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Authors: Deborah Crombie

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Sandra hugged Charlotte closer and pushed through the crowd, ducking away from the tendrils of a stall’s climbing roses that threatened to catch in her hair. Roy stood beneath his green-and-white-striped awning, tucking a folded note into the purse he wore at his
waist. When he saw Sandra and Charlotte, he winked. “Come for the best of the lot, have we?”

The vendors would sell everything before they knocked down, and Roy would let Sandra pay only a pittance for the leavings on the stall. Her loft was full of potted plants, her small garden riotous, and most weeks she took home bunches of cut flowers for the house, but not today.

“Cupcakes,” said Charlotte seriously, eyeing Treacle, the shop near Roy’s stall. “Lemon.”

“Not just yet.” Sandra let her slide to the ground. “Roy, can I ask a favor? I’ve something—I’ve an errand. Would you mind watching Charlotte for just a bit? It won’t be long—we’re supposed to meet Naz at two.” She glanced at her watch, feeling the pressure of time.

Charlotte jumped over a flat of pansies and wrapped herself around Roy’s knees. “Can I sell flowers, Uncle Roy?”

“That you can, love.” Roy stooped to give her a hug. “Go on, then,” he added to Sandra. “I can manage, now the punters have thinned.”

Sandra hesitated just for a moment, tempted by the comforting familiarity of the market. It would be easy to slip on an apron and give Roy a hand. But she’d made up her mind, and now she must see it through.

Bending, she gave Charlotte a kiss. “Right. Thanks, Roy. I’ll owe you.”

Sandra glanced at her watch. It was five minutes past one. Waving to Charlotte, she turned away. When she reached the corner, a sudden impulse made her glance back, but the crowd had obscured her daughter as seamlessly as a closing zipper.

CHAPTER ONE

Sadly, I have recently come to accept what I refused to accept for so long: that the house may be only ephemeral.

—Dennis Severs,
18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields

The streets were greasy with moisture. The air inside the bus felt thick, almost solid, and in the damp August heat the personal-hygiene deficiencies of some of the passengers were all too apparent.

Gemma James stood near the center doors as the number 49 lumbered south over the Battersea Bridge, gripping the stanchion, trying not to breathe through her nose. The man in the seat beside her stank of more than unwashed body—alcohol fumes came off him in waves, and when the bus lurched he swayed against her.

Why had she thought taking the bus a good idea? And on a Saturday. She’d had a few errands to run in Kensington and hadn’t wanted to bother with parking—that had been her excuse, at least. The truth was that she’d craved the mindlessness of it, had wanted to sit and watch London going about its business without any assis
tance on her part. She hadn’t planned on having to protect her personal space quite so diligently.

When the bus ground to a halt just past the bridge, she was tempted to get off and walk, but her map told her there was still a good way to go, and a few sluggish raindrops splattered against the already-dirty windows. To her left she could see the rise of Battersea Park, an impressionistic gray-green blur through the smeared glass. The doors opened and closed with a pneumatic swish. The drunk man stayed resolutely put.

Gemma didn’t know this part of London well, and as the bus turned from the fairly posh environs of Battersea Road into Falcon Road, the neighborhood quickly lost its gloss.

Surely, Hazel didn’t mean to live here rather than in Islington? Thrift shops, video rentals, halal butchers, down-at-the-heels nameless cafés—and now ahead she could see the converging railway lines of Clapham Junction. Had she missed her stop? She jammed her finger against the red request button, and when the bus doors opened at the next stop, she almost leapt out.

Her feeling of relief was short-lived, however, as she stood on the pavement and looked round. She consulted her A to Zed, double-checking, but there was no doubt this was the street. It was, she saw, not even a cul-de-sac, but simply a short dead end. A square concrete building that announced itself in both English and Bengali as a mosque stood on the corner, and in the street itself a few young men in skullcaps and
salwar kameez
idly kicked a football.

Gemma moved slowly forward, searching for the number Hazel had given her. A rubbish skip stood on the pavement to her left, overflowing with what looked like the complete interior of the terraced Victorian house behind it. That was a good sign, surely, she thought, the area on the upswing. But aside from the short terrace, there were only council flats at the end of the street, and a high wall to her right.

The young men stopped kicking the ball and looked at her. She
gave them a neutral nod, then straightened her back, surveying her surroundings with deliberate purpose. Police work had long ago taught her that it was not a good idea to wander about looking like a lost sheep—it marked you out as a victim.

She’d worn a sundress, in deference to the sticky weather, and although the persimmon-colored cotton skirt ended demurely enough at the knee, she felt suddenly uncomfortably exposed.

A bungalow, Hazel had said, with a charming garden and patio. Gemma had found the thought of a bungalow in London odd enough, but it seemed unimaginable here, and she began to wonder if she had somehow got it all wrong.

She had begun to contemplate asking the now obviously interested young men for directions when she saw the number, half hidden by the creeper trailing over the high wall. Beneath the number was an arched wooden door, its paint faded to a dull blue-gray.

Checking the address against the scrap of paper in her bag, she saw that it was definitely a match. But where was the bungalow? Well, no point in standing gawping all day, she thought, walking up to the door and pressing the bell beside it. Her stomach suddenly tensed.

She hadn’t seen her best friend in more than a year, and so much had altered for both of them. E-mails and phone calls had kept them up-to-date, but Hazel had seemed distant these last few months, and had said little about the reasons for her unexpected return to London. Gemma had begun to fear that their close relationship had changed, and then Hazel had asked that she visit without the children, a very unusual request.

Toby had been clamoring to see Holly and had thrown a tantrum at being left behind, and Kit had gone silent, a sure sign that he was worried or unhappy.

As Gemma was about to press the bell again, the small door swung open and Hazel stood framed in the opening, her face lit with a smile. She gathered Gemma into a fierce hug.

“I’m so glad to see you.” Hazel stepped back and examined her,
then tugged her through the door and closed it behind them. “And you look fabulous,” she said. “Engagement must agree with you.”

“You, too. I mean, you look wonderful,” answered Gemma, awkward in an attempt to cover her shock. Hazel didn’t look wonderful at all. While she had never been plump, there had always been a bit of softness about her that made her particularly attractive. Now her cheeks were hollow, and her collarbone jutted above the neckline of the cotton sleeveless blouse she wore. Tan hiking shorts hung on her hips, as if they’d been borrowed from someone several sizes larger, and her feet were bare, making her seem oddly defenseless.

“I know, I’m pale,” Hazel said, as if she sensed Gemma’s reaction. “It’s Scotland. We had no summer this year. I’m sure I must look as though I’ve been living in a cave. But enough of that. Let me show you the house.”

Gemma took in her surroundings. The door in the wall had actually been a gate, and they stood on the brick patio Hazel had described, overarched by trees. Across the patio stood a white-stuccoed bungalow, its single story capped with a red tile roof. Yellow roses climbed up trellises on its front, and lemon trees in tubs stood at either side of the front door.

“It
is
a bungalow,” Gemma said, delighted. “It’s a bit exotic for London, isn’t it?”

“I call it my
Secret Garden
house.” Hazel took her arm. “I fell in love with it the minute I saw the photo online. I know it’s not Islington, but the neighborhood grows on you, and I could just barely afford it.”

“Those boys—”

“Tariq, Jamil, and Ali,” Hazel corrected. “They’ve taken to keeping an eye on me. Tariq said he wouldn’t want his old mum living all on her own. Quite took the wind out of my sails, I can tell you. Not that his
old mum
is likely to be more than thirty-five.”

Hazel’s brightness seemed a little forced, and Gemma wondered if she were really as comfortable as she made out. But this, she sensed,
was not the time to force the issue, and she followed Hazel obediently into the little house.

The front door led directly into a sitting room that ran the width of the house. The walls were white, the floor tiled, so that the room seemed almost a continuation of the patio. One end held recessed bookshelves on either side of a brick fireplace, the other a dining area and a small, fitted kitchen set into an alcove.

“It’s still a bit bare, but I’ve raided Ikea, and I’ve got books on the shelves, so that’s a start,” Hazel said. “And I’ve got tea, and wine in the fridge. Life’s essentials.”

Gemma recognized the pink-and-red-floral sofa and red-checked armchair from a recent Ikea catalogue. Hazel had added an ottoman, an end table with a lamp, a rag rug, and baskets filled with magazines and knitting yarns, a comfortingly familiar touch. The dining furniture was pale wood, pleasingly simple, and Gemma thought it, too, had come from Ikea. A vase filled with red tulips stood on the table, another familiar touch. Hazel had always had flowers in the house.

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask why Hazel hadn’t brought anything from Carnmore, her house in Scotland, or from Islington, when Hazel said, “It’s a doll’s house, really. Reminds me of the garage flat. Do you remember?”

Hearing the hint of wistfulness, Gemma squeezed her friend’s arm. “Of course I do. It’s only been—” She stopped. Had it really been that long?

Gemma had rented the tiny garage flat behind the house in Islington where Hazel had lived with her daughter, Holly, and her now-estranged husband, Tim Cavendish. It had proved both sanctuary and launching pad, allowing Gemma to regain the confidence so badly damaged by her marriage, and to move on in her personal as well as her professional life. Hazel had cared for Gemma’s son, Toby, who was the same age as Holly, and had provided Gemma with a stability she’d never felt in her own home.

Then an unexpected pregnancy had propelled Gemma into a new life with Duncan Kincaid, and a few months later, Hazel’s marriage had collapsed and she had moved to the Scottish Highlands to take over her family’s whisky distillery.

“It will be two years at Christmas,” Gemma said wonderingly. Two years since she and Duncan had moved into the house in Notting Hill with Toby and Duncan’s son, Kit, two years since she had lost the baby.

“There’s only the one bedroom,” Hazel was saying. “But when Holly stays, she’s comfy enough on the sofa. And of course she usually manages to creep in with me.”

“When Holly stays?” asked Gemma, brought sharply back to the present. “What do you mean, when Holly stays? Isn’t she with you?”

Hazel looked away, started to speak, then gestured towards the kitchen. “I’ll just put the kettle on, shall I? And then we’ll have a proper talk.”

CHAPTER TWO

It was the summer we became orphans…

—Emanuel Litvinoff,
Journey Through a Small Planet

He struggled up from the dream, grasping for consciousness the way a drowning swimmer gasps for air. For an instant he seemed to breach the surface, and with an effort of will forced his lips to move.

“Sandra.” In his mind, he heard his own rasping whisper. But then the fog lifted a bit further, and he realized that he hadn’t spoken at all, that even his plea had been part of the dream. “Wha—,” he managed, and this time he was sure he had spoken, but his dry lips felt foreign, as if they belonged to a ventriloquist’s dummy.

“Where—” It was only a thread of sound, but encouraged, he attempted to blink. The sudden flare of light seared his eyes, and the accompanying wave of pain carried him back into comforting dimness.

 

Hazel took the armchair, settling into the curve of it and tucking her feet up as if she needed the comfort. She’d brought a tray holding a
red teapot and mugs, a jug of milk, and a plate of mixed biscuits from a supermarket package. It was the first time Gemma could recall Hazel offering something she hadn’t made herself. Hazel had remembered, however, just how much milk Gemma liked, and poured for her before filling her own cup and cradling it between her hands.

Gemma felt the hint of a breeze from the patio windows, and thought she caught the scent of lemons. The voices of the boys in the street came faintly from beyond the wall.

When Hazel didn’t speak, Gemma said slowly, “I thought, when you said you were coming home, that you and Tim might be getting back together.”

“No.” Haltingly, Hazel went on, “I had thought…but I’m afraid it’s just too complicated. Even if Tim could forgive me, I’m not sure I can forgive myself.” The look she gave Gemma held an appeal. “I had everything, Gem. Marriage, family, home, career—and I threw it all away.”

“But you loved Donald Brodie. If things hadn’t gone so terribly wrong—”

“Did I?” Hazel sat forward, sloshing her tea. She rubbed at the wet edge of her mug with her thumb. “Did I really love him? Or was I just bored, and desperate for attention? It was a fantasy. It would never have worked, even if—” She swallowed, shook her head. “But none of that matters. What does is that I was willing to hurt Holly, and Tim, and I can’t take that back.”

“And Tim, does he feel that way, too?”

“I don’t know. He says he’d like to try, but I think once the novelty wore off, it would eat at him. How could it not? How could he ever trust me?”

Gemma was about to urge her friend not to be so hard on herself, but seeing Hazel’s obstinate expression, changed tack. “Then why have you come back? I thought you loved Carnmore.” The distillery, tucked away in one of the most remote regions of the Scottish
Highlands, had seemed horribly isolated to Gemma, but she hadn’t been able to dissuade Hazel from staying.

“I did. I do. And I had an obligation. But the distillery is back on its feet now, and there are those better qualified to run it than I.” Hazel set down her cup and leaned forward, the light from the patio window revealing the dark shadows under her eyes. “And I found I wasn’t made of as strong a stuff as I thought. I was homesick, and I just couldn’t face another winter. It wasn’t fair to Holly, living like that, the two of us on our own for weeks at a time. She needs her dad, and a familiar environment, and a good school…”

Hazel seemed to hesitate, then said, “Holly’s going to stay in Islington with Tim during the week, Gemma. We’ve worked it all out. She can go to school just down the street from the house, and Tim will be working at home, so he can easily arrange after-school care for her.”

“But, Hazel, you’re her mum—” Gemma’s arguments died on her lips. She knew the decision would have been difficult for Hazel, and she knew Hazel’s tenacity once she had made up her mind. Instead, she regrouped, trying to find something positive. “So Holly will spend weekends with you?”

“Yes, and we can always juggle schedules if it’s needed. I asked Tim to keep her over today so that we could have some time together.”

“But what will you do?” Gemma asked. Hazel, like Tim, had been a family therapist, but after the disintegration of her own marriage she’d felt she wasn’t fit to counsel others. “Will you go into practice again?”

“No. I’m going to work in a café.” For the first time since her greeting, Hazel’s smile seemed to reach her eyes. “It’s a new venture in Kensington. I know the chef, and she needs a general dogsbody. I can cook, or serve, or run the cash register. Right now it’s only breakfast through tea, but if we open for dinner I’ll be able to do evening shifts during the week. You’ll have to come for lunch someday. It’s
just behind Kensington High Street. Now”—she refilled Gemma’s cup and her own with a briskness that seemed more like her old self—“tell me about you. How’s your mum?”

Gemma blinked back an unexpected and infuriating prickle of tears. Her seemingly indomitable mother had been diagnosed with leukemia in May. Ongoing chemotherapy seemed to have effected a partial remission, but they all felt as if they were walking a tightrope. “She’s holding her own. Dad’s had to get in extra help at the bakery, but his biggest job is keeping her hands out of things.”

“I can imagine.” Hazel smiled. “I’ll go see her, shall I? One day next week.” She gave Gemma an appraising glance. “And what about you? You haven’t said a word about the wedding plans and the summer has almost gone by.”

“Oh.” Gemma’s mind froze for a moment, then she felt the ever more frequent squeeze of panic in her chest. She forced a breath and a smile. “It seemed a good idea at the time.”

“Gemma! Don’t tell me you’ve got cold feet.” Hazel looked so alarmed that Gemma gave a strangled laugh.

“No. Not about Duncan, anyway.” The proposal had been hers, after all. She and Duncan had been partners, lovers, friends, and now, parents in their blended family, and the decision to commit to being together she didn’t regret for a moment. She hastened to explain. “It’s just the bloody wedding business. It’s driving me mad. I thought we could just get married—silly of me, I know,” she said, forestalling the comment she knew was going to accompany Hazel’s raised brows. “But everyone’s got involved, although I must say Duncan’s family have been decent about it. Mine, though…” She rolled her eyes. “And it’s not just Dad and Cynthia, demanding this and that for Mum’s sake. The boys are even in on it. They want a reception at the Natural History Museum. Can you believe it?”

“Yes,” said Hazel, laughing. “But I thought you wanted Winnie to perform the ceremony.”

Winnie Montfort was the Reverend Winifred Montfort, married
to Duncan’s cousin Jack, and dear to them both. But she and Jack lived in Glastonbury, and Winnie, nearing forty, was expecting her first child. “Her doctor doesn’t want her to travel, and of course Jack’s frantic with worry.” Jack Montfort’s first wife and their baby had died in childbirth and he had taken the news of Winnie’s pregnancy with mixed feelings. “But even if she could come, she couldn’t marry us in someone else’s church.”

“Why not just ask the vicar at St. John’s to do the ceremony, then?” St. John’s was the Anglican church near their house in Notting Hill. “That seems simple enough.”

“Because it’s high church. My parents were brought up chapel, and to them St. John’s might as well be Catholic. My dad says it would kill my mum, which of course it wouldn’t, but my mum says to try to humor him—”

“Then a civil venue—”

“Just as complicated. The boys want in on the choice, and if we hold a proper reception, the guest list turns into a nightmare. We’d end up having to invite everyone either of us has met since primary school.”

“A register office—”

“Then we’ll disappoint everyone.” Gemma shook her head and looked out the window so she wouldn’t have to meet Hazel’s eyes. “I don’t know. I’ve done this before—it seems now that the wedding was the beginning of the end for Rob and me—and I don’t want to go through that again. I’m just about ready to chuck the whole thing.”

 

The heart had gone from the house. Tim knew it, and Holly knew it, and there didn’t seem to be anything he could do to fix it.

During the longest and darkest days of the winter, he had painted the kitchen. Not that he was very good at painting and decorating, but it gave him something to do to fill the seemingly endless evenings
and weekends, and when he was finished he’d been quite proud of his handiwork.

Gone were Hazel’s soft greens and peaches. The cupboards were sparkling white, the walls a deep maize yellow. A new beginning, he’d thought. Then Holly had come for a much-anticipated visit and burst into tears at the sight of it. “Where’s Mummy’s kitchen?” she’d wailed, and he’d been powerless to comfort her.

She got used to it eventually, of course, just as she’d got used to their routine, but he’d never stopped feeling he had to try too hard. Holly would be six in a few weeks, and he’d argued the case for her starting proper school here with him as persuasively as he could. Hazel, however, had capitulated more easily than he’d expected, and now he found himself wondering if he would be able to cope.

“Where’s Mummy?” Holly asked for the hundredth time that afternoon. She sat at the kitchen table, kicking her heels against the chair rungs. He had given her one of the fizzy drinks Hazel didn’t allow, and it had only made her more cross.

“I’ve told you, pumpkin. She’s having a girls’ day out with your auntie Gemma.”

“I want to go. I’m a girl,” Holly said with irrefutable logic.

“You can’t this time. It’s grown-up girls only.”

“That’s not fair.”

“No, I suppose not.” Tim sighed. “We could have cheese on toast,” he offered.

“I don’t want toast. I want to play with Toby.” Holly’s pretty mouth, so like her mother’s, was set in a scowl that would have done justice to a troll.

“We’ll arrange something.”

Gemma and Duncan had gone out of their way to keep up the connection between the children, and they often included him in social invitations. Decent of them, but he was always aware that there was an element of charity involved, and it made him awkward. Their
lives had diverged, the only point of contact the children, and making the effort to talk casually about Hazel exhausted him. But it was one of the few anchors in his life these days, and he was unwilling to let it go.

“Now,” he said to Holly, “let’s stop kicking the chair.” Why, Tim wondered as he heard himself, did adults talk to children in the plural? It wasn’t as if he were kicking the bloody chair. If the inclusiveness was meant to be persuasive, it didn’t work.

Holly kept kicking the chair rungs. He ignored it. “We could go to the park after Charlotte visits.”

“I don’t want ta play wi’ Charlotte,” said Holly, and Tim heard the Scots accent that had been popping up intermittently since she’d come back to London. He found it both endearing and annoying, but on the whole wanted his daughter to sound like her old self. “Charlotte’s a baby,” she went on with disdain.

“And you’re a big girl, so you’ll do a good job of looking after her while I talk to her daddy.”

Mollified by this appeal to her bossy nature, Holly’s mouth relaxed. “Can we still go to the park?”

Tim glanced at the kitchen clock. Naz and Charlotte were now almost an hour late, and that was very unlike Naz. “We’ll have to see, pumpkin,” he told Holly. He tried Naz’s mobile, but it went straight to voice mail.

He didn’t normally see clients on a Saturday, and especially not when he had Holly. But Naz Malik was an old friend—they had been at uni together—and considering Naz’s situation, Tim had been willing to juggle his own schedule to suit his friend’s. He’d thought they could talk in the garden, and the girls could play.

And Naz had been insistent when he’d rung that morning, almost distraught, in fact. Why would his friend, who was punctual to the point of obsession, say he had to see Tim, then not show up?

“Let’s make the cheese toast,” Tim suggested. “I’m sure Charlotte would like some when she gets here.” Restless, he added, “I’ll
tell you what. We’ll make a proper Welsh rarebit, like Mummy does.” Opening the fridge, he dug out some cheddar, mustard, and milk. Then he foraged in the cupboard for Worcestershire sauce, and cut thick slices of some slightly stale bakery bread.

“It won’t be as good,” Holly intoned with certainty.

“I know.” Tim repressed another sigh as he poured milk into the saucepan. “But we’ll do it anyway.”

By the time he had spread his cheese sauce on the toast and popped it under the grill until it bubbled, he was beginning to feel seriously worried about Naz. He rang his mobile again, with no result. He took a bite of the toast, which was better than he’d expected, and watched Holly make gratifying inroads on her slice, but he couldn’t stop himself from glancing at the clock. It was an old-fashioned clock with a big face, and its second hand seemed to tick at glacial speed as the light in the garden grew softer.

“Can we go to the park now, Daddy?” Holly scrubbed her greasy hands against her jeans, and Tim absently got up and dampened a cloth to wipe her fingers.

“Not quite yet, pumpkin.” He rang Naz’s mobile once more, then pulled up his home number and redialed.

It was picked up on the first ring. “Mr. Naz?” The voice was young, female, and rising with distress.

“No. Alia? It’s Dr. Cavendish here.”

Alia was Naz’s part-time nanny, a Bangladeshi girl who minded Charlotte during the day and took college classes at night. She wanted, Naz had told Tim, to be a lawyer.

“Is Mr. Naz with you, then?” asked Alia. “He was supposed to be home two hours ago and he’s not answering his phone. My parents are expecting me and I can’t leave Charlotte. I don’t know what to do.”

“He didn’t say where he was going?”

“No. And he’s never late. You know how he is. If I take Char out for an ice cream or something and we’re even five minutes late, he’s, like, ballistic.”

With good reason, thought Tim. “Is there anyone else you can call?”

“I tried the office, but no one answered. I don’t have numbers for Charlotte’s mum’s family. Mr. Naz won’t have nothing to do with them.” She said “nuffink” in the strong Estuary accent adopted by many young second-generation immigrants to the East End. “And I don’t know how to reach Ms. Phillips at home.

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