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Wyatt Hawkins pulled his black 4x4 pickup into the familiar drive and killed the engine. The huge truck was well suited for the wide Texas plains of his ranch, but here in Austin, at Mom's house with all these close-knit homes, it seemed out of place. He stayed in the cab and stared through the dirt-streaked windshield at the place he still considered home.
But without Mom, it would never be the same.
The faint sound of footsteps made him glance in the rearview mirror. His sister Addie headed up the walk. Her shoulder-length blond hair and flowing black skirt rippled in the breeze. She stopped at the truck door and rapped, unnecessarily, on the window. He rolled the glass down and peered into her tired, sad face.
"You ready for this?" he whispered, hoping she'd say no and let them all off the hook. Being Addie, she didn't, of course.
"As ready as I'll ever be," she said on a deep sigh.
She hesitated a moment, then kept walking to the front door as if she knew by stopping she might never get started again. Wyatt climbed out of the truck and silently followed.
She unlocked the front door and pushed the heavy wood open.
The door didn't smack against the wall like it had when they'd barreled through as children. Nor did the hinges squeal to remind Dad it was time to oil them.
It simply opened to a dark, musty room. A house full of stuff but empty of people.
Just then, a red convertible parked across the street. Both Wyatt and Addie turned to watch their younger sister Mandy climb out, her long blond hair shining in the sun. Her sky-high heels tapped across the paved street as she headed toward them.
Right behind her, the bumper of Tara's Jeep almost kissed the chrome of the convertible. The engine rattled a moment after she turned it off. There was no door on the side of the vehicle to slam. She simply swung her legs out and landed on sneaker-clad feet and trotted up the walk.
The shiny gray Lexus that pulled into the drive next would normally turn heads, but they were all used to Jason's flash. Even his black suit looked polished to a glow.
Last, as always, DJ arrived on his monstrous motorcycle, gliding up to the curb and just barely stopping from parking on Mom's pristine lawn. After removing his dark helmet, he cut the rough engine and silence returned to the quiet neighborhood.
They were all here.
No one spoke a word. Wyatt watched his brothers and sisters traipse in one by one. His family. Three of the six wore sunglasses, even as they entered the dim interior of the house.
Oddly enough, they passed the living room, the front hall and, in a long-honed habit, settled around the kitchen table. Six chairs. Six kids. No need to pull out the spare ones in the hall closet. They hadn't used them that often anyway, since they'd seldom all been home at the same time.
"Looks like we're all here." DJ spoke first, rubbing his hand over his military buzz cut as if even after two years, he still wasn't used to it.
"I guess we should have brought lunch." Tara's voice sounded too much like Mom's. They all smiled, missing the woman they'd said a permanent goodbye to only a few hours ago.
The laughter and tears mingled. The sunglasses came off and the healing began.
"Mom loved this room." Tara stood and went to the cupboard. The coffee, sugar and creamer were just where Mom had always kept them. She started a pot and plunked the containers on the table.
"We all did," Wyatt agreed, walking to the silverware drawer where he pulled out five spoons. Wyatt didn't need one. He took his coffee black.
As the coffee brewed and they fixed their cups, they talked. Voices overlapped and memories entwined. Even Jason relaxed, pulling off his jacket and rolling up his pristine shirtsleeves. Mandy's heels fell to the floor in a mangled heap of leather. "This feels right," she said as she rubbed her toes.
Addie smiled sadly. "Mom would have liked this-us all here together."
Wyatt silently leaned on the counter as Addie's words jabbed at his heart. She was right. If only they'd taken more time when Mom was alive. Sipping his coffee, he took in the view. Normally this group was a rowdy, teasing, rambunctious bunch. Today, rightfully so, they were quiet. He missed them all, missed who they were. Not just because Mom was gone, and they'd just come from the cemetery but because they were all scattered across the country and he didn't see them often. Who knew when, or if, they'd ever be together again.
Addie was the only one who still lived in Austin. But the wear and tear of caring for Mom as she'd battled cancer showed on Addie's face. He set his cup down and reached out to rub her shoulders.
She'd filled her coffee cup first yet it was the fullest. Not because she'd been doing most of the talking, either. He watched her, feeling the tension in her shoulders, noting the circles beneath her eyes. She'd been Mom's caregiver clear up until the end. He'd helped when he could, driving in every weekend to give her a break, but the ranch was a full-time operation two hours away, never mind that he hadn't known what to do. The toll that the past few months had taken showed in the lines around Addie's eyes.
She turned her cup around, the ceramic making a soft grinding sound against the old wood. She turned it again. And yet a third time. He knew, without being told, that she was formulating what to say. He almost held his breath waiting for her.
"Those last couple days," she began.
Wyatt reached out, as if subconsciously thinking he could stop her. Then he had to stop himself. She needed to say this.
She took a deep breath and started again. "The social worker at the hospice called it life review," she whispered. "Mom talked about her childhood. I learned a lot about her family. Stories I'd never heard before." She didn't go into those stories, but he saw everyone perk up, hoping, like him, that she would.
The silence grew and for a minute Wyatt thought maybe Addie had decided not to go on. Tara spoke up first. "What kinds of things did she talk about?"
Tara looked ready to break. The youngest, she'd always been coddled by them. While that babying hadn't necessarily been the best for encouraging Tara to grow up, the old habits helped Addie regroup. She shook off the trance and faintly smiled at Tara.
"Lots of things. I I started writing them down. I'll get them together for you all. But I think there's one story you should hear now." Addie took a deep breath. "About a week ago, we were sitting out on that big old porch. The orderly, William, you all met him?" She looked around and they all nodded. He was a big man with a gentle touch. "He carried her out there, all wrapped up in that quilt Aunt Bess gave her. We sat out on the swing."
Addie cleared her throat and took a deep swallow of her obviously cooled coffee. Everyone waited. "She told me about when she met Daddy."
Wyatt smiled. He'd always thought it was strange that his sisters, well into their adult years, still referred to their father as Daddy. Now he appreciated the affection that went with the moniker.
"I'd never heard her talk about that," Addie continued. "Did you know he used to drive a cattle truck out to her dad's ranch? Out where you live, Wyatt. He'd come out every week, just about the time she was getting off school. He'd pick her up and drive her the rest of the way home."
Jason chuckled, the lawyer in him coming out. "Nowadays he'd get arrested, not marry her."
Mandy laughed and swatted Jason's arm. "You are so not a romantic. He was what, two years older than her? He had to have been only eighteen."
Jason had the smarts to laugh at himself. "Go on, Add, tell us the rest."
"Seems Gramps didn't like him much. But Daddy's father paid the best for the stock. Daddy was actually bribing him to let him see Mom." Addie genuinely smiled. "I had no idea they snuck off and eloped the day after she graduated."
"No, they didn't," Mandy protested. "What about all those wedding pictures?" The book was still upstairs, Wyatt knew. Addie was taking it with her. He'd helped her find it and wrap it up just this morning.
"They had the formal wedding the next summer, once Gramps cooled off."
"Wow." DJ got up to refill his cup. Shaking his head, he turned his back on them, looking out the kitchen window over the yard. "There's so much we'll never know about her." His sadness filled the room.
"Maybe." Addie turned in her chair and met Wyatt's gaze. He nodded and moved closer to their youngest brother. The man was a soldier to the rest of the world, but here, he was the little boy they'd all patched up a million times.
"We all have our secrets, Deej. It's not a bad thing," Addie said.
DJ met Wyatt's gaze. The soldier was back and Wyatt immediately missed the boy. "Yeah, I suppose."
Addie stood, too, dumping her cold coffee down the drain. "Mom had a wonderful life, and she gave us all an amazing home."
Addie took her gaze from him and looked over her shoulder at the others. Finally, Addie's composure fled. Her shoulders drooped and Wyatt did as he always did; he tried to fix things by pulling her into a reassuring hug.
"I only hope I can be as good of a mom if I have kids someday," she said.
Silence, punctuated by only a few soft sniffles, filled the room. Finally, Addie moved away and Wyatt felt cast adrift. He vaguely wondered who'd been comforting whom. As he settled back in his seat, Addie reached into her purse and took out several folded sheets of paper. She slowly handed them out.
"Mom divided everything. Here are your lists. All we have to decide on is this." She ran a loving hand along the edge of the huge, old table.
They each looked down at the chair they were sitting in. Not a single eye was dry. Wyatt found himself caressing the chair's arms, just as their father used to do so long ago. Mandy turned and ran a finger over the curved wooden back.
"Can Do we have to I mean.. " Tara hiccuped and her words faded. Silence reigned for an entire moment. Then pandemonium broke loose.
"I want it."
"Me, too. But I don't have room right now."
"I can't imagine being without it."
Wyatt listened as their voices mingled and no one seemed to fully hear what the others said. Finally, he stood, an idea forming. He whistled to get their attention. "I know what we can do."
"What?" Addie looked at him, hope and a bit of panic in her eyes.
"None of us needs this whole set or this huge table. Let's each take our chair. I know it sounds silly, but it's the one thing that will always remind us of Mom and Dad."
Again, silence. Then they looked around and everyone nodded. "What about the table?" Addie asked.
"Let's leave it with the house. It's too monstrous to move, anyway." The real estate agent was scheduled to come tomorrow and put it on the market. Maybe a new family would love it, as well.
Again, they all agreed-an unusual occurrence. After they'd taken their lists and made plans to move their things out of the house, the chairs were lined up in the front hall. No one wanted to leave them behind today.
Wyatt and Jason helped DJ find bungee cords in the garage to strap his chair on the big bike. Then they worked to fit Jason's in the backseat of the Lexus.
Mandy looked odd driving away in the red convertible with the four legs of her chair sticking up in the air, but no less strange than Tara's Jeep with her chair strapped in the back with the remaining bungee cords.
Addie had walked over, her house being only a few blocks away. Wyatt put her chair in the truck's bed with his and gave her a ride home.
She climbed into the big truck, not bothering to look back. Wyatt glanced in the rearview mirror and then quickly away. "Goodbyes suck." He reached out and squeezed her hand.
"The decision about the chairs was good. Thank you," she whispered.
They drove in silence until they reached her equally small drive. She didn't open the door right away, then just as she curled her fingers around the handle, she looked over at him. The sorrow in her eyes nearly broke his heart.
But for the first time since he'd learned he had a baby sister and took on the unspoken responsibility for her, there was nothing he could do to fix her hurt.
Three months later, to the day, Wyatt sat in his truck again and stared at another empty house. This one was clapboard with narrow windows. On the front porch that ran downhill, a small boy sat on the uneven steps.
The boy looked as if he'd lost his best friend. Which-if he was who Wyatt thought he was-he probably had. The world the boy had always known was about to change, irreversibly. Forever. Wyatt swallowed the lump in his throat, dreading the role he had to play in this mess.
The boy rested his chin in the palm of his hand and smacked a stick against the sidewalk in an uneven beat. Wyatt reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the letter he'd received nearly a week ago. The paper looked small and white against his suntanned hand, but what snagged his attention was the picture. Damn, the kid looked so much like DJ had at that age. It was spooky. He refolded the letter and slipped it back into his pocket.
He stared at the boy as his thoughts spun. How had this happened? How could DJ have had a child he'd never known about? And why the hell had the woman decided now to contact him? No answers came to Wyatt, which frustrated him even further.
It wasn't the boy's fault who his parents were, or how they'd behaved. But Wyatt knew he'd probably be the one to pay the heaviest price.
The hot Texas sun beat down on Wyatt's shoulders as he climbed out of the truck. A warm wind slipped past, seemingly unnoticed by the glum boy.
The kid did, however, look up as Wyatt crossed the broken walk. The old metal gate creaked when he pushed it open. The boy's eyes narrowed with distrust. "Who are you?" His words sounded more like an accusation than a question.
Wyatt stopped. "I'm your uncle, Wyatt Hawkins. You're Tyler?" Silence. For a second Wyatt wasn't sure if he'd get an answer.
"Tyler Easton, yes, sir," the boy whispered, and continued smacking his stick on the sidewalk.
"Is your mother around?" The woman he'd talked to on the phone yesterday had assured him she'd be here. She had a lot to answer for.