Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Unbreakable

Caleb was a little late getting away from work on Thursday. He had a 7PM dinner date with Bea, and he was going to ask her to marry him.

Earlier, as he was leaving his desk for the day, he’d gotten a strange text from Wynter who must have agonized for days over Miriam’s hurtful decision to bring her to Thailand and then put her in boarding school on the other side of the country. He had no clue whether Wynter still wanted to go. Today, his lawyer had told him she pretty much had no option. So now, really, the only thing he could do was be supportive and positive about it. Wynter might be confused about love, but Caleb knew his mother well enough to know that an expensive school counted for something. It was, to her mind, an act of love.

Grieving over his lost opportunity to take in Wynter was a waste of energy. He had Bea, who he definitely loved no matter how you defined it. He would marry her, and he would do his duty by loving Jilly as his own.

Harry called as he reached his truck.

“Son! Whatcha up to on this fine night?” It was technically a fine night, overcast, cold and damp but not raining. Harry sounded halfway to drunk and in a very good mood.

“Heading out with Bea for dinner,” Caleb said.

“I’m sitting here with my lady having pre-dinner drinks. How fancy is that! We’re in a sports bar on Lake Union. Let’s double-date.”

“I’m off to Renton, just as soon as I get home and take a shower.”

“Bring Bea to the lake! Already booked a table for four. Wasn’t too hard in the end, with everyone wanting a table for two tonight.”

“There’s a reason for that.” Caleb gritted his teeth and got into the truck. While he appreciated his father making a rare overture, no way was he going to propose to Bea in front of Harry. Or in any sports bar. “We could all meet up for lunch on Sunday.” Lunch was safe. He could tell Harry the good news in person, and by then Bea would have a ring on her finger to show off.

“I’ve got shifts all weekend. What a shame. I wish you’d join us. Charmaine’s been dying to meet you both.”

“I made my plans a while ago.”

“How about I text you the address, in case you change your mind? Or just join us for coffee after.”

Caleb knew what that edge of hurt in Harry’s tone meant. It meant it would be Caleb’s fault when he failed to show tonight, and then Harry would casually berate him for it for the next six months.

“Can’t be there,” Caleb said firmly. “Sorry, Harry. You and Charmaine have a pleasant evening.”

A few seconds after he hung up, Harry did text the address along with a photo of him and his date—an overly made-up woman in her forties with an ash-blonde bob, wearing a plunging hot pink dress, a tacky heart brooch, and way too much eye makeup. She was holding up a margarita with a wide grin. If this was the woman he’d mentioned from AA, it would appear the twelve steps weren’t working out too well for either of them.

There was another reason Caleb didn’t want to see Harry yet. Harry didn’t know about Indio’s arrest and he couldn’t tell him tonight, the night he proposed to Bea. Nor could he sit through a meal with his father without telling him. So the meal would have to wait.

Caleb set off for home, the traffic slowing him down after a couple of miles when he hit Beacon Avenue. Tonight wasn’t the night to be thinking about his father or his brother. Bea was his chance to start again and build a new family. His imminent deployment, and any future ones that would have made single parenthood impossible, weren’t an impediment to Bea. Her dad was retired army. She understood that life. They would set a date after Caleb returned home in June. Jesse was turning nineteen that same month and he really should leave home. Jilly would be almost two, still young enough to attach to him as a parent.

Marriage hadn’t been on his mind when he booked the seafood grill place in Renton two weeks ago. He’d made the booking because taking out his girl on Valentine’s Day was the right thing to do to. And he wasn’t one for big romantic gestures. He hadn’t pre-emptively bought a ring. He wouldn’t be getting down on one knee. They’d discuss it like rational people. She wouldn’t be expecting it, given their recent conversations, but he already knew she’d say yes. She’d burst into tears and hug him and he’d feel… anticipation, happiness, love.

The time was right. It would make up for losing Joy. It would almost make up for losing Wynter.

Rosa called while he was stopped at lights. He put her on speaker.

“What’s up, Rosa?” At the back of his mind was the constant worry she’d find a reason to cancel Wynter’s visit this coming weekend, or take her phone again.

“Have you heard from Wynter today?”

He felt a flicker of unease. “No. Where is she?”

“She texted that she’s at an unnamed friend’s house for the evening. This was not pre-arranged. I just spoke with her best friend Stacey, who says she wasn’t at school this afternoon.”

“Let me call Jesse. I’ll get back to you.”

Caleb pulled over and collected himself. He called Wynter first—it went straight to voicemail. He texted her a quick message, asking her to call. He called Jesse, who was at a jazz club in Wallingford preparing for a gig.

“She had a bad day at school,” Jesse told him. “She called me this morning and said the kids played a prank. She was pretty miserable. And I got this question from her about half an hour ago, for a homework assignment, I guess. Sent her some links but she didn’t thank me for helping. We’ve been having a difficult few days ever since—”

“Never mind about that. She’s vanished into thin air.”

“Maybe she took the bus to Seattle and made her own way to the house. She could be waiting on the porch right now.”

Caleb had intimate knowledge of the bus schedule between Pasco and Seattle. “The evening bus doesn’t get in until 6:40.” No need to panic yet. Surely Wynter would come to him if she was in trouble. Wouldn’t she? “Can you get to the bus station and see if she’s on that bus?”

“We’re not going on until 7:30. I can be there just in time.”

“Thanks.”

“But d’you think…” Jesse hesitated. “Could they already be gone?”

“Those passports were supposed to take weeks. I guess it’s possible Joy paid to expedite them.”

“If Joy fetched her from school, and if they flew out of Seattle, they’ll already be at LAX. They might already be on a plane to Thailand. She wouldn’t just leave without saying goodbye, would she?”

But she had said goodbye, he recalled. Goodbye, Caleb. That was the last time Caleb had spoken to her.

Caleb was thinking about that dog again. About eight-year-old Jesse, learning Skar was gone.

He wouldn’t just leave us, would he?

Thinking about six-year-old Indio, learning she was gone.

She wouldn’t just leave us, would she?

The same question at seven years old. At eight. I can’t fix this one, little buddy.

Somewhere around age nine he stopped asking. That camping trip to Lost Creek State Park—he’d stopped asking by then, hadn’t he? He seemed happy on that trip. He looked happy in that photo.

Wynter… you wouldn’t just leave us, would you?

“Let’s do what we can from this end,” Caleb told Jesse. “I’ll drop in at the Light office. Then I’ll go home and make some calls.”


The Light office storefront was closed. A sign directed people around to the back entrance where there was a yoga class on.

Caleb heard the commotion before he saw it. The loudest voice was—impossibly—his father’s.

“She’s my daughter! I just want to take her out for dinner. Let me talk to her!”

Caleb ran around the building. A man in loose clothing—the so-called Jedi master, per Jesse’s description—clasped Harry’s arm and struggled to get him out the door. His lady friend hovered nearby, bobbing up and down on her stilettos.

“Harry!” Caleb barked as he approached.

“She’s in there. I saw her!” Harry said, breaking free. The Jedi had his phone out, ready to call the cops by the look on his face. “Why won’t they let her come out? This place is a cult, a fucking cult. Get her out of there!”

Caleb put his hand on Harry’s shoulder and directed him away from the door.

“Thought I’d take her out, me and Charmaine,” Harry said in his most aggrieved tone. Charmaine came to clutch his arm, hanging off him for moral support. “Why not? Haven’t seen her in years and we were only five miles away. You backed out on me, so why not?”

“I didn’t back out.” Caleb shook his head. Arguing semantics wasn’t going to fix a thing. “Go back to your bar, Harry. There’s something else I need to deal with here.”

“Something else? That’s my little girl in there. I got every right to talk to her.”

“Wynter’s missing. I need to ask Joy about it.”

Harry did shut up then. Caleb turned for the door, where the Jedi master blocked the way, one arm extended.

“I need to see her,” Caleb said. “Nothing to do with him.”

“I’m sorry, but she doesn’t want—”

Caleb deflected the arm and slid past him. Joy was right there, in the narrow corridor, flattened against the wall behind another staff member, an older woman in exercise gear.

“Do you know where Wynter is?” he demanded.

Joy slunk back a couple of steps.

Caleb reconsidered his attitude. He stopped his advance and lowered his voice. “Have you heard from her? Is she here?”

“I don’t know what you mean. Of course she’s not here,” Joy said, near tears. “I can’t see Harry. I can’t deal with that negativity.”

“You don’t have to see him.” Caleb put a hand on her arm and encouraged her to move down the corridor, away from everyone else. “Wynter’s been missing since this afternoon. Any idea what’s going on?”

“What’s going on,” Joy stammered, “is that she’s ruined everything. She won’t go to Thailand, and Miriam won’t let me go without her.”

“What d’you mean, she won’t go?”

“She’ll do something terrible if we make her go.”

“Such as?”

“It’s not your concern, Caleb. You need to stay out of it. I’ve taken care of her for almost fifteen years. It was my turn to get what I want. Why won’t Momma forgive me?” Her expression distorted and her voice wobbled. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know where I am…”

Caleb led her through the bead curtain, into the dark store and away from the perplexed staff as he adjusted his mindset. Wynter was not going to Thailand. She was staying right here in Seattle and that meant she was still his responsibility.

“It’s my turn to take care of Wynter now,” he told Joy. “I’m going to get custody, one way or another.

“Miriam won’t allow that. She thinks you’ll poison Wynter against her. She won’t allow it.”

“Then don’t tell her, and in a few months the Washington family court will decide where she lives.”

“You only just met her—you can’t possibly love her.”

“Does Miriam love her?”

“How can you ask that? She’s her mother.”

“I’m doing everything I can for Wynter. That’s love.”

“That’s duty. It’s not love if you don’t feel it.”

He had never honestly considered the difference, and now was not the time for it. Duty had served him well, his entire life.

“You are both part of this family,” he said. “We’ll put everything back together the way it was supposed to be.”

Joy pressed her face into her hands. “You don’t understand. I was supposed to be with Momma again. She loves me. Doesn’t she? She chose me over all of you. What happened to her love? I did everything right. I saved Wynter that night.”

Her anguish tore at him. This was the pain Miriam had inflicted on him and his brothers, and on Wynter, and Joy was finally feeling it in full force.

“I need your help to save her tonight, Joy. Has she ever talked about running away? Where would she go?”

But Joy had nothing to add. Caleb left her being comforted by the woman he’d seen earlier. He checked his phone. No further news from Rosa. Jesse had written she wasn’t on the bus from Pasco.

Caleb needed to get home and figure out what to do next. And he needed to cancel on Bea. There would be no marriage proposal tonight. His confidence that Bea would accept had been predicated on Wynter being on the other side of the planet.

Outside, Harry paced back and forth while Charmaine piled on the platitudes that everything would be okay. Harry stopped when he saw Caleb.

“I should’ve made that woman leave this nonsense before it got out of hand,” he opined. “She was pregnant with the twins and she had to find the meaning of it. As if it was a remarkable situation.”

“I don’t have time for this, Harry. I have to get home.”

“Well, I’m not gonna talk about the ex in front of my fiancée, but three percent of pregnancies are twins, I told her. Look it up. Happens all the time. And I dabbled a bit myself, I admit it. Tried to be supportive. Went with her to those lectures and retreats and shit. And for all that, she throws me out for one little mistake. Hardly saw my own kids for years, and suddenly she’s at my door that summer, acting like we can be one big happy family again. I would’ve taken her back. We talked about reconciliation. But she had conditions. I had to be in the Light. I wasn’t gonna stand for that. A bit of yoga, a bit of crystal magic, sure, but I wasn’t gonna lose myself like she had.”

“You’re doing a great job not talking about your ex,” Caleb said, with uncharacteristic meanness that shamed him. And he hadn’t missed that word, fiancée. It meant nothing. Harry asked for a woman’s hand in marriage every couple of years and he’d never married one yet. Tonight, of all nights, the word had a bitter aftertaste.

“Didn’t realize she’d punish me and vanish with my Joy, that’s all I’m saying.”

“Regardless, you need to respect Joy’s wishes.”

“I’m sure your mother turned her against me.”

“Joy planned to come to you when she left the ashram, so that can’t be true.”

“Why didn’t she, then? Why won’t she see me now?”

Because you’re a drunk. No one wants you in this state.

No one but Charmaine, apparently. Caleb didn’t say the words but his father could probably read them in his expression.

“Look at this, then.” Harry brightened and lifted Charmaine’s left hand to flash the ring on her finger. “We’re getting married! Myself and the lovely Charmaine. We were gonna make the big announcement, champagne and everything, if you’d joined us for dinner.”

Caleb made himself pause and react appropriately, more or less. “That’s great news. Congratulations. You be sure to let me know the date.”

“Goodness, we don’t have a date yet,” Charmaine said, bubbling over. “I’m staying with my folks in West Seattle until the big day, so we’ll make it sooner rather than later.”

“Best of luck to you,” Caleb said to his future stepmother. Or probably not. “Please walk it off before you drive, okay?”

“Don’t worry about it. We’re not rushing back,” Harry said. “We’ll eat somewhere a bit cheaper in this neighborhood, won’t we, Charms? You fancy Chinese?”

“Those cocktails were ridiculous,” Charmaine said. “Twelve dollars! I’m sure they put the prices up because it’s Valentine’s.”

Caleb had the niggling feeling he’d been invited to the sports bar only because they’d run out of money for the meal and had hoped or even expected him to pay. As they walked off he kept his eye on them to make sure they went past Harry’s truck, parked crookedly on the side of the road, and kept going.

“Is it true, what he said?” Joy was standing behind him, speaking softly. Very calm. Serene.

“Which part?”

“Did Momma take me to punish him?”

“That’s how he sees it.”

Together they watched their father walking away.

She said, “He bought me a different pony every time he visited. Never the same one twice. He sat on the floor and played with me, making the ponies sing to each other in funny voices. Momma never did that.”

“She was not a playful person.”

“He cheated on her.”

The revelation didn’t surprise him. Still, it was hard to hear. “That’s why she threw him out?”

Joy nodded. “He did a terrible thing to her. Shattered her world. He’s not a good person. So why are all my memories good?”

“I remember those visits were good, too. He didn’t cope well with raising three boys full-time, but before that, as a part-time dad, he did okay. Taught me to shoot a rifle when I was seven years old, and how to clean it afterward. He was meticulous about gun safety and so proud of me.”

“Does that wipe out the bad things he’s done?”

“No. The bad things make it hard to trust him. Doesn’t mean we can’t remember the good.”

Caleb put his arm around his sister’s shoulders in a gesture that felt both awkward, because he was unused to physical affection within the family, and also necessary. He’d played with those ponies, too. He’d made stables for her from cardboard boxes because not even Harry was going to buy her the pink-and-white plastic playset from the store. Despite the pall of neglect and violence over their collective childhood, there were hundreds of little moments like these, the shared memories unique to their family that bound them together and made his duty to her unbreakable.

“I know you’re disappointed right now,” he said, “If you want to be in the Light, that’s okay. If you need to find a way back to Miriam, that’s okay. But please don’t turn away from us. Don’t let anyone make you turn away.”

Their father disappeared around the corner, staggering on Charmaine’s arm. Joy leaned into Caleb’s embrace—not quite a hug, but close enough.


Not until Caleb was back in the truck did he realize he was well and truly overdue for his date with Bea. She hadn’t left a message—another aspect of his job she understood was that sometimes he was unavoidably detained. She never hassled him over being a little late.

He called to apologize and to cancel. She was anxious about Wynter, of course, and completely forgiving because she was a wonderful woman and one day he would marry her. When he was in a position to put her and Jilly first.

Back home, the house was dark and empty. Rosa called as he walked in the door.

“I’ve checked my credit card statement online.” She sounded frazzled. “There’s a ninety-three-dollar charge to the bus company but no information about the ticket itself. Their customer service people wouldn’t tell me a thing without the booking number.”

“That’s too much for a one-way ticket to Seattle, and not enough for a return.”

“Where did she go?”

“I don’t know, Rosa. The ticket might not even be for today. She wasn’t on the evening bus to Seattle. I need to think about this. Jesse said the kids played a prank on her at school. Talk to Stacey again and find out what happened.”

Caleb hung up and thought about his next move. If Wynter wasn’t coming to him, was she going to Indio? No point calling him—he wouldn’t pick up, given the current state of their relationship. Caleb texted him instead.

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