He sniffled. “Daddy’s mad.”
“Yes, well, it was very naughty, wasn’t it?”
“And you made quite a mess of my sweater.”
Sammy chanced a glance up at me, and I held his dark eyes.
“But it will wash, and you’ve told me you’re sorry. Might we be friends now?”
Another nod—this one with a small, hopeful smile.
I offered my hand, and he took it firmly, his smile blooming.
“I’m Sammy. How come you talk funny?”
“Sammy,” Charlie warned.
I looked up and saw he was embarrassed. “It’s all right,” I said to both of them. “I’m from Holland. Do you know where that is?”
Sammy shook his head.
“Have a look.” In the flour on the floor, I drew a rough likeness of North America and made a dot on New York. “We’re here, but I’m from here.” I drew Britain and a bit of Europe, making another dot in the Netherlands. “Have you ever been to the beach, Sammy?”
He lit up. “I love the beach! We went to Coney Island once.”
“Well, if you got in a boat and went a very long way, all the way across the ocean, you’d find yourself close to where I’m from.”
“Could I swim there?”
I laughed. “No, it’s much too far to swim. The fastest way is to fly in an airplane. But the reason I talk funny is because I’m Dutch. I speak Dutch, but I also know English, French, and Spanish.”
He lit up. “How do you say”—he looked around the room—“chair?”
He giggled. “Say dishes!”
I laughed. “Katie.”
Charlie stepped behind him, and I stood, finding myself a little short of breath at the sight of him smiling, his eyes flickering with failure, daughter in the crook of his arm and son’s shoulder under his palm. There was something very honest about the sight, something dangerously disarming, and I found myself hoping I could stay.
“I’m so sorry, Hannah.”
“It’s no problem, Mr. Parker.”
His cheeks flushed. “Please, call me Charlie. I don’t know that we need to finish the interview.”
My heart sank with an aching slowness with the realization that I’d wanted to help them very badly. “Yes, of course,” I said and glanced down. “I’ll let the agency know to find another applicant as soon as possible.”
But when I moved to step around him, he cupped my elbow. And when I looked up, I was met with smiling eyes.
“What I meant to say was, when can you start?”
I blinked, stunned.
The smile blew out of him just like that. “I mean, if you want. But of course you don’t want to. I can’t imagine why you would, if I think about it. I shouldn’t have asked. This is too much, even for me, and I’m their father,” he rambled, punctuating the end of his speech by raking his long fingers through his blond hair.
I suspected his mind kept going even though his lips were still.
“You’d like to hire me?”
“I can’t imagine a more practical interview,” he answered frankly.
I looked over the three of their hopeful faces and then back at Katie, whose smile was sweet and encouraging. And I met Charlie’s eyes, searching for the warning, for the whisper of menace I’d ignored before, but I found none. Instead, I found something far more precarious, disguised as something innocent.
Naive and hopeful trust.
And, before I could talk any sense into myself, I smiled and said, “How about now?”
The afternoon had been, for lack of a better word, perfect.
Maven sat in the crook of my arm as we headed up the stairs after dinner. Hannah followed with Sammy as he hopped up the steps, saying, Boing, boing, boing, on a loop. And I was struck with a sense of relief I hadn’t felt in what seemed like an age.
Hannah fit in easily, stepping into her role with effortless grace, like she’d been there all along rather than being a complete stranger. The kids were enthralled with her. Sammy had exuberantly dragged her around, asking her to translate things into Dutch, and Maven had clung to her, quiet and content as she was but with more persistence than she usually had with new people.
It was comforting—not only to have help with the kids again, but to have such capable help.
God knew I was unqualified to do it myself. Years without enough practice had left me helpless when my wife left, and I’d been trying to make up ground ever since.
I stopped outside the bathroom and turned to Hannah, who smiled. I smiled back out of instinct.
Sammy bolted into the bathroom and started tugging his shirt off.
Hannah chuckled, watching after him. “Should I go get their clothes or start the bath?”
“Um, I don’t know. Maybe you should …” I stammered, unable to answer even such a simple question. It was rare that I did this, and when I did, it was typically chaos.
But the expression on her face made me feel like it was all okay. “How about I start the bath and you can get their clothes? I’m not sure where their things are.”