Two months later
Zara sprinted across the hall to answer the door.
“I’ve got it.“, she yelled to Susan who was in the bedroom managing the laundered clothes.
Matt was supposed to come with dinner for the four of them.
Dressed in her usual attire, shorts and a loose tee, Zara pulled upon the door and stopped short in surprise.
It wasn’t Matt.
A rosy-cheeked girl who looked to be around four years old stood before her, her thumb in her mouth.
For almost a whole minute, they just stared at each other.
She was wearing a blue dress with a white bow at the waist. Black curls framed a tiny face and for a second Zara thought she was hallucinating.
The child was beautiful.
Her heart lurched at the shy albeit musical sound.
She bent down on a knee.
“Hey, sweetheart.“, she held her arms out toward the girl.
She had the most lovely brown eyes she had ever seen.
The child looked uncertainly at Zara’s outstretched arms.
Then she took her thumb out of her mouth, wiped it on the front of her dress and gave Zara a nervous smile.
Her heart skipped a beat.
A few seconds passed by while the child seemed to debate whether Zara was safe or not.
Then suddenly as though she was tired of it all, she flung herself into Zara’s arms and buried her face in her neck.
To say she was shocked would be an understatement.
“Holy crap.“, the softly muttered oath made her head snap to her right.
Matt stood there, a look of utter bewilderment on his face.
Zara stood up holding the girl in her arms.
“I found her standing right out the door.“, she explained to Matt, running her fingers gently over the child’s back. The girl had wrapped her arms around Zara’s neck and she could feel her soft warm breath on her skin.
“That’s Amy, my niece.“, he explained softly, coming to stand next to her.
At the sound of Matt’s voice so close, the girl lifted her head and moved back, staring at Zara before looking at Matt.
He smiled at her.
Amy gave him a sleepy half-smile and then dropped her head back down in the crook of Zara’s neck.
“Why the hell did you leave her alone?“, she scolded Matt as she stepped back into the apartment.
Matt shut the door after him.
“I dropped my keys on the stairway.“, he said sheepishly.
“And besides, she was safe, wasn’t she?”
Zara glared at him.
“She’s a kid, Matt. They should not be left alone.”
Susan peeped out of the bedroom.
She stopped when she caught sight of Amy in Zara’s arms.
Her mouth open, she stepped in slowly, a smile on her lips.
“She’s so beautiful.“, she whispered as she came to them.
Zara frowned again.
“You knew we were having a child for company?“, she accused Susan, still rubbing her fingers over Amy’s back in an unconscious gesture.
Susan looked at Matt making Zara turn around too.
The look on his face startled her.
He looked surprised and awed.
“What the fu-”
She broke off when Amy stirred in her arms.
“What is going on? Why are you looking at me like that?“, she hissed at Matt.
He dropped the food cartons on the table and then turned to her.
“Amy doesn’t take to anyone, much less strangers.“, he said softly.
As if on cue, she felt Amy snuggle even closer. She felt her stomach go queasy when she pressed her face into her neck.
Matt took Susan’s hand and held her to his side. The two of them were watching her like they were proud parents.
For a second, Zara felt the crazy urge to unhand Amy and drop her into Susan’s embrace.
“You guys are freaking me out. What does that even mean?“, she said softly.
She had never been anything extraordinary when it came to kids.
Of course, she thought they were cute, but it didn’t go any further than that.
“Amy is my widowed cousin’s daughter. Remember Janice? She lost her husband a year ago. Amy is her daughter.“, Matt explained softly.
Zara felt her heart break for the woman. How dreadful that must have been.
Matt tightened his hold on Susan.
“After Derek died, Janice couldn’t cope with it and ended up neglecting Amy. So she was sent to her grandmother’s place. Amy had stopped speaking at all.“, he said, his voice breaking slightly.
Zara saw Susan’s eyes tear up.
“She doesn’t let anyone hold her, not even me. The only person able to do that is grandma.”
Zara felt the steady rhythm of Amy’s breaths against her skin.
“She isn’t keeping too well so I offered to look after Amy for a while during the break.”
Zara couldn’t believe her eyes.
“You’re the first person she’s let so close.”
Oh dear God.
Zara tightened her hold around the girl.
A smile formed on her lips when Amy’s fingers left her neck and gripped the base of her hair that hung in a ponytail at the back of her neck.
“Surprising.“, she said softly, not meeting Matt or Susan’s eyes.
It seemed like a miracle.
The doorbell rang again.
Nathaniel was here.
Zara picked her plate and went over to the sink.
This had become a ritual for them.
They spent almost all the evenings together having dinner.
Like a family.
Things between her and Nathaniel hadn’t reached anywhere.
But he was trying. She could see that.
They could be called friends. But Zara thought they were more like acquaintances.
He had changed since his grandmother’s death. Gone was the carefree humorous boy that he had been. He was more serious now. More intense. He had lost a lot of weight since then. Zara had to admit that she watched him. A lot. She hated it about herself but she couldn’t help it.
The hollow in her heart that had been there since Finn had left had been partially filled in the time that had passed by. It didn’t hurt anymore. She missed him, sure. But the stab of pain that had usually accompanied it was absent now. Nathaniel was cordial to her. Friendly even. But she couldn’t return it. Atleast not yet. She had changed a lot herself. She was quieter now. Matured, she dared to say. She only opened up to Susan and at times, Matt. Her mom was serious about the dentist she was dating. And Zara was happy for her. On one of her visits home, she had spilled out everything about Finn and Nathaniel to her mom. They had spent the entire night talking about anything and everything and her mom had held her in her arms like the numerous times she had when Zara was feeling low when she was a little girl. It had helped her immensely. She didn’t feel burdened anymore. It was like a weight had been taken off her shoulders.
Although she didn’t spend a lot of time with Nathaniel, she was left flustered every time she caught him looking at her. And he did that a lot. Every time he thought she wasn’t looking. It was like their first meeting all over again. He hadn’t touched her in any way. Not once, since their conversation at his grandmother’s funeral. And she was grateful for it. She didn’t know what she felt for him exactly but she didn’t want to find out any time soon.
Lost in her thoughts, her brain belatedly registered the hushed silence in the room.
She turned around wondering what had happened when she saw Amy.
She had slept off soundly almost an hour and a half ago and Zara had laid her on her bed, tucking her in with the comforter drawn around her arms, leaving the door open so that the darkness wouldn’t scare her.
Now she stood right behind her, her hands clasped in front of her, a nervous yet curious look on her adorable face.
Matt, Susan and Nathaniel were staring at her and she was flustered and slightly distressed with the attention. Especially with that which came from Nathaniel.
“Hey.” , she said softly, smiling as she knelt down on one knee.
Amy’s eyes stared at her, widening when she caught sight of the tattoo on Zara’s ankle.
She yawned, displaying a set of small white teeth then asked in a curious but sleep-laden voice.
“Did you draw that?“, she pointed to her ankle.
Zara felt a small smile tug on her lips.
“This? Yeah. Do you like it?”
Amy rubbed her eyes with her chubby fists.
She looked back at where Matt sat and then turned back to Zara.
“Yeah.“, she said in a soft voice, her brown eyes brimming with curiosity.
Zara felt a tug in the region of her heart, wondering how her mother could stay away from such a sweet child.
She swallowed the lump in her throat.
“Thank you, darling. I could draw you one if you’d like.“, she offered, hoping her eyes hadn’t watered.
Amy looked like she had held her breath.
“You would?“, she asked in a whisper.
“Of course. As soon as I’m done with the dishes.”
Amy looked behind Zara.
Then she took one step closer, clasping her fingers even tighter, a nervous look on her face.
Zara wanted to wrap her arms around her.
“Can I help you?“, she asked shyly, looking as though she thought Zara would refuse.
Zara had to struggle to speak past the lump threatening to choke her.
Why the fuck was she so emotional right now?
Standing up, she grabbed a dish towel and went to Amy.
Unclasping her tiny fingers, she placed the dishtowel in her hand.
Then she placed a single finger on her chin.
“Of course, sweetheart. I’d love that.”
Her heart melted when Amy’s brown eyes widened with pure joy and she flung her arms around Zara kissing her smack on the cheek.
She couldn’t help thinking that this was exactly what love felt like.