Matilda Next Door

by

Kelly Hunter

When a long-anticipated holiday takes an unexpected turn…

Aussie farm girl Matilda Moore kicks off her dream trip to London by flat-sitting for her childhood friend. But London is daunting, crowded and noisy, and that’s before Tilly finds a baby on the doorstep. There’s a note attached: “Henry, if you’re reading this, please know the worst has happened.”

Probability expert Henry Church has finally returned home to Wirralong, Australia, to see his grandparents when he gets a phone call from Tilly that breaks every statistical analysis. The probability of him being the father is marginal. Plus, he knows nothing about caring for a baby. Emotions and socializing are even bigger mysteries. He begs Tilly for help—can she cut her holiday short and bring the baby to Wirralong?

Tilly will do almost anything for her childhood best friend, but falling in love with him and his motherless baby is an emphatic no. Out of the question. Or is it?

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Matilda Moore of Moore Creek Station had two loving, smothering parents, no siblings, and a clothing wardrobe heavily stacked towards denim and plaid. Early dreams of becoming a ballerina had come to naught. For one, there had been no ballet teacher in her particular stretch of rural Australia. Secondly, she’d never for one minute been graceful, willowy or ethereal. Sturdy was more the word that came to mind when people thought of Tilly. Able to drench a mob of sheep and sing along to the radio while she did it—out of tune and unconcerned because who was going to hear her anyway? Capable of mending fences all day long with her father, and then backing up later that evening to help her mother cook up a dozen sponge cakes for the local school fete. Earnest, reliable, Tilly. These days with her ballerina dreams all neatly packed away in the face of sturdy reality.

Not that she was complaining. Reality had been quite good to her on the whole. She ran her own catering business—specialising in cakes, slices and biscuits—and turned a healthy profit. A couple of years back she’d convinced her parents to let her turn the western wing of the grand old family homestead she’d grown up in into a two-bedroom apartment for her own private use. Two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchenette, two living areas. Even fancy French doors leading out onto the verandah, and a front door besides. Her very own point of entry into her private domain. Independence was hers. Privacy, all hers!

Except for the part where she still lived under the same roof as her parents and if she ever brought a visitor home … they might not say much, but they would know. And she would know they knew and that would be awkward. Yup.

Twenty-six-years-old with one semi-serious failed relationship behind her and a family farming legacy of red dirt, sunsets and a couple of thousand hectares of sheep grazing country to care for.

Give it another few years, and even her sturdy youthful glow would begin to wither beneath the relentless Australian sun, if it wasn’t already. People would be starting to say Oh, that Tilly. She should have done more when she was younger. Travelled for a while or become a chef—because those sponges, man, have you tasted them? She baked apple pies for the school fete last year and grown men wept because the sponges were no more. They had to create an impromptu lemon-and-passion fruit sponge order form for all the weeping men, so that Tilly, bless her heart, could bake thirty of them on the Sunday, ready for pick up from school on Monday morning. Mind you, the apple pies were good too. She should do more of those next year. Not as if she has anything better to do. She could hear them now.

Oh, wait. She’d already heard that crack about not having anything better to do.

Bethany Church, one of her elderly neighbours who lived on the property next door had said those very words to her two days ago. Didn’t seem to matter that Tilly had collected the mail from town and hand delivered it to Bethany’s door. Didn’t matter at all that Tilly had made a week’s worth of soup and a big mince pie and had handed those over too. Wasn’t as if she had anything better to do.

Tilly shook her head. Best not to let mean minded Bethany Church get to her. Bethany, grandmother to Henry who’d left Wirralong years ago for a university scholarship in England because, yes, he really was that smart. Henry, who’d been raised by his elderly grandparents who were getting frailer every year, and yet somehow he’d still managed to escape Wirralong in order to build a life of his own.

Henry, who was coming home from London for a month to visit his grandparents, while Tilly took her first overseas trip, and apartment-sat Henry’s London bachelor pad for him while he was away. They had it all worked out and she could not wait. She’d recently added a polka-dot shirt to her wardrobe full of plaid. And a white jacket. White, no matter how impractical! With a tiny little white flower pattern on the lining. Flowers for her wardrobe. White-on-white flowers, and barely visible, but she knew they were there.

She’d tried the clothes on, made sure they fit, and wrapped them straight back up in plastic, ready for her suitcase. She’d wash and wear when she got to London. The washing water wouldn’t have an orange tinge to it. She would go singing in the rain. Rain! Dear dog, she could almost feel it on her skin.

‘Matilda, why are you staring at the ceiling with your eyes closed—while humming?’

Tilly opened her eyes and there stood her mother, perfectly framed by the open French doors. ‘I’m singing in the London rain.’

‘I see.’ Her mother’s lips tilted. ‘You’re looking forward to your trip?’

‘You have no idea.’

‘Oh, I might have some idea.’ Grey eyes could be warm, her mother’s were proof of it, and those eyes were still bright amidst deeply etched crow’s feet. Her mother’s hair had been cropped short, and was almost white now, her striking bone structure making her even more beautiful with age. Tilly had inherited some of her mother’s looks, but not all. Eye colour and cheekbones, yes. A nice nose. But she had her father’s narrowness of face and wide brow, and her hair had never quite gone blonde, no matter how much sun shone on it. Spoiled-hay-bale was more her colour.

‘I got you something for your travels.’ Her mother held out a flattish white box with black edging. ‘I’d almost given up on it, but it came today in the post.’

‘May I open it now?’

‘It’s your birthday, isn’t it?’

Tilly blinked. ‘It is?’

‘This is why we have calendars, dear.’

Except that out here on the farm with each day almost exactly the same as the next, it was all too easy to lose track of them. No, out here they rarely did days of the week. Instead they had countdowns. Sixty days until the water in the house tanks ran dry. Twenty-three days’ worth of hay left in the feed shed. Twelve millimetres of rain in the past eighty-four days.

‘Your father and I are also giving you some birthday money for your trip, but we ordered it in pounds and the post office won’t have it in until next week. This is just a little something extra.’

Tilly-the-sturdy gave excellent bear hugs, and what better time than now? ‘Thank you. For the extra and the pounds. I won’t spend it all at once, and if we need hay let me know and I can access my savings and—’

‘Stop. We’re not broke yet.’ Her mother’s voice softened. ‘You work hard, and always have. Spend your money. Live a little. Meet new people. Make new friends. We want you to go have fun.’ The present box was poking a hole in Tilly’s ribs. ‘Open it. I want to see if it looks as good on as it does in the pictures.’

It was a silk scarf of the brightest blue, so soft and fine to the touch that Tilly was afraid she’d shred it with the none-too-soft skin of her hands. She opened it out, and out, and out. ‘It’s huge!’

‘Yes, but it’ll scrunch up small. There should be directions for ways to tie it in there, too.’

‘Ooh, origami.’ Tilly was a little more familiar with hitch knots. ‘It’s beautiful.’ She hung it around her neck and her mother was right, it did bunch up small and fall beautifully.

‘Have you heard from Henry? When’s he coming in?’

‘February fifteenth. Two days before I leave. Which is …’ She’d best start using the calendar. ‘…eight days away. I told him I’d pick him up from the airport in Melbourne but he said no.’

‘You’re not his chauffeur.’

‘Yeah, but I had to offer. I’m going to be living in his fancy Trafalgar Square apartment for a month for free.’ A saving of five thousand pounds, or near enough to it, and what with the exchange rate … ‘Anyway, he’ll be here soon. A week tomorrow. Tomorrow being …’

‘Monday,’ her mother said drily.

‘Exactly. And Wednesday next week I fly.’ She had a scarf and her arms for wings and the long wooden verandah was the perfect runway. She made a fist and raised it to her lips. ‘Matilda Moore, preparing for take-off.’

She spread her scarf, flapped her birthday wings and took off along the verandah with a shrieking woohoo. She would launch when she got to the end of the low-slung verandah. See if she could break her old long-jump record. Or potentially a leg.

Take-off or not, she still managed to hear her mother’s muttered, ‘God help us all.’

By the time Henry knocked on the door to the Moore homestead late Monday afternoon, Tilly had rearranged her travel bags three times over, baked a sponge (hand-whipped cream-and-lemon-butter centre, with a dust of icing sugar on top), and written a checklist of all the house-sitting chores Henry would probably expect her to do while in the UK. If she was a bundle of nerves and flushed skin, it was only because she was almost on her way. Nothing to do with the tall, imposing form on the other side of the screen door—although since when had his shoulders become so broad and his stance so confident? And where were his glasses, because they weren’t on his face, that was for sure, and the lack of them made him look less known and way more …

Very definitely more.

Probably wouldn’t hurt to let the man in. She summoned a smile and opened the door. ‘Henry!’ A quick lean forward so she could press her lips lightly to his cheek was probably enough.

‘Matilda.’

His voice held a world of reserve, so she stepped back with a roll of her eyes. Henry never had done casual affection, and apparently that hadn’t changed. ‘I’m guessing a hug is out of the question?’

‘We haven’t seen each other in four years.’

‘Yes, but it’s not as if we don’t know each other. We’ve cavorted together naked. I have pictures to prove it.’

‘I was four. I don’t even remember the visit. You were a baby.’

Oh, she’d missed that look. The exasperation. The reluctant fondness. Was it fondness? She liked to think so. ‘Come in, come in. We have so much to talk about.’

He took off his boots before entering, not that they were dirty—she’d never seen shinier footwear. What had he done? Floated from his car to the verandah, thereby avoiding all the red dirt? Or maybe it was some sort of duco polish that dust refused to stick to? At least his jeans looked old and worn—that was a relief. He brushed past her and she let the door swing shut behind him and she turned to watch as he headed for the breakfast bar and the cake and cups already set up. Nice view. Some might even call it spectacular. Since when had Henry’s jeans ever fit like that? ‘Have you been working out?’

‘No.’

Pretty unequivocal no, there. But those shoulders didn’t come out of nowhere. ‘Playing rugby? Boxing?’

‘Seriously? Do you know the brain injury statistics associated with those sports?’

‘Right.’ Must protect his most excellent brain. ‘How about volunteer work on the weekends? Toting boxes. Replanting large trees. Splitting firewood.’ Yes, definitely a possibility. ‘For little old ladies.’

Funny how he could still manage to say ‘are you entirely off your rocker’ with just a glance.

‘Anyway, you’re looking very buff. Must be something in your genes.’ Now was definitely not the time to start looking for something in his jeans, even though he’d turned around. Even though whatever did exist in his jeans appeared to be rather hefty. ‘Cake? Cup of tea? Lemon meringue tart?’ She’d made the tarts fresh this morning, operating on the absolute certainty that they were his favourite. The boy genius had grown into a man genius when she wasn’t looking, but she’d bet the farm that his big brain still ran on ninety per cent sugar.

‘Tart would be appreciated. Coffee too, if you have it. For the jet lag.’

Jet lag. She too would be experiencing jet lag soon. Tilly was looking forward to it. ‘Sit! Sit and un-jet lag and tell me what you want me to do while I’m staying at your London place.’ She took the cover off the tart plate and pushed the lot towards him, and then turned to sort out the coffee. She knew how he liked it. Strong, black, and scalding hot. ‘I made a list. Get the mail, water the plants, keep the place clean—’

‘Nothing. The mail is being held at the post office, I don’t have any plants to water, and the cleaner comes in four hours a day twice a week. You’re all set.’

‘But—’ That wasn’t the deal. ‘I’m house-sitting. That usually involves doing something around the house involved. Doesn’t it?’

Henry sighed, and somehow managed to look even more awkward than he did upon arrival. He always had been unsure of his welcome, even as a kid. Especially as a newly arrived eight-year-old who’d been sent to live with his grandparents after his mother’s death. Awkwardness and a reserve so strong it had taken her three solid years of coaxing to break through it, but by the time she’d reached the elevated age of eleven and he’d been all of fourteen, they’d been friends. As in she’d chat and he’d listen, and then he’d chat and she’d try desperately to keep up with whatever he was saying. It helped that the school was small enough for kids of all ages to mix in together. Wasn’t as if there was a lot of choice. No one had thought anything much of Tilly latching on to Henry or Henry letting her. They’d lived next door to each other, and caught the same school bus, morning and afternoon. He’d kept an eye on her the way a brother would. Stood up for her. Tolerated her. She knew things about him that no one else did. Friends.

Except that in the time he’d been away from Wirralong, that friendship had largely withered on the vine. Awkward Henry was back, just as closed up as ever he was, and it probably had something to do with how his grandparents had welcomed him home, or not. Nothing shut Henry Church down faster than his grandmother Bethany’s disapproval.

Tilly didn’t know if she had enough time to coax it out of him before she left, but maybe she could give him a heads-up. Tell him it wasn’t just him that Bethany reserved her vitriol for. These days it was everyone. ‘You really have to let me do some kind of chores for you while I’m staying at your place, otherwise I’m going to feel like the biggest sponge. I don’t want to feel like a sponge.’

‘You take my grandparents mail up to them from the letterbox three times a week, you pick up and deliver their grocery order once a week, and your parents do countless other things for them. You’re already doing plenty.’

‘Yes, but we do it for them, not for you.’

‘And how much thanks do you get?’

‘Your grandfather is always thanking us.’

‘And Beth?’

He didn’t even bother with a grandmother tag for her. Ouch. ‘Beth’s mind is not what it used to be. Her filter’s gone.’ Henry’s lips twisted into a bitter smile. ‘Not that she had much of a filter in place to begin with, I know,’ she amended. ‘Would it help to know that she’s far more even-handed with her eviscerations of character these days? You’re no longer her special whipping boy. Everyone gets their share.’

‘Does it help me to know that you go over there to help and have to put on a smile as a cruel old bat picks away at your every vulnerability?’ His voice had deepened, roughened. ‘No.’

‘Ah, Henry.’ She understood his need to protect her from that. He’d always had it. She’d always been warmed by it. ‘I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t smile and stand there, dumb as a post. I don’t smile at all, just talk right over her—pretend I can’t hear her—and carry on a conversation with your grandfather instead. That’s the way to go.’

He stayed silent and she figured she’d given enough unsolicited advice for now. ‘So … your gorgeous Trafalgar Square apartment is mine, all mine. I’m so excited. Tell me all about it.’ Could be he’d need another prompt, which she was more than happy to give. ‘What about keys, security, how to get in? How to get out and stay all security conscious? Because if I’ve heard it once that I need to remember to shut all the windows and lock all the doors on my way out, I’ve heard it a dozen times already from my parents. Truly, just because I don’t shut the doors or lock anything up around here doesn’t mean I won’t shut doors and lock things up over there. I know the difference.’

She had him smiling again as he dug in his pocket and tabled a set of silver keys. Damn but he was a breathtakingly handsome man when he remembered to smile. ‘The only door you’re likely to have trouble with is the front door to the building. There’s a daytime doorman who can usually be relied on to buzz you in. His name’s Len Stuart and he’s expecting you. Of an evening you’ll need the password for the keypad on the wall next to the main door, and that’ll get you in. It changes every Sunday. The elevator requires the door key to my apartment before it’ll work.’ He plucked out a key from the bunch he’d set down. ‘Meaning this one. There are two apartments on the third floor. Mine’s 3A. The other one is 3B and belongs to the Brownlows, and they mainly use it as a weekender. To get to mine, you step out of the lift and turn left. There’s a deadlock on it, and it’s the red key. There’s one more security panel just inside the door. The passcode for that is 3381.’

‘Hey, Wirralong’s postcode! You nostalgic softie.’

‘Lies, all lies.’

Gotcha, she thought with a grin. Because Henry Church of the genius IQ didn’t do unnecessary comments unless his defences were starting to crumble. Maybe there was hope for their friendship yet.

‘You’ll need to set the apartment alarm whenever you go out, and disarm it whenever you come in,’ he continued.

‘Yeah, to deter all those people in 3B from slipping across the hall and stealing the silverware. Why exactly do you need so much security? No, wait. I’m sure there’s a fabulous statistical answer that will come to me eventually.’

‘I was going to say that the flat came fully furnished and the artwork on the walls is expensive,’ he offered dryly. ‘But you do you.’

‘I will be the embodiment of security consciousness.’

He reached for a tart, his second so far, because he’d wolfed one down while she was making the coffee. She met his gaze and he smiled, caught out and bashful, and suddenly he was the boy she remembered of old. Not always oddly aloof and serious, no. Once cracked, with his gooey soft centre on show, Henry Church could make her feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

‘I know you’ll try.’ His eyes were warm rather than disapproving. ‘I also know how much trouble I had adapting to the lock-it-all-up mentality when I first got over there. Len has two spare sets of keys waiting for you if you forget and leave them inside, and the Brownlows in 3B have another spare. They know you’re coming.’

‘You are so sweet. Have another tart.’

‘Do you want me to have to start chopping firewood for little old ladies in order to maintain optimum buff?’

‘Wouldn’t hurt to sort out your grandparents’ winter wood pile while you’re here. It’d be helpful.’

‘Please tell me you don’t chop firewood for them too.’

‘I don’t. Your grandfather buys it split these days, but there are always some that won’t quite fit. He does still split those. It’s a matter of pride for him and a safety concern for everyone else. He’s not getting any younger.’

His smile faded. The intensity of his gaze increased. ‘I can afford to put a manager and housekeeper in place if need be.’

‘Soon would be good.’

‘That bad?’

‘It’s not your grandfather, so much as your grandmother. Dementia’s awful, and it’s starting with her, and your grandfather’s a saint but we worry about him too. How worn down he’s been of late. See if you can get him to take a break.’

‘I’ll visit more.’

‘So you say.’ She didn’t believe him. He’d been eighteen the first time he left and twenty-one the first time he returned home, with a freshly minted doctorate from Oxford under his belt. Undergrad and postgrad studies in three years of non-stop work, with a plum job predicting future disasters waiting for him when he returned. She’d been so damn pleased to see him. Followed him around like a lamb.

His grandfather had been so proud of him.

Bethany had been herself. Even if she had been proud that her grandson had made something of himself outside of Wirralong, God help her if she’d ever let it show. ‘I’m sorry. I know it’s not great when you come home.’

‘How come you never left?’

And that could have been an innocent question, but probably wasn’t. Return fire when under attack. He’d taught her that. Silly Tilly and Mad Henry against the world. Except Mad Henry had conquered the world without her and for all her quiet pride in recent achievements, she’d yet to conquer a damn thing.

‘Oh, you know me. I blow every chance I get.’ There was the cooking school in Melbourne that took her money and closed its doors before she ever got there. The photography competition win and awards event in Sydney that she’d even bought a dress for, and then part of the National Park behind the farm had gone up in smoke and it had been all hands on deck for that. Not enough marks to go to university and no real interest in doing so. These days she did online courses and diplomas in everything from landscape gardening to animal husbandry, from genetics for dummies to beginner astronomy. And always, in the background, the cooking she loved. ‘Apparently self-sabotage is my thing.’ She didn’t like the look he was giving her. Because somewhere along the way it had morphed from challenging to speculative, and the last thing she needed was for him to start analysing her psyche. ‘Good thing I’m a homebody. And I have a week’s worth of cooking school all lined up in London, at one of the big hotels. They only take six people at a time. I had to apply to get in and everything. I sent them a video of me making a sponge.’

‘Good for you.’

‘I know. Even after they said yes, the cost made me choke, but that’s where you come in. Without you offering me a place to stay, I couldn’t have accepted the position, so thank you. Sincerely.’

‘It’s nothing.’

‘Maybe to you.’ Mr bigshot, big-shouldered, have another tart why don’t you, Henry. ‘But it means a lot to me. The money I saved is the money I spent on self-improvement and cooking career glory.’ It sounded good to her ears. Aspirational. ‘Of course, my mother’s sure I’m going to meet my future husband on this trip. I think she thinks he’s going to own the hotel. Unlikely.’

‘Highly.’

‘Thanks a lot.’

‘Statistically, highly unlikely.’

‘Be that as it may …’ She’d started the sentence in her outside voice and finished it using her more regular volume. ‘I need to know your thoughts on me entertaining while I’m staying in your apartment.’

‘Call it a flat.’

‘Okay. But be that as it may …’ She leaned forward expectantly, coffee cup in hand.

‘What do you want me to say?’ His voice had grown clipped and haughty. ‘Exercise caution. Use good judgment. The usual.’

‘Ah, you see that’s where I might come unstuck. That usual is not usually the usual, if you get my drift. But I’ll do my best to choose wisely.’

‘I don’t remember us ever indulging in this level of overshare.’

‘It’s because we’re going to be roomies,’ she offered, with her most fetching smile.

‘Matilda, I’m not even going to be there.’

‘Still your rooms. But thank you for permission to part-ay. Anything else you can think of that we need to discuss?’

He shook his head, mysterious as a sphinx, silent as the tomb, oddly out of sorts.

‘Good thing I made a list,’ she muttered, and ditched the coffee so she could drag a nearby notepad towards her. ‘Let’s take it from the top. Good nearby restaurants, grocery stores, market stalls …’

‘You do realise this is why review sites exist?’

‘Will I find reviews from you on any review sites?’

‘No.’

‘Good thing I can go straight to the source.’ Honestly, back in the good old days when they’d been friends, she’d been hard-pressed to get him to shut up. He’d been all about the learning. And the sharing of what he’d learned.

‘I’ll write you a list,’ he muttered, long suffering.

‘You’re a treasure.’

End of Excerpt