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Cake box in hand and her shoulder bag loaded with fruit from the Melbourne farmers’ markets—a mere four-hour country highway drive away, Lola Darcy picked her way along the crushed gravel driveway towards the back of her godmother’s house. Surprise visits were always risky, but Lola was ever hopeful when it came to receiving a warm welcome. Especially here. She climbed the steps to the back porch and rapped on the screen door, fully prepared to get loud. “Rosa? Are you there? It’s Lola.” L.O.L.A. and all that.
She could hear music coming from somewhere inside the house, but Rosa, with her beaded silk caftans and oversized earrings, did not appear. And this door, like the front door, was locked. “Rosa, are you about?”
Lola had a key to the house, she’d had it ever since Rosa had taken her in as a kid, but as an adult she’d never once used it to enter uninvited.
What if Rosa was in bed with a magnificent lover and didn’t want to be disturbed?
Or in the shower, shampoo in her ears and a song on her lips?
What if something was wrong in there?
Lola traipsed back around to the front of the house and gave the doorbell yet another press. Ding dong. Not a subtle sound, that one. “Rosa, it’s Lola. Surprise! I hope I’m welcome. I’m coming in.”
Maybe Rosa had walked into town for a meal with her friends?
Maybe Lola should just … wait. Except that something seemed off. And hadn’t Rosa been the one to encourage Lola to trust her instincts?
She was going in.
Once inside, Lola called out again. “Rosa?” An antique rug muffled her footsteps as she walked past the closed doors of the two front guest rooms, past the bathroom—no Rosa in there. Past the main bedroom door, which stood wide open, showing Lola the bed prettily made and the gauzy white linen curtain blowing gently in the evening breeze. “Hello? Anyone home?”
It felt like someone should be home, so why was no one answering?
Dread took hold as Lola headed for the kitchen at the rear of the old blue-brick home. Her chest had that panicked tightness about it that no amount of pretend dread could ever replicate.
This was the real thing, and it was not a good feeling.
Lola pushed open the door to the brightly lit kitchen and saw Rosa crumpled on the kitchen floor with a spilled saucepan and a scattering of green beans next to her. “Oh, shite.”
The cake box went on the counter and Lola went to her knees, sending up a silent prayer when she found the older woman’s wrist still warm to the touch. Warmth meant life. Finding a pulse felt like finding salvation. “Rosa, it’s Lola. I’m calling for an ambulance, okay? Just …” What? Hang in there? Relax? Where was a script when you needed one? “I’ve got you.”
Thank goodness for small country towns where everyone knew each other.
She’d only had to say Ninety-two Bridge Street and that she’d found Rosa unconscious on the floor, and help was on its way. All kudos to Wirralong and its people.
Sliding her phone onto the kitchen table, Lola clasped one of the older woman’s hands in hers. “I’m not leaving you, okay?” Could Rosa even hear her? “I’m just going to open the front door and turn on all the lights so they know to come in. Be right back.”
Rosa stirred fretfully and squeezed Lola’s hand.
“You can hear me? Squeeze if—yes, yes you can.” Lola let out a shaky breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. A responsive Rosa was good news. “Happy birthday.” Lola, you idiot, now is not the time. “I bought cake.” What kind of conversation was that for a fallen fairy godmother? But the truth was, Lola had no experience whatsoever when it came to saving people. “I want to say you don’t look a day over fifty, but I’m thinking of adding another twenty years.”
Rosa’s lips curved in the faintest of smiles and Lola brushed a feathery fine strand of silver hair from the older woman’s face, before getting to her feet. “Hey, you. I know you can hear me, and I’ll be right back, okay?”
She tried to hurry, she really did, but by the time she got to the door and latched it open and turned on the lights in the hall and the verandah light too, concern for Rosa had been joined by an altogether different concern. Because a baby had started crying and, unless someone had left one on the front verandah, which … no baby out there … that wailing baby noise was coming from inside the house. Coming from the room that had been Lola’s bedroom during the years her parents had taken off to the Galapagos.
Could be a ghost baby. A figment of a lively imagination. Heaven knew, Lola had never lacked imagination … She cracked open the bedroom door, fully prepared for the ode-to-pink peony wallpaper, antique Victorian furniture, and red velvet drapery. The bed had been beautifully staged with at least six different types of eye-popping green pillows, and all was as it should be. Hello colour explosion.
Except for the big white cot in the middle of the room and the baby standing up in it, clinging to the side bars with chubby hands, its little face a study of woe.
“Who are you?” Not that she expected an answer, but hope in the face of adversity was her superpower and she never had been afraid to ask a stupid question … “Not going to tell me, eh? Okay, keep your secrets.”
The baby started sobbing and instinct warred within her. Baby or Rosa? Who to tend first? She hadn’t held a baby in … okay, she hadn’t ever held a baby but how hard could it be?
“Okay, little one. Let’s go see Rosa.” The baby’s arms were already up, so it seemed only logical to put her hands either side of the fragile little torso and lift. It would have worked, too, if the baby hadn’t clung stubbornly to the bars and refused to let go.
“Okay, okay, I get it.” What was she going to do, pry those little hands free with a crowbar? “You don’t know me, I don’t know you, stranger danger and all that, but I really need to get back to Rosa so …” The baby would be alright in the cot, no harm done. That’s what cots were for. “I’ll come back. Soon.”
She got to the door before the fretful sobs turned into a bellow of pure outrage.
Random changeling babies appearing out of nowhere were bad news in every film she’d ever seen. And this random changeling baby was no exception.
“You want to try being picked up again? Because two strikes and you’re out, those are my rules.”
Look at her laying down the rules for a child who hadn’t yet learned to speak. Or even stand without help, by the look of it.
This time the baby let her pick it up and clasp it to her body with both hands. It snuffled and sobbed all the way to the kitchen. When she knelt beside Rosa the squirming began and then the squalling started up again.
“Exactly how I feel, presh—that’s short for precious—but do you see me giving in to tears? No.” Of course, she was twenty-five and this baby was maybe one? “Are you a boy or a girl?” Hard to tell given the overall lack of hair, the cartoon hippo T-shirt and green shorts atop a cushiony nappy. “Either way, I don’t suppose you could take it down a notch with the noise? Pianissimo, baby, pianissimo. Surely you know that term if Rosa’s looking after you?”
Rosa had been an opera singer and had toured the world in days gone by. These days she gave singing lessons, led the local choir and seemed perfectly content in her semi-retirement.
Lola tried holding the baby with one hand and checking Rosa’s pulse again—an idea that lasted the time it took for the baby to almost fling itself from her arms. Not that it had far to fall, but still … priorities. “Can you just calm down? Do you want food, is that it?” She lunged on her knees for the nearby fridge—one of those three-drawer models with a vegetable crisper drawer in the middle. Carrots! Yes! No! Shite. She had no idea what to feed this kid. “Change of plan, baby. No food for you. Not as if you’re starving.” Because frankly, this little red-faced cherub was heavy. “How about a song? You want to hear a Brahms’ lullaby? Very soothing.” She started humming a sure-fire crowd favourite. The kid cried louder.
“Okay, what about Bowie? Everybody loves Bowie. You want to be a rocket man?”
“What about some Rocky Horror Picture Show?” She’d auditioned for that only last month. “You like musicals? I can do all the voices.” Time was not fleeting—time had slowed right down, and surely the paramedics would be here any minute, but Lola started singing about time warps regardless.
She rested the baby on her bent knee and tentatively took Rosa’s hand again. By the time she was telling everyone to put their hands on their hips the child’s tear-drenched gaze was firmly fixed on her face and the crying had stopped. She glanced at her fallen godmother to find Rosa watching her through slitted eyes.
“Oh, hey. Did we wake you?” Thank God. The baby joined the conversation, garbling at Rosa and waving its chubby arms.
“Am I dead?” the older woman croaked, and Lola smiled her relief, because those words hadn’t been slurred and stroke-like at all. The words were faint but clear.
“Not yet. Although waking up to my singing you could probably be forgiven for thinking you were in heaven, right?”
“Your F4 is sharp.”
“It is not.” No one who auditioned for musical theatre as consistently as Lola did had any business producing a sharp F4. “No, don’t try to get up. Just relax. See? We’re all relaxed and no one’s crying. Party on the floor.” A sharp rap sounded on the door. “We’re in here!”
Lola had never been so grateful to relinquish control of a situation and let the professionals take over. Rosa was concussed, that much was clear. They were putting her on the trolley and strapping her in, wheeling her out to the ambulance, with Lola following along behind as if tethered to them.
She wanted to go with them, and would have, but for the mystery baby in her arms. A baby who’d snugged in tight, head on her shoulder as he—or she—watched the goings on through sleepy eyes, one chubby fist scrunching the neck of Lola’s T-shirt with surprising strength.
The paramedics were local, weren’t they? Surely, they would be fountains of information when it came to who was who in a town as small as this.
She waited until they had Rosa settled in the back of the ambulance, doors open still as one of them ran tests and the other medic stood aside. He was a tall, lean man with curly greying hair and a reassuring smile. They’d already moved past introductions and Lola’s explanation of finding Rosa unconscious on the floor. She’d answered all his questions. They were practically best friends, and now that Rosa was being seen to, she had a question for him.
“Not that I want to alarm you.” Lola bestowed on him her most reassuring smile. “But I don’t suppose you know who owns this kid?”
Ned Harrow wiped the sweat from his brow and glanced at the big old-fashioned clock hanging above the exit door of the hundred-and-fifty-year-old blacksmith’s foundry. Almost seven pm—still light outside, but long past time he should have finished his day’s work and collected his son from next door.
He should never have taken that midday break, but it had been a hot November day and he’d needed the water and to stop folding and pounding metal, even if just for a few minutes.
He should never have taken that last contract for two dozen Viking swords and promised a three-week turnaround, either. He had no apprentice and there was only so much a man could do in a day. Especially when that day also included being a single dad to an eleven-month-old boy.
Six more longswords to draw out tonight and then he could go and get his sleeping son from his neighbour, Rosa, and take him home to the double storey brick house that loomed a hundred metres or so behind the foundry buildings.
He’d had such plans for this place once.
The taming of the brilliant old garden between house and forge. Metalworking workshops, apprentices, a lace ironwork library full of heritage designs that only his forge had the clay fixings for. Even a tourist café. But his partner in dreams, his wife of just three years, Eloise, had departed this world and these days he could barely keep the lights on.
At first, Ned had been able to put Oliver in creche care a few days a week, but that setup had primarily been for younger babies so he’d been scratching around for other childcare options lately. It didn’t help that every babysitter or nanny he’d hired so far had been determined to warm his bed.
Not wealthy—even that hadn’t stopped them.
He needed a wife, and his son needed a mother … that was what so many of the good people of Wirralong thought. Getting that sorted for him was practically a public service. As if Eloise was some kind of replaceable part. Out with the old and on with the new, and no.
He’d loved his wife. He wasn’t ready to replace her. He was managing just fine on his own, dammit. Lots of people were single parents in this day and age.
Hell, some people chose it.
As he reached for his water bottle and looked through the open barn doors to the pinkening sunset sky he caught a glimpse of flashing lights—blue and red—and the combination chilled him to his soul.
When he stepped outside and saw the ambulance in Rosa’s driveway, his half-empty water bottle hit the ground before he even realised he was off and running towards the vehicle. Not again. Oliver was a happy, healthy kid, nothing wrong with him, and Rosa was a caring, responsible adult. Nothing to see here. Nothing had gone wrong. He couldn’t even think it.
The ambulance doors were open, and somebody was on the trolley inside, with a paramedic in attendance, hooking up monitors. Rosa? Was it Rosa?
Another paramedic stood off to one side, talking to a young woman holding a sleepy baby.
Adrenaline spiked; he couldn’t think. He wanted to snatch Ollie out of her arms—how dare she hold him against her chest like that! As if she had the right. How dare she be so effortlessly beautiful with her long dark hair and her big brown eyes so full of life.
The woman’s curious expression died as he approached, as he slowed from a dead run to a helluva fast stride so as not to steamroll anyone.
The paramedic wasn’t the same one who had tended his wife. This was an older man.
“What’s going on?” Ned directed his question to him, but it was the woman who answered.
“I found Rosa unconscious on the floor. She’s conscious now, but not tracking too well.”
She had one of those voices a man could listen to all day. Warm, melodic, and her words made sense. One of her hands had risen to protectively cover his sleeping son’s shoulder.
It made no sense whatsoever that he did not like her, was altogether not on board with liking anything about her, and if she didn’t give him his son back soon, he was going to lose his mind. He reached for him, and she stepped back, alarmed.
“Whoa, back up, Sunshine, and use your words,” she blurted. “I don’t know you.”
“I don’t know you either,” he managed to growl, “but that’s my son you’re holding.” He needed to feel Oliver’s heartbeat against his own. She glanced at the paramedic who gave an almost imperceptible nod, and surely now she’d hand Ollie over, but she didn’t.
“Do you want to take your apron off first?” she suggested. “Because it looks kinda stiff and hard. And filthy,” she added as an afterthought.
“It’s leather.” And yeah, it wasn’t clean. He was a blacksmith not a florist.
Did he wrench the blasted apron from his sweat-stained body and fling it on the ground in a fit of pure temper?
But he might have been a little bit theatrical about it.
Just a bit.
“I’m Rosa’s goddaughter,” she continued as he made a show of wiping his hands on the rough denim encasing his thighs. “It’s her birthday and I was trying to surprise her and then she was on the floor and the baby was bellowing—good set of lungs there—and I didn’t know what to do, so here we all are.” She looked a little shell-shocked, come to think of it. “I am glad to see you. Really glad.”
It was awkward as all get out as Ned’s knuckles brushed the curve of her breast and the fingers of his other hand got tangled in her hair as she handed over his sleeping son.
“Sorry,” he rumbled, and, “Sorry,” again as Ollie woke just enough to cling to her like a monkey and make Ned feel like the worst father in the world. “Hey, buddy. It’s me.”
Finally, Ollie traded one warm shoulder for another and settled back to rest with barely a murmur.
But the act of holding his son didn’t comfort him the way he thought it would.
He had to get out of here. Back to the forge. Back to the house. Anywhere but here with its flashing lights and Rosa on the stretcher, and all of it overlaid with a different, altogether more bloody set of memories that he couldn’t escape no matter how hard he tried.
His throat was too tight for words, not even a thanks.
He nodded instead, turned his back on them all, and fled.
Lola watched the big man retreat almost as quickly as he’d arrived. She bent and picked up his apron, surprised at how heavy it was, and contemplated calling him back or going after him, but something about the whole situation kept her in check.
She glanced at the paramedic. “You know him, right?”
The paramedic nodded. “Ned Harrow, local blacksmith. He owns the foundry and the house behind it.”
It made sense of the heavy apron but not a lot else. “Is he always so … edgy?”
“Probably not, but I reckon he has good cause.”
“Because I was holding his baby?”
“Nothing wrong with your actions. He’s just spooked because the last time an ambulance was out here his wife was in labour and haemorrhaging. Put two of my best paramedics into mental health therapy for months.”
That didn’t sound good at all. “What happened?”
“The baby survived—young Oliver, you had him in your arms.”
Alive and well. “And his mother?” she asked quietly, though she figured she already knew the answer.
“She didn’t make it.”
End of Excerpt