How far can love bend before it breaks?
Josie Norris became an instant mommy when her twin sister Nadine handed over her newborn son and vanished. What Josie saw as a temporary arrangement grew into a mother-son bond too deep to uproot. But with her irrational sister threatening to steal him back, Josie has been living the last few years with Kennedy in hiding, afraid to go home.
When Aunt Libby—the only person who knows the truth about Kennedy—suffers a traumatic head injury, Josie rushes to her McKenzie River home to help Gram care for the woman who raised her. But not only is Libby’s injury causing family secrets to spill, it’s forcing Josie to see the women in her life in a new light.
Will—a ranger who Kennedy adores and who Josie is determined not to—is desperate to help the woman who has stolen his affections. But can Josie ever truly be authentic with the man she loves? With her son’s fate hanging in the balance, she is faced with the choice to risk everything she loves in order to bridge the most impossible gulfs.
In this story of mothers, daughters, and sisters, Josie must find the grace to forgive people for not being who she needed them to be…and the courage to surrender her fears to the God who has never once left her side.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
— Psalm 139: 15-16
But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass.
June 9, 2003 – McKenzie River, Oregon
On the last day of fifth grade, just as the sun dipped below the canyon’s western rim, Nadine and Josie Norris left the river’s edge and toted their fishing poles up the spongy bank, away from the deafening sound of rushing water. Like twin yearlings, they scrambled with ease over mossy tree roots, ferns, and jutting rock, until the sloped ground leading away from the McKenzie leveled out. From there, they headed for the old, covered bridge.
Their old, covered bridge.
With the same wiry build, same honey-gold hair, same freckles, and same green eyes, it would have been nearly impossible for people to tell them apart—if not for the fact that they never dressed alike. Aunt Libby had made it clear from day one how absurd she thought it was for twins to wear matching outfits. The fact that they were identical and pageant-pretty drew more than enough stares already, she’d said. No need to add to the novelty by parading them around like some circus side-show act.
Above the river, they followed the hidden path through thick ferns and underbrush. Few locals knew about the trail or what it led to, and dumb tourists definitely didn’t know about it.
As usual, Josie was stuck carrying both the tackle box and the creel.
Nadine beat Josie to the covered bridge—also typical. She tucked her pole through the gap in the shrubs covering the bridge’s undergirding, then slipped between the bushes and disappeared.
Josie checked to make sure no one was watching, then ducked inside. The summer before, they’d found the abandoned fort beneath the bridge, and since Josie and her sister had recently decided to be river pirates, they had spent afternoons and weekends filling their new lair with booty. Josie had long ago learned that kids raised by a no-nonsense aunt and a kooky grandma weren’t likely to have anything even remotely cool, so a top secret place all their own was basically sacred.
Nadine plopped down on the rug they’d found in the recycle bin behind Wally’s Mini-Mart, pulled off a shoe, and shook dirt and pebbles from it.
“Stink’s finally gone, thank God.”
Josie sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “Nope, I can still smell it.” Definitely skunk.
Nadine slipped her eye patch into place, then leaned back, arms behind her like a pillow. “Nope. You just remember it, so you think you still smell it. It’s all in your head.”
Josie scoffed. “You have no idea what’s in my head.”
“Probably not much.” Nadine rolled to avoid the pinecone Josie chucked at her.
“So what kept you so long after the bell?” Josie asked. “You took forever to come out.”
Josie laughed. “Seriously? I totally thought you would’ve been the first one out the door screaming ‘freeeeedomm!’ at the top of your lungs. But when you came out, you never said a word.”
With a frown, Nadine lifted her eye patch. “I didn’t want Aunt Libby going down to the school and causing drama, like she did last year with Miss B.” She plucked a fiddle fern and wrapped it around her finger. Then she let out an exasperated growl. “Miss Parker wanted to chat. Weirdo. She asked how I liked being raised by a couple of spinsters. And if I miss my parents.”
“What?” Josie’s face puckered. “Why’d she want to know that?”
Nadine snorted. “Because she’s stupid. And nosy. Just like all the others.”
All her life, Josie had heard countless comments about her and Nadine, about their odd family, the absence of a “real” mom and dad. Whispers about Gram, Aunt Libby. Speculation about who the girls’ parents really were. Josie wished the small-town busybodies would be satisfied with just the basics about Josephine and Nadine Norris, and leave it at that.
Because just the basics was all the girls had ever known.
“And then she asked me if Libby was a lesbian. Or a communist. Or a mushroom-picking hippy, like Gram.”
Josie scoffed, then stared at her twin. “I hope you said our family is none of her business.”
“I did.” Nadine replaced the eye patch. “Right after I told her Libby smokes weed and dances naked in the moonlight.”
Josie’s jaw dropped. “No way! Did you really?”
Nadine rose to sit cross-legged. “Yep. And then I told her off.”
“Good.” Josie giggled, ignoring a guilty twinge of relief that the teacher had cornered Nadine instead of her. Nadine had no problem speaking her mind. Which often landed her in trouble.
“But don’t tell Libby,” Nadine added.
Nadine shrugged one shoulder. “Just not a good idea.”
This from the girl who thought diving out of the hayloft with a rope tied to her ankle was a good idea.
“Nadine! Josephine!” Aunt Libby’s voice startled Josie.
Nadine leaned in closer. “I mean it, Feen. Promise you won’t tell her.”
“Okay,” Josie said as she sprang to her feet. Libby despisedhollering.
Her twin stood and faced her. “Say it.”
“Let’s go, girls.” Libby sounded stressed.
“Okay, I promise. Come on,” Josie said, picking up the tackle box and creel. The longer they took to appear, the more annoyed their aunt would be.
Nadine grasped her sister’s biceps and met her with a dead-level, one-eyed glare. “In fact, I want you to promise me that everythingwe tell each other in this place stays in this place.”
Josie replied with another eye roll. They were eleven. It wasn’t like they had earthshaking secrets, nothing Gram and Libby didn’t already know.
“Swear on the greatest, most sacred mystery of the universe.”
“Twin telepathy. Promise!”
“Okay, okay, I swear on twinsy-telepathy.”
Nadine spit into her palm and held it out, the look in her lone eye grim.
Josie did likewise, and they shook. Goose bumps prickled her skin, partly because Josie knew her aunt really did notlike having to call them like hogs, and partly because of the sudden, strange solemnity in her twin sister’s face.
But then she told herself Nadine was just being dramatic, as usual, and scurried out ahead of her sister into the waning sunlight.
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Courage is found in unlikely places.
—J. R. R. Tolkien
September 4, 2019 – Twin Falls, Idaho
Bad boys, bad boys…whatcha gonna do…whatcha gonna do when they come for you?
The COPS theme song coming from the TV cut straight through Josie’s focus, nudging a tingle down her back. She set the laptop aside, clambered off the beanbag, and peeked into the bedroom.
How a four-year-old could sleep with arms flung wide like a soaring eagle never ceased to amaze her.
She tiptoed over to Kennedy’s bed. Toothpaste breath escaped his parted lips. Tiny beads of sweat glistened on his brow, pulling his brown bangs into dark little clumps, thanks to record-breaking humidity. The AC was just for looks, apparently. One of the things she’d learned about “affordable” apartment life is that it was anyone’s guess what fixtures—if any—actually worked.
She could just hear Aunt Libby saying something pithy about how little trials like this were God’s way of reminding Josie that she’d wandered off the path of his provision and blessing.
Opening a window in this neighborhood was not an option, so she brought the janky fan from the other room and turned it on low. She brushed a tiny kiss on Kennedy’s temple and then cracked the door of their shared bedroom a few more inches. Nothing trained a mommy’s superpowers like a child sleeping in the next room.
Returning to the beanbag, she repositioned her laptop and resumed her work. A career in freelance graphic design had its perks, like the ability to work from home so she didn’t have to leave Kennedy with a sitter. Portability, so she wasn’t tied down to one location. And anonymity, which allowed for a quick vanishing act if needed, as well as the benefit of avoiding face-to-face contact with clients. Which could be either pro or con, depending on how long it had been since Josie had spoken to anyone above three feet tall in sentences that didn’t require answering more “why” questions than she ever knew existed.
Since today was Friday and her Monday deadline loomed, she focused on the layout her client was waiting to see, but the thought of her aunt reminded Josie they hadn’t talked in a while, not since Libby had taken the job of custodian at her church. She saidshe did it to escape from Gram a few hours each week, but Josie was afraid the real reason was that her aunt and grandma needed the money.
Hoping it wasn’t too late, Josie pulled out her phone and dialed her aunt’s cell. A while back, Gram had voiced her suspicions that Libby and Josie didn’t use the landline because they were sharing scandalous secrets. But even though she was notoriously odd, Gwendolyn Buckley was no dummy. In her day, she memorized Shakespeare for a living. So Libby and Josie admitted nothing. What Gram didn’t know, she couldn’t worry about. Or accidentally tell anyone.
“Hey, yourself.” The relief in her aunt’s sigh traveled across the miles as clearly as if they were standing hip to hip, shelling peas in Gram’s kitchen. “It’s about time.”
Josie could always tell when Libby was worried, even though she hid it well. Actually, Liberty Buckley hid everything well. Which was a quality Josie had lately come to value very highly.
“You okay?” she asked. “How’s Captain America?”
“Growing like a weed. I can hardly keep him in clothes that fit. Good thing it’s still warm enough for shorts. Hides my mom fails.” She could hope, anyway.
“Quit being so hard on yourself.”
Who was she kidding? Chapter one in Motherhood for Dummies probably began with “Welcome to second-guessing yourself now and for all of eternity.”
“You sound tired,” Josie said, heading toward the bedroom again for another peek.
Another sigh. “Keeping up with my mom is a full-time job.”
Josie smiled even though she knew her aunt wasn’t kidding. Gram was a young girl in an eighty-year-old body and knew no stranger, whether it had two legs, four, or—to Josie’s never-ending horror—eight. Gram was the quintessential Friend to All Living Things but absolutely needed to draw the line at spiders. That was so many kinds of wrong. But to her credit, Gram always had a cat named Peaseblossom. Josie was pretty sure Gram was on Peaseblossom #27.
“Fixing to run me into the ground.”
“Whatever. Since when are you afraid of work?”
Libby’s prolonged pause spoke volumes. “It’s not the work, Josie. She’s…” Another sigh. “You need to come see for yourself.”
Josie could think of nothing she’d love more. The Buckley home on the McKenzie River was the only place she’d ever felt anchored, like part of something sturdy. And if there was ever a time she craved sturdy, it was now. But at this point in Josie’s life, home was a comfort she couldn’t afford. Home wasn’t safe for Kennedy, not now. Which Libby knew full well.
She peeked at her mini-superhero to make sure he was still asleep, then took her phone into the kitchen and lowered her voice to a near whisper. “Has Nadine come around?”
“Has she called? Has she asked about…?” She sucked in air and held it. She still couldn’t say it.
“No, we haven’t heard from your sister in a long time.”
The air Josie held leaked out with a hiss. But the reassurance in Libby’s answer was short-lived. The one thing you could count on about Josie’s sister was that you couldn’t. Nadine Norris had never stuck with a plan for more than twelve minutes in her entire life.
Josie had always wished they were more alike—and not in the freckled, green-eyed blonde sense. Physical appearance was where their similarities began and ended. In fact, they couldn’t have been more opposite. Nadine was the striking one. Even as a kid, she’d always had this Hey! I’m here! way of exploding into a room, a feral charisma no one could ignore. She was all about making sure the world stopped and took a good look at her.
And then there was Josie. Good old, dependable Josephine—resident worrywart and vibe-killer. When their mom woke up one day and decided she was done being mom to twin preschoolers, Josie had naturally assumed the role of Nadine’s mother. She was always her lookout, always cleaning up her messes, always defending or bailing her out. And Nadine always got a kick out of baiting her—she even admitted it.
Despite all that had happened and all the damage Nadine had done, Josie still loved her sister. Nadine would always be an inextricable part of her. But that didn’t change the fact that Josie was now prepared to do whatever it took to avoid crossing her sister’s path—even if it meant living in exile.
“Sorry. I’m here.”
“Sounds like you need to get some rest.”
“What I need is to land a ginormous contract and become filthy rich.”
Libby said no more on that subject—she knew. Josie promised to check in again soon and ended the call on a livelier note than she was feeling.
Saturday afternoon, the sound of someone pounding on a window yanked Josie’s attention from her laptop to the LEGO empire on the kitchen floor beside her, which now lay abandoned. Heart hammering, she jumped up, maneuvered bare feet between tiny instruments of torture scattered across the linoleum, and hurried to the front room.
Balanced on a stack of still-packed boxes, Kennedy, dressed in his usual Captain America garb, held the curtain open with one hand and knuckle-rapped on the window with the other.
Josie’s relief was replaced by a fresh wave of apprehension. She tucked a long lock of hair behind one ear and forced her tone light. “Hey, buddy, who’s out there?” Since we don’t know anybody in Idaho.
“Squirt gun war! Look!” He opened the curtain as wide as his little arm could stretch.
A reminder about staying away from doors and windows died on her lips. She leaned closer to the glass, taking in the shrieking neighbor kids playing outside in the dwindling hours of daylight, and wrapped an arm around his wriggly body. The boyish energy bursting to be free stabbed at her heart.
“Did you see that?” he said. “That guy shot all the way across the street!”
“Yeah, that was awesome.”
Kennedy turned to her, doe-eyes wide beneath his red and blue hero mask.
She could only fake smile. Someday, she wanted to say, you’ll play carefree like all the other kids, I promise.
“Can we get squirt guns?”
She crossed her eyes and touched her forehead to his. “What do you think?”
“I think I need one!”
I think you’re four going on fourteen. “We’ll just have to see about that.”
“Then I can shoot the bad guys when they come to get me.”
Her breath caught. He was far too perceptive for a preschooler.
Baby, no one’s going to get you because I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the bad guys never find you…
“Whatever it takes” had come to include a number of skills Josie had never dreamed she was going to need. Like the art of traveling light and owning only what her twenty-year-old Outback could hold. Trusting no one. Dating no one. It also included leaving God and everyone she loved behind because the role of protecting Kennedy was a 24/7 job that fell squarely on her.
Kennedy palmed the window with both hands.
Time for a diversion.
“Know what?” Josie asked. “When I came in here just now, I thought you were the real Captain America.”
Turning, he lifted a corner of his mask and eyeballed her.
Josie’s brows rose to add authenticity. “Serious.”
He studied her, thoughts churning. “Naw,” he said finally, shaking his head. “You’re lying.”
He leapt off the boxes, still packed since the move from Ogden two weeks ago. The thought of unpacking made Josie’s brain hurt. Besides, who knew how long before a grocery checker or apartment manager told her some sketchy-looking guy was asking about them, and they would need to move again.
Another noise pulled her focus back to the kitchen. Kennedy was tiptoe on a chair, reaching as high as he could into the cupboard.
“Whoa, buddy, let me do that. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Watch this.” He flicked a box so hard that it bounced against a can of Dennison’s and popped off the shelf. He hopped down, opened the box, and with a dimpled grin, held up a package of microwave popcorn. “Orbull Red and Buckers. Perfect every time.”
Josie smiled without a word as he unwrapped the cellophane. It was actually the generic store brand—she couldn’t afford the good stuff. What kids didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
You sure do tell yourself that a lot…
She helped him set the timer on the microwave and let him push the button. So what if she’d withheld some useless information from him? If it was a crime, she was prepared to do the time. Kennedy would never be like a piece of luggage somebody wanted one day and tossed out the next. He’d never have to deal with bonehead teachers and their insensitive questions about who his parents were. It wouldn’t take him decades to figure out that the mean kids at school don’t actually know what they’re talking about and that he was no weirder than anyone else.
He would never know what not worth keeping felt like. Not as long as Josie had a heartbeat.
The microwave timer beeped in sync with the ringtone on her cell. Libby’s name appeared on the screen. That was odd, since they had just talked the night before. What if Gram had fallen in the woods, or had a stroke, or…?
Heart thumping, she answered. But it was not her aunt’s soothing alto. It was her grandma, her little kitten voice garbled.
“Gram? What’s wrong? What are you saying?”
“Liberty…” Gram was sobbing so hard she could hardly speak. “They took her away…in a helicopter…”
Josie went instantly numb. “What? Why?”
“She’s bleeding. Oh, Josephine, they said her brain…she’s in a coma!”
Aunt Libby? In a coma? Josie’s legs felt like noodles. “W-what happened?”
Panic pressed her chest tight as Gram gasped and stammered out the details like pieces of a nightmarish puzzle. Libby had fallen down the basement stairs while cleaning her church. Hit her head on a concrete ledge. Lay in a pool of blood for who knew how long. Brain bleeding and rapid swelling. Acute trauma.
Tears blinded her. She gulped air. “Where are they taking her?”
“I don’t know…McKenzie-Willamette? I don’t remember.”
Please, God, please. Not Libby.
“They said she might…might not…make it.” More pitiful, choking sobs. This was far too much reality for Gram. “I need to be with her. Can you come?”
“Yes, of course, I’ll be there as soon as—”
“Gram, does Nadine know?”
“Who? No, I don’t know where your sister is, but Liberty needs us.” She sobbed. “Please come?”
“Yes, I’ll leave right now. I’m about eight hours away, but I’ll be there as soon as I can. Just hold on, okay?”
Gram said she’d try to hold on, but Josie suspected her grandma was losing it, and fast.
Josie hung up and stared at her phone.
Acute brain trauma.
What if Libby didn’t make it?
Icy fear paralyzed her.
Snap out of it, Josie. Move.
She grabbed a hoodie and stuffed it into her duffel bag. On second thought, she went to the bedroom and grabbed jeans, T-shirts, undies, and other random stuff. Just in case. It was about eight hours to McKenzie Bridge, and then another hour to the hospital in Springfield, then no telling how long they would have to wait for news, or for—
“Mommy, what are you doing?” Kennedy stared at her with a deepening frown.
Tears blinded her. She blinked hard, sucked it up. “We’re going for a surprise drive, buddy.”
“Ahhh!” He flopped onto her bed, his groans right up there with a wounded walrus. “Again?”
Josie grabbed his backpack and stuffed in some of his clothes and a pair of tennis shoes, then grabbed whatever toys were in reach.
“Hey! Why are you putting Captain America in my tool belt?”
Good question. “It’s going to be kind of a long surprise drive, so let’s take your pillow and blanket too.”
“But where are we going?”
“We’re going to see my Gram and…my aunt.” Her aunt who could NOT die.
Please, God, please. Libby is the closest thing I have to a mom. You know that, right?
“Will your Gram like me?”
Heart twisting, Josie paused and met Kennedy’s cocoa brown gaze. She had studied that sweet face countless times since the moment he was born, but suddenly, she was seeing him anew, through an old woman’s eyes. What would Gram see when she looked at him? What would she say?
Josie always assumed Kennedy got his dark hair and eye coloring from his father—whoever that was—because he certainly didn’t take after his mother.
“Of course. Gram’s going to be so surprised to meet you.” Epic understatement. Josie had no idea how Gram would react to learning she had a great-grandson. But what choice did she have? Josie needed to be there, and, therefore, so did Kennedy.
She crammed everything she could think of into the bags, then raided the fridge and pantry, which she was surprised to find actually contained anything portable. Pop Tarts, string cheese, granola bars. Half a box of cereal.
Fact: Josie was no food snob and was definitely not above munching on Cap’n Crunch to stay awake.
“What’s a ‘aunt’?” Kennedy hollered from the bedroom. “Do I have one?”
Now there was a loaded question.
She could barely focus on what to pack, much less tackle that topic. Hands shaking, she stuffed her laptop and cord in her duffel, grabbed her keys, and then froze. A giant, numbing cold hit her like a brick wall, and Josie was suddenly too limp to stand. Her brain wanted to power down into some kind of jellyfish mode.
Move, Josie. Now!
She dragged in a deep breath. “Okay, bud, ready? Let’s hit the road.”
She tossed everything in the back of the Subaru, smooshed it down enough to see out the rear window, then buckled Kennedy in the backseat and made sure his water, blanket, and the Captain were within reach.
As she drove away from the apartment complex, she glanced in the rearview mirror, nagged by the feeling that she was forgetting something really important. But Kennedy was buckled in, his pillow beside him. Beyond him, the apartment building, trash bins, and graffitied street signs shrank until they disappeared. It was like Idaho was swallowing up everything she hadn’t crammed into her car.
God, I know I haven’t exactly been keeping in touch lately, but Libby can’t die. Please?
Losing Libby was something Josie had never even considered. At fifty-six, Libby was strong, healthy, and full of endless stamina. Josie had given no thought to her aunt’s health or how long she’d be around. She’d always been there. She was supposed to always be there.
Thick, suffocating fear pressed in.
Libby was the tough, sturdy one, not Josie. Libby was the one who stayed calm and reasonable when things got crazy.
Tears flooded her vision, turning passing cars into a blur.
And what if Nadine found out and decided to come—
She couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
Gram said doctors weren’t sure if Libby would make it through the night. Getting to her was Josie’s only focus, her only concern right now.
She would just have to worry about her sister later.
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