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"You sure you don't want me to come in with you?" Shelley asked.
"I'm sure." Ellen Moore's voice, infused with confidence and cheer for the sake of fiveyearold Josh climbing out of the backseat of her sister's car, sounded strong and healthy to her.
Because she was strong and healthy. She could do this. no big deal. thousands of women all over the country shared parenting with divorced spouses.
Though maybe not all of them had their younger sisters driving them to the airport for the monthlong parental switch.
Martha Moore Marks, the girls' mother, had been adamant about Ellen not making the trip alone. That was fine with Ellen. Her sister Shelley wanted Ellen's opinion on an outfit she was considering for an upcoming vocal performance with the Phoenix Symphony, so they could take care of that while they were in the city. Then the sisters were treating themselves to lunch at their favorite Mexican restaurant in Fountain Hillsa quaint Phoenix suburbbefore heading home to Shelter Valley.
"I want to wear my backpack." The solemn voice of her son grabbed Ellen's attention. And heart. "I don't want Daddy to think I'm a baby or something."
"He's not going to think that, bud," she said, resisting the urge to run her fingers through her little guy's dark, silky hair. At home, especially when he was sleepy, he'd let her get away with it, but not here. Not now.
Instead, she helped him secure the straps of the new fullsize backpack he'd specifically requested for the trip. The canvas bagloaded down with his electronic handheld game console; extra discs; dried fruit snacks; animal cookies; cheese crackers; his Cars insulated water bottle filled with juice; two of his favorite nighttime storybooks, both starring Cars characters; and the stuffed Woody doll she'd bought him for Christmas the year beforereplaced the smaller plastic one that had been suitable when he'd been going to preschool and day care.
He was starting kindergarten a couple of days after he returned from visiting his father.
"Remember, put Woody under the covers with you at night," she told him as Shelley popped the trunk on her Chevy sedan. Ellen hauled out the first of two big suitcases, pulling up the roller bar.
"No one will know he's there," she said, dropping the second bag next to her and closing the trunk while her sister picked Josh right up off the ground with the force of her goodbye hug.
"You be a good boy and have fun, okay?" Shelley said, nose to nose with Josh.
Josh, arms wrapped tightly around Shelley's neck, rubbed noses with his aunt. "I get to go fishing in the Colorado River," the little boy said.
"I know, pal. And you better call me if you catch anything." Shelley let Josh's thin body slide to the ground.
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
Shelley nodded at Ellen, climbed behind the wheel and drove off to the call lot where she could wait until Ellen was ready to be picked up.
With a roller bar in each hand, and Josh's hand next to hers on one handle, Ellen pulled the bags to the curbside checkin station. Josh didn't need a specialneeds tag because, while he was checking in alone, he wouldn't be flying alone.
Then they were in the terminal, Josh's hand in hers whether he liked it or not, and Ellen swore to herself that the smile would stay pasted on her lips if it killed her.
It wouldn't kill her. She was a survivor.
The squeeze of her son's fingers around her own made her own angst seem selfish and petty.
"You're going to have a blast," she promised him.
"Why can't Daddy and I have a blast right here?"
"Because he doesn't live here. His job is in Colorado. And he has a room all ready for you in his new house and you're going to love it."
The terminal was bustling, with as many families as businesspeople hurrying around them in spite of the fact that it was a Monday morning.
"Then why can't you come?"
"Because my job is here. Besides, Jaime is there and is looking forward to hanging out with you. You like Jaime, remember?" The beautiful model her exhusband Aaron had chosen as a replacement for his damaged wife loved Josh and had taken off the entire month of August to care for him.
As far as Ellen was concerned, Josh was all that mattered. "Yeah."
She couldn't really blame Aaron for choosing someone who oozed feminine perfection and sexuality. He'd been far too young to handle the emotional and physical backlash that had consumed Ellen after her attack. Too young to handle her physical rejection of him.
She would have opted out, too, if she'd had that choice.
Aaron had needed to get out of Shelter Valley, to start a new life away from the tragedy, and Ellen couldn't imagine ever leaving Shelter Valley. There was no future in that kind of standoff.
Josh's grasp did not loosen even a little bit as they approached the bustling rotunda where they'd arranged to meet Aaron. There was less than an hour's turnaround between his arriving flight and his departing one with Josh. Aaron and Ellen had both decided whisking Josh off quickly was the best plan.
She was searching the crowd for the familiar dark hair of her ex when Josh stopped suddenly.
"What's up?" she asked, gazing into his solemn face.
"I don't want to go."
"But you miss your daddy, Josh. You say so a lot."
"You're going to have such a great time with him. You always do."
"But he always comed here."
"Came here. You're older now, bud. And Daddy wants to have time with you in his house, too. He bought you your own bed and it has Cars sheets and everything."
Josh stared at her then his lower lip started to tremble.
Kneeling in front of her son, Ellen held him by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. "Josh? What's going on?"
His eyes filled with tears. "I don't want to leave you here by yourself. You'll be sad."
"Ah, buddy, I'm going to miss you for sure. Remember the list we went over last night? The one on the refrigerator?"
"Those are all the things I'm going to be doing after work while you're gone. And that list is so big, I won't have a chance to get too sad."
He didn't look convinced.
"Name some of them for me," Ellen said. "What am I going to be doing today after work?"
"Going running. Every day."
"And then what?"
"You're going to help Sophie make the nursery in their new house."
He'd paid attentionand hopefully had pictures in his head of her busy and happy.
"What else was on the list?"
"Babysitting for Aunt Caro and Uncle John when they're in Kentucky at their farm. Do I ever get to go to their farm like you said?"
"I'm housesitting," Ellen corrected him. "They're taking the kids with them." Caroline had moved to Shelter Valley, alone and pregnant, at a time when Ellen had been lost as well, and the two, though more than ten years apart in age, had formed a bond that Ellen cherished. "And yes, we'll go to Kentucky. Maybe next summer."
Which gave her another year to work up the desire to leave Shelter Valley for a few weeks.
Ellen took a seat on a bench with a clear view of the entrances to the A boarding gates, pulling Josh, backpack and all, in between her legs, keeping her arms linked loosely around him.
"And you're going to put junk in jars," he said.
"Canning tomatoes and peaches and corn and green beans to send to the food pantry in Phoenix," she said, knowing he probably wouldn't remember that part. A group of older ladies from the three churches in Shelter Valley met every year for the service project. They had lost a couple of members of their group during the past year and needed extra hands. Ellen was good in the kitchenand eager to learn how to can.
Aaron still hadn't appeared. Josh was shifting weight from one foot to the other and picking at a thread from the flowered embroidery on the front of Ellen's Tshirt.
"What else?" she asked. "What am I going to be doing for you?"
"Painting my room."
"Painting what in your room?"
He grinned. "Trains."
"That's right. What colors?"
"The engine is black, of course."
"And the caboose is red so the trains coming behind it will see it."
"And blue for my favorite color."
"And purple for mine."
"And" Josh stopped when Ellen stood. "Daddy's coming," she said.
Please, heart, don't make it difficult for me to breathe. Don't let me need anything from Aaron Hanaran. With her son's hand in hers, she approached the man she'd once vowed to love, honor and cherishand sleep withuntil death did them part.
"Hey, sport!" Aaron's grin was huge as he sped up the last few steps and scooped his son into his arms, hugging him tight. "I've missed you."
"I missed you, too," Josh said.
Ellen stared at those little arms clutching his father's neck. Josh needed this time with Aaron. He needed his father.
Then, with their son perched on his hip, Aaron's eyebrows drew together in concern as he looked at her. "How you doing, El?"
"Fine! Great!" The smile she gave him was genuine. "It's good to see you."
Then they stood there with nothing to say. There had been no big angry outbursts between them, no hatred or resentment or bitterness. Just a sadness that had infiltrated every breath they took together.
"I better get him through security." Aaron's comment filled the dead air. "Our flight will be boarding in fifteen minutes."
"Okay. Well, then "
Aaron put Josh down. "We'll call you the second we land, El, I promise," he said, his gaze filled with the sympathy she'd learned to dread. "And you have my cell number. Call anytime. As often as you need."
She knelt in front of Josh. "You be a good boy and listen to your daddy."
He nodded, tears in his eyes again.
"I love you, bud."
"I love you, too."
Ellen kissed him. Josh kissed her back. Like usual. Then the little boy threw his arms around her neck, clutching her in a death grip.
Ellen couldn't breathe. Without thought she jerked the boy's arms apart, stopping herself in time to keep from flinging those tiny arms completely away from her. She held on to Josh's small hands, instead, squeezing them.
The boy didn't seem to notice anything amiss. A glance at Aaron's closed face told her his father had witnessed her reaction.
She gathered her son against her, close to her heart, and held on before finally letting go. "Now, have fun and remember to store up all kinds of things to tell me when you call," she said with a smile as she stood.
She watched as the two men who used to be her entire world walked away, her jaw hurting with the effort to keep the smile in place in case Josh turned around to wave goodbye.
She made it outside the airport before she let the tears fall. But she let go for only a second. Josh was going to be fine. And so was she.
Ellen was coming around the corner of Mesa and Lantana streets Tuesday afternoon, her second jog since Josh had left, when she heard the bike roar into town. Without conscious thought, she took stock of her surroundings. Ben and Tory Sanders' home was on the corner. Bonnie Nielsonowner of the day care Josh had attended the first four years of his life and would attend after school once kindergarten started the following monthhad a home around the next corner. Bonnie and Keith wouldn't be home. Tory would be. It took only a second for the awareness to settle over Ellen.
Staying safe was second nature to her. She always knew, at any given moment, where her safety spots were.
She didn't alter her course, though. Not yet. Though she wanted to. But because she wanted to run for cover, she maintained her trek.
Slowing her pace, Ellen controlled her breathing with effort, her gaze pinned to the spot where the bike would appeara stop sign at the corner. Waited to see who would roar past her.
Sam Montford had a new motorcycle. But it had a muffler, or something that made it run much quieter than the noise pollution she was hearing.
Sheriff Greg Richards had one now, too. He'd bought it as a gas saving measure. His bike was like Sam's the quieter variety.
And there he was. A body in black leather on a black machine framed by shiny chrome. She didn't have to know anything about motorcycles to know that this monstrosity was topoftheline. It even had a trunklooking thing that was big enough for a suitcase.
Ellen noticed, without stopping. Shortening her stride, she jogged. And watched.
Black Leather was not from around Shelter Valley. of that she was certain. The bike and black leather were dead giveaways. The ponytail hanging down the guy's back was advertisement for outsider.
Tensing, Ellen paused, jogging in place at the end of Tory's driveway. If the guy turned onto this street, she was running to the front door.
If not, she'd continue with her run. Her day. Her life.
Her mother was having a family dinner tonight Rebecca and her husband, Shelley and, of course, Tim, who still lived at homeand Ellen was bringing brownies for dessert. Brownies that weren't yet made.
She also had to stop by the Stricklands' house to collect the mail. And she wanted to call Josh. It was an hour later in Colorado. Her son would be in bed before she got home from her mother's.
With his feet on the ground on either side of his mammoth machine, the biker mastered the weight between his legs, seemingly unaware of the disruptive noise he was emitting along the quiet and peaceful streets of Shelter Valley.
A light blue Cadillac drove by. Becca Parsonsthe mayor. Becca was Martha's best friend. Ellen's youngest sister, Rebecca, was named after her. Ellen could see the woman's frown from a block away.
Hotrod engines simply didn't belong in Shelter Valley.
Black Leather didn't seem to see the car at all. He sat there, gunning his motor with a gloved hand, unaware that within minutes Sheriff Richards would be all over him.
Or at least, right behind him, finding a reason to stop him and determine his business in town. And if that business wasn't just passing through, Black Leather would be on the radar. The heroines of Shelter Valley the core group of women whose strength and nurturing of each other and everyone else in town were the glue that held Shelter Valley togetherwould convince him so sweetly to exit their borders, he would never know the departure wasn't his idea.
That was how it worked around here. The people of Shelter Valley would help anyone. They were compassionate. Welcoming. And anyone who didn't emulate the town's values and ways was encouraged to find happiness elsewhere. That's what kept Shelter Valley what it wasa town that embraced and protected in a balance that was even enough to create a form of heaven on earth.