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“Welcome, welcome everyone!” Rowan clapped her hands to bring the room to order.
They all sat in a circle around the mat, with toys in the centre. Babies and toddlers wandered around, getting into the low shelves of toys, and grabbing snacks from their moms. Lanie sat awkwardly next to Lilah, avoiding looking at Jennifer, and focused on Murphy, who crawled over to her. Lanie flipped him upside down, which made him laugh, then suddenly, she was surrounded by kids. They poked her and tried to give her their toys. Embarrassed, mothers came and plucked the horde of children off when Rowan summoned them.
She rallied, and continued with her commencement speech. “Thanks for joining us for our last session of Tots and Thoughts. We try to keep the tots distracted, so that we can share our thoughts about how we’re all doing as moms! And, we have a new member who’s going to join us for these last two sessions. Lanie, did you want to tell us a bit about yourself?”
No matter how much Lanie prepared for group shares like this, she always hated breaking the ice. Reaching over, she plucked a random child from a lap and cuddled it, patting it and fiddling with the edge of its clothes. She reminded herself that, for whatever reason, she’d put herself in this position. She needed to see it through.
“Um, well, I have a boy. He’s ten. I don’t really know much about being a mother. I was here when he was a baby, but I couldn’t finish the program. So, I’m back. I hope to continue in the autumn.”
“Nice to see you, Lanie!” A woman with a short brunette bob waved at her. Ruth, Lanie’s neighbour. “I didn’t know you had children! I don’t think you’ve met my kids, but my Fletcher is fifteen, Renee is thirteen, Alec is eleven, Grace is nine, and little Katie right there is four. Where’s your little one?”
“Well, he’s not so little anymore. He’s almost eleven. I’m here because I wasn’t around when he was a kid, but he’s back now.”
Everyone was quiet, staring at her uncomprehendingly, and she straightened her shoulders. The child in her lap reached for a toy in the pile, then kept playing with it placidly. Looking down, she saw that it was a red-haired little boy. He pushed the toy into her hand, and she fingered it distractedly.
“Is that allowed?” one woman asked at last. Audrey? “I know there were a few women who wanted to get in with five-year-olds, and they were turned away.”
“Don’t even bother,” Jennifer sighed dramatically. “She’s Basso de la Torre’s granddaughter.”
There were small gasps around the room, and everyone else sat up straighter, too.
Should Lanie tell them to just forget it? She didn’t want to be treated like royalty. She also didn’t want the unnecessary attention. But she just couldn’t hide it. Everyone knew them at this church. It was partly why she had felt she could come here for help. She was mildly starting to regret it now.
“Stop it, Jennifer,” Lilah pleaded with an apologetic look at Lanie. “Maybe we should consider changing the rules, or starting a new group. For right now, she needs us, and it’s our duty to help those in need. No matter how we feel about them personally.”
“That’s right, my girl,” Rowan affirmed with a proud smile at her daughter. “Now, Lanie, why don’t we lead the discussion with some of your questions? A few of us here have older children as well. Like Annalise! Actually, Ruth, isn’t Jaylin also ten?”
“He’s actually eleven now, but is your son in fifth grade, Lanie?” Annalise smiled.
“Yes, he goes to school on the west side.”
“We’ll have to get them together this summer. I think you’ve captured my other son’s heart.” She motioned to the child that Lanie had commandeered. “That’s Glenane. He’s four. I’ve also got an eight-year-old named Tristan. But I swear, he acts more like he’s Glen’s age most of the time.”
“That might be nice.” Lanie would have to find out who Dre’s friends were. Who did he normally hang out with over the summer? “Hey, aren’t you the chocolate lady?”
Annalise laughed, tossing her auburn hair. “Yep, the crazy chocolate lady.”
“Thank you. We’ve put the Avenger’s chocolates in the freezer. Every time I open it, I can’t believe how amazing they are.”
Annalise pulled a face. “They weren’t made to be displayed. Eat them. It’s like an explosion of ecstasy. Hmmm. Maybe there’s a rebranding idea…”
As his mother went off on an inner tangent, Glenane stiffened as a little blonde girl crept toward Lanie. “June!” Jennifer snapped, and Lanie realized this was one of her daughters. The other one, Jane, looked up at the sound of her sister’s name, just as Glenane drew back his arm to throw the toy at her, but the girl looked at Lanie with huge, baby blue eyes, and Lanie caught the toy just in time, then plucked another one from the pile for the girl. She, too, crawled into Lanie’s lap, and when Lanie shot Glenane a warning look, the child shrank back into her arm. She shot a similar look at Jennifer when she tried to come forward to grab her daughter.
“Anyway.” Lanie adjusted the children on her lap. They had bony little butts. “I guess my main question is how to make kids listen. I can’t seem to get Dre to do anything unless I scream at him. It’s only been a few days, but he’s already so defiant.”
There were some laughs. “Well, as the mother of an eleven-year-old boy,” said Annalise, the chocolate genius, “I can tell you right now there’s no such thing as making boys listen. You have to guide them. Make them think it was their idea. Bribe them. Threaten. And then maybe they’ll do what you want. Half the time.”
Audrey, who sat beside Annalise, smacked her. “Oh, don’t listen to Annalise. She’s just tired because she’s got three boys. And I must admit, they’re a little rambunctious. Thomas and Harris over there, they’re mine. Three and two. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to do with them.” Currently, the slightly bigger boy was doing a Tarzan puzzle while his brother watched. Thomas handed his brother a piece, then guided him until it was in place. They both clapped their dark little hands and grinned at each other.
Jennifer snorted. “Don’t even, Audrey. Those boys are best friends. Complete angels. Just like Jane and June.”
Audrey shrugged. “But Fletcher, Ruth’s oldest, is the sweetest, kindest boy I know. He’s always the first to ask what he can do for his siblings and the rest of our kids.”
“Yeah, Fletcher is great. He and Jaylin both love helping with the littles at our get-togethers. Well, Fletcher guilts Jaylin into helping him and Grace.” Lilah smiled.
“What’s Dre like?” Annalise asked.
Lanie thought. “He’s got a smart mouth. That’s the first thing I thought when I saw him.” Judging her in her pyjamas in the elevator, acting like she was some sort of predator.
“You’re doomed, then,” proclaimed Annalise in delight.
“Well, I noticed that Dre is very good with little Murphy.” Rowan glanced at Lanie. “He’s got a caring heart and a tender soul.”
“How about we let Lanie describe him?” Lilah suggested, rubbing her hands together and leaning forward. “That will really help us get to the root of what’s going on.”
Hmm, what else? “Well, he’s a nerd, always on with science and stuff. And he’s a comic book geek. Whenever he can, he’s got his nose in a book. It’s been a challenge getting him to school, even though he’s obviously obsessed with learning. And yeah, he seemed to connect with Murphy. He seems to just attach himself to everyone.” Except her. “He’s a regular social slug.”
“Do you mean…social butterfly?” Lilah asked tentatively.
“Sure, whatever. He’s pretty obsessed with my roommate. Well, I don’t know if he’s still going to be my roommate after he gets out of the hospital. He was technically only living with me for like, four days. But now Dre has it in his head that we’re meant to be or something.” She wrinkled her nose. Thomas looked over and saw Lanie holding his friends, then pulled his brother over to sit a foot away, looking up with the same pleading expression that Jane had used. Glenane, betrayed once again, started to protest. When mother’s leaned forward after a nervous look at Rowan, Lanie waved them off, opened her long legs, and made a corral for them all. Soon Murphy and June also joined.
“Are you talking about Ben?” Rowan asked. “Is he back in the hospital?”
“Oh. Yeah, sorry, he went back on Monday night. We were going to call you to watch Dre if we needed, but we ended up being able to handle it.”
“But what happened?” Lilah demanded.
Lanie straightened at her sharp tone. “Um, it was acute cerebral and pulmonary edema brought on by stress. His brain and lungs are still healing from the explosion, but he did too much with Dre. It was stupid. They wanted to surprise me.” The rage was unexpected. She hadn’t realized she was feeling that way. Why couldn’t Ben keep himself safe for a single day?
“He was in an explosion?” Annalise asked in awe.
“Yea, we both were. We were volunteering in Africa together. He actually threw himself over me, which is why I’m basically fine and he’s in such rough shape.”
“How romantic,” said Ruth.
Lanie glared, clutching the children tighter to her. “No. He’s an idiot. He’s always putting himself in danger. You won’t believe the things I had to save him from over there. He literally put himself in the path of an archer because he didn’t evacuate during a raid. He made sure everyone else was safe, but could he keep himself safe? No. If I hadn’t caught that arrow, he’d be dead.”
Everyone seemed a little shocked, taking it in. “You…caught an arrow out of the air?” asked Jennifer with the faintest hint of respect.
“Well, it was pretty long-range, so I had plenty of time to track it, and it decelerated a bit. To be honest, it was kind of a fluke. Instinct.” She glanced down at the fading scar from the burning wound where the shaft had dragged over her skin.
“It sounds like Ben is pretty self-sacrificing,” Rowan said, impressed.
“I think he’s stupid. He doesn’t stop to think about what would happen to him, and he puts the burden on everyone else to look out for him, and patch him up, and save him.”
Audrey raised her brows. “But it sounds like he’s taken the burden to save other people. It sounds like he’s a hero.”
“It’s not being a hero if you don’t have any training! I’m trained in martial arts, weapons, emergency medicine and disaster management. He’s an architect.” She nearly spit the word. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you need to get out of the way and let those with proper training do their jobs. That’s what I do. You don’t see me trying to perform brain surgery when I’m just an uncertified EMT. Ben is reckless.” She crossed her arms and sat back.
“Umm…I do believe we’ve gotten a little off-track…” Rowan seemed bewildered. “Lilah, why don’t you tell us how you’ve been holding up as a newly single mother?”
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