Read an Excerpt
'Are you quite sure that you want to do this?' Carol Farley laid a hand lightly on Sarah's shoulder, her grey eyes skimming her face with a hint of anxiety. 'I can't help thinking that you're not ready to make it on your own in the world just yet. You do know that we're happy for you to stay here with us for just as long as you want, don't you?'
'I know.' Sarah managed a smile. 'You and Tom have both been so good to me, and I want you to know that I appreciate all that you've done, both for me and for Emily. It's just that if I don't step out now and try to manage on my own, I don't think I'll ever pluck up the courage to do it. I feel that I have to get back to a normal kind of life whatever that might be.'
'But it hasn't been all that long since you came out of hospital just a matter of a few months and I'm sure you need more time to adjust.' Carol frowned. 'You suffered a nasty head injury, and even now there are things that you struggle with. How are you going to cope, especially with a small child in tow?'
'It's been six months at least and it's high time that I started to manage things for myself. Somehow, I'll find a way.' Sarah pulled in a deep, steadying breath and glanced across the sunlit kitchen to where Emily was playing with a doll's house in a far corner of the dining area. She was nearly three years old, and was just beginning to break out of the subdued state she had been in not too long ago. 'I have to.'
The little girl was chattering softly to a small, golden-haired doll that she was walking in and out of the rooms of the house. 'We have to cook dinner,' she said in a piping voice. 'Put the saucepan on the cooker.' Then she looked up at Sarah and added with a chuckle, 'Mummy, look Dolly's holding the saucepan.'
'So she is.' Sarah smiled, her gaze remaining on her daughter as Emily turned back to her game.
She was a pretty girl, with silky blonde hair that curled softly into the nape of her neck and fell in wispy tendrils around her temples.
Unconsciously, Sarah pushed back a lock of her own honey blonde hair that had fallen across her cheek, tucking the spiralling strand behind her ear.
At the hospital they had told her that Emily was her child, and certainly she loved her dearly, the bond between them growing stronger day by day. It was just that nothing in her life made sense to her any more, and she felt as though she was trapped in a place where all was chaos and confusion.
Her hair had grown to shoulder length since that fateful day when she had been injured, and it seemed strange to her that she had such a wild mass of unruly curls. But, then, every feature seemed strange to her in the mirror.
'Do you mind watching Emily for me while I go and look over the cottage?' Sarah said now, turning to look at the woman who had been her mainstay over these last few months. 'I could take her with me, if you like.'
'No, you don't want to be doing that.' The older woman's response was firm. 'You'll want to check things out without any distractions. Of course she'll be all right with me.' Carol gave a faint smile, her motherly features creasing lightly, but there was a glimmer of sadness in her eyes. 'She's still my foster-child, after all.'
Perhaps there was a hint of anguish in the words, or maybe it was resignation that Sarah heard. Whatever it was, it caused her to glance afresh at the older woman, a troubled look in her eyes.
'Are you afraid that you'll lose her? I know how much you've come to love Emily.' Her voice softened, and she reached out a hand to touch Carol's arm. It suddenly seemed important to do what she could to reassure this woman who had become her friend over the last few months. 'I will take good care of her, you know, and, whatever happens about the cottage, we won't be going far away. I'll bring her back to see you, and you'll always be welcome to come and visit.'
Carol slipped her arms around her and gave her a hug. 'Yes, I know you will, and I'm glad of that. Take no notice of me. You've been like a daughter to me, and I worry too much, I know I do. I just wish that you had been able to recover your memory, or at least some portion of it, before now. That would have made me feel more certain that you were ready to take on this move.'
'I'll be fine,' Sarah murmured. She straightened, preparing herself. 'Physically, at least, there's nothing wrong with me, and this is something that I need to do, for myself and Emily.' She fingered the key in her pocket. 'I have the key from the estate agent, so I'll head over to the house right away and see if it has everything that I need. Don't worry about me.
It's just that I have to do this for myselfa first stab at independence, if you like.'
Carol nodded. 'I can see that you've made up your mind, and I won't stand in your way. I just hope that you'll remember that we're always here for you.'
'I will.' Sarah smiled and then went over to the little girl, crouching down beside her and saying lightly, 'I have to go out for a little while, Emily, but Auntie Carol will look after you. Will you be a good girl for her while I'm gone?'
''Course I will.' Emily gave her a bright smile, her blue eyes reflecting the colour of Sarah's gentle gaze.
'Love you,' Sarah said, giving the child a kiss, and then she stood up and turned away, going in search of her bag.
The drive to the cottage didn't take long, but as the countryside swept by, Sarah had time to reflect on how easily the skill of driving had come back to her, as though it was second nature to her. The local authority had made special provision for her to take her test under the name that she was now using, and once she had passed she had been able to pick up this little runabout for next to nothing. It had been one more step on the way to getting her life back.
The hamlet where she had been living these last few months nestled in a green valley, set between the rolling hills that formed the southern tip of the Pennine range. All around there was lush vegetation, heather-clad moorland and trees whose branches swayed in the gentle summer breeze. Here and there she caught a glimpse of a river in the distance, the sunlight glinting on the surface of the water so that it looked like a ribbon of silver winding its way through the verdant meadowland.
After a while, Sarah turned the car off the country road into a narrow lane that led towards two isolated properties.
Approaching the small cottage, she drew the car to a halt on the gravelled forecourt and gazed around her. This had to be the right place. There was a wall plaque that read Bridge End Cottage.
She slid out of the car and went to take a closer look. Everywhere was silent, deserted looking, and there were no other cars to be seen. Perhaps whoever lived in the neighbouring house was out at work.
She let her glance trail over the adjacent property. It was a grand affair, well kept and truly impressive, with a steeply sloping roof and dormer windows and an attractive single-storey extension to the main building. She gave a faint sigh. Unfortunately, that wasn't the house she was here to look at.
She turned her attention back to Bridge End Cottage and frowned. There was a general air of neglect around the stone-built house, and the shrubs that scrambled against the front wall were overgrown and unkempt. It wasn't at all what she had expected to see after the brief, enthusiastic summary the estate agent had given her.
'You're really fortunate,' he had said. 'The cottage has only just come into our hands, and we haven't put the details out on the market yet. You'll be the first to view it, and I'm sure it will suit your needs down to the ground. The rent's not too high, it's compact, with a garage on the side, and there's a mature garden at the back.'
Sarah wasn't sure what the rest of the house would reveal, but she could see right away that the garage roof was in need of repair. Some of the tiles were missing, and it looked as though there was a tear in the roofing felt. As to the main building, it was clear that the window-frames hadn't seen a lick of paint in a long, long time.
She steeled herself to go and take a look at the rest of the property. It was small wonder that the rent was so low, but could she afford to be picky? Did she really have much choice about what she could take on when her budget was limited, to say the least?
She walked over to the porch and tried her key in the lock, but when she attempted to turn it, nothing happened. It wouldn't budge. Frustrated, she took it out and examined to see if it was damaged in some way. It wasn't, as far as she could tell, so she tried again.
Still nothing. She ground her teeth in silent frustration. Had the agent given her the wrong key? He had been pushed for time, and certainly he had appeared to be distracted by other customers walking into the office, all of which had left her with this dilemma. The last thing she wanted was to have to go all the way into town to pick up another one.
Maybe she could take a look around the back of the house and peer in through the windows? At least that would give her some idea of what the place had to offer.
She pushed open the wooden side gate, wincing as it creaked on its hinges in protest, and went through to the garden at the back of the house. Her eyes widened as she looked around. The estate agent's jargon had termed it mature, but that had been an understatement. This was a jungle, an overgrowth of rampant shrubs and tangled trees. It had obviously been a long while since any work had been done in this garden.
Turning her attention towards the house, Sarah tried the back door and found that it was locked. Then, as she stood considering her options, her gaze brightened a fraction. There was a window open on the ground floor, and that brought all kinds of possibilities to mind. She was slender enough to wriggle her way through it if she could climb up on something and reach up as far as the sill. After all, it wouldn't be breaking and entering, would it, or even trespass, as she had permission to be here and view the property?
The thought was no sooner in her mind than she was acting on it. An overturned metal bucket made a handy step, and in the blink of an eye she had clambered up and was aiming to slide through the narrow window space. The pocket of her denim jeans snagged on the latch that jutted from the sill, and she halted for a moment or two, trying to free herself.
The bucket fell with a clatter, but she ignored the commotion and after a moment she continued to squirm through the gap. The window opened into a kitchen, and the sink unit was handily placed for her to ease herself into the room.
Success was just a breath away. One more thrust of her hips and she would be in.
'Can I help you in any way?' The firm male voice cut into the silence like the smooth crack of a whip, and Sarah froze.
Where had he come from? Whoever he was, he didn't sound as though he was at all ready to lend a helping hand. Just the opposite, in fact.
'Uh I don't think so,' she murmured, stuck in the incongruous position of being caught half in and half out of the window, with her back to the intruder.
'Really? Only you seem to be having some difficulty getting into the property. It occurs to me that the reason for that could be that you aren't following the normal procedure. Most people would prefer to make use of the door.'
'Yes. That's very true.' She started to twist around, easing herself into a sitting position. 'I wonder what on earth could have made me think that going through the window would be easier?' Cautiously, she let her fingers lightly rest on the window-frame so that she could keep her balance.
Her sarcasm was clearly lost on him, because he answered smoothly, 'Those were my thoughts exactly. I have to say it occurred to me that there's the advantage of not being seen from the front of the house.' He paused. 'Of course, that's assuming you don't kick buckets over and make your whereabouts known.'
Her gaze flicked downwards in the direction of the voice, and she found herself looking at a pair of long legs encased in olive-green chinos. Letting her glance sweep upwards, she saw that her interrogator was flat stomached, and that his chest, covered by an expensively tasteful linen shirt, broadened out to complement a pair of wide, capable-looking shoulders. His body was fit, honed to lean perfection, and even before her eyes had reached his face and meshed with his dark, piercing gaze, the breath had snagged in her throat.
Good looking was not an apt description. She swallowed hard. He was awesome, and well worth a second glance, if only she hadn't been diverted by the way he was standing there, calmly assessing her, his grey eyes glimmering with a brooding expression that she found hard to fathom.
She managed to find her voice once more. Breathing evenly to keep her composure, she said, 'Actually, you don't need to concern yourself about me being here. I know it must look odd, but there is a perfectly reasonable explanation.'
'I'm glad to hear it,' he said. 'Perhaps you'd care to enlighten me?'
'Yes, of course.' She frowned. Surely he wasn't the owner of the property, who had come back to take a last look around?
No one with his muscular build and general look of vitality would have left the place to fall into ruin, would they? She said carefully, 'I have the wrong key. I mean, I thought I had the right key, but something's wrong with it.'