About the Author
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"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 fill...