The second Dyer walked into the coffee shop, a balloon smacked him in the face.
He swatted the bobbing pink thing away from him and glared, trying to pinpoint where it had come from. Balloons didn’t attack on their own. Someone had to have propelled it.
Plenty of people were in the shop. Eight a.m., rush hour, everyone trying to get their caffeine on before they hit their cubicles for an exciting day of playing Solitaire and surfing social media on company time. Dyer’s favorite barista, Myles, stood at the counter with his usual smile, efficiently filling every order.
Even though Myles didn’t glance his way, seeing him improved Dyer’s morning. In spite of the pink balloon.
Some of the folks had kids with them, probably on the way to drop them off at school or daycare. Judging from the way one little girl giggled at him, Dyer guessed she was the balloon culprit. She wore a faded pink coat with a rip in one sleeve, and her thin blonde hair was trying to escape two messy braids. A little pink backpack sprinkled with images of the head of a popular cartoon kitty was strapped on her shoulders.
Even though she was smiling, her eyes were sad.
She was too cute for Dyer to be annoyed, even if he did hate pink balloons. He grabbed the balloon and held it out to her. “I think this is yours.”
“Sorry.” Her tiny voice barely made it through all the noise in the shop. Her smile faded as she took the balloon from him and hugged it.
“It’s okay.” Dyer’s heart ached. He wanted to say more to the child, but he was a stranger to her. If he kept talking, he would probably freak out some overprotective parent. But those little blue eyes held him.
Something was wrong. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but his instincts screamed at him not to walk away from the child.
“Ella, what are you doing?” A tall man in a long tan coat turned to glare down at the child. “I told you to behave. Can’t you listen to me for one single second?”
The little girl shrank behind the guy’s legs and stared at the floor. “Sorry, Daddy” she said even more softly.
“You should be. You’re too old to act that way.” The guy turned his glare to Dyer. “Excuse her. She’s still learning how to behave in public.”
“She’s fine,” Dyer said. With his narrowed eyes and messy hair, the man looked way too frazzled to deal with a preschooler that early in the morning, and the way he’d spoken to Ella pinged some little worry radar in Dyer’s brain. “It was only a balloon.”
“I told you to stop playing with that thing.” The man snatched the balloon out of Ella’s hands and tossed it toward the trash cans at the counter. Of course the balloon didn’t go where he wanted it. It simply bobbed in the general direction.
Ella whimpered and stuck her thumb in her mouth. She leaned against her dad, and he pushed her away and muttered something under his breath.
Dyer forced himself to stop staring at the two, but his stomach tightened. Something wasn’t right there. Not at all. The kid didn’t appear upset about losing her balloon. She was afraid of her father.