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Mira’s gaze darted to her legs, but they were covered. She turned to Della, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“You’re limping, dear.”
“Oh, that.” She retrieved two mugs from the cabinet. “It’s nothing. I’ll be fine.”
Bill gave her a doubtful look. “A person doesn’t limp from nothing.”
Ben cleared his throat. “It’s an old leg injury, sir, that’s acting up because of the snow moving in.”
Bill ignored him and stared at Mira. She finished pouring the coffee and handed one cup to Ben. He smiled his thanks and took a sip. After taking a sip of her own coffee, she returned her attention to Bill.
“Ben’s right. The explosion in Israel hurt my legs pretty bad. Sometimes when the weather changes, my right leg can ache something fierce. The coming snow is what made it hurt this time.”
“And the horse liniment?” Bill said, waving his hand at the bottle.
“It helps.” She shrugged and leaned back against the counter to drink her coffee.
The Montaignes went back to their breakfast, and Ben stood beside Mira silently drinking his coffee. Discomfort rolled off him in waves, and she spoke in a whisper.
“Nothing really.” He gave her a tight smile. “There’s just a lot you have to learn about the way society works.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll tell you another time.” He finished his coffee and handed her the mug with another smile, this one warmer than the last. “Thanks for the coffee. I’ll see you later.”
Before Mira could say anything, he left the room. She glanced at the Montaigne family and caught Tabby’s sympathetic look. Mira carried the mugs to the sink and washed them, her mind racing as she tried to figure out what she’d done to need sympathy. And what was with Ben’s sudden change in mood? As she dried her hands, Josh brought over a stack of dirty dishes.
He had the same sympathetic expression as his sister. “Mom wants to talk to you.”
“Okay.” She hesitated, but then asked what she’d wondered since Ben was so uncomfortable over drinking coffee. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Don’t worry about it.” He offered a reassuring smile.
Too bad Mira didn’t feel reassured as she joined Bill and Della at the table. Tabby had disappeared.
“Do sit down,” Della invited with a hint of a smile.
Mira pulled out one of the chairs and sat, feeling a little like a student called into the headmaster’s office.
“It was kind of you to offer Ben a cup of coffee,” Della said. “But, Mira, we just don’t do things like that.”
Her jaw dropped. “Why not? He’d been out riding in the cold, and he was kind enough to walk me back up to the house. I was just returning the kindness by offering him a cup of coffee. That’s what Harley and Marnie taught me. If someone does you a kindness, the least you can do is offer them coffee, or iced tea in the summer.”
“That may be, but things are done differently here. A person of means, especially a young lady of means, does not invite the stable help into the house.”
“I’m not a person of means.” Mira’s temper burned hot as she stared at Della. “I haven’t got a penny to my name.”
“Mira, dear, you’re living here now as one of the family. That means you count as a young lady of means.”
“I’m not going to forget every ounce of manners I was ever taught just because I’m living in a big fancy house.” She shoved back her chair and stood. “Please, excuse me. I’m going to go find something that makes sense.”
She left the kitchen and went to the mudroom. As she pulled on her coat, she fought the urge to go pack her belongings and leave. She opened the back door and stepped outside, wishing she had more housing options than the Montaignes or a lean-to in the woods. Taking a deep breath of the cold air, she headed for the stable. Inside its soothing, warm interior, she heard only the quiet sounds of the horses as they lazed the morning away. She walked to the last stall and found Maggie chewing a mouthful of hay. The horse looked up and shifted her weight with a restless snort.
“Easy, Maggie.” Mira spoke in Arabic, using her tone to soothe the horse. “It’s just me. I worked with you and groomed you, remember?”
The horse settled down and walked over to the stall door. Mira reached up and scratched her soft forehead, receiving a soft whuffle in return.
“At least you like the way I do things. You’ve got it easy. You get fed, groomed, and exercised, and never have to worry about doing something that’s going to upset some people and make others happy. I mean, what is so wrong with giving a friend a cup of coffee?”
The horse butted her shoulder with a large velvety nose. Mira gave a little laugh.
“I know. I barely know him and already I call him a friend. But I ask you, what is so terrible about befriending a man who works in a barn?” She sighed and rubbed behind the horse’s ears. “I know I’m in a different world now. Things aren’t so simple anymore.”
The stable door closed, and someone walked down the aisle toward her. She glanced over to find Bill drawing near, and then she turned back to Maggie.
“It looks like it’s time for round two.”
“Mira, can we talk?” Bill asked.
She sighed and answered in English as she turned to face him. “I guess so.”
“Why don’t we sit down?”
Mira moved to a pair of hay bales and sat on one. Bill sat on the other.
“Della may not have put it the best way. But she’s right. We don’t do things here the same way you did them in West Virginia.”
“But I do. I’ve been here less than two days. I’m not going to change that fast. And if I have to be unkind to nice people to fit in around here, I’ll go live somewhere else.” Assuming she could figure out where to go.
“No one is asking you to be unkind. Eventually, you’ll learn what the boundaries are, and then you won’t commit any more faux pas.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means making a mistake. A faux pas is what inviting the stable boy into the house counts as.”
“Back home, what I did counts as neighborly hospitality.”
Bill sighed. “I know, but things are different here.”
“Maybe I should go somewhere else. Somewhere that kindness includes everyone, not just people that have money.”
“Kindness here does include everyone.” He spread his hands to emphasize his point. “There are just different ways of showing that kindness. Besides, where would you go?”
“I don’t know,” she said, tears springing to her eyes. “I’m pretty much trapped here. There’s nowhere else for me to go.”
“Mira, none of us want you to feel trapped. We just want you to be happy.”
“Then why do you want me to go against my nature?” She swiped at her eyes, irritated by the whole situation.
“I’m not asking you to go against your nature. I’m just pointing out the limitations society dictates and that we have to follow.”
“They’re stupid limitations.”
Bill shook his head and sighed again. “I’ll make a deal with you. You do your best to learn the limitations and try to stick to them regardless of how stupid they may seem, and I’ll buy you a thermos so you can bring coffee to Ben whenever you want.”
She considered his offer. It sounded fair enough, and the least she could do was try to get along since they were providing her with a place to live. “Okay. I’ll do what I can, but I can’t make any promises.”
“All I ask is that you give it your best shot,” he said, his relief at making progress strong enough she could almost feel it.
“Is Della going to get mad at me if I keep talking to Charlotte and Anita?”
“What Della doesn’t know can’t hurt her.” He winked. “I won’t tell her that you continue talking to them if you won’t.”
“Thanks, Bill.” Maybe he understood more than she’d given him credit for.
Another thought sprang to mind. “What about Lucas? Will the stupid limitations let me openly talk to him?”
“Lucas is a different case. He manages the estate on a day-to-day basis.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means Della won’t mind if you invite him in for a cup of coffee.”
When they went back to the house, Mira headed up to her room and pulled a small book with a dark blue cover out of her duffel bag. As she sprawled on her stomach across the bed, Frank jumped up and sprawled beside her.
“Hey, you big lazy fluff ball.” She gave him an affectionate scratch on the chin and received a happy purr in response. “I was beginning to wonder if I was going to see you today.”
Frank poked the cover of her book with a furry paw. She laughed as she looked into his inquisitive green eyes.
“It’s a photo album, you silly cat.” She moved his foot off the cover and stared at the paw that made her thumb look tiny. “Wow, you’ve got big feet.”
Frank purred and shot a pointed look at the photo album, causing Mira to laugh again.
“All right, if you want to see the pictures that badly, we’ll take a look.” She opened the front cover and pointed to the first picture. “Those are my parents.”
The ache of longing settled deep in her chest as she ran her fingers over the handsome Arab man with his arm around the pretty blonde woman leaning against him. They were so happy together, and she missed them so much. She turned the page and looked at another photograph of the same couple, but this time the woman held an infant with wisps of copper-colored hair and the same complexion as the man looking on with pride.
Frank sniffed the picture and Mira smiled. “That’s me a week after I was born.”
She continued to study each photograph in the album, sometimes commenting to the cat, but mostly reliving her memories as the infant with the copper hair progressed through childhood. The last picture in the book showed Mira as a young teen standing between her parents. In the background, the Dome of the Rock glowed in the sunlight, showing every bit of its well-known splendor. Tears filled her eyes as she gazed at the happy trio.
“Not long after this was taken, we went to that café for lunch and…” Her voice trailed off, and she buried her face in Frank’s soft fur. “Why did he have to set off his bomb in front of that café?”
As she cried, the gentle cat licked her hair a few times to comfort her. When her sobs quieted, she rolled away from Frank and stared at the ceiling. The cat crawled over and snuggled against her in such a way that she had no choice but to put her arm around him as if he were a stuffed animal. His rhythmic purr combined with the exhaustion of the emotional morning, and Mira drifted off to sleep.
Out of Her Element, Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth West