'Heartwarming and uplifting - a gorgeous festive treat.' Sarah Morgan, author of SNOWED IN FOR CHRISTMAS
'No-one does friendship better than Cathy' Karen Swan, author of THE CHRISTMAS POSTCARDS
In a picturesque town in Derbyshire, Merry has always wanted a family to spend Christmas with, and this year her dream comes true as she says 'I do' to father-of-two Cole. But as she juggles worries about her business, last-minute wedding planning and the two new children in her life, Merry is stretched to breaking point.
Meanwhile, only a few miles away, Emily is desperately waiting for the New Year to begin. Her father Ray's dementia is worsening, and she's struggling to care for him alone while holding down a job. When Ray moves into a residential home, she discovers a photograph in his belongings that has the potential to change everything .
As shocking secrets from Ray's past finally come to light, will this Christmas make or break Emily and Merry?
Praise for MERRILY EVER AFTER
'The perfect comfort read to warm your heart as the nights draw in and the festive season approaches' PHILLIPA ASHLEY
'Brimming with seasonal secrets and festive feelgood - is Christmas even Christmas without Cathy Bramley?' HOLLY HEPBURN
Print pages: 400
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Merrily Ever After
I don’t normally write you imaginary letters, do I? But it’s been such a crazy year that I really want to share it with you, even if only like this – a letter in a notebook that you’ll never read. Crazy in a good way, I’m happy to report, but I’d love to be able to tell you my secrets face to face and have you here to experience life alongside me.
No matter how happy I am, there will always be a piece of my heart aching with sadness, because even after all these years, I still miss you, Mum. I wish you’d been here to help me grow up, to launch me into adulthood, to be ‘my person’.
What were you like, Sam Shaw, who were you? I wish I knew more about you. I wish I knew whether we’re alike. I wish I’d known about my father too. If you were here now, I wouldn’t let you dodge my questions and distract me like you did when I was a little girl. I’d make you tell me the story of how you two met and what happened to your relationship. I wonder whether he’s still alive and where he lives, I don’t even know if you told him he was my father. But if you did, maybe he thinks about me occasionally.
Most of the time, I’m sad that you’re not here, but occasionally I’m angry. Angry that you left me alone in the world, that you didn’t love me enough to stay alive, angry that no one helped you when you were ill. If only you’d been able to get the support you needed, maybe you’d still be here now. You were twenty-eight when you took your own life, much younger than I am now. Too young.
I’ve got people in my life who love me. Astrid, my old teacher, has always been there for me. Nell is the best friend I could wish for and as close to me as a sister. And, of course, now I’m slowly becoming part of Cole’s family too. I’m not alone, but no one will ever take your place.
That’s all I wanted to say really. That life is good and I’m happy. Another Christmas is upon us. It’s going to be a special one this year, I can feel it in the air. But I’ll miss you, Mum, I always will.
There was no mistaking that autumn was making way for winter, I thought, as Cole and I, plus his children, set off for a walk after our Sunday lunch. Mornings were frosty, sometimes even inside the old-fashioned windows in Holly Cottage. Our double bed was piled high with cosy blankets, and hot chocolate with whipped cream had become my daily winter warmer after work – a treat which Harley and Freya had particularly enjoyed this week while they’d been staying with us during the school holidays.
Outside, most of the trees were bare now, except the holly bush in the front garden, which was rosy with berries, and like ours, the other homes along World’s End Lane had daily twists of smoke spiralling from their chimneys. In the small Derbyshire town of Wetherley, where we lived, the council had erected the lights which would be officially switched on next week and this morning I’d heard my first Christmas song on the radio: Michael Bublé’s velvety voice singing about a white Christmas.
It was a bit early to be thinking of Christmas, even for me, an avid festive fan. But the temperature was hovering above freezing and only my thick layers were preventing me from hovering just above freezing too.
I shivered and Cole squeezed my gloved hand.
‘Chilly,’ he asked, and then added with a grin, ‘or was that a shiver of relief that the kids are going back to Lydia’s tonight?’
Cole and I had only been living together since September, and this was the longest time they’d spent with us at the cottage. Yesterday, we’d carved pumpkins and then taken Freya trick or treating, while Harley met up with his friends. It was all very new to me, and I was loving every minute.
‘Absolutely not!’ I retorted. ‘It has been great fun and I’ve enjoyed spending time with them. It has felt like …’ I faltered, not sure whether to say what was on my mind.
‘Go on,’ he said, his eyes bright with encouragement.
‘Like we’re a family,’ I admitted. ‘It has been really fun.’
‘Good.’ He brought my hand to his lips and kissed it, smiling to himself. ‘That’s great.’
After leaving home via the gate Cole had installed in the back fence, we’d tramped through the woods separating Holly Cottage from the new houses, which his company had finished building in the spring. They were all occupied now and looking more lived-in as each season passed by.
Now, we’d emerged from the trees and the four of us were following the footpath along the river into town: nine-year-old Freya was skipping ahead, in a world of her own, and Harley was behind her, his gaze fixed on his phone. At thirteen, he was almost as tall as me; he’d had a growth spurt since the summer, when he’d relocated back to the UK from Canada with his mum and sister.
The plan for the afternoon was to burn off some energy and make room for a slice of freshly baked apfel strudel, which, according to my friend Astrid, would be out of the oven and cooling by the time we arrived at her flat in the Rosebridge retirement village.
Astrid was my old art teacher from school, she had always been like family to me, but now our bond was even stronger because she and Cole’s dad, Fred, were ‘courting’, as Fred put it. He lived at Rosebridge too, but although they spent most of their time together, each had their own flats for a bit of space now and then.
‘Merry?’ Freya stopped in her tracks and whirled around, causing Harley to tut and elbow past her. Her cheeks were pink with cold, and the ends of her plaits were sticking out from under her woolly hat. She couldn’t have looked more adorable if she tried.
‘Yes, sweetheart?’ I said, catching hold of her hand.
‘Did you have a pet when you were growing up?’ she asked.
I shook my head. ‘My mum and I didn’t have room because we lived in a very small flat.’
‘Astrid lives in a flat,’ Freya replied, ‘and she has Otto the dog.’
‘She does, but it’s bigger than our flat was,’ I said, not adding that, regardless of space, my mum didn’t have the spare money to spend on a pet. ‘Mind you, there was a snake at one of my foster homes,’ I added, pulling a face at the memory. ‘They used to feed it whole frozen chicks and mice.’
‘Cool.’ Harley looked at me over his shoulder. ‘Maybe I’ll ask for a snake. The boys at school would like that.’
‘I don’t think your mother would,’ said Cole dryly.
I winced, imagining the look on Lydia’s face when Harley suggested they got a snake, particularly when he told her where he’d got the idea from.
‘They grow very big,’ I said hurriedly. ‘And live for years.’
‘Even better,’ replied Harley, nodding enthusiastically. He tapped his screen, mumbling under his breath as he typed, ‘UK, pet snakes …’
‘Daddy, did you have a pet?’ Freya asked innocently.
Cole caught my eye before answering and we both suppressed a smile; this was well-trodden ground and all part of his daughter’s campaign to get an animal of some description.
‘I did,’ he replied. ‘Your granny had chickens, until the fox got them. And we had an old cat called Fergus, who only lost all his front fangs so we—’
‘Changed his name to Fangless!’ Freya finished for him. ‘Poor Fergus. So could I …?’
‘It’s snowing!’ Harley yelled suddenly. ‘I just felt a snowflake on my face. YES!’
I looked up to the sky. A few tiny specks floated in the air. It was certainly cold enough, but it was a bit early in the season for Derbyshire to get its first snowfall.
‘Hello, snow, I’ve missed you!’ Freya squealed, instantly forgetting about her mission to get a pet.
She stretched her arms out, attempting to catch the snowflakes on her tongue.
‘Me too,’ said Harley heavily.
‘Just sleet, I think,’ Cole commented, examining the dots on the sleeve of his coat.
‘Typical,’ Harley muttered.
‘You never know,’ I said, noting Harley’s disappointment. ‘It might snow properly before the day is out.’
‘I hope so, because then school will close, and I won’t have to go. Not like in Whistler. The weather doesn’t stop anything there,’ Harley commented, his voice managing to combine hope with nostalgia.
I felt for him; while Freya had slipped back seamlessly into the life she’d had before their year in Canada, Harley was still missing what he’d left behind. It didn’t sound as if he was too keen on school either.
I glanced at Cole to see if he’d picked up on his son’s tone, but it didn’t look like it. Instead, he scooped up his daughter and pretended to dance with her.
‘Oh, the weather outside is frightful,’ he started to croon. ‘But Freya is so delightful.’
The little girl laughed and wriggled free. ‘If it snows lots, I’m going to build a snowman. And sledging!’ Her face lit up at the prospect. ‘Can we go sledging?’
‘But it won’t snow lots, will it?’ Harley said flatly. ‘Because this is England. Anyway, we left our sledges in Whistler.’
I put a tentative arm around his shoulder. ‘Then we should get new ones, so that when it does snow properly – which it will at some point – we’ll be ready. You’ll have to show me how it’s done; I’ve never been on a sledge in my life.’
‘No way!’ Harley looked at me in disbelief and then grinned. ‘It’s easy, I can teach you.’
‘You’re on,’ I said, pleased to have made him smile. I was still working on my role in their lives; as their dad’s girlfriend, I wasn’t always sure what I should or shouldn’t say or do. This time, it looked as if I’d got it right. I felt something on my face and looked up. ‘I think it might be snow, you know.’
Harley and Freya scampered ahead, chatting about where the best place to go sledging would be, and Cole wrapped his arm around my waist, drawing me close.
‘Thank you,’ he murmured, leaning in to kiss me.
‘For what?’ I asked, checking that the kids weren’t looking.
I wasn’t yet comfortable with public displays of affection with their father. My best friend Nell once told me that it had taken two years before she felt able to even hold hands with Olek in front of his son, Max. I’d scoffed at her at the time, but now I knew exactly how she’d felt.
‘For being a wonderful woman.’ He kissed me again. ‘For being brilliant with my kids and making co-parenting so much more fun than when I was doing it alone.’
‘You’re welcome.’ My voice was casual, but inside my heart soared. Sometimes I felt like pinching myself; I loved this man and I knew he loved me.
Ahead of us, the children were laughing as Freya got stuck climbing over the stile. Once on the other side, we’d almost be in town. Another five minutes or so and we’d be at Astrid’s, where, no doubt, Fred would be waiting for his slice of apfel strudel too.
Cole and I picked up our pace and I snuggled against him. ‘Is there anything more exciting than the first snow in winter?’ I mused happily.
He pretended to think about it. ‘Actually, yes, I think there is.’
He was very handsome, my man, I thought, taking in his rugged features, the healthy glow from a working life spent outdoors and deep brown eyes which were sparkling with mischief.
‘It was a rhetorical question,’ I said with a laugh. ‘I’m sure if I really thought about it my brain would come up with something. But look how much fun your kids are having. And imagine if we were to get snowed in and had to spend the day cosied up in front of the fire or digging our way out of Holly Cottage to fetch supplies.’
‘Hmm. True, but even more exciting than snow is waiting to get a word in edgeways, to ask a wonderful woman the most important question a man can ask.’ He stopped walking and, taking hold of my scarf, tugged me gently towards him.
I raised an eyebrow, intrigued. ‘Ask away.’
His eyes were on mine, my hands in his, and suddenly I realised what was happening. ‘Merry, I’m in love with you, you make my every day magical. And I wondered … will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?’
My heart stuttered in my chest, and I stared at him, for once completely speechless. The rest of the world faded away until there was just him and me, snowflakes fluttering like confetti; a tiny perfect moment stretching between us, one I’d remember for the rest of my days.
Finally, I gasped, incredulous and elated. ‘Cole, is this … Are you proposing?’
He nodded. ‘If you’ll have me. This year has been one of the best of my life and it’s all because of you,’ he said, his expression soft and earnest and full of love. ‘You said yourself it feels like we are a family and seeing you with the kids this week has made me love you even more. The only way next year could top this one is if we were married. So, what do you say?’
A bubble of laughter escaped from me. ‘I say yes!’ I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him, for once not caring that the children might see. Married. I was going to be Mrs Cole Robinson. ‘Absolutely! Thank you.’
Cole’s face relaxed into a smile of relief. ‘No, thank you, darling, you’ve made me a very happy man.’
‘I love you,’ I said, kissing him again. ‘So much.’
‘Dad? We’re going on ahead,’ Harley shouted, interrupting. ‘See you at Astrid’s.’
I stepped away from Cole automatically, but he held onto me.
‘Wait there, please!’ he called to them and then lowered his voice. ‘I want to tell them now before we tell anyone else, is that OK with you?’
A wave of nerves wiped the smile from my face. ‘Do you think they’ll mind?’
‘Not at all, they’ll be pleased! They’ve had a great week staying with us and they’ll be excited about the wedding.’
‘Hurry up then!’ Freya yelled.
My stomach lurched as we ran to catch up with them, wishing I could share his optimism. What if they were completely against the idea? I thought they liked me, but that was as their dad’s girlfriend, maybe they didn’t want a stepmum? What if Harley stormed off? What if Freya burst into tears?
‘I’m thirteen,’ Harley protested when we reached them. ‘I walk home from school by myself, I don’t need to walk with you.’
‘I know, son,’ said Cole, reaching for my hand. ‘But that wasn’t why we asked you to wait. We’ve got something to tell you. I’ve just asked Merry to marry me and she said yes.’
I held my breath as I watched the expressions on their faces, hoping that this would be good news.
‘Oh right.’ Harley frowned and shoved his hands in his pockets. He was impossible to read. Maybe he wasn’t sure himself how he felt about it. After all, it had come as a surprise to me so it would certainly be a shock to the children. ‘Erm, congratulations, I guess.’
‘Thank you,’ I murmured.
Cole ruffled his son’s hair. ‘Thanks, mate, I appreciate that.’
‘When?’ Freya asked. ‘Because this tooth is wobbly and I don’t want a gappy smile on the photographs.’ She peeled off her glove and gave one of her top teeth a good wiggle to demonstrate.
‘We haven’t set a date yet,’ I told her, taking heart from the fact that she saw our wedding as something to be happy about. ‘But your smile will be beautiful no matter what. Would you like to be my bridesmaid?’
‘Yes!’ Freya launched herself at me, wrapping her arms around my hips. I hugged her back, grateful for her simple approval. ‘Do I get a long dress and flowers, and can I wear make-up?’
‘We can sort all that out,’ said Cole fondly. ‘And you’ll be an usher on the day, I hope, Harley?’
‘If you like,’ he replied with a shrug. ‘Can we go to Astrid’s now?’
Cole nodded. ‘Make sure you hold hands across the road.’
‘Can we tell Grandad and Astrid?’ Freya demanded.
Cole looked at me for guidance and I nodded.
‘Yes!’ She jumped on the spot, punching the air with both fists. ‘Come on, Harley, let’s run.’
Once they’d gone, I sagged against Cole with relief. ‘At least Freya is excited, although Harley didn’t show much enthusiasm.’
Cole didn’t seem perturbed. ‘Don’t worry about him, it’s not cool to show your emotions at thirteen, that’s all. Oh, by the way, I’ve got something for you.’
He pulled out a small blue velvet box from his jacket pocket and lifted the lid. Inside was a ring with a square-cut diamond in the centre, three smaller diamonds set at each side of it.
‘Oh, Cole, that’s beautiful!’ My eyes filled with tears, and I wiped them away, laughing. ‘What I can see of it.’
My hand was shaking as he slid the ring onto my finger. ‘There. Now we’re officially engaged. Does it fit OK?’
‘As if it was made to measure,’ I said, holding up my hand and examining my finger.
He looked very pleased with himself. ‘I measured your finger with a piece of cotton while you were asleep. I didn’t want to waste any time getting it altered.’
I laughed. ‘You think of everything, my clever husband-to-be.’
‘I think of you,’ he replied, drawing me in for another kiss. ‘Almost all of the time.’
‘Come on then.’ I climbed up onto the stile, swung my leg over and jumped down. ‘I can’t wait to tell Nell, she’ll be amazed, maybe I’ll phone her from Astrid’s or go round later tonight and flash my beautiful ring at her. Do you want to come, we could—’
‘Just hold on a second,’ Cole said, laughing, as he hopped over the stile effortlessly and landed beside me. ‘Before you get carried away with who you need to tell first, I have one more surprise, or rather a question.’
I stopped admiring my ring finger for a second to look at him. ‘Ooh, intriguing.’
‘The thing is …’ He paused and bit his lip sheepishly. ‘I’ve already called the registry office to get a rough idea of when they’d be able to fit us in … And they’d had a cancellation on Christmas Eve. So we could actually be married by Christmas.’
I could see he was holding his breath, waiting for my reaction.
‘This Christmas Eve?’ We stared at each other, our breath forming icy clouds in front of our faces as my brain processed what he’d said. ‘As in just a few weeks from now?’
Cole nodded. ‘Seven weeks and five days to be exact.’
‘Wow. But …’ I blinked at him. ‘That’s not long to organise a wedding. You’re a man who likes to plan everything properly.’
‘And you’re a woman who likes to fly by the seat of her pants. Pants that I very much approve of by the way.’ He kissed my neck, making my legs go weak. ‘Let’s face it, if we had a year to plan a wedding, you’d leave most of it until the last minute and then race around like a whirlwind, with me tearing my hair out.’
I laughed. ‘I love that you know me so well and despite that still want to marry me.’
‘So, I thought it might be fun to compromise,’ he continued. ‘We organise a last-minute wedding. What do you think: crazy idea or brilliant plan?’
My mind whirred. There’d be a lot to do, decisions to make, things to organise, but … I could feel anticipation bubbling inside me.
‘I’m up for it.’ I smiled at him, my eyes sparkling with the prospect of the challenge. ‘One hundred per cent. It’s crazy and brilliant. I mean, what are we waiting for? Let’s do it.’
‘Thank goodness for that.’ He pretended to wipe his brow. ‘Because it’s already booked.’
‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ I said, laughing. ‘You were right: getting married on Christmas Eve is far more exciting than the first snow in winter.’
And then I kissed my new fiancé with a passion that earned us a toot from the horn of a car.
The corridors of the Darley Academy secondary school in Derbyshire were still quiet at seven thirty, but it wouldn’t be long before the feet of over a thousand young people would be scuffing their way along them, filling the air with laughter, noise and the strong smell of body spray.
Emily, shivering slightly from the change in temperature from her warm car, made her way to the staffroom, in search of coffee.
The room was empty and while she waited for the kettle to boil, her mind wandered to her dad. She hoped he was keeping warm; when she’d been round to his flat last night, he hadn’t had the fire on, and his hands and feet had been like blocks of ice.
At least he wouldn’t be on his own for long. His carer, Diane, was due to call in at eight o’clock. She’d make him a hot drink and some breakfast, leave him something for lunch and get him comfortable for the day.
Coffee made, Emily slung her bag over her shoulder and set off for the head teacher’s office.
‘Morning, Alison.’ Emily put the drinks down on her boss’s desk and sat down in the visitor’s chair opposite her.
‘Good morning.’ Alison looked up from her laptop. ‘You look adorable. Thanks for the coffee.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Emily replied, wondering if adorable was a compliment or not.
She smoothed down the skirt of her green corduroy pinafore dress: a chance find in her favourite vintage shop in Bakewell. She’d customised the outfit by adding new buttons and contrast stitching to the hem and styled it with a Peter Pan-collared shirt. It had looked quirky in the mirror this morning. Now she was wondering if she looked more like a kid on her first day at primary school.
Emily unzipped her bag and took out a stack of papers and her laptop, while Alison drank her coffee. The job was only a year contract, and the way things were, she’d gladly accept a permanent position if she was offered one, so it was important to make a good impression and she knew Alison appreciated her getting in early. It wasn’t always possible. Sometimes her dad refused to let the carer into his flat, and Emily’s number was listed as the emergency contact. The only contact come to that.
Not that being a school secretary was Emily’s dream (she was still working out what was), but it had been the perfect solution to her problem. She’d left her old job as a PA to an international recruitment consultant for this one in September when it became obvious that the only way she was going to be able to combine looking after her dad and earning a living was to have early finishes, weekends without any extra overtime and long holidays. Her old position had been exciting but had demanded more of her than she could give at the moment.
Emily sipped her coffee and slid a pile of letters across the desk for her boss to sign.
‘You’re seeing Robbie Evans’s parents at nine thirty,’ she said, checking the diary. ‘Shall I sit in and take notes?’
‘Not again.’ Alison pulled a face. ‘No need, thanks. There’s no way they can deflect the blame from their darling son this time.’ She opened her drawer and pulled out a long plait of hair which Robbie had liberated from the head of Bethany James during an art lesson yesterday afternoon. ‘Exhibit A. That child is treading a thin line. One more stunt like this and goodbye Robbie. He is out of this academy and will be someone else’s problem.’
Emily didn’t fancy being in the Evans’s shoes. Alison was tall and lean and cut a forbidding figure as she patrolled the corridors. She could silence a crowd of kids simply by standing still and looking down at the pupils from the balcony, arms folded.
A complete contrast to Emily, who was short, blonde and blessed with a mischievous sense of fun and a bulging wardrobe of kooky clothes. All of which made her a hit with the kids but didn’t necessarily garner their respect.
‘What else have we got?’ Alison passed the signed letters across the desk.
‘Mr Rendall wants to see you at eight a.m. tomorrow,’ Emily said, scanning her emails.
‘What nuggets of wisdom is he planning to impart this time, I wonder?’ Alison gave a long-suffering sigh.
‘Something about the parent parking situation, I think.’
The chair of governors was a lovely man in his seventies and loved to talk about his army days and how the world would be a better place if only youngsters had to do a stint in the forces. Unfortunately, for Mr Rendall, Alison liked meetings to be brief and stick to the point.
‘If he’s got a solution to that, I’m all ears,’ Alison said dryly.
‘I could organise a tray of coffee and biscuits and chat to him for a few minutes, let him get his latest anecdote out of the way before you join us?’ Emily suggested. ‘Year nine were doing Christmas baking on Friday, there are still some cinnamon cookies left, I’ll rescue them from the staffroom.’
Alison gave her a look of gratitude. ‘Perfect. You’re a marvel. Christmas baking already? This term is flying, the holidays will be here before we know it.’
‘Indeed.’ Emily’s throat went dry; she didn’t want to think about Christmas just yet. That was the deadline she’d given herself to take action. She intended to use those two weeks away from school to do some proper research and decide what to do about her father. Incidents were happening increasingly often now. She’d get a call from a neighbour or from her father himself. Although, last night, she’d found the phone in the freezer on top of his newspaper. Would it even work properly after that? She should have checked. What if something were to happen? A shudder of fear ran through her.
‘Emily?’ Alison’s concerned voice broke into her thoughts.
‘Sorry,’ she stuttered, refreshing her laptop screen. ‘Talking of Christmas, Wetherley Primary school has invited you to their Festive Concert on—’ Emily stopped mid-sentence at the sound of a polite cough. She turned to see Olivia, the school receptionist, hovering in the open doorway.
‘Sorry to interrupt,’ said Olivia. ‘But there’s a phone call for Emily.’
‘Could you take a message for me please?’ Emily asked, glancing at the time; it was only seven forty-five. She didn’t officially start until eight thirty. ‘I’ll call whoever it is back as soon as I can.’
‘Thanks, Olivia,’ Alison repeated, dismissing her with a smile. ‘You were saying, Emily, the concert?’
Olivia coughed again. ‘Emily, I really think you should take it. It’s the police.’
The drive to her dad’s flat in Bakewell usually took half an hour, but the heavy morning traffic slowed her down. Emily drove as fast as she could, her stomach tied in knots and guilt weighing heavy on her shoulders. Dad must be terrified. Why hadn’t she acted sooner? The signs had been there for a while; something like this had been inevitable.
At the word ‘police’, Emily had raced to the phone to take the call. The pounding in her ears had made it difficult to concentrate on what the police officer was telling her. But she heard the main points: her dad had turned up at the station, confused and with a nasty gash to his arm.
Thank heavens he’d been wearing that little capsule around his neck that she’d bought him. Inside was a slip of paper with his name on it, in case, like today, he forgot it, and her phone number because he had no chance of remembering that. She hadn’t included his address. That could lead to all sorts of issues if someone unscrupulous came across him when he was in one of his less lucid states. She’d furnished the officer with the address of her father’s ground-floor maisonette, which was a good half an hour’s walk from the station, and the police were meeting her there. She’d already warned Julia, his landlady, who lived upstairs. If they arrived before her, Julia had offered to let them in with her spare key. She’d called Diane too, who would have arrived to an empty flat.
Alison had told her to leave immediately and take as long as she needed. But Emily wasn’t daft, she’d detected the undertone, the same ‘not again’ face Alison had used for Robbie Evans. So much for her early start to the day.
With a pang of anxiety, Emily banished thoughts of work from her head, her father was the priority. She pulled up behind the police car and dashed to his flat.
‘Hello, Dad? It’s me, Emily,’ she called, letting herself in.
‘That’s my daughter,’ she heard him say from the living room. ‘She’ll soon get to the bottom of this nonsense.’
Her dad, Ray Meadows, was sitting in his armchair – a threadbare thing he’d hauled out of a skip. Skips were his obsession, he was forever putting things in or taking things out. She’d found an old birdcage covered in dried droppings in the kitchen last week.
Two police officers were with him: a man who was crouched down, turning on the electric fire, and a woman on the sofa, a notebook in her hand.
She hurried over to her dad and hugged him tightly. His face was cold to the touch and despite the blanket tucked over his shoulders, he was trembling. Hardly surprising, given that he was still in his pyjamas.
‘Dad! You gave me such a fright. Are you all right?’
Ray frowned. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
It struck her how much weight he’d lost recently. He’d always been lean, but now he was wafer thin, his wrists bony, his jaw and cheekbones sharp. She did her best to make sure he ate, but was it enough?
The male officer straightened up and smiled at her. ‘I’m PC James and this is PC Bright. I take it you’re Emily, Mr Meadows’s daughter?’
She nodded. ‘Correct. Thank you for bringing him home, I’m so sorry to have troubled you.’
‘The only thing wrong with me is these two,’ Ray continued and lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘I can’t get rid of them. I think they must be from some sort of religion. The w
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