Authors: Susan Lewis
About the Book
Charlotte Nicholls has a secret that haunts her.
She and three-year-old Chloe have left their home and friends, and are now building a new life for themselves elsewhere.
All Charlotte wants to do is to forget the past, to blot out the tragedy of what went before, and to look only to the future.
At last she and Chloe feel safe.
Then, suddenly, their nightmare returns, and Charlotte finds she has no power to prevent what comes next . . .
About the Author
Susan Lewis is the bestselling author of twenty-nine novels. She is also the author of
Just One More Day
One Day at a Time
, the moving memoirs of her childhood in Bristol. She lives in Gloucestershire. Her website address is
Also by Susan Lewis
A Class Apart
Dance While You Can
The Hornbeam Tree
The Mill House
A French Affair
Out of the Shadows
No Turning Back
No Child of Mine
Just One More Day
One Day at a Time
Don’t Let Me Go
To James, for everything we’ve shared, and more to come
NEVER, IN ALL
her twenty-nine years, had Charlotte Nicholls imagined life being this good. OK, she didn’t have the right partner, nor was there even the glimpse of some dashing Romeo ready to charge over the horizon, though it had to be said that her horizons these days were truly gorgeous to behold. Surrounded by calmly floating islands in shimmering blue seas, enchanted by dazzling red sunsets that took the breath away, she was actually living in paradise. And this shady cove where she stood now, tucked like a precious secret into the southerly shores of New Zealand’s Te Puna Bay, was home for her and three- (soon to be four) year-old Chloe – along with a rowdy jabber of parrots, a lively orchestra of cicadas, and a whole host of marine life that flopped and skimmed and dived about the waves like circus performers.
Charlotte was becoming quite skilled now at easing memories of the past aside and allowing the joy, the promise of her new life to eclipse all she’d left behind. Gazing out at the bay and reminding herself of how lucky she was to be here usually did it. Not always, it was true, but if it didn’t work then a single glance at Chloe and how happy she was here, how transformed from the silent, traumatised toddler she’d been a few short months ago, was enough to convince her they were in the right place.
Charlotte had yet to find herself a job. However, she’d resolved not to stress about her future until she’d explored the best ways for her various talents to be put to use.
‘There’s no rush,’ her mother kept assuring her. ‘Time is on your side and money isn’t an issue.’
What a strange concept that was for Charlotte, not having money – or the lack of it – as an issue. A definite first in her life, and long might it last.
Long might all of it last, though she knew only too well that it could fall apart in a heartbeat.
But that wasn’t going to happen.
They were safe here with her mother and stepfather, Bob, who lived in the big house on the point of the headland at the far end of the bay’s southern shore. Their exotic stretch of white sandy beach joined Charlotte and Chloe’s cove when the tide was out, so they could walk through muddy puddles across to the lodge. When the tide was in, or the weather was rough, they’d walk up the sun-dappled incline from their cove to where Charlotte kept the car, beneath an old puriri tree, and drive through the citrus orchards and vineyards to the main house.
Bob’s grapes were Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Shiraz – his wines, according to Rick, his irreverent son, were ‘bloody undrinkable’, but Bob was more bothered by a recent infestation of hares on his land than he was by his son’s uneducated palate.
Charlotte’s mother, Anna, had helped to design the exquisite Cape Cod-style lodge with its pale grey wooden walls, white shutters and balustrades, while Bob, a semi-retired dentist-cum-property developer, had built it. The land around, all sixty or more acres of woodlands, orchards, rambling hillsides and vineyards, comprised the impressive estate. And the quaint beachfront dwelling at the heart of Charlotte and Chloe’s cove, known as a bach – short for bachelor pad – was where Rick, Bob’s son, had lived and partied during his student years. These days Rick was an advertising executive based in Auckland, though he still found time to visit his father’s rambling idyll out here on the magical Bay of Islands.
Charlotte and Chloe loved it when Rick was around. Already he was like the brother Charlotte had never had, and seeing the way Chloe had taken to him, even calling him Uncle Wick, was so sweet that it made Charlotte’s heart sing like a bird. Rick’s too, if his beaming smiles and overindulgence were anything to go by.
That Chloe could relate so well to a man after all she’d been through was the greatest source of joy for Charlotte. However, the damage was far from healed, and since they’d escaped the nightmare Rick was really the only man in whose company Chloe seemed able to relax. It pained Charlotte to see how withdrawn she became if Bob spoke to her, especially when he was so gentle and kind. Of course, he understood about her past, and though it must surely sadden him not to be able to swing her up in his arms and rough and tumble her the way he did his other grandchildren, he never tried to force her.
How awful it must have been for him to be likened in Chloe’s mind to her monster of a father, but he never let it show, nor spoke a single word about the pain this caused him.
For the most part, however, both Charlotte and Chloe were loving getting to know their new family, which also included Rick’s older sister Shelley, her husband Phil, and their children Danni and Craig. Until seven months ago, which was when Anna, Charlotte’s mother, had come back into Charlotte’s life after a
-year absence, Charlotte hadn’t even known that any of these people existed. Now, after four months of being here, she was already feeling as though she’d known them for most of her life. She felt so much easier with them than she ever had with her adoptive parents, though if the truth were told she knew that something inside her still couldn’t quite forgive her mother for abandoning her at the age of three. Of course she understood why her mother had done it – anyone would understand if they knew the story of what had happened back then. However, Charlotte only had to look at Chloe, who was currently paddling and poking about in the surf as it swirled and foamed around her chubby ankles, to doubt whether she could ever have done the same.
She mustn’t be judgemental. It would get her nowhere and what she really wanted, more than anything, was to bond with her mother in the way so many daughters did with their mothers. It would take time, she understood that, and they had time now – and once she’d managed to fight off the demons inside her she felt sure a close and loving relationship would follow.
She’d never been close to the woman who’d adopted her. Myra Lake, wife of Douglas, the rector, had never been cruel or neglectful, but nor had she ever really wanted her. It was the rector who’d rescued three-year-old Charlotte from the terrible tragedy that had struck Charlotte’s birth family and taken her home to his wife. Myra and Douglas were both dead now, but their natural daughter and Charlotte’s adoptive sister, Gabby, was very much alive.
It always hurt to think of Gabby, so Charlotte inhaled deeply the tangy salt air that embraced her with warmth and the fragrance of flowers, as though the very essence of her new world could stifle the old one. She listened to the music of the waves and chirrup of cicadas, and let her thoughts drift around the bay along with the terns, shags and occasionally a gull. When the tide was in, as it was now, a stream of water curved around the back of their cove like an arm, creating a translucent blue brook between their bach and the beach. A swing on ropes dangled over the far side of the brook, while a white wooden footbridge connected their garden to the shingly sand. There were eighteen stepping stones leading across their lawn to the bach, and Chloe could count ten of them in Maori.
She was starting to blossom at the Aroha Childcare Centre in Waipapa; she had friends now and projects to complete. She was even allowing Charlotte to leave her there for three mornings a week, though Charlotte was always anxious during those hours in case Chloe suddenly blurted out something about her past.
Smiling as Chloe emptied her toy bucket into the surf, Charlotte shouted out, ‘Find anything?’
Chloe’s pixie face looked troubled as she shook her head. A lazy sea breeze was tousling her wispy dark curls and her tender limbs, thickly slathered in sunblock, were speckled with clumps of stony sand. She was wearing her favourite red swimsuit and the dearest little pair of yellow Crocs. Standing as she was in the shade of what she called a pokwa tree, being unable to pronounce pohutukawa, she looked like an exotic little butterfly. Up until a month ago, the branches of the tree, which hung out over the shallow depths of the surf like a ballerina, had been shrouded in vivid red flowers. It was known as the New Zealand Christmas tree. Only a few of the vibrant blooms remained now, shedding their crimson needles over the beach like tiny shreds of confetti.
This past Christmas had been their first in the sun, with dinner served on a shady veranda of the lodge and nothing but their laughter and clink of glasses disturbing the still of the bay. Both Charlotte and Chloe had received so many presents – more than either of them had had before – that they’d been unable to carry them all home to the bach. Rick had driven them in one of the estate’s old Jeeps, calling it a summer sleigh. Afterwards Chloe had helped to row their blue boat back to the white sandy beach where they swam and waterskied and played ball with the rest of the family until the sun went down.
It was unsettling to think of how close they’d lived to the sea in England – a very different kind of sea – and yet Chloe had never been allowed to play in it, or ride the donkeys, or bury her father in the sand.
She could swim now, albeit in a haphazard doggy-paddle way, and she loved to go out on the dive boat with Nanna and Bob when they went to bring up lobsters and scallops. It was her job, with Shelley, or Rick, or Danni to look out for other boats and make sure theirs didn’t drift. She’d come back full of tales about naughty crayfish and their feelers and the dolphins that had spun and leapt around them like they wanted to play.
‘Look at me!’ Chloe suddenly yelped. Her face was glowing with delight as she waved her hands and wiggled her tiny hips back and forth, side to side and round and round.
‘I’m looking at you,’ Charlotte called back, putting pebbles on the corners of a tablecloth to stop it flying off in the breeze. Chloe had collected the pebbles and Charlotte had helped her to paint on funny faces. ‘Are you ready for your tea yet?’ she asked.
Receiving no reply, she glanced up to find Chloe on her hands and knees performing a strange forward, backward crawl and though Charlotte couldn’t make out the words she could tell she was singing. No doubt this was another of the little Maori rituals she’d learned at childcare. Though there weren’t any Maori children at Aroha she was still being taught
– the Maori customs and traditions. And she adored Maya, Bob and Anna’s housekeeper, who lived on the settlement that curved like a boomerang from the eastern shore of the bay. Over the years Maya had taught her ancestors’ songs to Bob’s children and grandchildren, and now she was teaching Chloe too.