Out of Her Element
She needs a place to stay.
They offer her a whole new life.
But is living in luxury worth losing her identity?
Mira Hassan is on the verge of freezing to death. Homeless and impoverished, she's desperate for a way to survive. When wealthy family friends offer her a place to stay, she takes a chance and accepts.
Her new life in high society isn't what she expects. Gone are the days of hard work and simple living. Now she's faced with lavish shopping trips, fancy dinner parties, and numerous people who judge by appearance alone.
Yet in the midst of it all, she finds a group of friends with a connection to her past. Is it enough to give her the sense of belonging that she craves, or will she always be out of her element?
The three dogs crowded around Mira Hassan, and she fed each of them another bite of venison jerky. Like most hunting dogs she’d met, they were food-motivated, which made befriending them easy. A little jerky, some sweet talking, and a few scratches here and there had enabled her to come and go from the shed without fear.
She gave one last pat to the long-legged mutt with a big head and floppy ears. She had no idea what his name was, but he was a sweetheart and had become her best friend in the last few days.
“Don’t bark at me when I come back.”
The accent in her whispered words had made her something of an outcast in the area. Who knew a Palestinian accent flavored with a West Virginian drawl could make people so suspicious?
Then again, she was half Palestinian and had spent more of her life in the Middle East than in the United States. Suspicion due to fear of terrorism was pretty common in her life.
The mutt licked her hand once and sprawled on the thick layer of straw covering the floor. Mira pulled her scarf up around her face and stepped out of the shed. The icy dawn air stung her eyes, and she huddled a little deeper in her coat. One of these days, she would have a warm house to live in again.
Her gaze went to the two-story cabin she’d lived near for the last seven and a half years, ever since she came to the United States as a thirteen-year-old orphan. The windows were still dark, offering a small measure of security as she crossed the clearing.
When she reached the woods, she slipped between the trees and into relative safety. She paused and glanced over her shoulder in time to see a light come on in one of the downstairs windows.
Her heart skipped a beat. Had they seen her? Should she run?
She remained frozen to the spot, waiting for some sign that she’d been noticed. The back door stayed closed. No sirens approached from the tiny town of Selma.
She released the breath she’d been holding. Nothing indicated the men in the cabin had seen her. The light probably meant they had awakened and were starting their day.
Since feeding their dogs would be near the top of their list of morning chores, she continued deeper into the woods. No sense in hanging around and letting them find her when all she wanted was to get away undetected.
The silence of the forest surrounded her, bringing a measure of peace. Despite the circumstances that had forced her to live in the woods full-time, she still loved the natural beauty. Being in nature had calmed her for as long as she could remember. Even as a small child wandering through her mother’s garden, the simple act of being outside in the open air had lifted her spirits.
Now, as she approached the first of her snare traps, she was even more grateful for the bounty of the forest. Starvation was one thing she didn’t have to worry about.
She collected the rabbit and reset the trap before moving on to the next. Normally she wouldn’t worry about resetting the trap so quickly, but whatever she found this morning wasn’t for her. She felt obligated to provide payment for her use of the shed as sleeping quarters. Since she had no job and no money, whatever she could trap would have to do.
She lucked into another rabbit in the second trap. The two large rodents would make a nice meal or two for the three men in the cabin. Surely that would be enough to make up for borrowing their shed since the weather turned frigid a few days earlier.
She reset the trap and circled back toward the cabin.
Mira scanned the area around the cabin, but no movement caught her eye. With any luck, they’d fed the dogs and were busy eating their own breakfast.
Moving as quietly as possible on the frozen ground, she crept to the small back porch and leaned down to lay the rabbits where the men were sure to spot them.
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”
The shout scared her half to death. She jerked upright and whipped her head toward the shed. An angry man strode toward her.
Heart thundering in her chest, she whirled toward the woods as the back door flew open and another man appeared. She took off, away from the cabin, before he could say a word.
A handful of feet from the safety of the trees, someone tackled her. After a brief struggle, the man who had come out of the cabin hauled her to her feet and marched her back toward the building.
The angry man and the third man staying at the cabin, both of whom were older than the one holding her captive, turned from studying the two dead rabbits she’d left on the porch.
The man who’d shouted at her now seemed more confused than angry after seeing her offering. The third man’s expression was impossible to read.
He looked familiar, but she couldn’t quite place him. The adrenaline flooding her system made it impossible to think about much of anything other than finding a way to escape.
“Let’s go inside and see if we can figure this out.” He picked up the rabbits and carried them through the door.
She didn’t have a choice but to follow since the guy who’d tackled her still held her arm in a tight grasp and propelled her forward. The other man entered last and closed the door. He studied her as he removed his coat, and she wanted to run.
What did these guys plan to do with her? Would they hurt someone who gave them food? She straightened her spine and met his gaze, determined to show no fear.
The familiar man laid the rabbits on the counter and faced her. “Did you leave those?”
She gave a quick nod, not ready to let them hear her accent. Once she was more sure of their character, then she would risk getting labeled a terrorist yet again.
“Why?” When she didn’t answer, he motioned to the man holding her arm. He released her with obvious reluctance, and the familiar man spoke again. “What’s your name?”
A modicum of trust was starting to form, but did she want to risk them hearing her last name? Too many people in the area had taken an instant dislike to her the moment they heard she was a Hassan.
“There’s no need to be afraid. You obviously mean no harm. But I would like an explanation, young man.”
She raised her eyebrows. He couldn’t tell she was female? Yeah, she definitely had to say something. “I’m a girl.”
She must have spoken too softly. Looking him straight in the eye, she said in a clear voice, “I’m not a man.”
She tugged her scarf down, revealing her face. Her long coppery hair with strawberry-blond highlights crackled with static as she pulled off her hat. Letting her hands fall to her sides, she gazed at the three men before her. She couldn’t wait to see how long it took them to quit staring at her with wide eyes.
The man who’d yelled at her recovered first. “Is it safe to assume you own the knapsack and sleeping bag in the shed with the dogs?”
“Yes.” She waved a hand at the rabbits on the counter. “I brought those as payment for borrowing your shed.”
“You’ve been sleeping with the dogs?”
“Yes.” She lifted her chin, daring them to make a disparaging remark. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t used to it.
“Because it got too cold in the lean-to.”
“What lean-to?” the younger man asked, his voice full of suspicion.
“The one I lived in until a few days ago when it got too cold.”
The familiar man studied her. “Aren’t you Harley and Marnie Davis’s girl?”
Recognition slammed into her with the sound of her cousins’ names. How could she have forgotten who he was for even a brief moment? After all, she was standing in his family’s cabin. “Mr. Montaigne?”
“That’s right. These are my good friends Richard Halliday and James Porter.”
She silently appraised each of them. Richard was around Bill Montaigne’s age, so somewhere in his fifties. James didn’t look much past thirty. She returned her attention to Bill and steeled her emotions against the pain of what she had to tell him. “Harley and Marnie passed on early this year.”
“Yes, I was sorry to hear about that.” Sympathy filled Bill’s voice. “Where have you been living since then?”
She shifted her gaze to the far wall, fighting the anger that always came when she remembered. “In April, when the weather got warm, Harley’s kin made me leave the cabin. I’ve been living in the woods since then.”
“You’ve been living alone in the woods for over seven months?”
She gave a small shrug. Keeping track of the time hadn’t been one of her priorities, but that sounded right.
Richard cleared his throat. “Who exactly are you?”
“Mira Hassan. Harley and Marnie were some kind of cousins to my mother.”
“Why don’t we all sit down and have breakfast while we talk?” Bill said.
Richard’s eyebrows rose, but he didn’t argue. Mira wasn’t about to pass up a free meal, especially since it meant spending more time protected from the elements. Bill set an extra place at the table, and James served the bacon and eggs keeping warm on the stove.
Now faced with the reality of eating with two strangers and a man she hadn’t seen in a few years, Mira battled a sudden bout of nerves. She remained where James had left her while she dug deep for courage. Bill paused in pouring orange juice and sent her a smile.
“Why don’t you take off your coat and join us?”
She studied him for a long moment, doubts hitting her as to the motive behind his breakfast invitation. Hunger won out over caution. “Okay.”
She hung her coat on an empty peg by the back door and tried not to be ashamed of her current outfit. The men wore nice clothing that looked new. She’d gone for warmth over style. Not that she had a lot of choices, and she definitely didn’t own anything as expensive as what these guys wore.
Still, the baggy sweater over a pair of battered overalls and her sturdy, well-worn boots made it clear she came from a different world than the men. She had no chance of impressing anyone with sophisticated style. All she could do was show them respect and hope for the best.
She joined them at the table and waited until they started eating to pick up her own fork.
They were nearing the end of the meal when James spoke.
“How have you survived all these months?”
“I’ve been living off the land,” Mira said with a shrug. “I had a big garden in a clearing over the summer, and I dried a lot of stuff. I killed a deer a couple of months ago and turned most of the meat into jerky. There’s fish in the river, plenty of small animals, and edible plants. Whatever else I need I trade for at this little store about a mile from here.”
“And you’ve been living in a lean-to.”
“Right.” She ate the last bite of her breakfast.
“Where did you learn how to do all of that?”
“My mom taught me a bit, but most of it I learned from Harley and Marnie.”
Richard leaned forward, his expression curious. “Where are your parents?”
“Buried in a little town in the West Bank.” She used years of practice to keep her emotions hidden. Showing any kind of vulnerability could lead to ridicule or worse.
“Do you mean the West Bank in Israel?”
“Palestine, actually, but yes.”
The men fell silent, and James got up to clear the table. Had she made a mistake by telling the truth? Richard studied her, making her even more nervous.
“How did you come to have the last name of Hassan?”
“My daddy was a Palestinian. My mama was a blonde from here in the US. She went to Israel to play the violin, fell in love, and married my dad.”
Maybe if she told him a little more of the story, he would quit staring at her like she was some kind of alien.
“His family disowned him for marrying an American woman, so after my parents got killed I was sent to live with my mom’s relatives. Harley and Marnie are the ones what took me in. The rest had disowned her for marrying a Palestinian man.”
He tapped his chin. “Did you grow up speaking English?”
“No, until I was thirteen I only spoke Arabic and Hebrew. My mom had just started teaching me English when I came to live with Harley and Marnie. They helped me learn English as well as they knew it.”
If she’d known she would end up living in the United States, she wouldn’t have resisted her mother’s efforts to teach her English for so long.
Bill leaned forward. “Where are you going to live now that it’s too cold to live in the woods?”
Mira scrutinized him, searching for a motive. Did he actually care, or was he just making conversation? Not that it mattered either way. “I don’t know. I’ll probably see if I can sleep on the storeroom floor at my friends’ store.”
James set the last plate in the drainer on the counter and returned to his seat. “Why don’t you get a job and rent a place?”
She gave an unladylike snort worthy of Harley’s stubborn old draft horse. “Nobody ’round here’s gonna hire me.”
“Why not?” Richard asked. “From what you’ve said you’re a hard worker, and you’re obviously intelligent.”
How could a guy that old be so naive? “There isn’t anybody in these parts interested in hiring someone with the last name of Hassan, and especially not since the terrorist scares.”
“Why not go to the city to find a position?” James asked.
“’Cause I’m not much good at anything I can get paid for. Besides, at least here I know I’m not gonna starve.” She pushed back her chair and stood, tired of the interrogation. “Thank you for the breakfast. Now, I better go rescue my pack from your dogs and see if my friends will let me sleep in their storeroom tonight.”
She headed for the door and pulled on her coat. As soon as she’d wrapped the scarf around her neck and settled the hat on her head, she reached for the doorknob.
“Mira, wait.” Bill’s voice stopped her before she could turn it.
She looked over her shoulder. Did he want her to do some chores to pay for her meal?
“After you get your pack, why don’t you come on back in here? We’re heading home right after lunch. You could stay and eat with us, and then we’ll drop you off at your friends’ store.”
“I guess I could.” As much as she wanted to get away, she couldn’t deny the appeal of spending more time in the warm cabin.
“Great.” He smiled and she went out the door wondering if she’d made the right choice.