Love At Christmas, Actually: The Little Christmas Kitchen / Driving Home for Christmas / Winter's Fairytale Jenny Oliver Maxine Morrey A. L. Michael This festive season, indulge in everything you love about Christmas: food, family and love. Get that fire blazing, nab yourself some mulled wine and snuggle up with Jenny Oliver, A. L. Michael and Maxine Morrey as they show you that love is actually all around!The Little Christmas KitchenThis Christmas, all sisters Ella and Maddy want is a change of scene! But as the two agree to swap kitchens, trading London for Greece and vice versa, it suddenly seems that in among the icing sugar, cinnamon and cranberries, they’re missing one crucial ingredient: each other!Driving Home for ChristmasMegan is driving home for the holidays – even if family for the last ten years has just been her daughter Skye. But Megan knows she has to give her parents a chance. She'd planned to reclaim her family for Christmas – but that didn't include irresistible ex, Lucas Bright.Winter’s FairytaleWhen a sudden blanketing of snow leaves Izzy stranded just before Christmas, she's in desperate need of a rescue. But that doesn't mean a cosy weekend with Rob in his swanky flat, watching London become a winter wonderland! Because Izzy and Rob have history and Izzy isn’t ready to go there, yet… Love At Christmas, Actually Driving Home for Christmas A.L. Michael Winter’s Fairytale Maxine Morrey The Little Christmas Kitchen Jenny Oliver Copyright (#ulink_48122969-6141-51d4-886f-87be4f11ddb8) HQ An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF First published in Great Britain by HQ in 2015 Copyright © A.L. Michael/Maxine Morrey/Jenny Oliver 2015 A.L. Michael/Maxine Morrey/Jenny Oliver asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. E-book Edition © June 2015 ISBN: 9781474048521 Version date: 2018-06-20 Contents Cover (#u037e4fd0-5856-59a1-8398-86286007414f) Title Page (#u84ea58f9-bab3-504c-a382-36955e15c01d) Copyright (#ue7ebd575-e133-57be-b65b-d26538e7c8fb) Driving Home for Christmas (#u22594e32-8517-5072-ad1b-af6587c5885b) Blurb (#u9ac4d860-452c-5dfb-9820-2b44cfe95268) Author Bio (#u57ea3700-0a7c-5d22-b3da-1f8fb33c51c5) Dedication (#u7dc6c456-e98b-5e28-94ca-29161a7d6c3a) Chapter One (#ud28c06ae-5225-534c-a719-6161065702aa) Chapter Two (#u843d4edd-0180-5841-9b92-cb0f9a7ee36f) Chapter Three (#u9396f2ba-d37d-5fb8-85a6-e9ee250a06a7) Chapter Four (#uc79130b4-9ac7-5e52-96e2-d17f740b9aa7) Chapter Five (#u8658db79-0eb0-5f14-a79c-bde09564a246) Chapter Six (#uf0066fe9-e690-5127-abb9-bd46afafc2ef) Chapter Seven (#u0a7b85a7-5d0d-5ef2-b9fa-d78fe1a35d56) Chapter Eight (#u72717670-4ca5-58b4-a5c5-fac45cc31af3) Chapter Nine (#ud66f699a-f9cb-54fe-95ee-5ff09506221e) Chapter Ten (#u7a79aa42-5e24-5305-90c8-b6d3f389edec) Chapter Eleven (#ubfa458ca-27c0-5c43-a177-2052c8772ef0) Chapter Twelve (#uf792b9fb-8aa3-5565-9d49-2fcb9e1485b9) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Winter’s Fairytale (#litres_trial_promo) Blurb (#litres_trial_promo) Author Bio (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgement (#litres_trial_promo) Dedication (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) The Little Christmas Kitchen (#litres_trial_promo) Blurb (#litres_trial_promo) Author Bio (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 1 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 2 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 3 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 4 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 5 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 6 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 7 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 8 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 9 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 10 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 11 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 12 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 13 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 14 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 15 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 16 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 17 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 18 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 19 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 20 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 21 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 22 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 23 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 24 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 25 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 26 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 27 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 28 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 29 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 30 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 31 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 32 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 33 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 34 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 35 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 36 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 37 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 38 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 39 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 40 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 41 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 42 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 43 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 44 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 45 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 46 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 47 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 48 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 49 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 50 (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER 51 (#litres_trial_promo) Endpages (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Driving Home for Christmas (#ulink_0cfd77e2-2531-5dfc-89a6-d2adcb4d0de6) Megan McAllister is home for Christmas…whether she likes it or not! Christmas is about family…and for Megan family means two people: herself, and her daughter Skye. It doesn’t mean her parents who, ten years ago, saw her pregnancy as anything but a miracle. And it definitely doesn’t include her irresistible ex-boyfriend Lucas Bright. So ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ has never been top of Megan’s festive playlist. But for Skye, she knows she needs to spend the holiday season with the people she’s left behind. She can do this. Even if the thought of meeting Lucas under the mistletoe still has her feeling like she’s drunk one-too-many Snowballs! But somewhere between the hanging of stockings and the crackle of wrapping paper, Christmas starts to sparkle. And Megan begins to wonder if family could be bigger than her and Skye after all… Pop the buck’s fizz, stoke the fire and prepare to giggle the festive season away with AL Michael! A.L. MICHAEL is a twenty-something writer from North London, currently living in Watford. She has a BA in English Literature with Creative Writing, and an MA in Creative Entrepreneurship (both from UEA) and is studying for an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. She is not at all dependent on her student discount card. She works as a creative writing workshop facilitator, and an English tutor, and is currently working on her fourth novel. She has an alarming penchant for puns, is often sarcastic when she means to be sincere, and can spend hours watching videos of Corgis on Buzzfeed. But it’s all research, really. For Mum and Dad, who have always supported my choices. And for S, who is the only person I want to kiss under the mistletoe. Chapter One (#ulink_64148127-c6c4-5431-b2a2-ba055dbbe138) December 2004 Maybe they’ll be merciful, Megan McAllister thought as she hung Christmas decorations onto the same Christmas tree they’d had every year since she could remember. Old Piney spent the year out in the garden, and was cruelly uprooted every December and brought into the sweltering heat of the living room, with the log fire crackling, almost as a warning of what happened to bad trees. It was starting to look like it was suffering. It wasn’t the only one. Maybe they’d see it as a Christmas miracle, and look to the kindness and understanding of the people of Bethlehem when she told them. But she doubted it somehow. She was meant to be off to Cambridge, to read English. She was meant to go off and do great things. She’d only just got her head around the idea of being independent, leaving their little village for a proper town. Leaving Lucas behind. And now…well, none of that really mattered any more, did it? She paused, looking at the decoration she’d picked up. A red clay hand imprint, heavy and solid, with ‘Megan’s first Christmas’ marker-penned across the front. Oh shit. *** ‘I don’t want to go, Anna.’ Skye heard her mother’s voice, arguing with her great-aunt. Skye was meant to be in bed, but Auntie Anna tended to let it slide if she was quiet or reading. Anna let a lot of things go for reading. Especially if Skye then recited something impressive from Shakespeare or a Wilde play. Anna was ‘wild for Wilde’, as she loved to say. ‘Darling, it’s important,’ Anna drawled, and Skye could imagine her sucking on her thin black cigarette holder, tracing the edges of her heavily lined lashes. Her mum used to say Anna was a ‘theatre darling’ and ‘a bit of a cliché’, but Skye didn’t really think it was fair to call someone a cliché just because they enjoyed what they enjoyed. It was like when people called her precocious because she liked exact words and actions. Nothing wrong with that. For the most part, Anna was just eccentric, with her big jewellery and dramatic hand gestures. ‘What’s different now? She summons us and we have to come running? She’s wanted nothing to do with us for ten years, Anna.’ ‘You know that’s not true, darling,’ Anna shushed her. They must have been talking about her grandma, Skye realised, because that was the only time her mum and Anna argued. Well, that and the time Skye had snuck into the fridge and had a bite of Anna’s special chocolate brownie that tasted weird, and she’d had to lie down for hours. Mum had been pretty mad about that. ‘Reminding me that you’re acting as her little spy is hardly going to endear me right now,’ Megan said pointedly. ‘She cares, my love, really,’ Anna said gently, and Megan stayed silent. ‘It’s taken ten years for her to reach out, don’t be stubborn and let it take ten more.’ ‘You want me to be the bigger person?’ Megan asked. ‘I want you to do this for me,’ Anna said heavily, ‘and I want you to do it for Skye. She needs more people in her life than her mother, an ageing actress and a young queen.’ ‘Jeremy’s hardly a queen.’ ‘He does drag five nights a week, what else would you call him?’ ‘A very talented actor?’ Anna sighed. ‘You and your delicate sensibilities, darling. I do wish you’d stop being such a goody two shoes all the time.’ Megan laughed bitterly. ‘I’m a single mother. My parents disowned me. I’m entirely too dependent on an evening gin and tonic, and I haven’t had a relationship in ten years.’ ‘And you’re so bloody saintly about it all.’ ‘Would you rather I’d run off and joined a biker gang? Or the circus! That would have been a good story, Skye could be a contortionist by now, or riding elephants for the crowds,’ Megan babbled on. ‘Maybe I would have stopped waxing, become a bearded lady, married the moustached strong man…’ ‘Darling, I just meant perhaps you could stop punishing yourself for something that happened ten years ago, and has actually worked out pretty well,’ Anna sighed. ‘You are so very like your mother sometimes.’ Megan gasped. ‘If you’re going to say things like that I hope to hell you’ve made Sangria.’ Skye heard Anna sigh. ‘I made hot toddy instead. Look, I know you take such delight in being indignant and proud all the time, but from one black sheep to another, sometimes it gets a little cold out here.’ Megan was silent, and Skye could imagine her blowing on her drink, the steam curling out and warming her face. ‘I’ll think about it,’ Megan said quietly. Did her mum want a relationship? Skye had never really questioned their life together, it just was. And what was wrong with a grown-up having a gin and tonic if they wanted it? Her mum was a good mum. Skye crept back up the stairs and into her room, crawling across the floor to slide into her fort, which was where she did all her Big Detective Thinking. Skye was going to be a private investigator when she grew up, and her fort housed all her tools for the job. The fort was really just strips of old faded pastel print sheets Megan had sewn together, decorated with fairy lights and turned into a tipi. Skye loved it. She supposed her life looked strange to other people. Certainly to Britney and Chanel and that group of girls at school that always wanted to know why she didn’t have a dad. When kids came round to the house, they always used to ask if Jeremy was her dad. Sometimes she said yes. When he babysat her, back when Mum used to work nights and Anna was at the theatre, Jeremy would let her play with his glittery make-up, and curl her hair up so she looked like Shirley Temple. The problem with saying Jeremy was her dad was that eventually all her friends fell in love with him, because he had this silky blond hair, and bright blue eyes, and this lovely smile that made everyone smile back. Besides, it was wrong to lie. Her real dad was a nice enough man that wasn’t good at being a dad, but that was okay, because Mum was very good at being a mum. That’s what Anna said, anyway. Skye knew there was more to it than that. She knew that her mum was prettier and smarter and younger than all the other parents. That her friends’ dads used to act weird around her mum, and the mums never invited her to the PTA. But it didn’t matter, because her mum would always find out where the bake sale was, or the fundraiser, and always turn up with homemade cookies or a donation, and then disappear again, never saying a word. ‘Hey, cheeky monkey, aren’t you meant to be asleep?’ Megan came in, eyebrows raised. Her mum was beautiful, Skye thought. She had this warm brown hair that fell to her shoulders, and hazel eyes, and a little diamond that sparkled in her nose. Skye thought she’d never be as beautiful as her mum. ‘Anna said it was okay if I was reading.’ ‘What are you reading then?’ Her mum sat cross-legged on the floor in front of her tipi. Skye stuck her hand out, book displayed. ‘Animal Farm?’ Megan exclaimed, then shrugged. ‘I honestly don’t know why I’m surprised any more.’ ‘Jeremy said it would make me a politician, and he thought I would make the world a better place,’ Skye shrugged, ‘but to be honest, it just makes me think we’re right to eat bacon.’ ‘Smart call, girlie,’ Megan grinned. ‘Want to read some to me? In bed?’ ‘Anna says you’re entirely lacking in subtlety,’ Skye informed her, crawling out of her tipi and jumping under her duvet. ‘I don’t need to be subtle. I’m your mum. It’s my job to tell you what to do.’ ‘For how long?’ ‘Until you’re better at making decisions than I am?’ ‘Two years?’ Skye grinned, baring her teeth. ‘You’re lucky you’re cute, you know.’ Megan cuddled in close, tucking her daughter’s long brown hair behind an elfin ear. ‘But you’re not wrong.’ Before long, Skye’s eyes were closing, weighed down and heavy even though she wanted to keep reading. She felt warm arms around her, cushions and blankets rearranged and tucked in, and her mother’s voice saying the same words she’d said every night since Skye could remember. ‘You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.’ *** November 2004 ‘You’re looking fat, M,’ Belinda said, stuffing chips down her throat, barely chewing. Megan looked down; her jeans were a little tight, creating a red crease along her middle. ‘I thought breakups were meant to make you lose weight. Or are you already over Lucas?’ ‘B, how about you don’t speak with your mouth full, so that I don’t feel like I’m a victim of a terrible potato storm.’ Megan pursed her lips. ‘And when you do speak, you can stop talking such utter shite.’ ‘So you weren’t getting off with Joey Monroe at the party a few weeks ago?’ Belinda grinned like the vindictive bitch she was, so pleased to finally tear Megan down. ‘You weren’t upstairs in his room for hours?’ ‘You think Joey could last for hours? Get a life, B.’ Megan rolled her eyes. ‘What, not much in comparison to Lukey?’ Megan rounded on her. ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you picking on me?’ ‘Because you’re always the good girl who gets everything she wants, and Lucas doesn’t want you any more. There’s some justice in that.’ Megan knew Belinda wanted Lucas, she always had. She remembered all the times Belinda had invited herself along on dates, wanted to talk through their relationship in detail, wanted to be as involved as possible. She was overjoyed when Megan and Lucas called it off, chasing him down the second she heard. She’d spent the last few weeks curled around him in corridors. It was hard to tell if Lucas liked Belinda too; Megan was having a hard time making eye contact with him these days. ‘You fancy Lucas,’ she stated. ‘And he’s not with you any more,’ Belinda said triumphantly. ‘He’s still my best friend, B. We’re still in the band together, we’re still in each other’s lives. If you think you’re going to get anywhere with him, you’re wrong.’ Belinda grinned. ‘Who says I haven’t already? You weren’t the only one up in a bedroom at Joey’s party.’ She flounced off, her stupidly bouncy hair moving dramatically as she departed. Megan felt sick. Sure, things with Lucas had become a little…weird. But he was her best friend. They’d been in each other’s lives since they were kids. There was no way…but if there was, then maybe it was time to see Joey again, to try and make it clear to Lucas that she didn’t care at all. Her heart sank, and she knew she was a liar. She cared. She definitely cared. *** ‘So I have some news,’ Megan had told Skye that morning on the walk to school. ‘We’re going to do something different for Christmas this year.’ Skye tilted her head at her mother. ‘Disneyland?’ ‘Sadly not,’ Megan said, thinking she’d much rather do that. ‘We’re going to spend it with your grandparents.’ Once she’d said it, nothing really changed. A weight wasn’t lifted, all her anger wasn’t dissipated. She hadn’t reached the acceptance stage of grief. Anna had said that her mum wanted to see her, that Heather McAllister had finally realised life was short. Well, it was short, too short to spend with people you didn’t love at Christmas. Too short to sit around hearing endlessly about how she’d wasted her life. And how were they going to be with Skye? A small part of her longed for home. For the big worn-down dining room table they’d all squished around. The real fire her dad would make in the living room, where everyone bundled onto sofas and cushions on the floor, marvelling at the tree, drinking tea and eating Christmas cake, exhausted and elated. ‘But what about Anna? Is she coming too?’ Skye asked. Megan smiled gently, stroked her long brown hair, looked at her serious face. That was Skye, always worrying about who was left out and how people might feel. Maybe she’d get home and her parents would say how good a job she’d done of raising a smart, wonderful girl. And if they didn’t, they could go to hell, because they were wrong. ‘She wants to have a Christmas party with her theatre friends this year, doll.’ Megan squeezed Skye’s hand to let her know the next part was secret information, it was their code. ‘Between you and me, I think a lot of Anna’s friends are getting a little old and weary, and she wants to spend some quality time with them.’ Skye nodded slowly, then paused. ‘But you don’t want to go to grandma’s.’ ‘I guess you could say I’m a little nervous.’ ‘And angry,’ Skye added. ‘And angry,’ Megan confirmed, ‘but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have grandparents. It’s lovely to have them. And uncle Matty will be there, and he has a kid now. So you’d get to know your cousin too.’ She was hard-selling, she knew. She might as well promise her a pony. Skye had never particularly wanted for a family, as far as she knew. They had Anna, and Jeremy, the reams of elderly debutantes who arrived with sparkling gifts for ‘the little darling’. ‘What’s my cousin called?’ ‘Jasper, I think. I’m pretty sure they went with Jasper over Reginald.’ ‘Are they rich or something?’ Skye asked. ‘I have no idea,’ Megan lied, thinking of the embossed wedding invitation that came in a silk-lined box, with Swarovski diamonds around the edges. ‘Why do you ask that?’ ‘Because names can be signs of socio-economic status,’ Skye said proudly. ‘So…sometimes rich people have posh names?’ Megan raised an eyebrow. ‘You just wanted to use the words socio-economic in a sentence.’ ‘Yup,’ Skye grinned, swinging her hands back and forth. ‘What on earth are they teaching you in that school?’ ‘Boring stuff. I learned that from Jeremy. He was talking about the boys he went to school with, and they all had strange names. So I asked.’ ‘It’s good to be curious,’ Megan said, thinking perhaps Megan better not get all of her information on society from an embittered drag queen. ‘So, we’re on board for Grandma and Granddad’s?’ Skye shrugged, trying not to seem pleased. ‘If it doesn’t work out, next year we could go to Disneyland?’ Megan stopped and held out her hand to Skye. ‘Deal.’ They shook on it. As Megan waved goodbye to Skye’s retreating back at the school gates, and watched as the other mothers eyed her, as if she’d suddenly sprout horns and do a sexy tribal dance around their husbands, she wondered whether this was the right idea. There was going to be shouting this Christmas. No doubt. Maybe they’d fight their way through it, come out the other end. But probably not. Megan had images of her mother’s mouth turning down in derision, in that way that it did, and her father shrugging sadly, never a word to defend her. She’d flounce out, drag Skye along, and then it was all done. Was she going to have to call her mother to confirm she was coming? No, if she wanted them there, she could call. Or even better, Anna could call. Or send an invitation in the mail. Or an email. Or a carrier pigeon. Whatever, as long as she didn’t have to talk to her before Christmas day. Anna walked up the road from St Joseph’s school, and around the corner to a little annexe building, technically still a part of the school. She buzzed herself in, striding down the hall to her office. Well, the office she shared with Dezi, Molly and Simon. And ‘office’ was a bit of a stretch. A large dingy room with a few desks and computers, papers and files piled high in every direction, toys and charts and all manner of props chucked in the corners. Systematically, every term, they reorganised everything, but it always seemed to end up in this state of chaos around November time. ‘Morning!’ Megan announced herself, pausing to tap Molly on the shoulder, and sign out her greeting, mouthing the words. Molly was an excellent lip reader, and didn’t really need Megan’s average signing skills, but she wanted to keep practising. ‘Morning,’ Molly replied with a smile. ‘Want to do some training over lunch?’ Her hands moved so quickly that Megan always needed a second to catch up, and felt she must be making that face she made when trying to do complicated maths questions. Megan nodded. ‘Meet you at one.’ She walked over to Dezi, who was slumped face down on her desk. ‘Heavy night?’ ‘I’m going to die alone,’ a voice mumbled. ‘Because you’re too busy getting painfully drunk to actually interact with people?’ Megan offered, putting her lunch in the flickering mini fridge they had in the poor excuse for a kitchen corner, and clicking the kettle on. ‘As opposed to using your child as an emotional shield so no- one can ever get close?’ Dezi glared. ‘I’m too old to date. It probably involves some new-fangled technology and I don’t need anyone. I’m happy on my own.’ Megan had said this to Dezi so many times it was starting to sound fake. But it wasn’t her fault if her colleague couldn’t comprehend the idea. ‘Well, someone’s getting a vibrator for Christmas,’ Dezi said seriously, and even wrote it down on a post-it note. ‘Megan! Good morning!’ Simon strode over, files in hand, his blond hair flopping over as he walked. He grinned at her, handing her some papers. ‘You’re working with Amrita this morning, right? I just had a few notes.’ He gestured to a table. ‘I bet he does,’ Dezi mumbled, lifting her head up briefly enough to roll her eyes at Megan. Simon always had notes. Great, long notes written out in his chicken-scratch handwriting, that he would make them wait around for him to decipher. It also didn’t help that he’d decided being an academic meant dressing like a granddad. His elbow patches were not ironic. Megan was pretty sure he’d painstakingly searched for an original tweed jacket, as he wore it with such pride, unaware that the youth of today could find the same thing in Primark. ‘Some notes would be great, Simon,’ Megan smiled, then gestured towards the kettle. ‘Shall I make us both a cuppa and we can have a chat about them?’ Simon seemed to light up at the prospect, becoming all awkward and rattling, the same way he was anytime Megan showed him some kindness. It was accepted in the office by this point that Simon had a little ‘thing’ for her. Dezi insisted it was all-out love, Molly thought it was a crush. She thought…well, she just kind of wished he’d find someone else to focus on and let her get on with her work. It was uncharitable of her, she realised, and promised herself she’d get Simon a really nice gift for Christmas. Nothing too nice, obviously, just in case he took it as a sign. Megan was a speech and language therapist for the kids at St Joseph’s, and a couple of the other neighbouring schools. She found it hilarious that those mothers who judged her at the school gates had no idea that she was qualified and actually helping their children. They’d seen her walk into the centre, but probably thought she was there to seduce one of the male teachers and make him her Baby Daddy. Not that she cared what they thought. Megan loved her job. She loved the look of surprise when the kids could suddenly make a sound or say a word they’d never been able to say before. Even the smallest success, a ‘bl’ sound for ‘blue’, or being able to blow through a whistle, all these were massive achievements for the kids, and she loved seeing the change in them. Half the time she worked on helping the partially deaf kids sound out words, hear themselves. The rest of it she was working with Molly, prepping the kids who were going to have cochlear implants so they could hear for the first time, and helping them after as they learned how to use their vocal cords as well as signing. The day passed quickly enough, and Megan couldn’t help but wonder what her parents would think of her job. She couldn’t even remember what she wanted to be back then. The plan had always been to go to Cambridge, do English, but mostly that was just because she loved reading, and her parents had decided they wanted an Oxbridge graduate. In many ways, that extra couple of years to consider what she wanted to spend her life doing, how she wanted to provide for her daughter, helped her make the right decision. Every decision she’d made since getting pregnant had been the right one. Except, maybe, deciding to go to her parents’ for Christmas. *** November 2004 London looked beautiful in the run-up to Christmas. She’d been tempted to make a day of it, go to see the lights on Oxford Street, wander around Selfridges. Maybe even go down to Somerset House and see the ice-skating rink. She and Lucas had done that last year. Every year, now she thought about it. He loved stupid stuff like that. Had absolutely no qualms about throwing away his rock ’n’ roll persona and being silly with her. But it was too painful to think about Lucas right now, probably off somewhere with Belinda. Maybe he was doing all that stuff with her. Maybe he’d lent her his leather jacket and held her hand as they slid across the ice, laughing and smiling. The thought was just too much, and for the hundredth time that week, she wanted to vomit. She knew she’d caused all of this. All she wanted was to do the normal Christmas stuff in town, find little trinkets for her mum, go to Forbidden Planet and pick up something Matty would get overly excited about. But instead she was squatting above a grotty toilet in Euston station with a third pregnancy test. Three tests. Three positives. Merry fucking Christmas, Megan McAllister thought. *** That night, Anna was having one of her soirées. Around this time of year, Megan always got a bit withdrawn, throwing herself into work and present-buying, and ensuring that her daughter had the best Christmas ever. Anna was insistent that it was time for Christmas cheer. ‘It’s not even December until next week,’ Megan moaned, sitting at the kitchen counter, throwing an apple from the fruit bowl over to Skye. ‘And aren’t you having all your old biddies over on Christmas day? Isn’t that why we’re being banished?’ Anna was an imposing figure at the best of times. She’d always been slim and tall, but was starting to verge on spindly these days. Megan kept trying to sneak her extra portions of food, but Anna had the same rules about food now as she’d always had. Little, but luxurious. ‘The French know how to eat, darling,’ she always said. Although that usually meant that she wanted an excuse to open a bottle of champagne with dinner, just because it was a Tuesday. She raised a perfectly arched, and drawn on, eyebrow, her sharp cut dark bob fitting her face tightly. ‘Biddies? If you mean some of the most prominent and talented people ever to grace the stage, then yes, darling, they are experienced.’ Anna moved to the bar in the far corner of the kitchen, the only part she seemed to use frequently, and started making two gin and tonics. ‘And don’t think of it as banishment. Your mother wants you there, wants you both there.’ Skye jumped up on the stool next to her mother. ‘I’m excited about Christmas.’ ‘You are?’ Megan raised an eyebrow. Skye shrugged. ‘Well yeah, if it’s good then we have a great time. If it sucks, we go to Disneyland. It’s win-win.’ Anna pointed at her in triumph. ‘Smart cookie.’ Megan turned to her daughter. ‘You wanna –’ ‘– go do my homework so that you’re not drinking in front of your one and only child and feel guilty about it?’ Skye finished, picking up her school bag, saluting and skipping up the stairs. Megan’s jaw dropped. One more thing to panic about. Her daughter thought she was an alcoholic. ‘I don’t know whether to be amazed that I’ve raised a genius, or terrified that she is so aware of everything.’ Megan slumped. ‘Anna, are you sure this is the right choice?’ ‘Well, I decided foie gras was a bit much, so I settled for a mainly seafood selection, but the caterers are very good –’ Anna started. ‘I wasn’t talking about the party,’ Megan whined, running a hand through her hair. Anna brought over two thin glasses with a slice of lime in each. ‘I know, darling, I just didn’t know what answer to give you.’ Anna perched on the chair next to Megan, and softly ran a hand over her niece’s hair. ‘I’ve loved having you here these years, you know. You’ve brought me back to life, given me back my purpose, my vivacity.’ ‘It didn’t seem like you ever lost it,’ Megan said, ‘in fact I was more worried about us getting in the way of your parties and your exciting life.’ ‘Nothing is more exciting than seeing two wonderful people grow and change and become who they are,’ Anna smiled, her dark lip liner rippling. ‘Now, as for your parents, they’ve finally been motivated. You didn’t hear it from me, but there’s been some illness in the family.’ She watched as Megan’s face fell, saw as her mind started racing from terrible to worse. ‘Everything’s fine, everything’s okay now. But scares like that, well, they put things into perspective, don’t they?’ Megan nodded, and took a sip of her drink, perfectly cool, the gin just a little too strong. She felt the muscles in her legs relax as the alcohol kicked in. ‘So they really want us there,’ Megan mused. ‘They really do.’ ‘I still want you to phone and check the times and all that.’ Anna raised an eyebrow, and picked up a piece of paper with everything Megan needed to know. ‘What do you take me for?’ Megan looked at her aunt’s looping, elegant and unnecessarily swirly handwriting, and felt her stomach drop. ‘They want us to go for a week?’ She felt her throat go dry. ‘We’ll never make it to Christmas Day! I thought it would just be popping in, saying hello, eating some dry turkey and disappearing again!’ Anna patted her hand. ‘Well, I think now they’ve finally got you to visit after ten years, they probably want some time to get to know you both. Plus, some of my guests are visiting from overseas, so having the spare room will be helpful. That’s all right, isn’t it, darling?’ Megan had the overwhelming desire to stomp up to her room like a teenager and not speak to Anna until she changed her mind. Instead she just downed the rest of her drink, and went for a much needed nap. *** December 2005 The first Christmas at Anna’s was not something Megan had been expecting. When she awoke that morning, Skye cuddled in beside her, cooing and gurgling in delight, she’d thought they’d tiptoe down, make some tea and toast, and wait for Anna to wake up. Most days she was a late riser. Megan was embarrassed about the present she’d bought for Anna, but she had so little spare cash, even working that bar job right up to Christmas Eve, that it was all she could afford. A small vintage-style compact mirror, which hopefully looked more expensive than it was. Nothing was going to be good enough, when Anna had taken them in, supported them, looked after Skye whilst Megan went to work. Encouraged Megan to start thinking about part-time university courses. She’d saved them. ‘Merry Christmas, little girl!’ She tickled the baby’s stomach. ‘This is your first Christmas!’ The sadness tightened her stomach as she thought of her family, sitting around Piney in the living room, all in their Christmas pyjamas that they would have opened the night before, and put on especially. Matty would be snarling, roused from his bed with kicking and desperate pleas. Except he wouldn’t, because she was the one who always woke him up. Even as they’d grown older, she still insisted on waking him up and opening their Christmas stockings together in the early morning. She looked to the small fireplace in her beautiful bright room in Anna’s house, where she’d hung two stockings – one of her old socks that she’d sewn a red trim on, and a phantom red baby sock that had no partner, that she’d sewn the number ‘1’ onto. Next year, she would afford a real stocking, and great presents. For now it was lucky that Skye didn’t really understand the concept of gifts, or the concept of Christmas at all. ‘We are going to have a great day, little miss!’ she said, buoying herself up. That had been her biggest lesson of motherhood so far. Learn to seem happy. She hitched the baby up on her hip, and trundled down the large wide staircase to the kitchen. Anna’s huge fake tree was in the hallway, looking like something out of a movie, which was, of course, what she had been going for. They stood briefly together, looking at the lights twinkling, and Megan felt her heart fill as Skye’s chubby little face broke into a grin, the lights reflected in her eyes. They were lucky, they were so lucky. ‘Merry Christmas, darlings!’ Anna appeared in a long red kimono, perfectly made up. ‘Come on, come on!’ She pulled on Megan’s hand, giving Skye a brief kiss on the cheek. She brought them through to the kitchen, where there were two fluted glasses of champagne and orange juice, and Skye’s bottle with orange in it. ‘There’s no champers in hers, is there?’ Megan asked with a grin. But sometimes with Anna you had to check these things. ‘Of course not, darling, I just wanted her to feel involved.’ She handed Megan a glass and they clinked in a cheers. ‘Merry Christmas, Anna,’ Megan smiled, ‘this is wonderful.’ ‘You have no idea, darling!’ Anna grinned. *** After a couple of days dwelling on it, and trying to figure out what one bought for one’s parents at Christmas when you’d been estranged for ten years, Megan gave up and called Matty. ‘Hello?’ He sounded exhausted. ‘Matty, it’s me…Megan.’ She paused here, unsure of the last time she spoke to her brother. ‘Meg!’ His voice was slightly more invigorated. ‘I hear you’re joining us for Christmas this year.’ ‘Apparently so.’ ‘I’m glad,’ he said warmly. ‘They are too, you know. Mum won’t say anything, but…’ Megan shook that thought away, the same knot of dread building up in her stomach again. ‘Well, they’re actually why I’m calling – I’m trying to find Christmas presents. Also wanted to know what Jasper was into, and Claudia, obviously,’ she added, thinking of the ice-cold blond that Matty had introduced her to only a few weeks before she’d had to leave home, and the weird fact that somehow that woman was now her sister-in-law. ‘Maybe if you ever replied to any of my invitations, you’d know both of them well enough,’ he said pointedly. ‘Matty –’ ‘And maybe I could buy my niece something she’d actually like, instead of sending her an array of impersonal gender-specific pink gifts that Claudia picks out every year, because she’s upset we never had a girl.’ ‘She’s a smarty pants,’ Megan said, because talking about Skye was easier than trying to explain to her brother why she’d cut him out with her parents, when he’d never done anything wrong. ‘Anything that lets her learn something new – books, art stuff, science set. She also wants to be a detective when she grows up.’ ‘Private investigator!’ Skye shouted from the other room. ‘Sorry,’ she said to Matty, ‘private investigator. Apparently I’m smart enough to know the difference by now.’ ‘Jas is a little more difficult. He’s one of those kids that saves up his pocket money for months and months for the one thing he wants. And rarely wants anything else.’ ‘So what’s he saving for?’ she asked. ‘A time machine.’ Her brother laughed. ‘He’s good with books. He’s a little quiet, always has been, but he’s a good kid. I’m glad you’ll get to meet him.’ ‘Me too,’ she said, ‘I’m really sorry, Matty –’ ‘Hey,’ she could hear him shrugging, that same docile look he always had, like nothing could upset him, ‘shit happens. You made good, kid. Come back home and show off about it.’ She grinned, and was about to say goodbye when she suddenly had a thought. ‘Matty, are Mum and Dad… Well, has there been any health scares or anything?’ ‘Well.’ He considered it. ‘The fact that they’ve made a move to get things going with you again would suggest it, wouldn’t it? I’ve not heard anything, but there has been some hush-hush, whisper-whisper stuff going on. I thought all was revealed when I found out you were coming to dinner.’ ‘Huh.’ ‘Don’t worry kid, you know if it was serious, Mum would be running around playing drama queen for all she could get. No point letting something run its course when you could have a big to-do about it all, is there?’ ‘Good point!’ She really did feel much better, and spared a guilty thought for how much better she might have felt over the years if she’d reached out sooner. Still, no time for that now. ‘I’ll see you next week then,’ she said, wondering why after all these years, when she’d been striving to be a real adult for so long, being called ‘kid’ was so very comforting. Chapter Two (#ulink_9483d0fb-45c6-5b48-853c-fbb239882f6c) September 2001 ‘Megan, you’re acting like a child.’ Her mother’s voice was cold. ‘But I’m tired!’ She sighed, resting her head on the table. She’d finished school, had been handed a cereal bar in the car as she went on to her French lesson, her ballet and jazz class, and then advanced art. She was aching, exhausted and her mum just didn’t seem to get it. ‘Tired!’ Heather snorted, clanging things around the kitchen. ‘Do you know how lucky you are that we can provide these classes for you? Your father works hard so we can give you everything, and I arrange all these things, and drive you all over the place to secure you a better future…’ ‘I know,’ Megan said softly, not lifting her head up. There was no point arguing. They’d been here before, many times. Megan McAllister was on her way to Cambridge University, whether she wanted to or not. That had been decided long before she’d been able to speak her mind. And now it didn’t matter what she said. ‘I would have loved to have done these things as a child!’ her mother continued, and Megan felt herself zone out, hovering on the edge of sleep, mentally protecting herself. It was nine pm and she still had homework to do. And it was only Tuesday. Tomorrow was gymnastics and physics and piano lessons. There was something planned every day, every hour, for the rest of her life. Until she left to go to Cambridge, where she would study every hour, until she got a job and worked all the time. Megan did a mental calculation…so she’d have no free time until she was twenty-five? That didn’t really seem fair. ‘I just can’t believe how selfish you’re being,’ her mother’s voice was grating, running up a high scale until it echoed its disapproval. Megan lifted her head up to look at Heather, who was glaring at her, pausing to check her appearance in the reflection of the glass windows. Her mother was wearing her usual array of designer clothes, though she hadn’t been anywhere that day, as far as Megan could tell. ‘I’m sorry,’ Megan said. ‘Well, that’s not good enough.’ Her mother inspected her perfectly manicured nails. ‘Your ballet teacher said you were in another world today, and you can’t just blame lack of dedication on tiredness. Don’t you think every other person applying to Cambridge gets tired? They just decide to be better than that, and you can too.’ ‘I know,’ Megan replied, in that moment realising that she did actually, truly, hate her mother, and that’s what the acid in the pit of her stomach was. She shook the thought away before it took hold. ‘In fact,’ Heather clapped her hands, ‘this is a good learning opportunity, I think. If you’re so tired, you probably don’t need to have dinner, do you? You should probably just go up to your room now and sleep.’ Megan didn’t have the energy to argue, just stared at the pot of mashed potato sitting on top of the stove, her stomach growling. There was no point even begging once Heather had decided that Megan was being difficult. ‘You’re right, Mum, it won’t happen again.’ ‘I should hope not,’ Heather replied, the glow of a parent who knows they’re right emanating from her. Megan knew she’d relay the whole account to her dad when he came in, and he’d congratulate Heather on such excellent judgement. ‘Now off you go.’ Megan trudged upstairs, thinking that she wished people had to pass a test before they could become parents. Half the time it felt like her mum was just repeating things she’d heard parents say on TV. She glared at the cabinet on the landing, heaving with trophies and medals and certificates. Never enough. It was never, ever enough for them. She walked into her room and flopped onto her bed face first, hand rooting about under the bed for her secret stash. Inside her box of trainers, and actually inside the shoe, was a sandwich bag, containing the remains of the posh chocolates her Auntie Anna sent from London. They’d at least get her through the English assignment she had to write for tomorrow. She lay back and thought about leaving home, about packing her bags, and living somewhere quiet and calm, where she could just breathe. Where it was okay to do nothing once in a while, to sit with your thoughts, and just be. Freedom. One day. *** ‘Anna, I think this is the worst idea ever,’ Heather McAllister pleaded with her sister, ‘she’s never wanted to come back. She hates us!’ ‘Now darling, you know that’s not true,’ Anna said, sucking on her thin cigarette, ‘Christmas is a time for family, and it’s been long enough now, don’t you think?’ Heather sighed. Of course she wanted her daughter back, she wanted to meet the little genius whose pictures she’d seen hundreds of times, wanted to hear her voice, see how she laughed. But there was a dark little part of her that shivered every time she thought about Megan, and the night she ran away, and she thought it might have been shame. Shame at Megan, shame at what the neighbours might think. And then later, shame because she couldn’t do the one thing a parent was meant to do: support your child no matter what. Shame that the neighbours might find out that Heather McAllister was the sort of woman who wouldn’t talk to her daughter for ten years. ‘I just…I don’t want everyone upset,’ Heather said staunchly. ‘Between you and me, darling, one of Megan’s colleagues’ parents died recently, shook them all up a bit. Made her realise how short life is, you know? We’ve found a crack in the wall, let’s let the light in now, shall we?’ ‘I’ve always hated your bloody analogies,’ Heather grumbled at her sister. ‘You just hate when I’m right,’ Anna laughed. But that wasn’t really it. She hated Anna for getting to see them grow up and change, for getting to look after that tiny grandchild of hers, for being part of their life when she’d never been able. But like everyone had told her, that was no one’s fault but her own. ‘Tell them to stay for longer,’ Heather said suddenly, ‘stay for a week.’ ‘Going for the storming and forming approach?’ Anna said, thinking back to their days as summer school counsellors when they were girls. Always had to have a storm for friendships to form, the camp guide had shouted each time they worried about a brawl or argument. ‘Something like that,’ Heather McAllister said, thinking that she was not going to lose her family again. *** ‘Please tell me you’re not working tonight?’ Megan begged Jeremy as he walked into the kitchen. ‘If I were I’d look a whole lot more sparkly by now. Takes a lot of preparation, being fabulous!’ Jeremy winked salaciously, then shrugged. ‘What’s up?’ ‘I need chocolate and wine, and ice cream, and you to be here for a massive bitching session,’ Megan whined. She was really only whiney with Jeremy, she’d noticed. Somehow, it was allowed with him, but no one else. Everyone else had to see strong, capable Megan, who was handling everything. ‘And what has caused this necessary meltdown?’ he asked, filling up the kettle. ‘I’m going to my mother’s for Christmas.’ Jeremy stopped, turned the tap off and abandoned the kettle. ‘Why the fuck are you doing that?’ Occasionally, Jeremy’s Essex roots escaped, his eyes wide in incredulity. Megan shrugged. ‘Reasons and stuff?’ ‘Like the end of the world?’ Jeremy nudged her with his hip so she’d move out of the way of the cupboard, reaching for the wine glasses. ‘Life’s too short,’ Megan shrugged again, watching Jeremy nose through the wine rack for the perfect red. On his days off, Jeremy was your average guy, with his tousled blond hair and smiling eyes, padding around barefoot at Anna’s, reading intently, writing his play furiously, in all the hidden nooks and corners of the house. One day Skye found him in a cupboard, trying to write a monologue in the dark. Well, so not so average. But when you saw him on stage, he was this glittering dame, all sparkle and song, innuendo and sass. ‘It’s too short to be fucking miserable, that’s true,’ he nodded, pouring the wine and holding out a hand to stop Megan grabbing a glass, knowing she rarely waited for it to breathe before downing it in a few gulps. After a few moments, he handed the glass to her, watching with narrowed eyes as she sipped it delicately. ‘Lovely,’ she nodded, and he nodded back. ‘So…you’re freaking out,’ Jeremy stated, ‘understandably. But surely it’ll be great for Skye?’ ‘She’s excited, and I’m glad she can meet my brother and his kid…but something about that village just feels toxic. Like I’m going to walk down to the cornershop for milk and someone will look at me and know that I’m that McAllister girl who got knocked up and ran away.’ Megan circled the rim of her glass. ‘I thought they chucked you out?’ ‘Same difference, really, isn’t it? They wanted me gone, so I went.’ Megan felt like her primary form of communication seemed to be shrugging. She was regressing before she even got to Hertfordshire. ‘Just…’ Jeremy rested a hand on hers, ‘make an escape plan just in case, and you can always come back here and join me and the Elderly Poets Society on Christmas Day. I’m sure one of them is going to try to do a solo seated on the piano, fall off and break a hip. It’ll be an entertaining night.’ ‘You’re awful.’ ‘Well, why can’t they get old gracefully and let the rest of us claim some of the spotlight?’ Jeremy grinned. ‘Besides, it’ll be me flapping about fetching their drinks and hearing all about theatre back in the day.’ ‘And you love every second of it,’ Megan pointed out. ‘I do indeed,’ Jeremy grinned, giving her arm a squeeze. ‘You’re not that McAllister girl who got knocked up and ran away. You’re that McAllister girl who made an amazing life for herself and her kid. Even if you are a bit of a moany cow.’ *** December 24th 2004 ‘You’re lying,’ her mother spat, ‘you’re annoyed because you’re not the centre of attention and you’re lying to us. It’s pathetic.’ Megan closed her eyes, drawing on some reserve of calm that she didn’t even know she had. She’d said it once, the worst was over. She could say it again. ‘I’m not lying. I’m pregnant.’ Her mother’s face, for once, had become ugly. Twisted with every emotion that she never let herself express, for fear of the ageing lines that might mar her complexion if she laughed. Her father stood there anxiously, twisting his hands but saying nothing. Like a dog waiting for his owner’s command. His face was pitying, but as Megan had always expected, he was more concerned about Heather’s response than anything to do with Megan. What would her mother do next, she wondered, narrating it in her head like a gameshow. Ladies and gentlemen, which way will Heather McAllister go next? Will it be fury, a fainting spell, or a stream of cursewords? Find out next week on ‘Our Daughter is a Failure.’ ‘Whose is it?’ Heather croaked, eyebrow raised. She was looking for a reason to bring Lucas into this, Megan could tell. ‘Doesn’t matter.’ ‘No point protecting him. It’s Lucas, isn’t it? Of course it is. So you can end up just like his mother, with two kids out of wedlock, an alcoholic father who spends his days God knows where –’ ‘Mum, that’s not fair –’ Megan started. ‘Fair? You think any of this is fair?’ Heather started getting hysterical. ‘We sacrificed everything for you. You think Cambridge takes knocked-up sluts? You’ve ruined everything we worked for!’ ‘We? We worked for?’ Megan felt her voice rising, her hands trembling, and tried to stay calm, tried to scramble back to that place of calm, of certainty. ‘You worked me like a fucking show pony my entire life! But you’ve never given a shit about me! And I always knew the minute I stopped winning ribbons you’d put me out to pasture!’ Heather’s eyes looked like they were about to bulge out of their sockets. ‘You ungrateful little bitch. You think you can do a better job parenting? You think you’ll do a better job with this bastard child of yours?’ Megan looked to her dad, beseeching, holding his gaze in the hopes that he would give her something, a word, a hug, a movement. Instead, he stood rooted to the spot, his only response a small shrug, his eyes wide and panicked. Heather paced back and forth for a few minutes, then took a deep breath. Megan was almost amused, watching her mother move onto the next stage of grief. Bargaining. ‘Okay,’ Heather said, arms out, ‘here’s what we do. We take Megan to get rid of it. She never sees Lucas again. She keeps her head down and Cambridge will never know.’ She nodded certainly, her brown bob swaying as she folded her arms. Deal done. That was the answer. ‘I’m keeping it.’ The silence that followed seemed to suck all the air out of the room. ‘You’re not.’ ‘I really am.’ Megan’s father cleared his throat, moving towards her, arm outstretched. His hand didn’t quite touch her arm, but hovered there, centimetres from her skin, as if he could go through the motions and it would have the same effect. ‘Now, Megan, I think what we’re saying here is that we don’t want this to ruin your life,’ Jonathan started delicately, a lot of throat-clearing and hmm-ing. ‘And it will,’ Heather added vehemently. ‘You have a whole life ahead of you, and this, well, this will change things,’ Jonathan said seriously. Then he nodded and stepped back, as if he felt he’d said everything he needed to say. Megan rolled her eyes. Perhaps it would have been better if he’d stayed silent instead of stating the fucking obvious. She could do a better job at raising a child than these two. At least her child would be loved unconditionally. Her kid would be loved even if she was crap at ballet and rubbish at physics and just wanted to climb trees all the time. That had to be a better start than these two. ‘Look, Megan, no one needs to know. We’ll go get it taken care of, and you come back and you stay quiet, and life will go on as normal,’ Heather said reasonably. She took a deep breath, her eyes meeting her mother’s fully for the first time in what felt like forever. Like she finally was truly being seen. ‘Has it ever occurred to you that I hate our normal life?’ Heather blinked. ‘So you thought acting like a little slut would change things up a bit? Well, congratulations! Megan got the drama she wanted!’ Minnie the dog whined gently in the corner, watching her owners carefully, trying to discern where the danger was. Megan put a hand on her head to calm her, and the black and white fluffy mass stood beside her like a protector. Her only friend. ‘Look –’ Jonathan started. ‘No!’ Heather advanced on her daughter. ‘You listen carefully to me, young lady. You can’t have this baby. You can’t even do your own washing. You can’t survive without us. You try and you’d be running back to us a day later on your hands and knees begging us to forgive you.’ Heather’s grin, so sure of herself, her ace in the hole, her truth. She had the money, so she had the power. ‘I guess we’ll see, won’t we?’ Megan said simply, as she picked up her backpack and coat, and left without a backwards glance, closing the door behind her. She made it to the church yard, five minutes down the road, before she burst into tears. Huddled on the cold stone tomb, trying to get her breathing to slow, she knew there was one more person she wanted to see before she went. She waited for fifteen minutes to see if anyone walked past, if she saw her parents’ cars trawling the streets, if they regretted their actions, if they loved her enough to ask her to come home. No one came, and so her decision was made. *** Anna had insisted they take the car, bumbling and prone to breakdown as it was. So on the sixteenth of December, they piled up their stuff into the old red 2CV, and decided to get there. Skye had spent most of the time deciding what books to take with her, whilst Megan had spent pretty much every morning up until they went trying to hide her consistent vomiting. Which was similar to the situation when she’d left them. At least there was no chance she’d be pregnant again. She wrapped her thick cardigan around her, slammed the boot shut, worrying about the presents piled up in the back seat. What do you get for your parents when you haven’t spoken to them in a decade? She’d settled for her mother’s unchanging Chanel No.5, a book on World War One for her Dad, some dorky things for Matty who she was sure, regardless of his job and wife and child, would not have changed at all. And obviously, all of Skye’s stuff. Skye sat in the front seat, expectant and excited. She’d brushed her hair over and over that morning, scrubbed at her teeth with vigour, practising her smile in the bathroom mirror. She wanted to please them, these phantom grandparents. Megan’s heart broke just a little, and she swore to herself that if her parents weren’t delighted with Skye, she was leaving that instant. ‘One minute and we’ll get going,’ Megan told her, turning up the hot air in the car, and running back to the front door, where Anna was waiting. ‘It’ll be fine, right?’ Megan asked, desperate for comfort. ‘It’ll be good?’ Anna’s face creased with the large smile she gave her niece, pulling her in for a hug. Anna always smelled like nicotine and coffee, with the barest hint of some expensive musky perfume, something rich and overwhelming. ‘It will be wonderful,’ she said, ‘you just have to give it a chance.’ ‘One chance,’ Megan said with determination. Anna raised an eyebrow. ‘Knowing you and your mother, how about three chances? Just for luck.’ Megan held her hand, squeezed and nodded. Then she reached into her pocket, bringing out a square present wrapped in silver paper, an opalescent ribbon tied in a bow. ‘Before I forget, I wanted to give you this. Wanted you to have it for Christmas Day.’ She shook a finger at her aunt. ‘No sooner, I know what you’re like.’ Anna rolled her eyes. ‘Sometimes I wonder who the adult is in this situation.’ ‘You wonder? It’s always been me.’ Megan grinned and pecked her on the cheek before running back to the car. ‘Merry Christmas!’ Anna’s present hadn’t been a problem at all. It was ten years since she’d taken them in, and Megan was in a good place now. She’d bought her a replacement for that vintage compact gift the first Christmas they spent together. This one was really vintage, with a history, gleaming pearls and restored to glory. Anna would love it. And she deserved it. Megan couldn’t help but feel everything had an equal and opposite reaction. The more grateful she was to Anna, the more angry she was at her parents. But now was not the time, she thought as she turned in her seatbelt, checking Skye’s was adjusted properly. It was time to let Skye meet her family, and she could decide if they were worth sticking around for. The little old tin can car trundled off the drive and out into Highgate village. Megan signalled carefully, checking her mirrors, irritated by the way the presents were piled up at the back. ‘Mum…when was the last time you drove?’ ‘It’s been a while,’ Megan admitted, ‘but it’s fine. It’s just driving this old clunker that’s the problem. I’m going to have a leg injury from the power needed to break!’ ‘That’s very good to know.’ Skye rolled her eyes and started fiddling with the radio, its tinny hiss over Christmas songs setting her teeth on edge. ‘Do you think it’ll snow?’ ‘I bloody well hope not!’ Megan said, focusing on the traffic, her hands clamped around the steering wheel. ‘Not now, I mean, at Christmas. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Christmas Day where it properly snowed.’ Megan thought back. ‘There was, when you were five. We tried making a snowman and when it melted later in the day you thought one of us had done it.’ Megan made a face. ‘You’ve always loved a good conspiracy.’ Skye smiled, shuffled in her seat. ‘I think this will be good practice, going to Grandma’s.’ ‘Practice for what?’ ‘For my detective skills, of course! Detectives have to be able to read people, to understand the difference between what they say and what they mean. And I never get to meet new people, really, so this is good practice.’ Megan sighed. ‘Believe me, darling, with my parents, they always say what they mean.’ ‘Everyone’s got secrets, Mum,’ Skye said, with such mystery and satisfaction that Megan started to laugh. ‘Well, I look forward to seeing your case notes, Detective McAllister.’ She frowned. ‘That radio’s driving me nuts – look in the glove compartment for a tape to play, would you? I think Jeremy used the car last, might be something fun in here.’ Skye grabbed a tape that simply said, The Mix - 2003 and popped it in. Megan recognised it immediately. Lucas had made it. They’d made it together, back when he used to drive that rubbish little Micra that always veered to the left. He’d spent so much time and money making it safe to drive that he couldn’t afford a CD player, so Megan had spent hours with her parents’ old stereo, taping individual songs from their CD collection. Later, it had become their little ritual, each month, taping new songs, updating the collection. Dark, heavy things for Lucas to brood along in the car to, and rock anthems for them to belt out together. This was softer though, more relaxed. The Smiths, Belle and Sebastian. She’d been educating him, she remembered with a smile, she’d been trying to say that the lyrics could still be angry if the music wasn’t. He’d never quite believed her, but he used to smile when she sang along anyway, tapping away on the steering wheel as they drove around town, not doing much but being together. Skye bopped along, recognising a few of them, The Beatles, Elvis, a little bit of everything. Then the track changed and Megan felt her stomach drop. It was a lot of twinkly guitar, heavily reverbed, and an echoing voice sang those words: We keep making those same mistakes, over and over and over again. It’s always the same it’ll never end… ‘Mum…is that you?’Skye looked delighted, turning up the stereo, nodding her head. ‘This is brilliant! It sounds like you, when you sing in the shower! Or that time at New Year’s when Jeremy got you to do karaoke!’ Megan nodded, but felt strangely tearful. It wasn’t her, it wasn’t her any more. *** December 2004 The posters were up for their gig on Boxing Day. Nothing special, the local pub had let them have the space because Danny, the drummer, was working the Christmas rush. Pulling pints didn’t make much, and gig space was limited in their little town. The posters were up around school, Megan standing proudly at the front with a smirk on her face, her typical Camden rock girl outfit – leather jacket, black top and skirt, stripy tights. Her newly dyed fire-engine-red hair. Lucas was to her side, pouting. Danny was further back, and next to him, Keith, who was about thirty and had a beard that none of the boys were even close to growing. But man, could that guy play bass guitar. Megan and the Boys, the poster proclaimed, Boxing Day, The Old Nag’s Head. ‘Not going to be Megan and the Boys much longer, is it?’ Belinda came up behind her, staring at the poster. ‘Why’s that?’ ‘Well,’ Belinda faux whispered, staring at Megan’s stomach, ‘it’ll be Megan and the Toys soon, right? Or Megan and the Bump? Which do you prefer?’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she replied stonily. ‘Yes you do, it’s obvious.’ Belinda was enjoying herself, too much. ‘And the thing is, once Lucas knows, do you really think he’s going to want to have anything to do with you? You think he’s not going to look at you with a sigh of relief once the whole school knows?’ ‘I think that if he’s stupid enough to fall for your shit, then I hope he gets whatever STD you have and his dick falls off,’ Megan said pointedly, turning towards Belinda and backing her up against the wall. ‘You don’t frighten me, bitch. You don’t know my life, you don’t know my deal. So how about we ignore each other until I go off to uni, and you go off to become a failed model with a rich husband, okay?’ Megan walked away, jaw locked in place, unsure of whether she wanted to cry or scream. She was going to have to give up the band, she realised. She hadn’t considered just how much that was going to hurt. Belinda couldn’t know, not really. Maybe Megan had put on weight, her mother had certainly mentioned it enough. Stress eating doesn’t solve a problem, Megan, only weak people eat their feelings. Megan realised that was because to her mother, strong people didn’t have feelings at all. Just goals. She didn’t know which secret her mother would find more horrific: that Megan was pregnant, or that she hadn’t got into Cambridge. She got the rejection letter weeks ago. Didn’t even make it to interview. All those years of classes, those missed Sunday mornings in bed, the netball in the rain, the tennis, the French lessons, the Cambridge hoody they’d bought her for her eleventh birthday – it was all for nothing. And it was nothing Megan had done. It was just that what her parents had created hadn’t been good enough. She almost felt sorry for them. At least now they’d never have to know. They could blame it on her getting pregnant, and they’d always know they’d done the best they could. She could give them that, at least. *** It didn’t take long to get to Whittleby Cottage. She’d always hated that her parents had to name the house. Before, it had just been Number 43. But no, they had to have the grandeur of a named building. It had made getting any post ridiculous, and visiting friends could never find the right place. She drove the little 2CV onto the muddy path up to the house, stopping just before they reached the driveway. ‘That’s it,’ she said to Skye, who was making her detective face (pouting and squinting) and ‘hmm’ing significantly. It didn’t look any different. In fact, it looked exactly the same as the day she left. It was cold and grey. The willow tree to the side of the house was still hanging on for dear life, managing to remain upright through sheer force of will. The house looked Tudor, with those black beams across the front, the roof designed to look like it had been thatched. Everything about the house was meant to be warm and inviting and twee. Megan could see the light flickering in the living-room window, where the tree was up, twinkling. It looked like they had a log fire going, and she had to admit, the smoky smell of wood would be a welcome nostalgia. Plus her feet were freezing from the dodgy heating in the car. ‘Mum?’ Skye prodded her. ‘Are we going in?’ Megan sighed deeply and looked at her daughter. She took in Skye’s dark hair, shiny and long, arranged neatly over her shoulder. Skye’s eyes, the same as hers, and her mother’s, and Matty’s, so light a brown that they might have been tiger’s eye stones, with flecks of gold and green. How could they not love her? It was impossible, right? It was impossible for her to bring them this smart, beautiful, kind-hearted, curious child, and for them to disregard her, wasn’t it? Megan shook her head, shuffled in her seat. She started the car again, trundling up to the paved driveway, and delicately steered the car under the willow tree, somehow thinking it might lend the poor tree some strength, or at least stop it from falling too far to the ground. Skye unbuckled and jumped out immediately, stretching, looking around the front garden with interest. ‘Mum,’ she stage-whispered as Megan tiredly opened the boot of the car, ‘are they really rich?’ Megan had no idea how to answer that. For all her daughter’s talk of socio-economic status, Megan was very careful with money, and didn’t spend it easily. That said, they lived in a beautiful house in Highgate with a rich Dame who drank Laurent Perrier like it was water. What was rich or poor really? ‘They…they work very hard to have nice things, bub. But maybe no questions like that to start with. Secret detective, not the kind at a murder scene, right?’ ‘No interrogating,’ Sky nodded, thinking she’d save that for after they inevitably upset her mum and they had to drive back to Auntie Anna’s. Which was fine with her. As long as Disneyland was still on the table. There was a soft mumbling sound behind her, and Skye turned to find a sad old collie, her head tilted as she watched her. The dog seemed to want to bark, but wasn’t really sure whether to be upset or not. So she whined a little, and sat in front of Skye, waiting. ‘Um…Mum?’ Skye pointed at the dog. ‘Minnie!’ Megan grinned, bending down towards the dog, who used what little energy she had to jump up, her suspicions confirmed. She barked loudly and joyfully as Megan rubbed behind her white and black ears, hands lost in her fur. ‘Skye, this is Minnie, you don’t have to be scared.’ ‘I’m not scared,’ Skye frowned, but stayed back all the same. ‘You sure?’ Suddenly a door opened, and a small lady was shouting, ‘Minnie, come on now!’ before she realised she had guests. ‘Oh. Oh!’ Somehow, the lady wasn’t what Skye had been expecting. She’d thought her grandmother would be more like Anna. In this posh house that called itself a cottage, wearing jewels and drinking champagne. This woman had on stretchy dark green trousers and a big knitted jumper with a reindeer on the front. She looked…well, she looked older, but in a different way to Anna. This woman looked warm and healthy, with her dark hair pinned up in a bun, with straggly bits around her face, and her glasses perched low on her nose. ‘Jonathan!’ the woman called, her voice wobbling, ‘they’re here!’ She walked out to greet them, her fluffy boot slippers surely getting wet on the ground. She seemed to stare at Skye a little too intensely, and Skye moved behind her mother, just a little. Detectives had to be safe, after all. She was just assessing the situation. ‘I’m sorry,’ the woman said, ‘we were trying to cook a turkey, as practice for the big day, and we forgot about it, and the stuffing went funny, and the fire alarm went off…’ She exhaled, blowing a piece of hair out of her face. She shook her head. ‘Not that any of that matters.’ The woman looked so anxious, her wide brown eyes just like her mum’s, that Skye felt sorry for her. She looked at Megan, who nodded, and walked over to the woman. She smiled her big white smile, the one she’d been perfecting in the mirror all week. ‘Hi!’ She stuck out her hand. ‘I’m Skye, you must be my grandmother.’ The woman half-laughed, and looked to Megan with a raised eyebrow. Megan looked back seriously, and nodded at her daughter, as if to say, ‘Well answer the girl then.’ ‘I am! I am your grandmother, and I’m so pleased to finally meet you!’ Heather McAllister held Skye’s hands with both of her own, tears in her eyes. She shook her head. ‘Come on, come on. Leave the bags in the car, let’s have some cake. If I haven’t burnt that as well.’ Megan stayed put, her hand in Minnie’s fur, listening to the quiet, comfortable panting of her dear pet. It was sad to see her so old, hard of hearing and slow to move. But she was something to hold onto, something safe and steady going back into that house. Her mother looked different. Shockingly so. Her hair pinned up haphazardly, wearing comfy clothing, looking like a normal person instead of an ideal on a pedestal, so much better than ordinary people. Her mother had once told her that ‘comfort was for the weak’ and that making an impression was always the most important thing. Where was that woman now? Maybe things had really changed in ten years. Megan took a deep breath, held her head high, and crossed the threshold. Chapter Three (#ulink_c344c328-d914-5b1c-9797-d6fb7d806e36) May 2001 ‘Happy birthday, darling!’ Her mother actually sounded cheery, Megan noted, as she sat down to a birthday breakfast, balloons attached to her chair. Matty threw a barely wrapped package at her, grabbed a coffee and shuffled back up to his bed, like the surly teenager he was. She peeled off the remainder of the newspaper that he’d screwed it up in and found his old remote control car that she’d always loved. She always loved Matty’s presents the best. He seemed to know her, even if he didn’t do much but grunt at her. ‘Open your presents!’ Heather was too excited, but Megan didn’t mind. It was a Saturday, she only had to go to tennis lessons and then she didn’t have to do anything else for the day, and her parents had even said she could have some friends from school round to the house. They’d even, miraculously, said her friend Lucas could come, even though Heather didn’t approve of ‘that mutton dressed as lamb mother of his’. It was her special day, and she was allowed to have her friends. She’d ignored her mother’s comment that it might show those kids what a real upbringing looked like. Megan delicately peeled back the Sellotape and uncurled the corners of her first present. A soft, square package. A T-shirt, she guessed. Yep. She pulled out the yellow top with ‘Cambridge University’ emblazoned on the front. She looked up to her mother’s eager face and tilted her head. ‘Do you like it? Isn’t it wonderful? A symbol of the bright path our little Megan is on!’ Heather squeezed her cheeks. ‘Open the others!’ Apart from Matty’s and her mysterious Auntie Anna’s present (a huge box of posh chocolates as always, and a pair of sparkling silver hoop earrings that seemed too grown up for her to own), every other present was Cambridge-themed. A mug, a calendar, a satchel bag. Apparently the theme was ‘happy birthday, we gave you life, now we’ve decided what you’re going to do with it.’ But everyone seemed so happy, so Megan just smiled and as the birthday cake with the university logo was brought in, she closed her eyes and wished for something that was hers. *** The first meet and greet was a terrifying mix of awkwardness and nostalgia. Megan sat in the kitchen, instinctively choosing the same seat she’d always sat at for dinner, and wondered if her mother noticed these things too. Luckily Skye was so excited she was talking ten to the dozen, and taking up most of the awkward silence with her enthusiasm. Which would have seemed natural if she hadn’t kept turning to Megan and giving her significant looks, which seemed to say ‘I’ve got this covered, Mum.’ Which just made Megan love her more, the little nutter. ‘I really love cake!’ Skye said, seated next to Megan at the kitchen table. Heather McAllister sat opposite gingerly, then leaned in, head on her hand, as if it was the most important question in the world. ‘What’s your favourite?’ ‘Chocolate fudge! Or maybe Oreo Cookie Cheesecake that Mum makes.’ Skye looked up at her and smiled, then dove into the lemon drizzle cake that Heather was so worried about. ‘Well, maybe we can try and make that while you’re here?’ Heather smiled, looking tentatively at Megan. Megan shrugged, half-smiled and nodded, realising she hadn’t really said anything since she’d set foot in the house. It was like she was shell-shocked. ‘Whe……’ She cleared her throat. ‘When’s Matty down?’ Heather briefly looked disappointed, but threw herself into it. ‘Tomorrow, I think he’s going to bring Jasper round to meet Skye. I think there was talk of going to see the carols in the town square, have some hot chocolate, play some hook a duck?’ Megan wasn’t sure how to feel about any of this, sitting there sipping her tea, back straight as a rod as her mother tried her hardest to make things easier. But to play along with it was to forget, and to start an argument was to throw all this away, this chance they’d been given. Limbo. She smiled. ‘Sounds great, doesn’t it, kid?’ Skye nodded, face full of cake. ‘Dad joining us at all?’ Megan asked, sure that her father was hiding somewhere in the house, unsure of how to deal with emotional situations. ‘I think he’s in the den. Doing some work on…something.’ Heather shrugged helplessly. She’d never been good at lying. That was the problem that night, her horror and disgust so clear on her face before she could wipe the slate clean. She’d been unable to hide it, and Megan was unable to unsee it. ‘How about if I go?’ Megan suggested tentatively, certain of how to deal with her father, rather than the mother she had disappointed so very badly. Heather nodded. ‘You know where it is. Me and Skye can talk about all the fun things we can do this week, can’t we?’ Skye nodded and made a shooing motion at her mother, patting her grandmother’s hand. That child was an emotional manipulator of the highest degree. Or she was just enjoying herself. It was pretty hard to tell. Megan walked out of the kitchen and through into the living room, pausing a moment to admire Old Piney, still holding up after all these years. The tree had been modernised just a bit, the lights now a classy white instead of multicoloured, the ornaments all slightly more organised, more co-ordinated than they had been. At the top she saw a little red clay hand print that read ‘Jasper’s first Christmas’ and thought perhaps she should have brought Skye’s as a gift. To let her really be part of this family. So far, so…awkward. She padded through the living room to a dark door at the end, and knocked briefly. ‘Dad?’ She pushed the door open further, to see him sitting at his desk, facing the window. His shoulders were shaking. ‘Dad, it’s me,’ she said gently, ‘can I come in?’ She saw him nod, desperately trying to wipe his eyes, and when he turned around he was smiling shakily. His hair had mostly greyed since she’d last seen him, his eyes light and kind, with more wrinkles around the edges. He looked well though, although still hunched over, feeling too imposing when he stood tall. ‘I’ve waited such a long time to hear those words,’ he said softly, making to put his arms around her, and then pausing. ‘Is it okay…if I…?’ She nodded, reaching up to hug him, and felt him start to shudder again. ‘Oh Megan, I’m so ashamed, I’m so ashamed of us. Of how it happened, how it got this far…’ ‘I know,’ she shushed him. ‘I got your presents every year though.’ ‘You knew that was me?’ ‘Dad, no one else would send me classic rock albums and bars of Galaxy,’ she laughed. That had been their thing, growing up. She would lie on this sofa in the den as he played Bob Dylan, Neil Young, any of his ‘greats’, and eat chocolate with her eyes closed, just listening. It got harder and harder as she got older, as Heather’s dream for the Megan she wanted, the Cambridge-bound Megan, got in the way. They never really had time. But those childhood memories were blissful. Her dad always said no one took any time to listen any more. ‘You might as well have sent a note saying “teach your daughter about good music”.’ ‘And did you?’ Megan made a face, ‘She really, and I mean really, loves Elvis.’ ‘Costello?’ John said hopefully. ‘Presley.’ ‘Oh,’ he shrugged, ‘well, at least it’s not that Yasmin Beefer or whatever his name is.’ Megan laughed, ‘I wholeheartedly concur. Until she starts singing “Heartbreak Hotel” on Sunday mornings at six am. Do you want to meet her? Maybe you can win her over to the dark rhythms of rock and roll.’ John nodded again, head down, and Megan could see he was getting tearful once again. She patted his shoulder. ‘Come on, Dad, you’re going to love her.’ ‘I already do,’ he said, and let her lead the way. *** June 2002 ‘You can’t keep doing this.’ Lucas was rocking back and forth on the chair in the library, looking like a Judd Nelson wannabe. He had detention again. ‘Says you. What was it this time?’ Megan didn’t even look up from her biology book. Lucas shrugged, looking at the ceiling. ‘Forgot my homework? Was late to something? I don’t even really notice any more. I am, apparently, a bad seed.’ He swung his chair legs back down with a thunk. The older librarian was on duty, Mrs Cranson, and she shh’d him with a glare. He put up his hands in defeat and moved over to where Megan was studying. ‘No,’ she put her hand up, eyes still focused on her work, ‘no time to talk.’ ‘Meg, you’ve got to stop this, you’re pushing yourself way too hard. They’re just GCSEs. They don’t matter.’ ‘To you,’ she snorted. ‘Look, Lucas, I have exactly twenty minutes to finish my biology revision before I’ve got to go to my dance class, and then my music class, and then when I get home I have a maths tutor, and our exam is tomorrow, okay? I don’t have time to entertain you because you’re bored in detention again.’ She looked up at him, and her eyes were bloodshot, strained with dark circles. Her skin looked pale and drawn and she looked like she’d lost weight. Sure, they weren’t best friends or anything, but he’d known her since they were kids, and he liked Megan. She was a crazy control freak perfectionist, but that wasn’t really her fault. She used to be funny, be sassy and sarcastic, but the teachers wouldn’t mind because she still got all the answers right. She didn’t seem sassy any more. She seemed grey. ‘Meg, come on, you’re going to make yourself ill. Have you eaten today?’ Lucas rifled through his messenger bag, covered in badges and pen marks, and produced a chocolate bar. ‘Here.’ He threw it in front of her face. ‘I am not hungry!’ she hissed. ‘Look, I’ve had four Red Bulls today and you are making me waste that energy that I need to get this shit done!’ ‘SHHH!’ Mrs Cranson shot her death glare at Megan this time. ‘Oh for – fine! You know what, fine! The library shouldn’t even BE for detention! People are trying to study!’ Megan started stuffing her papers into her bag, but as she stood up, everything started to get woozy and all the colours merged into each other, and then into black. When she woke up, Lucas was holding her hand. Her head hurt. ‘Wha –’ ‘You passed out. Exhaustion. Probably too much caffeine and too little food. But you know, I’m not a genius or anything…’ he shrugged. Megan tried to sit up. ‘Nope!’ He put a hand on her head. ‘I have been told I’m not allowed to let you get up. Something about the school’s insurance. Mrs Cranson insisted that I make sure you couldn’t injure yourself further on school property.’ ‘And you always do what the teacher says?’ Lucas grinned, blue eyes twinkling. ‘Oh I’m a regular boy scout.’ ‘Then help me sit up.’ He lifted her hands until she was sitting cross-legged next to him, and he passed her the chocolate bar again. ‘Eat it.’ Megan just looked at him, and he nodded encouragingly. ‘If you don’t, I’m going to start singing really loudly here in the library, and that would put people off their studies! At this very important time! And you, Megan McAllister, couldn’t stand it.’ ‘You’re such an arse,’ she sighed, biting into the chocolate with aggression, whilst he just leant back and grinned. ‘Do you ever wonder what you’re doing this for? All the studying and the lessons and the focus?’ Lucas asked. ‘My parents,’ Megan shrugged, ‘they want me to do well.’ And it doesn’t go down well when I complain, she added silently. ‘Don’t you get any downtime?’ ‘What’s downtime?‘Megan grinned. ‘You mean the time after all my lessons when I pass out in my bed and get five whole hours of sleep?’ Lucas Bright turned to her, blue eyes flashing as he leaned in, earnest and intense. ‘That’s not really living though, is it?’ Megan shrugged. ‘What choice do I have?’ Lucas grinned. ‘You know how your mother thinks I’m a bad influence and you should probably stay away from me?’ Megan said nothing, blushing as she looked at the floor. ‘She was right,’ Lucas laughed. ‘I think you’re in need of a little rebellion. And I am a master.’ *** The first night at Whittleby Cottage went smoothly. Mainly because they’d had wine with dinner and Jonathan had opened the good whisky. They ordered in Chinese food because the turkey was burnt and Megan tried not to think about the waste of it all, how much money they’d probably spent on that turkey only to give it to Minnie. She shook it off. There was no way to avoid the situation – if they were too familiar and had too good a time; it was painful. If she made it difficult, everyone felt awkward, and Skye would be upset. She watched her daughter, sitting on the floor at the coffee table, Jonathan on the other side as they played chess. A Christmas compilation played in the background, and the house smelled like cinnamon. Minnie was sitting on her feet, and her mother was sitting with her sketch book in the corner. Megan had a sneaking suspicion she was drawing Skye, but didn’t say anything. There was no need for conversation, no need for explanation, at least not yet, and that was comforting. When it got to ten o’ clock, Megan roused herself. ‘Come on bub, time for bed. You can finish the game tomorrow.’ Skye grumbled but stood up, putting her hand out to shake Jonathan’s. ‘Thanks for playing with me, Granddad. I look forward to beating you tomorrow.’ ‘I’m sure you do, but it’s not likely to happen!’ He stuck out his tongue. ‘We thought Skye could stay in your old room, and then you could go in the guest room? Or whichever way you want to do it…’ Heather trailed off, looking at Megan for approval. ‘Sounds great, Mum,’ Megan nodded, realising she hadn’t addressed her mother so far, not properly. A lump formed in her throat. ‘Are Matty and Claudia staying over Christmas or…?’ ‘They’re only down the road, they might stay Christmas Eve night, depending on how things go…’ Heather trailed off again, but Megan knew what she meant. In case it all got a little too emotional, Matty would play buffer. ‘Good idea.’ She waved, then guided Skye upstairs. ‘Night!’ Her room. What would they have done with it? Created another beautiful guest room, so posh that every visitor felt uncomfortable sleeping in it? She pushed the door and saw it still squeaked. Megan stepped in and felt the energy leave her body as she looked around. It was unchanged. Everything was exactly in its place, the same as she left it, almost ten years to the day. The posters, everything from The Kinks to Bob Marley to Tom Waits. The photo montage above the bed, the band posters. The scratched dresser with all her creams and perfumes still as they had been. The poster for that last gig at The Nag’s Head lay on the side, crumpled and unfolded a million times, until all their faces were faded away. She wanted to cry, but she didn’t know if it meant her parents cared, they wanted to keep her close, or if they were mourning her like some dead daughter, instead of reaching out. Keep the old Megan in a mausoleum and mourn her. Abandon the real one to get on with her life. Skye bounced on the bed, tracing the edges of the black and white bedspread. There was a knitted blanket at the end she’d bought from IKEA when it first opened, and Dad had taken her. Pingu the penguin sat on her pillows, as if he’d been waiting all this time, stalwart and loyal. ‘This was you, huh?’ Skye looked around in awe. ‘Yeah, guess it’s pretty strange for you, all of this.’ Megan sat down beside her. ‘How are you doing?’ Skye thought about it, her brown eyes rolling up to the ceiling, head tilted. ‘I’m good. I like them. But I love you, and if they’re mean to you then that’s it.’ ‘You’re just saying that so we can go to Disneyland.’ Skye shrugged, and grinned. ‘So am I sleeping here?’ ‘If you want to.’ Skye nodded, looking around as if any object could tell a story. Which, Megan supposed, they could. Her gaze wandered to the photo montage. Pictures of the band, looking all stoic and serious, her and Luke pulling faces, her with her arm around Belinda. The Christmas the year before she left, posing for the camera, encircled in Luke’s arms as he held up mistletoe. Her chest felt like it was going to cave in. Luke would have left, wouldn’t he? Got on a tour bus, become a big star in London dive bars, or LA’s sleek scene. Maybe he’d moved down to Cornwall, to teach kids guitar, living in a little cottage on the side of a cliff. She’d looked out for him, in NME, gig listings, every time she thought she saw a Lucas listed. But the truth was, he could use any name, be in any band by now. She had the means to find him, she could join all those social media sites, sniff him out. But in all honesty, it was too late, and she had things to be ashamed of too. Skye changed into her pyjamas, and Megan brushed her hair as her daughter read out from To Kill a Mockingbird. They snuggled in close, Megan helping with the longer words, adding a bit of context here and there. She looked to her bookshelf in the corner and found her own copy sitting on the shelf, as well as many other books that she had always wanted to give to Skye. The smell of her old room, the familiar give of the cushions surrounded her, until Skye drifted off to sleep, and Megan followed, never making it to the guest room. *** May 2003 ‘You’re being ridiculous,’ he said, standing up and placing his guitar down on the bed. ‘I’m not!’ Megan tried to contain her irritation. ‘All I said was maybe we could use a minor seventh chord…’ ‘Unfathomable!’ Lucas paced up and down his room, his hair spiking up at all angles as he ran his hand through it irritably. ‘Oh I’m sorry, could someone tell me where the Artist Formerly Known As Lucas has gone?’ Megan rolled her eyes, unplugging her cherry red Fender Strat from the amp they were sharing. Lucas’s room was barely big enough for them to play together, let alone argue about playing together. ‘Shut up, Meg. Just because you dyed your hair to match your guitar you think you’re Courtney Love now?’ She raised her hand. ‘I’m so sorry, oh musical genius! It’s just that usually when we write songs together we actually write songs together!’ She stood by the window, leaning against it, unsure why things seemed to have changed. ‘Why are we always arguing?’ she asked him, seeing him look up suddenly, blue eyes clouding over. He’d stopped wearing eyeliner since summer had hit, and she had to say she preferred him without. The girls in the village had loved it, their little punk rock god crush. They used to turn up at the gigs wearing Nirvana T-shirts and shrugging when he asked them who Kurt Cobain was. Megan preferred when he was just Lucas. Her childhood friend, her bandmate. Just him, playing music, being him. No facade. ‘We do seem to be, don’t we?’ he said simply, staring at the ground. ‘I…I don’t think it’s me who’s starting it, Luke,’ she said gently. ‘I seem to be pissing you off a lot more recently. Since we started sixth form…do you want me to leave the band?’ His eyes widened. ‘No! No, no, that’s not it, Angel, honest.’ He walked over to her, leaning on the other side of the window, looking out into their front garden, where his little sister was digging in the dirt, helping his mother plant flowers. ‘I know I’m not a musician, Luke,’ she said sadly, ‘I’m just the singer, but you used to like when I helped with lyrics.’ He grabbed her hand. ‘It’s nothing to do with the band. I mean, it is a bit. It’s…you know, spending a lot of time together. We do all our normal friend stuff, watching movies and whatever, and then we do band stuff, and then college…’ He squeezed her hand, looking into her eyes like she was supposed to understand some secret code. ‘It’s too much,’ she nodded, sighing. ‘That’s fine, I get it.’ ‘You really don’t get it!’ Luke panicked, pulled her to him and kissed her. She froze for a second, and so did he, his lips resting on hers to see what she’d do. He tasted like peppermint and chocolate and stale cigarettes. Megan sighed a little, and he kissed her again, properly this time, his lips warm and insistent as her arms wrapped around his neck. Her heart was thumping like nothing else, and as he nipped against her bottom lip, she suddenly realised what he’d been trying to say. She pulled back and grinned at him. ‘You’ve been being mean to me because you like me! It’s like year four all over again!’ Lucas at least looked embarrassed, scratching his neck and failing to meet her eyes. ‘Yeah…kinda…’ Megan tilted her head. ‘And this isn’t just some weird boy hormone thing?’ Luke rolled his eyes. ‘Meg, this time I’m telling you this not because I like you, but because it’s true: don’t be an idiot.’ He put his arm around her waist and pulled her towards him, kissing her again. Megan grinned against his lips. ‘Well, isn’t this a surprise.’ ‘Good one?’ He pulled back, searching her eyes for disappointment or awkwardness. ‘Kiss me again and we’ll see,’ she laughed, grabbing his hand. She wasn’t sure she’d ever felt so happy. *** The next morning everyone was still play acting Happy Families. Megan felt the familiar itch, the need to smash the facade apart, break it down and hold it up to the light. It was fake, and she hated it. Better to come out and have a big emotional outpouring at the start, rather than this…politeness she found so abhorrent. But there was Skye to think of. Her dad made French toast, the crackly radio played The Beatles in the kitchen as he hummed along, wearing his apron with the motorbikes on, his chef hat tipped at a jaunty angle. She’d forgotten how much her father used to make her laugh. Skye loved him immediately, but wouldn’t accept his views on Elvis. ‘Kid, I will show you some music that would make you think Elvis was nothing more than a flash in the pan pop star.’ ‘The same has been said about The Beatles, and you’re still listening to them,’ Skye said, shrugging as he set down her breakfast before her. ‘Touché,’ Jonathan agreed, making a face at Megan, who simply shook her head in response. ‘Don’t try and insult the King, Dad, it just won’t work with her.’ ‘Nope. No chance.’ Skye shook her head seriously. ‘But amazing toast, Granddad, seriously. Jeremy’s cooking skills are starting to look terrible in comparison.’ Heather, who had been quietly drinking her coffee, overseeing her husband’s cooking, looked up. She shared a significant look with Jonathan. ‘Is Jeremy your…step-father?’ Heather ventured, checking to see how upset Megan was by the question. Her lips got thin and she raised an eyebrow. ‘No!’ Skye laughed, looking to Megan. ‘Oh, no, I mean…you obviously think of him as your father,’ Jonathan said, nodding, then making a face as if to convey just how awkward it was. What if Skye hadn’t known about her parentage? What if Megan had been living with someone who’d raised her child as her own? It wasn’t unheard of. Their assumptions would have screwed it all up. ‘Jeremy’s gay!’ Skye laughed, waiting for Megan to elaborate. ‘He’s Anna’s lodger. He’s lived with us as long as we’ve been there,’ Megan said stiffly, ‘he’s family.’ She watched as her mother’s lip curled. She knew exactly what she was thinking: what kind of den of sin was Anna letting them live in? And she hadn’t even mentioned Jeremy’s job, thank god. ‘He’s wonderful. He’s a writer, working on plays,’ Skye said proudly, and Megan breathed a sigh of relief. ‘And he does drag acts!’ Skye added, as Jonathan coughed, and Heather looked at the ceiling. ‘He’s a really beautiful woman!’ Megan shrugged and realised there was nothing to do but join in. ‘Yeah, he’s got this way with body glitter that just…highlights his non-existent assets.’ ‘Megan!’ her mother exclaimed. ‘What, Mum? Going to ask me how I dare to raise my child in such an environment? Because I wasn’t given many options when it came to that, was I?’ The two women stood facing each other, hands on hips, and Skye marvelled at how much of a mirror image they were. ‘Now, now, Megan, we didn’t mean anything,’ her father intercepted. ‘This bloke sounds fascinating, and we’re both glad you have someone in your life you love so much.’ ‘We do,’ Skye nodded, then turned to Heather. ‘So what are we doing today, Grandma?’ Heather turned towards Skye, whose little face smiled up at her, eyes wide and curious. Megan saw how torn her mother was – continue the fight and defend herself, or connect with her granddaughter. She sat down and patted Skye’s hand, answering her in an overly cheery tone. ‘Well, we thought we’d go down to the Christmas Fayre in the village, play some games, hear the carols.’ Heather winked. ‘Eat lots of junk food. What do you think?’ Skye nodded. ‘I think it’s the best idea ever, don’t you, Mum?’ Megan nodded, completely aware that her daughter was creating a diversion, especially as she winked at her when she knew Heather wasn’t looking. They disappeared to get ready for the walk down to the village, and Megan grabbed Skye’s hand. ‘What are you doing, Pink Panther?’ ‘What?’ Skye made her eyes wide and innocent, raising her eyebrows. But her smirk gave her away. ‘Your questions, your diversions, your “devoted to grandma” routine. Don’t think you’re fooling me, kid.’ ‘I don’t need to fool you, I need to fool them,’ Skye said seriously. ‘It’s sleuthing practice.’ ‘Why do you need to practise?’ Megan raised an eyebrow, helping Skye into her padded winter coat. Her two pigtails hung out from the big fur-lined hood, making her suddenly look so much younger, so much more innocent. No doubt Skye had chosen her outfit especially for this purpose, as part of ‘Project Make Grandma Adore Me’. Evil genius. ‘Because skills take practice. Plus, I’m getting you out of situations. So I’m being useful.’ Megan knelt in front of her, holding out her gloves, an eyebrow raised. ‘You don’t have to be useful, my love, because you are absolutely necessary.’ Skye frowned at her, bemused. ‘I just mean you don’t have to keep saving my arse.’ Megan paused. ‘Bum. Don’t tell them I said arse.’ ‘Twice,’ Skye grinned, and took her mum’s hand. ‘So, this fayre thing, it happens every Christmas?’ They wandered out to the front of the house to wait for their hosts, who were probably gossiping about Jeremy the Gay Performer whilst getting ready. ‘Yep, every year. It’s pretty fun. Or it was, anyway. Your granddad is extraordinarily gifted with the Hook A Duck games. Get him to win you something.’ Skye’s brow furrowed. ‘Where’s the fun in that? I want to win it for myself.’ Megan grinned, putting her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. ‘Two hot chocolates for you today, kid. Or two treats of whatever kind you want.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because you’re a wonderful person, and I’m your mum, and it’s Christmas. So there.’ Megan stuck out her tongue. Her parents arrived, wrapped up in the same winter clothes they’d had since she could remember, and off they went down the steep hill to town. The village had changed a fair bit in the last ten years, Megan noted. Not necessarily the people, or the feel of it, but a few bits here and there. The existence of a Subway, the Costa Coffee on the corner. There were still the independents, the butchers, the bakery that she hung out in one summer, obsessed with the boy behind the till who gave her free donuts. The strange pottery cafe that no one ever seemed to go to, but never disappeared. They walked past Vittorio’s, a posh Italian restaurant she’d waited tables at every Saturday night since she was sixteen. It looked exactly the same inside, pristine, with the waiters in penguin suits. She’d hated that job. Hated Marco, the owner, and how he talked to them all. But the tips had been good, and the free dinners were almost worth the abuse. Heather had made her give up the job once exam season started, but she wasn’t too bothered by that point. It was strange to think the money she made from Marco had given her and Skye their start. But he was still an arse. They reached the High Street, where the festivities were in full swing. Market stalls and Christmas lights were everywhere, to a soundtrack of carollers in the middle of the square. They stood before a grand Christmas tree, lit up, sparkling in the dull greyness of the afternoon. The voices were angelic, and yes, there was Mr Turner, still conducting the choir with his audacious movements, always overzealous as he started sweating through his woolly hat. Skye was holding Heather’s hand as they moved through the crowd, and Megan relaxed, allowing herself to be transported back to the childhood days of the fayre. The year they won the raffle, the year Matty drank so much hot apple cider he was sick behind Santa’s grotto. The year she and Lucas played their own version of Christmas carols in the square to raise money for charity, and everyone was so kind, so generous, so proud of them. She shook the thought away like it was smoke. ‘Hook a duck!’ Skye said loudly, pointing. Jonathan looked at Megan with glee, rubbing his hands together, then ran off with her daughter, as she dragged him along. That left her slowly walking with her mother. ‘He’s so excited she’s here,’ Heather said by her side, neither taking their eyes away from the pair. ‘She’s so like him. Inquisitive, always wanting an answer. Everything always has to make sense.’ Megan smiled into the distance, thinking of how many answers she had never had for her daughter. Her smile dimmed a little. ‘That must be exhausting.’ ‘It’s kind of a thrill.’ ‘I…’ Her mother paused. ‘I’m really excited you’re here too. Both of you.’ ‘Good.’ She still couldn’t quite bear to have this conversation face to face with her mother, instead of adjacent. She couldn’t bear to see the disappointment still sitting in her eyes. ‘At some point we’re going to have to have it all out. You know that, right?’ ‘I know,’ her mother said quietly, ‘but it’s nice to pretend until then.’ They day passed pleasantly enough, playing the games, hearing the music. Megan, true to her word, bought Skye both a hot chocolate and a gingerbread cookie. As they were leaving to walk back up the hill, infused with the joyousness of the event, the smell of hot apple cider and the twinkle of the bells on the baby reindeer’s collar as he walked about his pen, Megan was stopped by a hand on her arm. ‘Megan McAllister!’ a woman’s voice called out, and all she could think was please don’t be Belinda. Please. More than that, please don’t be Belinda married to Lucas with hundreds of awful babies. Please, that’s all I’m asking. She turned around and was faced with the excited bundle of energy that was Estelle Williams. Estelle had been a bit of a dark horse, in that she’d been the librarian at school when Megan was studying, despite only being twenty-three herself. She’d disappeared off to uni, and returned to their little town with a few piercings and tattoos, and a penchant for rockabilly. And became the school librarian. No one could figure out why she’d done it, or why they hired her. But she’d helped Megan with her university applications, and had shown her a ridiculous amount of kindness over the years. ‘Estelle! It’s so great to see you!’ She embraced her. Estelle looked the same, her red hair in victory curls, her thick framed glasses perched on the end of her pierced nose. Her coat looked like it was straight from Little Red Riding hood, a fitted and flared number with big gold buttons and a black fur trim. She looked like Mrs Santa’s naughty younger sister. ‘I thought that was you, you’re back!’ ‘Just for the holidays.’ She pointed over at Skye and her parents. ‘Wanted my little one to meet my parents.’ Estelle grabbed her hand, dark red lipstick curving into a genuine smile. ‘That is wonderful, darling, honestly. You can tell me all about it tomorrow when you meet me for drinks.’ ‘I…um…’ Estelle raised a drawn-on eyebrow. ‘Your parents will want to spend time with their grandkid, right? Plus, the Nag’s Head have started doing cocktails. They’re vile but very cheap.’ ‘Wow, aren’t we getting sophisticated out in the country?’ Megan laughed, but agreed to meet her at the pub the next night at seven. When she rejoined Skye and her parents, she couldn’t shake the feeling that Estelle was going to have all sorts of gossip that she really didn’t want to know. *** December 2004 ‘Megan! What’s wrong?’ Estelle pulled out a pack of tissues from her Lulu Guinness bag, sliding them across the desk. ‘I’m…I’m…’ Megan was starting to hyperventilate, and Estelle flipped up the break in the desk to let her through, ushering her into the back room. She placed a ‘librarian on break’ sign on the desk, and followed her. Megan sat in the swivel chair, head between her legs, alternating between gasping and crying. Her hair, dyed red, was starting to turn back to its natural brown, and she seemed to keep tugging at it in frustration. Estelle grabbed her hands. ‘Come on Megan, you’re scaring me a little. What’s up? I know you’re still waiting for the Cambridge letters, but….’ ‘Everything’s changed,’ she breathed, somehow attaining calm composure. She looked Estelle straight in the eye. ‘I’m pregnant.’ It was the first time she’d said it out loud. First time she’d let herself think about it since throwing away the tests in the toilets in Euston station. And of course, she decides to break down at college, in the library. Estelle’s eyebrows raised only for a second, before she vocalised exactly how Megan felt about it all, ‘Well, shit.’ They sat in silence for a moment, Megan swinging her legs against the scratchy blue material. ‘Is it Lucas’?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh…double shit,’ Estelle sighed. ‘Times like this one really wants a cigarette.’ ‘Or tequila,’ Megan agreed. ‘So…have you considered your options?’ ‘I know I should get rid of…it,’ Megan started. ‘I spent all that time campaigning for the sexual health clinic as part of the GP, and I did that debate where I argued Pro-choice…God, when people find out that I’m a hypocrite…’ ‘Woah, not a hypocrite!’ Estelle grabbed her hand. ‘Fighting for rights doesn’t mean you have to make that decision. You believe in choice, remember?’ ‘Yeah,’ Megan said hopelessly, ‘I don’t even know why. I know it’s going to screw up my life. Uni will be gone. Lucas and leaving this place…all of it up in smoke with one wiggle of my cervix.’ ‘Try long periods of excruciating pain,’ Estelle corrected. ‘And that was just the conception.’ Estelle smiled. ‘See, making jokes. Already we’re getting somewhere.’ ‘Everything’s going to change,’ Megan said, feeling the tears well up again. ‘Babe, it already has,’ Estelle told her, and handed her another pack of tissues. *** Megan had made an effort that night, styled her hair so it sat softly on her shoulders, curling at the ends. She’d put on her black velvet dress, the one she’d bought to wear on Christmas Day, it being tradition in the McAllister household to get dressed up for the big event. But she could always wash it. She was wearing her boots with the chunky heel, had flicked her eyeliner a little more distinctly, somehow still eager to impress Estelle all these years later. ‘Wow.’ Skye looked at her in the mirror as Megan finished applying her make-up. ‘Good?’ ‘Really good. You could sing with Jeremy on stage!’ Skye patted her shoulder and ran off to return to the chess board. With the fear that her daughter thought she looked like a drag queen, Megan pulled on her coat, and walked down the hill to the Nag’s Head, the oldest pub in town. It was pretty much the same inside, warm and comforting, with the fire burning away in the corner, Pluto the black labrador still dozing in front of it at all times. He’d been an excitable puppy the last time she’d been here, chewing on her mic cord and eventually falling asleep on the speaker. ‘Megan!’ Estelle waved from one of the sofas at the back, two drinks sitting in front of her. The stage area was clear, so Megan walked across it, trying not to think about how wonderful it had been to sing there, to feel like a real rock and roll star, playing to a bunch of uninterested retirees and drunk teenagers. ‘I got the drinks in – felt a Pina Colada is fairly inoffensive,’ Estelle gestured, ‘although it tastes less like a Pina Colada and more like someone threw a bunch of rum into some pineapple juice, but I’m not complaining. How are you?’ Megan shrugged. ‘I’m good, I guess. We live in Highgate with my aunt Anna, me and Skye that is, my daughter…’ Megan shook her head, ‘which you knew, obviously.’ ‘You ever go off to do that English degree?’ ‘Actually, I did a degree part time.’ Megan sipped her drink and shuddered at the sweetness, feeling the alcohol seep into her system. ‘I’m a speech and language therapist now. I work with deaf kids, and children with speech impediments, that kind of stuff.’ Estelle grinned. ‘That seems…so perfect for you. Is this the first time you’ve been back? I’ve been away the last couple of Christmases, so we could have just missed each other…’ ‘First time back.’ Megan widened her eyes. ‘And it’s awkward and weird, and I will probably need a good few more of these disgusting cocktails whilst I’m here.’ Estelle snorted into her drink, then raised her glass. ‘To Megan, the returning warrior. Missed you, darlin’.’ They clinked glasses, and Megan felt the familiarity settle around her. Estelle had been a strange one. She’d always looked up to her in school, and then off she went to university, and Megan was sure she’d be famous. Snapped up by a modelling agency, become an actress, or a famous painter or something. Despite the fact that she never actually seemed to do anything artistic. And then she returned a couple of years later to be the school librarian, no questions asked. ‘You still the librarian?’ Megan asked suddenly, then thought it sounded rude, as if she was diminishing Estelle’s life in this small town. ‘Archivist, thank you. I am, but I’m also an English teacher now, if you can believe it.’ Estelle rolled her eyes. ‘I go off to study biomedical science, and end up an English teacher. Go figure.’ ‘You like it?’ ‘I…I like the students. Most of the time. And I like books, and analysis and when one of the kids comes out with something fantastic,’ Estelle nodded, ‘but then there’s the ones who have been studying Of Mice and Men all year and are still calling it a play, or made it all the way through The Tempest thinking Ariel is the girl mermaid from Disney. It’s…painful.’ ‘So why stay?’ Estelle shrugged, delicately adjusting an eyelash. ‘The staff are nice to work with, and I moved back to look after my mum, so it made sense to have something local.’ Megan nodded, the sudden reappearance making sense now. No one could understand why a girl like Estelle would stay in a town like that. She could be anywhere, doing anything. ‘But she passed away a couple of years ago, so I don’t really need to be here any more. Just habit, I guess,’ Estelle said casually, slurping up the last of her drink. ‘Another?’ ‘I’ll get them.’ Megan jumped up. ‘Same again?’ ‘Surprise me, I’m not fussy,’ Estelle smiled, as Megan walked to the bar. She sensed Estelle didn’t want to talk about her mother, which was fair enough, as no one had ever known that was why she came back. Or why she stayed. And Estelle had kept her secret all those years ago. Tom the landlord sighed as she asked for two Cosmopolitans. ‘If I give you a bottle of wine for the same price, will you take it? I hate making those bloody things. All my wife’s idea.’ She took pity on him and agreed, and as she paid he looked at her, head tilted to the side. ‘Do I know you, love? You look awful familiar.’ ‘I played in a band here a couple of times, but that was a lifetime ago,’ she relented, hoping that wasn’t enough to make him go ‘Oh, you’re Heather and John’s girl, the one who ran off with a bun in the oven.’ But no, he just nodded. ‘We’ve got a good lot on tonight, you know. A bunch of music teachers from the school started a band to relive their youth, sad bastards,’ Tom chuckled to himself. ‘That said, they’re pretty good. Been playing here for years. Quite a following of young girls.’ ‘Well. I’ll look forward to that,’ Megan grinned and made her way back to Estelle. ‘They’re still playing music here?’ she asked as she put the wine down, pouring the rosè into the two oversized glasses. ‘Always,’ Estelle grinned, ‘it ranges from the awful to the awesome. A couple of the Year Tens have started a band called The Illusionists. They keep trying to pull scarves out of their guitars whilst they play. It’s awful. They might play tonight and we can boo them!’ She paused. ‘Nothing quite lives up to Megan and the Boys though.’ ‘You knew about that?’ ‘I was a fan. Came to every gig you guys played here. Your little one got the musical talent?’ Estelle looked at something over Megan’s shoulder, briefly alarmed, and then returned her gaze to Megan. ‘No idea. She’s more interested in becoming a secret detective. Which I worry about because it means she’s terribly good at lying when she wants to. Luckily she’s too moral to use it on me. Seems to be working well at getting extra slices of cake from her grandparents though,’ she shrugged. They talked about Skye for a little more, and about the school, the changes in the town over the last few years, until the microphone buzzed, and Tom was there, addressing the crowd, looking up at them in the back of the room. ‘Well, unfortunately, our Friday regulars Cludbucket couldn’t perform tonight, probably due to some sort of rock and roll reason, like hangovers, or the clap’ – here the audience hooted and laughed – ‘but they’re rubbish anyway. I’m pleased to present the Nag’s Head’s favourite band…No Education!’ The crowd cheered, teenage girls scooted to the front, but Estelle grabbed her hand. ‘Megan, I’m sorry, they weren’t supposed to be on tonight.’ Megan turned to her, laughing. ‘Don’t worry about it, if they’re better than Cludbucket, and how couldn’t they be with a name like that…’ Megan’s voice faded as she turned to the stage and saw that same boy she’d stood on stage with all those years ago, adjusting his mic and tuning his guitar. ‘I’m Lucas,’ the dark-haired man said, ‘and we’re No Education.’ His eyes scanned the crowd, smiling, and his gaze found hers. His eyes widened for the longest moment, standing in silence, looking as if someone had just taken a frying pan to his face. Then he launched into his set, and didn’t make eye contact again. Chapter Four (#ulink_780337a4-31b3-5134-b2e5-61a37985db7c) October 2003 ‘I think I’m going to throw up.’ Megan sat on the stage at the Nag’s Head, breathing deeply. Lucas came up behind her, putting his arms around her. ‘You’re going to be fine. Better than fine, amazing.’ He gave her a squeeze. ‘Come on Angel, pretend it’s just you and me playing in my bedroom.’ She turned her head to look at him. ‘So I should play in my underwear.’ Lucas grinned. ‘If that’ll make you feel more comfortable, I have no complaints.’ She leaned back into his arms and closed her eyes. Life was perfect. She had the perfect guy, a great band, good grades, and was on track to get out of this stifling little village. Except she hadn’t realised she’d be this nervous. ‘Come on, up we get.’ Lucas grabbed her hand and pulled her up. ‘Me and the guys can deal with the set up, why don’t you see if Linda will make you a cuppa, and do some deep breathing in the corner?’ She swept his hair across his head, to stop it from constantly falling into his eyes. She knew it would end up in his face again the minute he started playing, throwing his head about and fixing the audience with a solid gaze from beneath dark lashes. She liked his hair better before he’d dyed it. Then again, he said the same thing about her. The sacrifices they made for rock and roll. She smudged the eyeliner he’d applied earlier, making him look more tired and mysterious, and less like an irritated panda with a musical agenda. ‘This is gonna be great, Meg, really.’ He pulled her in for a kiss, as always his arms warm around her, his kisses gentle but longing, a promise of what would happen after the show. She was so glad it had been with him, and not just some boy who would kiss her for five minutes before groping down her top. Lucas was…well, she hesitated to use the term soul mate because it made her want to vomit even more, but he was her something. Her magnet, her anchor. Something that kept her steady and made her fly all at once. ‘And if it’s not?’ she breathed against his lips. ‘Well, if it’s not, I’ll still love you.’ Lucas grinned at her, watching as her mouth dropped into an ‘o’ of surprise. ‘Yep, I love you. It’s a full-time job, but someone’s got to do it.’ He patted her bum. ‘Now warm up those vocals, rock star!’ They wowed the crowd that night, there were cheers and demands for encores. Tom had given them ten percent of the money made on the bar, and as they danced around on stage to their last encore, the crowd singing along to ‘Come on Eileen’, of all songs, she reached for Lucas’ hand and shouted across the stage: ‘I love you too.’ *** They were good. Really good. Too good to be teachers who did this for fun on Friday nights, Megan thought, heart thumping desperately. She’d downed most of the bottle of wine, and her hands were shaking throughout the set. Twangly guitar and his voice, still so recognisable, and yet with an extra edge it had never had at seventeen. Something that sounded like whisky and cigarettes and too many nights staring at the ceiling. But that couldn’t be true, if Lucas was a teacher, living in the same tiny village that she’d always wanted to escape. So had he failed, or had he settled? ‘You couldn’t have told me!’ she hissed at Estelle, eyes still watching Lucas on stage, though he was purposefully ignoring her. ‘That’s what I was going to do tonight! He wasn’t meant to be playing! I was going to tell you here!’ Estelle explained. ‘And what is there to tell?’ ‘Lucas is a music teacher at the school. He came back about six or seven years ago. Went off to pursue the big time, and we heard it was going well, then suddenly he turns up with a teaching degree and a burning desire to destroy talented young people by over-analysing Pachelbel’s Canon and playing on xylophones. He’s a colleague, and a friend.’ Megan felt like her stomach was sitting in her chest. ‘You can’t tell me any more?’ ‘I don’t know much more. He teaches, he plays in his band. He’s not married, doesn’t have kids. Lives in a little cottage at the edge of town. Kind of a recluse. Friendly and funny enough, but he keeps to himself.’ Megan took the time to truly look at him. It was impossible not to compare him to the old Lucas, the one with the painted fingernails and kohl-lined eyes. This Lucas looked like an upright young man. His hair was back to his natural dark brown, his blue eyes standing out against his pale skin. He still had a piercing in his ear, and where his shirt was rolled up there was a large tattoo on his forearm, though she couldn’t make out what it was. His clothes were simple now, a pale shirt and dark jeans, a couple of beaded bracelets around his wrist. He didn’t look like a rock star any more. He looked like someone’s dad. Which didn’t seem to be stopping the teenage girls at the front of the stage wiggling their hips and staring up at him in awe. ‘As always, you guys have been…a passable audience.’ He looked seriously into the crowd, surveying them over the mic, and then laughed. ‘I’m joking, we love that you support our little band. But those of you from my Year Ten class here tonight, this is not an excuse for not giving in your compositions. But feel free to write “Mr Bright’s band is awesome” five hundred times if you want extra credit.’ The crowd chuckled, the girls cooed, and the mood seemed lighter. Megan smiled softly; that was Lucas, there on stage. Making jokes and soaking up the spotlight, because he was Lucas Bright, and even his name knew he was meant to be something special. ‘This next song we’re going to play is a bit of an oldie, and we haven’t played it for quite a while, but somehow, tonight, it seems fitting. It’s called “The Girl Who Ran Away”.’ The guitar started, and Megan’s head began to spin. The song had been everywhere, years ago. She remembered hearing it on the radio in Anna’s house, a year or so after they’d moved in with her. Skye hadn’t stopped crying, she hadn’t eaten, slept or washed in days, and all she wanted to do was fall apart. The small red radio Anna kept in the kitchen was on in the background, and that song came on. ‘The Girl Who Ran Away.’ And Megan thought in that instant, ‘this song is about me. It’s for me.’ The girl who lies, the girl who pushes, the girl who runs away. It was her, and she took so much comfort in it, playing it each night before she went to sleep, playing it when she was upset her parents hadn’t called. Playing it those first few Christmases when she had missed her family fiercely. For Lucas to be playing that song… ‘Well, thanks,’ Lucas smiled at the audience, ‘that little ditty was something I wrote a few years ago, although I’m sure you’ll have heard a more tuneful squeaky-clean pop version on the radio.’ Here he paused, staring up at the back of the room, where Megan froze. ‘It seemed appropriate as the inspiration for that song is here tonight. So here’s to our muses, however much they cut out our hearts.’ He grinned painfully, light eyes flashing, his audience not really sure how to take it, just one lone teenage girl at the front who ‘woo’ed loudly. ‘Speaking of, let’s kick up the tempo into some good old-fashioned rock n roll!’ Lucas laughed, and launched into a rendition of ‘Crocodile Rock’, not noticing that Megan had stormed out in tears. *** 24th December 2004 She’d turned up at his door late in the evening, frozen and shaking. ‘Am outside – you home?’ she texted him, waiting to see if the light in his room would go off, pushing her away even more. Instead, the front door opened, and she just stood there, arms wrapped feebly around her, missing him. Lucas was surprised to see her, his eyes sleepy, his dark hair standing up on end. ‘What the hell are you doing out here? It’s freezing – get inside!’ he said in an exaggerated whisper, grabbing her arm. ‘I’m sorry – I didn’t –’ ‘Not here.’ He put a finger to his lips and grabbed her hand, pulling her up to his room. She relished the brief contact, thought about how their hands had always fitted so well together. Holding Luke’s hand had always felt right. She sat down on his bed, and he closed the door behind him, standing with arms folded, waiting for an explanation. ‘I’m guessing you’re not just here to wish me a Merry Christmas, Meg, huh?’ ‘I had nowhere else to go,’ she said, and promptly burst into tears. Lucas hovered awkwardly, not sure where this new space between them put him. Tentatively, he sat on the bed next to her, an arm around her shoulder. ‘Come on Meg, it can’t be that bad,’ he whispered, trying to ignore how her brown hair tickled his nose, and how she was still so clearly his Megan. The one he had loved and fought for and made music with for the last year. The one he’d grown up with for many more years than that. ‘They…they kicked me out,’ she hiccuped, burying her head in her hands, ‘and I’m sorry, but I didn’t know where to go.’ Luke rubbed her back, mind racing. Heather and John McAllister could not be prouder of their daughter, rock band songstress or not. She was smart, and kind, and off to Cambridge to read lots of books and change the world. Whereas he was going to stay here, go to the music college, start teaching guitar and playing gigs. Which had been the whole reason they’d broken up in the first place. They were never going to work. She was destined for great big, important things. And he…well, he wanted to chase a dream while he was young enough to have it. ‘Why’d they kick you out, Angel?’ he asked, his endearment somehow too close, too familiar for what they now were. Two friends who played in a band. ‘I’m…urgh…I hate saying it.’ Megan squared her shoulders, sitting straight and looked him in the eyes. ‘I’m pregnant, and I didn’t want to get rid of it. So they got rid of me.’ Her bottom lip wobbled but her eyes stayed dry, staring into the distance. Luke felt her stomach twitch and contract. A baby. A baby with his Megan. Well, it wasn’t ideal by any means, and selfishly he thought that maybe now she couldn’t go to Cambridge, she’d stay with him. A little family with Meg. They could get a place, a little flat in the village. He had enough savings with teaching guitar, could get an extra job during the day, call centre work or something. Meg was really smart, no doubt she could tutor in English, or do something in an office for a bit, until she was due. She could try uni again later, maybe something more local. Or they could move once they had a little bit of money behind them… ‘It’s…’ Megan registered the look on his face, the incredulous almost-smile as he drifted off, lost in thought. ‘It’s not yours, Luke.’ ‘Oh.’ He shook his head. ‘Right. Whose is it?’ ‘Someone that doesn’t matter and doesn’t need to know.’ ‘Didn’t take you long,’ Luke grumbled, trying not to feel like his chest was crumbling, trying not to make lists of every guy who had ever been around her, who was now responsible for this. ‘Well, you found Belinda easily enough,’ Megan bit back, and then scrunched up her eyes. ‘I don’t even know why I’m here! I just have no one and nowhere to go, and I needed my best friend. It was stupid, I’m sorry.’ She stood up to leave, and Luke grabbed her hand. ‘I’m sorry, Angel. Just, stings a bit, you know?’ he sighed, pulling her back down to sit next to him. ‘You look sleepy,’ he said, ‘why don’t you have a good rest, and see how you feel in the morning?’ Megan nodded wearily, kicking off her shoes and scooting back along the blue duvet, pulling it over her legs and snuggling down, as she had countless times before. ‘Where are you?’ she called over her shoulder, eyes closed. ‘I’ll kip on the floor,’ he said, and she heard him pull his T-shirt over his head and throw it on the floor. ‘Besides, Clare will be in first thing, wanting to show me her presents.’ ‘I’ll be gone before she gets up,’ Megan promised, ‘but come lie next to me. I’m not exactly in a situation to take advantage of you, am I?’ Luke didn’t say anything but slid into the bed next to her, arms around her, his face buried in her neck as he always had. She thought she might cry from how wonderful it felt. How right it was. She should never have tried to set him free, she realised. If she hadn’t, none of this would have happened. They would just have carried on, singing and making music and laughing and curling up together, because close was never close enough. And now it was done. At least he hadn’t looked at her with disgust. Hadn’t called her names or thrown her out. At least he was still Lucas. She must have fallen asleep, because a few hours later she awoke, feeling Luke tapping his chest, muttering to himself. ‘You okay?’ she yawned, rolling over to look at him. His blue eyes stared back in the darkness, the barest trace of hair on his chin as he gently kissed her cheek. ‘We could make this work, Meg,’ he whispered in the darkness, holding her close, so that his mouth was against her ear, gently telling her things that were too good to be true. ‘We could get a little place – I’ve got some money – you could put off uni for a year. We could work, save, raise this kid…together. I’ll do that. I’ll raise it as mine. We can keep our lives here. Your family would come around eventually. We could do it, we could!’ Some days she felt Luke was so much younger than she was, still believing in the goodness and kindness of people. Thinking her parents would change their mind. The way they had looked at her that evening, like there was nothing more disgusting on earth. They looked at her like she was a murderer- she had murdered their Megan, the one that they had loved and adored, and she should be punished. And she couldn’t punish Luke too. She couldn’t stay. If she stayed, she’d always be that Megan, that failure. God, all those years of being their little princess, with her lessons and her extra classes and being exhausted all the time. All for nothing. She wasn’t sure who she pitied more, her or them. Or Lucas. Beautiful Lucas, who loved her and wanted to look after her, because he knew, just like the rest of them, that she couldn’t do it alone. ‘That sounds wonderful.’ She cried into his shoulder in relief, soaking up those moments with his arms around her, surrounded by the smell and feel of him. His lips resting against her neck, his fingers stroking patterns on her back. She just lay there for hours, as the seconds ticked into Christmas day, memorising the sound of his sleep and the feel of his skin, until she knew exactly what she had to do. The next morning he awoke to an empty bed and a note on his pillow: Merry Christmas. I love you. Goodbye. *** ‘And that was “Matter to Me”, one of my personal favourites of our back catalogue.’ His voice filtered out through the open door. Lucas was showing off now, and as Megan huffed outside, pacing back and forth, unable to either leave nor stay, she had to admit he was doing it with style. Her life was in his lyrics. Every movement, every in-joke, every heartbreak had been used to create something beautiful. And she couldn’t blame him at all. She stood shivering outside the pub, wishing she had a cigarette, just so she looked like she was there for a reason. She should walk up the hill. She should go back to her parents’ and read Skye a story, and avoid Lucas Bright until she could leave. A chill ran down Megan’s spine, and she pulled her scarf closer around her neck, looking out into the village. It was beautiful, she had to give it that. The little fountain in the centre, the cathedral in the distance. The cobblestones outside the Nag’s Head, that she had drunkenly tripped over so many times as a teenager. She felt a soft coldness on her cheeks and looked up. Of course, it was snowing. Trying to get up the bloody hill now was going to be dangerous, if not impossible.. Unless she left right away. She looked back through the door with longing, but the band had long since stopped playing, and a barrage of top twenty hits was blaring from the speakers, breaking the magic. She pulled her coat closer around her, and nodded to herself. She was going to leave. She was going to walk up the hill before she got stuck. And she was going to hide from Lucas. That was the only way. ‘Hey stranger,’ a voice said casually from behind her. Oh shit. She turned, and there he was, leaning on a doorframe and lighting up a cigarette like he was seventeen again. Except the smart coat and the reindeer scarf sang more of parental responsibility than life on the road. You knew this would happen, her brain taunted, you wanted him to find you. ‘Hey…you,’ Megan’s voice seemed to have disappeared into the cold, and she wrinkled her nose to dislodge a snowflake that had settled. ‘Going to have to check which one of us in the village won the bet about which year you’d come home. I put my money on 2010, so I’ve lost either way. But Frank in the butcher’s and Marco at Vittorio might still be in with a chance.’ Lucas had always been good at cool. When Fliss the Blockbuster girl had dumped him after two weeks of snogging and not much else, he’d written “A girl with tattoos got my heart like a needle”, and performed it in the video store. It got a lot of hits on Myspace and he left with a newly-made groupie on each arm. ‘Well, I’m sorry you lost out,’ Megan shrugged, stamping to keep warm. What was there to say? I’m sorry I left you? I’m sorry I lied? I’m sorry I hurt you but it was the best decision of my life? ‘In more ways than one,’ Lucas said simply, his brow furrowed, eyes dark in the dim lighting of the pub garden. Megan reached into her pockets for her gloves, pulled them onto her shaking, numb hands with effort. ‘Well, I’d better be going. I liked your set.’ ‘Any of it sound familiar?’ ‘You always stole from real life.’ She smiled softly, looking for a chink in the armour. His face was impassive, eyes darker than they used to be. ‘I’m sorry, inspired by real life to create illusion,’ she corrected. ‘If the feeling is real, then the story is too,’ Lucas nodded, remembering some ancient mantra he must have said once to her, a lifetime ago. It sounded like him. ‘It was good to see you, I’ve got to go–’ she started off the path, trying to get away before he could ask her. ‘Megan,’ he said. ‘Why did you go?’ She turned, shivering, the cold and the snow, and those last mystical chords of each song that reverberated through her history with this man seemed to cut her to the core. ‘Because there was no point dragging you down with me,’ Megan said simply, arms wide, waiting for him to argue or shout or shrug and leave her standing there. Why had he offered? Why had he wanted to save her? Why did she have to be the bad one? ‘Do you regret anything?’ Yes, she was wanted to scream. Yes, I should have stayed with you, and my parents would have softened and I wouldn’t have this chronic twinge in my chest when I think of you, or this ache now that you’re really here, staring at me like I let you down. And then Megan thought of Anna, of Jeremy. Of singing in the kitchen on Sunday mornings, of Pulp Fiction dance-offs, of Christmas decorations and Special Sangria, and the old biddies who showered her baby with presents and cookies and kindness. She couldn’t regret anything. ‘She’s the best thing that ever happened to me,’ Megan shrugged, and trudged up the hill, leaving him to watch her go. Which was more than she’d offered him before. Chapter Five (#ulink_e6484f43-aacc-5d89-b004-02c9eebc2ae0) ‘Okay, so give me a list of suspects.’ Skye sat on the kitchen counter, taking out her notebook, whilst Heather searched for a missing pack of biscuits. ‘Suspects?’ ‘Yes,’ Skye said seriously, ‘so I can start my investigation.’ Megan entered the room and ruffled Skye’s hair. ‘Skye McAllister and the case of the missing bourbons? Doesn’t really do you justice, hun.’ Skye rolled her eyes, and jumped down from the side. ‘So what are we doing today?’ Megan got herself a mug from the cupboard and poured herself a coffee, taking a moment to savour the good stuff her dad always insisted on buying from the farmers’ market. It was imported from South America, and it made him feel good thinking the money was going straight to Mr and Mrs Hernandez, or whoever owned the land, which probably wasn’t true at all. It tasted excellent though. She shook her head and focused on her daughter. ‘You were never this demanding, why can’t you just read a book?’ Megan shrugged. ‘Because there’s important work to be done,’ Skye said sternly, ‘and also, I’ve finished all my books.’ ‘I’ve got an entire room of them upstairs.’ ‘Babbling stories about teenage witches? Sorry Mum, not really my thing.’ Skye shared a glance with her grandmother. ‘Well all right, Snooty, if you feel that way I won’t take you out to the bookshop to buy you something.’ ‘It’s five days til Christmas, you can’t buy her presents!’ Heather said in surprise, waving the lost packet of biscuits in triumph. ‘I found them!’ ‘I will buy my daughter a present whenever I damn well please,’ Megan said, trying for jokey, but failing. Her mother looked at her and nodded. ‘Right, of course.’ Crap. Why was everything so bloody difficult? ‘Anyway, we don’t need more things for you to read, because you’re meeting your cousin today. I’m sure he’ll keep you busy.’ Skye tugged at her dark plait. ‘Mum, he’s five.’ ‘Yeah, that’s why you’re going to be busy.’ Megan wriggled her eyebrows. Her head still hurt, but she wasn’t sure if it was the bad cocktails, dehydration, or Lucas. He was here, he was really here. And now the memory of him was sitting in her gut like a marble. Every time she moved, she was reminded of him. Holding her hand as they walked down the street, performing, singing and laughing. She wouldn’t let her mind wander to the bad times. To saying goodbye, or Belinda, or Joey or any of that stuff that happened when she tried to do the right thing. She shook the history away and focused on Skye. ‘Skye McAllister…what are you wearing?’ Megan tilted her head to the side to assess her daughter’s Christmas jumper. ‘Don’t you like it? Me and Grandma worked on it last night,’ Skye said innocently. The red woolly jumper, a Heather McAllister original that probably used to be hers, Megan thought, had been sewn into with gold thread. Except the reindeer outline was so skewed that his head seemed to be bent at a strange angle. Heather nudged her. ‘It’s unique isn’t it? Just like Skye.’ She smiled at her grandchild, then made a face at Megan to say ‘don’t make the kid feel bad at how awful it looks.’ Megan shook her head as Heather left the room. ‘You did that on purpose, I’ve seen you sew your own school uniform. You’re probably better than my mother,’ Megan said knowingly. Skye grinned. ‘But don’t you think it’s unique? I was actually thinking it would be a good band symbol – Dead Rudolph. What do you think?’ Megan looked around to an invisible audience. ‘I swear I didn’t drink when I was pregnant. Where are you getting this stuff from?’ ‘Um, maybe because there have been Christmas carols playing on this radio non-stop and I’m going crazy?’ Skye shrugged, and moved a little closer. ‘Plus I miss Anna. She hasn’t called and she said she would.’ Megan stroked her daughter’s hair. ‘We’ll give her another day, then we’ll call her and complain about how much fun she’s having without us.’ Later that day, Matty, Claudia and Jasper arrived. Claudia was exactly how Megan remembered her from that one visit ten years ago. Cold and expensive. Plus she looked exactly the same. Megan had aged, got plumper and more worn, but Claudia looked like she’d been kept in bubble wrap, like a beautiful angel you only got out to put on the tree, then hid away the rest of the year. Her white blonde hair was pulled back tightly in a bun, and she kissed Megan on both cheeks, smirking a little at Megan’s surprise. ‘It’s so lovely to see you after all this time,’ she said graciously, her ice-blue eyes wide and unblinking. Then she transferred her attention to Skye. ‘Well aren’t you darling?’ ‘I really wouldn’t know,’ Skye said, lips pursed, hands on hips. ‘Babe, now is not the time to be precocious,’ Megan whispered, ‘be nice.’ ‘I am being nice, I’m not a darling. I’m a pain in the bum sometimes!’ Skye said loudly, and Megan shrugged, focusing on her brother, who laughed loudly. Matty looked older, his face widened and slightly more ruddy, like he’d started playing rugby, or went hiking at the weekends. His dark hair still stood up at all angles, and his eyes were a mirror of her own. ‘All right, big brother?’ she grinned, fully, for the first time since she’d found out they had to come back here. ‘Hey kid,’ he smiled, ‘I’d hug you, but I’ve got my hands full of someone.’ His son was small and pale, with Matty’s messy mop of dark hair, and his mother’s pale skin. He blinked at Megan, his eyes a darker blue than Claudia’s. ‘Jazz, say hi to your auntie and your cousin,’ Matty prodded. The boy just stared at them, eyes wide, expression completely blank. ‘He doesn’t really talk,’ Matty shrugged. ‘That’s okay.’ Skye strode forward and started signing along with her hands as she spoke. ‘We can talk in other ways.’ The child’s eyes followed her fingers, and broke out into a large smile. But still said nothing, just sat in his father’s arms, smiling at Skye. ‘I…don’t think he’s deaf, hun.’ Megan put her hands on Skye’s shoulders. ‘I think what Matty meant was that Jasper’s a little shy.’ ‘Oh!’ Skye shrugged. ‘Sorry!’ She turned to him and held out a hand. ‘Do you want to come and play with me upstairs? There’s lots of really cool things in my mum’s room.’ Jasper nodded and reached out a hand for her. Matty put him on the floor and watched in awe as his son took Skye’s hand and wandered off. ‘That honestly never happens.’ Matty shook his head. ‘She speaks sign language?’ Claudia asked in interest, or as much interest as someone so passive could muster. ‘Is she deaf?’ ‘No, I taught her.’ ‘Why do you know sign language?’ Heather asked, bringing in a tray with a floral teapot and a plate with the missing bourbons. Megan felt a pang for Anna’s Christmas Sangria and champagne truffles. ‘Because I’m a speech and language therapist.’ Megan shook her head. ‘I work with deaf kids. Didn’t Anna tell you that?’ ‘She refused to tell me anything about you,’ her mother said stiffly, ‘only about Skye. She said you were an adult and you deserved not to be spied on.’ ‘Oh,’ Megan said, not really sure how that made her feel. All those years she’d thought her mother knew about her life but didn’t really care. Maybe she would have liked to know what career she’d ended up in. ‘Why didn’t you ask when I got here?’ ‘I didn’t think it was my place,’ Heather said lightly. ‘Everyone help yourselves to tea, I’ll go and drag Jonathan from the den.’ She scuttled out of the room, and Megan sighed. ‘We came just at the right time then?’ Matty said, settling down on the sofa and sticking three biscuits in his mouth. His wife watched in disdain, then turned to Megan. ‘Has it been difficult?’ ‘Not so far, but God knows it will be at some point,’ she shrugged. There was the heavy clang of the doorbell, and Megan heard the start of “Good King Wenceslas”. ‘It’s carol singers!’ she yelled to her mother. ‘There’s money on the side. It’s probably the school choir!’ Heather called back from the kitchen, and something about the exchange made Megan’s stomach flip, it was so…domestic. They could have had the same conversation ten years ago, her stomping around as a teenager, always yelling from room to room. Matty dragged Claudia with him from the sofa, and they all went to the front door. The choir were less angelic when you saw them, pimpled teens shivering as they sang, clutching styrofoam cups of hot chocolate, their braces flashing in the porch light every time they opened their mouths. And standing behind them, of course, was Lucas Bright, grinning for all he was worth. Why? Why was he grinning, wearing that stupid Where’s Wally scarf and a hat that made him look like a child who wanted to be a pilot? He stared at Megan, eyes as bright as ever, and she couldn’t tell if it was the kind of smirk he’d have saved for her when she fell off the stage trying to crowd surf that time, or the kind of smirk he’d given her last night as he watched her from that same stage. The teenagers stopped singing, and she, Matty and Claudia clapped. ‘That was wonderful,’ she told them, nodding insistently, not meeting Lucas’ eyes. She felt her brother bristle beside her, but ignored it, too busy focusing on ignoring Lucas. ‘What charity are you raising money for this year?’ Claudia asked, her head buried in her massive Prada purse, probably failing to find anything less than a twenty-pound note. That woman did not trifle with small change. ‘Garret Oaks… It’s a home for teenage mothers,’ Lucas said. There was a moment of silence. ‘Are you fucking kidding me, Bright?’ Matty roared and reached through the teenagers, who scattered, to grab Lucas and punch him square in the face. ‘You think that’s funny, you dickhead? After what you did to my sister?’ Matty was a big guy, and the force sent Lucas to the floor. He looked up at Matty from the damp cobblestones and held up his hands, ‘Okay, but…can I get the kids out of the way first?’ Matty took a deep breath and gave a short nod, his mouth a thin line. ‘Guys, carry on round to the next few houses, okay? Don’t go further than Parson Street, I’ll catch you up.’ ‘You…you gonna be okay, sir?’ a small lad puffed himself up, his glasses misting from how wrapped up in scarves and woolly garments he was. ‘Yes, Andrew, thanks mate, go ahead.’ Lucas watched them leave, then stood up and tried to dust himself off. Which was impossible as the grey patchy snow left water marks. He shivered a little. ‘Matty, that really was the charity,’ he shrugged, ‘I wasn’t being funny, mate, honestly.’ ‘Don’t call me your mate, after what you did.’ ‘Um.’ Megan put up her hand. ‘What did he do exactly?’ They stared at her in silence, Matty’s eyes almost falling out of his head. ‘Knocked you up! Sent you away! Failed to be a father to that amazing kid you’ve got in there! Any of this ringing a bell?’ Matty huffed, hands all over the place. He looked just like their dad when faced with a crisis, all limbs and gravity, unsure of what to do. Megan turned to Lucas, her head tilted slightly as she searched his eyes for the answer. He looked down at the cobbles, then back to her. ‘You let them think it was you?’ she asked him. ‘Why would you do that?’ ‘No one really asked.’ He shrugged at the ground, and then grinned, that same old cavalier who the fuck cares look. ‘Besides, everyone knows I’m an arsehole who’d do something like that, so the story fits, right?’ No you wouldn’t, she thought. You didn’t. ‘It wasn’t Lucas?’ Matty said in disbelief. ‘No!’ Megan slapped his chest half-heartedly. ‘And you could have asked before beating the crap out of him!’ Matty’s face melted into apologies and guilt. ‘I’m so sorry, man.’ He grabbed Lucas’ hand and shook it. ‘You know I always liked you, it’s just…’ he gestured at Megan, ‘you know.’ ‘Blaming me because you didn’t think to fact check?’ Megan rolled her eyes. ‘Well, it’s not the first time,’ Lucas grinned, touching his jaw,. ‘That one a couple of Christmases ago, down by the Nag’s, that one was a shiner. Thank goodness we were off school or the kids would have torn me down.’ ‘He’s done this before? ’ Megan screeched. ‘Pretty much every time we’ve crossed paths,’ Matty admitted, hands in pocked, shoulders hunched. ‘I told him it was ridiculous,’ Claudia said, ‘but in his mind, his perfect little sister wouldn’t have slept around…’ Megan winced. ‘Well, as lovely as this has been–’ ‘Yeah,’ Lucas added. ‘Uhuh,’ Matty complied. A voice boomed from behind them, ‘What is he doing here?’ ‘Oh crap,’ Megan sighed, ‘not you too.’ She watched as her father tried to puff himself up to his full size, which would have been intimidating if he didn’t look so uncomfortable about it all. ‘Mr McAllister…’ Lucas started, hands up. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake – HE DIDN’T KNOCK ME UP!’ Megan shouted. Jonathan stopped, looking at his daughter. ‘He didn’t? Well who the bloody hell did?’ ‘An idiot.’ ‘Any more details you want to give us, Meg?’ Matty asked. ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t mind knowing either, seeing as I’ve been getting the guy’s share of beatings over the last ten years,’ Lucas added, arms crossed and thoroughly enjoying himself. Megan felt like she was about to explode. ‘It doesn’t MATTER!’ she yelled. ‘What doesn’t matter?’ a small voice asked from behind her. Skye stood there, peering out at the scene where her grandfather had hulked out, her uncle was looking embarrassed, her aunt was bored, her mum was angry and there was some dark-haired guy looking like he was having way too good a time. Skye homed in on him. ‘Did you cause all this?’ she asked, sounding distinctly like she wanted to add a ‘young man’ to the end of that question. Way too many mini dramas for Skye, Megan thought to herself. But why not let him see what getting on the wrong side of a McAllister would do? ‘I have no idea what you mean, miss,’ he smirked, tipping his hat. ‘I’m pretty sure you do,’ Skye said sternly, ‘look at the evidence. All of these people were perfectly calm until you turned up. And now my mum’s shouting, and she never shouts.’ Lucas looked at Megan with surprise. ‘Is that true? Because when I knew her she could give as good as she got.’ ‘Wasn’t that what got her into this situation in the first place?’ Claudia said, checking her nails. Four pairs of eyes zeroed in on her, and a faint blush appeared on her porcelain cheeks as she realised what she’d said out loud. ‘Well this has been delightful, but–’ ‘Lucas, lad.’ Jonathan reached for his hand. ‘I’m so sorry son, we didn’t know, you should have said…’ Lucas shrugged, half-smiled at Megan. ‘I should probably catch up with the kids. They’re teenagers so they’re probably spending the charity money on booze or graffiti-ing something.’ ‘Well, that’s an assumption.’ Skye returned to her power stance, hands on hips, guarding Megan. ‘And you know what they say about assumptions…’ ‘Skye!’ Megan raised her eyebrows. ‘How do you know what they say about assumptions?’ ‘Jeremy,’ Skye shrugged, and then returned her gaze to Lucas. ‘But the point is that it’s not nice, or fair to blame people for something before you know they’ve actually done it.’ ‘That’s actually been the theme of this whole conversation.’ Lucas grinned and reached out a hand. ‘It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Skye. I’d always wondered what you’d be like.’ And with that he was gone, down the path, around the corner, leaving Megan free to have a nervous breakdown. *** August 2004 They were lying in the park at the top of the hill, sunglasses on, listening to music from a tinny portable speaker. ‘All right, Angel?’ Lucas nudged her shoulder, squeezing her fingers. ‘Why do you call me that?’ ‘Angel?’ Lucas grinned. ‘Because you are! You’re the good girl in the big house, and I’m the boy who sold his soul to the devil for rock and roll.’ ‘If you’d sold your soul you’d play a lot better than you do,’ Megan laughed, ‘and I don’t know where you got this idea about me.’ ‘It’s your halo, baby. Shining bright as always. It’s just the way it is; I break, you fix. I sin, you save.’ Megan sat up and took off her sunglasses so he could see the face she was making. ‘You have heard of the Madonna-Whore Complex?’ ‘Is that her latest album?’ He laughed, still lying back against the grass. ‘Why do you think you’re the bad guy?’ ‘Because the truth is that you’re going to go off and have this big exciting life. And as much as I want to make music, I’m gonna end up here. I’m going to look after my mum every time another fella leaves, and I’m gonna get a job in the mechanic’s or driving a tractor or something, and that’s it for me.’ He stretched briefly, catlike, before resting his hands behind his head again. His face didn’t change. ‘That doesn’t make you a bad guy,’ Megan said, stroking his cheek. ‘No, it doesn’t. But when the time comes for you to leave, I’m not going to be selfless. I’m not going to want to let you go. Even when it’s best for you. And that makes me a bad guy.’ Megan shook her head, but didn’t really know what to say, so she just lay down next to him and said nothing. ‘Don’t let me stop you, okay Angel? You’ve got big, important things to do. Don’t make me that person that stops you,’ Lucas said softly, kissing her cheek and turning the music up. *** That night Megan escaped the family games night, and said she had some errands to run. She paused in the hallway, watching her daughter laughing at Matty, helping Jasper move the little pieces around the board on the coffee table. It was a picture-perfect tableau and she was glad to witness it. She was also glad not to be part of it. Somehow every time she was happy, it felt fake. And now there was one question gnawing at her that had to be answered. She was going to start putting stuff right, and it was going to start with Lucas. After getting the address from Estelle, she jumped in the 2CV and trundled down the hill, out past the farms and the new-build flats, and then up higher and higher until she reached his house. The Foxhole, she noted the hand-carved sign. Cute. She turned off the engine and got out of the car, wavering about whether to knock. It was a sweet bungalow, old fashioned, with a double barn door at the side, where she could see light escaping around the edges. Suddenly the top part of the door swung open, and there was Lucas, lighting up a cigarette and leaning on the door. His eyes met hers in the darkness and he jumped. ‘Holy shit, woman! Did you come here to kill me?’ He clutched his chest, throwing the barely-lit cigarette out into a little tin bucket on the floor. ‘It’s not my fault you have no lights out here!’ she argued, moving forward. ‘Don’t have many visitors,’ he breathed, still sounding irritated. ‘I’m the town hermit.’ ‘Know many hermits who play on stage and ferry around the choir from door to door?’ Megan rolled her eyes. ‘Saintly ones. I’m atoning for my sins in this village,’ Lucas said lightly, starting to roll another cigarette. His hands appeared to be shaking a little, and he rubbed them together. ‘Damn it’s cold out.’ ‘What sins?’ Megan already knew. ‘Well…it’s hard to live here when you’ve done wrong by the great Megan McAllister.’ She could believe that, all too easily. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said helplessly, ‘but why didn’t you tell the truth?’ ‘I didn’t know the truth.’ Lucas stared into the darkness, eyes briefly illuminated by the flame of the lighter. ‘You knew she wasn’t yours.’ Lucas took a deep breath and looked at her, that same silly smile. He looked good. He’d always been gorgeous, first in that poseur rock way, then simply because when he smiled he made her stomach flip. Now he looked like a man. Someone real, and warm and strong. And still just a little bit broken. ‘I wanted to protect you, Angel. I still do.’ Megan sighed, stamped her foot a little. ‘Haven’t got a spare cigarette, have you?’ ‘You can share mine. I don’t really smoke any more anyway. It’s just…that kind of night. And here you are on my doorstep, wanting to drag it all out.’ ‘I don’t want to drag it out, I want to apologise.’ She toked on the cigarette he offered her, trying not to cough as she breathed out. ‘I want to explain.’ Lucas rubbed the back of his neck, stretching. ‘Meg, you think we could just ignore all that stuff tonight? Why don’t you just come in, have a cuppa, and tell me about your life?’ His house wasn’t what she’d expected. It was an adult abode. Sure there were music posters, but they were in posh frames, and everything had a very fitted look about it. He had sofa cushions, for Christ’s sake. She had to wonder if Estelle had it wrong, if there was a woman in his life to make this all look so…complete. Not that she cared, of course. It had been a long time. She’d expected him to move on, she wanted it. She just didn’t want to see it. Megan picked at her nail varnish, hovering in the living room as he disappeared into the corner of the open-plan kitchen to put the kettle on. ‘This isn’t what I expected,’ she told him, unwinding her scarf. ‘Thinking more black walls and neon signs?’ he called back, grin in place. ‘Was thinking more bachelor pad. Technology and smooth lines, massive TV, all that bloke stuff.’ Lucas raised an eyebrow. ‘Was I ever your average bloke?’ She twitched her mouth in assent. ‘Nope.’ Lucas shrugged and got two mugs from the cupboard. ‘To be fair, a lot of this stuff’s Mum’s. She left it to me.’ ‘Your mum’s…gone?’ Her chest contracted a little. This was what happened when you didn’t talk. His mum was good woman, always about with tea and cake, let them get away with murder up in his room, never complained about the music, came to every gig she could. Her life was a mess, but she was a good person… ‘Calm down, Meg, she’s gone to Spain. Living with this bloke out there who sells time shares or something. I’m sure she’ll come running back when it all falls apart.’ Meg shrugged, he wasn’t wrong. As lovely as Linda Bright was, things never seemed to stick for her. ‘How’s Clare?’ ‘Really well.’ He smiled at the thought of his sister, as he pushed a bright blue ceramic mug over towards her. ‘She’s on a year studying abroad with university, she’s in Tanzania now, I think. Geographical something…something. She wants to save the world, anyway.’ ‘Did she find a community at the university?’ Megan knew all too well just how brilliant deaf kids could become at interacting, but surely university was a different thing altogether. ‘God, I forgot you didn’t know.’ Lucas’ eyes lit up, smiling at the kitchen counter as he tapped his fingers. ‘Clare got a cochlear implant. She can hear a fairly decent amount now. Put her off her balance quite a bit at the beginning, but…’ ‘That’s amazing, Luke! That’s…it’s just so great! ’ Megan thought back to the shy little girl with the reddish brown hair who always used to look up at her with those massive eyes, lipreading and gesturing. ‘I’m sad I couldn’t see her,’ Megan said, ‘I’ve missed her. And Skye’s an ace with sign language, she would have loved to have a proper conversation.’ ‘Your daughter knows how to sign,’ Lucas said, ‘but you don’t have any deaf people in your family. Is your partner deaf?’ ‘Partner?’ ‘Jeremy? Isn’t that what Skye said? The guy who told her what making assumptions made you?’ His face was inscrutable, but there was such an air of nonchalance in his voice that she might have believed he cared. ‘Jeremy is a lodger who lives with us,’ Megan explained, ‘he’s been a good friend, and bad influence for years.’ ‘So you’re not married then.’ ‘Why would I be married?’ Lucas shrugged, not looking at her. ‘Dunno. Just what people do, isn’t it?’ ‘You married?’ He looked around him at his flat. ‘Does it look like I’m married?’ She followed his gaze, taking in the throw cushions, the kaftan arranged on the edge of the sofa, the candles burning on the mantlepiece. ‘Well, kinda.’ ‘I was. For a bit,’ he offered, blue eyes waiting for her to make a judgement. ‘What happened?’ ‘We were young, we met on the road. Musicians aren’t meant to marry. At least not while you’re touring. We broke up. I wrote a song called “One Month Divorced”. She wrote a song called “My Bastard Guitarist Love”. She got a top twenty hit, and I moved back here. End of.’ Megan suspected there was more to it than that, but she wasn’t in any position to start digging for information. She picked up her mug and moved over to the sofa, relaxing into it. She felt the give as he sat down next to her, close enough to feel his warmth, but not close enough to touch. Her heart started rattling a little in her chest, and she tapped her fingertips together in a steady rhythm. ‘Am I making you nervous, Meg?’ Lucas asked with a smile in his voice. ‘No, why?’ ‘Because you’re doing that fingertip thing you always used to do.’ She looked down at her hands, and balled them into fists. ‘Remember you did that before we had sex for the first time? It made me laugh.’ ‘Well, you couldn’t stop your hands from shaking, so I wasn’t the only one who was scared,’ Megan huffed. ‘Very true.’ Lucas leaned back, surveyed his room, trying to see it through her eyes. Did he look successful, interesting? Lonely? Or did he look like a sad old git with his papers to mark, his guitars sitting in the corner as if screaming out to the world that he never really played in that same way any more? ‘So….you’re a music teacher,’ Megan stated, pointing at the papers on the coffee table. ‘I know, right? I spend years trying to get out of that place and now I’m walking the halls again.’ ‘Do you like it?’ Megan pulled her legs up underneath her, curling into the sofa. She liked to watch him, soaking in every detail of this new, grown up Lucas. Did he still pre-roll all his cigarettes and have them sitting in a little case? Did he still wake up at six am no matter what, before mumbling and falling asleep again? His eyes seemed bluer, and his face seemed hardened, that stubble that he never managed to fully remove still smudging around his jawline. He looked as dangerous as he had back then. He was the sinner, he said; she was the angel. And look how that turned out. ‘It’s fine. I can do it. It’s better than working in a factory,’ he shrugged. ‘But not as good as being a rock star.’ He grinned lazily, and she noticed that one dimple he always got on his left cheek, and felt a painful nostalgia. She felt like she was missing him, even though he was sitting there with her, looking at her, his arm reaching along the length of the sofa, his fingertips almost brushing her shoulder. ‘Did you not see me the other night? I’m still a rock star.’ ‘Just three nights a week. Perfect compromise,’ Megan smiled, looking at his hand as his thumb gently reached her wrist, stroking the material of her jumper. She looked at him, questioning, but he just shrugged and smiled softly. ‘What about you? What did the great Megan McAllister go off and do to change the world? Besides creating a pretty special kid.’ ‘I work with deaf kids,’ she smiled at him, ‘and I love it. I loved learning about it, I love working with these kids, creating programmes for them. Helping them through the implant process.’ ‘That’s why Skye knows how to sign. You taught her?’ he asked, blinking. ‘Yeah. When I was pregnant I spent so much time trying to figure out what it was I wanted to do, and I didn’t have any time to waste. And then I remembered that time that Clare taught me how to say “horse”,’ Megan looped her fingers from her forehead down, as if making the shape of a horse’s head, ‘and how much she loved it, that I got it, that I got her…’ Megan shook her head, ‘and I guess I thought one day I would come back here and talk to her properly, and really know her. Like you did.’ Lucas breathed out, eyebrows raised. ‘Jesus, Meg. You come back after ten years without a word, and…all that?’ ‘All what? She inspired me, that’s all.’ ‘So you’d always planned to come back one day. Because you wanted to see my sister. Because you missed her. ’ ‘It’s not like that, I’ve missed you too, but we’re…complicated. ’ ‘Only because you made it that way, babe.’ She was looking at the floor when he said it, and it was as if she was seventeen again. As if he was just Lucas, asking why she was being difficult again. Why she hadn’t told her parents about the gig in Camden, and now his Mum was phoning him. Why she insisted on going down into the crowds during gigs when she knew the mic lead wouldn’t stretch that far. Why she had to go away to change the world, and she couldn’t do it from their shitty little village. ‘Do you think maybe I did this for you? To stop your life being ruined and your dreams being smashed?’ She put her cup down on the table, back straight, ready to fight. ‘Oh, how selfless of you to run off on Christmas morning after I’d asked you to spend your life with me. How kind of you to wait for me to tell you I loved you before you disappeared for ten years!’ Lucas made a face. ‘Grow up, would you? You weren’t protecting me.’ ‘Well I thought you were going to leave this place and make something of yourself! If I’d have known you were going to throw it all away anyway, I might have stayed!’ she heard herself shout. ‘Megan…’ Lucas’s jaw was locked, and she knew he was holding back his anger. He’d never shouted at her, ever. But, she sort of wanted him to. ‘I’m here because I have a life here. I have family, friends. A steady career. I get to play music when I want. Do what I want. What part of that is failing to you? Should I have just run off and started a new life because I didn’t give a fuck about the people I left behind?’ ‘I cared. I cared too much to see us both stuck here. You think I would have trained in what I trained in if I’d stayed here? You think I would have been able to raise my daughter how I wanted? You wouldn’t have been able to train as a teacher. We wouldn’t be here now.’ ‘No, we wouldn’t,’ he conceded, the light coming back into his eyes a little. He twitched his mouth. She took a deep breath, expelling the words she knew she needed to say. At least to start with. ‘It is good to see you, you know. As angry and sad as I’ve been, it’s good to see you.’ ‘It’s good to see you too.’ They sat briefly in silence, staring at the wall. ‘You really think we could have raised a kid together?’ Megan asked suddenly. ‘No doubt whatsoever,’ Lucas said seriously, but she watched as the corners of his mouth turned up. ‘I mean, you’d have killed me, and it would have been stressful and your mother would have been around all the time, and we would have had the local oldies making snarky comments and we would have hated each other, but…seventeen-year-old me was a genius.’ ‘Adult you isn’t bad either,’ Megan grinned to herself, shaking her head. She looked across at him, his hair no longer flopping over those bright eyes, his smile warm, and he looked so stable. So safe, and loving and wonderful. And she knew it was time to go. ‘Well, I’ve avoided the family game of Monopoly too long. Skye’s probably bought up all their real estate and is making them work it off as indentured slaves.’ She stood up. ‘But it’s been good to see you, really good.’ He walked her to the door, hand resting briefly on her lower back. ‘I’ll see you again, whilst you’re here, right? Coffee, or something?’ Lucas rested his head on the door frame as a cold draft made her shiver. ‘You want to?’ she said in surprise. ‘Of course. One evening of almost arguing doesn’t really make for a decent catch-up,’ Lucas shrugged. ‘If that’s okay?’ It was more than okay. It was too okay. She could feel him sucking her back in with that smile and those eyes. And he should be more angry, more curious. But that’s how he’d always been. Relaxed, laid back. Everything happening at its own pace, regardless of humans. ‘Things happen when they want to, Meg,’ he used to tell her when she couldn’t play a certain riff, or wanted exam results back sooner. He was always fine with that, when she always had to control fate as much as she could. ‘It’s very okay,’ she nodded, her breath catching a little as he moved in to kiss her cheek, and he was there, scratching her skin a little as his stubbled cheek brushed hers, smelling of spice and CK One and cinnamon. Something in her chest ached as she trudged back out into the cold grey night towards her car, but she couldn’t figure out what it was. *** February 2004 They lay intertwined, her head resting on his shoulder as they stared at the ceiling. ‘It’s a good plan.’ ‘It’s a terrible plan.’ ‘We’ve got something here, Angel, we really do!’ His enthusiasm was usually infectious, but Megan was tired and stressed. All her parents talked about were university choices, and degree options. Which Cambridge college she’d go to. Future plans and careers and weddings. And when she opened up to Lucas he just wanted to shag and talk about the band. ‘Yes,’ she nodded, interlocking their fingers and holding up their joined hands, ‘we have something, but the band… I’m not just going to go running off into the sunset on a tour bus. This isn’t Almost Famous. It’s a hard slog, and I don’t want to be a musician.’ ‘But you are one.’ Lucas squeezed her hand and turned on his side to face her. ‘Look, why does everything have to be so set? Finish college, play some gigs, do some teaching, see what happens?’ ‘Because that’s how you lose years. That’s how you end up being Estelle, back in this stupid town and stuck here, because you haven’t planned for anything better,’ Megan snapped. ‘I don’t want to waste my life.’ ‘How’s it wasted if we’re together?’ Lucas asked, watching her hand as he stroked it with his thumb, delicate circles. ‘I want to do something, I want to help people, or make a difference.’ ‘How are you going to do that with an English Lit degree?’ Lucas raised an eyebrow. Megan sighed. ‘I don’t know, but I know that I want to matter.’ ‘You matter to me.’ That little sorry smile that said he knew he was being childish, and he accepted her no matter what. He knew she was destined for an academic world with boundaries and rules and order, because that was Megan. She did the Right Thing, all the time. But he just wasn’t like that. ‘You matter to me,’ she replied, kissing his chest and settling back down, counting down not only the hours before she had to be back home, but the hours until things changed for good. Chapter Six (#ulink_ac77dd13-a495-5463-ba19-ad819fcbfbd5) Megan had phoned Jeremy that morning, eager for a catch up before Skye started demanding that she speak to Anna. ‘So what’s going on in Casa Anna?’ She curled up on her old bed, and it could have been any weeknight when she’d been on the phone to Lucas, or any of them. She rubbed the corner of her old blanket against her cheek. ‘The biddie army arrived yesterday, with food orders and demands about decorations. They’ve decided they want a Gatsby-themed Christmas. I’m sure most of them can remember the 1920s firsthand,’ he bitched. She could imagine him there, filing his nails, or putting on his make-up. Or maybe he was scratching away in his notebook, sitting with a glass of Sangria in the Ideas Cupboard. ‘How’s Anna finding all that?’ ‘Loves it, as always. She’s been a bit more worn out though, sleeping in a lot more. I told her I’d take over things.’ She heard the grin in his voice. ‘Oh sweet Jesus, please don’t tell me you’ve replaced their Gatsby with drag chic?’ ‘Just a few changes for my own amusement,’ he laughed, ‘like they’re even going to notice that the silver confetti is penis-shaped instead of diamonds. Really. Half of them can’t see themselves in a mirror. Which explains the eyeliner.’ ‘Don’t be mean!’ ‘I’m not! I’m thinking of starting a biddie make-up service. When your hands start to shake and the liquid eyeliner goes everywhere – who ya gonna call? You know how many rich, proud old ladies are out there? I’d be rich!’ ‘Yeah, but rich, proud ladies don’t tend to want a little bitch judging them about their make-up capabilities.’ ‘They adore me, they don’t know I’m bitchy,’ Jeremy said pointedly, ‘plus most of them can’t hear much.’ ‘Incorrigible.’ ‘Exactly. So tell me more about being home?’ Megan paused, unsure of what to say, how to sum up this weird feeling of familiarity, with the sadness of loss. She loved being back, but it wasn’t home any more. ‘I bumped into Lucas.’ ‘The Lucas?’ Megan sighed, ‘Uhuh.’ ‘How’d it go?’ ‘It was fine, after my brother punched him, and my father tried to do the same. Apparently he’s been letting them think he’s the father all these years. They’ve been randomly punching him for ages.’ ‘That’s…insane. But also kind of sweet,’ Jeremy said. ‘Are the sparks still there?’ Megan swallowed, thinking of his fingers stroking the sleeve of her jumper, the way his eyes lit up when he tilted his head to the side and laughed. The way her chest seemed to throb just thinking about it. Shit. ‘Still there on my side. I doubt he’s interested in the girl who’s made him a target all these years. But he did invite me for coffee,’ she said with hope in her voice. ‘That sounds promising,’ Jeremy said. ‘Well, we were friends for a long time, he probably just wants to catch up. It’s natural to be curious about people’s lives.’ ‘It’s natural to stay the heck away from everyone and not get involved,’ Jeremy corrected. ‘You’re a Londoner, you don’t understand.’ ‘You’re a Londoner too now, love, you have been for years. Don’t be going back to the country and start saying hello to strangers on the street now, I may have to disown you.’ ‘And a merry bloody Christmas to you too, Scrooge!’ she laughed, watching as her bedroom door squeaked open, and Skye poked her head in. She pointed at the phone. ‘Is that Anna?’ Jeremy, Megan mouthed. Wanna say hi? She handed the phone over, and said she’d be downstairs getting breakfast, whilst her daughter occupied the space she vacated. She watched for a moment. Her daughter would be a teenager before too long. She’d grow up, and go off to uni and get a career, start her own family. And where would Megan be? Back at Anna’s with Jeremy, getting wasted on G and Ts each night and wondering why she’d never made a relationship work. She smiled at her daughter and padded down the stairs. Heather was dishing up pancakes. ‘That girl of yours can eat. Reminds me of Matty.’ ‘It’s that big brain, needs a lot of feeding,’ Megan replied, sitting down and helping herself. ‘So…not so much like Matty,’ Heather quipped and they grinned at each other, the gaze fading into a sort of sadness as they realised how long it had been since they’d been relaxed. ‘I…I was wondering,’ Heather started, ‘if you and Skye would like to come shopping with me today. Nothing stressful, just maybe a nice outfit for Christmas Day, pick up a few last-minute things if you see them? Damien’s done up the book shop beautifully, I’m sure Skye would love it, and there’s some more live music in the square today…’ ‘We’d love to, Mum.’ She smiled, and Heather took a deep, steadying breath, looking relieved. ‘Good,’ she nodded, smiling to herself as she continued scrubbing the frying pan. *** September 2004 They were sitting practising in the school music room. No one else tended to use it, and they could dance around, play loudly, sing to each other. That day, Lucas stood on the table in the empty room, reverb turned up on the amp, sunglasses on as he serenaded her with ‘Wild Thing’. ‘I think I love ya,’ he slurred, wiggling his hips and pointing at her. At first she’d laughed, so crazy in love with him as he strutted and played and sang. But slowly, as the song carried on, she realised that being a wild thing meant leaving, meant being free, meant not being trapped. And as much as she loved Lucas, she wanted that escape. He’d told her not to make him that person, right? He’d told her to make him let her go. She was a wild thing. By the end of the song there were tears in her eyes, and as he jumped off the table, his pleased-with-himself look faded to one of concern. He pulled the guitar strap over his head and stroked a tear from her cheek with his thumb. ‘What’s up, Angel?’ ‘I’m a wild thing,’ she said simply, tears streaming now. He frowned, and then understood, nodding. ‘Wild things need to be free.’ ‘At some point we’re going to have to end it.’ ‘I was hoping we’d have a little longer, love, to be perfectly honest.’ He put his arms around her waist, and she clung to him, breathing him in, her face pressed into his neck. ‘It’s better to end it, and be friends before I go.’ Megan was amazed at how firm she sounded, how in control of it all she was. But her heart hurt, and she thought she was going to be sick, and there was Lucas, nodding sadly, tears in his own eyes. ‘Not yet though, not quite yet. I know you think it has to happen, that somehow we can’t last a couple of train journeys…’ ‘It’s…it’s about fresh starts, and needing you. Needing you as my friend, in my life. Always.’ She launched herself at him, awkwardly sticking her face into his neck. ‘But we’ve still got some time, love. Not yet, okay?’ He stroked her hair, somehow, always so understanding that this was the right thing, the accepted thing, for his Angel, the Megan who was going to go off and Do Things, like no one had ever achieved anything whilst being in love. She nodded. ‘Not yet.’ ‘Bloody song,’ he tried to joke, ‘you might not have realised if I’d played bloody Elvis or someone.’ Megan flashed him a quick smile through the tears, trying to imagine a life without him. *** Her mum was right – the bookshop looked beautiful. Skye was enamoured immediately, winding through the shelves, using the little ladders to reach different levels, swinging like a trapeze artist. Damien’s bookshop, simply called Read, always looked magical at Christmas. Hell, it looked magical all year round. The light gently flickered, with fake candles lining the shelves, fairy lights zig-zagging across the top of them, creating a glowing canopy. Damien’s wife Ginny had made spiced hot apple on the stove, and gingerbread cookies from the oven. The whole place smelled heavenly. ‘We’re not going to get her out of here anytime soon,’ Megan whispered to her mum, watching as her daughter’s face lit up. ‘In fact, she may never come home.’ ‘That was how you used to be,’ Heather said, smiling at the memory. ‘I used to panic, thinking I’d lost you, and you’d always be here. One time I would have sworn we were on the other side of town, and you’d somehow gravitated towards the place.’ ‘Good to know some of the good traits passed on,’ she grinned. ‘Actually, I haven’t found any bad traits yet. Except an unnecessary amount of emotional maturity, and spending too much time focused on homework.’ ‘Yes, a demon child, obviously,’ Heather laughed. When Skye had found a couple of books she loved, and Megan pointed out that perhaps Santa would get them for her (with Skye rolling her eyes in response) they walked down the high street to the town square, where once again, a crowd had gathered around the main stage. ‘Hey, it’s the troublemaker!’ Skye said, pointing at the stage. Lucas waved back, not having heard her, and went back to setting up his guitar. ‘What do you mean, darling?’ Heather shared a worried look with Megan, who just shook her head. ‘That guy who came to the house with the carollers, and uncle Matty was embarrassed, and Granddad was angry at first, and Mum was really irritated. He had to be the cause of it, the Troublemaker.’ She paused, pleased with her assessment. ‘Sounds like a good name for a villain.’ ‘He’s not a troublemaker, hun, he was caught up in the middle of something that everyone thought he did, but he didn’t do it.’ Megan felt a headache coming on. ‘Well, he made you upset, and I didn’t like it.’ Skye crossed her arms, stubborn as ever. ‘Well, thank you babe, that’s lovely.’ Megan put her arm around her. ‘But he’s actually my oldest friend. And he’s a very nice guy. You might like him once you get to know him.’ ‘Riiiiight,’ Skye said, sure that something else was going on. ‘I doubt it, but an investigator must always be open to new evidence.’ ‘Very wise,’ Heather said. ‘Do you want to hear a little or shall we carry on shopping?’ Skye went to shake her head, insistent that she didn’t need to know the Troublemaker, but then he started to play. She knew the song from the first few notes, and as Troublemaker started to play ‘Hound Dog’, she found herself smiling against her will. Megan watched with amusement as her daughter kept trying to frown, but ended up singing along. He’d won her over and he didn’t even know. She watched him up there, sparkling away, in that Lucas Bright way he’d always had. Playing with heart and everything he had, shining with enthusiasm. Halfway through the song, Skye gave up trying to frown and just smiled as she danced. I know how you feel, kid, Megan thought, and bopped along. At the end of the song, Megan and Heather nodded at each other, thinking perhaps they should get on with their shopping, but Lucas’ voice stopped her. ‘This one is for a very special friend who’s back in town for a little bit. I hope she likes it.’ Some teenagers in the front were clearly in Lucas’ music class, as they started making ‘ooooh’ noises and giggling to themselves. He started playing ‘Wild Thing’, but she’d never heard it like that before. Pared down, simple, acoustic. It was heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time, and she just stared at him across the crowds, smiling, feeling her nose go cold as her eyes watered. Skye tugged at her mittened hand. ‘Are you the special friend, Mum?’ Megan just nodded, eyes shining as she focused on the stage, on his eyes staring back at her, trying to start again. When that song finished, he went into some more standard covers, and they thought they’d better get going. Most of it was Heather making recommendations for ‘darling little outfits’ for Skye, who was more of a jeans and Converse girl. But she went along with it in good spirits, pleased to please her grandmother. The only time she was actually excited was as they walked past a shop with mermaid leggings in the window. They were black with emerald shimmering scales that seemed to move, even as the reflections of Christmas shoppers walked past the window. ‘Oh!’ she sighed, fingertips resting on the window. ‘I know!’ Megan sighed as well, wishing, not for the first time, that they made kids’ clothes in adult sizes. ‘Really? Mermaids?’ Heather said, tilting her head to look at them. ‘Where would you wear them?’ ‘Everywhere,’ Megan and Skye said in sync, and then grinned at each other. ‘Well then, it looks like Santa’s got quite a bit to buy.’ Heather raised an eyebrow at her daughter, who shrugged. ‘Why don’t you girls go have a wander whilst I finish my errands? It’s all boring stuff, ties and socks and boy things, mostly,’ Heather said, with a shooing gesture. ‘I’ll meet you by the grotto in about an hour?’ Skye and Megan shrugged, looking so in sync that Heather was both mystified, and a little sad. She’d never been that close with her daughter. Perhaps the age difference was working for Megan and Skye, she thought, and tried to blot out the horrible things she said that night, that always seemed to hover in the background now, whenever thoughts of Megan emerged. The girls wandered off back into town. ‘So, what do you think about this place?’ Megan asked casually, when really the question she was asking was how do you like your family? ‘I like the bookshop,’ Skye replied as she wandered through the cobbled streets, watching teenagers with Santa hats walking together, arms linked as if they couldn’t bear to be apart. ‘And I like everyone, Grandma and Granddad and Matty and Claudia and Jasper. And Minnie, even.’ ‘I’m glad, bub.’ Megan squeezed her daughter’s hand. ‘Are you happy though, Mum? You seem weird here.’ They walked into the centre, sitting on a bench where they could see Santa’s grotto, even though they had ages. ‘Do you ever wonder why we haven’t been back here til now?’ Megan asked, watching her daughter’s beautiful, intelligent face twitch. Skye put her hand to her cheek, lips pursed. It was her ‘detective thinking’ face, and whilst Megan knew it was an affectation, she knew that Skye was really thinking it through. ‘Well, first I thought they must be really mean. But they’re not. They’re nice,’ Skye started. ‘Yes, they are.’ ‘But, well, you are a bit young, Mum, aren’t you?’ Skye said, echoing what Heather had said years ago. You’re young, too young, don’t you see what a baby you are. ‘I mean, you’re not young to me, to me you’re really old–’ ‘Oi, less of the really, missus!’ Megan tickled her. ‘Sorry, sorry!’ Skye gasped, laughing, ‘but, I mean, I’m guessing you had an argument with Grandma and Granddad, and that’s why Grandma’s all friendly and silly until you come in, and then she’s all awkward and weird. And then Granddad keeps getting all teary when he sees you walking around the house.’ Megan smiled at her daughter, brushing her hand across her cheek. ‘Very clever girl. You’re an excellent detective already.’ She thought about her parents, about how hard they were trying. But ten years of upset and hurt wasn’t about to be solved over one Christmas. Although they weren’t doing badly… ‘And then, of course, there’s Troublemaker,’ Skye said solidly, and Megan snapped back to attention. ‘What about Luke?’ ‘Well, Mum, you’re a bit of a wreck.’ Skye shrugged awkwardly, feeling uncomfortable at constantly having to explain everything to everyone. Adults were kinda dumb. ‘You keep looking at him, and getting all sappy, and when he played that song today, the one after Elvis, you just stood there, all…frozen.’ Even my daughter thinks I’m acting like a love-sick teenager, Megan thought, kill me now. ‘Mum?’ Skye waited for Megan to give her her complete attention, hazel eyes meeting and locked. ‘Is Troublemaker…is he my dad?’ Skye had only used the ‘d-word’ once before, but even then had never asked about it, never wondered. Megan had worried about it, but Anna said she was clearly so happy she’d never wanted for a father. And that was the only answer Megan was willing to take. She pressed her lips together, and brushed a strand of Skye’s dark hair back. ‘No, baby, he’s not. Is that okay?’ ‘Yeah, just wondered,’ Skye shrugged, looking at the floor. ‘Do you wonder about your dad a lot?’ Megan asked gently, trying not to wince. ‘Not really.’ Skye swung her legs back and forth, staring at her bright purple trainers. Megan wasn’t really sure how to deal with this. ‘Because I’d always thought we were enough, me and Anna, and Jeremy. And now you have grandparents, an uncle and auntie and cousin. Your family has just doubled! All these people who love you.’ You’re laying it on too thick, she thought desperately, shut up or she’ll never ask anything again. ‘I know…I just wonder sometimes if some of the things I do are because of him. My dad, I mean.’ ‘Honey, your dad was a nice enough man, but…he was a kid, he didn’t know me very well. I didn’t know him very well.’ ‘Well,’ Skye’s brow furrowed, ‘you knew him well enough to make a baby with him.’ Touché, kid. ‘Yes, and that was a mistake.’ She paused, smiling. ‘But I am so grateful for that mistake, because here you are, the best thing in my life. So I’m really thankful to your dad, you know? But, I don’t necessarily think he’d make our lives better.’ Megan tried to think of what she’d do if Skye insisted, if she wanted to know him, to know more. There wasn’t really more to know, anyway, was there? He was just Joey. Nice enough guy from school. Got around the girls well enough. He’d had his eye on her from the beginning, but she’d been with Lucas. And when Lucas was with Belinda…there Joey was. He was kind, and dopey and made her laugh. But…there was nothing there. And she felt so sick with the betrayal of it afterwards, like somehow she’d sullied everything she had with Lucas, for something that meant nothing. She wondered about Joey sometimes, about whether she was denying him the chance to have an amazing daughter, if she was being unfair. Perhaps he’d spent the last ten years thinking about her, about this mystery kid he had off somewhere, if he’d even done the maths on her disappearance. Maybe he hadn’t even worked it out. She knew, if she’d been a grown-up, she would have got in touch with him, let him decide whether he wanted to be a part of their lives. But she just didn’t want him to. It was her and Skye against the world, and she didn’t want to share. ‘I get it Mum, I do…’ Skye trailed off. ‘Does he live here, though?’ ‘He used to. I don’t know where he is now, love. I’m sorry.’ A male voice suddenly asked, ‘Where who is?’, and there was Lucas, smiling at them, guitar in a case slung across his back. ‘No one,’ Megan said, at the same time that Skye said ‘My dad.’ ‘Well, that’s a question I’m quite interested in as well,’ Lucas said, looking at Megan. ‘You’re interested in everything to do with my mum, aren’t you, Troublemaker?’ Skye said pointedly. ‘Troublemaker?’ Lucas pointed at himself. ‘Me? All I do is try to keep out of trouble!’ ‘You seemed to be causing it the other day,’ Skye said, eyebrows raised. ‘You’re in town ten minutes and your kid has me analysed. You sure you never talked about me?’ Lucas laughed at Megan, then turned to Skye. ‘I never mean to cause trouble, Skye, but I do tend to do that. That’s why I live by myself on the edge of the village, and try not to ruin anyone’s day.’ He paused, blue eyes seeking hers out, taken aback by how much like Megan’s they were. ‘I hope I haven’t caused you any trouble.’ ‘Not yet,’ Skye said, but Megan could tell she was softening, because she was swaying side to side, her hands twisted behind her back. ‘I liked your playing,’ she said suddenly, ‘Mum did too.’ ‘Did she?’ Lucas sent a look her way. ‘She liked the wild one. I prefer Elvis.’ Skye held her head high, waiting for derision. ‘A fan of the King, huh? How did you end up with a kid with good taste, Megs? Yours was always terrible.’ Megan rolled her eyes. ‘We disagreed about The Smashing Pumpkins. Give me a break, would you?’ ‘You changed your mind?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Then no breaks for you. How about you, Skye, can you see the light where your mother has failed?’ Skye shrugged. ‘Dunno. Never heard them.’ ‘I’ll make you a mix CD,’ Lucas said determinedly. ‘Does Jeremy have good taste in music?’ ‘Well…he really likes Gloria Gaynor,’ Skye said thoughtfully, ‘and Dolly Parton.’ ‘And Britney Spears,’ Megan added, watching Lucas, waiting for him to get it. ‘He does a really great routine to Tina Turner, too,’ Skye added. Lucas’ mouth made a small ‘o’ and he gave Megan a significant look. She nodded, small smile in place. ‘Riiight, well, variety is important.’ ‘And Anna loves songs from musicals.’ Skye jumped up, pulling on Megan’s hand. ‘Can we go look at the grotto thing?’ ‘Sure,’ Megan shrugged, getting up. ‘Would you like to come too, Trouble?’ Skye asked shyly, offering her hand. Megan rolled her eyes. The Lucas Bright effect. Lucas grinned and took it. ‘I would be honoured, Inspector Skye.’ ‘It’s just Skye,’ she said, and led the way, the two adults laughing over her head. The grotto was an institution – it got grander every year. This year it seemed to be a maze of huge trees, each decorated with glittery snow, leading around to the Santa’s House in the middle, a huge gingerbread-style house. They wandered through slowly, the sound of Christmas music tinkling gently from the speakers, the smell of pine and snow making them cheery. Megan watched her daughter carefully. Skye was holding Lucas’ hand; why was she doing that? Was it just that she liked him? She was pretty sure he was a troublemaker up until a few moments ago. Was she playing one of her detective games, keeping him close until she figured it all out? Or was it simply that he’d won her over with his love of Elvis? Megan had to admit, it was hard to guess when your daughter was sort of an evil genius. Or just a genius. She usually used her powers for good. Like figuring out who ate the last biscuit. ‘So Trouble, what are you doing for Christmas?’ Skye asked, staring at the trees with interest. ‘Hun, his name is Lucas,’ Megan said with irritation. ‘It’s fine. I quite like it,’ Luke said, ‘it’s appropriate. This Christmas I will be watching lots of rubbish TV and excellent movies, eating pancakes for breakfast, and Chinese takeaway for lunch, and drinking champagne all day. It’s going to be wonderful!’ ‘Who with?’ Skye asked. Yeah, who with? Megan thought. ‘Just me. My mum’s off in Spain, and my sister’s off in some far-flung place, and…well, I’m taking a Christmas off this year.’ ‘That’s sad,’ Skye said. ‘Do you not have presents then?’ ‘I’ve got a couple, and I bought myself a few. I’m looking forward to it,’ he shrugged. ‘I guess we’re taking the Christmas off too. This isn’t what we usually do,’ Skye informed him. ‘I gathered. What’s your usual Christmas like?’ ‘Well, me and Mum will wake up early and I’ll go into her room, and we’ll cuddle up in our beds and open our stockings. Then we’ll go downstairs and look at the tree, all lit up and lovely. Mum will put the champagne for Anna on ice, and I get elderflower fizz, and we put the bacon in the oven, until Anna and Jeremy are woken up by the smell. Then we do breakfast.’ Skye paused. ‘Wow, we do a lot, don’t we?’ ‘Sounds busy,’ Lucas added, ‘and lovely.’ ‘It really is,’ Megan smiled. ‘Anna’s my aunt. We went to live with her when Skye was a baby.’ She was missing stuff out, Lucas was sure. He’d only heard about Anna in passing. Anna was on the outs herself, as far as he knew. He remembered Megan talking about her mother having an argument with Anna years ago. If it was the same Anna. Their life was a bit of a mystery. Which was what happened when someone didn’t talk to you for ten years. They stopped when they got to the middle of the grotto, where the gingerbread house sat, squat and proud. A couple of morose teenage elves in green lycra looked at Skye. ‘Did you want to see Santa?’ Skye shrugged, clearly torn. ‘Go, baby. Here.’ Megan handed her two pounds from her purse to give to the elf, who sighed, clearly hoping for a break. ‘I don’t really want to see Santa,’ Skye said defiantly, ‘I just want to see what the inside of the gingerbread house looks like.’ She strutted off, which Megan knew meant she was nervous. She couldn’t figure out why, but she guessed they’d been having some pretty big conversations, and Skye, whilst being unlike every other eleven-year-old usually, probably needed some time to process things too. Lucas watched her go. ‘That kid of yours…’ He shook his head, turning to look at her. ‘How lucky are you? She’s wonderful.’ ‘I tried my best. She makes it easy though,’ Megan shrugged, ‘for now. I’m sure she’s going to have to cause trouble as a teenager or something.’ ‘Speaking of Trouble…’ he grinned, the dimple within his smile appearing again. ‘I am so sorry, I have no idea where she got that from.’ ‘Because she’s not an idiot. I turn up, and suddenly things get complicated. She’s a smart cookie. And she’s protecting you.’ ‘She asked me if you were her dad,’ Megan said quickly, and then wished she hadn’t, watching Lucas’ face fall. ‘Maybe in another life, eh?’ he shrugged, trying to keep the smile in place. *** November 2004 ‘I’m really glad you decided to come out,’ Joey said, hand stroking her arm through her cardigan. She was sitting on his lap at a house party where she knew no one. All she could think about was Belinda, all dressed up after college, declaring today the day she had her date with Lucas. And she knew she shouldn’t have cared. She knew she let Lucas go, but…Belinda? Of all people? He couldn’t have chosen someone…nice? There were loads of nice girls in their year who would have killed to be with him. Why did he have to pick her? Boys were so obvious. And so when Joey had asked her to come to some party, she’d put on her smile and her make-up, and gone with. She’d had a few beers, nothing crazy, but she’d loosened up. It was nice to sit with his arms around her, lean back against his strong chest, feel his breath against her neck. It was nice to be held. She missed Lucas so badly she could feel the tears welling up, so she did the only thing she could to stop them- she turned around and kissed Joey, soft but determined. After that it was dark bedrooms and awkward talks about protection, tangled underwear and not much else. Megan had felt distinctly separate whilst it was happening, like she didn’t have to be there at all, and she’d rather not. Afterwards she called a cab, and waited outside in the cold for it. Joey kissed her cheek and thanked her for an amazing night. She made it into the cab before she started to cry. Chapter Seven (#ulink_95ec27d7-b511-5271-8d3a-6376af7b219a) The holiday was becoming decidedly long. Megan tried to think of what they did at home, why it seemed to be taking ages for Christmas to arrive, for them to get it over and get back to their lives. At home they’d be fussing about with all of Anna’s plans for dinner. Occasionally that meant Megan figuring out how to cook the turkey, as she had one disastrous year when Skye was five, and almost burning the house down. Since then she’d stopped complaining when Anna spent a fortune on caterers for her holiday bash. Most of the time it was all about decorations. ‘More! More, darling, we’re going for spellbinding here!’ she’d say, champagne glass in hand whilst Megan and Skye were halfway up a ladder trying to hang more diamante icicles from the ceiling. One year she bought this huge frosted chandelier to hang in the foyer, the first thing you noticed when you walked it. It even outshone the tree. She had rented it for the season, but when January came she declared she couldn’t bear to let the sparkle leave, and paid a shameful amount to keep it up there. As far as Megan knew, Anna had never been particularly rich herself, though her acting career had been successful. But her husband, Richard, who Megan had no recollection of, beyond a couple of pictures when she was a baby, had made money and invested wisely. Anna was a strange one. Spending vast amounts on extravagant champagne, but having a lodger like Jeremy. Buying a chandelier, but using coupons when she found them in the paper. ‘Nothing lasts forever, darlings,’ she said, waving the coupons about, ‘might as well save on the stuff that doesn’t matter, and spend on the stuff that does.’ Megan was curled up in the living room with a book, Skye leaning into her side, also reading. She stroked Skye’s hair gently, letting the smell of cinnamon, and the sound of Minnie’s snores as she lay by the fire, engulf her. It was comfortable. They weren’t bored, exactly, but it wasn’t home, and it wasn’t interesting enough to be a holiday. The doorbell rang and Skye jumped up immediately, eager to do something. ‘I’ll get it!’ she yelled, running to the front door. Megan followed slowly, sure it must be Matty, or more carol singers. They pulled open the door, and there was Lucas, carrying a large, messily wrapped present. ‘Hi!’ he waved, ‘I just wanted to drop this off for Skye.’ ‘For me?’ Her eyes widened at the mystery gift. ‘Yeah, it’s yours. I’ve been looking after it for a while,’ he shrugged, looking at Megan, and suddenly she knew what it was. Her eyes watered and she smiled at him, grateful. ‘Come in for a coffee?’ she asked him, holding the door open wide. Skye looked between the two of them, wondering why her mother was so tearful around this guy all the time. He hadn’t done anything bad, as far as she could tell. And he’d bought her a present. Lucas nodded and walked in, laying the box on the sofa, and gesturing to Skye. She narrowed her eyes. ‘If I accept this do I have to stop calling you Trouble?’ ‘Darling, you can call me anything you like. Trouble is pretty appropriate,’ Lucas shrugged. ‘Open it.’ ‘Now? I thought it was a Christmas present?’ Skye looked to her mother uncertainly. Megan nodded. ‘It’ll be good to have something to keep you occupied until Christmas, won’t it? Go ahead.’ Skye didn’t need to be told twice, launching herself at the wrapping paper. ‘This is really good of you,’ Megan said quietly to Lucas as they watched Skye tear the wrapping apart. ‘It was never mine to keep. Your parents let me keep it, or they forgot about it, I don’t know. It made me feel closer to you.’ He kept his eyes straight ahead, focused on Skye. ‘But here you are. Don’t need it any more.’ Megan wasn’t quite sure how to take that, whether it was a sign of connection, or a sign of closure. But it was a lovely thing to do. Skye opened the rectangular cardboard box, and as she lifted the last flap, there sat Megan’s cherry red electric guitar. It shone at them in the soft lighting. It still had the leopard-print guitar strap attached, threadbare with wear, badges pinned to it. One said ‘fuck the police’ and Megan blinked, going over to remove it before Skye saw it. ‘A guitar?’ she lilted, surprised and delighted. ‘It was your mum’s,’ Lucas told her. ‘It’s only right that you should have it. I could teach you some Elvis tunes sometime, if you want?’ Skye turned to look at him with such a look of adoration that Megan wasn’t sure what to do. Skye was always composed. Sure, she’d do a little happy dance here and there, she expressed her feelings. But somehow, British politeness always won out. This time that was not the case, and she launched herself at Lucas. ‘Thank you, Trouble! Thank you, thank you! It’s perfect!’ She stayed with her arms clamped around his waist, Lucas blushing and awkward, until he offered to teach her something right then. Megan left them to it, returning with coffees and watching from across the room as Lucas Bright taught her daughter to play guitar. He’d glance up every now and then and grin at her, and she felt her heart melt a little every time. Maybe this could have been her life if she’d stayed. Maybe she would have stayed with him, and he’d have taught Skye to play guitar, and she would have been happy. They might have had another kid, got married. Made everything simple again. She shook the thought away like the fantasy it was, but every time she looked over, Skye so happy, and he so earnest as he leaned in to talk to her daughter, her chest hurt a little more. A couple of hours later, when Skye’s fingertips were covered in red lines, but she’d performed a fair rendition of the first few bars from ‘Hound Dog’, they decided to call it a day. Lucas and Skye approached her together after she finished clapping, each taking a bow. ‘I was really sad, because this is the best gift ever, and I didn’t have a gift to give to Trouble,’ Skye said, overtly innocent, eyes to the ceiling, and Megan thought uh ohhere comes a scheme. ‘So I thought because I didn’t have a present, I could give him you.’ My child, the pimp. Cheers kid, Megan thought. ‘Sorry, what?’ ‘I would give him the gift of…’ She turned to Lucas, who mouthed something to her. ‘…the gift of your company,’ she said triumphantly. ‘Tonight. For dinner. Grandma wanted me to make our own pizza together. And you don’t like pizza, so you can go with Trouble.’ ‘Hey, I like pizza!’ Megan argued. ‘And if you owe Lucas a present, why am I going to dinner? Shouldn’t you be going to dinner?’ Skye moved in closer, and put her hand up to whisper in her mother’s ear. ‘He said the best Christmas present he could have would be to spend time with you.’ Megan looked over at him and raised her eyebrows. ‘Way to manipulate my child, Bright.’ He held his hands up in a ‘who, me?’ gesture. ‘Mum,’ Skye grabbed her hand, ‘this will be good. Promise.’ She didn’t know how her child had this way of saying things like she was a fortune teller, but Megan always believed her. ‘Okay, okay. Let me go get changed.’ She stood up. ‘You don’t have to,’ Lucas said, smirking as he took in her current outfit of oversized jumper and leggings with reindeer on them. ‘Well, it would serve you right after getting my child to pimp me out to pay her debts. Sadly, I have too much pride to be seen around here in these clothes.’ ‘Lucky me,’ Lucas said and stuck his tongue out, his eyes following her as she ran up the stairs. ‘What does pimping out mean?’ Skye asked, dragging his attention back. ‘It’s when you decorate a car really outlandishly,’ Lucas said quickly. ‘So…excited about Christmas?’ Skye tilted her head to the side, eyebrows raised. She knew when adults were lying, but she let it go, with more important things to cover. ‘You’re not going to cause trouble, are you? Because I like coming back here, and having a family. And I don’t want us to never come back again.’ Lucas held out his pinky finger to link with hers. ‘Promise, kid. No trouble, only making amends.’ He paused, seeing her confused look. ‘Making it up to your mum.’ ‘What do you have to make up for?’ He sighed, his light eyes looking up to the ceiling. ‘I have no idea. But your mum was my best friend in the whole world. And she’s been gone a really long time. I want to make sure she doesn’t leave again. At least without saying goodbye.’ He sat back on the sofa, and Skye moved over to sit next to him, staring at the floor. ‘I asked Mum if you were my dad. She said you weren’t.’ Skye looked at him. ‘Is that true?’ ‘Apparently so, kid,’ Lucas shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t mind if you were,’ Skye said quietly, tapping her fingertips together as she stared into the distance. ‘And I would be honoured to have a daughter like you.’ He put an arm around her shoulder. ‘But we get to be friends, right? Really great friends.’ ‘Will you teach me some more guitar before I go home?’ ‘I’ll have you performing on a stage before you go home, just you wait!’ Lucas nudged her and she laughed, until they both saw Megan coming down the stairs. Skye grinned at Lucas. Megan’s brown hair glowed in the firelight of the living room, and she had a black fitted dress with grey tights with her knee-high black boots. In her ears, novelty Christmas earrings twinkled, little silver stars with tinsel streamers. She looked radiant. Skye thought she’d never seen her mum look so…alive before. Like she’d been walking around in watercolours and now suddenly she was vibrant oil pastels in thick, bright lines. ‘Ready to go?’ she asked Lucas, who stood up and nodded wordlessly with an open-mouthed smile. ‘You look lovely, Mum!’ Skye said, hugging her. ‘Seconded,’ Lucas added. ‘Thanks.’ She shot Lucas a smile, before returning her focus to Skye. ‘So what’s the plan tonight?’ ‘Me and Grandma make pizza, and I’m playing chess with Granddad, then we’re going to watch a film and I will be in bed before ten,’ Skye nodded, halo in place. ‘Ten? ’ Megan raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s what Grandma said!’ ‘Hmm, well me and your Grandma are going to have words then,’ Megan half-teased, but really, wasn’t that what this whole thing had been about? After telling her mother she was going out for dinner, and might be home late, she kissed Skye goodnight, and they set out. She stood in her driveway and looked at his car. ‘You are kidding.’ The same little red Micra sat before her, sad and worn, and yet somehow, infinitely charming. ‘You still drive this heap of crap? You’re a teacher! Do they even let you onto school grounds with this death trap?’ she exclaimed, climbing into the passenger seat, looking at everything as if for the first time. ‘You still have a tape deck?!’ ‘I have an iPod adaptor too, madam.’ He stuck out his tongue as the car wheezed into first gear. ‘And I do actually have a grown-up car sitting on my driveway. I hadn’t sold this yet and thought you’d enjoy the trip down memory lane.’ She shuffled in her seat and looked at him. ‘Some parts of it.’ ‘Only fun, I promise.’ He looked at the road, carefully considering the country lanes, and she was suddenly back in those summers where she’d put her feet up on the dash, dozing behind her sunglasses as he’d driven them around, no reason, just for something to do. Music played loud, bag of crisps and cans of coke in the back seat, until they found some deserted space to sit with the doors open, and look out at the greenery, read a book or nap. Later, once they’d become a couple, those drives had a more specific purpose. She looked at Lucas, trying to find the exact changes of age. His hair was shorter, his face softer somehow, the stubble more fitting for a grown man than a teenager who could never seem to even it out. He was painfully beautiful, the pouting lips still capable of pouting, even now whilst he was softly humming along to the radio. She wondered how she looked to him now, whether she’d matured into the woman he’d expected, or whether she looked the same. Or worse, she was some aged disappointment, simply a mother and nothing more. Not that it mattered. They were being friendly. That was it. ‘Where are we going for dinner?’ ‘Surprise!’ He sent a smile her way. ‘I don’t think anything about this place can surprise me,’ she shrugged, leaning back in the chair. ‘Well, except for the fact that you’re here. And Estelle’s here.’ ‘We didn’t all need to make it in the Big Bad City. Besides, didn’t you see we have a Subway now? We’re moving into the twenty-first century, one sandwich shop at a time.’ ‘I have missed it, a little,’ she said thoughtfully, looking at the tall pines that lined the road, the barest sprinkling of snow on their top branches. It was a beautiful place to live. But somehow, it just held shame and regret. Like she was stepping back into being that person. The Megan who had so much promise, and then was gone. She straightened her back a little. She wasn’t that person. She wasn’t an angel or a devil. She was just her, doing her best. Lucas pulled the car into his driveway, little fairy lights around the doorframe. ‘Are we stopping for something?’ ‘No…I wanted to make you dinner,’ Lucas shrugged, jumping out of the car and running round to open her door for her. She looked at him in confusion. ‘Why did you do that?’ ‘Being a gentleman,’ he frowned, closing the door behind her, and leading the way to the house, hand resting on the small of her back. ‘And you’re going to cook? You think I trust you after the macaroni cheese incident of 2001?’ ‘I can cook!’ ‘That’s what you said then, too!’ Megan laughed, putting a hand on his arm. ‘Sorry Luke, thank you for wanting to cook me dinner.’ She paused. ‘And if you give me food poisoning before Christmas, I’m never coming back again.’ He raised his eyebrows as they walked into his house, flicking the lights on. ‘sSo you were planning on visiting a bit more then?’ ‘There are some things worth sticking around for, I think,’ she said, staring intently at the objects in the room, flicking from the guitars to the massive vases on the floor. He smiled to himself, and went to the kitchen. ‘Wine?’ ‘Ooh, yes please!’ She hovered in the living room. ‘Do you need me to do anything?’ ‘Nope, you make yourself comfortable. Fizzy okay?’ He pulled a bottle of Prosecco from the fridge, holding it up. ‘That is never a question you need to ask,’ she grinned, coming over to the kitchen area, wincing as he expertly twisted the bottle, and the cork popped. He poured into two champagne flutes and handed her one. ‘Cheers,’ he grinned. ‘Cheers.’ They clinked glasses and she sipped delicately. ‘I can’t believe you have proper champagne glasses! What bachelor knows to have different types of glassware?’ ‘They’re only from IKEA,’ Lucas shrugged. ‘But…you’re a grown-up now. I don’t even have my own cutlery. We just live at Anna’s, using her stuff.’ Megan frowned. ‘I really should have thought about creating my own identity by this point.’ ‘Are you thinking of moving out, getting your own place?’ Lucas asked as he turned on the oven and got out the chopping board, washing his hands. She was shocked by how at home he was in the kitchen. ‘Never really thought about it. We could, Anna will only accept a minuscule amount of rent, as much as I argue, so we have the savings.’ She sipped her wine. ‘But we love being there. I love that I have a friend, that we have a family. I didn’t want it to just be me and Skye. I was willing to do it, but kids need family. She’s going to need someone to moan about me to when she reaches her teens.’ ‘Very true.’ Lucas smiled up at her whilst she perched on a bar stool across the counter from him, and she felt her heart chirrup. ‘You ever think about leaving?’ she asked innocently, trying not to return to those accusations she’d made the other night, that he’d thrown away his life. ‘All the time,’ he shrugged, ‘but also, I like it here. I have this place, I have my routine. I like my work. I have my avid fans waiting at the Nag’s Head for me every week…what’s not to love?’ ‘You want a family someday?’ Why were these questions so personal? She and Lucas would have talked about stuff like this all the time when they were kids. What they wanted to do, how they wanted to live. Now it felt like some sort of online dating profile, where she was assessing him for compatibility. ‘Yeah…’ He trailed off, as if there was an alternate answer coming, but said nothing. ‘Yeah?’ He took a gulp of his drink, and focused on chopping cucumber, very delicate and precise strokes. ‘The reason I came back…after I got married, we were on the road, touring, having a great time. Living the rock and roll life. And Amber, my ex-wife, she got pregnant.’ His mouth twitched into a grimace, and the knife hovered above the salad, before he began chopping again. ‘She had an abortion. Didn’t tell me til a couple of months later. Seems most of the women I know don’t think I’m father material.’ ‘Lucas –’ Megan started. ‘No, it’s fine.’ He put up a hand, tried to smile but didn’t meet her eyes. ‘My old man always used to say the same. I’m not dependable, not steady. Not that the old git knew what he was talking about, he came and went so many times growing up that it was like having a drunken clown turn up on a whim.’ ‘I remember,’ Megan said softly, recalling Lucas’ thirteenth birthday when his dad arrived with a kid’s tricycle, stinking of booze, and fell asleep in the back garden under the hedgerows. Lucas hadn’t said anything, pretended it hadn’t happened and got on with his party. ‘So, that’s when I came back here, got my teaching degree part time, and here I am. Bachelor pad and slightly old rock god.’ ‘You still seem to have your teeny bopper fans as always,’ she smiled, thinking of the girls in the front row at the pub, looking now as they had then, enamoured and in love with the idea of Lucas Bright. She’d always been so proud to get down off the stage and know that she loved the real him, the one who could sit quietly for hours. To her, he didn’t have to be performing or singing to be loved. ‘Ah, they’re all into teenage boy bands who sound like they’ve had their bollocks chopped off. Which is fine by me. Having a bunch of fifteen-year-olds sigh at you on stage when you’re seventeen is cool. When you’re nearly thirty? Not so much.’ He got a tray out of the fridge and put it into the oven, dumped the salad into a bowl, and grabbed the bottle of wine. ‘Want to sit on the sofa for a bit? It’ll take a while.’ ‘Did you plan this, Lucas Bright?’ Megan teased, noting his cheeks redden. ‘I pre-made some chicken. It’s hardly rocket science.’ ‘Used to be.’ ‘Well, people change,’ he said pointedly, topping up their glasses before sitting next to her, a little too close. ‘Yes, they do,’ she said quietly, reaching out a hand to his. Megan took a deep breath. ‘I used to wish she was yours. All those nights I was so bloody angry with myself, that I’d ruined everything.’ ‘You didn’t ruin anything until you ran, Angel,’ he said softly, tracing her cheek with his thumb. ‘I would have been there. I tried to be, tried to find you. No one tends to give you information when they think you drove someone away.’ She winced. ‘I’m sorry. I just…It was too much. I was ashamed and miserable and –’ ‘Stubborn,’ Lucas smiled at her, knowing her still after all that time. She traced circles on his wrist, the way she’d always used to, calming and electrifying all at once. ‘Why am I here, Luke?’ she asked quietly, eyes meeting his. ‘Because I’ve missed you.’ The hand that had stroked her cheek now rested on her neck, thumb stroking gently down her collar bone until she found it hard to breathe. She felt sure her legs were shaking. ‘I’ve missed you too,’ she whispered, edging herself closer along the sofa, leaning in just the smallest amount. It felt like a lifetime where she wasn’t sure what she was meant to do, only that her stomach was in knots, her fingers trembled and she had forgotten what it felt like to be kissed. Lucas kissed her, soft lips meeting hers and she could taste his smile. She sighed in relief against him, pulling him closer, still holding her drink aloft as his stubble softly grazed her cheeks. It was so familiar and yet so different. She could have said she was mad about Lucas all those years ago, completely in love and attracted. But this was different, some desperate hunger was rising up within her, and she couldn’t help but let out little sighs as he pulled her closer, warm, holding her solidly, as if afraid she might run. ‘Wait,’ she breathed, and watched his nervous face as he looked at her. ‘Was that not…? Sorry –’ He started to move away and she grabbed his arm. ‘No! No, just –’ She took his drink and put both of them down on the table, then reached for him again. ‘Come back!’ ‘So demanding all of a sudden, very familiar,’ he laughed against her lips, more insistent as he pulled her against him, taking their time, feeling their way into everything. Megan pulled back and kissed his neck, that spot just under his ear that had always driven him crazy. He hissed a little. ‘You remember that?’ She remembered all of it. He dropped his head, licking along her collarbone, and she shuddered. He hadn’t forgotten either. It was the strangest sensation, following the same moves as adults, as if they had even touched the surface of the things it was possible to do in bed when they were together before. It had always been simple, and whilst Megan had always been satisfied, it had been more about being as close to him as she possibly could be, stealing his warmth, feeling his weight on her, feeling safe and loved. Now she knew that this volcano building up inside her was true desire, and she didn’t know quite what to do with it. His hands on her, even through her clothes, felt hot and overwhelming, and as she curled her legs over his on the sofa, arms around his neck, his hand tracing up her thigh, she felt like it was hard to breathe. She locked her arms tighter, opening her eyes to find him looking back at her, bright blues only inches from her face. ‘Hey beautiful,’ he smiled, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear. ‘Hey you.’ She felt like her face was going to crack from smiling, and yet, bizarrely, wanted to burst into tears at the same time. ‘As much as I love this, and believe me,’ he pecked her lips, ‘I love this,’ he kissed her again, ‘I kind of need to make sure I don’t burn my house down.’ Megan breathed a sigh of relief, pulling her legs up beneath her. ‘Good idea. Fire safety first.’ Stop yammering, idiot. She breathed deeply, clutching her glass of wine like a lifeline. *** August 2003 ‘Are you sure?’ Lucas asked for the fifth time, and she was starting to get irritated. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Weren’t they just meant to fall into bed in a passion, desperate for each other? Instead, they’d had the house to themselves whilst his mum was away in Wales for the weekend with her latest fella, Nigel the security guard. They’d cooked together (sure, it was only pizza, but putting it in the oven was a team effort. Plus they’d avoided garlic bread) and broken into Linda’s drinks cabinet to have a couple of vodka and lemonades to loosen them up. But it still didn’t seem special. They lay on Lucas’ bed kissing, as they had a hundred times before, with that desire welling up, until she just wanted to be as close as she could, wrapping her legs around him as he rocked against her. But as soon as they’d taken all their clothes off, and lay naked under his blankets, she suddenly felt very foolish. It didn’t help that he kept asking if it was okay every five minutes. She stared at the ceiling, Alice Cooper staring back at her, along with every other rock star that her boyfriend had blue-tacked to the ceiling. That probably wasn’t helping. ‘I just…I want it to be special for you,’ Lucas kept saying, softly stroking her arm as she rested her head on his chest. ‘I don’t mind,’ Megan said, yet again, wondering if everything was always so awkward, and why they had to talk about things all the time. ‘You know what you’re doing, why don’t you just take the lead, and I’ll tell you if I’m uncomfortable?’ Lucas exhaled. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’ ‘You’ve had sex before!’ ‘Yeah, but never with you!’ he said, like it was obvious. She rested on her side so she could look at him. ‘What the hell does that mean? I’m so grotesque you’ve got to try harder?’ Lucas closed his eyes, visibly asking for patience, growling a little. ‘No, I love you, you idiot! That makes it different! I’ve never done this with someone I’ve loved before!’ Megan blinked. ‘Oh. I didn’t think that made a difference.’ ‘Yeah, well it does,’ he mumbled, grumpy. She didn’t know why that made her feel better, but she stroked a finger along his chest, slowly moving down beneath the covers. ‘Well, I guess we’ll have to just make it up as we go along then,’ she winked. After that everything seemed a lot easier. *** ‘So…that was a blast from the past,’ Lucas said as they sat at the counter on bar stools, eating their dinner, barely looking at each other. ‘Why do you always have to do that? You can never just not mention something,’ Megan sighed. ‘Well, I thought it was pretty obvious it happened, as we’re both here. You wanna sit here, pretend that didn’t happen, and then go home and be awkward?’ No, I want you to throw the plates on the floor and do me here and now, her mind betrayed her, and she twitched her mouth in irritation. She stabbed at her salad. ‘I don’t know what happened. And I don’t know what you want me to say. One minute we’re all “I miss you” and the next we’re sticking our tongues down each other’s throats like a couple of –’ ‘Teenagers,’ Lucas said pointedly, ‘that’s all we’ve ever known, Angel.’ Megan took a deep breath, and exhaled. ‘I haven’t slept with anyone else. I mean, I haven’t had a relationship, or anything, since having Skye.’ ‘You haven’t had sex in eleven years?’ Lucas’ jaw dropped. ‘How? Why?’ ‘Because I’m a mother! You think I’m just going to let someone into my life like that? Have my kid see me keep trying to find someone, because our family isn’t enough for me? I won’t do that.’ Lucas paused. ‘Never stopped my mum.’ ‘And I knew how much that upset you. And Clare. And I didn’t want that for Skye. I don’t…I don’t do this.’ Lucas reached for her hand, gently stroking the back of it as she put down her fork. ‘It’s just me. ’ ‘So we’re meant to just pick up where we left off, is that it?’ She shook her head, exasperated. ‘No, but maybe we could admit that there’s something still here. That whatever issues we had, love wasn’t really the problem.’ She nodded. ‘That’s true.’ ‘The problem was your inability to trust anyone else with your shit, lean on anyone and let them help you.’ She pulled back her hand. ‘Now wait a minute –’ Lucas raised his eyebrows. ‘Was anything about that statement essentially untrue?’ ‘We were going on different paths, there was no point dragging you down, I had to be responsible for my own mistakes…’ She ticked off the reasons on her fingers. ‘I’m not talking about when you got pregnant, although that’s a factor. I’m talking about wanting to break up in the first place. You couldn’t have one tie to this place. You had to have all or nothing, and it’s the same now. Denying yourself any interaction, any love or affection in ten years? You’re young, Megan.’ ‘I don’t feel like it,’ she huffed, arms crossed until she realised she looked like a moody teenager, and sipped her wine snootily. Lucas started a new offensive. ‘And what do you think Skye’s relationships are going to be like, when she’s seen her mother close herself off, never let anyone get close? You don’t think she’s going to pick up the same idea; that no one can be trusted to take you as you are?’ Megan slammed her hand down on the table. ‘That’s enough! Stop bringing my daughter into this like she’s your trump card. I don’t want her to get attached to someone who might not stick around. It’s been us against the world since forever, and she’s been fine with that.’ Lucas leaned in. ‘Then why is she asking about her dad?’ ‘Because we never should have come here!’ Megan stood up. ‘And I should never have done this, it’s ridiculous. Acting like we’re kids again – we’re not! I am a grown-up with bigger responsibilities than having sex and feeling butterflies. My kid has to come first. Always. She is always going to come first, Lucas.’ Megan looked around for her coat, and pushed in her chair. ‘I’m sorry, this was a bad idea. Thank you for dinner.’ Lucas stood up and followed her across the room. ‘It wasn’t, it wasn’t a bad idea.’ He put his arms around her waist, leaning his forehead against hers, and she let him, because she was weak, and he was warm, and comforting, and still smelled just like him, that unchangeable essence that was Lucas. She closed her eyes. ‘I’m not asking to come first. I’m not asking for anything, except for you to let me in. Take a holiday from your life for a few more days. I promise when you go I won’t beg you to stay.’ His voice was a gravelly whisper, and she felt his breath against her cheek. What did she have to lose, really? A few days with Lucas, feeling wanted and warm and alive, before she went back to that life that she’d been sleepwalking through? ‘I’ll beg you to stay now though, if necessary.’ She heard the smile in his voice and opened her eyes. His eyes had always got to her, she could stare at them for ages, that sapphire blue that seemed too bright to be real. ‘Okay,’ her voice was croaky, ‘okay.’ He pulled her close until they were completely aligned, kissing her delicately, exploring, opening her up until she was desperate for him, tugging at the thin knit jumper he had on until he pulled it over his head and chucked it across the room. She took a moment to look at him, tracing the lines of his body. He’d been slim before, a wiry frame, but this body had been toned and tuned with purpose. She traced a finger along the ‘v’ of his hipbone, unsure of why it turned her on so much. ‘A little different,’ Lucas smirked, reaching for her, holding her against his hard chest. ‘Very,’ she breathed against him, feeling him turn her around so he could unzip her dress. She paused, then pulled down the leggings and the dress, standing there in her black bra and knickers. She waited for the assessment, nervous of how he would see her adult body, no longer lithe and athletic, but curved and soft. ‘Woah.’ His eyes were focused on her chest. ‘Those are different too.’ He kissed down her neck to her breasts, licking and sucking through the thin lace fabric, until she felt she was about to pass out. The blood seemed to rush from her head, and all she was left with was a dizzying need. She growled a little as he bit her nipple gently, and pulled him closer by the belt buckle. She needed to be pushed up against him, needed his weight on her. ‘Bedroom?’ he gasped against her neck as her hand dropped lower, caressing him through his jeans. He grabbed her hand and dragged her through one of the doors next to the kitchen. She blinked as he turned the lamp on, so the white room was illuminated in a soft golden glow. He backed her up against the bed until her knees hit, and she lay back, just looking at him. He watched her for a moment, bare-chested, a look of wonder on his face. She scanned him again, noticed the tattoos that weren’t there before, the muscles, the scars. She wanted to map out his body and know the story behind every mark. Later. For now, she just wanted him against her, inside her, desperately, in a way she’d never felt before. She had to have him. Megan pulled his hand, dragging him down so he was on top of her, kissing him again. She could feel him against her, and reached down to undo his belt, the heavy silver buckle deliciously cool against her skin. He was attached to her neck, biting softly, just enough to make her crazy. It had never been like this before. As she struggled with his belt his fingers grazed her hip, settling just under the waistband of her underwear. A deep intake of breath as his fingers slipped lower, teasing her, making her desperate, moving in a pattern, but never quite getting close enough. ‘Luke…’ she sighed, throwing her head back. ‘Way ahead of you.’ He kissed her cheek before getting up, shrugging out of his jeans and underwear, and going to the dresser for a condom. Megan blushed, because she hadn’t even been thinking about that, she’d been thinking about him hurrying the hell up. She watched with interest as he rolled it down carefully. They’d never really looked at each other before, she realised. Everything was under covers, touches and movements. She felt her heartbeat quicken with the realisation that it was finally happening. She was sitting on the edge of the bed as he came back, grinning the grin of a man who was about to get what he wanted. He leaned down to kiss her, and scooped her up, so she was forced to wrap her legs around his waist for balance. She felt him move against her, rocking back and forth, the thin fabric of her underwear still between them, tantalisingly close but not close enough. She squirmed and Lucas seemed to agree, standing her carefully back on the floor, and kneeling down to kiss her hipbones as he slowly pulled her underwear down. He grinned up at her, those eyes shining, and she pulled him up, pushing him onto the bed and climbing on top of him. ‘Way to take control, Angel,’ he gasped against her mouth as she reached for him, guiding him into her, painfully slowly, savouring the contact. She watched his eyes widen as she moved against him, moving her hips, slowly at first and then quicker as his fingers dug into her thighs. He gripped her harder, keeping her steady as she kept moving, that deep rhythmic pull within pushing her faster and harder against him, until her body stilled suddenly, tensing as he did, collapsing against him. They lay there in silence for a few moments, breathing heavily, until Megan lifted up her head to look at him. ‘Definitely wasn’t like that before!’ Lucas laughed. ‘I’m starting to see the advantages of being an adult,’ Megan laughed, rolling off him and lying on the bed. ‘When I said I missed you, I don’t think I made it clear how much…’ Lucas grinned, stroking her stomach with a fingertip. ‘I really think you did,’ Megan replied, curling up on him and promptly falling asleep. Chapter Eight (#ulink_17322fde-b7c8-5029-afab-2a5aabe32322) August 2003 ‘My parents will not give me a break!’ Megan ranted, stalking into Lucas’ room, smelling of booze and cigarettes. ‘Do they know you’re here?’ he said seriously, looking at the clock. It was eleven pm. ‘No, I just…I had to get out.’ Lucas rolled his eyes and went out to the landing, ‘Linda? Can you call Megan’s parents and tell them she’s here? And I’ll drive her back tomorrow?’ He walked back into the room and gave her a look that said “look what a position you’ve put me in”. ‘Why do you always do that? You’re meant to be on my side!’ ‘I am. I also like seeing you. And if you keep acting like a kid, they’re not going to let you spend time with me,’ he said sensibly. ‘This way, it looks like I’m very responsible, and Linda knows what’s going on.’ ‘She doesn’t!’ ‘No, but it’s better that your parents think she does, isn’t it?’ ‘Urgh!’ Megan threw herself on the bed. ‘Why are you the sensible one?’ Lucas lay down on the bed next to her, staring at the ceiling. ‘Because I don’t have parents on my case to make the most of my potential. Bless Linda, but she doesn’t think I have any potential. All I’ve got to do is get a job and stay out of prison.’ ‘I think you’ve got potential,’ she said, lifting her head up. ‘I know,’ he laughed, ‘but the point is, Angel, your parents are the real deal. They have a good life, and that’s what they want for you.’ She raised an eyebrow, leaning her head on her hand as she lay there looking at him, her bright cherry-dyed hair hanging over her shoulder, and her black eyeliner smudged. ‘Heather and Jonathan have everything. They don’t hate their jobs, they’re married, they have a house, a family they love spending time with. They have hobbies and they’re still in love, all these years later. Nothing can ruin that oasis, can it?’ ‘Except if their only daughter doesn’t get into Cambridge or whatever.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Matty never gets any of this.’ ‘Matty isn’t as smart as you are,’ Lucas said sensibly. ‘One day you’ll see, when you’re missing one of the pieces of the puzzle, that they had it all.’ ‘You were the one who told me to rebel, remember? You said all those years ago that it wasn’t really living!’ she argued. ‘That’s because I was trying to get into your knickers,’ he shrugged. ‘You were not!’ Lucas just raised an eyebrow and grinned at her as he started rolling a cigarette. ‘It wasn’t a life,’ Megan said simply, staring at the ceiling. ‘All I did was try to be what they wanted me to be. I’m still doing it now. Still studying and killing myself to go to a university I’m not even bothered about, just because it’s their dream. My rebellion is just playing in a band and seeing you.’ ‘And apparently getting drunk by yourself on a Tuesday night.’ ‘It’s the summer!’ ‘I know, baby, but…’ Megan’s eyes widened. ‘What weird alternate reality is this? You’re Lucas Bright, remember? Rebel, bad boy, bringer of rock n roll?’ ‘I’m the guy who wants my girlfriend to spend time with me. Which can’t happen if her parents lock her up for acting like a kid.’ ‘I hate when you’re all sensible,’ Megan pouted. ‘Me too. I prefer it when you’re the stick in the mud and I’m the super fun one,’ he grinned, ‘so let’s return to our regularly scheduled programming, shall we?’ *** A little while later, Megan jumped up in shock, finding herself asleep in Lucas’ bed. ‘Shit!’ She started looked for her clothes. ‘My parents are going to kill me for being out this late!’ Lucas burst out laughing, watching her trying to untangle her underwear. ‘What?’ she asked, pulling them on and doing up her bra. ‘Just…nostalgia. Some things don’t change however old you are.’ ‘Hey, their house, their rules,’ she grinned, moving back to kiss him. ‘This was really…something.’ He held her chin and kissed her again. ‘It really was. Up for a few more walks down memory lane before you go back to London?’ ‘We never did that on memory lane!’ Megan pulled her dress over her head, turning around for Lucas to zip her up. ‘But yes, I would love to spend some more time with you.’ ‘Good. I’d love to hang out with Skye too, sometime. If that’s okay…’ He watched as Megan pursed her lips, thoughtful, pulling up her leggings. ‘Don’t have to though, we can keep this just about us. I know trusting other people with your daughter is a big deal.’ ‘I trust you,’ she shrugged, tailing off. ‘Either way, it sounds good to me,’ Lucas said softly, kissing her palm. ‘You going now?’ ‘Well, as soon as you’re ready to drive me,’ she said primly, ‘I can’t be seen leaving Lucas Bright’s house at…two am! The scandal!’ He stood up wearily, reaching for his underwear. ‘Anything to keep your reputation intact, kid.’ *** September 2002 They were sitting in her room. She was lying on the bed, feet up against the wall, and he was across the room in her armchair, rolling a cigarette. ‘You can’t smoke that in here,’ she said for the hundredth time. ‘I know.’ ‘So why bother?’ ‘Something to do?’ Luke shrugged, examining his black painted fingernails. They sat around, unsure of what to do any more. School was about to start again, and something had shifted over the summer. Megan had started dating Greg, the boy from the baker’s, and Luke was sort-of-almost-nearly seeing this girl who worked at Blockbusters. They’d pretty much spent their summer buying cakes and watching movies, each nudging the other forward in the quest to find someone to stick their tongue down your throat. Fliss was about eighteen, had tattoos and piercings, and looked permanently unimpressed with the world. But she did lend them certificate 18 movies with no questions asked, so Lucas thought it must be love. Greg was in their year at school, one of those rugby boys with the winning smile. They’d known him before his growth spurt, back when he’d been this normal shy sort of boy. Then suddenly he was six foot, the braces came off and he had abs. He was the dream scenario for all those Year nine boys just desperately hoping that they were the lucky duckling who was destined to be a swan. Even if it meant getting bashed in the head by a bunch of posh gits every Sunday. ‘We need to do something!’ Megan growled, bored out of her mind. Tomorrow there would be school and GCSEs, coursework and nothing else but ‘focus, Megan, focus’. ‘We do stuff!’ ‘We listen to music and watch dumb movies, and talk about the same shit over and over! I want to do something that will change something.’ ‘Write a book,’ he shrugged. ‘More work, no thanks.’ ‘Paint? Collage? Macramé?’ Lucas listed the things his mother had picked up and dropped each month for the last year. ‘Pottery? Candle-making? Stamp collecting?’ Megan sat up. ‘Hey! How about you teach me to play guitar?’ Lucas looked up from underneath his dark eyelashes. ‘You can’t be serious.’ She shrugged. ‘Meg, I love ya, honestly mate, but…you think I could teach you something without us wanting to kill each other?’ She fluttered her eyelashes and trembled her bottom lip, thinking of her dad’s acoustic guitar downstairs. ‘It could be fun…’ ‘It could be hell.’ ‘All right, you play, I’ll sing,’ she compromised, ‘pick something.’ ‘Megan, I’ve known you for almost ten years – when have you ever sung anything? Except belting out “Summer of ’69” when it comes on the radio? Which sounds terrible.’ Megan widened her eyes and just grinned. ‘Try me.’ *** The next couple of days passed quickly enough, with Heather doing at least three more ‘last minute’ shops for things that were apparently absolutely necessary. The girls for the most part read their books, went wandering around the village, baked gingerbread cookies, listened to music with Jonathan, or played guitar. ‘Is this right?’ Skye looked at her fingers, stretching across the frets. Megan adjusted them a little, then nodded. ‘Is it uncomfortable?’ Skye nodded. ‘Then it’s right.’ ‘Wasn’t this painful when Trouble was teaching me,’ Skye said slyly, strumming a little with a leopard-print plectrum Megan had found in her jewellery box upstairs. ‘Is he going to show me any more?’ ‘You want him to?’ Megan asked casually. ‘Sure, he was good.’ So Megan asked, and around Lucas came to sit in their living room with his acoustic guitar, and a pocket amp for Skye. Jonathan nodded, and shook his hand. ‘Good to have you back around, son. Sorry for all that messy business.’ That messy business being my daughter? Megan thought irritably, but Lucas had kissed her when she met him at the door, so she was in a good enough mood to let it go. Heather walked in, dropped off gingerbread cookies in the shape of hearts, nodded at Megan with approval, and went back to polishing the silver, and ticking off her ‘To Do’ lists. After half an hour with different chord progressions, Skye could play ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. ‘She’s a natural, isn’t she Meg?’ Lucas grinned at Skye as she strummed uncertainly, going a little bit red at the compliment. Must be the Bright effect, Megan thought, it targeted McAllister girls. Her daughter was usually busy working out what someone had done wrong, trying to unspool their secrets, not blushing when they gave out compliments. It made her feel a little better about her own weakness. ‘Meg, wanna play with me?’ He grinned, that boyish, charming grin and she wanted to kiss him and smack him. ‘I haven’t played in years.’ ‘So sing.’ ‘I haven’t sung in years either,’ she shrugged. ‘That’s not true,’ Skye frowned, ‘I’ve heard you in the shower, you’re really good. Why don’t you sing that one that was on the tape in the car, the one you wrote?’ Lucas brightened at this. ‘You’ve got one of my tapes?’ ‘We were listening on the way down. Didn’t even realise it was there,’ Megan shrugged. ‘So, you remember the words?’ Of course she remembered the words, they were sewn into her like every other memory. But did she want to start all that again? Singing had felt like home. Or rather, singing with Lucas had felt like home. Megan sighed. ‘Baby, pass it here.’ She gestured to the guitar, then slipped the strap over her head and ran through a few scales to warm up her fingers. ‘I’m a bit rusty,’ she warned them. Lucas nodded at her as he started playing, taking the lead with his fancy finger work as she strummed in rhythm. She started singing, like birds taking flight, and though her voice seemed croaky and worn to her own ears, Skye smiled. She kept eye contact with Lucas, waiting for him to come in with the harmonies. She’d always loved how their voices merged together and made something better than either of them. We keep making the same mistakes Over and over and over again. Travelled down one more lonely path Where I couldn’t find a friend. But something about you catches my eye Makes my heartbeat wild. And I’ll keep making that same mistake Over and over again. Her eyes were glued to his as they sang, and her chest threatened to split with the intensity of it. On one hand, it was all too much, singing with him, kissing him, laughing with him, but on the other it felt like home. And like the song said, maybe she was ready to make those mistakes again. Just for a little while. ‘I had no idea you were cool, Mum.’ Skye stuck out her tongue. ‘Thanks very much! Guess who’s not getting presents for Christmas?’ Megan grinned. ‘You’re joking, right?’ Skye said seriously. ‘Because I meant it as a compliment.’ ‘I knew exactly what you meant it as, cheeky monkey.’ Megan rolled her eyes and passed the guitar back. They looked up to find Lucas staring at them, grin playing around his mouth. ‘What?’ they asked in unison. ‘You guys aren’t like other people, are you?’ ‘Not a chance,’ Megan shrugged, looking at Skye. ‘Anna says we have no choice, living with eccentric artists as we do,’ Skye informed him, ‘although she says Mum’s innate need to be a good person gets in the way of a lot of creative energy.’ ‘Anna says a lot of things.’ Megan rolled her eyes. ‘Are you going to stay for dinner with us, Trouble? We’re getting fish and chips!’ Skye said, trying to tempt him. ‘I-uh…don’t know?’ He looked to Megan, nodding his head at the kitchen door where her parents were currently stuffing the turkey. They’re fine, she mouthed at him. With you, at least. ‘You should stay,’ she added for Skye’s benefit, ‘if you want to?’ ‘Yes, stay,’ Skye nodded, as she plucked the guitar, ‘we can play some more!’ After agreeing with her parents, the three of them bundled up to walk down to the fish and chip shop on the high street. Lucas was wearing his Where’s Wally scarf again, although it didn’t irritate Megan as much as it had before. He was walking along chatting to Skye who was insistently holding his hand. She’d really taken a liking to him, almost too quickly. She couldn’t work out if it was just that Lucas was Lucas, or if Skye was making a point that she did want a male in her life, that the dad thing did matter, and Lucas was just the closest available male. That said, Skye had followed Jeremy around all over the house when she was a toddler, constantly seeking him out. They trundled down the hill, the smell of salt and vinegar tingling on her tongue before they’d even opened the door. The shop was busy, and they squashed in, suddenly too warm in their layers. ‘Oh my GOD. Megan McAllister!’ Megan would know that voice anywhere, simply from the way it set her teeth on edge. She screwed up her eyes but it didn’t go away. ‘Megan! Megan!’ She opened her eyes, and there was Belinda. She didn’t particularly look any different, except the make-up was applied with an even heavier hand. She noticed the cracks in her foundation as she widened her eyes. She pushed people out of the way to squeeze through. ‘Megan! I can’t believe you’re back!’ She turned to look at Lucas standing beside her. ‘And some things don’t change I guess.’ ‘Hi, Belinda.’ Megan couldn’t even inject any fake enthusiasm into her voice, but was considering running out of the place and ordering a pizza instead. And soaking herself in a vat of wine. This was going to be awful, no doubt. ‘How are you?’ ‘Oh great, great! I run the beauty salon in the village, “Bel’s Belles” have you seen it? It’s completely gorgeous.’ Maybe it would be okay if she could just keep Belinda talking about herself until her food arrived, Megan thought. ‘I’ll be sure to have a look, that’s really exci—’ ‘Oh my god! This is her?’ Belinda pointed at Skye, other hand to her mouth. ‘This is your little mistake all grown up?’ ‘Excuse me?’ Megan took a step forward, and Lucas seemed to step in front of Skye a little bit. ‘Oh don’t be sensitive, Megan, we can’t all do things the right way around.’ She put her hand up to her mouth, as if to keep a secret. ‘My first was born a couple of months after my wedding, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Of course, I didn’t run away and abandon my family…’ Don’t snap, don’t run, don’t…don’t be Megan about it all, Megan thought desperately to herself. But her options seemed to be leaving, or slapping the bitch. ‘We do what we need to, don’t we,’ Megan said with understanding, ‘which is why some of us end up with fantastic careers in the poshest part of London, and some of us are still stuck here, cutting the dead skin off people’s fingers.’ Megan smiled, watching as Belinda seemed to figure out that she was not going to get away with her usual games, not any more. ‘You should meet my husband, I’m sure you remember him,’ she yelled behind a family standing at the counter. ‘Honey, kids, come over here.’ Belinda’s smile told her something wasn’t right, and she looked over to Lucas, who shrugged, a hand resting on her back. Skye was looking up at him, sensing something was wrong, and he shrugged, twirled a finger by his temple and mouthed ‘crazy’. Skye giggled, until Belinda looked straight at her, and she froze. Belinda grinned at Megan. ‘Megan, you remember Joey?’ And Joey appeared, awkward and stuck to the spot. He raised a hand, and shrugged. ‘Hey Meg, how’s it going?’ He looked much as she’d expected, the strong athletic frame had disintegrated into general bulkiness, too many nights in a comfy chair drinking beers and eating burgers at the match on Saturdays. His hair was thinning out on top, and someone (probably Belinda) had convinced him it was a good idea to have a spray tan. His teeth were blindingly white, and the whole thing was an attempt at an Essex boy look that just didn’t work. Two kids poked their heads out from behind him, scowling at their mother for summoning them. They looked just like the demon spawn Megan would have expected. ‘What’s your name, honey?’ Belinda asked Skye, her voice saccharine. ‘Skye,’ the child mumbled, eyes narrowed as she decided that no, she did not like this woman. ‘Skye! What an interesting name!’ Belinda mocked. ‘Why did you choose that?’ ‘It was what I was looking at when I was flat on my back bringing her into this world,’ Megan snapped. ‘Well, Skye,’ Belinda continued, ‘aren’t we lucky that we got to meet you? Such a coincidence!’ ‘Why is it a coincidence?’ Skye frowned, and Megan sensed it coming in the same way everything seems to slow down in those war movies when you hear the high-pitched whine of a missile headed your way, or a grenade about to explode. ‘Well, otherwise you would never have got to meet your daddy!’ Belinda said proudly, teeth bared as she pointed at Joey. ‘Or your half-brother and sister!’ The demon children stared at her in disgust. ‘My…my daddy?’ Skye stared up at Joey in surprise, and he shrugged, lips pressed together, unsure of what to say. ‘Hey,’ he tried for a smile, with a little wave. Skye moved further behind Lucas. ‘Luke?’ Megan said calmly, her eyes never leaving Belinda’s. ‘Can you and Skye wait outside for me please? I’ll just be a second.’ ‘But Mum –’ ‘I’ll be one second baby, promise.’ Her voice was soft and friendly, and she smiled at Belinda, waiting until she heard the bell ring behind them as Lucas and Skye shuffled from the chip shop. She stepped closer, trying not to choke on Belinda’s musky perfume, a grim smile on her face. ‘Bel, you’ve always been a bitch, but if you think you can start messing around with my family, you are the dumbest bitch I’ve ever met. You even look at my daughter again, and I will end you.’ Belinda tilted her head to the side. ‘Well, what with me being married to her father, you could say she’s my daughter now too!’ Megan got closer and closer, until she was nose to nose with Belinda, and simply smiled. A smile that didn’t reach her eyes, as she looked at a stupid woman trying to cause trouble. She’d been the same at school. It was just pathetic. ‘I should pity you, with this sad little life you have, but I don’t. I don’t pity you one bit because you got exactly what you deserve. People always get exactly what they deserve, Bel.’ Megan stepped back, a nasty grin playing around her mouth as she turned to leave. ‘Slut!’ Belinda seemed to choke on the word, so desperate to say something. Megan’s smile didn’t waver as she whispered in her ear. ‘You had a part to play in what happened, Bel, and people don’t forget. Don’t mess with me, bitch. I’m a Londoner now.’ With that Megan strutted out of the chip shop, an imaginary crowd singing in her ears. Outside in the cold, her whole body started to shake with the shock of it, and Lucas watched her with worry, placing a kiss on her cheek. ‘So…’ she said cheerfully, taking Skye’s hand, ‘who fancies Chinese?’ *** September 2004 She knew she shouldn’t have lain on the floor. But the sun was out, they said it was the last good weekend of weather before autumn came. She’d been staying in Beanie’s house, which was sweet, but she didn’t like to be there too much during the day, what with her term time being over, and her tendency to smoke a lot of weed and have her bongo-wearing ‘activist’ friends around all the time. Megan had been working in a local cafe until last week, when they’d declared that she was getting a little bit too big to be shuffling in between tables and lifting heavy trays of food. They were sweet, and friendly, a completely different feel to working in Vittorio’s all those years, with the penguin suits and the attitude. At the Railway cafe they wore their own clothes, gave Megan extra shifts if she wanted them, and kept trying to send her home with extra food, instead of just her one meal included in the work contract. They seemed to know that was the only meal she had a day. Not that it mattered, as she’d take the leftovers home and Beanie’s stoner friends would have annihilated it by the next day. But at least she felt like she was contributing something to the flat. Sala and the other staff seemed to be genuinely sad to lose her, as she’d maintained a friendly demeanour and go get ’em attitude no matter what. Regardless of the irate customers needing a coffee fix, her hormones blazing all over the place and the fact that her feet always hurt. They were swollen and huge in the summer, even the straps of her flip flops strained against her massive feet. They’d offered her a job when she came back, although she had no idea how she was going to swing that. What was she going to do with the baby? She’d been talking with a young mums’ charity, and was looking into getting housing when the kid arrived. She wasn’t ready. But there were nice moments, like the little kicks in the morning, and seeing the scans, the strange alien head becoming more and more prominent. She lay back in the sunshine, starting at the sky, crossing her hands behind her head on the grass. It was a beautiful day. And even though she knew, any minute she was going to start sweating profusely, and she’d probably have to roll over like a sad turtle in order to get up again, probably gripping onto anything available for dear life, it was worth it, to just watch the clouds pass by and think of nothing. To be completely, contentedly pregnant, with no guilt, no coffee-guzzling strangers touching her stomach. No old women looking at her in the street and assessing her age. The clouds made unicorn shapes and she sighed, as relaxed as she could possibly be. Then the pain started. It was a throb at first, then searing, splitting, ripping agony all through her mid-section. She tried to wobble herself upwards, trying to relieve the pain but she couldn’t get up. And suddenly there was a wetness, and a clamping, tense pain, and she thought ‘Dear God, please don’t let me have my daughter on the top of Primrose Hill.’ *** The walk down to the Chinese take-away was awkward. Lucas was trying to engage Skye in a chat about Elvis, but her heart wasn’t in it, answering in monosyllables. Her mind was clearly elsewhere, but she was still holding Lucas’ hand as they walked along, so Megan didn’t class it as a total defeat. Megan slipped her hand into Lucas’ free one, and whispered, ‘Thank you for trying.’ ‘I can see why you kept that one a secret.’ He looked at her, suppressing a grin. ‘Didn’t want everyone to know how you moved down in the world?’ ‘Everyone’s a step down from the great rock god Lucas Bright.’ She rolled her eyes, desperately trying to keep it together. He wasn’t judging her, wasn’t looking at her with derision or disgust. She wanted to cry with relief. But the true damage wasn’t with her, it was with Skye. ‘Baby, how you doing with everything?’ she asked softly. Skye pursed her lips, thinking. ‘Well, I didn’t think I’d meet my biological father in a chip shop.’ Lucas guffawed, turning it into a cough. ‘Excuse me.’ ‘And that woman…’ Skye made a face. ‘Vile.’ Megan couldn’t help but laugh,. Skye looked exactly like Anna, passing judgement on a younger actress who wasn’t up to par. ‘She always has been, and she always will be,’ Lucas said gravely. ‘Yeah, well we should have a conversation about your bad taste as well, later on,’ Megan told him pointedly. Lucas looked confused, but shrugged. ‘So Skye, any thoughts on your dad?’ Skye shrugged. ‘I’ve never really needed one. And he didn’t seem very interesting. And I definitely don’t want to be around that creepy lady ever again. Let’s try and stay away from them next time we visit.’ She looked up at Megan, all bundled up with her massive knitted purple scarf, her nose red from the cold, and said, ‘Is that okay, Mum?’ Megan stopped walking, and threw her arms around her daughter, warm and solid and hers. ‘That is most definitely okay, baby.’ ‘Smart kid!’ Lucas exclaimed, shaking his head. ‘I don’t mind if you stick around though,’ Skye told him, ‘you’re not boring.’ ‘Trouble never is,’ he laughed, taking her hand again. By the time they’d retrieved the food and walked back to Whittleby Cottage, Skye was enjoying herself immensely. Megan had ordered way too much food in a frenzy, both on an adrenaline rush from seeing Belinda, and because the idea of feeding Skye lots of food somehow equated to making her happy. She ordered banana fritters and ice cream for dessert. Skye was having a whale of a time, enjoying walking in and using the ‘met my father in a chip shop’ line again, although this time it was met with guarded curiosity instead of guffaws. After everyone had eaten more than they thought they could have, they sat sleepy and satiated on the sofa. Jonathan dozed in the armchair, sighing along to the strains of Bob Dylan in the background. Heather heaved herself up and declared she was going to bed because she had an early start tomorrow. Christmas Eve. That left Lucas, Megan and Skye slumped on the sofa. They turned on the television, settling on Miracle on 34th Street. Lucas sat in the middle and slowly became aware of being encroached upon from both sides. Megan nuzzled against his right side, so he lifted up his arm so she could rest her head against his shoulder. They stayed like that for a while, comfortable and content. Then Skye shuffled further down, her back against his side until he was again forced to lift his arm, and find he’d become a glorified cushion for two tired girls. Something about it made him feel complete. When the movie ended, he looked down and saw Megan was asleep on him. Her dark hair had fallen across her face, and she was frowning into his jumper. He looked to his left and Skye was looking up at him, and across to her mother. ‘Mum’s asleep?’ she whispered. Lucas nodded slowly. ‘This has been nice,’ Skye told him, looking across at her mother tenderly. ‘I don’t think you’re Trouble any more.’ Lucas grinned. ‘Why thank you, Miss Skye.’ She paused a moment, then looked up at him, her eyes so much like her mother’s. ‘I wish you were my dad.’ His breath hitched in his throat, and he squeezed her shoulder. ‘That makes two of us, kid.’ Chapter Nine (#ulink_044fde8f-38a6-5746-8524-c5b02fec15c1) ‘You did what? ’ Jeremy’s excited voice floated down the telephone. ‘With whom? ’ ‘Stop sounding so scandalised, you heard what I said.’ Megan rolled her eyes, nibbling on a gingerbread biscuit, one of her mother’s stained-glass ones which Skye had presented to her proudly, before disappearing. ‘And how was it?’ Megan surrounded herself in the memory of Lucas, hard against her, nibbling her neck, making her lose her breath. ‘Addictive. Dangerous,’ she sighed, ‘wonderful.’ ‘Well, that’s my Christmas wish come true!’ Jeremy said. ‘At least one of us should get laid this holiday. As it is I’m hiding in my cupboard because none of them can see clearly in the dark of the office.’ ‘You’re playing hide and seek with a bunch of pensioners?’ Megan laughed. ‘Way to be infused with the Christmas spirit.’ ‘Unless the Christmas spirit is tequila, I want none of it,’ he said seriously. ‘How’s Skye with everything?’ ‘A trouper who’s too good for me, as usual. We bumped into her…father.’ She sounded out the word. That wasn’t what Joey was. Joey was a man who had happened to knock her up ten years ago. And he was a father now, to kids he had with the She-Devil. He wasn’t Skye’s father. She didn’t need a father, she’d said so. ‘And how’d she take it?’ ‘Wasn’t massively impressed by him, and turned it into a joke. Said she’d rather not see him again, and then ate her weight in ice cream. You think that’s normal?’ ‘Nothing about that kid is normal, and that’s why I love her. When are you back?’ Jeremy whined. ‘I need support.’ ‘A couple of days after Christmas. You need back-up against the biddie brigade?’ Jeremy paused, and a knot appeared in Megan’s stomach. ‘Anna’s not very well, and she’s a bit low on energy. That’s all.’ He was sing-songing, and Jeremy didn’t do sing-song. ‘Jez…’ ‘She collapsed a few days ago, so we took her to A and E. She said she’s just a little run down from the excitement of the holiday, but…’ He took a deep breath. ‘She didn’t seem surprised at whatever test results they gave her. And she won’t talk to me about it.’ ‘Shit,’ Megan said. ‘Yeah, but the truth is, if Anna was in serious trouble, you think she’d handle it like a martyr? Nope. She’d be singing songs on her death bed and calling for speeches and champagne. I’m sure she’s fine. Really.’ ‘Do you think I should come home?’ Megan asked him, biting her thumb. Part of her would be relieved to get out of there, but still…they hadn’t really aired everything out. And there was Lucas. And Skye was still dealing with everything. ‘Don’t you dare! You stay there and you make up for your last ten virginal years. Anna said she’ll call tomorrow.’ ‘Right.’ Megan hovered. ‘Well, make sure she does.’ They said their goodbyes, and as Megan put the phone down, she tried to talk herself out of worrying. But Anna had been their rock for the last ten years. She’d protected them, taken them in, made them a family. For all her dry humour and minor alcoholism, Anna loved them being around. And if she was sick, and they were away for the first Christmas ever…well, something about it seemed wrong, and selfish. She asked her mother later on, who was a one-woman Christmas machine, constantly stuffing, cooking, basting, glazing or baking something. Or making lists. Heather McAllister was a list-maker. She glanced up at Megan, with one pair of glasses sitting on her nose, the other pair on her head, pen desperately scribbling away. ‘What’s up?’ ‘Anna’s not very well. Jeremy said she fainted, and they’ve been doing tests. Has she said anything to you? Heather sighed, and put the glasses she was looking through onto the table, putting the list away. ‘She never tells me anything. In truth, all we talk about is Skye. The one good thing about everything that happened was that it opened a channel between me and Anna. We had something to talk about again.’ ‘Why did you guys never talk when we were kids?’ Megan asked, pulling up a chair. Heather tensed. ‘Families have secrets, darling, and when they’re revealed, people get hurt.’ ‘Anna has secrets? Well, she had a pretty crazy career as an actress, things were always going to happen.’ ‘This was before that, it was because of it that she went off to become an actress. Running off to London, making a life in the big city full of strangers, instead of staying home where people could talk.’ Heather looked tired, and worn, and Megan put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Shall I make us some tea?’ Her mother nodded, and when Megan brought two strong teas back to the table, in bright red Santa mugs, Heather exhaled strongly. She’d made a decision to talk about everything, clearly. She reached across the table and put thirty minutes on the egg timer. ‘I can’t burn another turkey,’ she laughed, ‘but we need to talk about some things.’ Megan nodded. ‘I’m listening.’ Heather tucked her dark hair behind her ears, tapped her fingers on the table. ‘I’d always adored my big sister. She was the pretty one with those big eyes, and perfect dark hair. She was so glamorous. When I was a kid she played with me, held me close and cuddled me. And then she was gone, off to London at nineteen, and she forgot about me. Sure, she came back for Christmas, Easter, brought beautiful presents, and told me all her stories, but it was like she was distancing herself from us, like she was ashamed. ‘There was a big age gap between us. Sixteen years. Your grandparents were good people, but they’d never expected to have another young one around, they were preparing to have a relaxing life. I was expected to entertain myself, and I did. I was happy enough.’ Megan frowned, not really knowing what this had to do with Anna. She was annoyed because her older sister had gone off to live her life? ‘Anna came back for my wedding to your dad. I was in my mid-twenties. I’d wanted her to be my Matron of Honour. She’d married her first husband, Ralph. Awful man, all about money, all airs and graces. I hated him.’ Megan shrugged. ‘I don’t remember him.’ ‘Oh, he was long gone before you were born. Only lasted a few years. If I’m not mistaken he revealed himself to be gay only recently. Anna loved that. A good story.’ Heather rolled her eyes, and Megan suddenly noticed how much she looked like her mother, and how much Skye looked like both of them. ‘Anyway, on the morning of my wedding, Anna comes in, all emotional and over the top. I think she’d had a few drinks. And she tells me she has a secret to share with me, something about our family. And it’s only right, going forward to my own family, that I know the truth.’ Heather pressed her lips together, shaking her head. ‘Of all the times, a few hours before I’m due to get married, she wants to drop a bombshell. Drama and tears, Anna all over. She’s a drama shark, attracted to it like blood. She seeks it out…’ Heather stopped herself, realising she was ranting, and moaning, which wasn’t what she’d planned. She took a deep breath and looked at Megan. ‘Anna told me she was my mother.’ Megan felt her jaw drop. ‘What?’ ‘She’d got pregnant at sixteen, and Mum – I mean, well, her mother had convinced her to let them raise me as a sibling. That way she could still go on with her life, avoid the scandal, the responsibility. It all made sense really, how much she’d loved me when we were younger, how she pushed me away as she grew up.’ Heather stared off into the distance. ‘I banned her from my wedding, can you believe that?’ She shook her head. ‘I regret it now, but I was so angry. It was meant to be the happiest day of my life, and it was suddenly all about how my family had lied to me, and betrayed me. ‘And I think I was most annoyed about her wanting to tell me. It didn’t make a difference. I wasn’t suddenly going to call her my mother. In my head she just wanted the drama, wanted a good story at my expense.’ ‘She told you because she wanted to tell you, not because it was what you needed to hear,’ Megan said quietly, and Heather’s eyes snapped to hers, nodding. ‘Exactly,’ she sighed, ‘and then when you came home that day…’ Megan stilled. They were going to do this now? Her aunt was actually her grandmother, and her mother had been holding it all in for years, and now she wanted to deal with their relationship too. ‘Mum, you don’t have to. We’re fine now.’ Heather took her hand, tears in her eyes. ‘No love, I was so wrong. I just, I saw it happening all over again. The lies and the messiness, people talking and… I’d spent so much time since that day trying to create this perfect family, trying to cover up. And all the years before that I spent trying to make you into this perfect automaton. I never even asked you what you wanted. I was more worried about what people thought than I was about my own daughter. And I’m so sorry.’ The last words were squeaked out through tears as Heather bowed her head. ‘It’s okay, Mum. It all worked out okay. And here we are.’ ‘I thought you’d come back. We kept trying to find you. I thought, “eventually she’ll realise, she’ll know we’ll be here” but you never did. And then I got the call from Anna…’ Heather hiccuped, working herself up, ‘and I thought, “there she is again, breaking up my family, thriving on drama”…how awful is that?’ ‘It’s not, Mum, it makes sense,’ Megan shushed her, unsure of how to deal with such an emotional outpouring from a woman who had always been loving, but firm, distant. In control. ‘I’m so proud of you, you know. The way you’ve raised Skye, with so little support…you’ve just…you did it all by yourself…’ ‘I didn’t, really,’ Megan shrugged, ‘I had Anna, I had Jeremy. A bunch of crazy old ex-actresses who kept trying to get me to do Kegel exercises all the time…’ ‘They’re not wrong, you know,’ her mother laughed, wiping away her tears. ‘I wanted to show you I could do this, that I knew what I was doing…but I didn’t. I didn’t have a clue. But I wanted you to meet my daughter one day and love her as much as I do.’ Megan sniffed a little, trying not to give in to the overwhelming desire to throw her arms around her mother. ‘I do, we all do. It’s pretty impossible not to, isn’t it?’ Heather smiled, patting her daughter’s hand. ‘You did good, kid.’ ‘I know,’ Megan nodded, ‘but we’ll do even better now.’ They sat quietly, sipping their tea for a while, letting the emotions sap away into the Earl Grey and silence. ‘So Lucas has been around a lot lately…’ Heather said slyly, raising an eyebrow at her daughter. ‘Some things don’t change,’ Megan laughed. *** Megan had escaped to Lucas’ for a while after talking to her mum. It was like a great outpouring of everything that she’d felt and known and wondered about for most of her lifetime, and she was exhausted. But more than that, it was like the floodgates had opened. If she was going to be open with her mother, maybe she needed to do that with everyone. The problem was, Lucas was a calming presence, he always had been. She’d always loved to just sit there in the corner of his room whilst he fiddled on his guitar, or wrote down lyrics, half-humming to himself. She was safe in the quiet with him. Which was why she was currently curled up with him on his sofa, quietly enjoying the feel of him holding her and not expecting anything else. ‘You’re different now, you know,’ Lucas said suddenly, head tilted like he was trying to figure out exactly what it was that had changed. Megan shrugged. ‘The whole “being a mother” thing might be a clue. She has to come first, always. I was pretty good at being selfish before.’ Still am, she thought to herself, somehow still guilty that she could be curled up with Lucas, pretending nothing was different, when her daughter was at home. Skye was fine, she was happy to spend time with her grandparents. But there was some little part of Megan telling her that she was selfish for having fun, that she shouldn’t be here at all. She tried to stamp it down, smiling at Lucas. ‘No, it’s not that, you were always terrible at putting yourself first anyway. You’re just less…angry now. You’re okay with who you are, and who they are,’ Lucas didn’t have to say he meant her parents, ‘you haven’t got that chip on your shoulder any more.’ ‘Nothing to prove,’ Megan shrugged. ‘I disappointed them in the biggest way possible, threw away every dream they’d been trying to grow in me since I was a kid. After that, I was free.’ Lucas smiled sadly, pulling her in closer to drop a gentle kiss on her forehead. ‘And that’s why you never would have stayed with me.’ Megan looked up and nodded. ‘It’s why I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. In many ways, Skye gave me a reason to get out, to take the path I wanted. If I’d stayed with you, they would have controlled me in the same way they always did.’ ‘I knew you loved me,’ Lucas said, ‘I knew it couldn’t have been that. I thought maybe you didn’t trust me. That you couldn’t trust me to look after you.’ She shook her head against his chest. ‘You did have a lot of contempt for those girls in the village who got knocked up, you said they’d never do anything with their lives.’ ‘A lot of people never do anything with their lives. They lose it in a plodding circle of TV, food, work and sleep.’ ‘Sounds nice,’ Megan yawned against him. ‘I could have come with you, you know. We could have started somewhere new together.’ Megan thought back to that night, when he asked her to stay, and she’d never felt so truly loved by someone in her entire life. She felt safe, like she wasn’t a disappointment or a disgrace. ‘I lay there for hours thinking through every alternative, you know. I thought about that. And then I thought about Clare, and what would happen if you weren’t there. That your mum never signed with her, and she’d be alone and isolated, and you’d never get the chance to play in a band, or make it big. I wanted that for you. And I couldn’t do that to Clare.’ Lucas huffed. ‘Wow, you really thought of everything.’ Megan nodded. ‘You could have put some of that in the note so that I didn’t have to spend the last ten years thinking you left me behind because I was a failure.’ ‘Why on earth would you think you were a failure?’ ‘Because you couldn’t trust me to take care of you.’ Megan sighed. ‘You took care of me for most of our lives. I knew you could take care of me, take care of us. But I didn’t know whether I could do it, and I needed to know. I could speak advanced French, and paint beautifully and write sonnets, but I didn’t know how to use a washing machine. I needed to know I could do something for myself, that I could be a mum and be decent and good. Not an angel, or a fallen angel, just a person.’ ‘You’d have let me come with you if I was the father though, wouldn’t you?’ Lucas said sharply. ‘Probably. But only because it would have been your right,’ Megan sighed. Lucas squeezed her. ‘You’re a bloody complicated woman, you know that?’ ‘I was a complicated teenager. I’m pretty simple now.’ He tangled his fingers into her hair, his thumb stroking her neck. ‘Nope, always complicated, Megan McAllister. You’ll always make things more difficult than they need to be.’ ‘And what does that mean, exactly?’ She pulled back to look at him. ‘It means that we both know this isn’t casual, we both know that we have something here that can last beyond Christmas and this village. And you’re going to pretend as long as you can that it doesn’t exist.’ Lucas leant in and kissed her gently, pulling back briefly to lock eyes with her. ‘I’ll let it go for now, but at some point you’re going to see what we are, Meg, and you’re going to have to make that decision.’ ‘Nothing comes before my daughter, Luke, nothing.’ Lucas looked briefly amused. ‘No, but she’s a terribly good shield isn’t she? Skye and I get on, I love her to bits. I was willing to raise her before she even existed, that hasn’t changed. The decision is nothing to do with her, or me, or your parents, or this place. The decision is about whether to let me in. I can’t keep knocking at your door, Meg, not if I think you’re never gonna answer.’ Megan looked at him, his eyes so bright and sincere, that soft grin playing about his mouth because he knew he was right and was trying to be gentle. ‘I hate metaphors,’ she said softly. ‘I know.’ ‘I hate how you make me make these big life-changing decisions.’ ‘I hate how you run instead of making them.’ She wriggled in his arms, warm, and soft, and safe. The way it always had been. ‘Keep knocking just a little while longer, okay?’ ‘Okay,’ he breathed. *** February 2003 ‘It’s that boy! I always told you he’d drag you down!’ Heather screeched at her, following her around with a piece of paper the school had sent home. ‘He’s not dragging me anywhere! We make music together!’ Megan yelled back, feeling shaken by the frequency of these arguments. It had taken years for her to find a voice, and now it felt like she couldn’t stop. First the hair dye, then the piercings, then the band. The day her cherry red Fender Strat arrived, delivered to the front door, her mother started such a screaming fit that Megan had to lock herself in her room to get away from it. And here they were again, round one thousand. ‘Oh that’s what they call it these days, is it?’ Heather smirked. ‘Music? It’s a wonder you haven’t got yourself knocked up.’ ‘We’re in a band, Mum, I don’t see what’s so strange about that.’ ‘This letter says you’ve been excused from your extra gymnastics and when I called the French tutor the other day, she said you’d already cancelled! Are you trying to throw your future away?’ ‘I am trying to have some say in the life I build for myself! I want to pick my future, not the one you’ve picked for me!’ Heather’s face grew cold. ‘You selfish little bitch!’ A soft cough came from the background, where Jonathan stood watching the whole scene. His face was blank, and Megan couldn’t tell if he was going to say anything or simply let it carry on. ‘Jonathan?’ Heather said, smug smile on her face. ‘Do you have anything to add?’ Jonathan said nothing, standing in the corner, still as a statue. After what seemed like an age of looking to her father for some kind word, some staying hand, he simply avoided her eye contact and said, ‘Go up to your room Megan, please.’ She did so quietly, her mother’s words on repeat…selfish little bitch selfish little bitch… An hour later her father came upstairs with a mug of tea and a bowl of soup, but said nothing. She wasn’t even surprised. *** Jonathan was pottering around in the den, cleaning his vinyls and humming along to James Taylor. Megan was still trying to get used to how her parents looked different, more calm, more…provincial, somehow. Looking at them now, she got the strange feeling that they were never that scary, were never really able to exert any control over her. Like they’d known that all along, and that’s why they’d held the reigns so tightly. Not that she’d ever get over that look of disgust on her mother’s face, but the words were starting to fade a little. One thing was still bugging her, though, and it was more the things that had never been said. She’d been honest with everyone else; it was Jonathan’s turn. She coughed, and knocked on the door to the den. His eyes lit up, ‘Come in, come in!’ and he pushed a few papers over so she could sit down on the sofa. ‘Is Skye with you?’ ‘She’s reading upstairs,’ Megan started. ‘Actually, I wanted to talk to you…’ Jonathan nodded seriously, dragging over a swivel chair from the desk and perching on it. ‘Do you need money?’ he asked, ‘because I’m more than happy –’ ‘No, Dad.’ Megan held up her hand. ‘Thank you, but we’re very much okay. I just wanted to talk to you about everything that happened, about…well, about everything.’ Jonathan looked down at the floor, a slight colour appearing in his cheeks. ‘Okay, what would you like to say to me?’ He looked like he was building a mental dam, preparing for the great waves to come crashing down. Megan didn’t let it stop her. ‘Why did you never defend me when Mum got on one of her over-achiever moments?’ she started gently. ‘You knew I didn’t want that life, you knew I was trying so hard, that I was working myself until I passed out. You knew I was exhausted and miserable and was only doing it to please her. Why didn’t you help me?’ ‘Darling,’ he exhaled roughly, his eyes a little wet, ‘what do you think I’d been doing for the last twenty years of my life? Working until I was exhausted and miserable, just to please her.’ He shrugged. ‘Making her happy was the only thing I knew how to do. I never knew how to say no, and I just trusted she knew what was best.’ Megan knew the disappointment showed on her face. ‘I know I’m a coward,’ Jonathan said suddenly, ‘I know I should have stood up for you. All those times you were tired and ill, and I knew you were trying so hard, and I was just… Your mother was different then. I was different then.’ ‘What changed?’ ‘Well, you leaving, for a start. The realisation that you’ve failed your child, that you couldn’t be there for them when they needed you – it puts things in perspective. And without you to be her project, your mother actually went out and got hobbies, interests of her own.’ Megan nodded, noting that everything in the house seemed to have slowed, become gentler somehow. She thought perhaps it was that Jasper existed, and that her dad had taken retirement. But he was right, Heather was different. ‘It came from a place of love, Megan,’ he sighed, ‘a place of awe, even. Your mother thought you were so wonderful that you were capable of anything.’ ‘Of anything but living a life that was mine,’ she replied dryly. ‘Well, you’ve proven her wrong, haven’t you?’ Jonathan smiled, and reached over to squeeze her hand. ‘Shall we have a cup of tea?’ Megan smiled back and nodded, getting up. ‘Did you get what you wanted from me?’ Jonathan asked her, pausing before they entered the kitchen. ‘I think so,’ she shrugged, knowing that it was more about her saying it than about him saying anything in return. They had only just set foot in the kitchen and greeted her mother when Skye burst in. ‘Trouble says he’s going to take me to see the reindeer in the park, can I go?’ ‘Just you?’ Megan said, trying not to feel left out. Her mother laughed at her, standing doing the washing up. ‘I asked if we could spend some time together and he said yes,’ Skye shrugged. ‘Well, no, actually he said to ask you, and if you said yes, it was okay. So is it okay?’ Skye was rarely so excitable, yet there was a niggling feeling in her stomach. Sure, it was great that she and Lucas were on good terms again, it was great that Skye liked him. But it was impermanent. She had escaped this village once, and she wasn’t staying any longer than necessary. ‘Baby, did you already see the reindeer the other day? I thought you said they were boring?’ she asked. Skye nodded. ‘But Lucas said he’s going to take his guitar and we’d sing them Christmas carols and…we wanted to practise a song for you. As a Christmas present…’ ‘Is that the truth or are you just wheedling?’ Megan asked, head tilted, hands on hips. Jeremy called it Mum Mode. Skye rolled her head. ‘It’s true, but he told me not to tell you, so it could be a surprise. But I said you don’t do surprises and I’d have to tell you, and now I have.’ Megan blinked. ‘When did all this happen?’ ‘He gave my his phone number and said I could call whenever I wanted. Please, Mum? I want to be really good at playing!’ Megan looked to her mother, who shrugged, clearly amused as she continued with the washing up. ‘A couple of hours. Christmas Eve is a time for family,’ Megan said, wondering whose words she was stealing. ‘We’re going to call Anna this evening too.’ Skye’s face lit up, and she launched herself at her mother. ‘Thanks! You’re going to love it! It’ll be the best Christmas present you’ll ever get! Trouble promised!’ Megan relented, arms still around her daughter,. ‘You still want to be a detective though, right? No dreams of being a rock star? Because it gets you into trouble, believe me.’ Skye grinned. ‘And being an inspector doesn’t?’ ‘Better amps and bass, than dead bodies and hitting Colonel Mustard in the library with a vase,’ Heather nodded. Megan looked at her mother incredulously. ‘Thanks, Mum! Big help!’ ‘So Trouble can come get me? I’ll go call him!’ Skye rushed from the room. ‘Tell him to bring his new car, I don’t want him taking you out in that death trap!’ Megan called after her, turning back to find her mother laughing and shaking her head. ‘Welcome to motherhood,’ she said. Chapter Ten (#ulink_e38d7d34-01e5-59ae-8cb5-b49b5237020e) July 2003 ‘You do realise this is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas?’ Lucas fiddled with his shirt collar in the rear view mirror. Megan had come out to sit in the car with him, seeing as he’d been parked outside her house for the last twenty minutes. ‘It’s not that bad. They like you.’ ‘I am the very symbol of your rebellion. They hate me,’ Lucas shrugged, ‘look, I’m doing this because you’ve asked me to, but I expect rewards for this. And brownie points. And if someone punches me you have to sit there with frozen peas and make sympathetic girlfriend faces.’ Megan grinned, ‘have I actually found something the one and only Lucas Bright, rock legend, is scared of?’ ‘Have you met your mother?’ Lucas rolled his eyes, and opened the car door. ‘Come on then, let’s get the party started. I brought my own pitchfork incase they broke their last one.’ He walked around the car and hovered as she got out, reaching for her hand. He looked nervous, a little paler than usual, a little clammy (probably from wearing a long sleeved shirt on a warm July evening). It was somehow adorable. ‘Thank you for doing this,’ Megan linked her arm through his as they walked up to the front door. ‘She gets two pops at my Mum and unlimited comments about my career prospects and bad grades-’ ‘You don’t have bad grades.’ ‘But I’m not going to Cambridge,’ he raised an eyebrow, before continuing, ‘and if she starts on Clare or you, I’m out.’ ‘She wants you here to get to know you,’ Megan said sensibly, and managed to look serious for about a minute, before laughing. ‘Megan McAllister, the sort of girl who’ll bring a lamb to slaughter,’ Lucas sighed and kissed her cheek as they reached the front door. ‘Lucas Bright, the sort of guy who’ll meet families just to keep a girl happy. Who knew?’ ‘You know, and that’s what matters.’ In the end, Heather hadn’t hated him. She’d wanted to, but the charm offensive was far too strong, and by the end of the night, despite his low status and the fact that he wasn’t going anywhere fast, she was convinced Lucas might even be good for Megan. A motivator. He wanted great things for her. Jonathan chatted to him about music, and for the first time in a long time, the McAllister household was calm. *** Skye returned at six pm with a smug look on her face. Megan opened the door, saw Skye jump up and give him a hug, declaring ‘Bye, Trouble!’ before she ran into the house. ‘Hey you,’ he grinned, leaning on the door frame, ‘missed me?’ ‘Not as much as my daughter, apparently.’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘Care to explain?’ ‘We’ve bonded,’ he shrugged, running a hand through his dark hair, ‘and I wanted some advice on your Christmas present.’ ‘Luke, I haven’t got you anything –’ she said quickly, and he leaned in, dropping a kiss onto her lips. ‘Yes you have.’ He smiled against her, hands on her waist. ‘You’ve given me a second chance.’ ‘I don’t –’ ‘And I just wanted to give you something to say thank you, to say how I’ve missed you. To show you how happy I am.’ He beamed at her, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear, and he was warm and solid, and there. But there weren’t second chances, she wasn’t staying, and he had to know that, right? ‘That’s great babe, and I appreciate it, but –’ ‘No buts! Me and Skye want to give the present to you together. I know you’re spending Christmas Day with your family, but I thought maybe this evening I could come back…?’ He looked so eager, it was hard to say no. Jonathan approached the door whilst they were talking, reaching out a hand to Lucas. He lifted one hand from around Megan, but didn’t make a move to extricate himself. ‘Son, it’s so good to have you back around again, and seeing the two of you together…’ he smiled, ‘just like old times. Makes an old man happy, you know?’ ‘We’re not –’ Megan started. ‘You doing anything tomorrow, son, with your mother and sister away? I know we’d love to have you.’ ‘Dad!’ Megan said, irritated. ‘Don’t you think you should ask Mum before inviting people to Christmas dinner?’ ‘It’s just Lucas,’ Jonathan shrugged, ‘we’ve known him forever.’ ‘And until last week you spent the last ten years trying to beat him up whenever you saw him.’ ‘Completely justified,’ Lucas nodded, ‘I’d have done the same, sir.’ ‘Stop it! Both of you!’ Megan growled. ‘Don’t you want me to come to dinner, Angel?’ ‘Would you stop calling me that? I’m not Angel! I’ve never been an angel! I fuck up, and I make mistakes, and you can’t just ignore that because I’m here again!’ Lucas looked at her like he wasn’t really sure what to do with that information. ‘I know you’re not perfect, love, it’s just a nickname.’ She stood looking at him, feeling her father shrug behind her as he walked away. ‘I don’t have to come to dinner…’ he shrugged, ‘your dad was just being nice.’ Well, now she felt like a bitch. ‘It’s not that…it’s just…we’re going to be going soon, and I’m worried about Skye getting attached to you.’ ‘And what about you? Are you worried about being attached to me?’ He leaned in closer until she was settled in his arms again. ‘Yes. I am,’ she said quietly. ‘I’ve managed pretty well without you these last ten years and…’ ‘And you don’t want me to come on in, fuck it all up and have to start again from scratch,’ Lucas nodded. ‘I get it, Meg, I do. But at some point, you’re going to have to let someone in. No one’s going to be good enough for the two of you, but you have to take a chance.’ She rested her head against his, breathing deeply, knowing he was right, but still not able to let go of that fear. It wasn’t just her life any more, it was Skye’s. The poor kid had been through enough trauma this week. It was safer to be alone. ‘Trouble!’ Skye ran back. ‘Are we going to give Mum her present now? Or tomorrow?’ ‘Up to your mum, kid,’ Lucas said, searching Megan’s eyes for the answer. She took a deep breath. ‘Tomorrow. Lucas will come by tomorrow and we’ll eat and do presents after dinner.’ Skye clapped her hands in glee, a motion she’d no doubt stolen from her grandmother. She looked at him. ‘I’m really trying.’ ‘I know you are, babe. I’m just trying to keep on knocking those walls down every time you put a new one up. You don’t have to do everything on your own any more. You never had to.’ He kissed her cheek gently, knelt down to give Skye a hug, and some sort of deeply complicated handshake they’d created. And then he was gone, leaving Megan bereft and relieved all at once. Chapter Eleven (#ulink_2487763f-20e3-574c-bf8e-8474f73aab2c) December 2005 Megan was trying to be upbeat, holding Skye close to her as they sat around looking at the Christmas tree in the centre. They’d been kind, the people there, finding her a room. She’d made her money last, sparingly spending on food, trying to figure out what she could do. She thought there might be a way to use the crèche at the centre, and look for a job. If she could get a job, she could get out. But Skye wasn’t even six months yet, and the idea of leaving her with strangers made Megan’s chest contract. She’d crashed with Beanie, a friend who’d gone off to uni in London the year before. Beanie’s parents were loaded, and she had a gorgeous flat in Chalk Farm. But the point was that a baby in student accommodation wasn’t really fair, and she’d always planned to leave. She needed a plan, and for once she didn’t have one. She’d applied for housing, would be getting a little money every month when the papers went through, she’d been assured, but until then she was waking up each morning in the hostel, not sure if there’d be a bed for them the next night. As much as the people at the centre were trying to help her, she was still scared all the time. She’d known it was going to be difficult, but she didn’t really think about what ‘homeless mother’ meant before. She’d only been focused on leaving her mother’s disgusted look behind her. She was never going back. She’d put up with whatever she needed to. Skye looked up at her, big hazel eyes already intelligent and loving. ‘We’re going to be okay, baby girl. I promise.’ She held her close, rocking her back and forth, and wondered what her parents were doing. Whether Matty was still waking up late and rolling down just in time for dinner, his Christmas Eve-induced hangover debilitating as always. She imagined the smell of the turkey, and her mother’s gingerbread stained-glass biscuits. How the tree always looked so higgledy and yet so perfect, with the same radio station playing in the background until she nearly went nuts with Christmas carols. ‘We’ll make our own traditions, baby,’ she whispered, her lips to Skye’s forehead. ‘We’ll start completely new.’ ‘McAllister? Is Megan McAllister here?’ The woman from the reception desk walked through, waving a piece of paper. Megan raised her hand. ‘There’s a woman here to see you. She says she’s your aunt.’ The lady handed over a Christmas card. On the front there was a picture of Mary in the stables, surrounded by the animals and the three wise men. Inside the card read: ‘A bit late to offer my barn for the birth (it took a while to track you down). Please spend Christmas with me? From one black sheep to another. Anna.’ ‘Is she still here?’ Megan asked the woman, who nodded. Megan picked up her bag, nodded, and walked out into the snow. *** That night, after Lucas left, Megan felt like Skye might need distracting, seeing as she kept playing the old red fender and talking about music non-stop. ‘Shall we call Anna and wish her Merry Christmas?’ Megan said. ‘I’m sure she’ll be crazy busy with her decorating and her guests, but let’s see if she can fit us in, eh?’ Skye was more than keen, and they sat up on the bed, legs crossed, the phone on speakerphone in between them. ‘Anna! Merry Christmas!’ they sang down the phone when she answered. ‘Well, hello darlings, Merry Christmas,’ her throat croaked. ‘Have you got a cold?’ Skye asked, concern etched across her face. Anna was never sick. ‘A little bit. I suppose I may have overdone it this party season, darlings.’ Anna coughed slightly. ‘Jeremy has been a great help though. It looks beautiful. Completely twenties. I’ll leave the decorations up so you can see them when you get home.’ ‘And you haven’t opened your present yet?’ Megan checked, her voice overly cheerful as she watched Skye, hand to cheek, eyes calculating. ‘No, mother, I’ve been completely good.’ She could hear Anna rolling her eyes. The word mother stuck, and Megan thought suddenly, Anna’s my grandmother. Skye’s great-grandmother. ‘And are you girls having a good time in the village? Everything as painfully quaint and ordinary as usual?’ Anna drawled, her derision evident. ‘Well, we made friends with Lucas, and I’m learning to play with the guitar, and Granddad plays chess, and Gran makes cookies, and I met my biological father in a fish and chip shop, but he was pretty boring, so I don’t think it’s a great loss.’ Anna wheezed, ‘Well, that certainly sounds eventful, darling. Definitely something to put in your diary.’ ‘It’s not a diary! It’s a detective notebook!’ Skye whined. ‘I’m sorry, sweetheart, of course. I miss you and your wonderful quirks very much. I can’t wait to see you when you get back.’ There was a pause and she wheezed heavily. ‘Do you think I could talk to your mum in private for a minute, love? Is that okay? And me and you will have our private chat tomorrow?’ Skye shrugged, looking at her mum, who nodded. ‘Okay, love you!’ ‘Love you too, sweetness. Merry Christmas.’ Megan picked up the phone and turned off speakerphone. ‘Why don’t you go see if grandma needs any help trying to make that Oreo cheesecake she’s especially making for you? You’re an expert.’ Skye looked irritated. ‘You don’t need to find excuses, I know you need to talk in private.’ She flounced out of the room, and Megan waited until she heard the heavy footsteps running down the stairs. ‘What’s going on, Anna?’ she said simply. ‘I’m not very well, darling, as I’m sure you’ve heard.’ ‘Jeremy alluded to something, but he was pretty cagey,’ Megan said irritably. ‘What’s wrong? Should we come home?’ ‘Darling, you are home.’ ‘You know what I mean, how unwell are you?’ Megan pushed, knowing the answer was going to be one she didn’t want to hear. ‘Well, if you must know, I’m quite beyond reprieve,’ Anna laughed. ‘I’d hoped to present it slightly better than that, perhaps with a slideshow.’ ‘Did you know about this before we went?’ ‘Of course. Why do you think I made sure you went? I wanted you and Skye to have a family.’ ‘We have a family,’ Megan insisted, trying to stay angry so she couldn’t be upset, ‘we have you. Why, of all years, would you make us leave when you were ill?’ ‘Because, as much as it might surprise you, being an invalid is not something I particularly revel in. And I wanted this business sorted with your mother before…’ ‘Before…?’ Megan felt herself take a sharp intake of breath. ‘Before what?’ ‘Before Christmas is over,’ Anna answered smoothly. ‘Really, darling, stop being so dramatic. You’ve always been so stoic. Having a baby in a park, living in a hostel, working in that dive bar. You never make a big deal of things. And I’d rather you didn’t now.’ Megan paused, checking the door was closed. ‘Are you…are you dying?’ ‘We’re all dying.’ ‘Stop it. Stop that right now.’ Anna sighed, her voice a little less affected. ‘Yes, I’m dying.’ ‘And you sent us away?’ ‘I wanted you to reconnect with your mother. It was my gift to her. To both of you. I’ve never been very good at fixing things, but I hoped that by relinquishing you, you’d start to put the past behind you.’ Megan breathed deeply. This holiday had been one emotional beating after the other. She wondered if it was too late to find Belinda and wait for her to say something horrible, just so she could punch her. ‘You want us to move back here and start our life again with my parents?’ she asked. ‘God no, in that little village that doesn’t even have a theatre? What am I, a philistine? No darling, I’m leaving the house to you, you’ll come back here and live your life as you please, of course.’ ‘That wasn’t what I meant, Anna.’ Megan felt the tears start in her chest, staggering and breathless. ‘I know, sweetheart. But look, no need to get yourself all worked up. We’ll talk tomorrow and you’ll come back in a couple of days and we’ll have some time to get it all worked out.’ ‘You promise?’ Megan asked, wiping her eyes. There was a long pause, until a very quiet ‘yes’ came from Anna. ‘Okay, we’ll talk tomorrow.’ ‘Sweetheart, I don’t think I need to even say that I don’t want everyone knowing about this?’ Anna’s strong voice returned, light but warning. ‘Who’s everyone?’ ‘Anyone.’ Megan shrugged. ‘You don’t think they’d want to know?’ ‘I just want everyone to have a nice day. I’ll tell your mother on Boxing Day, promise.’ Megan nodded, saying nothing. ‘I love you, darling, you’ve given me the most wonderful ten years. Made everything…made me myself again. No one could have done that but you. And Skye,’ Anna coughed, rarely one for expressing her emotions. Megan wanted to say something equally powerful, but anything she said now would feel like goodbye. ‘Love you, Anna,’ she said simply, ‘you’ve…you’ve done everything for us.’ She hung up, with the terrible realisation that sometime soon she was going to have to tell Skye the truth. Chapter Twelve (#ulink_2df3a13b-28b2-5a0d-b603-119700f2dd97) It felt strange to wake up in a different house on Christmas Day, and Megan had spent numerous Christmas Days there before, so she couldn’t imagine how Skye was feeling. She tapped on her old bedroom door gently, pushing the door open. Skye was sitting in the middle of the bed, duvet wrapped around her, holding her Christmas stocking. She grinned as Megan entered the room, and waved her stocking above her head like a trophy. Megan dragged her own in, and sat on the bed. ‘Share some of that duvet, would you? It’s freezing!’ She snuggled in next to her daughter, kissing her cheek. ‘Merry Christmas, poppet.’ ‘Merry Christmas, Mum!’ Skye whispered back, then paused. ‘How do we do it this year? I bet Grandma and Granddad don’t have champagne for breakfast.’ ‘Well, maybe we should introduce them to it, sharing traditions? I know Grandma went out and especially got you some elderflower fizzy, because you said you liked it.’ Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/a-michael-l/love-at-christmas-actually-the-little-christmas-kitchen-drivin/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.КУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 299.48 руб.