JOSIE FIDGETED WITH the pamphlet she’d read so many times it was already tattered and frayed. She’d never forget the moment her estranged older sister’s boyfriend had put it in her hands a few weeks ago and said, This is Sarah’s story. If you read it, I think you’ll see her life has not been what you imagined. She loves you, Josie, and I love her very much. When you’re ready, and we both hope someday you will be, we’d like to get to know you and your son better.
She looked across the room at Hail, her almost six-year-old son, playing with his toy trucks around the Christmas tree in the Parkvale Women’s Shelter. His shaggy light-brown bangs fell to the tip of his tiny nose, the sides and back curled at the ends just above his collar. It was Christmas Day. Two years and two months ago, Josie had buried Hail’s father, Brian, the man she had loved since she was thirteen years old and had married at eighteen. He’d died from a congenital heart defect they hadn’t known he’d had. He was chasing a dog off their property when his heart stopped. He’d died instantly, without warning, and that had been the beginning of the end of life as they’d known it.
She’d been so consumed with grief, she’d thought she’d never breathe again. But she was a mother, and not breathing hadn’t been an option. The pain of losing Brian had lessened over time, but she still had a hollow place inside her that she doubted would ever heal. She’d always hoped that when her older sister and brother had escaped their torturous lives with their abusive parents they’d found happiness. She’d thought watching her parents abuse them was the worst kind of pain imaginable, but losing her husband had brought a bone-deep ache that had taken nearly a year to ease. At the time she couldn’t imagine anything worse. But after reading Sarah’s story, which she’d appropriately titled From Homeless to Happy, she realized there was a different type of pain that could cut just as deep.
“Mama, watch! I’m just like Daddy driving the ’quipment. Vroom!” Hail scooted on his knees, pushing the toy bulldozer and backhoe she’d given him for Christmas through the pile of rocks Santa had brought for him. Her boy was a digger, a discoverer. He already had plenty of toy trucks and rocks, but they were the only things she could always count on bringing pure, uninhibited joy.
“Daddy would be proud of you, kiddo.” She didn’t have much money left from her last job, and she was thankful people had donated gifts to the shelter, although she’d felt funny accepting them. But when Hail had torn open the coloring books, crayons, and action figures, his excitement had soothed her embarrassment, even if he’d immediately turned back to his miniature construction site.
Hail was her little miracle. She’d been beyond terrified when she’d found out she was pregnant several weeks after her eighteenth birthday, but she’d never once regretted having Hail. He was hers and Brian’s whole world, and caring for him had given her a reason to keep going after Brian’s death. Her little boy had unknowingly helped her heal. Although lately she sometimes felt like she’d failed him, losing the only home he’d ever known, staying in less-than-appropriate places, and now living in a shelter with no idea where they’d go next. But she told herself this was temporary, and Hail had never known a life without love—that knowledge was the best salve of all.
Her friend Tracey glanced up from the book she was reading and said, “Do you want to go see Sarah?”
Tracey had come to the shelter after escaping an abusive relationship, and while there she’d met Sarah and Wayne “Bones” Whiskey, Sarah’s boyfriend, a physician who volunteered at the shelter. Sarah had come to the shelter with Bones one evening to try to help women who had fallen prey to abusive situations similar to what she’d endured. Sarah had invited Tracey to stop by tonight, to celebrate Christmas. She probably would have invited Josie, too, if Josie had given her the chance. But after losing the man she adored, her house, and being thrust into a frightening world Brian had always protected her from, Josie had been less than receptive to Sarah when she’d tracked her down a few months ago and reached out.
Who was she kidding? After a decade of feeling forgotten by Sarah and their older brother, Scott—Scotty—she’d been nothing short of bitchy.
But that was before she knew what Sarah had gone through. Before Bones had given her the pamphlet, an address, and said to stop by anytime.
“Are you going?” Josie asked. “You should go if you want to. I don’t mind. But maybe I should wait. I’m not sure Christmas is the best time to show up out of the blue.”
“Christmas is the perfect time to make amends. The invitation was casual. ‘Come by and see the kids on Christmas.’ I don’t think they have big plans, but I’m not really in the mood to pretend I’m happy,” Tracey admitted. “But you should definitely go see her, try to break the ice. If I had family I would do it in a heartbeat.”
Josie stole a glance at Hail, remembering last summer, when Scotty, Sarah, and Sarah’s two children were in a horrendous car accident. Josie would never forget Sarah’s panicked voice when she’d called the bar where Josie was working and told her they were in the hospital. The news had come on the heels of Josie and Hail being evicted from the home she’d lived in since running away from Florida and coming to Maryland with Brian. She’d been holding on to her sanity by a quickly fraying thread. They were barely scraping by, living above the seedy bar in an awful efficiency apartment. On top of everything else, Hail had been sick, and a neighbor’s teenage daughter had been watching him. The girl had already called to complain about Hail throwing up, but Josie had needed to finish the shift in order to have money to pay their rent. Josie hadn’t been anywhere near ready to see her family again, not when her entire life was spiraling out of control. But despite it all, she’d taken off after Sarah’s call and had gone to the hospital, thinking she could muster the courage to handle seeing her siblings again.
But she’d been wrong.
Seeing Sarah’s bruises and the fear in her eyes and hearing the terrifying news of Scott’s and the kids’ injuries had sent Josie reeling back to those horrible years with their parents—and into the throes of a panic attack. She’d practically run from the hospital, unable to breathe…
Just thinking about that night made her chest constrict. She whispered, “I was awful to Sarah…”
“Because your life was in shambles.” Tracey set her book down and moved beside Josie on the couch. “Trust me, after all she’s gone through, she’ll understand. Besides, don’t all siblings fight and say things they don’t mean?”
“We were never like that. We couldn’t be. It was always me and them against the world.” Josie had no idea why her father hadn’t abused her like he had Sarah and Scott, but Scott had taken such relentless beatings, he’d run away at seventeen, and Josie hadn’t seen him since. Sarah had taken off shortly after, and Josie never thought she would see either of them again. She’d been shocked to learn that for the past several months he and Sarah had been living together in Peaceful Harbor, Maryland, less than an hour away.
Tracey pulled her feet up and wrapped her arms around her knees. She had an adorable pixie cut. Her brown hair made her pale skin appear even paler and her hazel eyes seem even bigger. Though she was almost twenty-four, the same age as Josie, in her red flannel shirt, jeans, and sneakers, she could pass for a teenager.
“Sarah has been where you are right now,” Tracey reminded her. “Starting over, trying to find her footing.”
“But her life was so much worse than mine,” she whispered. Though Scott and Sarah had called her at the bar a number of times, she hadn’t seen Scott in person, and she’d seen Sarah only twice—once at the hospital and again outside the shelter on the night Josie had no other choice but to take Hail there. “When she saw me outside the shelter, I told her to go back to her perfect life and I stormed away. I feel so guilty. I had no idea…” She fidgeted with the pamphlet.
Tracey covered Josie’s hand with her own. “I know Sarah. If anyone understands how easily someone can misjudge another person, it’s her. She loves you, Josie. She’ll understand.”
She watched Hail driving his trucks around his makeshift construction site. He’d been through so much since Brian died. He could use more family, but she knew reuniting with her siblings wouldn’t be easy. “What if I get there and fall apart? I don’t want Hail to see that.”
“Want me to stay here with him?”
“No. I hate leaving him behind, especially with how much our lives have been upended lately.”
“Then I’ll go with you,” Tracey suggested. “I can distract him if things get uncomfortable. It’ll be fine.”
Josie’s heart was beating so fast she didn’t know if she could face Sarah and Scott, but she wanted to. She tucked her strawberry-blond hair behind her ear, a nervous habit she’d picked up as a kid, and said, “You really don’t mind?”
“Well, I am in my ball gown and all…” She pushed to her feet with an impish grin and said, “Come on. I’m excited for you. Do you need directions?”
Josie stood up, hoping she could really go through with it this time. “Thank you, and no. I got directions online and memorized them when Dr. Whisk—I mean Bones—gave me Sarah’s address.” What she didn’t tell Tracey was that she’d also driven in the direction of her sister’s house a handful of times since and had chickened out each and every time.
She crouched beside Hail and decided not to tell him where they were going, in case she chickened out again. She ran her hand over his shaggy hair and said, “Come on, bean. Mama needs to stop by a friend’s house for a few minutes. You can bring your toys.”
After gathering a few of his toys, they put on their coats and headed out to Josie’s car. Fear and anxiety knotted inside her as she drove, tightening with every mile between Parkvale and Peaceful Harbor.
“Will it still be Christmas when we get back to the shelter?” Hail asked as he played with his toy trucks.
“It sure will.” Josie heard the shakiness in her voice.
Tracey must have heard it, too, because she placed her hand on Josie’s wrist with a thoughtful expression and said, “You okay?”
A shiver ran up Josie’s arm. Sarah used to do the same thing when their father would go off on Scotty, only that touch would quickly turn to Sarah shoving Josie behind her—protecting her when their father turned on them. Sarah and Scotty had always protected her, but in the end they’d left her to fend for herself. The thought settled in her gut like lead.
And now Sarah had two little ones of her own to protect, and she’d seen Sarah’s burgeoning baby bump with her own eyes. I’m an aunt. The thought sparked hope. Maybe Hail would have a chance to get to know his aunt and uncle, his cousins. Could she and Scott and Sarah bridge a decade of hurt feelings, or had they all changed too much to ever repair their damaged relationship?
Her head spun with a million other thoughts and questions, fears and hopes, until it was all too much to think about. She gripped the steering wheel with both hands and realized Tracey was still waiting for an answer. Not trusting her voice, she glanced at Tracey, tried to smile, and nodded as she drove over the bridge that led into Peaceful Harbor.
She navigated the dark streets toward Sarah’s house. The closer they got, the slower she drove, debating turning around. As she turned down a narrow lane toward Sarah’s house, her pulse sped up. She’d never come this far before. She glanced in the rearview mirror at her little boy. His whole life had been turned upside down, and he was finally in a good place. Was she doing the right thing? Or was she bringing more stress into their lives? How could she possibly know?
When she came to the fork in the road that she knew led to the house, she tightened her grip on the steering wheel and followed it toward the left. A few minutes later the road became a long driveway, and a house came into view high up on a hill. She couldn’t breathe, and she hit the brakes.
“Is this where your friend lives, Mama?” Hail asked.
“Uh-huh. I think so,” she said, and Tracey nodded encouragingly. “Do you think this is the right house? It’s so big. How can Scott and Sarah afford this?”
“This is Bones and Sarah’s house. He’s a doctor. Of course they have a nice house,” Tracey said.
“They live together? I thought she lived with Scott.”
“Bones and Sarah moved in together a few weeks ago. He adores Sarah and her kids. They’re really happy.”
Happy tears burned Josie’s eyes. “That’s so good.”
She silently prayed for strength and drove up the driveway. Several vehicles came into view, along with the rest of the gorgeous property. There was a multicar garage, and the house wasn’t immense, but it was big and beautiful, with a deep front porch, a stone front, and an enormous deck overlooking the harbor. Holy cow…
Josie parked behind the other cars. Bright lights twinkled through every window, and she knew she’d made a mistake. “We’re interrupting a party or something. I don’t think I can—”
“You can do this,” Tracey reassured her. “You’ve come this far…”
“Do what, Mama? Talk to your friend?” Hail asked.
Josie’s stomach tensed up even more. She’d inadvertently scared him when she’d run from Sarah in front of the shelter, and there was no way she’d ever scare him like that again. That night had been awful. Bones had sent his burly brother Bullet—the scariest-looking, leather-clad, tattooed, bearded giant she’d ever seen—to find her and Hail and make sure they returned to the shelter, where they would be safe. Her son needed her to be strong and to do the right thing. Whatever the hell that was.
“No, honey,” she said, thinking quickly. “I wasn’t sure if I should turn the car off since it’s so cold out. I’m just going to leave it running for you and Tracey. I’ll be back in a minute, okay?”
Tracey whispered, “You don’t want us to come?”
Josie shook her head. “Not yet. Let me feel things out first.”
“Okay. Go. You’ve got this,” Tracey said with a reassuring pat on Josie’s hand, and then she climbed over the seat and plunked down beside Hail. “I was hoping for some time to play with the backhoe!”
Hail handed her the toy truck, immediately going into a diatribe about what a backhoe could and couldn’t do. Brian had worked in construction, and Hail had hung on his every word. In an effort to fill the gap his daddy had left behind, when she could, Josie scoured the Internet to come up with facts about construction equipment that her little one didn’t already know.
She stepped from the car on shaky legs, pulled the hood of her parka up to ward off the cold, and shoved her hands deep into her pockets. She wrapped her fingers around the pamphlet. She didn’t even know why she’d brought it, but now it felt important, like it was her excuse for showing up unannounced.
As she walked up to the door, she glanced back at the car, but the headlights made it impossible to see inside. She turned and trained her eyes on the front door, willing herself to be strong for Hail’s sake. Hell, for her own sake, too. She climbed the front steps, unable to hear past the blood rushing through her ears. She lifted a trembling hand and knocked before she could lose her nerve.
The door opened—and Sarah’s face blanched. “Josie—” Music and voices billowed out from behind Sarah as Bones came to her side and swept an arm around her.
Sarah was so beautiful, and pregnant, and right there in front of her. Josie’s eyes filled with tears, and she prayed she wouldn’t pass out.
“Dude, stop staring,” Bullet’s gruff voice drew Josie’s attention to another man standing just to the left of Sarah, watching her. He was tall and broad chested with dirty-blond hair—features that could belong to anyone. Except they didn’t. Josie knew those Carolina-blue-gray eyes. She’d never forget the piercing stare that made her feel as though he could see all her thoughts, or the scar on the ridge of his cheekbone she’d traced with her fingers and kissed with her lips. In the space of a second, her past came tumbling back.
The door closed, snapping her out of her shock and back to the present. Sarah and Bones were standing on the porch, staring at her expectantly. Maybe even hopefully.
Josie’s thoughts spun. She didn’t know what to do or say, so she took the pamphlet from her pocket and held it up, forcing her words to come. “Bones gave this to me with this address and said to come by anytime. I didn’t know you were having a party.”
“We’re not,” Sarah said quickly, worrying with her hands. An enormous diamond sparkled from her left ring finger. “Stay, please. Scott is right inside, and I know he’s dying to talk to you.”
Josie was numb. Scott was inside, and Sarah was truly happy. Engaged. But was that Moon? Her worlds were colliding, overwhelming her. She glanced back at the car and managed, “I can’t. My friend’s waiting with Hail in the car.”
“Invite them in,” Sarah said quickly. “I’d love to meet them.”
The hope in her voice and the plea in Bones’s eyes nearly had her agreeing, but there was a good chance that the only man besides Brian she’d ever slept with was right inside those doors, and there was no way she could deal with that on top of reconciling with her siblings after a decade.
“No,” Josie said quickly. “I’m not ready to…” Deal with all of this. “I just wanted to say that I read your story. I didn’t know your life was so hard. I’m sorry.” She hurried down the porch steps, stopping abruptly on the walkway, and slammed her eyes shut against tears. She shoved her hands into her pockets again and turned back. Not wanting to run away again but unable to do more, she said, “Merry Christmas. Maybe we can talk after the holidays?”
Tears streamed down Sarah’s cheeks as she said, “I’d like that.”
Good. Perfect. Josie wasn’t sure she’d actually said the words. She was shaking all over as she climbed into her car, taking one last glimpse at Sarah and her fiancé embracing. Hail giggled from the back seat, and she managed, “Still buckled up, bean?”
“He is. We’re good. You did good, too, Josie.” Tracey put her hand on Josie’s shoulder as she backed out of the driveway and said, “Want me to drive?”
Josie shook her head, unable to stop the flow of tears. Sarah hadn’t turned her away. She’d invited her in. She doesn’t hate me. And she was engaged!
Relief and happiness rushed through her, and she felt herself smiling. A puff of a laugh escaped, and hope swelled inside her.
“Look, Mama!” Hail exclaimed. “I can see the moon through the trees.”
Moon’s face appeared in Josie’s mind. Her nerves prickled and burned as she remembered with a heavy dose of guilt the one and only time she’d ever been attracted to someone other than Brian.
“The moon is really far away, even though it seems like you can reach out and touch it,” Tracey said.
Josie swallowed hard. It’s not as far away as you might think…
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