“Are those the famous Hawkins cookies I’ve heard about?” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“They are Addie’s specialty. Enjoy!” She set them on the table and he whisked them underneath with a flourish. She moved on to the next booth, smiling and anticipating the new addition to her decor.
She was inspecting a bracelet in the next booth, thinking it would be a great birthday gift for her sister Mandy, when she felt a tug on the hem of her shirt. Surprised, she looked down, thinking she’d caught it on something.
Instead she found herself staring into the wide eyes of the little girl who’d been in the diner with her babysitter a few nights ago. “Oh, hello.” She smiled and knelt to be at eye level with her.
“Can I have one of those?” the girl whispered, pointing at the basket of cookies. Her eyes were wide, and she didn’t return Tara’s smile. Tara noticed she didn’t have the purple dragon with her, and there were smudges of dirt on her face and hands.
“Of course, you can.” She reached for the cookie and watched the girl lick her lips. “Did you have breakfast, sweetie?” It was still early in the day.
The girl shook her head.
Tara looked around. “Are you with the babysitter?”
“No.” Her ponytails bobbed. “Mama’s at work for only a little bit. Her boss is there so I’m not ’posed to be there.” She was still staring at the cookies. “Mama told me to stay out of the way.”
And this was her staying out of the way? Granted, Haskins Corners was a small town and kids often ran around in the park and playground. And the townspeople kept an eye on each other’s kids like it was second nature. But little ones like this were seldom far from a watchful set of eyes. Tara looked around to see who was looking toward them. She saw no one.
“Where does your mom work?” Tara had half a mind to go have a chat with the woman. The girl must have sensed her intent, as she shook her head slowly and started to back away.
Tara frowned and lightly put her hand on her shoulder. “I’ll gladly give you the cookie, but how about we get breakfast first? There are some really good waffles at one of the booths.” She didn’t dare take her away from the fair in case her mother came looking for her.
“Might serve her right,” Tara whispered to herself. To the girl she said, “Come on.” She extended her hand, just as she would to her nephew Tyler if he were here. The girl took it more readily than Tyler did now that he was a grown-up nine-year-old.
“Do you like bacon?” Tara asked, planning a complete meal.
“Ever’body likes bacon.” The girl rolled her big, brown eyes.
“Most people do, you’re right.” They reached the booth and Tara ordered them each a waffle with bacon and a cup of orange juice. She wasn’t hungry, but she didn’t want the girl to eat alone.
She led her to a picnic table near the playground and set their meal on the worn wood. “Hop up.” Tara lifted her, noticing as she did how thin and tiny she was.
“Do you need help cutting that?” Tara asked as she took her seat across from the girl.
“It’s big. Yes, please,” the girl whispered and Tara gladly took on the task, soon handing her the fork. It only took an instant for a bite of waffle to disappear.
“You know, I’m not sure I know your name.” Tara made conversation, hoping to learn something to help this sweet child. “I feel like I know you. I’d like us to be friends.” She nibbled on the crispy bacon. “I’m Tara.”
“I’m Brooke,” the girl said around another bite of waffle. “I’m gonna go to school soon. Mama says that’ll make her life easier.”
Tara bet it would. No need to find childcare if the school system was taking care of them. Tara had heard Addie talk about the number of kids who really struggled because their parents weren’t involved. The topic was definitely a hot button for her sister who taught in Austin.
“There you are.”
Tara looked up to see the babysitter from the other night stalking toward them. She stopped at the edge of the table, her hands on her hips. “What are you doin’?” she asked Brooke.