It was a yard. Only a yard to the kerb. What could happen to her in that distance? Was it too far away to still be safe?
Fiona Dexter isn’t the girl she used to be.
It’s been five years since she moved into the house on leafy Wellington Drive, with its bright red door and colourful flowers in the garden. Since then, she’s never stepped outside. It’s the only way she can live without constantly looking over her shoulder – the one chance she has of keeping the past in the past.
If she could only walk out of the front door, her life would be different. She could find her way back to the person she once was. She could trade nights on the sofa for a cinema trip with friends. She could meet her parents at the café around the corner, with its delicious brownies. Maybe she could even fall in love.
Except for Fiona, those few yards to her front gate might as well be a million miles. Outside, there’s no telling who might be waiting…
Then one day single mother Bethany shows up holding two-year-old Evie, desperate for help, and their arrival might just change everything.
Once Fiona lets them in, she finds the safety of her carefully planned days has lost its spark. Staying inside is still the safest option, but now she’s felt the warmth of Evie’s hugs and danced her socks off with Bethany, she realises what she’s been missing. But can Fiona let go of her past for a chance at happiness? And when she’s put to the test, will love be more powerful than fear?
This hopeful and heart-warming read will remind you that life continues no matter where you are, and opening the door is the first step on the way back to happiness. Fans of Jojo Moyes, Jodi Picoult and Diane Chamberlain will love this emotional and uplifting story.
Readers absolutely love Catherine Miller:
‘Crying like a baby… When those tears started, they didn’t stop. In fact, they just came faster and harder… It literally broke my heart, it very much lived up to being an uplifting story… A thought-provoking, heart-wrenching but beautiful love story.’ By the Letter Book Reviews, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘So heartbreaking… I was unable to put it down… This story will bring tears to your eyes but also a touch of warmth in your heart.’ Star Crossed Reviews, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘What an amazing book… And the ending, despite being a tear-jerker, was the best ending that could ever have been written… Wish I could give it a lot more than 5 stars… It touched me so much, I want to read it over and over again.’ NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Wow! This is a heartbreaker of a story…
Release date: June 25, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Girl Who Couldn't Leave
This was her sanctuary.
This was her happy space.
This was the only place in which she felt truly safe.
There was an undisputable comfort in being away from danger. One that she was still indulging in five years on, much to her mother’s dismay.
The good thing about never leaving one place was that Fiona knew its dimensions implicitly. She knew the timetable of everything around her. When each neighbour left for work, what hobbies they pursued at the weekend, at what time each of them would put their bins out ready to be taken early the following day. This kind of thing was important if she didn’t want to bump into any of them when tending to the small courtyard garden at the front of her mid-terrace. Inevitably, they couldn’t be avoided completely, but she did her best.
The removal of the doorbell made unsolicited knocks on the door all the more distressing. That and the square laminated notice in the window were normally enough to ward off cold callers, but not today.
Knock. Knock, knock. For the second time.
It was hard to work out who it could be. Most visits she knew to expect: shopping deliveries, her parents’ weekly visit, takeaway orders. But there was the odd occasion, like now, when the knock at the door was unscheduled, which, especially when the caller went for a double knock, was terrifying. It made her palms sweat.
With an inadequate view from where she was, Fiona tiptoed from her office in the box room of her three-bed property to investigate, all the while willing whoever it was to disappear.
Go away. She squeezed her forehead muscles enough to shift the perfectly straight fringe of her perfectly straight bob cut, as if that would help create telepathic skills that the caller would listen to.
Failing that non-existent talent, she hoped if she left it long enough they would give up. It was likely to be a parcel for a neighbour, most of whom she only knew by which number they lived at. Not so much a first-name basis, more of a casually spying on their lives kind of affair. The only exception was Reuben, who lived next door at number 16. He’d introduced himself as soon as she’d moved in, and they’d continued with passing pleasantries as she did with a few other neighbours. He was a bit of an Adonis with his surfer hair, but as his business was in plumbing and drains it rather ruined the image. There was Lovely Wavey Lady at number 18, the other side of Reuben. She always waved from her garden, but like Fiona, never ventured further afield. There was On-The-Run Mum who lived opposite at 2A with her daughter, and in the same set of maisonettes there was Miss Perfect Roses who might have lived at 2B or 3A. Fiona had never worked it out because she tended to both gardens and all of their brief conversations were limited to roses.
Fiona racked her brain (which conjured a similar expression to her telepathy attempts) trying to work out if she was expecting anything to arrive. It was Tuesday. Knowing that was a start, but it didn’t help. It wasn’t a day for the milkman or her weekly shop or the window cleaner. In her carefully structured life, Tuesday was the day she had a working lunch at her laptop (peanut butter on toast was the current favourite) and would later enjoy an oven-baked lasagne and a glass of Chardonnay for dinner. If it was nice enough, she would venture out to dine in the back garden. Tuesdays were blissful in Fiona’s mind. Most of her days were, in fact. As long as they went to plan. Preferably without interruptions.
She opted for the bathroom as her vantage point to get a look at who was disturbing her harmony. As wise moves went, this wasn’t one of them, as she had to clamber into the bathtub to gain the height she needed for a proper glimpse outside. The small window at the top was already cracked open to release the steam from her morning shower. At least she’d be able to have a glance without giving away the fact she was in.
It was a most irregular thing to be doing but needs must. It wasn’t the first time and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
The garden gate was shut, which seemed like a hopeful sign that all was well once again and the caller had retreated.
The whining noise soon told Fiona otherwise.
The sound was so alarming, Fiona retreated. In all her twenty-eight years she’d never heard such a noise come from animal or mankind. She grabbed her back-scrubbing brush as the only decent form of protection. It was either that or the bleach, and that was out of reach.
It’s okay. No one knows you’re here, Fiona reassured herself, patting her back with the scrubbing brush without thinking.
As she leaned against the wall (she didn’t want to be noticed as a shadow in the window) the noise occurred again, nearly causing her to collapse into the tub.
Gripping the windowsill, she was able to take a small peek out to try and see what was going on. But what she did see wasn’t possible.
It was a child.
Fiona must have gasped because the small girl peered towards the open window and pointed up.
The world stood still as they stared at each other, Fiona’s senses zooming in on just that spot. The child had piercing blue eyes and a mop of brown curls and was alone. Totally alone. Fiona didn’t know much about children beyond what she’d learned at school. This wee thing was able to stand by herself and therefore, presumably, walk, but couldn’t have been much more than two. Which was why it didn’t make sense. What was she doing there? Fiona certainly hadn’t ordered one to arrive via a stork.
It dawned on Fiona that this was not something she would be able to ignore in her usual way. She’d read stories about these kinds of things… Children being used as a lure by scam artists. Or others where young children somehow managed to leave their home while their parents slept and were then spotted by a kindly bus driver or a passing stranger. The articles that followed always reflected on how lucky the parents were that the kid hadn’t ended up falling into the wrong hands. That fate had played a role and they were fortunate to be safe again.
Whichever this scenario was, it wasn’t something she would be able to overlook.
It propelled Fiona into rushing out of the bath and nearly falling over in her quest to get to the front door. To make sure the child was in the right hands and kept from harm. It would be the first time that she’d willingly opened the door to an unsolicited call since she’d moved in.
It was only after she had opened the door that she realised a child of that age wasn’t going to be knocking loudly on repeat. The child was now lifted into the arms of On-The-Run Mum, the neighbour from directly opposite. The one that reminded her of Elsa with her long, blonde plait always off to one side, only she was normally attached to a buggy with her daughter inside. It filled her with dread that at this point, it was too late to hide under a large rock. Strangers, or even neighbours coming to her door unannounced, in her mind created a connection to the outside world. One she didn’t want.
‘Hi. Fiona, isn’t it? I’m really sorry to impose on you like this, but I’ve no one else to ask,’ On-The-Run Mum said.
Already it sounded distinctly like a bad deal. Ensuring the child was safe was the only reason Fiona had come down here. Would it be too much to just close the door? She had work to get on with.
‘Ask what?’ There was a frosty chill to Fiona’s tone that even she heard.
‘I’m desperate. I have a doctor’s appointment, but children aren’t allowed in. Her dad has bailed on me again and the buggy wheel has just busted so I can’t even try to take her and keep her strapped in. I’m only going to be half an hour max. Is there any chance you can watch her for me? Just let her play out in the front like she has before if you don’t want her inside. Everything she needs is in here,’ Fiona’s neighbour said, thrusting a tiny backpack in her direction like it was a done deal.
It was true that before, when they’d had brief snippets of conversation, if the small girl had wanted to get out of the buggy, she’d roam around Fiona’s walled garden. ‘Surely there’s someone else.’ As the words left Fiona’s mouth, she found herself clasping the small rucksack.
On-The-Run Mum set her child down on the pathway. ‘Evie’s always loved your garden and she sees you most weeks. I know it’s only in passing, but I promise you I’ll be as quick as I can.’
‘But what about…’ Fiona was about to say ‘Miss Perfect Roses’ but realised that wasn’t actually her name. She was perfectly ancient but was always organised with her pruning. ‘Another neighbour.’ Anyone but her, really.
‘There’s no one else. My mum lives too far away. Her dad cancelled last minute. I wouldn’t ask unless I was desperate. It’s… important.’
Fiona took in the mite that was already trailing a path of destruction, somehow getting soil from the garden beds onto the lawn. She always got tongue-tied round this particular mum whenever they said hello in passing, because no one who wasn’t animated should ever be that pretty. Even though there’d never been an instance (that Fiona had witnessed at least) when she wasn’t rushing. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday they would leave early in the morning to head off somewhere. It was normally at about three minutes to nine, and no doubt she needed to be somewhere on the o’clock which required ten minutes to get there. On other days, when they were probably heading to the park, they would stop and say hello if Fiona was there, the weather and how the garden was doing being their main topics of fleeting conversation. ‘I’m sorry. I should probably know this, but what’s your name?’
Fiona should know. Most people would have established a neighbour’s name before this point. But even that level of interaction would leave Fiona looking over her shoulder, paranoid it would create an opening to the world she was hiding from. So instead she kept it simple. Yes, she should know a lot more about the people that lived nearby, but that was a hard ask for someone unwilling to cross the threshold other than to garden out the front.
‘I’m Bethany. This is Evie. We live across the road at 2A.’
‘I know where you live,’ Fiona said, not realising how creepy it sounded until the sentence was out.
‘Will you do it then? I’ve really got to get a move on.’
‘I don’t know much about kids, but if you think it’ll be okay?’
Bethany guided Evie to Fiona’s feet.
‘It’ll be fine. There’s not much to know, just keep an eye on her, make sure she’s safe. I’m not even going to be gone long enough for you to have to worry about changing her nappy.’
‘I’m not very used to children.’ Fiona was genuinely the most unqualified person on the planet for this situation. She just had to hope it would go without a hiccup. ‘I can call you if there’re any problems?’
‘Of course. I’m only at the doctor’s surgery down the road. My mobile number is in the notebook at the front of the bag in case there’s any kind of emergency.’
Wasn’t this emergency enough for one day?
Any normal person would follow Bethany to the appointment. Perhaps suggest that the babysitting period be reduced to the five minutes of waiting in reception while Mummy was in with the doctor.
‘I’m not sure I’m the person for this,’ Fiona declared. It needed to be said.
‘You’re a person. Sometimes that’s all a kid needs.’
Fiona glanced into Evie’s blue eyes. ‘True. We’ll be okay,’ she found herself saying.
‘I’ll be back as soon as I can,’ Bethany said, and set off on her journey in the direction of the local GP surgery.
‘I’m a person.’ Fiona repeated the revelation softly, peering again at the young toddler that she now held temporary responsibility for.
Evie repeated ‘person’, only it sounded more like ‘per-ton’. She managed to swivel a 180-degree turn on one flimsy ankle and swaggered to a rose bush as if she was a miniature drunkard on a mission.
‘I’m a person,’ Fiona said again, letting out a laugh that made her sound like she’d also been drinking. She spent far too much of her life trying to stay hidden, remaining unnoticed in her little world. But someone had noticed her.
‘Pardon?’ Fiona said, taken from her revelry.
‘Pity,’ Evie repeated, her nose at the late blossoming peach rose, about to curl her hands around the stem. ‘Flower pity.’
‘I think you mean pretty.’ Fiona crouched down. ‘Careful. Roses have thorns. You’ll get spiked.’
The shrieking sound that came from Evie told Fiona her cautionary tale was too late.
And now what was she supposed to do?
This was why she should have refused. She was so ill equipped to know what to do with children. And it wasn’t like she could do the obvious thing of taking the screaming child back to her mother.
The only thing that came to mind was to say, ‘It’s okay,’ even though it truly wasn’t.
Fiona thought about how this scenario had brought her to the door. She’d thought Evie was by herself. If she was, she’d be on the phone to the police right now reporting a toddler on the loose.
Perhaps that was still the answer? Toddler abandonment would surely be a police matter. Only she hadn’t been abandoned. Fiona had somehow found it within herself to say yes to half an hour’s care.
‘Pity flower ’urt,’ Evie said between wails. There were tears rolling freely down her dainty pink cheeks.
‘Let me see.’
‘’Urts.’ Evie showed Fiona her hand that had the tiniest of pricks.
‘Sometimes the smallest cuts hurt the most.’
The wound was a serious injury in Evie’s tiny world. She wailed more to prove it, and swung her little arms around Fiona’s neck.
It had been an incredibly long time since Fiona had received a hug. And this was the first from someone who wasn’t an adult. It was startling.
All thoughts of the police or calling Bethany immediately dissolved.
‘There, there.’ Fiona responded by giving Evie an awkward pat on the back, much like the one she’d performed with the scrubbing brush when she’d been in the bath worrying about who was at the door. Only this one was real. It felt like a small slice of heaven she didn’t even know she’d been missing.
They stayed like that for a moment, and the grip with which this toddler held her was life-affirming and terrifying at the same time. How could someone so small trust another so instinctively?
‘You a per-ton,’ Evie said when she finally loosened her grip, the tiny prick apparently forgotten.
‘I am a person and my name is Fiona,’ she confirmed.
‘Fi. You’re my Fi.’
‘Well, I normally go by Fiona, but as your elocution has a way to go, you can call me Fi.’
‘My Fifi,’ Evie said, a smile breaking on her features as if she’d met the best friend she’d never had before.
‘Am I yours already?’ Fiona grinned over the simple use of the possessive in her young visitor’s sentence. ‘Let’s go and get you a drink.’
A threshold is a funny thing. For Fiona it acted as a barrier. It was the line that kept the world out. It helped keep her fears at bay.
Letting Evie into her home went entirely against the grain, but in that moment, with those plump arms cuddling her neck, nothing else in the world mattered. Only the first hug she’d had in what felt like an eternity.
It was a relief that Bethany hadn’t needed to go into the whys and wherefores of the impending appointment. There were certain things one never wanted to get into as an opening conversation with a neighbour. Fortunately, her need to go to the doctor’s had been explanation enough and it left her able to rush off down the street.
If Bethany were to describe her life, she’d call it a happy accident. Even though nothing ever seemed to go quite to plan, she somehow managed to bumble along. From her inception (split condom) when her mum was in her teens to her own unplanned parenthood, her lot wasn’t a bad one, all things considered. She felt that what life often missed was the seasoning. The added spice to make everything that much better. So that was what she tried to be for herself and her daughter: the Cajun spice that a rainy day often required.
Today was a perfect example of good karma stepping in at the right moment. Bethany had been all ready for Evie’s father to arrive, but once again he was proving how unreliable he intended to be. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but as she’d emphasised how important this appointment was, it came with the usual thwack of disappointment. She should have known to expect it, but there was always the hope that he actually cared about his daughter enough to show up.
When she came off the phone with him, she’d been staring across the road at number 14. While she pondered what she was supposed to do now, the thought struck her like a cartoon lightbulb appearing over her head. The surgery had been clear that it was best not to bring children, and with the buggy broken it would be impossible to contain Evie. She didn’t want to put the appointment off again but maybe there was a chance her opposite neighbour would babysit for her. She was always so lovely to Evie whenever they stopped for their brief chats. Evie always responded well to her. As there was no one else about at this time of day it seemed worth asking. Fiona was always well put together. Her bobbed hair and office-style attire were always as neat as her front garden, never a thing even slightly out of place. She was a woman in charge of her destiny and one that was always observant of what Evie was up to. It was a huge relief when she said yes to babysitting.
As Bethany rushed into the surgery, she considered how kind it was of her to agree, even if it was more of a stunned acceptance.
‘Here for a smear test with the nurse,’ Bethany said in a rush to the receptionist.
She was only ten minutes late. Ten minutes late by Bethany’s standards wasn’t a huge delay. Not that she was a tardy person, but ever since the arrival of Evie, getting anywhere had become a military operation that sometimes she didn’t have the energy to win. Wasn’t it better to be a bit late with her sanity intact, rather than being driven to the depths of despair trying to get Evie to put her shoes on in any kind of timely fashion?
‘Go right through. It’s examination room two.’
Bethany did as she was told and was thankful not to have to wait, given she’d said she would only be gone half an hour.
Not waiting also meant she wouldn’t have the chance to bolt. This was something she’d been putting off even though she shouldn’t. She’d deferred it to the point where her GP had started calling her, insisting she should get it done. It had been due when Evie was a baby, but in that maelstrom of early single motherhood it had been a lower priority than it should have been. Somehow two years and three rescheduled appointments had gone by since then.
‘If you can take your bottoms off for me and then lie on the examination table once you’re ready,’ the nurse said.
Even though time was of the essence, Bethany took on the speed of her toddler attempting to put on her shoes. It was important for her to have this smear test, but she couldn’t find the ability to rush towards her meeting with a speculum.
‘Everything okay there?’ the nurse asked from the other side of the curtain.
‘Yes, sorry. Fiddly boots. Won’t be a minute.’
When she had made it onto the patient’s table with a sheet keeping her decent, the nurse gave her the specifics of what was going to happen. ‘It’ll be over before you know it!’
That wasn’t strictly true. Bethany knew about it as soon as the device was in and the swab was taken, a smarting pain sweeping briefly through her, but once that was over, there was no after-effect.
‘The results will be with you in a few days. They send a letter out. They may call you back in for further checks, but it’s all routine.’
‘Right.’ This update was delivered to Bethany through the curtain as she replaced her knickers, jeans and socks, and cursed the fiddly laced boots. ‘I thought this would be it.’
‘Most of the time it is. I just don’t want you to be alarmed if you have to have another appointment. Call the surgery if you haven’t heard within the week.’ The nurse stated these things matter-of-factly, as if she said them every day. She probably did.
‘Thank you,’ Bethany said, not too sure what else to say to the woman who moments earlier had been inspecting her birth canal.
‘Make sure you do another in three years. It’s best they’re regular. A reminder will be sent to jog your memory.’ The nurse was now adding to Bethany’s notes on the computer and was obviously aware of the current gap since her previous smear test.
Bethany had been dreading it and it had been fine. She should have had it done when Evie was a baby. They’d told her at the time it was due, but being in charge of a newborn single-handedly had taken precedence.
Before leaving the surgery, she used the toilet to straighten herself out. She’d rushed getting here and, after being slow to remove. . .
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