Want to start from the beginning? You can find chapter one HERE.
The front door opened and Mira and Tabby came downstairs. A tall young man stepped inside, and Mira slowed her steps. Could that be Josh? His hair was the same shade of brown she remembered, but the wire-rimmed glasses were new. Tabby launched herself down the stairs and wrapped him in a hug.
“Hi, Josh! You’ll never guess who’s here.”
He stepped back with an indulgent smile. “Why don’t you tell me, Tabby?”
“Look on the stairs.”
He turned his green eyes upward and studied Mira for a moment as though trying to place her. Then recognition flashed, and he smiled as she finished coming down the stairs.
“Mira, is that you?”
“Hey, Josh.” She’d always thought he was kind of cute, but he’d become even more handsome with age.
“No one told me you were coming.” He gave her a welcoming hug and stepped back. “So, how long are you going to be here?”
“I, um, don’t know.” Why did he have to ask such a difficult question before she had a chance to see if he was still the same accepting guy she remembered?
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“Your parents invited me to live here.”
“That is so cool!” Tabby gushed. “Mom just told me you were coming to visit for a while. She didn’t tell me you were moving in.”
Mira closed her eyes against the threatening tears. It had been so easy to talk about her situation back at the cabin in the familiar hills of West Virginia. Now, after seeing the Montaignes’ opulent house, she was ashamed of her homelessness.
“Mira?” Josh said. “What’s wrong?”
His face didn’t hold contempt as she had feared, only concern. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came.
He removed his coat and handed it to his sister. “Tabby, will you please toss that in my room while I talk to Mira?”
“Sure.” She headed upstairs, glancing back a few times with a worried expression.
Josh lifted a hand toward the living room. “Why don’t we sit down?”
They entered the spacious room and sat on one of the sofas. Mira clasped her hands in her lap. Josh waited. She dug deep and found the courage to speak.
“I’ve lived in the woods since April. Harley’s kin forced me to leave the cabin after he and Marnie passed on. I had nowhere else to go. But the weather turned cold, and I couldn’t stay in my lean-to anymore. Your father found me, and when he heard I was homeless, he said I could live here.” She dried her eyes with the cuff of her sleeve. A gentle touch on her shoulder brought her attention to Josh’s compassionate gaze.
“I’m glad he found you. I just wish we had known sooner so you could have had a home sooner.”
“Really?” A new wave of tears sprang to her eyes. “You’re not mad or ashamed of me?”
“Of course not. It’s not your fault that Harley’s family treated you so poorly. Besides, you’re my friend. Nothing’s going to change that.”
“Thank you.” Relief flooded her at evidence he wouldn’t judge her for circumstances beyond her control. “I’m glad to know you think of me as a friend.”
Voices came from the foyer, and she turned toward the doorway as Bill and Della entered the room.
“Hi, Mom, Dad.” Josh stood and stepped toward them. “Mira just told me what happened and that she’s living here now.”
“That’s right.” Della gave him a hug. “How long have you been here?”
“Long enough to talk to Mira for a few minutes.” He leaned down to kiss his mother’s cheek. “I would have been here earlier, but there was a traffic jam on the interstate.”
“That’s quite all right. I’m just glad you made it safely.”
Mira rose and moved to a spot by one of the tall French windows that lined the end of the room. She might be welcome in their home, but she was more aware than ever that she wasn’t a part of the family. Bill joined her.
“Mira, Della and I need to talk to Josh and Tabby for a little while. There’s a hall running behind the stairs that has a library at the end. There’s also a music room on the right.”
“Okay. Would you like me to go get Tabby? I think she’s upstairs.”
“If you’d like. Or we can send Josh to find her.”
“No need. I want to get something from my pack, so I have to go up anyway.”
“All right,” Bill said.
Mira went upstairs and knocked on Tabby’s door.
She opened the door. “Your parents want to talk to you. They’re in the living room with Josh.”
“Okay.” Tabby gave her a worried look. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, things have just been kind of hard lately.” Mira shrugged as they stepped into the hall. “I’m sure your dad will tell you.”
“Aren’t you coming?” Tabby said when Mira didn’t follow her toward the stairs.
“No, I’m going to get something out of my pack and sit in the library.”
After retrieving her journal and a pen, she went down to the library. She found a switch on the wall beside the door and flipped it, illuminating the large room with a soft golden glow. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases lined the walls, and she skimmed her fingertips across the spines of the leather-bound books. Did anyone in the family read them? Would she ever be able to read them? She sighed and headed for a padded window seat. At least she could enjoy being surrounded by more books than she’d seen in a long time.
Opening her journal to the first blank page, she made a note of the date and wrote down the events of the day. She had to pause more than once and wipe tears from her eyes as she documented her thoughts and feelings on her current situation. As she wrote the last few sentences, Josh came in and sat next to her feet. She finished the entry, closed her journal, and capped her pen. Lifting her head, she found Josh watching her with the same compassionate gaze he’d had earlier.
“I’m sorry things got so bad for you. I wish I would have known last spring. Maybe I could have done something to help you.”
“I appreciate it, but I did pretty well on my own.” His concern warmed her heart, but she didn’t want him to feel sorry for her. “I built a comfortable lean-to, had more than enough to eat, and you know how much I love to be outdoors.”
“But to be alone for so long…”
“To be honest with you, I didn’t notice most of the time.” Could anything she said help him understand? “I mean, yeah, there were times it got lonely, but I visited my friends at the general store on a regular basis. During the summer, their oldest kids camped out with me several times, and there were a couple of other people I visited. The rest of the time, though, I was busy preparing for winter and making improvements to my living area.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“It wasn’t. Until it got cold, that is. But I stayed warm at night by sleeping in the shed at your family’s cabin. All that straw was good insulation against the cold ground, and your dad’s dog slept curled up against me so we both stayed warm.”
“That’s what Dad told me.” He looked at the cloth-covered book on her lap. “Is that your journal?”
Mira ran her fingers across it. “Yeah, I try to write in it every night.”
“It looked like you were writing backwards when I came in.”
“It seemed normal enough to me.” She fought a smile as she handed him the journal. “Here, take a look.”
He opened the cover. “It’s blank.”
She laughed at his puzzled expression. “No, it’s not. You’re looking at it backwards. Try opening the other side.”
He did and flipped through the pages, his eyes wide. Mira watched him for a moment, but then a huge gray cat leaped into her lap, startling her. Josh looked up and smiled.
“That’s Frank. I think the best way to describe him is a gentle giant.”
She stroked the cat’s thick, soft fur. His purr filled the room, and he flopped across her lap. “Is he always this friendly to strangers?”
“It depends on the stranger. A lot of times he’ll greet newcomers and head for the nearest familiar person. He must like you.”
“He’s beautiful,” she said, scratching the cat’s throat.
Josh closed the journal and handed it to her. “I had no idea you could write in Hebrew and Arabic. Where did you learn them?”
“It’s what I grew up hearing and seeing.” She set the journal beside her. “Both Arabic and Hebrew feel much more natural than English.”
“I remember wondering why you didn’t talk much when I first met you, but I thought it was because you were shy.”
“No, I just didn’t know enough English to carry on a conversation.”
“That explains a lot,” Josh said as his sister walked into the room.
Tabby grinned and waved a hand toward the cat. “I see Frank found you.”
Mira smiled and scratched behind the cat’s ears, earning a contented sigh. “Yeah, he decided to come say hi.”
“Do you want that tour of the house now?” Tabby asked.
“Sure.” She studied the cat falling asleep on her lap. “Do you think Frank would like to come along?”
“Probably. He likes to be held. Of course, he tends to get heavy after a while.”
“I don’t mind.” Mira scooped the fluffy animal into her arms and stood. “Lead the way.”
They left the library with Josh turning out the lights. Tabby led them through the only door on the left side of the hall.
The large, airy music room had a polished wood floor and walls the color of eggshells. A piano stood near the large windows at the far end of the room. Between the door and the piano, near the center of the room, sat several white upholstered chairs and a small matching sofa. A bookcase filled with sheet music and other books stood to the left. Two music stands sat next to the bookcase, behind an acoustic guitar on a stand and a flute in its open case sitting on a delicate wooden table. On the right, in a big alcove behind the door, sat another music stand, this one holding music. A heavy wooden table stood against the wall with an open violin case sitting on it.
“This is a beautiful room.” The violin drew Mira’s gaze like a magnet. “Who plays these instruments?”
“I played the flute for a while, but I was never very good,” Tabby said with a sheepish grin. “Josh is responsible for the guitar. We both play the piano and so does Daddy.”
“What about the violin?” She cast another glance at the instrument.
“That’s Mom’s. You’ll have to get her to play for you. She’s really good.”
They went back into the hall, and Tabby pointed out Bill’s office across from the music room. Instead of turning left toward the front door when they reached the end of the hall, they turned right. Bill and Della’s bedroom was to the right. A door leading outside was straight ahead. To the left stood a conservatory. Tabby led the way into the plant-filled space and turned on the lights. Windows lined three sides of the room. Wicker furniture sat among the tables and stands holding plants, providing a garden getaway even in the middle of winter.
“I love all the plants,” Mira said, gazing around the room. “I may have to spend a lot of time in here.”
“You might have to fight Josh for it. He’s always liked to come in here for hours on end when it was too cold to go outside.”
“That’s because I like taking care of the plants.” Josh rolled his eyes. “Plus, there’s nothing better than being surrounded by green growing things when there’s a foot of snow on the ground.”
“I know the feeling,” Mira said. “Marnie and I always had plants growing in the kitchen because it had the best light.”
“Well, the kitchen is next on the tour,” Tabby announced.
They left the conservatory, and she led them down yet another hallway. Tabby opened the first door on the right, and they entered a huge kitchen. A wave of sadness hit as Mira took in the room. Marnie would have loved the sparkling granite countertops and ceramic tile floor, as well as the simple wooden table surrounded by six equally simple wooden chairs. Mira’s deerskin bags looked out of place on the island in the middle of the kitchen. How had Bill thought she could fit in somewhere so fancy?
“Oh! These bags are so cool!” Tabby rushed over to examine them.
“Are they yours?” Josh glanced at Mira as he joined his sister.
“Yes, that’s some of the food I dried over the summer.” Mira stroked Frank’s silky head. He shifted in her arms and gave her a contented look. “I told your mom that she could have it, since I’ll be living here.”
Tabby turned toward her. “What all did you bring?”
“Yes, I’m curious as well,” Della said behind Mira.
Mira turned and found both Della and Bill standing just inside the kitchen. How did they feel about deerskin bags in their spotless kitchen?
Judging by their expressions, they didn’t mind. “Venison jerky, dried apples, cherries, tomatoes, and raisins.” She set Frank on the floor and pointed out the various bags, some containing more than one food. “There are also dried potatoes, turnips, carrots, and sweet potatoes. Some of the bags have peas, beans, wild onions, wild garlic, nuts, berries, oats, and different herbs. This bag over here has parch corn. You toast it in a skillet, then you have a crunchy, nutritious snack.”
“What’s in that last bag?” Tabby asked.
“Dried, smoked fish. It’s not much to look at, but it tastes pretty good if it’s cooked right.”
“You definitely didn’t have to worry about food, did you?” Bill said.
“Nope. Between my garden and what I could gather from the forest, I ate well.” She smothered a yawn. “If nobody minds, I’d like to go to bed. This has been a very long day.”
Della gave her an understanding smile. “Of course, Mira. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
She bade everyone good night and headed for hallway, but she spotted the cat following her. She turned a questioning gaze on the Montaigne family. “Frank seems determined not to let me out of his sight. Would it be all right if he sleeps with me?”
“Certainly,” Della said. “Just leave your door open a bit so can he get out in the middle of the night if he wishes.”
“Okay.” She scooped up Frank and received a loud purr in return. “Good night.”
As she passed through the foyer, she noticed an unobtrusive door beneath the stairs. Why had Tabby bypassed it on the tour? She was trying to decide if she should open it when Tabby came up behind her.
“This is the powder room,” she said, opening the door.
Mira peered in as Tabby turned on the light. The room was smaller than any she had seen so far in the house, about the same size as Harley and Marnie’s bathroom. It wasn’t nearly as plain as that room had been, however. The powder room was decorated in white and lavender with understated floral wallpaper and decorative lavender soaps in crystal dishes on the white pedestal sink.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t get much use unless we have guests.” Tabby turned off the light and closed the door. “Tomorrow I’ll have to show you the rest of the house and the stable.”
“You mean there’s more?” Mira stared at her. How much room did one family need?
Tabby laughed. “Lots more. I’ll show it to you in the morning.”
When Mira entered her room, she closed the door and set the cat on the bed. “Okay, Frank, after I change I’ll open the door for you, and then I’m going to bed.”
She dug through her meager wardrobe and pulled out a pair of soft flannel pajama pants she hadn’t worn since losing her home. It had been much more practical to sleep in her clothes since she never knew when a hunter might stumble upon her little camp. After changing into the flannel pants and a large T-shirt, she brushed her teeth and opened the door leading into the hall about six inches. Then she turned out the lights and climbed into the big, soft bed, relishing the feel of sheets for the first time in months. Frank snuggled up against her, and she wrapped her arms around him, holding him like a teddy bear. He let out a contented sigh and purred them both to sleep.