Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Every Man's Duty

Indio suggested they drive out to Patty’s on Cougar Mountain to eat. He described it as a Western-style diner. When they arrived, the place was already filling up. A woman in her forties with ash-blonde curls and a warm smile approached while they waited in the foyer. She gave the three brothers big hugs.

“Who’s this, then?” she said, realizing Wynter was part of their group.

“This is Wynter,” Caleb said. “Our little sister.”

The woman did a good job hiding her reaction. Clearly, she knew them well, so to have them present a previously unknown sister out of the blue must’ve surprised her.

“Honored to meet you. I’m Patricia. Come on, then. Special treatment.”

She led them toward a booth at the back. The place was lined with dark wood. Saddles and horseshoes and old posters adorned the walls. Each table had a low-hanging lightshade over it.

“Does she know you?” she whispered to Jesse.

“Patricia owns the place, and her father ran it before that. We’ve been coming here for years.”

“You mean, with Harry?”

“Yeah.”

Their father was still a mystery to Wynter. They’d barely mentioned him and she felt something was wrong, given that Caleb had taken over raising his brothers years ago.

Indio and Caleb went off to chat with an older man in the corner, who sat on a stool surrounded by amps and other equipment on what she realized was a tiny stage.

“How often do you see your dad?” she asked Jesse.

“Every couple of months.”

“How far away is Everett?”

“About twenty minutes north of Seattle.”

“That doesn’t sound very far.”

“Twenty minutes and twenty years.” Jesse twisted his mouth with a flash of annoyance, the most negative expression she’d seen on his face. It didn’t last long. “I get along fine with him, I guess, if I catch him on a dry day. We talk about music.”

“He’s a musician?”

“Yeah, like Miriam. That’s how they met. The story goes, he was back home in Montana on leave with his army buddies. She was singing in the bar and the pianist accompanying her was so bad, Harry gets up, throws the guy off the stage, and takes his place for the night. Pretty soon, she’s pregnant and he’s stationed in Germany. After his discharge, the two of them played the local music scene around west Montana for a few years. They had the twins, and then they split up right after I was born. After that we only saw Harry a few times a year.”

“Were they good?”

“Harry claims they were. I’ve never seen or heard the evidence. No YouTube back then.”

Caleb and Indio returned to the table and menus were passed around. Wynter struggled through it, bewildered by the options. Indio, sitting opposite her, noticed.

“Never been to a restaurant before?”

“Yes, at the mall.”

“The food court,” Caleb clarified, and Wynter realized it didn’t count.

“This is a bit different,” Indio said. “What do you like—burgers, chicken wings, ribs?”

“You can eat chicken ribs?”

Her brothers laughed and she buried her nose back in the menu. She wasn’t sure she liked them laughing at her ignorance, although it seemed a gentle laughter, not mocking.

“Pork ribs,” Indio said. “They might be a challenge for your first true dining experience.”

“I’ll take them.” She was determined not to take the easy option. She was in the real world now. She wanted to experience everything.

Indio grinned approvingly. “What about your sides? Baked potato, fries, corn, slaw—see the list there?” He pointed to the boxed list of a dozen items. “You can pick two. And a drink.”

She muddled through. Patricia came to take their order, although she wasn’t wearing a uniform like the other staff.

“Come to the bar for a beer?” Patricia said to Caleb.

“Sure.” Caleb excused himself and went to another room through a large archway, where there was a bar behind a low wall. Wynter knew from the way Patricia had asked the question, and the way he’d answered it, that Patricia wanted to get him alone to ask about her.

“Don’t you want a beer, too?” she asked the others.

“I’ll skip it tonight,” Indio said.

“Not for me. You have to be twenty-one,” Jesse said.

“Have you never had a beer, then?”

“I have ways and means,” Jesse said slyly. “And Caleb doesn’t mind if I have a couple of drinks at home on the weekend.”

“That’s a bit of a changed attitude for him,” Indio told his brother. “When I was your age, he was paranoid I’d turn into an alcoholic.”

“Like Harry?” Wynter said.

They both stared at her. Was that something she wasn’t supposed to say? She’d picked up enough clues to know that much about Harry. She knew what an alcoholic was. People who joined the Light often came with stories of alcoholism and drug abuse in their previous lives. And there had been booze at the ashram, although there wasn’t supposed to be. It was drunk in secret and one of the teachers had it constantly on her breath.

Music started and Wynter realized the man in the corner was there to perform. He had a hollow electric guitar and another man played drums. Not a drum kit like Jesse’s, but a strange assortment of boxes that he tapped and scraped with his hands.

Wynter watched and listened. It was a style of music she hadn’t heard before—melodic and emotional, but without the rock riffs.

“Do you know him?” she asked Indio. “You were talking to him earlier.”

“That’s Les Buckaroo.”

“Is that his real name?”

“I doubt it.”

“What style of music is that?”

“They’re playing country and western. What d’you think of it?”

“I can hear some blues in there.”

“You’re right. It’s a bit of blues, a bit of folk.”

“D’you like it?” Jesse said.

She shrugged. “It’s nice, but… sort of tame. If you can’t dance to it, or bang your head to it, then it’s no good.” She realized that sounded rude. “That might not be true. It’s what someone told me.”

“He’s got a fiddle player coming in for his second set in about an hour,” Indio said. “You can dance then.”

“Who? Jenny?” Jesse said.

Indio nodded and Jesse looked self-satisfied, and then Indio squirmed awkwardly on his seat. Wynter didn’t understand why they were acting that way.

“I don’t dance,” she said. She was fairly sure the wild stuff she and Xay and Roman did in the shed, which Roman called freaking out, didn’t count.

“Spend too much time around Caleb and he’s gonna make you learn how,” Jesse said, just as Caleb returned to the table with their drinks and sat next to Wynter.

“You taught them to dance?” she asked Caleb.

“Only the country swing,” Caleb said. “It’s every man’s duty to learn the country swing.”

“Who taught you?”

“My twelfth-grade girlfriend’s parents taught me, and her, in preparation for the prom.”

“One of Caleb’s necessary life skills,” Jesse said. “Along with… let’s see, defensive driving, self-defense, how to fire and clean a gun, how to drink and smoke responsibly.”

“But you don’t smoke,” Wynter said.

“Different kind of smoking,” Jesse said with a grin.

She wasn’t sure what he meant. Beside her, Caleb shifted the pepper and salt shakers around. Why was there so much about the outside that made people uncomfortable? Or was it only because she was there? She was determined to learn everything she could from them and these moments of awkwardness weren’t helping. There had been no awkwardness when all four of them were jamming, as Caleb called it. Even the tension between Caleb and Indio had vanished. Music held the brothers together as a family. Music could hold her to this family, too.

A server brought out their food. They passed around the plates so she got to try everything.

“What’s that?” She pointed to a thin strip of crinkled, crispy meat on Jesse’s plate.

“Oh my god, you’ve never seen bacon?” He handed it to her.

It smelled good but looked awful. She held it tentatively to her lips.

“Eat!” Jesse almost shouted the word in his eagerness.

She bit off the end and crushed the piece between her tongue and the roof of her mouth. Salty flavor covered her tongue and her eyes went wide. She couldn’t help smiling, both at the taste and at Jesse’s expression as he watched her. Then they all laughed, and Wynter devoured the rest of the bacon.

“Can I have this every day?” No one said anything and the laughter died away, so she asked Caleb, “Why didn’t you teach them cooking?”

“I admit, that was an oversight,” Caleb said. “That’s what Patty’s is for.”

“Indio told me you have thousands of house rules. I should start learning them.”

Opposite her, Jesse and Indio both gave Caleb a look and she felt the tension rise. Her heart started to pound. She didn’t dare turn to look at Caleb. When he put his hand over hers on the table, she knew why.

“Social Services is putting you in a foster home for a while.” Caleb was looking at her now. She stared at her plate. She could hear how he was trying to keep his tone light. “But you can visit, and we’ll go through the house rules then.”

She slid her hand out from under his and clasped both hands in her lap. “When?”

“Tina’s coming over tomorrow afternoon to collect you.”

“I don’t like Tina.”

“Why not?”

“Because she doesn’t like you.”

“She’s trying to do what’s best. She’s found a woman to be your foster mother. You’ll live in Richland.”

“Fuck!” Jesse cried.

Wynter jumped at the aggression in his tone. Caleb glared at Jesse, who looked entirely unashamed of himself.

“This is just temporary,” Caleb said. “When Joy comes, I’ll help her apply for custody. I don’t know how long it’ll take. Until then, you’ll be in a good home and we’ll still see lots of each other.”

“It’s two hundred miles away,” Jesse pointed out, his face red.

“Two hundred miles?” Wynter whispered. “I don’t want to go. Don’t I have a say?”

“Tina thinks this is best,” Caleb said, rubbing at the furrows on his forehead, his eyes squeezed shut. She’d thought of him as a tower of calming strength. Now he looked stressed and unsure.

Across the table, Jesse picked paint chips off the wall looking like he was going to cry. Indio just looked at her. Bad things happened all the time at the ashram, a place of constant disappointment that taught her not to bother hoping. Out here, in Caleb’s house, and especially in the basement with a guitar in her hands, she’d started hoping again.

Big mistake.

The music started up and now it had a toe-tapping beat and a pretty girl with black hair playing the fiddle. A server cleared away their plates and cheerfully asked how the food was. Indio smiled at her and said it was all just fine.

“Dessert?” The server realized the mood of the table didn’t match her own and her face fell.

“Wynter, you want ice cream?” Indio seemed to be the only one capable of speaking.

The server turned her attention to Wynter. “We have chocolate sundae with Oreo crumbles, caramel fudge sundae, choc chip and walnut brownie with vanilla ice cream, banana split with fresh cream—what would you like, honey? Or I can bring out the menu?”

From the way the woman reeled off the desserts, Wynter couldn’t tell where one item ended and the next one began.

“One of each,” Indio said.

“You’re easy to please.”

Indio responded with a charming smile that made the server blush as she walked off.

“You can call me on the phone, can’t you?” Wynter said. “And Jesse, I can get some of that social media thing.”

“Yeah.” Jesse mumbled. “It’s not that we don’t want you. You know that, right?”

Wynter nodded mutely.

Caleb said, “Hun, this woman who’ll be taking care of you is a psychologist. That means she’s a safe person you can talk to.”

“I don’t want to talk to anyone,” Wynter said in a small voice, which was all she could manage.

“Let’s enjoy our evening. Tomorrow we’ll make music again, and we’ll organize with Tina when we can visit you.” His hand was on her arm, very lightly, like he wasn’t sure if she’d accept it.

Patricia came over and pulled Caleb up for a dance.

“Watch and learn,” Caleb told Wynter.

He and Patricia went to the cleared area in front of the band and danced what Wynter assumed was the country swing, because the music had a swing rhythm. A trickle of happiness returned because Caleb was smiling, totally focused on Patricia as he swung her around and snapped her close and dipped her over his knee. He looked like someone else, moving in a casual yet still controlled way, with a physical energy he normally suppressed. Both dancers were very good, with a fun and natural style.

The desserts arrived, ridiculously huge goblets and dishes of ice cream and syrup. The smell made Wynter queasy. She and Indio and Jesse had a few bites of each before declaring defeat. By the end of it they were all smiling again. She could do this. She could pretend for a few more hours, and so could they.

Caleb returned and held out his hand to her.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Sure you can. I’ll do all the work. Just follow my lead.”

He took her to the dance floor. There were more couples dancing now, so she didn’t feel conspicuous.

“Don’t let go of my hand,” he said.

She knew the basic movements from watching Patricia. He took her through a simpler version of that, and pretty soon she got the hang of how to keep her feet moving while he swung her around. She knew she didn’t look as elegant as Patricia, and she didn’t care. The physicality of it made her happy, like her morning exercises. Anything that wasn’t sitting in a classroom or cutting open boxes in the warehouse or hunched for hours over tiny pieces of jewelry making beaded mandalas.

They danced through one song, and the next had a waltz beat. Caleb put his hand on her waist and changed the step. She matched his footwork, moving backwards as he moved forwards.

Slow, slow, quick-quick. Slow, slow, quick-quick.

“This is the two-step,” he said, bending his head down to her ear. “You’re a natural.”

He lifted her hand overhead and made a twirling motion with his other hand. She did a twirl and laughed as he pulled her back in and continued the dance. She felt so safe there in his arms, and every time a thought about the future crept in she pushed it down and let the music wash it out.

The next song picked up the pace and they did another country swing. She noticed Jesse dancing with Patricia. She couldn’t see Indio. As Caleb brought her back to the table, Indio was returning to his seat.

“I’ll go pay and we should think about leaving,” Caleb said.

“I took care of it,” Indio said.

Caleb looked surprised, but pleased. “Thanks.”

“Can’t we stay a bit longer?” Wynter said. She didn’t want to go home. Home and bed and tomorrow morning meant they were that much closer to tomorrow afternoon, when she had to go.

Caleb relented. He ordered coffees and they watched Jesse dancing. Patricia was gone and his new partner was a girl his own age wearing tasseled boots—a real dancer, from the look of her. A lot of what she and Jesse were doing didn’t look much like the country swing.

The band finished their set. Jesse came back to the table and flopped on the bench. Indio went to talk to the fiddle player.

“Didn’t he and Jenny go out once or twice, right before he left for college?” Caleb asked Jesse.

“No, it was the summer after that. He had a thing for her all through his senior year, though. He went to a different school that last year,” Jesse explained for Wynter. “She was the year below him and had a boyfriend.”

Indio and Jenny seemed at ease as they chatted, like old friends catching up.

Jesse hopped off his seat. “Watch and learn,” he said, mimicking Caleb with a wicked grin.

He crossed the diner and put coins in a brightly lit machine in the corner. It played a slow number. Couples returned to the dance floor in each other’s arms and swayed. Jesse came to sit down.

Across the room, Indio leaned over to say something in Jenny’s ear and she gave a lovely smile, and they went onto the dance floor to join the other couples. They moved very slowly, her smooth black hair swaying against her back. After a while, Indio bowed his head into the crook of Jenny’s shoulder and kept it there.

Jesse gave an I told you so quirk of his eyebrow.

“Who was that girl in the funny boots?” Wynter asked him.

Jesse shrugged, still flushed from the effort. “She asked me to dance. She was hot.”

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