Daniel Marks was standing in the corner of the room watching and listening. He didn’t understand what was happening, why people were shouting and being rough with his dad. They shouldn’t be here. It was his birthday. He was ten today and he was having a party. All his friends were coming, Nicholas and Jeremy and Thomas and Carl. He’d invited some girls too, Peggy, Jolene and Pearl. His dad had bought special things for them to eat, and there was a cake on the table with candles ready to blow out.
They were still shouting. Everyone was so big. They were filling up the room and no one seemed to know he was there.
'Patrick Marks, I am arresting you . . .’ ‘You’re making a mistake,’ his dad cried out, looking more afraid than Daniel had ever seen him.
Daniel wanted to scream, bang his fists against them and make them go away, but he just stood where he was, too scared to move.
There were some handcuffs now, and they were trying to put them on his dad, but his dad pushed them away. ‘I need to speak to my son,’ he growled. ‘Can’t I just do that?’
Someone put out a hand to stop him, but someone else pushed the hand away. His dad came to crouch to his level and held his shoulders, his fingers digging into Daniel’s fragile bones. There was a pale, thin line around his mouth; his dark eyes were still frightened. ‘It’ll be all right, son,’ he whispered, seeming to choke on the words. ‘They’ve got the wrong person. Do you hear me?’
Daniel nodded. His dad took a breath, and then another. His eyes were moist and desperate. ‘I want you to remember,’ he said, ‘that no matter what they do to me, or say about me, I’ve never done anything wrong, or to be ashamed of. OK?’
Daniel nodded again, and sobbed as his dad’s strong arms pulled him close and held him tight. He could smell the caramel and woody scent of him; feel his tears in his hair.
‘You need to be brave,’ Marks whispered roughly. ‘Can you be brave?’
Daniel knew he couldn’t, but if he said no it was going to upset his dad more so he made himself whisper a yes.
‘I love you, son,’ Marks gasped, still holding him tightly. ‘Never forget that. I want you to do your best in every way you can, OK? And don’t ever believe what they tell you, because I swear on your mother’s grave, they’ve got the wrong man.’
Today, forty years after the Emmett family – two brothers married to two sisters – had made the neglected sprawl of Ash Morley Farm into a home, it remained as quaintly rustic as ever, albeit in a less reproductive, and definitely more inviting way. It still comprised four honey stone properties of varying sizes – a rambling old farmhouse, a grand barn with dovecotes and arrow slits, some stables and a bakery. The small enclave shared an uneven cobbled courtyard where hay carts, cattle, sheep and tractors used to rumble about their days. Now, in this similar setting, stood a milkmaid fountain at the centre of things, with a giant weeping willow beside it, and two cherry trees and a number of year-round flower beds spread randomly about.
Leanne had loved growing up here, mainly because her friends had been so keen to visit – often their parents came too. Life was always fun at Ash Morley. Wilkie and Glory – Leanne’s mother and aunt – were legendary entertainers, and had encouraged all sorts of adventures for the young ones, while providing such scrummy picnics for everyone that Leanne’s father and uncle used to playfully grumble that the sisters were stealing business from their thriving seafront restaurant in town.
By the time Leanne reached eighteen she’d been more than ready to break out and start living life to the full. She’d won a place at the London College of Contemporary Arts and was so excited to be off that she hadn’t given her parents’ distress at losing her a second thought.
Now, twenty-four years later, she was back, an older, and not necessarily wiser woman doing her best to start a new life. Though Wilkie, her mother, still lived in the farmhouse, her father had died five years ago, and her Aunt Glory had succumbed to cancer recently enough for the grief still to be raw. Glory, who’d never had any children, had willed the barn and her share of the rest of Ash Morley to Leanne.
'Today, when she looked in the mirror, she saw a kind of bad watercolour of herself, blurred about the edges, no longer defined as a confident, capable woman, more like someone who’d been left out in the rain.'
Leanne still missed her father and aunt terribly, almost as much as she missed her elder daughter Kate. Kate. What a mix of emotions flooded her just to picture Kate’s beautiful face, or to think of where she might be and what she was doing now.
And then there was Abby, her youngest . . . ‘You didn’t answer my question,’ Wilkie chided, going to put on the kettle, as at home in the barn as she was in the farmhouse.
‘Sorry, I missed what you said,’ Leanne replied, shrugging off her coat. ‘I asked if you’d treated yourself to something lovely,’ Wilkie repeated.
Leanne glanced at the bags she’d brought in from the car: Next, Top Shop, Zara. What was in them, for heaven’s sake? ‘Not really,’ she said vaguely, ‘it’s mostly for Abby.’
Wilkie sighed and planted her hands on her plump little hips. Nature couldn’t have made mother and daughter less alike if it had tried, for Wilkie with her lusciously curvy figure and bright orange hair stood no higher than five feet two in heels. Leanne, on the other hand, was tall, like her father, with long slender legs, boyish hips and an abundance of honey-coloured curls.
‘There’s nothing wrong with indulging yourself once in a while,’ Wilkie reminded her.
Leanne didn’t argue, because she agreed. However, these days she was quite happy in jeans and a sweater, or occasionally a dress from Glory Days, the vintage shop in town that she’d also inherited from her aunt.
There was a time when her wardrobe had overflowed with silks and satins, glittering tops and impossible shoes. She’d had real diamonds for her fingers and ears; her hair had been styled and highlighted to perfection, and her skin had always shone with as much happiness as health. Today, when she looked in the mirror, she saw a kind of bad watercolour of herself, blurred about the edges, no longer defined as a confident, capable woman, more like someone who’d been left out in the rain. More often than not she wore her glorious hair scraped back from her pale, heartshaped face, and she no longer accentuated the lengthy lashes around her blue, almond-shaped eyes, or added colour to her lips or cheeks. According to her mother this ghostly image made her look young and vulnerable, and rather like the heroine of a nineteenth-century novel. Since Leanne was forty-three, and felt about as romantic as a pair of baggy tights, she could only conclude that she wasn’t presenting an accurate picture of her true self to the world.
In fact, she knew she wasn’t, but why should anyone else have to deal with the cauldron of conflicting emotions fermenting away inside her? Talking about Jack, even thinking about him, would be like poking a hornets’ nest, and once all those dreadful feelings were unleashed how was she ever going to get them back under control? They’d die away of their own accord given time, she was in no doubt of that. She already felt infinitely better than she had a year ago, when the world as she’d known it had been thrown off its axis in a way she should have seen coming, but hadn’t.
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