My throat was dry, my stomach roiled, and my lips were going to torture me later for how much I was licking them now. I couldn’t help it, but even the small part of me facepalming about my reaction recognized the potential for things to go ass over teakettle. Mina and Talitha were seated at the table with me, and were nothing more than curious about what was going on. Mina, being a few years older than Talitha, was slightly more perceptive to my mood, and snuck suspicious glances my way each time she thought I wasn’t looking.
The girls were my responsibility, and I couldn’t stand to see them hurt, but we had to at least meet the poor girl. Kieran went outside to get his daughter while I’d gone out toward the Florida room to get the girls.
“They want all three of us to meet her, and then we’ll all decide whether she’ll fit in with us. She’s not a red or black, just to warn you,” I said aloud, with the implied; ‘So please don’t say anything embarrassing about it.’ Like I had. I blushed at the thought. I’d been raised with more tact than that, and I could only imagine what my half-kin foster mother would have said if she’d heard me earlier.
“Why do they want to make this a group decision? Can’t they just order you to take her?” Mina asked, and dropped her magazine to the coffee table when she stood.
“Let’s just meet her and then we’ll explain,” I said, and held the door open for the girls. Mina’s eyes narrowed a touch as she walked by, but didn’t say anything else.
Now here we were at the dining room table, and I was about to jump out of my skin my nerves were so on edge.
The front door opened and closed silently, the only indication it had happened was the brief surge of street and the neighborhood noise. Without realizing it I’d held my breath at the first hint of sound, and now I forced myself to let out a shaky breath. Inhale, exhale, calm down. The last thing this little girl needs is to see you acting like she’s about to rip out your throat, I chided. When I took another breath and let it out, I relaxed my shoulders and straightened my spine. Though I couldn’t manage a large smile, I opted for something between squealing rabbit caught in a wolf’s jaws and brittle, showing too much teeth, forced cheer.
When she walked around the corner my breath caught. She was just so damned adorable. She had her father’s ashen blonde hair, but the ends were lighter than the rest, and done in a long braid she held tightly in both her well-tanned hands over her chest. She didn’t have any bangs, which was practical for the age. It was like finding a needle in a haystack trying to sort bangs from the rest of their hair.
She shuffled into the kitchen, keeping eye contact with her little golden sandals and rubbing her tiny toes up and down the toes of the shoes.
“Say hello, Meriel,” her father intoned next to her.
Meriel looked up at the table quickly. Her cerulean eyes glanced at the four of us for a split second, and then looked at the ground again.
She mumbled a quick; “How do you do?” Then she did an honest to goodness curtsy, and let go of her braid long enough to hold onto her hot pink, tiered, and halter sundress to flare it out in proper curtsy fashion.
“I’m doing well, thank you, Meriel. My name is Erryn,” I said, but stayed where I was. Approaching her might provoke a fear response and no one wanted that.
Her tiny, slightly turned-up at the end nose wrinkled. “That’s a boy’s name, isn’t it?” she asked, and risked a quick glance at me.
“Meriel,” Kieran admonished her.
I held up a hand to forestall anything beyond that.
“You know what? I get that question all the time. It can be a boy or girl name, but most people think it’s a boy’s name, like you,” I said, and smiled in case she looked at me again, which she did. When she offered a shy smile in return, I got a peek at the dimples in her cheeks. I hadn’t seen any on Kieran, so maybe she’d gotten them from her mother.
Boy, was Kieran going to be in trouble when she got older. If she got older, that is. The sobering thought hit me like a freight train, and I looked up to Kieran.
He had eyes only for his daughter, as though she was his whole world. I’d made my decision, but mine wasn’t the only one that counted. I looked over to Mina and Talitha and motioned with my head for them to continue introductions.
Mina stood and walked over to kneel a couple feet from Meriel. It was less intimidating coming from a younger person than it would have been from an adult.
“I’m Wilhelmina,” Mina said, and made a pretend gagging motion. Meriel giggled. “But I prefer to go by Mina,” she finished and held out a hand. Six year olds tended to be hit or miss on handshakes, and Meriel tentatively took Mina’s hand, with barely just her small fingers in Mina’s larger ones. The two gave a slight shake, then with one last smile Mina moved out of the way so Talitha could introduce herself.
“My name is Talitha, and Mina calls me Tally, but I don’t mind either name. You can call me whichever you want.” Talitha’s handshake was less sure than Mina’s, but the two girls smiled at each just the same.
Danika didn’t introduce herself, and it led me to assume they’d already done so on the way here, or prior to it.
“You want to know something really cool?” Mina asked Meriel as the older girl moved into the kitchen.
“What?” Her voice squeaked slightly, but she watched Mina continuously instead of glancing and looking down again.
Mina picked up one of our glass, tier serving platters with various types of cookies on it and walked over to the table. She set it down with nary a sound, walked over to Merieal, and crouched to Meriel’s height again. She crooked her finger and hunched her shoulders conspiratorially for Meriel to join her. Meriel looked up at her father, who nodded with a half-smile, and the little girl shuffled over to Mina.
When she got there Mina pointed to the platter. “See all those cookies?” When Meriel nodded Mina gave a wicked grin. “Erryn owns a bakery at the St. John’s Town Center, and she’s a baker, which means we get free cookies, cupcakes, and a ton of other things all the time!”
Meriel’s eyes widened in wonder and looked over to me.
I gave a short laugh and nodded. “It’s true, though we do have rules on when treats can, and cannot, be eaten,” I warned, and my voice hardened from the consistency of water to the much firmer one of pudding. Not much, but just enough to let her know it wasn’t something I could be swayed on…often.
Mina looked up at me, and Talitha followed suit. Their eyes conveyed their decision. They didn’t know the full story, but I knew them, and they were less likely to abandon someone in need than I was.
“Why don’t the two of you show Meriel around the house?”
Mina took Meriel by one hand, and Talitha the other, and they set off on the grand tour. When they’d gone upstairs, Kieran sat heavily into one of the unoccupied chairs at the table and covered his face with his hands. He wearily rubbed them over his eyes and cheeks, and then sighed.
“She can stay,” I blurted out before he could go into a long-winded plea for me to cooperate.
He startled back at my abrupt proclamation, and his eyes widened in shock.
“I…I don’t know what to say,” he started, and cast about for something. “With your words earlier I thought I’d have a fight on my hands,” he finished, and slumped as though we’d truly fought, and he was exhausted beyond measure.
“I’m not doing it for you in particular, or my Clan. We’re doing it for her, because she deserves the best chance at her life, and people trying to kidnap her isn’t going to help her learn to control her powers,” I said, and inhaled after the long-winded explanation.
Danika had remained ominously silent throughout everything today, and I didn’t like the foreboding that inspired. On the other hand I wasn’t one to borrow trouble, so I kept my eyes and, for the moment, mind, well away from her.
“I understand. Whatever your reasons you have my thanks,” he said, and inclined his head. Surprise jolted through me at the sign of respect, but I returned it, slightly deeper.
The girls came back in, chattering away to Meriel, who was all smiles by this point. Instead of shuffling, she ran over to her dad and gave him a big hug.
“They have a pool, Papa!” she exclaimed with glee, and jumped up and down like a Jack Russell.
He smiled in response and lovingly ran a hand over her hair. Like a storm just over the horizon promised a thunderstorm and heavy rains, I knew tears were on their way when he’d have to say goodbye, but it was something we’d have to learn to weather.
It had been a while since I’d had a toddler in the house, so I’d have to brush up on that knowledge. Since she was an early bloomer in her power, I’d better get out the dust rags quicker than a hot knife through butter. The major thing I needed to keep in mind was when to use tough love, or just love.
Sure as the sun is going to shine tomorrow, though, we’d do our dandiest, and that would have to be enough. Even if it was only just.