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“I’m sorry. We do try to be as understanding as possible in these types of situations, but I am afraid in this instance Zachary’s behaviour is completely unacceptable.” The headmaster’s face was drawn into stern lines of displeasure tempered by very little sympathy. “I have no choice but to exclude Zachary permanently from the school.”
Laurel’s stomach plunged unpleasantly at this news even as she wondered how to react to it. She wasn’t sure whether she should nod in agreement or tell the man what he could do with his so-called understanding. She did neither, re-crossing her legs as she shot her nephew an uncertain, questioning look. Shouldn’t he be contributing to this awful, awkward conversation?
He hadn’t said a word since she’d been summoned to the prestigious St. Luke’s School for Boys fifteen minutes ago, after being told the situation was both urgent and serious. Laurel had a lot of both urgent and serious in the last ten days, enough to last her a lifetime, and yet here was more.
“I’m sure Zac is aware of the…the severity of his behaviour,” she said after a moment, because she had to say something, and in truth, she wasn’t sure what it should be. Should she let this obnoxious man with his sniffy attitude and stupid bow tie walk all over her, as well as her nephew?
Perhaps not, but neither could she pretend Zac hadn’t acted anything but outrageously and, in this case, dangerously. He deserved what he was getting. Unfortunately.
At fourteen years old going on about forty, Zac looked indifferent to the pronouncement that he would no longer be able to attend the school where he’d been going since he’d been in year three. He was sprawled in a chair, inspecting his nails, his school tie bunched in one pocket, working hard at looking completely unconcerned.
Laurel had become used to that look; it had been his standard since she’d taken over his care. Even now, ten days on, she fought a sense of unreality that she was here, that this man-child was her responsibility, at least for the next three weeks. With every passing day, that responsibility had felt more daunting, more impossible.
And now, with Zac’s exclusion from school, the latest in a depressingly long line of offences, she was starting to wonder if this was impossible. If she just couldn’t do it, no matter how hard she hoped or tried, or what her best intentions had been when her sister Abby had checked herself into a four-week private rehab facility a little more than a week ago.
Utterly out of the blue, Laurel had received a phone call from a staff member at the facility, informing her that Abby had asked her to take care of Zac, the nephew she’d seen, at most, a handful of times since he’d been born.
“But what’s happened? Where is she? Is Abby okay?” The questions had bubbled out of Laurel like lava, but the staff member had refused to give anything away.
“She is in a private facility,” she’d said repressively, while Laurel’s mind had spun emptily. She hadn’t known her sister had been battling some kind of addiction, if that was even what the problem was. She hadn’t known much about her sister at all, because Abby had walked away from her and their family life over twenty years ago, and Laurel could count the number of times she’d seen her since then on one hand. Not including her thumb.
Now, with this sudden request to take care of the nephew she’d seen sporadically over the years, she had no idea what to do, or how to feel.
“Take care of him…” she’d repeated dumbly, a cup of tea cooling by her elbow, her laptop screen on the current batch of edits of a medical journal, and her cat Mistral curled up in her lap. Outside the window of her study, York Minster’s majestic Gothic spires pierced a wintry sky. “You mean, in London?”
“She’s left instructions at her flat and a key with the doorman,” the staff member had replied neutrally. “She said you would be amenable.”
Amenable? That felt rich, coming from a sister who had chosen to cut herself out of Laurel’s life as if she were wielding a particularly sharp pair of scissors. And yet of course Laurel was amenable, because no matter how Abby had walked away, or how much it had hurt, she’d been there when it had mattered. Even though they’d become more or less estranged for all of Laurel’s adulthood, she owed Abby her life, or at least her childhood.
Her job as a freelance copyeditor meant she could work from anywhere, and things were slow around Christmas as it was. And so Laurel had dropped everything to come to London to look after Zac, picking him up from school to both their bewilderment; he barely knew who she was, and she’d had to ask a teacher to point him out. Awkward didn’t even begin to cover it.
And yet, despite all that, Laurel had been buoyed by an indefatigable optimism that had been the touchstone of her life. Admittedly, some of her friends had pointed out, kindly, that her optimism was more naiveté than anything else, and others had told her that expecting a hero worthy of a Jane Austen adaptation wasn’t optimism, but delusion, and yet…
Laurel kept wanting to believe life worked out in the end, that there was a reason bad things happened, that silver linings existed even when she hadn’t found them yet. That it was all ahead of her, all still going to happen. The miracle. The magic. Not just with finding Mr Right, but with everything. With this.
And so, like with everything else, she’d held onto that hope with Zac. Unfortunately, he had not shared her optimism.
The initial awkwardness she had understandably anticipated hadn’t morphed into the friendly let’s-get-to-know-each-other sesh that Laurel had been counting on. Her expansive offer of takeaway wasn’t seen as a treat but a given; her attempts at conversation had been utterly shut down before she’d barely begun, and a hostility had emanated from Zac towards her that left her feeling hurt and raw even as she told herself not to take it personally.
Sometimes, when a fourteen-year-old was giving her a glare of death and an eye roll for the twentieth time that hour, it was hard not to.
It had all taken Laurel rather miserably by surprise. The last time she’d seen Zac, during a fly-by visit to London a few years ago when Abby had reluctantly agreed to meet up, he’d been a round-faced eleven-year-old, puberty no more than a faint cloud on the horizon. He’d doodled on his placemat and asked her questions about football, and actually listened to her, admittedly ignorant, answers. Still, he’d been sweet.
The gangly six-two stranger her nephew had turned into during the intervening years had completely taken her aback. His voice was deep, his attitude irritable or indifferent in turns, and his fingers appeared to be glued to his phone. Laurel didn’t know what to do with any of it. She realised a Happy Meal and a game of Go Fish wasn’t going to cut it, not by a long mark.
She still didn’t understand why Abby had separated herself from her family as soon as she’d left for university, visits a thing of the past, phone calls and emails eventually going unreturned. Laurel had never worked up the courage to ask her, had felt too hurt and even betrayed to dare to voice it out loud, afraid of what the answer might be even as she knew no answer would satisfy, no reason would be good enough to justify her sister’s behaviour.
Anyway, back at the beginning, she’d been able to convince herself it wasn’t as bad as it had felt; Abby was busy, she’d come home at Christmas, she had answered that email, even if it was only one line. Don’t be so sensitive, Laurel had told herself, but eventually that kind of optimistic talking-to wore thin, and been replaced with both confusion and a deep, abiding hurt that Laurel told herself she’d got past a long time ago.
At least, after Zac had been born, as far as Laurel could tell with no father in the picture, Abby had grudgingly agreed to see Laurel a couple of times, but the visits had been few and far between, a stilted lunch and one afternoon in Hamley’s, with Laurel fobbing off the confusion and sorrow she felt with an overpriced teddy bear that Zac had hurled to the ground.
So it happened that now, as she swanned into London to save the day, she didn’t actually know her nephew, or even her sister, or what their lives were like, or what they might be struggling with. Yet here she was, trying to do the best she could, wanting it to work out, to somehow magic a happy ending out of a situation that felt awkward and desperate and sad.
Here they were, she acknowledged, dealing with yet another of Zac’s misdemeanours—he’d had three in the last week and a half—although this time his behaviour seemed to have veered into alarming felony territory.
“Whether Zac is aware of the severity of his behaviour is of no concern to me,” the headmaster stated with asperity, all pretence of sympathy well and truly vanished. He straightened in his chair, everything about him bristling and indignant. “He has had three warnings, and as of today, he is no longer a pupil at this institution.”
Well. There wasn’t much she could say to that, was there? Laurel glanced again at Zac, who let out a bored sigh, as if this were all so very tedious, so his artfully-gelled shaggy blond fringe blew upwards. She gritted her teeth, telling herself not to be irritated by his behaviour, as he undoubtedly wanted her to be. She’d had her patience tested far too much in the last ten days, and she felt it fraying thread by fragile thread. Her initial desire to create some sort of happy reunion with her nephew had fizzled into merely surviving the encounter, and now, sitting in this stuffy office, she just longed to go home.
She wanted nothing more than to return to the cosy safety of her little terraced cottage in York, her small circle of friends, her lovable grey cat, Mistral. Cups of tea with her elderly neighbour Helen, an evening of Netflix, with Jane Austen adaptions featuring heavily, and dreams of the perfect man to sustain her—Gilbert Blythe with a dash of Mr Darcy, because she knew he was out there, somewhere. He’d be tall and dark and brooding, slightly mysterious but with a hidden gentleness that only she could see. All right, maybe not quite like that, but he’d be a hero, her hero, a knight in shining armour, and the boy next door all rolled into one.
That old life felt very far away as the headmaster cleared his throat, waiting for Laurel to make the next move. Unfortunately, she had no idea what it was. Would Abby have fought this? Would she have threatened the headmaster with litigation, or at least a sternly-worded letter to the board of governors? Or would she have made Zac apologise and pay for the damage?
Laurel had no clue. She hadn’t had a proper conversation with her sister in well over five years, and in any case, she had little experience of managing children. She was thirty-six, single, and childless; her only experience of kids was avoiding the stroppy ones in the supermarket.
Not that she disliked children; she’d dreamed about having one someday, although admittedly that possibility was becoming more and more remote.
Some of her friends had babies, and she’d had a few cuddles, although she tended to hand them back when they became slobbery or sticky, or started to cry. Older children were cute in theory, but they scared her a bit, and they were alien, just as Zac was, with his sullen silences, his difficult behaviour, his cracked veneer of bored indifference, with a sudden rage sometimes shining through that both alarmed and moved her, because part of her understood it, at least a bit.
His mother had just checked herself into rehab, without, it seemed, any warning. Laurel didn’t know what their relationship had been before that but judging by the circumstances as well as Zac’s behaviour she had a feeling it hadn’t been stellar.
“I think there’s nothing more to be said, then,” she said finally, with a useless attempt at dignity, and rose from her chair. “Zac?”
Heaving another bored sigh, Zac unfolded his lanky form from his chair and strode out of the room without looking at his former headmaster or his aunt.
A few minutes later, they were standing outside the school’s venerable doors in Wimbledon, an arctic wind cutting through Laurel’s jumper; she’d forgotten to put on a coat when she’d received the phone call from the headmaster’s PA to come immediately.
She shivered as she clicked the key fob to unlock her sister’s behemoth of a shiny black Rover, all gleaming chrome and supple leather, with a smell of air freshener and not so much as a crumb or a candy wrapper to sully its pristine surfaces. Zac threw himself into the front seat and slid out his phone, his head angled away from Laurel.
Now what? It was just a little over a week till Christmas, and Abby wasn’t meant to receive visitors until January, a full four weeks after she’d checked herself in.
When Laurel had called the rehab facility—a place, she saw online, that cost nearly a thousand pounds a night—they’d practically scolded her.
“Miss Dalton requests no contact until her period of treatment is over.”
“But I’m taking care of her son,” Laurel had said in exasperation. “Doesn’t she care about that?”
“I believe she’s made all the necessary arrangements, but if you feel incapable of caring for him, then perhaps we need to ring—”
“No, never mind,” Laurel had said hastily. The last thing she wanted to do was get child protection services involved. “I just wanted some information.” Which she hadn’t received, naturally.
“Well?” she asked Zac now. “Do you have anything to say about all this?”
Shrug. Of course.
Laurel took a deep breath as she rested her hands on the steering wheel. “You set fire to the chemistry lab, Zac?” she stated, a faint question mark in her tone; the headmaster had informed her of his crime before she’d so much as sat down, but it still seemed unbelievable, even for Zac.
Another shrug. “We were just messing around.”
“You could have put someone in serious danger, or worse. You could have been charged with a crime—” Thankfully, the school, as well as the harried teacher who had put out the fire, had chosen not to press any charges.
Zac blew out another breath, this time one of annoyance. “It was a joke.”
“Some joke.” Laurel shook her head, knowing she was hitting all the wrong notes with her nephew, as she seemed to have done since she’d come to London. She’d been intending to try so hard, and at first she had, but this was one situation where a smile and a determined attitude just wasn’t going to work. But what was?
Briefly Laurel closed her eyes. I can’t do this. She’d been trying not to say that since the beginning, but the drumbeat of defeat inside her head was becoming louder and louder. I can’t do this. I really can’t do this.
End of Excerpt