Authors: Cathy Cole
1. The New Girl
2. The Trouble With Love
3. More Than a Love Song
4. A Date With Fate
5. Never a Perfect Moment
6. Kiss at Midnight
7. Back to You
8. Summer of Secrets
9. Playing the Game
10. Flirting With Danger
11. Lovers and Losers
12. Winter Wonderland
An infinite number of thank yous to Lucy Courtenay and Sara Grant
Look Out for More Heartside Bay
The morning sun was creeping over the window sill. A gentle breeze was blowing the curtains back against the wall. Birds sang and twittered from the branches in the tree outside.
Rhi hunched her head a little further into her shoulders and willed herself to take in something â anything â from the page of geography revision notes in front of her. She'd been staring at it for half an hour already, but none of it was sinking in. In a fit of frustration, she ripped the page from her folder and crumpled it in her fist, then threw it hard across her room where it bounced off the wall and into the waste-paper basket. The birds outside sang on, oblivious.
If those birds don't stop, I am going to do something I might regret
, she thought.
She had so much to do, and so little time in which to do it. The more she thought about her exams starting on Monday, the more paralysed she felt. And the more paralysed she felt, the closer Monday came. It was a vicious circle. Her parents â her mother in particular â were depending on her to do well. Her family had been through so much in the past few years. Rhi couldn't put more stress on to the family by failing her exams.
She was already regretting crumpling the piece of paper. Fetching the creased ball from the waste-paper basket, she smoothed it out as best she could. Irrigation systems in East Anglia. Picking up a pen, she copied out the information. Maybe some of the facts would stick to her brain the same way the ink stuck to the new sheet of paper.
It didn't seem to work. Her notes still felt like a meaningless jumble of letters, numbers, arrows, boxes, graphs â¦ her head hurt just looking at them. How was she ever going to remember this stuff?
This is a disaster
, she thought in panic.
These exams start in just forty-eight hours and I hardly know a thing. I'm going to fail everything and Mum is going to kill me.
Paralysis was setting in again. She slammed down her pen and shoved violently at the notes in front of her. They teetered for a moment on the edge of the desk before scattering across the carpet.
She pushed her chair back, resting the heels of her hands against her eyes. She wanted all this to
Rhi remembered how once, as a child, she had stood perfectly still in the middle of the stairs, believing that if she stopped moving, bedtime would never come. The feeling of control had been powerful. But then her parents had started one of their arguments, and Ruth had put her head out of her bedroom door and laughed at Rhi on the stairs, and Rhi had noticed the second hand on the hall clock was still ticking. The sense of power passed. Nothing was going to stop. Time had a habit of moving on whether you wanted it to or not.
Wearily she took her hands away from her eyes, got off her chair and started picking up the mess she had created. Geography in one pile, maths in another. English, historyâ¦
She paused as her fingers met something she didn't recognize. She lifted an envelope from the carpet and stared at it in surprise. It was a letter, addressed to her, with a London postmark.
It must have arrived in yesterday's post
, she thought, turning it over curiously. She guessed her mother had left it on her desk, where it had been covered up by her messy revision notes. Until now.
No one wrote personal letters these days. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a handwritten envelope in her hand. Maybe a Valentine's card from Max. It was interesting how the thought of Max didn't bother her the way it used to.
Glad of the distraction, Rhi ripped open the envelope. She had barely started reading it when she dropped it as if the paper had burned her.
It was from Mac.
A hundred thoughts tumbled through Rhi's head. Why was Mac writing to her now? What did he want? How
he put pen to paper, after everything that happened? Her whole body was trembling from the shock of seeing his name.
I want nothing to do with him ever again.
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying and failing to blank out the memory of the last time she'd seen Christopher McAllister. The closed door that she had opened so unthinkingly. The shock on Ruth's face. Everything that had happened on that terrible day had been his fault.
, whispered the mocking voice in her head.
Don't think about it
, Rhi ordered herself.
You can't change the past.
The old, familiar wave of guilt, anger and grief welled up inside her. She stared at the letter on the carpet like it was a venomous spider. It had woken something ugly inside her and she didn't want to touch it.
Downstairs, the front door slammed so hard that the walls of Rhi's bedroom shook.
“I should have known you were planning something like this!”
Rhi's father sounded weary. “Anita, I was going to tell youâ”
of you not to get around to it until I found out for myself, Patrick! You really are a spinelessâ”
Rhi pressed her hands tightly to her ears. On top of her panic about the exams and the ice-cold shock of Mac's letter, the last thing she needed this morning was one of her parents' shouting matches. It had been particularly bad over the past few days. Rhi hardly dared to wonder what the argument was about this time.
She could still hear her mother through her fingers.
, Patrick. This time I've had it withâ”
Sometimes her parents didn't even need a reason to argue. Her mother always raised her voice higher than her dad.
As if by shouting louder, she can block out his existence
, Rhi thought wearily, pulling her hands from her ears. There was no point in trying to block it out.
She suddenly realized that her mother was at the top of the stairs. Instinctively, Rhi dived for the letter. If her mother came in and saw who had been writing to herâ¦ It didn't bear thinking about.
“You always think about what's best for you, don't you Patrick? All these years I've slaved to keep food on the table for this family, and this is the thanks I get. I gave you the best years of my lifeâ”
Trying not to look at the spidery writing on the paper, Rhi shoved the letter back inside its envelope. She couldn't put it in the bin â her mother would see it, and open it. It was a miracle the letter had reached her unopened to begin with. So what was she going to do with it?
Her door handle turned with alarming speed. Rhi just had time to hurl herself towards her bed and stuff the letter under her pillow before her mother flung open the door.
She had a sinking feeling that she was too late.
“Maybe you can talk some sense into your father,” Rhi's mother hissed, red-faced and angry in the bedroom doorway. “Because I certainly can't.”
Rhi's heart rate slowed to a more manageable pace. Somehow her mother's eagle eyes had failed to see her hiding Mac's letter. She composed her face so that she looked as neutral as possible. She'd had a lot of practice.
“Talk some sense into him about what?” she asked.
“You and your father have always had your little secrets,” her mother said, pointing accusingly at Rhi. “Did you know about this?”
Rhi realized with some shock that her mother's eyes were red around the edges. Had she been crying? Her mother never cried. Dr Anita Wills kept her cool at all times.
“Mum, calm downâ” she began, rising from the bed.
tell me to calm down.” Rhi's mother stalked feverishly up and down Rhi's bedroom, straightening the books on her shelves. She didn't even glance at the mess of paper on the carpet. “This is my
, and I'm always the last to know. Tell me the truth.
Did you know
Her mother was starting to worry Rhi now. Had she completely lost it?
“I honestly don't know what you mean, Mum,” she tried. “Whatâ”
“Your father is moving out,” her mother spat.
Rhi's world narrowed to a pinpoint of nothing. She couldn't believe what her mother had just said. Her parents' fighting had always been bad, but this was beyond her worst nightmares. Her father couldn't go. He couldn't leave her here.
“W â¦ what?” she croaked.
“You heard me,” said her mother bitterly. “He's going. Packing his bags and flitting off to Dreamland, where he has no responsibilities to his family and bills are paid with thin air. What do you think about
The bedroom door banged open for a second time. It was unlike Rhi's father to get angry, but right now, he looked like a snorting bull. A bull, Rhi noted with a further flash of horror, that was holding a suitcase.
“What do you think you're doing, Anita?” he hissed. “We were going to tell Rhi calmly over dinner, or had you forgotten? You can be incredibly selfish, can't you?”
Her mother swelled like a balloon. “
can be selfish? Oh, that's rich coming from you! I have slaved for years to keep this family safe. To keep you all secure! Or those of you I have left, anywayâ¦”
Rhi wanted to curl into a ball, hide under the bed â anything to make this go away.
“You're scaring her, Anita! Listen to yourself for once. Rhi, baby, listen to meâ¦” Her dad was sat on the bed now, trying to comfort her. “This isn't about you, darling, itâ”
“Of course it's about her!” her mother shouted. “It's about all of us!”
Rhi stared dumbly at her father as he pulled her into a hug. “Baby, I'm not going far,” he said into her hair. “I've taken a little flat near the Heartbeat CafÃ©. You can come and stay any time you like, there's a little spare room you can have. Will you do that?”
“An artist's garret,” her mother snorted. “Cold, dirty, dingy, damp. You'd have our daughter there, would you? That is
like you, Patrick. One day you'll wake up and realize that the world doesn't turn on canvas and oil paint! One day you'll come to your senses. You'll beg me to take you back and save you from destitution. But guess what? If you leave this house, you will never be welcome here again.
“I promise you, Rhi,” her father said gently, “everything's going to be fine. I've started painting again. I've even sold a few pieces. I can't do that in this house, you know that. I'm stifled here. I have been for years.”
“This house stifles you, does it?” said Rhi's mother shrilly. “You ungratefulâ”
Over her father's shoulder Rhi could see her guitar propped up against the wall of her bedroom. She felt as if she hadn't played it for ages, even though it had only been a couple of days. Now more than ever, her fingers itched to brush her guitar strings. She knew exactly what her father meant about feeling stifled. She felt stifled too.
Her music had always been a refuge from the difficulties in her life â and it felt like there had been a
of difficulties. Her mother had never understood her passion, dismissing it as “a phase”. But it wasn't a phase. It was
Rhi had always written songs, but she had only recently started performing in public. And then she had met Brody Baxter. Brody with his fruit-stickered guitar and sapphire-blue eyes, his long tousled blond hair and his gorgeous smile. From the first moment they had sung together, Rhi had felt their connection. It had been magic. Now Rhi spent every spare moment of her time writing songs with her sister's old guitar, and practising them with Brody. They played a regular gig at the Heartbeat together, made recordings, and performed at weddings. They had a wedding that very afternoon, which was part of the reason Rhi had been up early to fit in her revision. She and Brody often talked about a future making music together. It was one of the best things in her life. It would be a career with a hundred ups and downs â Rhi knew that. Even getting this far hadn't been easy. But she knew that she wouldn't be truly happy without music in her life.
Her mother didn't understand. She wasn't a fan of anything beyond A-grades in sensible subjects that would get Rhi a sensible job.
She doesn't have the imagination to see any further than that
, Rhi thought bitterly. Her father had plenty of imagination. Too much sometimes, maybe. But at least he had dreams.
She tried to say something, but the words weren't coming out.
Her parents were still shouting at each other.
“I'm sick and tired of paying for your ridiculous dreams! We still have a daughter, Patrick. Doesn't she matter to you? You've already packed your bag, so get out,” Rhi's mother hissed, “before I do something I regret!”
“I already did something I regret. I married
Her father's words stabbed Rhi through the heart.
“Stop it!” she screamed. Her parents looked round, startled. “Stop it, stop it, stop it! Why do you have to fight all the time? Do you have any idea how it feels to listen to you? To be
Her father looked horrified. “Rhi, I didn't meanâ”
Rhi felt as if a dam had burst inside her. “You are ripping me in half!” she shouted. “I won't be put in the middle any more, I won't. Sort it out or hate each other for ever, I don't care. Just stop making this house your battlefield!”
And she snatched up her guitar and ran out of the room, blinded by her tears.