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Gaby stood on the deserted quay and cursed herself for being on the wrong side of the river. She reached through the open car door for the map book and squinted at it. Then she turned it sideways and squinted again.
David had always said she was useless at map-reading. Mind you, her ex-husband had said she was useless at most things. She'd spent the last year doing her utmost to prove him wrong and it rankled that one of his thousand-and-one reasons to leave her had some foundation.
She slammed the car door and looked back across the river. Lower Hadwell was only a quarter of a mile away as the crow flies, but it would take her at least an hour to drive to the nearest town with a bridge and navigate her way back to the little village.
Botheration! Her first prospect of a proper job in almost a decade and she was already late for the interview. And not just fashionably late. She was all out, start-calling-the-hospitals late.
David's mocking face filled her mind. "Shut up!" she said out loud. Stupid, but it made her feel better.
She looked down at the map and a slow smile crept across her face. A little line of blue dashes. There was a ferry! Not so useless after all. Hah!
On one side of the quay a steep ramp led down to a shingle beach exposed by the receding tide. How on earth was she going to get the car down there without it rolling into the river? She blessed her sensible driving shoes and walked halfway down the ramp to get a better look.
The gravelly voice that came out of nowhere almost had her speeding back to London on foot. She put a hand over her stam-peding heart and faced the stocky man who'd stood up from in-specting a rather unseaworthy-looking boat. He was so much a part of the scenery she hadn't noticed him before. She half expected him to be covered with the same vivid green weed and barnacles as the ailing boat.
"Oh, good afternoon.'She smiled. "I was wondering about the ferry. Do you know what the timetable is?"
"This time of year it don't have one.' "Oh."
He went back to examining a broken bit of wood and she waited for him to continue, hands clasped in front of her. When it became apparent that he believed their conversation to be over, she crunched her way across the shingle towards him and stopped a few feet away.
He looked up at her again, his face crinkled against the February sun. She had no idea how old he was. The tattooed skin of his arms was smooth, but his face was etched like an old man's. He looked as if he'd spent most of his life scrunching his face against the reflection of the sun on the water, and the salt and wind had weathered it into deep furrows.
He didn't speak, but nodded in the direction of a large post in the car park. A brass bell crusted with verdigris hung from it. There was a sign, but she couldn't read it from down here on the beach, so back up the ramp she went.
Underneath the brief timetable was the following information: "30th October to 30th MarchPlease ring bell to call the ferryman."
Great! South Devon was obviously still operating on medieval principles.
She took hold of the frayed rope that hung from it and flung the clapper hard against the brass. The salty-looking boatman boat, maybe fifteen and wooden benches flight of steps.that on the next visit to her parents. Especially when they sighed and exchanged glances.
She knew what they thought. She must have been a terrible wife if she couldn't keep a "catch'like David happy. Her husband had traded her in for a newer, more compact model and it must be her fault. Nothing to do with the fact he was a self-centred, tyrannical little,
She turned her face into the wind so it blew her long brown hair behind her and stuffed her hands into the pockets of her fleece.
Lower Hadwell sat hibernating on the far side of the river, the ice-cream colours of the cottages muted by the winter sun. A narrow road separated a row of houses from the beach, then curved up a steep hill lined by cottages and shops, tightly packed as if huddling together for warmth.
Strange, that a picture-postcard village like this could contain a man with such a dark past. She wondered if they knew. Did the locals close ranks and whisper when he walked into the pub, or had they welcomed him into their little community? She hoped it was the latter. He deserved a fresh start, far away from the twitching net curtains of the suburbs.
Soon the ferry came alongside the string of pontoons that trailed down the beach from the village. The tide was so low that only the last two or three were floating. The rest lay helpless on the shingle, waiting for the murky water to rise and give them some purpose.
Gaby paid the ferryman and hopped out of the boat. No one was around. Well, almost no one. A lone figure in an oversized red fleece stood at the edge of one pontoon, hunched over and staring into the water. It was a girl, not more than eleven or twelve years old, her long dark hair scraped into a severe ponytail. Now and then she looked up and just stared into the distance.
Gaby knew that look. She'd spent many hours as child staring out of her bedroom window wearing the same heavy expression. Wishing her life were different, wishing she'd been born in a dif-ferent time or a different place.
The girl looked up when she heard Gaby approaching but turned away instantly, more out of sheer disinterest than embar-rassment. After a minute or so she lifted a string out of the water to reveal a hook, a small circular weight and some long, stringy bait. She stared at the lonely hook and her shoulders drooped even further.
Gaby itched to say something, to let the girl know the feeling wouldn't last for ever. One day she'd be free. In the end she said, "Never mind. Maybe you'll catch a fish next time."
A small huff was her only answer. "What's that stuff on the hook, anyway?' The girl dropped the line back into the water with a plop and wearily turned to face her. "My dad told me not to talk to strangers."
"Very sensible advice."
Advice she should follow herself. The girl turned away and focused her attention on the fishing line once again.
Gaby frowned and wondered whether she was transposing her own childhood worries on to this lone figure. Perhaps she should just leave the girl alone to catch whatever it was she was trying to catch, even though her intuition told her that what the girl really wanted was not going to be found at the end of some orange twine.
Come on, Gaby! You've already given yourself a stern talking to about getting too embroiled in other people's business. You don't have time to comfort sad little girls on the jetty, no matter how big their eyes or how lonely they look. You've got a job to grovel for.
She'd only taken a couple of steps when the girl spoke. "It's bacon."
Gaby stopped and walked back a few steps. "What kind of fish like bacon? Don't tell me there are sharks in there."
The girl almost smiled. She started hauling the string out of the grey-green water again. "Not fish! Look."
On the end of the line were three small crabs, the largest the size of the girl's hand. They were beautiful coloursshades of rust, green and slate. All three were hanging on to the string for dear life and fighting for the turgid bait. The girl shook the line over a water-filled bucket and two plopped into it to join a seething mass of crabs, all struggling to work out where that darn bit of bacon had gone.
The girl gave the line a more vigorous shake to dislodge the stubborn one still clinging on in hope of a square meal. This was a crafty little sucker, though. When the line shook a second time it catapulted itself beyond the rim of the bucket and scuttled towards Gaby's feet. She shrieked and ran down the pontoon.
The girl burst out laughing.
Meanwhile, the kamikaze crab ignored the commotion and lobbed itself off the edge of the pontoon and sank without a trace. Gaby edged back towards the girl and her bucket. It was good to see her smiling, but she reminded herself she needed to get on. Perhaps the girl could help her find him. She pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket and read the hastily scrib-bled address.
"Do you know where the Old Boathouse is, by any chance?' she asked, keeping as far away from the bucket as possible.
The smile faded from the girl's face. She gave Gaby a long hard look and tipped her head to one side. "Why do you want to go there?"
"Um, it's business.'That was vague enough to cover all even-tualities. The girl looked unconvinced. Still, she pointed to a stone building that seemed to be sitting on the curving shore about a quarter of a mile away.
"How do I get there? Is there a boat?"
The girl shook her head. "There's a lane opposite the Ferryboat Inn." She stopped and looked at Gaby's suede trainers. "It's a bit muddy, though."
She thanked the girl and walked up a ramp and on to the main street. The opening to the lane wasn't hard to find. Before her view was blocked by a line of trees, she looked back towards the river.
The girl picked up her bucket, tipped the angry contents into the river and started all over again.
*** Muddy? It was practically a swamp!
Gaby lifted her foot and tried to work out whether she could actually still see her trainers through the mud boots she seemed to be wearing. The cold was seeping though the suede and into the bones of her feet.
She was hardly going to look the picture of professionalism when she reached her destination. Her thoughts strayed to the nice jacket and sensible-but-smart shoes still in her car. It might have been a good idea to spruce herself up before she'd got on the ferry, but she'd figured that, since she was almost two hours late, the absence of correct footwear and her one good jacket were the least of her worries.
Soon she caught glimpses of the Old Boathouse through the leafless trees. It was a large building made of local stone. Even to her untrained eye it was obvious that it had once been what its name suggested. Over the yearsshe wouldn't like to guess how manyit had been extended, and the half of the house that faced the lane had the appearance of a quaint country cottage with leaded windows and a dry stone wall enclosing the garden.
She was just nearing the sturdy gate when a man appeared from behind the house. She stopped in her tracks. Who was that? The gardener? He looked dishevelled enough, but something about the clothes was wrong.
An image from a TV news bulletin flashed across her mind. That was him? The man she'd come to see?
Her feet sank further into the mud and she listened to the sound of her own breath. He didn't even notice her. He just loaded a large cardboard box into the back of a Range Rover and disappeared back inside the house.
He looked different. Leaner. Harder. His sandy hair was longer and messier and he obviously hadn't been near a razor in a couple of days. Gone was the respectable-looking doctor, replaced by a wilder, more rugged-looking man. Oh, yes, five years in prison had definitely changed Luke Armstrong.
Suddenly he reappeared. And this time he saw her.
At first his face registered surprise, but it quickly hardened into something else. He dumped the box he was carrying in the boot of the car and strode towards her.
"What do you want?"
He barked the question out and her heart started to gallop inside her chest. She'd never been very good at confrontation and he seemed ready for a fight. As she struggled to make her lips form her own name, he looked her up and down. And if looks were anything to go by, she knew she'd been fired even before the interview.
"Mr Armstrong?" she stammered. "You know full well who I am."
Well, of course she did! She was hoping to be his new nanny. "I'm sure you know what brand of toothpaste I use, so don't turn up here looking all innocent and pretend you've lost your way. I've heard that one before."
She certainly didn't know what toothpaste he used! What was he trying to imply? A sudden rush of heat behind her eyes told her she was more ready for confrontation than she'd suspected. "Mr Armstrong, I assure you"
"I wouldn't believe a word that came out of your lying mouth.' The fury in his eyes stopped any retort she might have had to hand. His face twisted as he shook his head, then he just turned and walked back towards the house. Gaby was so shocked that it didn't even occur to her to move.
Just before he disappeared from view, he turned to look over his shoulder. "You'll just have to tell your editor you blew it," he yelled. And then he was gone.
Editor? He'd said editor, she was sure of it. Oh,