When Kieran and Danika took their leave, Meriel understandably cried. Well, not about Danika leaving. No one cried when she left except in relief.
Kieran promised he’d do everything he could to make sure she could go home, but she’s six. It doesn’t matter there’s a threat to her life. What matters to her is she won’t get to have her daddy tuck her in at night, or around for any of the other little things children relish sharing with their parents.
“I promise, my little starfish, we’ll be together again,” he said, and kissed her gently on the forehead, above delicate, wispy eyebrows bunched down in frustration. He hugged her close, though she kept her arms at her sides, and he moved back with a pained look on his face.
“I love you,” he said, but she still refused to respond. When he stood, he still looked down at her and sighed.
“She’ll be okay, Lord Kieran. We’ll watch out for her,” Talitha said, pushing her shoulder back, and moving forward to take the six year old’s limp hand in hers.
Lord Kieran gave her a sad smile, and a small nod of thanks, and then turned and departed with Danika. After he was out of sight and the sound of the car’s engine faded, we had our first real meltdown. Meriel cried and screamed her broken heart out with sobs that shook her tiny body, and tears that cascaded down her face.
I held her, just as I’d held Talitha and Mina when they’d first come to me. I offered no words of comfort, because there were none I could give to make the situation right for her, but I made soothing noises and rocked us back and forth on the floor. I couldn’t even begin to express how relieved I was that she didn’t transform, or use her powers.
After some time, the wailing died into quieter crying that left her nose releasing rivulets of snot down her face. Before she could lick the mucus from her upper lip I motioned for Mina to hand me a tissue. After we took care of that, I sat her down with a glass of cold water and a cookie.
“What do we want to do now?” I asked the girls.
Mina and Talitha exchanged a look before they both turned to Meriel.
“I think we should hit up the bakery so Meriel can see it, and then we can get some things to spruce up her room while we’re in the Town Center,” Mina said, taking charge.
“That is a lovely idea,” I said, and twenty minutes later we were out the door.
The St. John’s Town Center was an outdoor mall in Jacksonville, so people could enjoy the sunshine while they perused the stores. It also helped with the cost of keeping a large building cool, I’m sure. Because the walk could be a bit much in the hot, Florida summer sun, not to mention the humidity, my business partner and I procured a shop right on the main thoroughfare: River City Drive.
I parked the car and the four of us bustled out and to the mall. Meriel latched onto Mina’s hand as soon as we got out of the car, and remained firmly attached despite all the exciting sights, sounds, and smells.
There was a nice breeze going, making the humidity and the sun tolerable, but it was still sweet relief to enter the shop and have the cold air hit me like the initial dive into a pool. Close on its heels were the variety of smells that always made my mouth water: fresh-baked bread, cupcakes, cookies, and a variety of other treats.
Once my eyes adjusted to the light, we started down the center aisle toward the counter. The people around us were talking, laughing, and while some had only our baked goods and coffee in front of them, most were balancing it out with some of the sandwiches we offered on our summer menu.
“Erryn!” a young girl behind the counter called out, and enthusiastically waved at me over the heads of the customers in line. I couldn’t help but smile, but Aida had that effect on people. In fact, it was a part of her nature to make people happy.
Aida was the daughter of a leannán sídhe, and though she didn’t possess the full range of her mother’s powers, she did inherit her beauty and ability to inspire and enhance emotions. When Aida is happy, everyone is happy. When Aida is sad, everyone is sad, and so on. Thankfully, Aida was cheerful the majority of the time.
She moved from behind the counter with the flowing grace of water. Drakken moved with the power and grace similar to a gymnast: strong and self-assured. Aida sashayed and swayed like reeds being moved in a breeze.
Her long, curling hair was a rich, dark brown of leaves turned in the fall from years past and coating the forest floor. It was braided and wound into a bun at the nape of her neck, but her bangs curled on her forehead along with some wisps that escaped being tamed.
She moved around people and headed toward us. Her black shirt sported spots of flour here and there, along with the name, Enchanting Sweets Bakery, emblazoned across her chest in a swirling, bright, sea green font.
Aida’s smile widened when she saw the girls, and proceeded to give me a hug, but refrained from the usual one for the girls when she saw Meriel. Her hazel eyes held the question of who the new little girl was, but didn’t say anything out loud.
I smiled in return, but didn’t answer at the moment. “Is Kyne in the back?”
She nodded. “He’s been going over the orders for the coming week. We didn’t think you’d be in today,” she said, still all smiles despite my avoidance. It was hard to get Aida down, which was the primary reason she was our manager of the front part of the bakery.
“We didn’t know we would be in, either. Can you get the girls something to eat and drink while I talk to him?”
“Sure!” she replied, bubbly and bright.
Though we were bustling, Aida managed to snag a table from a couple leaving, and sat the girls down. Once she and Mina were engaged in their usual back-and-forth, friendly argument about how old she needed to be before she could order coffee, I headed to the back. I smiled and hello’d everyone at the front and in the kitchen, then went through the door into our small, functional office. It was just big enough for a single, cluttered desk, two chairs, one shelf containing a variety of binders over the desk, and a safe.
Kyne was bent over a stack of paperwork with his head resting in the palm of his left hand. His thumb idly rubbed the short, white hair, as pure as a swan’s wing, and contrasting starkly against skin bronzed from time on the beach. In his right hand he twirled a pen over his fingers with ease, and he leaned the chair precariously on two legs, rocking it back and forth as he hummed.
“You’re going to fall if you do that, you know?” I asked and stepped into the office. At the sound of my voice he almost did fall when he jumped and the two legs on the ground slipped across the linoleum.
He laughed, and set all four legs firmly on the ground while mirth danced in his amethyst eyes.
“And you should know better than to sneak up on people,” he pretended to grump. The humor was still a warm on his handsome face, one that could grace the cover of a romance novel and put some of the other men on them to shame.
“Well, I guess we both still have some things to learn,” I observed, and sat down in the second chair after moving it to block the doorway, with my back to the kitchen.
“I didn’t think you’d be in today,” Kyne said, echoing Aida’s words. “How is everything going so far? You sounded a little more worried than usual about this charge,” he said, and slouched down in the chair so he could comfortably put his right loafer on his left knee. The slacks he was wearing tightened over a nicely muscled body.
Damned male Sirens. I cleared my throat and looked down at my folded hands. He couldn’t help being what he was, but breaking eye contact made conversation easier for my scrambled brain cells, which were currently chanting highly inappropriate things about my business partner and me. Though I enjoyed the view, we’d determined years ago that having a stable business was more important than exploring a romantic relationship. We’d both learned the hard way to never mix business with pleasure.
“Well, it isn’t exactly a typical situation,” I said, and glanced around the kitchen to make sure no ears, supernatural or human, were within range to overhear our conversation. We employed mostly supes, so private conversations could be difficult, and I didn’t want to stir the curiosity pot by closing the office door.
“Oh? Do tell, if you can,” he said, and put his hands behind his head.
“It’s more of a temporary arrangement than a permanent one,” I said, and thought back to my conversation with Danika and Kieran. They hadn’t told me telling anyone was off limits, but caution was certainly implied. But if I couldn’t trust Kyne, who had saved my life in more ways than I could rightly count, who could I trust?
He wasn’t impatient while he waited for me to continue. He knew what my relationship was like with the Clan, and though he disapproved he also knew I had reasons for not washing my hands of them. Two, and now three, very good ones sitting in the front of our shop, in fact.
“She’s a full-blooded Drakken,” I said, and he jolted in surprise for the second time, “and she’s in some kind of trouble. People have been trying to kidnap her, and she’s been given to me for protection,” I finished, my voice barely audible over the noise of the kitchen.
“Whoa,” he said, but nothing more. I dared a look up, but he was contemplating the ceiling so I was safe for the moment.
“Hey, Kyne,” Mina’s voice said from behind me, and we both turned in surprise to see the three girls there. “You’ve been back here for a hot minute, and I thought we’d introduce Meriel,” Mina continued, and tugged the little girl forward.
From where Meriel was, behind me, she could barely see Kyne. He stood up and started to move forward, but stopped when he was even with me, his eyes wide and panicked.
“He smells like the ocean,” Meriel whispered behind me, her voice low and hoarse. It was the same as Danika’s voice yesterday, but coming from a smaller throat it wasn’t quite as deep. That should have made it less threatening, but the shiver that went down my spine went well beyond the fear Danika could bring out.
A child has no control.
Her pupils stretched and lengthened to the way some snake eyes were, and her power rippled over my skin. It was as cold and merciless as the ocean depths, and I cursed myself for not asking what Clan she was from.
Blue Clans generally dealt in water magics. One particular, small Clan, could control aquatic animals, as well as aquatic supes—supes like Sirens.
“Meriel,’ I said, keeping my voice as low and calm as I could. She looked over to me, with tiny nostrils flared and the features of her face rippling in preparation for the change from human form to Drakken.
“Close your eyes, Meriel. Close your eyes and think of your favorite toy,” I continued, and kept my eyes locked with hers. There could be no trace of pleading in my voice, because pleading meant I was prey and I could be dismissed.
The otherness in her, the Drakken form, considered my words—considered ignoring them. Pure, primal instincts of our kind slid behind her eyes, and started to move from me back to Kyne.
“Meriel,” I said, this time drawing from my own source of Drakken power and threading it in with her name and my voice. Just enough to keep her from looking away, and to have a more favorable mindset toward my words.
Though I was half red Drakken and half black Drakken, I could not draw power from both. Anyone born as I was could only draw from one source of power, or one of our Drakken heritages. I’d taken my power from the black Clan of my heritage, who were known for subtlety and assassination. I was no assassin by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d gained the power of persuasion, literally, from my father.
Her gaze turned to me, then tried to turn back again.
“Meriel,” I said again, putting a little more power behind her name. This time her eyes remained locked on mine, not wavering. “Close your eyes and picture your favorite toy,” I stated again, keeping my power a constant flow blanketing my words and her.
We all held our breath at her hesitation, but she closed her eyes.
“It’s a little stuffed dragon my mommy made for me before I was born,” she said, her voice halfway between normal and power-ridden.
“What does it look like?” I asked, and lessened my own power in accordance with hers, like letting sand slip through my fingers.
She continued to describe the knitted toy, and I continued to ask questions about it, until her voice was normal and I was satisfied she was okay again. When she opened her eyes they were back to human, and a little confused.
The air whooshed from everyone in relief. My bones turned to water and I slumped in the chair.
What have I gotten us into?