” Jenkins said, panting for breath.

“Jenkins, now is not the time for jokes or lies,” Aaron chided.

“Oh, I’m not joking, sir. You can ask Mr. Ballinger himself. Here he comes. I’m off to pack, sir! I don’t want the bus to leave me behind!” As Aaron watched Jenkins speed away, he noticed Lazarus Ballinger creeping toward the exit.

“Mr. Ballinger!” Aaron called, running toward the older man.

Lazarus turned around and let out a loud exhale which shook his thunderous body. “Headmaster Cavett.”

Lazarus Ballinger’s father, Robert, had started the Institution for Boys three decades earlier. In addition to being a school, it was also a home for orphaned boys and young men. Robert had been a loving and generous man, and the school had flourished under his attention. Since Robert had died and left the business to his son, Lazarus, however, things had changed. Lazarus was obsessed with money. He forced the orphans to work to earn their keep, but everyone suspected that he pocketed the leftover payments.

Aaron didn’t like Lazarus, but he was technically his boss. Still, what Jenkins had said didn’t make any sense. “Jenkins said you sold the building. Is that true?”

Lazarus frowned. “Yes. I arranged for the orphans to be sent to another home for boys in Texas. Cost me far too much, but there’s a bus that will be arriving this evening to take you all there.”

“Me, too?” Aaron asked, baffled.

Lazarus sighed, looking at the watch on his rotund arm. “The boys need a chaperone. Obviously, it’s you.”

“And my job?” Aaron felt his head start to spin. Was this Lazarus’s way of telling him he had been let go?

“You’re a good employee, Aaron. I’ll find a job for you in one of my other businesses when you come back,” Lazarus assured. “Good day.”

Lazarus trudged down the hallway, leaving Aaron standing, his jaw agape.

Jacob ran past Aaron. “Headmaster Cavett! We’d better get moving. You don’t want the bus to leave without you, do you?”

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