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Katie Malone quit her job and packed up her little Vermont house. The past few years had been tough and the past few months, having been separated from her brother, Conner, her only family, had been awful. In fact, she'd been feeling so alone, she stopped herself just moments before signing on to an online dating service.
But her watershed moment came when she began to have high hopes for a romantic relationship with her boss, the sweetest pediatric dentist who ever lived and a man who had never even kissed her. And guess what? There was a logical reason he hadn'the was gay. She was the last person he wanted to kiss.
It was high time she forgot about men and worked on bolstering her independent spirit with a return to California. One of her twins, five-year-old Andy, said something that nearly drove an arrow through her heart and caused her to realize the whole family needed a fresh start.
She was packing up a box to ship ahead to California when Andy asked, "Do we have to move in the dark again?"
She was stunned. Speechless. Here she had been thinking about kisses and loneliness while her boys were worried about fleeing in the dark of night to some strange, unknown place. A place even farther from family than they were now.
She clutched her little boy close and said, "No, sweetheart! I'm taking you and Mitch to Uncle Conner."
Andy and Mitch were a matched set, five-year-old identical twins. Mitch overheard this and came running. "Uncle Conner?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, suddenly clear on what she had in front of her. She had to get her family together, make sure her boys felt safe and secure. "Right after a little side trip. How does Disney World sound?"
They started jumping for joy, screaming "Yay!" and "Cool!" And then the celebration dissolved to the floor and into a wrestling match. Like usual.
She rolled her eyes and continued packing up.
Last winter her brother had had a devastating experience that had become a family crisis. A man had been murdered behind their family-owned hardware store and Conner called the police at once. He became the only witness in a capital murder case. Shortly after the arrest was made, the hardware store was burned to the ground and a threat was left on Conner's voice mail. This led the D.A. to decide it was in the best interest of their family to separate them. Katie and her boys were spirited off to Vermont for their own protection, about as far from Sacramento as she could get and still stay in the country, while Conner was hidden away in a tiny mountain town in Northern California.
Now it was over. The suspect in the murder had been killed before he could stand trial, Conner was no longer a witness and their family had escaped danger. Now they could get about the business of healing and bonding.
And Conner had met someone in Virgin River, Leslie, a woman he loved. He'd settled in to make a life with her.
Katie would enjoy surprising her brother, but they'd long ago established the habit of talking every day. Conner talked to the boys, if only briefly, at least every other daythe closest thing to a father they had. There was no way she could conceal her travel plans. If Conner didn't suspect, the boys would certainly tell all.
"Summer is almost here," she told Conner. "It's almost June, we're all free to roam and move around now that there's no threat. I have to get my boys back to some kind of stable life. They need you, Conner. I'd like to spend the summer in Virgin River with you, if that's okay. I want to rent my own place, of course, but the boys should be near you."
"I'll come and get you," Conner immediately offered.
"No," she said flatly. "I'm taking the boys on vacation, just the three of us. We've earned it. We're going to Disney World for a few days. I'll have the car shipped from there, then we'll fly to Sacramento and I'll drive up to Virgin Riverit's only a few hours. And I love scenic drives."
"I'll meet you in Sacramento," he said.
She took a breath. Conner's overprotectiveness had intensified after their parents' deaths. He was always there for her and she adored him for it, but he verged on bossy and sometimes she had to take a firm hand with him. "No. I'm not a child. I'm thirty-two and very competent. And I want to spend some time with my kids. They've been on shaky ground since the move and we need some fun time together."
"I only want to help," he said.
"And I love you for it. But I'm going to do this my way."
And he backed off! "All right, fair enough."
Katie was momentarily shocked into silence. "Wow," she finally said. "Who are you and what have you done with my big brother?"
"Although I have the utmost respect for you, I give all the credit for this change to Leslie. Tell her I owe her."
When Katie had escaped to Vermont in March, she had left behind her minivan with the license plate that could identify her. It was to be sold and Conner had arranged for a late-model Lincoln Navigator SUV to be waiting for her in Vermonta mammoth vehicle that she could barely park. As any carpooling mother might, she had grieved her minivanit was light and easy to handle and felt like an extension of her body. But she came to quickly love the big, gas-guzzling SUV. She felt like queen of the roadinvulnerable; she could see over everything and everyone. She looked forward to some time on the road for reflection, to consider her options. The act of seeing the miles vanish in the rear-view mirror was a good way to leave the past behind and welcome a new beginning.
It didn't take Katie long to get out of town. She had UPS pick up her boxes on Monday, phoned the school and arranged to have the boys' kindergarten records scanned and emailed to her, invited the landlord over to check the condition of the house, and asked her neighbor to come over and help herself to the perishables that would otherwise be thrown out. She arranged to have the Lincoln picked up in Orlando and moved to Sacramento while she and the boys did a little Disney. She packed not only clothes, but the cooler and picnic basket. Her tool belt, which was pink and had been given to her by her late husband, Charlie, went with her everywhere. Armed with portable DVD players and movies, iPads and rechargers, she loaded her monster SUV and headed south.
They got off to a great start, but after a few hours the boys started to wiggle and squabble and complain. She stopped for the bathroom for one when the other one didn't have to go and fifteen minutes down the road, had to stop again for the second one. They picnicked at rest stops every few hours and she ran them around to tire them out, though the only one who seemed tired was Katie. She repaired a malfunctioning DVD player, set up some snacks and loaded them back up to hit the road again.
She couldn't help but wonder how parents did this sort of thing ten, twenty, thirty years ago before portable movies and iPad games. How did they manage without fifth-wheel-size cars with pull-down consoles that served as tables to hold games and refreshments? Without cars that, like cruise ships, had individual heating and air-conditioning thermostats? How did the pioneer mothers manage? Did they even have duct tape back then?
Most women, at times like this, would be reduced to self-pity because they were left with these high maintenance, energetic boys, but Katie just wasn't that kind of woman. She hated self-pity. She did, however, wish Charlie could see them, experience them.
Katie met and married Charlie when she was twenty-six. They had a romantic, devoted, passion-charged relationship, but it had been too short. He was a Green BeretArmy Special Forces. When she was pregnant with the boys, he deployed to Afghanistan where he was killed before they were born.
How she wished he knew them now. When they weren't in trouble they were so funny. She imagined they were like their father had been as a child; they certainly resembled him physically. They were large for their ages, rambunctious, competitive, bright, a little short-tempered and possessive. They both had a strong sentimental streak. They still needed maternal cuddling regularly and they loved all animals, even the tiniest ones. They tried to cover up their tears during Disney movies like Bambi. If one of them got scared, the other propped him up and reassured and vice versa. When they were forced together, like in the backseat of the car, they wanted space. When they were forced apart, they wanted to be together. She wondered if they'd ever take individual showers.
And just as she'd always griped at Charlie for never closing the bathroom door, she still longed for a little solitary bathroom time. The boys had been in her bubble, no matter what she was doing, since they could crawl. She could barely have a bath without company in the past five years.
So her life wasn't always easy. Was theirs? They didn't seem to realize they didn't have the average family lifethey had a mom and no dad, but they had Uncle Conner. She showed them the pictures of their dad and told them, all the time, how excited he had been to see them. But then he'd gone to the angels
. He was a hero who'd gone to the angels
So Disney World was a good idea. They'd all earned it.