The sequel to the contemporary fantasy Only a Monster will take Joan deeper into the monster world, where treacherous secrets and even more danger await.
Despite the odds, Joan achieved the impossible. She reset the timeline, saved her family - and destroyed the hero, Nick.
But her success has come at a terrible cost. She alone remembers what happened. Now, Aaron, her hard-won friend - and maybe more - is an enemy, trying to kill her.
And Nick, the boy she loved, is a stranger who doesn't even know her name. Only Joan remembers that there is a ruthless and dangerous enemy still out there.
When a deadly attack forces Joan back into the monster world as a fugitive, she finds herself on the run with Nick - as Aaron closes in. As the danger rises - and Nick gets perilously closer to discovering the truth of what Joan did - Joan discovers a secret of her own. One that threatens everyone she loves.
Torn between love and family and monstrous choices, Joan must find a way to re-gather her old allies to face down the deadliest of enemies, and to save the timeline itself.
Release date: August 29, 2023
Print pages: 528
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Never a Hero
“Don’t you slow down!” the coach shouted. One of the boys had turned up late, and now the whole football team was suffering for it. From the fence line, Joan watched them stumble past in yet another lap. Most of the boys were gasping, but at the front of the pack, Nick’s pace was steady, as if he could have kept this up for days.
Go home, Joan told herself. She’d been weak today. She’d walked down here after school, hoping for a glimpse of him. Well, now she’d had it, and as always it felt like a punch to the gut. He doesn’t remember you. He doesn’t know you anymore.
“All right!” the coach shouted. “I think you’ve had enough.”
There were groans of relief, and the boys staggered to a stop. Some dropped to the ground, exhausted. Others grasped their knees, trying to catch their breath. Still a few strides ahead, Nick slowed to a jog, and then turned to walk back to his teammates.
He glanced idly toward the fence. Joan’s heart stuttered as his gaze skated over and beyond her without interest or recognition.
“Nick!” one of the boys panted from the ground. “You gotta keep up, mate. Team captain can’t be trailing behind us all the time.”
Nick laughed and went over to help the boy up. “Need a hand, Jameson?”
“I need a defibrillator,” the boy grumbled. But he gripped Nick’s offered hand and struggled up.
Joan’s breath caught at Nick’s unguarded smile. He’d always been so solemn when she’d known him. He’d had the world on his shoulders. It occurred to Joan now that she didn’t know him anymore either—not this Nick.
She felt that familiar pang of longing for the boy who wasn’t here. She suppressed it ruthlessly. That Nick was gone, and she shouldn’t want him back. This was Nick as he should have been. A guy with an ordinary life.
Go home, she told herself again. And this time, she hefted her schoolbag higher and turned away from the fence.
It was mid-November, and the trees were nearly bare. Cold cut through Joan’s trousers as she walked across the empty school grounds. After hours, the whole place had an abandoned quality. The teachers’ parking lot was desolate—all concrete and patchy weeds. Joan made her way through it, past the library and down to the back field.
Joan’s phone buzzed: a message from Dad. Nearly home? I made pineapple tarts. A photo arrived. Flaky pastries cooling on a rack. Look professional, huh?!
He’d been checking in on Joan a lot lately; he knew something was wrong. “You seem really quiet,” he’d said to her last night. “Everything okay at school? With your friends?”
Sometimes, Joan wished she could just tell him the truth.
Gran died, Dad. They all died. Gran and Aunt Ada and Uncle Gus and Bertie.
But she couldn’t tell him that. Because they hadn’t died. Only Joan remembered that night. Only she remembered Gran’s last desperate moments and the thick warmth of Gran’s blood; the metallic smell of it. Joan had pressed against the wound, trying to hold Gran’s body together, and Gran’s breaths had rattled, further and further apart until they’d stopped.
Joan breathed in now, letting the cold air catch in her lungs. None of that had happened, she reminded herself. Gran and the rest of the Hunts were in London—just an hour away by train. They were fine.
Joan messaged Dad back. Looks great! Be home soon. Then she shoved her hands into her pockets. It was getting colder. Above, the sky was heavy with darkening clouds. There was a storm coming.
She fought the wind as she crossed the field. Her hair whipped around her face, and her blue blazer billowed. She shouldn’t have stayed back for that glimpse of Nick. Seeing him—being unseen by him—had thrown her back into that first shock of being in the world without him. There was no place or time she could go to find him. He was gone.
Lightning flashed and the air sharpened. Joan walked faster, absently counting the seconds. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand . . . Thunder rolled at the count of five. The storm was maybe fifteen minutes away. She shrugged out of her blazer and shoved it into her bag. She didn’t mind the rain, but she only had the one school blazer, and she didn’t fancy wearing
it again tomorrow, damp.
She was near the gate when the next flash of lightning came. One one thousand, two—
A familiar voice sounded behind her, startling her. “Excuse me, I have—” The rest of his words were drowned out by thunder. Joan’s heartbeat sounded even louder in her ears. Nick.
It wasn’t him, she told herself. She was just hearing what she wanted to hear.
But when she turned, it was Nick, alone on the field with her, his pace easy and smooth, as familiar as his voice. His dark hair was cut differently now—swept over his brow—but his eyes were just as they’d always been: as sincere and honest as an old-fashioned hero, the kind who rescued cats from trees and people from burning buildings.
For a moment, Joan could almost imagine it really was him—her Nick, with all his memories intact, coming after her because he’d remembered her. Her feelings were a tangled skein of trepidation, fear, and a horrible hope.
He stopped, just out of arm’s reach. Joan hadn’t been this close to him since the night in the library when they’d kissed. That night, the other Nick’s existence had ended. No, she corrected herself. That night she’d ended him. She’d chosen her family over him. Monsters over the hero.
Whatever was on her face, it made Nick’s expression change to apologetic. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He held out her phone. “I saw you drop this back there.”
Joan searched his face. Now that he was closer, she couldn’t fool herself. He was looking right at her, and there was no recognition in his eyes at all. This version of him even held himself differently. The other Nick had carried himself with a certain dangerous tension: the understanding that he might have to fight and kill. This Nick’s stance was open and untrained. Joan should have felt relieved, she knew, but she was hit with an ache of grief like a physical wound.
She accepted the phone from him, trying not to feel anything when his fingers brushed hers. “Thank you,” she heard herself say.
Nick smiled, small and so familiar that Joan could hardly bear it. “I’m always losing mine,” he said.
“Really?” Joan was surprised into asking. He’d always been careful with details. She’d never known him to lose anything.
“Well—” Nick’s smile warmed into something more relaxed than Joan had ever seen on him. “Really, my little brothers are always stealing it.”
“Brothers?” Joan echoed. She heard the wonder in her own voice. His brothers were alive. Joan had known it, but somehow hearing him say it felt like a miracle. The Nick she’d known had been tortured over and over, his whole family murdered in front of him. Joan had seen the recordings. She’d never forget them—not one second of them. All those bodies on the kitchen floor.
“Brothers and sisters,” Nick said, still smiling. “Six of us, if you can believe it.” And Joan heard an echo of that other Nick telling her, with shadows
in his eyes: Three brothers and two sisters. My brothers and I all slept in the TV room until I was seven.
“Big family,” Joan said. They’d had this conversation before, alone in a house in London, curled up next to each other as darkness had fallen.
Lightning illuminated the field. It shook Joan out of herself, and she was horrified to realize that she’d been about to talk about herself too. I’m an only child, but I have a big extended family. What was she thinking? A minute alone with him, and she’d forgotten herself.
She made herself start walking again and felt a twinge of disquiet when Nick fell into easy step beside her. It was too comfortable, a worn groove from a different lifetime.
“I think I’ve seen you around,” Nick said, and Joan looked at him, surprised. “You’re in the year below me, right?”
“Yeah,” Joan managed, trying to ignore the warm glow it gave her. He’d noticed her. She’d thought . . . Well, it didn’t matter what she’d thought. There couldn’t be anything between them—not this time, and not last time. Not ever.
Nick ducked his head shyly. “I’m still pretty new at this school.”
This time, Joan didn’t trust her voice. She’d never forget her first day back at school after the terrible summer, when her body had still been telling her that she was on the run. She’d jumped at every raised voice, every slam of a locker door. Sitting in her stuffy little classrooms, with their single exits, had been close to unbearable.
That first day, she’d walked up the school corridor with her friend Margie.
Holy shit, Margie had said. Have you seen that new guy yet?
New guy? Joan had asked.
So hot, Margie had said. And not just normal hot. I mean proper Hollywood hot.
And then they’d turned the corner, and there he’d been. Nick. In their school uniform. Tall and square-jawed and perfect. And Joan hadn’t known whether she wanted to run toward him or the other way.
Now, a few months later in November, he was already about fifteen rungs more popular at school than Joan had ever been. Nick Ward, the new football captain. The hottest guy in school. The smartest guy in school. Most of Joan’s year had a hopeless crush on him.
“Do you have far to go?” Nick said now. Joan shook her head. She was just a few streets from home. He smiled then—the smile that made half the school weak at the knees. “I’m just here.” He pointed at one of the houses across the road.
Oh. So this was it, then. Remember this, Joan told herself. Because there wouldn’t be any more conversations like this. She couldn’t let this happen again.
Nick’s dark hair was falling over his eyes. There was a stray leaf on his collar—a red rowan leaf, the last of the season. Joan let herself wonder just one more time. Nick, don’t you remember who you are?
“You have a leaf—” She gestured at her own neck.
“Oh no, really?” He laughed. A flush climbed his throat. “Not very smooth.” He brushed at his collar. “Gone?”
It was still there, hooked to the shoulder of his green-and-gray football jersey. Joan shook her head. “Can I?” She tried not to notice how his flush deepened. He nodded.
Joan reached up. Her own breath hitched, and she could tell that he’d registered it. His eyes darkened. She half expected him to stop her—to catch her wrist. But he didn’t flinch, not even when she brushed her knuckles against the back of his neck, just touching the soft bristles at his nape.
“Gone?” he asked. His voice deepened, like just before he’d kissed her.
Joan made herself smile back at him. “Yeah,” she said. She snagged the leaf and took her hand away, very careful not to take any life from him. “All gone.”
He was gone. He was really gone. Joan felt empty suddenly. And so lonely. She was the only one who remembered him as he’d once been. A boy who could walk unarmed into a room full of monsters and have them flee in fear. A boy who’d protected humans from the predators among them. Not even he remembered.
He didn’t even know that monsters existed anymore.
There was still a tinge of red along Nick’s cheekbones. Joan told herself that it was from the cold. “Maybe I’ll see you around?” he said.
Joan was rescued from answering by shouts from the house. Two kids came bounding across the road—two miniature Nicks, a boy and girl of about six. They had Nick’s dark hair and dark eyes. The boy had thick black-rimmed glasses that made him look like a tiny professor.
Nick jumped to meet them, corralling them onto the pavement. “Hey, hey!” he said to them. “What do we do when we cross the road? We wait, don’t we? We wait and we look both ways!” He tucked them close, an arm around each of them.
Another girl came hurrying after the kids. She was older than Nick. Maybe nineteen. “Careful!” she said to them, echoing Nick. “Be careful, now!” She had lighter brown hair than the other three, and her northern accent was more pronounced than Nick’s.
“We’re helping Mary make chicken!” the boy announced to Nick.
“Robbie dropped it!” the girl said. “On the floor!”
The boy scowled at her behind rain-speckled glasses. “You weren’t supposed to say!” he said. He turned to the older girl: Mary. “She licked the skin! The raw skin!”
Mary sighed. “Come on,” she said. “Holding hands this time.” She held out her own hand. Unexpectedly, she threw a wry smile at Joan. “Hi!” she said. “Sorry to interrupt your chat.”
“Hi.” Joan made
herself smile back.
Mary returned her attention to the children, beckoning them, and Joan’s eyes caught on her ring. It was plain black with no shine. Joan had seen it before. Nick had worn it on a chain, tucked under his shirt. Joan had never known it had belonged to his sister.
“See you at school?” Nick said to Joan. He’d taken the little boy’s hand.
Joan nodded. Mary. Robbie. The little girl must be Alice. Nick had talked about them—just a bit. Joan hadn’t known it at the time, but he’d been grieving their loss for as long as she’d known him.
She had a flash again of the kitchen in the videos. Of all three of them—Mary, Robbie, and Alice—lying still and dead. And Nick . . . Joan’s heart clenched at the way he was smiling down at the little ones now. He’d shoved a knife into their killer’s neck, face contorted with misery and horror. Joan would never forget the sound he’d made.
Joan couldn’t hold the smile. “See you,” she managed. She turned fast.
She walked up the steep slope of the hill, pushing herself until the physical exertion overrode the tightness in her chest. Gusts of wind stirred up sticks and stray leaves. Heavy drops of rain began to fall. The wind carried fragments of conversation up the hill.
“—that pretty girl?” That was Nick’s older sister, her tone teasing and fond.
“Mary!” Nick said, sounding so much like an embarrassed younger brother that Joan found herself almost smiling for real.
High laughs and shrieks from the kids, and then Joan was too far away to hear anything more. Safely out of sight, she squeezed her eyes shut.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was okay, she told herself. She shouldn’t have spoken to him, but it wouldn’t happen again. She’d make sure of that. And the stuff she was feeling right now—she could handle it. Heavy rain hit her face like tears. She could handle this. She’d been handling it.
She was back here in the real world. No monster slayers. No monsters. Just her normal life at home. And that was how it would be from now on.
“I’m home!” she called to Dad. She was hit with warmth and sweet pastry smells: butter and pineapple jam and ginger.
“Hi!” Dad called from the kitchen. As Joan kicked off her shoes, he emerged with a plate of pineapple tarts. “I’ve already eaten five!” he said. He saw her then and frowned. “Where’s your blazer?”
Joan slid her shoes
under the rack with the side of her foot and grabbed a tart from the plate. “Didn’t want it all rained on.” She bit into the pastry, cupping her free hand underneath to catch flaky crumbs as she followed Dad to the kitchen.
“It’s supposed to be rained on,” Dad said. “It’s supposed to stop you from being rained on.”
“This is really good,” Joan said with her mouth full. “Oh my God! How many did you make?” she added as she saw the kitchen. There were dozens of tarts cooling on racks—on the stove, on the bench, on top of the fridge.
“You give some to your friends!” Dad said. “And we’ll take some tomorrow!”
“Tomorrow?” Joan said. “What’s happening—” She stopped. There was a sticky note on the kitchen bench, in Dad’s handwriting. Hunt family dinner 6 p.m. The jam turned sour at the back of Joan’s throat. “What’s that?”
“Hmm? Oh. Your gran phoned this afternoon.”
“She’s invited us to dinner tomorrow.” Dad rummaged in the drawer. “Down in London with the whole Hunt family.”
Joan’s stomach tightened. She hadn’t spoken to any of the Hunts since she’d come home. Her cousin Ruth had messaged her a few times.
Hey, if you ever want to talk about the whole being-a-monster thing, we can do that.
Even if you don’t want to talk about it, we should. You might think you can shut it out, but you can’t.
Joan had told herself she’d reply, but weeks and now months had passed, and Ruth’s messages were still unanswered.
“I got the feeling that your gran wanted to talk to you about something,” Dad added.
“About what?” Joan said.
“Oh, you know your gran,” Dad said, sounding distracted. “She doesn’t like to say much on the phone. There you are!” He produced a pair of black oven mitts from the drawer.
Joan found herself remembering a different kitchen—Gran’s kitchen in London, cocoa bubbling on the stove. Joan had had a strange encounter with Gran’s neighbor. He’d pushed her into a wall one morning, and then night had abruptly fallen.
Joan had run back to Gran’s place, terrified. He did something to me, she’d told Gran.
Gran’s green eyes had been luminous in the low kitchen light. He didn’t do something to you, she’d told Joan. You did something to him. She’d leaned close. You’re a monster, Joan.
A few months ago, Joan had learned what the rest of the Hunts had always known. Her mum’s side of the family were monsters: real monsters. They stole life from humans. They used that life to travel in time.
Now, in Joan’s own kitchen, there was a slight stirring as if from a breeze, although nothing in the room moved. Dad didn’t react. Joan had felt it with her monster sense. The wave came again, rippling through the world without actually disturbing anything.
Sometimes the timeline seemed like a living thing—a creature with a will of its own. Tonight, Joan perceived it as a natural force, as if the storm itself had come inside.
Dad closed the oven door with his elbow. “So tomorrow night?”
You might think you can shut it out, but you can’t. Joan folded her arms across her chest. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m working tomorrow.”
“Don’t you finish up at four?”
“I’ve got an essay.”
“Can you do that on Sunday?” Dad asked. “The thing is, your gran reminded me . . .” He hesitated. “Tomorrow is the fifteenth anniversary of your mum’s death. I think your gran wants to spend some time with you.” He looked down at his oven mitts. “I should have remembered it was a special day,” he said. “I suppose you and I always celebrate your mum’s birthday instead.”
A familiar pressure of emotion started. Joan shoved it down. She hadn’t expected Dad to say that. Dad talked about Mum all the time, but Gran never talked about her.
“Is that okay with you?” Dad said. When Joan didn’t answer immediately, he said, softer: “Joan, are you okay?”
He’d been asking that question in different ways for weeks. You seem so quiet lately. Is anything going on? Have you had a fight with your friends?
Joan tried out the truth in her head.
I found out that I’m a monster, Dad. The Hunt side of the family are all monsters.
Or another truth.
The boy I loved was a monster slayer. He killed Gran and the rest of the family. But I unmade him. I unraveled his life. And now the Hunts are alive again. But they don’t remember.
He doesn’t remember me.
The hollow grief of it hit her again. She couldn’t tell Dad any of it. He wouldn’t believe her. She didn’t want him to believe her. She wanted him safe, here at home, far away from the world of monsters.
“I’m fine,” she said. She tried to make it sound real. “Just. You know. Stuff.”
Dad searched her face. “What stuff?”
“Normal stuff.” Joan needed to keep the emotion out of her voice. “Nothing stuff. Everyone’s stressed about school this year—you know that.”
“You don’t have to keep asking, Dad. I’m really fine!” It came out frustrated. Joan pressed her lips shut. She didn’t want to fight about it. She didn’t want to tell Dad more lies than she already had.
In the silence, the wind rattled the windows. Dad’s sigh was barely audible over it.
Joan looked past the kitchen’s open-plan arch to the photos on the living room wall. Joan and Dad. Joan as a baby. Mum. The three of them together in a park, Mum and Dad holding Joan’s hands. As a kid,
, Joan had stared at those photos for hours, trying to match her own features to Mum’s. Joan had always looked more like Dad than Mum. More Chinese than European.
“You remind me so much of her,” Dad said. He’d followed her gaze. “More and more every day. She’d have been so proud of you.”
That pressure of emotion again. There were things about Mum that Joan really didn’t want to think about. Mum had died when Joan was a baby. Her death had always been a fact—one that Joan had learned before anything else, before she’d learned to count or read. An immutable fact. A foundational fact of her life.
“Gran never talks about her,” Joan pushed out. “Like, never. Don’t you think that’s weird?”
Dad was silent, his eyes still on the photos. “I didn’t understand that either for a long time,” he said. “But . . . your gran and your mum didn’t always get on. They had an argument just before your mum died. I think your gran felt very guilty about that. I think she blamed herself for your mum’s death in some strange way.” He took off the oven mitts. Mum must have bought those ones. All the dark stuff in the house was hers; Dad preferred bright colors.
“I think this dinner is a big step for your gran.” Behind his glasses, Dad’s eyes were wet.
He wanted to go to this dinner, Joan realized. He wanted to see the Hunts tomorrow. He wanted to remember Mum with Mum’s family on this anniversary.
Joan took a deep breath. “We’ll both go together?” she said. Dad would be at this dinner, she reminded herself. The Hunts wouldn’t be able to talk about monster things in front of him.
“Of course,” Dad said. “It’s a family thing.”
“A family thing,” Joan echoed. Not a dinner with monsters, but a dinner with Mum’s family and Dad. “Right,” she said. “A family dinner.” And after their dinner, Joan and Dad would go home to their normal lives. It wasn’t like Joan would be pulled back into the monster world.
It was a hot morning, but the path to Holland House was cool in the shifting shade of trees. Joan could hear the sounds of the garden already: kids laughing, peacocks cawing, the booming voices of the tour guides.
She emerged onto the lush lawn. It wasn’t even noon, but the place was already packed. It seemed that everyone had had the same idea: to take advantage of the good weather at the park. Costumed guides led groups of tourists toward the maze. Kids kicked up water in the shallows of the pond.
Beyond them, glints of glass reflected the morning sun. Holland House was always beautiful, but this was its best time of day. The redbrick facade glowed.
Joan was struck with a pang of grief out of nowhere. It didn’t look like this anymore, she remembered suddenly.
It had burned.
She woke with a start.
Light showed through cracks in her bedroom blinds. Outside, it was still raining heavily, a relentless roar. Joan tried to slow her breathing. The ache of loss hit her again. In her memory, Holland House had been one of London’s most popular tourist attractions; people had visited from all over the world.
In this timeline, it lay in ruins. People didn’t even remember its name.
Joan rubbed her eyes. The dream had been so vivid that this actual rainy morning seemed surreal. She glanced at the clock. Still pretty early. She had a vague feeling that something difficult was happening later today. A math exam? No, it was Saturday.
Then she remembered. She was seeing the Hunts tonight. I got the feeling that your gran wanted to talk to you about something, Dad had said. Joan’s empty stomach turned over. What was Gran going to say? Joan half wished that she could step back into that dream—go back to that sunny day, so far from here, to that long-gone house.
Too late, she registered that she’d veered into dangerous emotional territory.
The morning light dimmed, as if night were falling again. The patter of rain muted. Even Joan’s own growing panic felt far away from where she was. She had a flash of Aaron touching her, his gray eyes alarmed. Hey, stay with me.
Still half-asleep, Joan fought to ground herself in the present moment, as Aaron had taught her. She focused on the details of her physical surroundings. The sound of rain. Shadows of striped morning light on the wall. The rough embroidery of her quilt. She clawed back each sense, one by one. It felt like forever before morning dawned again and the rain rose back to a roar. Joan’s next breath was a choke of relief. She sat up and gripped her knees. I’m here, she told herself. I’m here and I don’t want to be anywhere else.
These fade-outs were getting worse, she knew. She’d done her best to stop them. Her bedroom walls had once been covered with old maps and illustrations of ancient places, but now they were bare. She’d dropped history at school. She’d tried to remove everything from her life that might trigger her desire to travel in time.
She remembered Aaron’s words. You nearly died. You tried to travel without taking time first.
She should have told Gran about this problem weeks ago, she knew. She shouldn’t have been avoiding the Hunts for so long. Tonight, she told herself. She’d tell Gran tonight.
She forced herself from her warm bed. The floorboards were cold, even through her socks, and the chill helped to ground her. She found her work uniform and pulled it on. Then she went to brush her teeth.
In the kitchen, Dad was working on his laptop, specs on, phone to his ear. Tupperware boxes of pineapple tarts were stacked up beside him, labeled in his neat handwriting. The Hunts, one of them said.
He pressed mute as Joan headed past him for the front door. “Aren’t you having breakfast?”
Joan scrubbed a hand over her face. Controlling the fade-out had taken longer than she’d wanted. “Slept in,” she said. “I’ll grab something at the bakery.”
“We should eat more fruit,” Dad said, a bit absently. Joan could tell the client was saying something to him on the phone. He called to Joan as she left. “Have a good day!”
Joan worked every Wednesday evening and all day Saturday at an old-fashioned cake shop with a window full of scones and fondant fancies. Inside,
the owner had packed ten tables into the small space between the counter and the door, and all day long, people scraped their chairs back and forth on the wooden floorboards to allow servers and other customers to pass.
Joan barely had time to think between spooning thick cream into ramekins for scones and cutting slices of Victoria sponge. It was eleven a.m. and then one forty-five p.m. and then two thirty p.m.
By three thirty, most of the cakes were gone, and the bakery was empty except for Joan and her friend Margie. Joan wiped off the chalkboard and wrote: 50% off everything.
“Have we sold any of these meringues?” Margie said. She held one up—a blobby white thing with a dip in the middle. “What even is this?”
“Maybe a snowman?” Joan suggested. It was November. “Like a festive thing?”
Margie took a bite, and her expression turned thoughtful. “Huh.” She offered the rest of it to Joan, stretching over the counter.
Joan had picked up a tray to clear the tables, and so she leaned to take a bite from Margie’s hand. Meringue crumbled in her mouth, an airy candy cane. She raised her eyebrows.
“Right?” Margie popped the rest into her own mouth. “They’re good. Why aren’t they selling?”
“Maybe they need faces.”
“Maybe little arms,” Margie said. “Little chocolate arms . . .” She held out her own arms, hands starred to demonstrate, and Joan grinned. “You started that English essay yet?” Margie asked.
“You haven’t?” Joan was surprised. Margie was so organized that she kept the calendar for their whole friendship group. If Joan wanted to know when Chris was free, she’d ask Margie, not Chris.
“I can’t even look at it!” Margie said. “Remember how nice Mrs. Shah was last year? What’s going on with her? She’s the worst now.”
Joan paused, laden tray in hand, not sure if she’d heard right. “How nice she was last year?”
“Guess she prefers teaching history to English.”
“Mrs. Shah taught us history last year?”
Margie gave her a funny look. “Why are you saying it like it’s a question?”
It was one of those unsettling moments when Joan’s memory didn’t align with other people’s. Joan’s history teacher last year had been Mr. Larch, a short man with a booming laugh that bellowed from his whole chest.
Joan went into the kitchen to stack the dishwasher. It was a big industrial thing that Margie called RoboCop because the top half had a thin visor-like screen, and the bottom half opened up like a mouth. When she closed RoboCop again, there was a dark mark at the edge of its silver door—the size and shape of Joan’s thumbprint. She rubbed it idly and was surprised to find that it
was rough like a burn mark.
Her mind, though, was on Mr. Larch. When had she last seen him? He was usually on uniform duty, standing at the school gate to call out people wearing sneakers or the wrong socks. But he hadn’t been there in months.
“Hey, where’s Mr. Larch these days?” she called over her shoulder to Margie. “He on holiday or what?”
“Who?” Margie called back.
“Mr. Larch from school,” Joan said, but when she came back out, Margie looked blank.
“Who’s Mr. Larch?”
Margie used to do impressions of Mr. Larch all the time. “You know,” Joan said. “Big glasses. Always banging on about uniforms.” She mimicked: “What color are those shoes, Margie Channing!”
“What are you banging on about?” Margie said, her smile half-amused, half-confused. “There’s a Mr. Larch Reading Garden behind the library. Is that what you mean?”
Joan felt a curl of unease. There was nothing behind the library—just a big weedy stretch of ground up to the fence. When had she last gone back there, though? Not in the last few months. Not since she’d returned after the summer.
“That’s not your guy, though,” Margie said. “It’s dedicated to some teacher who died ten years ago—way before our time.”
“That’s not him,” Joan agreed. Mr. Larch was definitely alive. He was short and loud and kind. When Joan had struggled with the order of prime ministers, he’d made up a song on the spot for her. The tune still got in Joan’s head sometimes. Then John Major took the stage, and—
Margie popped another meringue into her mouth. “I’m going to hand-sell the hell out of these,” she said with her mouth full. “I’m not letting them go off the menu.” She grabbed the tongs. “Hey, you doing anything tonight? We could get those essays over early.”
“Tonight?” Joan echoed. She’d noticed things wrong with this timeline—big things, like the destruction of Holland House. Small things, like Nick going to her school now. But . . . No. Mr. Larch wasn’t dead. He was just teaching somewhere else. For sure.
“Dad’s making that pasta you like with the tomato and mint.”
“Yeah,” Joan said absently. “Sounds good. Oh, wait.” Her heart sank. “I’m having dinner with my gran tonight. Dad and I are going down to London.”
“Why are you making that face?” Margie squashed her mouth. “I thought you loved going there.”
“I do, but—” Joan stopped as Margie gripped her arm painfully. “What’s wrong?” Joan said, and then she realized that Margie’s face was pink with excitement.
Margie nodded at the window. “Is that who I think it is?” she hissed.
Outside, a familiar muscled figure examined the display cakes, black T-shirt riding up as he bent. Joan swallowed. It was Nick.
Margie grabbed for her phone. “Is he coming into the shop? No. Yes. He’s—”
Nick walked around to the bakery door and pushed it open. Behind the counter, Joan’s phone lit up. A message from Margie.
Stop everything nick ward just walked in
Then one from their friend Chris:
in where?? In the bakery???
Margie: he looks SO good
Chris: NO IM SO JEALOUS
A rush of emotions hit Joan. She’d promised herself that yesterday was an aberration—that she’d stay away from him. But here he was, and some stupid part of her was glad of it. Standing here, in Joan’s ordinary world, he seemed larger-than-life. The school football star. The hottest guy in school.
Hollywood hot, Margie had said about him. He was classically handsome, with soft dark hair and a square jaw. He could have been the lead in a movie: the hero. It seemed absurd suddenly that any version of him had ever been into Joan, let alone that they’d been soul mates in a kind of way.
Nick’s gaze swept over them, and his face lit up. It took Joan a second to understand that he was smiling like that because he’d seen her.
“Hi,” he said. The hi encompassed Margie and Joan both, but his eyes returned to Joan as if he were compelled. “Did your phone survive the adventure?”
Joan could see Margie at the edge of her vision, staring at her, and she felt strangely on display. She nodded, and his smile warmed.
Joan’s phone lit up again. Another message from Margie—just from her to Joan.
Since when do you know nick ward??
Joan shook her head. Please don’t say anything, she willed Margie. She needed to get Nick out of here. “You came in at the right time,” she said to him out loud. “Everything’s fifty percent off for the end of the day.”
“I did come at the right time,” Nick said, still smiling, and then he reddened, as if he hadn’t meant to say it aloud.
Joan’s whole body felt too warm suddenly, like she’d been standing in the sun. In her peripheral vision, Margie’s smile was turning Cheshire cat.
Joan’s phone lit up again. She glanced down, expecting another message from Margie, but to her surprise, it was an incoming call from Gran.
Joan hesitated. She should answer it, she knew. But . . . she was at work. She’d see Gran in a couple of hours anyway. She hit the red decline button.
“Well, that’s me done,” Margie announced. “Going to take this lot to the charity.”
“What?” Joan said. Margie had only boxed up the meringues. And she and Margie always took the leftovers down together. “But we
“Back in ten.” Margie was already slipping the loop of her apron over her head. She turned her back to Nick and gave Joan an exaggerated wink.
“Margie,” Joan said. All she needed to say was: There’s more to box up. Margie wouldn’t question it; she’d stay. Joan opened her mouth, but no words came out. Her face felt like it was on fire. Margie’s grin widened. You’re welcome, she mouthed. And then she was walking out of the shop.
Nick met Joan’s eyes, and Joan was suddenly aware of his size: how he’d hunched a bit to make himself less imposing. He bit his lip, but he couldn’t hide his amusement. Margie hadn’t exactly been subtle. “Hi,” he said again.
Joan’s chest constricted. She wasn’t used to these unshadowed smiles from him. “Hi,” she said stupidly. His hair was curling a bit at the ends. “See anything you like?”
Nick blinked at her, and Joan gestured at the cakes.
“Oh,” he said, and for some reason, he flushed even redder. “Uh . . . I’m not sure. What can I get for ten pounds if . . . Well, there’s a lot of us at home.”
He could get plain iced buns for that, but Joan suddenly wanted him to have the really nice ones. “We’re doing chocolate chip buns this week. For ten pounds, you can get ten.” Not quite true, but Joan could add her own discount to the half off.
And then he was smiling again. And suddenly it hurt—this fantasy that they’d just met; that they might run into each other at school next week; that he’d come into the bakery again. That this could be the start of something rather than the end.
Joan concentrated on folding up a couple of cardboard boxes. In two minutes, he’d be on his way home. She could bear this feeling for two minutes—you could bear anything for two minutes, and then for two more minutes after that. She’d been learning that since getting home. Five sets of two, and then Margie would be back.
Joan put six buns into one box, and four into another. Then, knowing she shouldn’t, she added two mini Bakewell tarts to fill the space. “On the house,” she said, not looking at him. She’d have done it for any customer, she told herself. They wouldn’t keep.
“They’re my favorite.” Nick sounded surprised and grateful.
I know, Joan thought. She knew he liked almonds and cherries. Just like she knew he’d want quantity over the big Bakewell tart in the window so that the kids would get a whole bun each. She knew him so well. Except that she didn’t. Not this Nick. This isn’t him, she reminded herself. He looks like him, but he isn’t him.
She could bear this. Nick would finish up school this year, and she would next year. Maybe he’d move away. She’d move away. She could handle this for a year. And then . . . maybe her feelings for him would eventually fade. Maybe, one day, she’d be able to think of him
without this yearning.
Another notification flew up on Joan’s phone. She glanced down, expecting more messages from Margie and Chris, but it was a voice mail from Gran.
That was weird. Gran never left casual messages—not ever. Not even scrawled notes on the kitchen table. She always said: Don’t leave words lying around. The wrong people might find them.
The bakery door opened, bell jangling. Margie, Joan thought, and she wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed that she and Nick had only had a moment alone. ...
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