She had hardly taken three steps when she heard the shrill cry behind her.
Acting on instinct, Zara whirled around, her hands clutching Amy tight, tucking her head in the crook of her neck.
“You fucking whore!“, Danielle’s shout rang loud in the silent playground, the sound of her heels clicking against the ground, as she charged toward her.
Zara instantly let go of Amy, keeping her on her feet, simultaneously letting go of the backpack on her shoulders and taking several steps away from her.
Next to her she saw Nathaniel try to catch Danielle’s arm but she shoved him away, making him lose his balance. Susan was too stunned to react while Matt began to run toward Zara and Amy.
Amy’s stricken voice reached her just as Danielle lunged toward her trying to grab her by the hair.
Bringing her right forearm up, she managed to push away her hand. At the same time she grabbed hold of Danielle’s shirt, fisting the front in her fingers. In the recesses of her mind, she heard the shouts and the exclamations erupt from the crowd that had gathered around them and Amy’s scream as Susan picked her up and moved back, her eyes panicked, letting Matt pass her by. From the corner of her eye she saw Nathaniel running toward them.
“You piece of shit!“, Danielle screamed as she clawed at Zara’s arm.
Zara felt her breath hiss out at the sharp bite of pain as her nails dug into her flesh. She was struggling to stay on her feet. Danielle was way taller than her and she was pushing her with all her might. Then suddenly Nathaniel was grabbing Danielle’s arm, prying her off Zara’s body and Zara saw her chance. Planting her feet firmly, she clutched the fingers of her right hand in a tight fist and then swung forward, making contact with Danielle’s nose. Her vision almost blurred at the slice of pain that burst forth from her knuckles and she bit her tongue to keep from crying out. Blood spurted from Danielle’s broken nose, a cry leaving her painted mouth as she cupped the front of her face, her eyes tearing up as she stared at Zara.
"That,“, Zara spat at her, “is for thinking you could hurt a helpless child and just walk away.”
Her breath was coming in heavy gasps and a part of her recoiled at the sight of blood on her own forearm.
“You broke my nose!“, Danielle screamed as she sank to the ground, blood trickling down her chin.
“I’ll do even worse if you so much as look in Amy’s direction again.“, Zara hissed at her, trying to slow the rate of her heartbeat.
She saw Nathaniel standing right behind, shocked, as he looked between Danielle and Zara.
A brown haired man stepped in her line of sight and Zara took a step back.
Danielle was sobbing now, her ruined shirt long forgotten.
Zara flinched and jumped back when he reached out to touch her arm, “Are you alright?“, his voice was concerned.
A boy who looked to be around eight stood next to him, his green eyes focused on the cut on Zara’s skin.
Then Susan was next to her, shouting at Danielle, “Are you freaking crazy?”
Her ears ringing and her knuckles already beginning to throb, Zara stumbled forward and was suddenly enveloped by strong arms.
“You fucking scared me.“, Nathaniel’s rough voice whispered in her ear as he pulled her to him, cradling her head in his palm.
How had she not seen him move?
Her heart kicked against her rib cage and stopped completely when he leaned down and put his mouth on hers in a firm but gentle kiss. It was as though time had stopped.
The ringing in her ears increased, rising to a fevered pitch, till it became almost painful.
She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move.
His lips were rough, warm and smooth all at once. Zara couldn’t think about anything except the sharp relief that flooded her senses.
Then he took his lips away and she let out a soft sound of denial.
She felt him smile against her cheek.
“There’s more, where that came from. But not right now.“, he murmured in a strained voice.
Her eyes flew open and she flushed when she saw the number of eyes on them.
Instantly, she began squirming, trying to move away, but Nathaniel held firm, keeping her in his arms.
Someone was helping Danielle up and Zara caught her eye as she glared at her, but wisely kept her mouth shut.
“Zara?“, the soft voice just next to her ear, made her turn and she saw Amy’s tear- stained face light up, from where she lay in Susan’s hold.
Amy reached out for her and Zara took her in her arms even as Susan hugged her tight.
“Are you okay?“, Susan whispered in her hair, kissing her cheek. “You’re bleeding.“, she said softly taking Zara’s hand in hers and inspecting the gash where Danielle had managed to get a good grip on her skin.
Zara winced, her lips still tingling from Nathaniel’s kiss, as she tried to ignore the pain in her arms.
Amy’s palms held her cheeks as the little girl leaned forward and stared at Zara in something akin to wonder, “You are so strong.“, she said, sniffling softly.
Zara laughed, chucking her under the chin, “So are you, darling.”
Amy stared at her for a few more moments before she grabbed Zara’s neck with both hands, pressing her cheek to hers.
“God damn it, Zara, are you alright?“, Matt’s voice made her turn around.
He stood beside them, eyeing Danielle warily.
Then he came to her, clapping Nathaniel on his shoulder and then hugged Zara, kissing the top of her head.
“Where did you learn to punch like that?“,he asked, his brows coming together in surprise.
Zara shrugged, her ears turning red, “It was a reflex.”
Dear God, before this, she had never not once, been so violent in all her life.
Matt didn’t seem to believe her.
Taking Susan by the hand, he pulled her forward and gestured to Nathaniel.
“What about her?“, Susan asked, looking toward Danielle who was being led away by a few women, her hands still clutching her nose.
Zara tried to feel at least a shred of regret for what she had done.
There was none.
No regret. No remorse.
She clenched her jaw and looked away. The bitch deserved what she got.
Zara absently ran her fingers over Amy’s bruises.
“Do they hurt too much, sweetie?“, she asked, her mind silent for the first time in a long while.
Amy lifted her head and shook it.
“Not too much, just a little.“, she answered, twisting her arm so that she could look at it.
Zara wiped a stray tear from the corner of her chin, smiling at her, “You’re a very brave girl.”
Amy smiled, a dimple forming in her cheek, as she leaned forward and kissed the tip of Zara’s nose.
“Yes, you are.“, Nathaniel’s voice in her ear, made her look up.
He was staring down at the two of them, his eyes focused on Zara’s.
She tried not to shiver when she felt his hand at the small of her back.
Susan and Matt had left to get their things from the spot they had vacated.
Nathaniel lifted her hand and brought her palms to his lips.
Zara saw his eyes move to the dried blood on her skin and she felt him stiffen.
Then he bent and touched his lips to the spot, raising his eyes back to hers.
Goosebumps erupted all over her skin. He noticed her reaction and his lips curved in a small smile.
“What are you doing?“, her voice sounded breathy.
Nathaniel kissed her skin again.
“Here’s what’s going to happen, Zara. We’re going home and then the two of us are going to have a long talk. Okay?“, he said in a low voice, watching her intently.
She nodded, her heartbeat loud in her ears.
The tension seemed to leave him completely and he kissed the back of her hand as Susan and Matt returned to them.
Only then did Zara notice that Amy had fallen asleep, her fingers knotted in her hair.