Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Marriage Material

Caleb drew back his drapes on Sunday morning to the sight of Wynter in the backyard doing some sort of exercise routine. Frost spiked the lawn and she was in her new PJs with bare feet. She went through the forms with slow precision. It wasn’t graceful—her limbs were too gangly for that—but her concentration was impressive.

He wandered down the hall. The bathroom door was open to reveal Indio washing at the basin. So much for not getting up on Sundays. In the living room, Jesse watched Wynter through the sliding door.

“Look at this,” Jesse said. “What is it? Tai chi?”

Caleb stood beside him. “Or something like it.”

“She looks like a hungover puppy doing slow-motion ballet.”

“How about you keep that opinion to yourself.”

Jesse grinned. “It’s kinda cute, though.”

They watched her for a while. A low fog blanketed the lawn, creating an ethereal stage for the performance.

“She doesn’t know much about the world,” Jesse remarked, “but she has these odd, random skills. She knows her way around a computer, but not the internet. She knows how to wipe down a table—you notice that?”

“So, she can aspire to be a waitress,” Caleb said dryly.

“I’m just saying, it gives us clues about what her life was like. I wish she’d talk about it.”

“Joy can fill us in. And if Social Services stays involved, they’ll probably send her to a counselor.”

“She doesn’t need a counselor. She’s fine!”

“We don’t know that. We’ve known her three days.”

“No, she’s fine,” Jesse insisted. “She’s smart and asking all the right questions. She’s curious about the world, always looking, looking, looking at everything. I sure hope Joy’s not indoctrinated or she’ll undo all my good work.” He kicked the door frame in frustration before wandering into the kitchen to grab a box of cereal.

Caleb opened the sliding door. “Wynter, come inside. It’s freezing out there.”

She straightened and stared at him across the garden, in a trance. He beckoned to her, and she snapped out of it.

“Didn’t Bea get you some sneakers?” he said as she came inside. He directed her to the kitchen. “Have some breakfast. Good news—Joy left a message last night. She’s on her way.”

Wynter’s face lit up. “When will she get here?”

“Monday, at the earliest.”

“Where did you learn that… whatever you were doing out there?” Jesse asked her.

“We did exercises every morning. It was my favorite part of the day.”

“What was your least favorite part?”


“You’ll get six hours of school a day from now on,” Jesse pointed out.

Wynter’s jaw dropped. “Is there that much to learn?”

“It’s not nearly enough time. Don’t worry, I’ll help you out.”

Indio came in from the bathroom. Caleb counted to ten, and ten again, as Indio made himself coffee.

“Take a look at the closet doors in your room, will you?” Caleb said. “The hinges need work.”

Indio bristled, barely acknowledging him. “Wynter, wanna jam this morning?”

She nodded enthusiastically.

“Jesse can do the home maintenance,” Indio said, daring Caleb to contradict him. Caleb would’ve done the job himself just to avoid a scene in front of Wynter, but it was important to give Indio the chance, now and then. He didn’t live here anymore but helping out kept him connected to the family.

Jesse contradicted him instead. “I can’t hang doors.”

“I’ll do it!” Wynter piped up.

To his credit, Indio looked uncomfortable that she’d felt the need to intervene. While Indio had never shown understanding for the parental role Caleb had assumed in childhood, he’d always been compassionate toward Jesse. Good to know that extended to Wynter as well.

“Never mind,” Caleb said. “I’ll get it done later. You guys enjoy your music. I’m taking Bea out on the bike while her parents are home to take care of Jilly. Back around two.”

“Why don’t we all go for a ride?” Jesse said. They had motorcycles, a passion of their father’s passed to his sons. “You ever ridden a motorcycle, Wynter?”

She shook her head, munching on her multi-colored cereal.

“We’ll leave that for another time.” Caleb didn’t think the social worker would be happy to find out Wynter had been on the back of a motorcycle.

“I have to take a couple of amps over to Rob’s,” Jesse said. “Can I borrow the Silverado?”

“You need to renew those expired tabs and get your own vehicle running.”

“I know. I’m sorting it out Monday after I get paid. So… the truck?”

“Just bring it back with a—”

“A full tank.” Jesse rolled his eyes, but good-naturedly. “How’s that cereal, Wyn?”

She swallowed and stirred the purple milk in her bowl. “Am I supposed to like it?”

“Just give your honest opinion.”

“Not good.”

“Jeez, why are you eating it then?”

“Because you bought it and…”

She trailed off as Jesse swooped in and took the bowl away. He tipped the remains into the sink.

“Try this one.” He returned the empty bowl and pushed the granola toward her. “You don’t have to eat something you don’t like.”

She stared at him, unsure what to do. Then she looked to Caleb for guidance.

“It’s okay, you can try something else,” Caleb said.

Caleb knew, from that look, she wasn’t used to having choices in this matter. She’d been given food, and evidently not much of it, and she’d eaten whatever was put in front of her. He emptied the offending cereal in the trash and put the box in the recycling.

Since becoming a single mom, Bea had been living with her parents in Renton. Caleb picked her up on his Honda V65 Magna—it was older than he was and his buddies in the Coast Guard never let him forget it, or stopped ribbing him for riding a foreign bike. Bea looked gorgeous in jeans and boots, a wool scarf wrapped around her neck and the riding jacket he’d bought her for her birthday in November. She pushed her light brown curls into the helmet, hopped on and wrapped her arms around him. They took the 405 north along Lake Washington, then east to Cougar Mountain and up the winding mountain road. The morning was only a few degrees above freezing, the skies overcast, and he loved that she didn’t care—or, at least, didn’t complain.

“Let’s walk to Coal Creek Falls,” she said when they arrived at the trailhead and parked the bike. “With all the runoff, this is the best time of year to see it.”

He held her hand over tiny bridges and walkways and along the well maintained trail surrounded by gently swaying conifers. They’d started at fourteen hundred feet, and it was downhill much of the way—not too muddy, and the wind dropped as they descended deeper into the forest.

Caleb fell into silence and let Bea talk. Jilly had recently developed a fascination for animal noises and a dislike for wearing socks, and had just learned to say “cookie”, which was somehow causing Bea’s mother to overfeed her cookies.

Two miles in, they heard running water and the trail narrowed as they approached the waterfall. Bea led him down the wooden stairs so they could admire it close-up—thirty feet high, gushing at full force.

Bea unfolded a picnic blanket from her little backpack, set it on a flat patch of ground on the bank, and they flopped onto it. Caleb rolled onto his back, hands behind his head. All along the trail, an idea had been brewing in his head but this wasn’t quite the right time to lay it out. He pulled Bea against him. She put her head on his chest and slipped her hand under his t-shirt. When her hand wandered lower he grabbed it.

She giggled. “There’s no one around.”

“We passed a dozen people, at least.” The waterfall was a popular resting spot, too.

“What’s wrong?”

Caleb winced. He wasn’t in the habit of holding grudges, but when he thought on the life Wynter had led he couldn’t help being angry with their mother. Bea was doing everything she could for her child. Miriam had done less than nothing—she’d done actual damage.

He was in a bad headspace today. Bea preferred his undivided attention when Jilly wasn’t around. She deserved it, too. They hadn’t been alone together since Christmas.

“Just found out Wynter’s years behind in her schooling,” he said. “Joy’s supposed to show up in the next few days, which will keep her out of foster care for now.”

“What about in the long-term?”

“I’m worried the court won’t find Joy suitable as a permanent guardian. If she’s as clueless about the world as Wynter is, that’s gonna be tough.”

“Maybe dad can find her a job,” Bea said. “He has loads of contacts.”

“That would be great. He’s a good guy.”

She raised up on her elbow. “My parents are crazy about you.”

He made a noncommittal sound.

“And they want to meet Harry.”

Bea’s parents had always been welcoming toward Caleb, effusively so. They saw a future son-in-law and that was more than a little disconcerting. Her dad was ex-military like Harry. There was little else similar about their families. Bea’s mother was a pediatric nurse and their lifestyle was comfortably middle-class, while Harry had the brains to move up in the world and had squandered it all. The idea of her parents meeting his father was embarrassing.

“Let’s give it a while.”

“Why? He seemed fine when I met him at Christmas. Dad can control how much beer he gets. He’s good like that, believe me. He has plenty of drunks for friends.”

Caleb sighed. “I don’t want to push it, Bea. We’re just getting started.”

“Eight months is just getting started?” She gave a little pout and kissed him quickly before getting up. “Let’s go off-road.”

Bea drew him off the trail and they waded a few yards through ferns and brown leaf litter.

She gave a mischievous grin. “Mind the nettles.”

She grabbed his hands and urged him into the trees, out of sight. He got the message and pressed her against a thick-trunked tree to kiss her. She was flushed with excitement. He still had the weight of the world dragging on his heart. Her hands were all over him, sweeping down to his groin, and she broke the kiss to grin at what she found. Before he knew it, she’d unzipped him.

“Jesus, not here,” he groaned, breathless.

He was unused to anyone refusing his orders, but Bea was determined and he didn’t stop her. She dropped to her knees. Caleb leaned his hand against the tree above her head, praying no one strayed off the path to see them. Tina the social worker would have a field day with this.

On top of everything else, he couldn’t shake the feeling Bea was doing it because she wanted something from him. She’d had a shitty time with men, including Jilly’s father who was entirely off the scene now but had left some scars. Bea would mold herself into whatever Caleb wanted, whatever any man wanted, and other men had taken advantage of it. He’d always been gentle with her, not his usual MO with people in general, and she’d responded and come out of her shell. It had given her confidence to find a better job, take night classes, repair a rocky relationship with her mother.

And give him a blow job in public. The other things she’d done for herself and for Jilly. This was meant to persuade him to invite Harry to her parents’ house, thus taking their relationship to the next level.

Now wasn’t the time to complain. He pushed his hand into her hair and watched her looking up at him. She redoubled her efforts, thank god, because he was able to finish quickly. He zipped up.

“Let’s get back,” he said. He was sweating under his jacket.

She stopped him walking off, wrapping her arms around his waist, and they embraced for a moment. He loved her, he knew that much, but his mind was all over the place at the moment. They walked back to the trail and collected the blanket.

“I have this idea but I don’t know how you’ll react,” he said.

“Let’s find out.”

Caleb was tempted to lay it all out—his duty to Wynter that pretty much required him to take custody if Joy could not, which meant asking Bea to agree to be her designated long-term guardian should he be deployed. That would satisfy the Coast Guard’s regulations for him to become a single parent. He could only hope it was enough to convince a family court judge, too. In a way he’d been a single parent since kicking out Harry when Jesse was sixteen, but he wasn’t Jesse’s legal guardian and he’d never worried that Jesse wouldn’t be okay if he was deployed. Jesse had plenty of friends whose parents kept an eye on him or took him into their homes for weeks at a time.

He knew Bea would balk at the idea of filling a similar role, and rightfully so. He had to test the waters first.

“If the court won’t immediately give Joy custody for whatever reason, I was thinking, as a back-up plan, if you moved in…” Bea gave him a sharp look, more in surprise than horror. Caleb pressed on. “If you moved in, I think there’s a better chance they’d let Wynter live with me. If we had a woman in the house.”

Bea didn’t say anything.

“We sort of talked about it at Christmas, didn’t we? You talked about it.”

Bea stopped and faced him. “Caleb, I talked about us getting a place together. A new place, for you and me and Jilly. You didn’t want to sell up and abandon Jesse, so you nixed it. Now you’re talking about two teenagers in the house with us.”

“Well, that’s my family.”

“I’m twenty-three years old. I don’t want responsibility for two more kids.”

“If she goes into care, she’ll be with strangers who don’t know her.”

He hadn’t meant to raise his voice. Bea narrowed her eyes, not liking it.

You’re practically a stranger to her.”

“Doesn’t feel that way. She already trusts me. Jesse’s amazing with her. It’s like she fits right in.”

“That’s great. It’s great for you. It’s not what I had in mind right now.”

He nodded, defeated. He briefly considered manipulating her into it with some noble speech about duty—which would be the truth, and would probably work, too, but it wouldn’t change her feelings about the matter. He’d spent his childhood manipulating Harry, just to survive, and it had left him with next to no respect for the man. He wouldn’t do that to Bea.

His phone pinged and he took it out of his back pocket. “I have to call Wynter’s caseworker.”

Bea gave a little shrug, unhappy he wasn’t focused fully on her when they only had a couple of hours. He moved to the side of the path and returned the call.

“Caleb, thank you for getting back to me so quickly,” Tina said in that pleasant, indifferent tone. “This is just to let you know a decision has been made to place Wynter into foster care for the foreseeable future.”

Caleb turned away from Bea, pushing his hand through his hair in frustration. He drew a steadying breath. “Can you tell me why?”

“We’ve been unable to contact her mother. My colleagues and I don’t feel your home environment is suitable, especially as we have no proof of a familial relationship. Additionally, it appears she’s come out of a volatile situation. All kinds of issues are likely to come up that you don’t have the skills to deal with.”

“She’s my sister. I’ll deal with it.” Bea rubbed his back as she realized what was happening. “Listen, our sister Joy made contact—she’s coming up from Los Angeles just like I told you. She’ll be here in the next few days.” Caleb had called at the Light office that morning to find it closed, so he had no new information, but he’d put his faith in Joy.

“There will be a hearing tomorrow before a court commissioner—just a formality. We expect our recommendation for emergency placement to be approved. Joy can of course request temporary custody but she’ll need to establish the relationship, as well as residency and employment. Once Wynter’s resided in Washington for six months, permanent custody will be an option. There will be opportunities down the track.”

Caleb knew what that meant. If Social Services took Wynter, they’d have a fight on their hands down the track to get her back. But what was the alternative? Hoping for Miriam to come to the rescue? Caleb had spent a lifetime trying not to judge his mother harshly, but his instincts told him she would never have Wynter’s best interests at heart.

“The good news,” Tina went on, “is that I’ve found the perfect placement for Wynter. A single woman, a psychologist who has experience with children from difficult situations. She’s fostered before so everything’s already set up. It’ll be just her and Wynter in the home. Very safe and supportive.”

“Where does she live?”

“Richland, in Benton County.”

“Christ. That’s halfway across the state.”

“Teenagers are very hard to place, Caleb, and there’s a drastic shortage of foster homes. This is a wonderful opportunity for Wynter. Beautiful home. Excellent school district. I think it’ll work out very well.”

Caleb had rarely felt so powerless. The idea of losing Wynter so soon after meeting her hit him harder than he could have imagined.

“When does she go?”

“I’ll pick her up this afternoon. She’ll stay overnight in a shelter, and tomorrow I’ll drive her to Richland.”

“God, please, don’t put her in a shelter. Let her stay with me one more night.” He felt Tina’s hesitation. Hesitation was good—better than an immediate denial. He pounced on it. “I understand everything you’ve said, Tina. I want to help Joy take care of her, but I understand there’s a procedure. Let’s work together on this and for Wynter’s sake make the transition as simple as possible. A shelter will be incredibly stressful. She’ll do better staying the night with me, where she’s settled, and I’ll be home all day tomorrow with her.” Best not to mention that Indio would be, too.

“I’ll come for her Monday, then, around five. She can bring whatever she likes.”

“She doesn’t have anything,” he said bitterly.

“I see. Would you like me to talk to her?”

“No, I’ll do it.”

He rang off. Bea put her arms around him and he gave her a half-hearted hug. His mind was already racing ahead. He had to tell Wynter and his brothers and put a positive spin on it. He had to figure out how to make his home more “suitable”, and Bea wasn’t about to help with that. He had to pray Joy had the incentive and enthusiasm to do what was necessary to apply for custody.

“I’ll take you home,” he told Bea, setting off up the path.

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