Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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No Choice

Caleb was on the road by fourteen hundred hours. Earlier, he’d gotten a text from Joy saying she wasn’t coming to the meeting in Richland. He’d tried, really tried, to avoid analyzing the true meaning of those words. But it was clear now that Joy didn’t intend to step up as Wynter’s guardian. And so he would do it. He’d figure out a way to make it work. He was fairly sure his EO would be sympathetic. Since Wynter’s arrival he’d certainly made the effort to be flexible with Caleb needing days off or leaving early, like today.

Tina did not like him, but that was her problem. A judge would decide where Wynter lived, not Tina.

Rosa didn’t like him either. He could attribute half the stress in his gut to Joy. The rest came from the thought of seeing Rosa again. He was more than a little annoyed with himself, both for his behavior at her house and for being worried about it now, more than a week later. He’d handled personalities of every stripe and it was disconcerting to find someone who could rile him so easily. It wasn’t Rosa’s fault. She was the wrong person to be taking care of Wynter, and he resented her for that, and that was unfair of him.

Just get through this. If they could get a swift hearing, if he could sort out the Family Care Plan that the military required of single parents, Wynter would be back in Seattle soon.

He was forty-five minutes along the I-90 when his phone rang—a number he didn’t recognize. He answered on speaker.

“Caleb? This is Anže Turk… um, Turk. Indio’s friend. We’ve met a couple of—”

“Turk. What’s up?” Caleb’s heart had already dropped through the floor because he knew this wasn’t good. Especially as Indio and Turk were barely on speaking terms since Indio’s stunt in January.

“So, Indy didn’t want me to call you but I sorta have to. He was arrested Saturday night after our gig in Lake Oswego.”

Caleb swallowed a curse word and pulled over on the freeway. “Is he hurt?”

“He’s fine. He’s been sitting in jail for two nights. We need seven-fifty to bail him out. I’d do anything for him, you know that, but I can’t raise that kind of cash.”

“Where is he?”

“Clackamas County Jail, about half an hour south of the university. I can text you the address—”

“I’ll find it. Are you there now?”

“No, man, I gotta get to class. He made me swear not to call you but I couldn’t just—”

“I’ll deal with it. Thanks for calling.”

Caleb hung up and realized he hadn’t even asked why Indio had been arrested. Not relevant at this moment. He was supposed to be in Richland at six. Wynter was depending on him.

He had no choice. No choice.

Still, he sat there clutching the steering wheel, forehead pressed to his knuckles, pushing down his anger at Indio. At Harry.

Five years ago, Caleb hadn’t been there for his brother. That April he’d returned from a four-month deployment on an icebreaker in Antarctica. Harry was no better or worse than usual and Caleb was more interested in spending time with a black-haired red-belted spitfire of a young woman at his dojo than with his family. Six weeks later he was sent out again. Days after he left, Indio was in juvenile court on felony assault charges.

Five years ago, Harry hadn’t been there for his son. Harry had refused to take Indio home after the initial arrest, so he’d remained in detention. The judge had ordered Harry to attend future hearings and slapped him with contempt when he again failed to show at the arraignment. And made him do an online parenting class, which Caleb was pretty sure thirteen-year-old Jesse had completed for him.

Caleb had done what he could from the other side of the world, and maybe half as much as he should—bullying Harry into visiting Indio in juvie and to take part in their family counseling programs to make sure they’d discharge Indio into his father’s care when the sentence was served. The alternative was foster care or some other facility until Indio turned eighteen. They might even take Jesse away. Caleb used the one thing that meant a damn to his father—he threatened to request a hardship discharge from the Coast Guard and come home to take custody of the boys if Harry didn’t buck up. He was twenty years old but he was prepared to do it, to fight for them, to throw away his career and force Harry to accept what a lousy job he’d done.

Harry had never been prouder than the day Caleb put on his dress blues for the first time—and so the threat worked, because Harry did still have some pride. He made the effort and played by the rules just long enough to bring Indio home.

Caleb put down the truck window and filled his lungs with sun-warmed, fume-laden air. It was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm. Jesse was welcome to his mountain snow. Caleb loved the sun, and this afternoon’s spring-like weather had filled him with hope for the meeting ahead, once he’d made the decision to take Wynter in. Turk’s call left him feeling utterly powerless and that wasn’t even the worst of it. Had Indio called for help thirty-six hours ago, he’d be out of jail and Caleb would be halfway to Richland by now.

Wynter didn’t answer her phone so he left a message. Something came up… very important… so sorry… He hardly knew what he was saying. Can’t be there.

Can’t be there for you.

Tina’s phone went to voicemail as well. He left a slightly less garbled message for her, something about a family emergency and a request to reschedule. He left a message for Jesse. He called the lawyer on the base who’d been advising him on Wynter, got a recommendation for a criminal lawyer in Portland, and left a message with the firm’s receptionist.

He pulled back into the traffic, took the next off ramp, turned around and backtracked thirty minutes to Tiger Mountain before turning south. A few miles farther, his GPS directed him to a local branch of his bank and he withdrew $750 cash before continuing on the four-hour trip to Clackamas County Jail.

“We’ve talked about this. I need to know where you are, every minute of the day.”

Rosa’s voice was making Wynter’s ears buzz. She moved the phone a few inches away from her ear.

“I’m already on the bus back,” she said.

“But where have you been? I get home to an empty house, not so much as a note or a text message.”

Wynter reeled off the first lie that came to her. “I took the bus to school and met up with three friends. We went to that pizza place and studied.”

“Which friends? Do I know their parents?”

“I don’t know who their parents are. It was a last-minute thing.” She wondered if there was even one kid at school who would back up her lie if she asked them to, let alone three. She should’ve said something simpler that didn’t involve anyone else.

Rosa let it drop—for now, at least. “Tina’s already here for your meeting. What time does your bus get in?”

“About twenty minutes. I didn’t do anything wrong.” Well, she was telling lies, which was wrong, but the passports were nothing wrong. She had every right to a passport, didn’t she? And Miriam certainly had the right to have her own daughter live with her.

When she got off the bus, she was surprised to see Rosa waiting there in her car.

“It’s only a ten-minute walk,” Wynter said, slouching in the passenger seat.

Rosa said nothing until they were at the house, where Tina waited in the front room.

“You need to tell us what happened this afternoon,” Rosa said. “The truth, please.”

“I told you already. I went to school and came back.”

“I know that’s not true.”

“You saw me get off the bus!”

“Yes, Wynter, it was the right bus but it came from the opposite direction.”

Wynter’s mind went into overdrive. “I went… to Pasco. To the museum.”

“Which museum?”

“Um, the one with the steps and the red roof.” The one she’d wanted to go to.

“You mean the Franklin County Historical Museum? Did you go inside?”

“Yes.” Wynter was emboldened by the questions. “It was very interesting.”

“You went inside?”

Wynter nodded. Rosa’s brow went down and Wynter felt a stirring of panic. What if Rosa asked about the exhibits? Wynter had no clue what was in that museum. Jesse wanted to take her to the science museum in Seattle to see dinosaurs. She wasn’t sure a dinosaur would fit inside that building in Pasco.

Rosa leaned forward. “Wynter, you signed a behavior contract that says you’ll always be exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

“Why should I not be in a museum? Museums are educational. Jesse says—”

“That museum is closed on Mondays.”

Wynter’s stomach dropped. “Are you sure?”

“I know the place very well. I’m a member of the Franklin County Historical Society.”

“The thing is…” Wynter floundered. “I wanted to go inside. I thought they might have dinosaurs.”

“Of course they don’t have dinosaurs! Now, why did you lie? People don’t lie except to cover something up.”

Wynter couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Tina said, “Caleb left me a message earlier to say he couldn’t come this evening and Joy canceled. Were you upset about that? Is that why you went out today?”

Wynter grasped at the excuse. “Yes. I was disappointed so I got on the bus to Pasco and sort of wandered around for a while.”

“I’m going to ground you for the rest of the week,” Rosa said.

“What about the movies on Friday?”

“I will allow that because it’s important for your social development. Hand over your phone, please. You can have it back Friday.”

“You won’t be able to look through it this time. It’s locked.”

Rosa glanced at Tina. “That’s not acceptable. Tell me the password.”

“It’s private.”

“Rosa,” Tina said, her lips stretching in to a smile, “why don’t you get that casserole on the table while Wynter and I have our little chat.”

Rosa left the room and Wynter sat for half an hour with Tina giving monosyllabic answers to questions about how she was settling in. It was easy to blur her way through—what did it matter? She was leaving the country soon and she’d never see Tina or Rosa again.

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