“I don’t know.” Allie let out a long breath much too weary for such a tiny girl. “It might be easier. My mom used to braid it,” she added softly.
And there was the real problem. She could only imagine the pain in this little girl’s heart. Having a mother, knowing her, then losing her. She wanted to take Allie off the horse, hug her tight and never let go, but she looked up and smiled. “I think your hair would look cute short. You’ve got the face for it. Not everyone does, you know.”
“Do you remember your mom?”
Allie knew Hannah’s mother was dead, they’d covered that common bond on the first day. “No. But I was really little when my parents died, way younger than you,” she assured her. “Practically a baby. But I always had my brothers.” Hannah pointed as they stepped out of the trees. “There’s my bossiest brother now.”
Her oldest brother, Nick, stood leaning against the hood of his SUV, looking like the formidable FBI agent he was. Nick was tall and handsome; his hair was dark brown to her light and he wore the perpetual unshaven look well. It gave him a tough look just short of scary.
He lifted his hand and she waved back. Afraid she couldn’t tell him about Max without crying, she’d texted him. And now he was here, checking on her like he always did. Her brothers had raised her, sacrificed for her. Nick more than any of them.
Lexie met them and took Hazel and Allie into the barn. Hannah turned to find Nick’s cop eyes full of concern. That was the look she couldn’t spend an entire night with.
“I’m okay. I’m sad, but I’m okay.”
Nick said nothing for several seconds, just gave her his I-can-read-your-mind stare. “I talked to Luke and Zach. They’re fine with changing plans tonight.”
“I knew you’d say that.” She headed into the barn to get ready for her next student, leaving Nick to follow. “You don’t need to change your plans.”
“Well, you’re sure as hell not sitting home alone.”
“You’re right. I’m not.” She stepped into the tack room and Nick stopped just outside.
“Yes. Really. You can still have your guy party. I have plans.”
“Yes.” She looked back at him and smiled. “I can have plans, you know.”
“I know you can, you just…”
“What?” She reached for a piece of support foam. “Never do?
He leaned against the doorway, watching her. “Where are you going?”
She stepped around him and moved down the aisle for Big Ben, a small chestnut pony. “A friend.”
“A friend.” He said it full of suspicion and disdain for someone he didn’t know. Big-brother syndrome plus FBI equaled over-the-top.
“I also manage to have friends.” Kind of. She slipped the halter over the pony’s head.
“Where are you going?”
She speared him with a glare over her shoulder.
“Okay. Sorry.” He held up his hands. “But why don’t you and your friend come over to watch the game?”
Hannah tilted her head. “Is there an echo in here?”
“On top of not knowing who this friend is, I don’t like the idea of you coming home at night to an empty house.” Immediately he looked remorseful and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Sorry.”
She blew out a shaky breath before speaking. “It’s fine. Dogs don’t live forever, you knew that when I moved out here.” Something he’d been adamantly against, but having the dog had helped.
She loved her four brothers, and she wouldn’t say they suffocated her, though the hum of their hovering could be deafening at times. FBI, Special Forces, firefighter, cop. It was like her very own big-brother protection force. And every one of them liked to be in charge and in control. Especially Nick. If they knew she was going out with a man, let alone a man she didn’t know, they’d freak. Even if it was for their own good.
“I know how to lock a door.”
“I know you do.”
She met her brother’s worried eyes, and not for the first time thought what it must have been like for him at nineteen, suddenly responsible for four siblings. Then she thought of how much more she’d put him through. Put them all through.
If they were ever going to believe she was really okay, if she was going to believe it, she had to prove it. Time to push herself out of her comfort zone. For herself. For all of them.
It was nearly five by the time Hannah drove through the woods from the barn to her house. Few people knew the tiny cabin even existed. Wild dogwoods had just begun spreading their leaves, filling in the space between the pines. Soon she wouldn’t be able to make out the barn from her porch at all. Surrounded. Hidden. The way she liked it.