A clatter of footsteps sounded on the stairs. Ryan turned to find Nikolina standing halfway down the stairs, a mutinous expression on her face.
“Far? What is he doing here?” The icy tone cut into Ryan. He’d known that Nikolina might not remember all the time they’d spent together spirit-walking, but for her to have absolutely no remnants of the deep friendship they’d built together there hurt badly.
Her father pursed his lips. “Nikki, why don’t you ask the man himself? And remember that he is a respected guest in my home when you do so.” With that, Mr. Lindstrom disappeared back into the kitchen. The sound of his voice washed over Ryan as the older man discussed the increased number of pancakes they’d need with Alyssa. Ryan swallowed down the first words that sprang to mind on the heels of his hurt feelings, seeking ones aimed more at clear communication and less at assuaging his momentary emotional pain.
“Hello, Nikolina.” He watched her face carefully. There was something—a spark of recognition maybe—in her clear blue eyes. Not that she wouldn’t recognize him—they had met at Robert and Christie’s wedding and spent hours together caring for Little Hawk while he was ill. This was different though. The glimmer he saw was—he hoped—more of a soul-deep recognition. Nikolina narrowed her eyes minutely, grunted, and then stomped down the rest of the stairs.
“Fine. Stay for breakfast. It’s clear Far wants you here for his own reasons and even I have learned not to argue with that man when he has his mind set on something. Just don’t you dare say any of that sloppy, soppy crap to Evans. He’s been hurt enough by Robert and Christie, though Goddess knows they never meant to, he still got caught in the cross-hairs. And no—”
Her words broke off momentarily as the clear soprano of her daughter’s voice rang out into the hall from the kitchen. Nikolina’s eyes narrowed even more as she resumed speaking. “None of that whooey-fluey stuff around Alyssa. Hmmpf. She gets enough of that from all her aunts as it is.”
With that, she brushed past him to enter the kitchen. Ryan couldn’t stop a small smile from curving up the corners of his mouth. A sound at the top of the stairs drew Ryan’s amused attention back from watching her flounce toward the sturdy wooden table in the breakfast nook like a disgruntled teen. Little Hawk stood hesitating on the top step. The younger man’s golden hair stuck up from his head in a wonderfully messy way, and his eyes appeared merely sleepy rather than bruised as they had the day before. He looked beautiful.
“I—hello—I’m sorry I didn’t take the time to say good-bye yesterday. I didn’t want to make Pretty—I mean Nikolina—mad.”
Little Hawk blushed as he spoke, and a surge of longing flooded through Ryan.
“Ah. Well, that makes sense. She’s rather fierce when she’s riled, and you were in no shape to deal with that.” Ryan’s mouth curved up as he spoke. He was remembering the story Christie had shared with him about exactly how the first meeting between Nikolina and Little Hawk had gone. His thoughts must have shown in the increase of his smile, because Little Hawk glared at him.
“Dammit, who told you about Nikki kicking my ass?”
Ryan snorted. “That story is pretty much sanctified local history. I’m fairly certain the seventh graders in Watertown are learning about how Nikolina took you down next week during their American Civilization course.”