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The Second Wife

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She married for love. But is she ready to die for it?
Tamsin has recently married renowned composer Robin Featherstone. Robin is much older, but Tamsin doesn’t care - she’s in love.And she knows Robin loves her too, even if he is very close to another young woman – his assistant, Mia.
But Robin’s ex-wife and grown children aren’t happy – they’re sure Tamsin is a gold-digger and Mia is an opportunist.
Then, when Robin dies suddenly, the family’s worst fears are realised - Tamsin stands to inherit everything. But when the will is read, its contents are beyond shocking.
As Mia and Tamsin are pitted against each other, only one thing is clear. The family will go to any lengths to stop either of them inheriting even a part of Robin’s estate.
Isolated in the family mansion, fearing for their lives and distrustful of each other, Tamsin and Mia are determined to stand their ground. But then a dark family secret is revealed which may engulf them all…
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Clever & Smart -Den Ball gehetzt... und weggefetzt!

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The Second Wife

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Chapter 1


Chapter 2


Chapter 3


Chapter 4


Chapter 5


Chapter 6


Chapter 7


Chapter 8


Chapter 9


Chapter 10


Chapter 11


Chapter 12


Chapter 13


Chapter 14


Chapter 15


Chapter 16


Chapter 17


Chapter 18


Chapter 19


Chapter 20


Chapter 21


Chapter 22


Chapter 23


Chapter 24


Chapter 25


Chapter 26


Chapter 27


Chapter 28


Chapter 29



Free Short Story Offer

Also by Miranda Rijks

Published by Inkubator Books

Copyright © 2022 by Miranda Rijks

ISBN (eBook): 978-1-915275-54-7

ISBN (Paperback): 978-1-915275-55-4

ISBN (Hardback): 978-1-915275-56-1

Miranda Rijks has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work.

THE SECOND WIFE is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.

No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.


I know what it’s like to feel ill. Very ill. How your body becomes separate from your mind, overcome with terrifying sensations that, however hard you try, you can’t control. How your limbs become uncoordinated, like useless appendages on a rag doll, and your head feels so stuffed full of cotton wool, all your senses are muffled, and the only thing you can hear is the irregular beating of your heart trying so very desperately to keep you alive.

I know what it feels like because I felt it then, and I’m feeling it again now.

‘Who’s there?’ I think I’m shouting, but my voice sounds distant, as if it’s been muffled and distorted. The footsteps fade … or are they footsteps? Perhaps the sound is in my head, the ; regular beat, getting fainter and fainter. I need to get up; I fumble with the light switch, trying to flick it on. Why aren’t my fingers working properly? I wonder if this is it, the blood leaving my fingers and toes, making them utterly useless.

I hear it again. A thump. And this time, I’m sure I’m not imagining it. The noise is definitely outside my body. Someone is there. But they’ve all gone out. This place should be empty. I begin to panic, but then my fingers find the light switch. I blink a few times, and I can see. Relief pours through me. I’m lying on top of the bed, which is surprising because I’m not even cold. In fact, I’m too hot, perspiration running down my face. I need to get up, get out of here, before they do anything else to me. I sit up, and the room spins, so I take it very slowly, gripping the side of my bed as I lever myself to my feet. This dreadful feeling of impending doom is gripping me from the inside out. It’s as if my body is expecting something terrible to happen, but my brain isn’t keeping up, can’t decipher what’s happening.

I remember that feeling. I had it all those years ago, and I think perhaps it has left an imprint on my DNA, so that fear is compounded by guilt and guilt is compounded by fear. I know I can never make it truly better, but I’m doing the best I can. Is that good enough? Perhaps this is my penance. Perhaps this is my time.

The trouble is, we’re not designed to give in to death. It’s programmed into us that we need to fight, so I force one foot in front of the other, holding onto the bed, the wall, the door. My heart, which I thought was failing, is pumping hard, louder than my metronome at full volume. I need to get out of here.


I shuffle along, consciously placing one socked foot in front of the other.

The first time, I heard it. A horrible, muffled thud. Death. Yet it wasn’t mine. And then it became so distant that I could pretend it never actually happened.

The second time, I saw it and I felt it. My life disintegrating in front of my eyes, kind people all around me, looking, prodding, stroking, needling. The bright hospital lights, the horrible, discordant beeps of the machines, the loud, thoughtless voices. But it turned out, that was the practice run.

The third time, I smelled it. Right here, in my bedroom, the place that is meant to be my sanctuary.

This time, I can taste it. There’s an acidity on my tongue, something metallic on the back of my throat. I try to swallow, but my mouth is too dry. It’s not normal, yet I know it’s only fear. One foot in front of the other. Just one more step. The corridor is spinning, and I know now that I have used up all of the five senses.

I need to find help, now.

If I drink a gallon of water, perhaps my brain will start processing again, and the solid sensation in my gut will dissipate.

‘Are you alright?’

The voice is familiar, but I can’t work out where it’s coming from. I shrink backwards to the wall. They’re coming to get me.

‘Leave me alone,’ I say, but the sounds are muffled, and then I realise why. It’s because I’m flying through the air, speeding past the paintings on the wall. As I tear by my favourite picture, the young girl playing the violin, the momentum stops, and I crash downwards, headfirst. And now I know for sure that it is happening.

I have avoided this for so long, but no more.






I’m doing exactly what I shouldn’t be doing. Lurking in the corridor by Robin’s studio, listening to him put the finishing touches to his latest composition. It’s a haunting melody, the tune played by an oboe over a bed of shimmering strings – very English classical, but he’s combined it with repetitive drum rolls and offbeat hi-hats normally found in House Music. A synthesised riff comes to a sudden stop. I hurry away, a bright yellow duster in one hand and a dustpan and brush in the other.

I have been working for the renowned composer Robin Featherstone for the past nine months. It would have been my dream job if it weren’t for the fact that I’m a cleaner. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing demeaning about cleaning; Dad’s done it as a job for years. It’s just I’ve spent most of my life training to be a musician. When I was accepted as a student at the Royal College of Music in London, I dreamed of a glittering future as a professional violinist, making music across the globe, bowing to adoring audiences inspired by my crossover style merging classical and rock, being hailed as the next great thing. If you can’t dream in your early twenties, when can you? Of course, it hasn’t panned out like that. Despite putting my everything into my studies and completing my many more than ten thousand hours of practice, here I am, making ends meet by dusting and scrubbing. The only upside is that I’m working in Robin Featherstone’s house. You might not have heard of Robin Featherstone, but I guarantee you’ll recognise his music. His creative genius is behind some of the catchiest theme tunes on popular television series, and those annoying television adverts with songs that leave you humming them for hours.

As I’m scuttling past the kitchen, along the limestone floor corridor towards the back door, Pavla appears, wearing a thickly padded white anorak and a black beanie pulled low over her forehead. She’s clutching a stack of empty carrier bags. ‘I’m nipping out now. I’ve left your money on the kitchen table.’ She speaks with a strong Czech accent, and I can count on one hand how many times she’s smiled at me.

‘Thanks,’ I say, relieved that she no longer feels the need to remind me that I mustn’t leave a minute before 3 pm. As if.

Pavla Whittaker is the Featherstones’ housekeeper. I can’t work out exactly how long she’s been working here, but it’s very clear that she considers herself part of the furniture. I’m guessing she’s in her late forties, although she looks older, with deep wrinkles around her lips and heavily stencilled eyebrows. I’m sure if she made the effort to wear makeup and dress in something other than elasticated trousers and baggy jumpers, she would be an attractive woman, with her high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. I gaze out of the window in the utility room and watch Pavla walk across the gravel drive and down towards the little driveway that branches off to her cottage. When she glances back at the house, I hurry away. I need to clean Mr and Mrs Featherstone’s bedroom and bathroom.

When I started cleaning here at Stave House, there was no official Mrs Featherstone. Claudia, Robin’s first wife, would pop in from time to time, and I always knew when she’d visited, because Robin would spend the next couple of hours bashing out discordant chords at high volume. So when a woman, probably in her early thirties, appeared just over a month ago and introduced herself as Tamsin Featherstone, Robin’s new wife, it was quite the shock. For starters, she’s twenty-five years younger than him, extremely beautiful in a perfectly groomed way, with caramel wavy hair and big dark brown eyes with eyelash extensions and a model’s body.

I assumed she might be a singer or a dancer perhaps, but according to Pavla, she used to work in PR. Of course, her marriage to Robin means she doesn’t have to work anymore. I wondered whether Tamsin might fire me and do her own cleaning, or employ her preferred cleaner so she can put her mark on the house, but so far, I’ve barely spoken a word with her and rarely see her. According to Pavla, she’s either out shopping or having beauty treatments or inside the brand-new greenhouse Robin has had built for her, and she’s shown no desire to make any changes around the house.

From what I can gather, Tamsin is the strangest mixture: She’s a socialite who wears designer clothes (we now have a constant flow of deliveries from designer boutiques) and clearly spends a great deal of time on her looks, but at the same time, she’s obsessed with her cacti collection. I wondered why Robin installed a fancy greenhouse, the size of a small bungalow, shortly before Christmas. It’s her wedding present, apparently. Despite the designer clothes, Tamsin has eschewed any fancy cars and drives around in a battered green Land Rover Defender. If my circumstances were different and I weren’t her skivvy, I’d be interested to get to know her. I like people who defy conventions.

The Featherstones’ bedroom is in the centre of the house, with views across the lawns at the rear. It’s the largest of the six bedrooms and the one with the best views. There is an impressive bow window with a window seat curving underneath it, piled high with chintzy cushions in floral fabrics, mainly in dusty pinks and pale greys. It’s not to my taste. The bed is unmade, with the large duvet left crumpled at the bottom of the bed, the pale grey linen pillows still showing indents where Robin and Tamsin laid their heads. I have to admit that I always feel a bit awkward coming in here, as if I’m snooping somehow, and it’s even worse now Robin is newly married. Tamsin’s bedside table is cluttered with pieces of jewellery, a glass of water with a lipstick mark, a packet of contraceptive pills, a leather-cased alarm clock and a pile of Grazia magazines. It’s quite the contrast to Robin’s bedside table, which is free from any clutter except a small leather-cased alarm clock. There’s a heavily used Beethoven score on the floor next to the bed. The room smells of Tamsin’s perfume. It’s floral and spicy all at the same time, and from my description you might think it’s nice, but for some reason I loathe the smell. Although I’m sure it’s a very expensive scent, it reminds me of a cheap perfume that my sister wore, and that’s not a good memory.

Hurriedly, I smooth down the sheets and pull up the duvet, and then I run the vacuum cleaner around the room, fortuitously avoiding hoovering up a diamond earring on the floor near their en-suite bathroom. Tamsin is so much younger than Robin, I wonder whether she’s after his money or if it’s genuine love. I don’t know, because I’ve rarely seen them together, but I’ve no doubt that tongues are wagging.

There’s really very little to clean, because I keep on top of the dusting and vacuuming, tidying up here three times a week. The bathroom requires a little more attention, particularly Tamsin’s sink, which is tinted an orange-brown thanks to splattered makeup. When I’m done and the taps are sparkling and the mirrors spotless, I carry my cleaning materials downstairs in one of those little plastic buckets. The only room I’ve got left to do is Robin’s studio, and most of the time he bats me away, saying he doesn’t want to be disturbed. As I walk along the downstairs corridor, passing the wall covered with his certificates and photos of the famous actors, actresses and singers he’s worked with, I’m surprised there’s silence. Perhaps Robin is listening to music through headphones. I knock on the closed door.

There’s no answer.

I knock again. Still there’s no answer.

I open the door just a few centimetres. ‘Hello, Robin, sorry to disturb you.’

Then I hear a gurgling sound. I push the door wide open and rush inside. My heart pounds as I process what I’m seeing. Robin is lying on the floor next to his grand piano, his eyes staring at me in terror, his hands clutching his chest.

‘What’s happened?’ I yelp as I rush to his side, dropping the cleaning materials and kneeling down beside him.

‘Heart,’ he murmurs.

Oh. My. God. Robin is having a heart attack. I grab my mobile phone out of the rear pocket of my jeans and dial 999, all the while staring at Robin in horror, regretting that I never got around to doing a first aid course.

‘What’s your emergency?’ the operator says.

‘I need an ambulance. My employer is having a heart attack.’

I’m put straight through to another operator. After getting the essentials of my name and the address of Stave House, the operator asks, ‘Is he unresponsive?’

‘Robin, can you lift your arms?’ I ask.

He mumbles something but doesn’t move. and it’s then that I realise his face is drooping on the left side. ‘I think he’s had a stroke. He’s unresponsive,’ I say, trying to keep my voice on an even keel. It feels as if my heart is going to pound out of my chest. Robin can’t die. Not right here, with only me at his side. I take his hand and hold it in mine whilst clasping the phone to my ear with my other hand. Robin has long, thin fingers and neatly groomed fingernails, the hands of a professional musician.

‘The ambulance is on its way,’ I say, repeating the call operator’s words. ‘You’re going to be just fine.’

But who am I to utter such a platitude? I have no idea if he will be fine or not. He tries to say something, but his words slur together incomprehensibly.

‘Shall I get you a glass of water?’

He tries to speak again and attempts to shake his head, but drool slides out of the corner of his mouth as he makes a feeble attempt to grasp my hand.

‘It’s okay,’ I say, stroking the back of his hand with my fingers. ‘I’ll wait with you until the ambulance comes. Don’t worry, I’m going nowhere. Just try to relax.’ I start humming the main tune from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture. Robin was playing it a few weeks back, and he overheard me singing it quietly as I cleaned. We had a chat back then as to how a beautiful melody was the single most important thing to evoke feelings, but then we laughed about my singing it, because the tune is a bit of a cliché.

Please don’t die, I repeat silently and continuously. Please don’t die. My inept humming seems to relax Robin. I just pray that he survives. Why did this have to happen now, when both Pavla and Tamsin are out? I don’t even have their mobile numbers, because the only contact detail I’ve ever needed is the house landline. The minutes seem to drag. I wonder if I’ll need to call 999 again.

When I hear the siren of an ambulance, I feel an overwhelming relief and say another silent prayer. Please let Robin Featherstone survive without any long-lasting effects. He’s a good man.

‘I’m going to let the paramedics in,’ I say as I release his hand. I rush to the front door, where two uniformed paramedics follow me in. One of them immediately sinks to his knees and assesses Robin whilst the other removes equipment from a couple of boxes. I feel like a spare part as they tend to him, talking in low, comforting voices and murmuring to each other medical terms that sound like a foreign language to me. Eventually they manoeuvre him onto a stretcher and wheel him out to the open-doored ambulance. This morning, Robin looked young for his fifty-eight years, with a mop of dark brown hair just tinged with grey at the temples and a tall, slender build. But now, with an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, and skin a strange chalky pallor, he looks twenty years older, barely recognisable.

‘Would you like to come with us?’ the younger of the two paramedics asks.

‘Should I?’

‘It’s normally a comfort for patients to have a familiar face with them.’

‘Um, yes, of course. I’ll just grab my things.’ I hurry back into the house and leave a scribbled note for Pavla and Tamsin on the kitchen counter, asking them to call me urgently, and then I pull the front door to, locking myself out of the house.

I FEEL awkward as I travel in the back of the ambulance. It shouldn’t be me who is accompanying Robin, but Tamsin or one of his children, Brooke or David. I’ve met Brooke a couple of times. She’s late twenties, über confident, with poker-straight, long blonde hair and green eyes made to look catlike, due to the kohl she uses to create long lines like little arrows pointing up to her temples. Brooke has never deigned to talk to me. I’ve no idea what she does, but she keeps a bedroom here. Not that she’s been around since her father remarried. I’ve never met David. Perhaps he only visits at the weekends, or maybe he’s estranged from Robin, because no one talks about him.

The journey to hospital seems to go on for ever. Robin’s eyes are closed, and he is being tended to by the kindly paramedic. I certainly hadn’t imagined this to be in my job description when I started work at Stave House. It all seems so long ago, that interview.

I’m not one for complaining, but my life hasn’t been easy. Ten months ago, I was desperate for money and willing to do whatever I could, so long as I was left a few hours so I could practice the violin and hopefully get gigs. A friend of a friend told me that Robin Featherstone was looking for a cleaner, and since I was a musician, perhaps it would suit me. Goodness knows how she found out, but I knew better than to ask. Nevertheless, I assumed the job might be through an agency and that it would require references and checks, and that I would have to be an employee and pay tax. Fortunately, I was wrong.

I turned up for the interview on a cool spring day and stood looking at the house in awe. It’s an impressive Georgian house with pale orange-pink bricks and wisteria creeping up the central portion, clinging to the bricks and encircling the windows on the upper floor. On either side of the large white front door are two double-fronted patio doors, and on the first floor, there are five windows positioned neatly across the width of the main house, the panes of glass each crisscrossed in white. To one side is an extension, which, despite its flat roof, doesn’t detract from the elegance of the design. To the left of the house is an open oak carport for three cars. Stave House is one of those English houses that makes you smile: traditional, symmetrical and very desirable. The sort of house that people like me never step foot inside. My trainers crunched on the gravel as I walked up the driveway and squeaked on the wide stone steps, and I straightened my coat and smoothed down my hair before pressing the shiny gold buzzer. I barely had time to step backwards when the door swung open.

I didn’t know it then, but it was Pavla who greeted me, her eyes moving slowly from my head to toes before she stood back to let me in. I don’t recall her being anything but civil; perhaps she even smiled at me. I followed her through the beautiful entrance hall with its large fireplace and sweeping staircase, down a long corridor into the largest kitchen I’ve been inside. She gestured for me to take a seat at the table, but she didn’t offer me a drink.

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs Featherstone,’ I said.

‘I’m not Mrs Featherstone,’ she replied rather too quickly, and I knew I’d put my foot in it. ‘I’m Mr Featherstone’s housekeeper and have been running this household for the past twenty years.’

With hindsight, I wonder whether Pavla was quite flattered to be mistaken for Robin’s wife, because she was surprisingly gentle in her interviewing. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ she said, leaning back in her chair.

And so I did. I was honest – well, mostly so. I explained that I was a trained musician, but was looking for cleaning jobs to supplement my paltry income.

‘Mr Featherstone won’t be giving you any music work, you do understand that, don’t you?’ she asked.

‘Of course.’

‘And he has very exacting standards. No hoovering around his studio when the door is closed, and you don’t go in there without his express permission. Tell me about your cleaning experience.’

I didn’t have much, or at least much that I could be up front about, so I expanded a little on the truth, because we all have to do that to get our feet in the door, don’t we? I offered to do a couple of hours’ cleaning at no charge so she could see how I worked, but she said that wouldn’t be necessary. ‘Mr Featherstone is a fair man. If you work hard, we’ll pay you. When can you start?’

‘Next week,’ I said. I held my breath as I waited for her to talk about a contract or national insurance contributions, but she didn’t. She told me I would be paid £14 per hour in cash. I was to work from 10 am until 3 pm Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and my hours might be increased.

Just as I was standing up to leave, a tall, distinguished man walked into the kitchen. He had dark hair on the cusp of turning grey, glasses perched on the top of his head and was wearing a buttoned-down shirt and chinos.

‘I need a cup of coffee.’ And then he stopped. ‘Oh,’ he said, standing there awkwardly, as if he were the stranger in his kitchen rather than me. Then it was as if a switch flicked inside him and he remembered his manners. ‘Sorry, sorry. And you are?’

Pavla’s thin eyebrows drew together. ‘This is Mia Benton. She’s the new cleaner. Mia, this is Mr Featherstone.’

‘Good to meet you, Mia.’

He extended his hand, which I shook. I immediately liked the look of Mr Featherstone. It sounds strange, but his symmetrical features, square jaw and very slightly hooded eyes suggested an innate kindness, so I was surprised by his next question.

‘I trust Pavla has told you the rules?’


He chortled. ‘I’m very sensitive to sound. You have to be in my line of work. The damned vacuum cleaner that Pavla insists on us using is in the key of E, and I’m working on a piece in E flat, which is immensely frustrating, not that I need to bore you with that.’

‘Actually, I’m a violinist with perfect pitch, so I totally understand.’

‘You are?’ He removed his spectacles and peered at me a little closer. ‘Well, we’ll have plenty to talk about, won’t we.’

I wondered whether Pavla’s nose was somewhat put out of joint, because she hurried me out of the house and told me to be at the back door of the property at 10 am sharp on Monday.

OVER THE PAST FEW MONTHS, I’ve talked with Robin about music on a few occasions. Once when I was cleaning the stove, he came into the kitchen and asked my opinion on a section for strings, seemingly genuinely interested as to whether I thought the harmonies worked. A couple of months ago, he was passing me in the corridor.

‘I’ve been wondering, Mia. How did you get into music?’

‘My grandmother was a musician, a cellist. So I suppose it’s in the genes.’

‘And your parents?’ he asked with a smile.

I just shook my head. Dad’s been as supportive as he could, but the music was on Mum’s side of the family. I’ve often wondered how much I’ve pursued the career of a musician because I know it would have made Mum happy. It’s silly, really, because she’s long dead; it’s not as if her approval would make any difference. I don’t believe in life after death either, so I’m not expecting her to greet me with open arms at the pearly gates, telling me how proud she is of me. I suppose I’m doing it because I love playing, and in some little way, I want to carry on her family’s legacy. Her life was cut short much too young. A life of such promise.

‘Your parents must be very proud,’ Robin said.

I tried to smile, I really did, but I expect my expression came out more like a grimace. ‘I must be getting on,’ I said, hurrying away.

I like Robin Featherstone. Pavla has warmed towards me, too, over the months, although I can’t say I know her. Tamsin is just a distant figure who has started living in the house. All in all, it’s an easy job.

THE AMBULANCE PULLS into the hospital. Poor Tamsin. She’s only been married a few weeks. I wonder how she’ll cope if Robin is left with a permanent disability. Life is so very unfair.

As I walk behind the paramedics pushing Robin into Accident and Emergency, my phone rings.

‘What’s happened?’ Pavla asks. She sounds out of breath.

‘I think Mr Featherstone has had a stroke. We’re at the hospital.’

‘O můj Bože, o můj Bože!’ she says. ‘I’m on my way.’

‘Will you tell Mrs Featherstone?’

‘Of course.’ She hangs up on me.

I’m in the waiting room, wedged between people with various wounds and illnesses, trying to breathe as shallowly as possible, eager not to pick up any unpleasant diseases. No one pays me sick days, so if I can’t work, I don’t earn. Robin has been taken somewhere out of sight, and I have no idea what his prognosis is, so I just say some silent prayers and play a mindless game on my phone to while away the time.

About half an hour later, Pavla scurries towards me. She looks pale, and her eyes are skittish. ‘You can go now.’ She turns away, but then, as if remembering her manners, swivels around again. ‘Thanks for staying with him.’

‘Of course.’ I stand up. ‘I really pray he’s okay, and if you and Mrs Featherstone require any more help, I’d be more than happy to up my hours. I do have some care experience, and I’ve become very fond of Mr Featherstone.’

‘Yes, lots of people become fond of Mr Featherstone,’ she mutters. ‘I’ll discuss it with Mrs Featherstone when we know what’s happening. Turn up as normal on Friday unless you hear from me to the contrary.’




My heart is broken. I have been married for less than two months to the love of my life, and now he’s been destroyed. Of course, I knew it was a risk marrying a man twenty-four years my senior, but to have a stroke at fifty-eight is just too cruel.

We all have moments in our lives – life shocks, I think they’re called – when time stops and it’s as if our minds have taken a Polaroid of that split second, a frozen image that we’ll never be able to banish. I was in Freida’s Boutique, my favourite designer clothes shop, standing at the counter about to buy a pair of black leather trousers that I knew Robin would love, when my phone rang. It was Pavla. I ignored it at first, but when she rang again immediately, I sighed and held the trousers and my wallet in one hand and the phone in the other.

‘Robin’s had a stroke,’ she said. ‘I’m at the hospital.’ I dropped the trousers onto the counter, shoved my wallet back into my Prada bag and ran. I don’t recall a second of the journey to the hospital, but what I can’t banish is the image of my husband lying prone on that hospital trolley. His skin had a grey tinge, his eyes were closed, and there were machines everywhere. I broke down and sobbed.

A week later, and Robin is home, but he’s not the Robin I married. This man has aged a couple of decades, and he’s broken. There’s something feeble about him that spears my heart, because the Robin I fell in love with was strong and powerful, a true patriarch. The new Robin has slurred speech, and although I’m beginning to decipher what he says, it’s hard. The more I struggle to understand, the more frustrated he gets.

I’m sitting at the large oak-topped kitchen table, a steaming cappuccino in front of me, leafing through a plant catalogue. The succulents’ section is sparse, so it’s not holding my interest. I glance around the kitchen, which looks like it’s been plucked straight from the pages of an interiors design magazine. It really is a dream kitchen, and my favourite room in the house. The units are Shaker style, painted in pale grey. There’s a big black Aga on the back wall, and an impressive island unit topped with white-and-grey-veined marble that contrasts with the dark-grey-painted cupboards underneath. Robin has suggested that I might like to redecorate the house, to erase the memories of the first Mrs Featherstone, but honestly, it’s not my thing. I’m just grateful to live in this beautiful home that requires nothing of me. It’s such a step up from my rented one-bedroom flat, it’s almost laughable.

‘He’s asking for you,’ Pavla says as she scurries through the kitchen, filling up a water carafe at the butler’s sink. ‘He’s asked if you can bring his manuscript paper and a pencil.’

I sigh. Robin’s fine motor skills are returning slowly, but as he can barely navigate bringing a fork to his lips, I doubt he’ll do well holding a pencil. I shove my chair back and get up.

‘Mia’s offered to help out more, with Robin’s care and the like,’ Pavla says with her back to me.

‘She has?’ That perks me up. I feel a bit bad that I haven’t spoken to Mia. She seems nice enough, doing whatever it is that she does around the house. Up until now, I’ve been out most of the time she’s been here. There’s nothing for me to do during the day whilst Robin is working, so I made the most of being a lady of leisure, shopping with the platinum credit card that Robin gave me, meeting up with friends, visiting succulent nurseries, having the odd beauty treatment.

‘That sounds like a great idea,’ I say, trying to keep my voice nonchalant. ‘I’m sure Robin will get fed up of just having you and me tending to him.’ I ignore Pavla’s tut as I walk out of the kitchen. She can be such a sourpuss at times. I wasn’t expecting the full welcome with open arms from her, but she could make more of an effort with me.

Robin’s study, which he calls his studio, is a small room tucked at the back of the house. It’s jam-packed full of keyboards and music studio equipment and speakers and a load of complicated-looking machines that I haven’t got a clue about. He’s a very neat man, and his desk has two piles. A sheaf of manuscript paper lies on the top, and in a little wooden beaker to the side are several retractable pencils. I select one and pick up the pad of manuscript paper. Musical notes and notations are scribbled across many of the pages. I wish I knew how to read music, but to me, they’re just a jumble of scrawls. Perhaps Robin can teach me. But then I stifle a sob; I doubt my Robin can teach anything.

As I walk slowly up the grand staircase, I think back to when Robin and I met. I had been working in PR for the past ten years. I fell into the job and discovered it suited me. I’m an organised type of person, with a good eye for detail, and I don’t turn down any party invitation. My colleague, Annie, was organising a wrap party for a television production company. She asked for my help, but frankly it was the last thing I felt like doing. I’d just split up with Pierre, my boyfriend, the man I thought would put a ring on my finger. I wasn’t in the mood for plastering a fake smile on my face. But I owed Annie, and when she said the ballroom of the fancy hotel was going to be packed with film stars, I agreed to help. As it turned out, I didn’t recognise a single face. By the time the dinner and the boring speeches were over, all I wanted to do was call for a taxi and go home, but first I made my way to the bar and ordered a Cointreau. We’re not meant to drink when we’re working, but this was to be one for the road.

As the waiter was preparing my drink, I swallowed a yawn.

‘You look as bored as I feel.’

I turned to look at the owner of the deep, honey-smooth voice and was surprised to see a distinguished-looking man wearing black tie.

‘Haven’t you enjoyed the function?’ I ask.

‘Nope. I attend because it’s expected of me. And you, what are you doing here?’

‘Helping organise it. I work for Cableknit PR.’

‘I thought you might be an actress.’

I snorted. ‘Flattery will get you nowhere. I can’t act for life nor money. Are you an actor?’

He smiled wryly. ‘No, I’m a composer. I wrote the music for the film.’ He held out his hand. ‘Robin Featherstone. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’

I honestly thought that love at first sight was nonsense up until the moment Robin clasped my hand in his. But something magical happened. I know that he felt it, too. It was crazy, and still is. Robin, being the consummate gentleman, wined and dined me every night for the following week. When he took me to bed (in a luxury five-star hotel, of course), I knew that I never wanted to leave his arms. Age is just a number, right? The only fly in the ointment was the fact that he seemed keen to keep me away from Stave House. I only visited his home twice before we married, but I fell in love with the property too. Who wouldn’t adore a Queen Anne–style house, with its beautiful proportions and white sash windows and a fabulous wisteria creeping across the front?

Six months after we first met, following long weekends to European cities and lazy nights spent in his London club, he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. I cried with joy.

‘You know I can’t do the big white wedding thing,’ he said after a vigorous session of lovemaking. Age certainly didn’t hold Robin back.

‘It’s fine. I’ll do whatever you want.’ I admit I was a little disappointed, because who wouldn’t want to show off her handsome, older husband and the massive chunk of diamond on her finger? But it’s not like I have a big family to accommodate, and there was no one to walk me down the aisle. Of course I understood that this wedding was the second time around for Robin, and he was very conscious of not wanting to upset his two adult children, neither of whom I had met. Instead, he presented me with two first-class tickets to Saint Lucia and we eloped, which is much more romantic. We got married on a white sandy beach, a pink-orange sunset setting a magical backdrop to the perfect December day. I wore a floaty white dress with bare feet, and Robin sported an open-necked shirt and chinos. It was truly idyllic.

I wish the memories hadn’t been tarnished by our homecoming. The day after we returned, we were accosted by Robin’s ex-wife, Claudia, and adult daughter, Brooke. It’s understandable that they wouldn’t approve of me, but I certainly didn’t anticipate the insults and upset and the waves that rippled through all of our relationships. With hindsight, I suppose I was naive.

ROBIN HAS TWO ADULT CHILDREN, Brooke and David. It’s slightly awkward because they are only a few years younger than me – not that I’ve ever met the elusive son. According to Pavla, he lives in Geneva, selling real estate in the summer and ski guiding in the winter. Whenever I bring up his name, Robin deftly changes the subject. The morning after we returned from our honeymoon, and just a few hours after we christened our new marital bed, Brooke stormed into the kitchen, where Robin and I were eating a lazy Saturday morning breakfast.

‘I can’t believe you did it!’ Brooke exclaimed, standing there with her hands on her hips, her eyes welling with tears. ‘How could you marry her!’ she exclaimed, jabbing her finger towards me. Robin reached over towards me and clasped my hand.

‘I have married Tamsin because I love her, and she loves me.’

‘But can’t you see she’s just a money-grabbing b–’

‘That’s enough, Brooke.’ Another woman strode into the kitchen, late fifties at a guess, wearing a torn anorak and jeans. ‘Surely you know your father well enough to realise that direct confrontation is never going to work. Look where it got me in my divorce.’

Robin sighed. ‘What are you doing here, Claudia?’

I realised with horror that this was my first meeting with Mrs Featherstone number one.

‘I’m accompanying my daughter to enquire whether my ex-husband has totally lost his senses.’ She stood with her hands on her hips. There was something equine about her face, with its long nose and pointed chin and thin silvery hair tied back in a ponytail. She had lots of lines around her lips, and I wondered why she had never considered Botox. I could see that she might have been an attractive woman once, but she certainly had let her looks go.

Robin dropped my hand and put his arm around my shoulders. ‘I’m sorry, my love, that this is your first introduction to my ex-wife and my daughter.’ His lips grazed my cheek.

I took a deep breath, squeezed Robin’s hand and stood up.

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you,’ I said, holding my arm out towards Claudia and smiling as sweetly as I could at Brooke, who was standing right behind her mother.

‘Hmm,’ Claudia said, rolling her eyes and stepping backwards, causing Brooke to yelp as she stepped on her daughter’s toes. It was quite the comedic scene, except it wasn’t. There was a glimmer of hatred in the green eyes of those two women. I let my hand drop to my side.

‘Get out of my house,’ Robin said quietly. ‘Brooke, you’re welcome to come back whenever you are ready to apologise for your appalling manners. Claudia, you need to book an appointment before stepping foot in here again. I’ve paid you off generously. I’m sure you don’t want me to take out a restraining order.’

‘Daddy!’ Brooke exclaimed.

‘Goodbye, both of you. Please leave Tamsin and me to have our breakfast in peace.’

IT CONFOUNDS me that Robin was married to Claudia, as they seem such an unlikely match. Everything about her is very strident, such a contrast to Robin’s quiet, unassuming yet deeply confident manner. She’s the type of woman who is a big presence: Not that she’s large in size; it’s just her voice is a little too loud, her manner overbearing. I imagine she was the head-girl type, very bossy and deeply conventional. I’ve felt a residual discomfort that she and I are sharing the same marital bedroom with the same man – and, of course, the same surname. That unease isn’t helped by the fact that since his stroke, Robin has banished me from the bedroom, saying that he has insomnia now, and that I should sleep in the spare room for a while until he recuperates. It feels like I’ve been discarded. I tell myself that’s a stupid thought because Robin is mine, but I’m lonely. I miss his arms around me at night, the gentle rhythmic breathing and the way he makes me feel so secure, yet desirable.

I knock gently on the bedroom door and push it open. My husband is propped up in bed, and he tries to smile at me, but his expression looks more like a grimace. I suppose I should count my blessings that he knows who I am. Imagine what it would be like if he had had memory loss. A little drop of saliva trickles down his chin. It spears my heart, and I have to look away, but at least he wipes it away with the back of his hand, turning his head from me in the hope that I didn’t notice. That’s considerable progress from a week ago.

‘What you got?’ he mumbles.

Pavla has left one of those tray cushions on the floor next to the bed, so I place the manuscript paper on it and put it on his lap. I hand him the pencil, but he drops it. I lean over him, pick it up off the bed cover and squeeze his fingers around the pencil. It stays within his grasp.

‘You gonna leave me now?’ he mumbles quietly. I think I see a tear in his eye. I drop down to my knees and place a kiss on his cheek.

‘You’re going to get better, Robin. The physio is coming this afternoon, and you’ll be back to normal in no time. You’re a strong, resilient man. With regular physio, your prognosis is excellent.’ That’s what the doctor told Robin when they discharged him from hospital, and I intend to repeat that statement one hundred times a day if I have to. I’m a firm believer in positive affirmations. My vision board got me to where I am today.

He squeezes his eyes closed. Of course, no one really knows whether Robin will fully recover, but when a few months ago, I told him about my daily affirmations, he said he also believes in the power of positive thinking, so I intend to reinforce that. Frankly, I don’t know what I’ll do if Robin doesn’t improve. If this is going to be the rest of my life, a nurse to a much older, invalid husband, am I a good enough person to stick by him? I really don’t know. Actually, I do know. I doubt it, but I’m not going to admit that to anyone, not even to myself.

I’m relieved when we’re interrupted by the phone ringing. Despite all the modern equipment Robin has in his studio, he is antiquated in other ways and still has a landline. I pick up the phone next to his bed.

‘Tamsin speaking.’

‘It’s Brooke. We need to talk.’

‘You and me or you and your–’

She interrupts me. ‘You and me.’

‘Alright.’ I blow a kiss at Robin and walk into the corridor. From the tone of Brooke’s voice, if I want to keep Robin’s stress levels down, this isn’t a conversation that I want him to overhear.

‘We need to sort out a new will,’ Brooke says.

‘Excuse me?’ I can’t believe my ears.

‘Dad’s will. As far as I’m aware, he hasn’t updated it since he married you.’

‘I don’t know anything about your father’s will.’

‘Yeah, right,’ Brooke says sarcastically.

I am perfectly aware that they all think I’m a gold digger, but I’m not. I love Robin Featherstone.

‘Look, Tamsin. The way it currently stands, you will inherit everything. Assuming Dad’s marriage to you is legal, then it supersedes his previous will, and you get the lot. Let’s face it, he won’t have had time to write a new one between tying the knot and having his stroke, and that’s not fair. Not fair to David, me or Mum.’

‘What are you trying to say?’ My fingers clasp the phone tightly as my heart hammers in my chest.

‘That I want to come and see Dad and bring along a solicitor or a wills person. Dad won’t want me and David to be written out of his will, even though that’s probably what you want.’

I feel fury bubbling up my throat. ‘Listen, Brooke. You know nothing about me, but one thing I promise you is that I am no gold digger. Your father and I married each other because we’re in love.’

‘Yeah,’ she mutters. ‘I’ll come tomorrow.’

‘No. Your father is very unwell, and the last thing he needs is being pressured to change his will. Come in a week or so, when he’ll be a bit stronger.’

I can’t believe that Brooke is being so unsubtle about this. She’s only visited her father once since he had his stroke, and as far as I’m aware, David hasn’t even telephoned. I find it extraordinary that Robin has produced two such insensitive children.

‘I knew you’d be like this. Taking control of Dad, trying to oust me. It was all so bloody predictable!’ Then she hangs up on me.

I am shaking as I stare at the phone. I get that Brooke is angry towards me, but it’s not as if I were responsible for breaking up her parents’ marriage. They’d already been divorced for four years when Robin and I met. I’ve tried to be pleasant towards her despite her hostility towards me.

I pace up and down the corridor and think about what she said. Annoyingly, I agree with her that Robin should write a new will. It’s not as if I want him to cut out his children; they’re perfectly entitled to inherit their father’s wealth, and I’m quite sure there’s enough to go around for all of us. It’s just that Brooke is so crass and money-grabbing. As I walk back towards the bedroom, I try to look for the positives. At least you get what you see with Brooke. How much worse it would be if she was conniving and secretly planning to stab me in the back.



The past four weeks have sped by, simply because I’ve been so busy. Pavla appointed me as Robin’s temporary assistant, and I’m now working full time for the Featherstones, helping Robin when he’s awake and cleaning when he’s resting. A little over a month on from his stroke and he has improved no end, undoubtedly due to all the physio he’s having and the fact that Robin himself is so determined to get better. His speech is almost normal, although he’s still wobbly on his feet, and his fine motor skills have definitely suffered. The strange thing is that although Robin finds it difficult to notate his manuscript paper, he’s perfectly able to play the piano. The curious workings of the human brain.

The good thing from my side, despite the cash, is that I’m getting an insight into how this esteemed composer works, and he seems genuinely interested in my musical opinions. It’s a bit like doing a master’s in music with a private professor. The life I thought I’d have before … Oh well, I just need to make the most of what I’ve got. Right now, I’m sitting in Robin’s studio at a small, collapsible card table positioned between the grand piano and Robin’s pedestal desk. He’s reading something or other, and I’m notating a piece that he played on the piano, listening to it through a pair of over-ear headphones. He is composing a theme tune for a new four-part thriller that will be aired on Netflix later in the year. Although I’m no composer, I love listening to him trying out melodies on the piano, then adding in harmonies. I’m somewhat bewildered, though, as he builds on these using software called Logic, simulating all of the different instruments in an orchestra. Today, though, he has been unusually quiet, using his computer, rarely saying much to me.

So when he speaks, I’m concentrating on listening to the music and miss what he says.

‘Sorry,’ I say, pausing the recording and removing the headphones.

‘I’m just moaning,’ Robin says. ‘They all want a piece of me, Mia.’

I frown. ‘What do you mean? Have you got too much work on?’ Perhaps he’ll ask me to help him with some work. Maybe I’ll even get credits. That would be too good to be true, although I’m not sure I have the ability to come up with original compositions.

He sighs. ‘If only. No, it’s not work. It’s Brooke and Claudia. They’re pressuring me to rewrite my will.’

I chew the side of my lip. This is the first time that Robin has mentioned anything not related to music. I have to admit that I’ve wondered whether Tamsin married Robin for his money, because no one lives in a beautiful house like this surrounded by antiques and silver and oil paintings without having plenty of money, but why would Brooke and Claudia be badgering him?

‘By marrying Tamsin, my previous will is null and void, so as things currently stand, Tamsin inherits the lot,’ he explains.

So I was on the right track. I don’t know anything about wills. When Dad passes, I’ve no doubt that the only things I’ll inherit are debts. We’re not the sort of people to worry about wills and working out ways to avoid inheritance tax. I wish we were. Poor Dad. I know he’s doing everything he can to pay off our family’s debts, but it’s like climbing a mountain wearing a pair of flip-flops.

I say nothing, but pull what I hope is a sympathetic face.

‘What do you think I should do?’ he asks.

I stare at him. ‘You shouldn’t be asking me! I mean, what do I know about such things?’

‘But I am asking you, Mia. What is morally right?’ The left side of his lip curls upwards, and I see the old Robin. He tilts his head to one side and waits for my answer.

‘Well, it’s not really fair that Tamsin gets everything. She is your wife, and obviously you really love her, but I mean, you do have a responsibility towards your children.’ It hasn’t escaped my notice that Tamsin seems to be sleeping in a spare room. I assume that’s because of Robin’s stroke, and not due to any fallout in their relationship. I don’t see her often, but when she’s around, Robin’s eyes soften; it’s obvious he’s in love with her. I wonder whether she feels the same way.

He sighs and shifts in his chair. ‘My children are avaricious. You’ve seen how Brooke is, how bitter she is towards Tamsin.’

I haven’t, actually, so I keep my face expressionless. Brooke seems to come and go from this house. Sometimes she’s here for a week or so at a time, leaving her room in a total mess, but then she is gone for a couple of months. She hasn’t stayed the night here since Tamsin moved in. I can’t say I know Robin’s daughter, because we’ve barely spoken a few words.

‘If only Brooke would open her heart, she might realise that Tamsin is a good person, someone who could be a great friend to her. But no, my daughter is capricious and entitled. Sometimes I look at her and wonder where Claudia and I went so very wrong in our parenting.’

‘I’m sure–’

He interrupts me. ‘It was my fault, of course. I was an absent parent, too focused on my music, leaving Claudia to bring up the children. And then we sent them away to boarding school. Such a mistake. Why on earth do we think that an institution can do a better job in child-raising than we can?’

I have no answer to that. I don’t know anyone who went to a boarding school, so it’s a bit difficult for me to give an opinion. I suppose it doesn’t matter what age you are; everyone is affected by their parents’ marriage breakdown, whatever the circumstances. It can’t be easy if your dad marries someone only a few years older than you. But surely that’s easier than what I went through – your mother dying when you’re just ten years old.

‘I suppose Brooke is just struggling with someone else taking her mother’s place in your affections,’ I suggest. I have often wondered how I would feel if Dad remarried. I think I’d be grateful, but alas, I can’t see that ever happening.

Robin harrumphs. ‘Unlikely. Claudia’s and my relationship broke down years ago. We stayed together for the kids and then remained living under the same roof until …’ His voice peters out. ‘And as for David, he only ever contacts me when he wants something. I can’t remember the last time he actually set foot in this house.’

I’m curious to know more about David. Robin has never talked about his son. I wonder if they’re estranged, and if so, why. Has that got something to do with his parents’ divorce?

‘Pavla mentioned that he lives in Switzerland,’ I say.

‘Yes.’ Robin rolls his eyes. ‘But he’s hardly a Swiss banker. He bums around on the ski slopes during the winter and supposedly sells real estate in the summer. They were such sweet children.’ He stands up, levering himself by leaning on the grand piano. I move as if to help him, but he waves me away. He then shuffles across the room to the bookshelf on the wall behind the shiny black Bluthner grand piano. He reaches up and lifts a silver photo frame down from the top shelf. I’m pleased to see how much his balance and dexterity have improved in the last couple of weeks.

‘Here,’ he says, holding the photo frame out in front of him. ‘They looked like little angels, didn’t they?’

I have to agree. Aged four or five at a guess, they both have blonde curly hair, sparkling eyes and cherubic smiles. In the picture, Brooke is an inch or so taller than her younger brother, and she gazes straight at the camera. David looks as if he is desperate to be anywhere except in front of the camera.

‘And this is David from a few years ago.’ Robin picks up an unframed photograph of an exceptionally handsome, clean-shaven young man wearing a dark blue suit standing in front of a pale blue sky, the same colour as his eyes. It’s interesting how Brooke’s eyes are green, yet David’s are blue. ‘This was taken when he had a proper job,’ Robin says wistfully.

‘What did he do before he went to Switzerland?’ I ask.

‘Something in the city. I didn’t understand it. He didn’t last long there, but that’s David for you. Flighty. He doesn’t stick at anything for any length of time.’

‘Are either of your children interested in music?’

Robin briefly closes his eyes. ‘No. I made the classic parenting mistake. I forced them to have music lessons. Brooke learned the flute and David the piano, and then I stood over them whilst they practiced. The more I pushed them, the more they resisted. Both gave up learning instruments by the age of twelve and showed zero interest in how I made enough money to fund their luxurious lifestyles.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, although I’m not sure why. From the sounds of things, the fact that his children aren’t musical is the least of Robin’s worries. What upsets me is that neither have shown the slightest bit of sympathy towards their father and his ill health. I think of Dad then. He tries his best, he really does, but he’s a broken man. When you’re so crushed yourself, it’s hard for you to be a rock to anyone else.

Robin turns and smiles at me. ‘That’s why it’s a pleasure to have you around, Mia. We speak the same language of music.’

I feel a mixture of embarrassment and pride that the great Robin Featherstone actually enjoys my company; I’m unable to come up with an appropriate response. Fortunately, Robin places the photos back on the shelf and walks back to his desk, sitting down. I slip the headphones back over my ears, but I can’t help but think about Mum. I wonder how my relationship would have developed with her. I am sure she would have been chuffed that I’ve chosen to carry on her family’s musical heritage, but would my life have turned out differently if she had lived? A mother’s role is to support her daughter, come what may, isn’t it? But what if her two daughters give diametrically opposed versions of the truth? She is meant to love them both equally, isn’t she? Which daughter does a mother choose? Would she have believed me?

Dad tells me that Mum would have been so proud of my musical success, but he doesn’t mention what came next. Thinking about it, I can’t recall the last time we spoke about Mum out loud. My memories are scant, because Mum died when I was ten, and since then, Dad has struggled along, all alone. I’m not even sure whether my memories of Mum are real or whether I’ve made them up based upon the stories that Dad has told me when we looked through their old photo albums. So really Robin asking me questions about families and inheritance is totally beyond my remit of experience. All I know is that despite living in opulence at Stave House, there’s something very sorely missing in this household. I can’t put my finger on it, but I will.



I am walking past Robin’s study, and the door is slightly ajar.

‘I am asking you, Mia. What is morally right?’ Robin says.

‘Well, it’s not really fair that Tamsin gets everything.’

What the hell! I cannot believe my ears. It’s not like I mean to eavesdrop, but we’re all programmed to catch the sound of our own names, aren’t we? So when I hear Mia say my name, and then realise my husband is asking her advice about his will, I’m not going to ignore that conversation. The cheek of it! No, worse than that. How dare they! My husband is asking Mia what is morally right? And then she’s replying that it’s not fair that I get everything, and that Robin has a moral responsibility towards his children. This is a conversation he should be having with me, not her.

How dare Robin discuss our personal affairs with a cleaner, secretary, or whatever she is! And what right does she have to voice her opinion? Worse than that, my husband seemed to seriously consider what Mia said. It’s as if he’s able to have more meaningful conversations with her than he is with me, and that’s cutting.

When they stop talking, I tiptoe away, but my heart is thudding. I know people think I’m a money-grabber. What they forget is that Robin and I fell in love, and that’s why we’re married. His wealth is an added bonus. Okay, if I’m being brutally honest, perhaps I wouldn’t have fallen for him in the same way if he’d been penniless, but that doesn’t make me a bad person. After all, he only brought me to this house a couple of times at the weekends before we were married, and although he paid for us to have lovely meals and stay in classy hotels, he didn’t flaunt excessive wealth. Robin doesn’t wear designer clothes or drive a fancy car, and he’s said on more than one occasion that Claudia took him to the cleaners in their divorce. And if Robin had been worried that I only wanted him for his money, he’d have asked me to sign a prenuptial agreement, yet nothing was ever discussed. I would have signed one if he’d asked. I would have carried on working at Cableknit PR if he hadn’t told me that I could quit.

I walk briskly out of the back door and down the garden path, my eyes brimming with angry tears. Normally I pause for a moment to admire the impressive structure that is my greenhouse, but not today. I fling open the door and shut it behind me, a little too strongly. It doesn’t matter. The building might be made out of numerous panes of glass, but it’s strong. The greenhouse was Robin’s wedding present to me. When I saw it for the first time, I was speechless. Even if you’re no horticulturalist, you’d recognise it as something special. It’s called a Lodge because it’s the size of a small house, with a thirty-feet glasshouse and a conservatory-type room at the end. It looks like one of those Victorian greenhouses, with brick walls up to about two feet and numerous glass panels in between powder-coated green aluminium struts. Little metal arrows point upwards from the roof, giving it a grandeur. Robin did his research and chose a model as close to the original structures created by the leading designer of greenhouses in Victorian England, Thomas Messenger. As he said, ‘Only the best for my beautiful new bride.’ It may, on a superficial level, have the look of an old glasshouse, but it has all of the latest mod cons. In fact, the building is more like a solarium with heating and cooling, the patented glass has some unique properties that I don’t understand, and it’s also got all of the must-have accessories. I won’t bore you with them, because I know most people don’t share my obsessive love of succulents, but if you were to visit, you’d appreciate the little garden room at the end with its bottle-green velvet sofa, drinks cabinet trolley and low glass coffee table. Robin even put in a coffee machine along with a miniature fridge. Yes, it’s lovely to sit here and gaze at my extensive collection of cacti, but what I like most is getting my hands dirty, propagating and potting up, tending to my exotic babies. I don’t tell most people about my passion because I get the strangest of looks. My carefully coiffured hair and designer clothes don’t match with the image of a keen gardener, but that’s what makes people interesting, isn’t it? That dichotomy, which I rather revel in.

I stand inside the greenhouse and breathe in the warm, dry air, then I stride over to the bench where my newest cacti stand. Normally, I wear thick gardening gloves to protect my hands, but I want those sharp, barbed thorns to bite into my flesh, to feel some physical pain to dull the hurt of Robin’s conversation with Mia. It might be masochistic, but I’ve noticed that my brain can only truly focus on one pain at a time, and physical hurt is better than the emotional hurt of betrayal. I pick up the latest addition to my collection, a Copiapoa cinerea.

It’s quite the beauty, with long jet-black spines extending from its chalky grey-green body that is globular in shape. Such a lovely word, globular. I love the symmetry of the plant and the way the spines are sparse, almost as if its maker considered exactly where each one should go. I let one of the spines dig into the fleshy tip of my right index finger and then pull the cactus away, watching as the pearl of blood rises to the surface of my skin, just like the globular shape of the Copiapoa. It’s somehow more satisfying to be speared by this cactus, more so than the cacti with glochids, those short, hairlike prickles that can get stuck in your skin and cause irritation. I suck my finger and think.

Damn it. Mia is right. Of course Robin should change his will so that his children get some inheritance. Just because I married him doesn’t mean I should get the lot. What’s upsetting is that Robin should have discussed it with me, not her. What does that say about our short marriage?

I place the Copiapoa on the bench and glance around at my collection. It’s expanded massively in the past few weeks. Thanks to Robin’s credit card and his fabulous generosity, I’ve driven the length and breadth of the country, collecting rare succulents from specialist nurseries. My cacti come in every conceivable shape and size; if I carry on collecting and nurturing like this, I may end up with one of the largest private collections in the United Kingdom. The reality is, since his stroke, I’ve neglected Robin and used my plants as an excuse. I stare at my finger. The blood has gone, and I mustn’t focus on it. Blood reminds me of my father; those are memories I like to banish. The truth is, I’m struggling with my husband’s disability. I know it’s a terrible thing to admit, but I fell in love with Robin because he was strong: my older, wiser, handsome protector. It wasn’t meant to be like this, where I’m his nursemaid who has been chucked out of the marital bedroom. The situation has to change. It’s up to me to take control.

I’m going to start with Mia. And she must go.

I remember what my therapist told me. Say your affirmations. Speak them out loud. And so I do. ‘I am in control. I have a perfect life. I love my husband. Mia has to go.’

Okay, she didn’t tell me I needed to get rid of someone, but if it means taking back control, then so be it. It makes me feel better already. I walk over to the coffee machine and switch it on, the gurgling noise blocking out my words as I repeat my affirmations. Then a shadow falls over me, and I swivel around, swallowing a lump in my throat.

‘Oh, it’s only you,’ I say, relief making my shoulders sag. It’s Marek, Pavla’s son.

‘Are you talking to yourself?’ he asks.

I smile at him. ‘Yup.’

‘I talk to myself sometimes, too. Mum says it’s the first sign of madness, but I think it’s good.’

‘It makes me feel better,’ I admit.

‘It makes me feel better too,’ Marek says, repeating my words as he stares at me with his deep-set, unblinking eyes. I suppress a shiver. Marek is in his early twenties, and although no one has said anything, there is definitely something strange about the young man. He’s a big lad with a thickset neck and patchy facial hair that gives him the air of someone slightly deranged. Despite his size, he’s light on his feet and creeps around, forever startling me. I thought there might be something a bit wrong with him, learning difficulties or the like, because he’s very socially awkward. Always staring, always the last person to look away. I thought about saying something to Robin, but Marek is such a hard worker, I have nothing to object to. He is one of those people who, when he’s given a job, just gets on with it without so much as a question. Even when it’s bucketing down outside, and the deer have eaten the roses and the squirrels have dug up all of the bulbs he just planted, Marek keeps his head down and doesn’t complain. He is employed as the gardener’s assistant, but as he lives here with his mum and dad in the small cottage at the bottom of the drive, Marek is always around. He does a bit of gardening and odd jobs, and more recently he’s been helping me out in the greenhouse. I don’t think he likes my cacti very much, but he’s willing to clean down the windows in the greenhouse and sweep the floors, and although he’s strictly forbidden from coming in here when I’m not around, more often than not he appears when I’m pottering with my plants.

They’re a strange family, the Whittakers. Well, at least the mother and son are. Pavla has never been rude to me, but she’s not exactly warm. I suppose her nose has been put out of joint a bit by me tipping up. Perhaps she was buddy-buddy with Claudia back in the day. I can imagine the two of them together, bitching about Robin, taking advantage of the man who supported them both. Thomas, Pavla’s husband, seems to be the only friendly one in their family. He’s Robin’s gardener, maintenance man and general dogsbody. If a light bulb needs replacing, Thomas does it. When the irrigation system in the greenhouse stopped working, he fixed it. Thomas smiles at me when I pass him in the garden and nods his head in a rather quaint, deferential way. I get the feeling that he’s trying to be the typical country gent with his tweed flat cap and navy guernsey and green wellingtons. The only problem is his strong Cockney accent, which is at odds with his sartorial choices.

‘Mum wants to know if you’ll be here for lunch,’ Marek says, his eyes boring into mine.

‘Yes, I will. And I’ll eat it with Robin. Can you tell your mum that her cooking is the best?’ Pavla’s cooking is alright, and certainly not cordon bleu, but I’m grateful that she’s there to cook for us, saving me the trouble. Besides, it’s about time that I butter up Pavla, especially as her workload will be increasing once Mia goes.

‘I’ll tell her what you said.’ Even a compliment doesn’t warrant a smile. Marek just turns and strides out of the greenhouse.

I wonder what Mum would think of me now, being looked after by a caretaker, with a wealthy, erudite older husband. If only she’d lived long enough to see this, I think she would have been so proud. I give myself a mental congratulatory pat on the back. I’ve come such a long way, but I really must make sure that I butter up the right people so I don’t suffer the indignity of a tumultuous fall. I like my way of life here, even without Robin being his normal strength. If Mia needs to go to maintain that, then I’m sorry, but I can’t hesitate to take action.



For the first time in weeks, I’m able to clean Robin’s studio. He’s gone out this morning, to a doctor’s appointment, driven by Pavla because, as he said to me last night, he’s not quite up to driving the old Range Rover by himself yet. The truth probably is that his insurance company won’t let him drive, but he hasn’t shared that with me. For such a brilliant, independent man, losing his confidence like that must be an awful blow. I’ve just started the vacuum cleaner and am cleaning behind his desk when, for no obvious reason, the machine stops. I turn around and jump when I see Tamsin standing there. She’s switched off the power at the mains.

I frown.

‘What are you doing in here?’ she asks with a scowl. She’s wearing a white jumper shot through with silvery threads and white skinny jeans. Her toffee-coloured hair falls in waves over her shoulders, and she’s crossed her arms in front of her chest.

‘Cleaning. Robin … Mr Featherstone said it was alright because he’s out this morning.’

‘You know perfectly well that no member of staff is allowed in here when he’s not present. This really isn’t working out.’

What does she mean? Is there something wrong with the vacuum cleaner? I stare at her. She reddens slightly. ‘I’m sorry, Mia, but I need to ask you to leave.’

‘Yes, of course. I’ll do the living room instead.’

‘No, you don’t understand.’ She can’t meet my eyes. ‘You need to leave this job and not come back.’


‘No buts. I’d like you to collect your belongings and be out of here in the next five minutes. It’s for the best.’

‘You can’t just fire me!’ I exclaim, anger knotting in my stomach.

‘Actually, I can. We pay you cash, you don’t have a contract, and we employed you to assist my husband, but now he is so much better, we don’t need you any longer. I’ll give you a reference if you want.’

‘But Pavla–’

She cuts me off again. ‘Pavla works for me, and she does as I say. We’re overstaffed here, and it’s my job to keep a lid on the household finances.’ She stands to one side and beckons for me to walk through the door. ‘Good luck with whatever you do in the future, and don’t hesitate to ask me for a reference.’

I don’t believe a word of what she’s saying. Since when did she have to keep a lid on household finances? Are they really overstaffed? Surely Robin would have mentioned something to me. I open and close my mouth, but what else can I do? Tamsin is right. I don’t have a contract, and even if I did, I’m not in a position to sue my employer. If she wants me to go, go I must. Or should I hold fire and hang around until Robin or Pavla return, because I’m sure that Robin, at least, doesn’t want me to leave? Or perhaps he does? Perhaps he’s just a very nice man who doesn’t like confrontation, particularly with his ill health. Perhaps he’s asked Tamsin to do this whilst he’s out.

I hesitate for a moment, but then I realise dignity must prevail. I leave the vacuum cleaner by Robin’s desk and manage to control myself as I walk past Tamsin, keeping my back rigid and biting the inside of my cheek to stop myself from sobbing. It suited me to take a job here, not just because of my admiration for Robin, but also due to me being paid cash in hand. I would never have gotten the job if Pavla had looked into my past and followed up references and realised just where I’ve been for the past few years. But perhaps Tamsin has worked it out and she’s sparing me the humiliation.

I walk into the utility room, put my jacket on and grab my handbag. I stride out of the back door without glancing backwards. And then I let the tears flow. It’s so damned unfair. The newest Mrs Featherstone is a stuck-up, privileged cow who has taken a dislike to me, probably because I get on better with her husband than she does herself. Other than for her looks, I can’t imagine why Robin married her. It’s obvious she’s just after his money. I collect my knackered but trusty old bicycle, which I’ve leaned against the garage wall, and wheel it down the drive. I wonder if I should ring Pavla and tell her that Tamsin’s fired me. I don’t suppose she’ll be too happy that her conscientious cleaner has been given the boot, or perhaps Robin has already discussed it with her. I let out a sob.

Marek steps into the driveway from behind a tree and gives me the fright of my life. I give out a little yelp, only just saving my bike from toppling over.

‘Why’re you crying?’ He stares at me, his face expressionless.

‘I had some bad news.’ I sniff and wipe my eyes with the back of my hand.

‘Dad says I need to hug people when they’re sad. I’m not that keen on hugs, but I will give you one if you like.’

He marches forwards. I put my hand up in front of me to stop him.

‘It’s kind of you, but no,’ I say. I think I see a flash of annoyance cross his face, but it’s hard to tell with Marek. He almost always has an inscrutable expression.

‘Tamsin has fired me.’


‘Taken my job away.’ That’s another thing he does; frequently repeats what someone has just said, as if he needs to say it aloud to comprehend it.

He stares at me.

‘Goodbye, Marek. You take care.’ I wriggle my fingers at him and hop onto my bike. When I reach the bottom of the drive, I turn around to have a final look at Stave House. Marek is still standing there, staring at me. I’ll miss this place. Most of all, I’ll miss Robin.

IT TAKES a good twenty minutes to cycle back to my bedsit in town, along narrow country roads not designed for cyclists. I’ve had a couple of near misses over the past few months, but on the whole, I enjoy the ride. The countryside is lovely, with verdant hedgerows and woodland and quaint chocolate-box type houses, but most of all, I love the freedom. The cold air that stings my cheeks, the wind through my hair and even the rain that soaks through my clothes so that I reach home a soggy mess. I don’t mind any of that, because it’s so different to where I’ve come from. It makes me feel alive, and I truly appreciate that sense of freedom that only someone who has had all their liberties taken away will truly understand.

As I cycle up a steep hill, I reason with myself. That job was too good to be true. I mean, I didn’t want to be a cleaner, not after studying the violin for all of my life. But at least it was cleaning for Robin Featherstone; we could talk music, and I had the inside track as to what he was working on. Then there was the money. I needed that desperately. Now I’ve got nothing. I doubt I have sufficient to pay next month’s rent. I’ll have to move. I’ll have to go back to menial cleaning jobs and focus on getting as many gigs as I can. I’ll busk if I have to. Oh, it’s so ironic, when I think back. I was the golden girl; everyone said so, so it must have been true. I had a talent for music, but I also worked incredibly hard, and when I got that scholarship to study under one of Europe’s most esteemed violin professors, it seemed like the world was my oyster. The violin is still my greatest consolation; I will play it when I get home. Some Bach perhaps, and then I’ll put on some heavy metal and stomp around venting my fury – assuming the neighbours don’t complain, because most of the time they do.

I snort at the concept of home. It’s a minuscule bedsit with a single mattress on the floor, a small sink, a grimy microwave and a camping stove, but at least it’s all mine, and I can come and go as I like, answering to no one. And that’s what matters the most to me: freedom.

And therein lies the nub of my problems. I can’t get ‘proper’ jobs because I don’t have any references. I won’t pass all the checks that employers like to have. They’ll want to know what I have been doing and why, and when I tell them that the gap in my CV was because I was in prison, their eyebrows will knot together, and the corners of their lips will turn downwards, and they will say, ‘Thank you for your interest. We’ll be in touch.’

But they won’t be in touch. because who wants to employ a woman who has no job history and who has been in prison? No one. I can’t even get decent violin gigs because the competition is too stiff, and my contemporaries finished their degrees, but I didn’t. And that’s why I can’t tell the truth.



There’s a rapping on the glass, and Pavla pokes her head around the door to the glasshouse. ‘Sorry to disturb you, Tamsin, but where’s Mia?’

I pull off my thick gardening gloves and place them slowly on the bench. ‘I fired her.’

‘Sorry?’ Pavla frowns, a look of incomprehension crossing her face.

‘I let her go, told her she wasn’t doing her job properly.’

Pavla opens and closes her mouth. I suppose it must be annoying for her to have a new ‘lady of the house’.

‘What did she do wrong?’

‘She was nosying around Robin’s study, rooting through his stuff.’ A little white lie isn’t going to hurt. Nevertheless, I do feel a twang of guilt.

‘I’m surprised. She’s always seemed very conscientious. I suppose I’ll have to look for someone else.’ She pauses, makes as if she’s going to turn around, but then stops. ‘What does Robin say about this?’

‘I haven’t had a chance to discuss it with him, so kindly refrain from saying anything.’

Pavla’s thin eyebrows scoot upwards.

‘And yes, please look for a new cleaner,’ I say.

‘And who will help Robin with his admin?’ Pavla asks.

‘I shall.’ I smile at Pavla, tilting my head to one side.

Pavla’s eyes widen, but wisely, she doesn’t say anything.

I WAIT a couple of minutes and then follow Pavla back into the house. I’m having second thoughts about firing Mia now, as I know I should have discussed it with Robin first, but it’s for the best, isn’t it? I can hear Robin practicing his scales, so I knock gently and push the door open. He stops when he sees me, and his face breaks into a smile.

‘How did the doctor’s appointment go?’ I ask.

‘Well. Apparently I should make a full recovery so long as I continue with the physio. Well, almost a full recovery, because this limp might be here to stay, but it shouldn’t affect my music.’

‘Oh, that’s wonderful news!’ I say, rushing over to throw my arms around his neck. I nudge him sideways and perch on the piano stool next to him. I place my lips over his, but he leans away from me.

‘Where’s Mia?’ he asks.

Now that is more than frustrating. He is asking me where Mia is when I’m trying to kiss him. I take a deep breath, because I don’t want to lose my cool.

‘I let her go. I’m sorry, Robin, but she really wasn’t doing a good job. Besides, I thought I could take on some of her role, help you with your paperwork, keep your studio clean and the like. What do you reckon?’

Robin slams both fists down onto the piano keys, the sounds jarring and making me jump off the stool. I am totally shocked, because Robin has never lost his temper in front of me.

‘How dare you!’ He stares at me, his head is trembling on his neck, and his lip is still drooping downwards. Surely I haven’t given him another stroke?

‘Mia is employed by me. She is nothing to do with you.’

I swallow. ‘She has everything to do with me, because I’m your wife, Robin.’ I try to speak as gently as possible, recalling the client interfacing and negotiating skills training that I was forced to take as part of my old job. ‘We share this house, and I have as much right to choose who I have in it as you do. I know it must be hard for you having me here and having to compromise, especially as you’ve had a few years alone to do as you please. You promised me that all that was yours was mine and vice versa. Have you forgotten our marriage vows already?’

‘You do not lecture me on marriage vows.’ His words are slurring slightly. ‘Mia is a musician. She was helping me, doing a great job.’

‘She was also nosying into our affairs, and I don’t trust her one iota,’ I say. I suppose I knew Robin would be annoyed, but now I’m seeing a cold fury that fills me with unease. ‘Look,’ I say, trying to adopt an even more conciliatory tone, ‘I didn’t mean to upset you. That’s the last thing I’d want to do. Let me help out. It would be great for us to spend more time together, for me to try to understand what you do.’ I stroke the side of his face, but he leans away from me.

‘You’re not a musician, Tamsin, and you’ll never be able to help me in the way that Mia could.’ He refuses to meet my eyes.

‘Perhaps, but you could at least let me try. I only want what’s best for you.’

‘Do you? Sometimes I wonder. Why didn’t you come to the doctor with me today? Instead, you got Pavla to drive me. Where have you been the past few weeks as I’ve tried to recover?’

Tears sting my eyes. I might not have been the nursemaid he was expecting, but I’ve tried. I really have.

‘It’s you who banished me from our bedroom!’ I say, my voice rising. ‘It’s you who said it was okay for me to go out as much as I wanted and that Pavla would accompany you to your medical appointments. And not once has anyone asked how I am. Yes, I know you’re the invalid, but this isn’t what I expected within the first few months of marriage.’ I regret my words immediately. Why do I always do that, say the first thing that comes into my head without filtering it first?

‘Do you think I want to be like this?’ Robin roars. ‘Do you think I’m happy that all you do is go out every day and use my credit card? That I feel like an impotent old man?’

‘That’s not fair! You’re not an old man, and I love you. But you told me I could buy whatever I wanted.’

‘And that’s what I am to you, isn’t it? A source of money, so you can buy your hideous cactus. A sickly old husband who you wish you hadn’t married. I tried to ignore the jibes, the disquiet from my family, but I was wrong, wasn’t I? I should have listened to Brooke and David, who said you’re just a gold digger. It’s made me realise, Tamsin, that I really don’t think I know you at all.’

He looks exhausted now as he slumps over the keyboard, leaning his forehead on the glossy black piano lid.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say as I step towards him and lay a hand on his shoulder. ‘None of that is right. I love you more than life itself. I was wrong to fire Mia, and I’m sorry.’

‘Leave me. I want to be left alone.’

‘I love you, Robin. I couldn’t care less about your money. It’s just I’ve found your illness difficult, and I know that’s selfish of me because it’s you who are suffering …’

‘I don’t want to hear it, Tamsin,’ Robin says again, his voice a mere whisper. ‘Just leave me alone.’

I back out of the room, my eyes overflowing with tears, my heart pounding. I’ve played this all wrong. I should have discussed Mia with Robin first, got him to support me, and then he could have fired her. Surely he would have sided with me. I’ve been an idiot, and now I’ve got to work out how to make things better, to make Robin realise that I love him in sickness or in health. Because I do, I really do.

As I walk upstairs to the bathroom, relieved not to bump into Pavla, I can’t help but think about Dad. I’ve never told Robin what a monster Dad turned into after he got sick; how Mum gave up her life, quite literally, to care for an angry, often violent man who could never accept his own disabilities. I was nine years old, and up until that point my brother and I had had a very comfortable, middle-class upbringing. Mum worked in a florist’s shop, and Dad worked in insurance.

He was also a fitness freak, particularly loving his football, helping train at the local youth football club. Every morning, he would get up early to go for a run and then ride his bicycle to work, returning home for 5.30 pm sharp, eager to be part of Donny’s and my lives. He was a fun dad, kicking a ball around our small garden, helping us with our homework and tickling me until I cried.

It all changed one November afternoon. Dad didn’t come home after work. Mum said he had gotten sick and was being looked after somewhere special. After that, she wasn’t around much either, and Aunty Sue came to look after us, but no one told me or Donny what had really happened. On Christmas Eve, Aunty Sue sat Donny and me down on the sofa and told us that Father Christmas wouldn’t be visiting this year, because Mum and Dad didn’t have any money. ‘Why does that matter?’ Donny squealed, and then Aunty Sue told us that Father Christmas wasn’t real anyway, and we needed to cut Mum a bit of slack because of all the pressure she was under. Christmas was awful that year; we didn’t even eat turkey, even though it was Mum’s favourite. In the New Year, Mum was around more, but she looked like an old woman. One day, many weeks later, she sat us down and told us that Dad was in the hospital because he’d had a very serious injury after being knocked off his bike by a dustbin lorry. Donny demanded we go and visit him, but Mum said no, it would be too difficult for us.

I just wanted my dad back and couldn’t understand why we weren’t allowed to go and see him, and why our happy home had had all its colour bleached out of it. Donny ran away one evening and was returned by the police a few hours later. Mum was quite hysterical, and Aunty Sue sent me to bed even though it was two hours before my bedtime. Later, Donny told me he had run away to the hospital, but they didn’t let him in to see Dad and instead called the police, because he was only seven and a half years old. I thought it was daring of Donny. I was rather jealous he’d had the gumption.

Ten months and five days after Dad disappeared, he came home. If I thought our household was colourless before Dad got home, afterwards, it turned into shades of charcoal and black. What a shock it was seeing this man who claimed to be our dad. He was an amputee, having lost his legs from the knees downwards. His upper body was partially paralysed, too, and he couldn’t do even the simplest things like cutting up his food or navigating his fork into his mouth. His speech was weird, and the left half of his face looked like it had slipped downwards. This wasn’t our dad. This was some kind of monster.

With hindsight, Mum made a terrible mistake by not telling us what had happened, or at least warning us that Dad no longer looked like the man we knew. Donny and I took one glance at him and ran away. I couldn’t stop sobbing for hours; it took months before I could bring myself to actually look Dad in the face when I talked to him.

Dad had turned into an angry man, frustrated with himself, furious with the unfair fate that had befallen him, the injustice of it all, and he took out his fury mostly on Mum, but often on me, too. Mum gave up everything to care for Dad. She quit floristry and took a job as a carer in an old people’s home, working nights so she could be there for Dad during the day and making sure she kept up the mortgage payments. If he needed anything at night, it was me who had to respond, but mostly he slept, thanks to a cocktail of alcohol and painkillers. Mum gave up her friends and her hobbies, and she never smiled. Her life revolved around my dad’s needs, but whatever she did was never good enough. And then, one September morning four years later, when he was watching EastEnders on the telly, Dad had a heart attack and died.

I know it’s a horrible thing to say, but it was such a relief. Donny and I thought that Mum might find herself a new partner, move out of that oppressive house, return to floristry. But that wasn’t to be. She died just five weeks later from undiagnosed pancreatic cancer. I’ve thought about it a lot over the years, and I think she sacrificed her life for my dad.

I always promised myself that I wouldn’t play second fiddle to my husband, that I should remember that the needs of both partners are of equal importance. But I wonder if I’ve taken that too far. I denied it to myself at first, but if I’m being truly honest, that’s probably why I haven’t shown up for Robin. All I can think about is Mum and what a raw deal she got, and how I don’t want to be like her. It terrifies me that I might give up my friends, my hobbies, my identity to look after Robin, and then when he dies, there’ll be nothing left of me.

We went to live with Aunty Sue, which wasn’t any fun. Shortly before my sixteenth birthday, I read a newspaper article that explained the dustbin lorry driver’s insurers had paid out an undisclosed sum to Dad. I asked Aunty Sue what had happened to the money, and she said that it was in the bank, available to Donny and me whenever we needed it. Half of what was left of that compensation money went to Donny, who gambled it away. My half paid for my education. I wanted to be more like the posh kids who wore clothes with logos and had fancy cars when they turned eighteen. Sure, I could have spent the money there and then, but I remembered the quote by Dr. Seuss: ‘The more that you read, the more things you will know, the more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’ And I wanted to go places. So I took myself to a private sixth form college, where I learned how to speak with a plum in my throat, and I got a place at university where I worked hard for my degree in Communication Studies. Then I got a job in PR, where I never earned a lot, but sufficient to get by. And then I met Robin. Now my life is complete.



It’s freezing cold. I’m standing just outside a shopping centre in Crawley, one of the few places that’s undercover so as to protect me – and most importantly, my violin – from the rain. I’m wearing layers of clothes and fingerless gloves, but it’s still miserable, and I’m wedging my jaw downwards onto my violin’s chin rest to stop my teeth from chattering. I’ve been here for a couple of hours and reckon I’ve earned about £1.20 from busking. I don’t have a busking license, so I’m constantly on the lookout for any official who might move me on.

I catch the eye of a woman wearing a thick red beanie. There’s something familiar about her, so I glance away and launch into Jealousy Tango, making it sound as showy as I can.

‘Mia?’ she asks, stepping forwards.

I stop playing.

‘Oh my god! It’s really you! What are you doing out here?’ the woman asks.

It takes a long moment for me to place her. Then I recall that we were in a quartet together at music college.

‘It’s me, Lexi,’ she explains.

‘Hi, Lexi,’ I say, reddening slightly as I recall what success she’s had. She plays the violin in a gypsy jazz band called The Tangobles that’s had loads of media coverage. How embarrassing that she heard me playing my version of such a well-known tango. I wonder whether she knows what happened to me. Probably not, as she would have hurried on by.

‘It’s so good to see you, Mia. Goodness, it’s been such a long time. After you left college early, it’s like you just disappeared into thin air. I’d love to catch up. Have you got time for a coffee?’

I’m really surprised she doesn’t know what happened to me, but relieved too. I glance at my watch and pretend to think. But who am I kidding? I have no work and nowhere to be. But is it even a good idea to talk to Lexi? Perhaps she’s pretending, and she really knows the truth.

‘Come on. My treat! You look like you’re freezing out here, and I could do with a caffeine kick.’ She laughs.

‘Sure, that would be great.’ I bend down and place my violin in its case and hurriedly stuff the few coins into my jacket pocket. I’ve recited my cover story so many times, I almost believe it myself.

‘Busking’s great, isn’t it,’ Lexi says as I straighten up and hook my violin case over my shoulder. ‘I busk sometimes when I’m putting together new repertoire.’

I nod, wondering what she would think of me if she knew this was my only source of income.

‘So what have you been up to?’ Lexi asks. ‘I’m sorry we lost touch. I always thought you were one of the best violinists at college.’

‘Really? That’s very kind of you. I’ve seen some of your stories on social media, how you’ve been travelling the world with your gypsy jazz band. Congratulations.’

‘You know what it’s like. It all looks so glamorous from the outside, when in reality it’s weeks spent in buses, living in cheap hotels, practicing in draughty acoustically poor halls, but at least we’re making some sort of a living, however paltry it is, and visiting new places.’

She opens the door to a little independent coffee shop, and I follow Lexi inside, relieved to be hit by a wall of warmth and the delicious scent of roasting coffee. We walk up to the counter, and Lexi throws a smile at the barista.

‘I’ll have a Café Misto. And you?’ Lexi asks.

I glance at the carefully written menu on the blackboard behind the counter and choose the cheapest item, just in case she doesn’t pay for my drink. ‘English breakfast tea, please,’ I say.

The barista pushes the drinks across the counter. I make as if I’m removing my wallet from my bag.

‘Put that away,’ Lexi says, to my relief. I pick up my tea and follow her to a small table in front of the window, where we settle down opposite each other.

‘You know that Roby Lakatos piece you were playing back there, and the Jealousy Tango, it’s the sort of music we’re performing on tour.’

‘Yes, I know,’ I say, imagining how wonderful it must be to play the upbeat music you love for an audience night after night.

‘I’m only back home because Leah, our second violinist, has broken her arm. Don’t suppose you’d be free to take her place, would you?’

I almost drop my teacup. ‘Me?’

Lexi laughs. ‘Come on, Mia. Don’t tell me you’ve lost all your confidence. I don’t know why I didn’t think of you before when we were mooting names. I guess you’ve just totally disappeared off the radar. I thought you might have moved abroad or left the world of music.’

I smile tightly. There’s no way that I’m going to tell Lexi where I’ve really been.

‘The thing is, we’re totally pressed for time. We need someone to take over, like, yesterday. We’ve had to cancel our performances for a fortnight, and our manager is getting antsy. We’re meant to be in Paris next week, and he refuses to cancel. I need to find a replacement violinist urgently.’

‘There must be loads of people who can fit in,’ I say, drumming my index finger on my thigh under the table.

‘You’d have thought so, but there’s always a problem. The dates don’t work, or they don’t play gypsy jazz in the way we do, and we really wanted a girl, as we’re an all-girl band. So far, no luck. Please say you’ll consider it.’ Lexi leans forwards across the table, her black, beaded hair flicking forwards. ‘Can you come and audition tomorrow morning? I mean, it’s not really an audition, just for the other two to hear you play and to make sure that you like our way of playing and you like us. Please say yes, Mia. I can email you the repertoire, but I’m sure it’ll be easy for you to pick up.’

This seems like a dream about to come true. Could I really be travelling around Europe, playing in a quartet next week? I smile gingerly, because I can’t let Lexi know that I want to stand on the table and scream yes.

‘Where and when?’ I ask.

THE NEXT DAY, I take the train to London, buying a ticket with the pittance I’ve earned from busking combined with the last few pounds I have. Next week, my money will have totally run out; I’ll need to leave the bedsit and sofa-surf with friends or move back to Dad’s flat, where I’ll also be on the sofa. From Victoria Station, I walk all the way through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, relieved that it’s not raining, because I don’t want to waste money on the bus or tube. I walk briskly with my violin case on my back and enjoy the newly emerging daffodils and the blossom just starting to peek from the bare branches. On the other side of the park, I stride past Notting Hill Gate tube station and follow the satnav directions on my phone to a beautiful street with grandiose, stucco-fronted buildings. I ring the gold buzzer of the smartest London house I’ve ever stood in front of.

Lexi swings open the shiny black door. She’s wearing black leggings and a cropped top, showing off her toned midriff.

‘Come in, come in!’ she exclaims. I follow her down a wide hallway and into a beautiful room with pale blue painted walls and ornate architraves and a parquet floor laid in a zigzag pattern. Light floods in through patio doors that look onto a small courtyard at the back of the building. The room is empty except for four chairs, four metal music stands, discarded instrument cases on the floor and foam acoustic panels attached to the walls and ceilings. Two young women are standing at the side chatting.

‘Mia, this is Kira, our cellist, and Suzy, who plays the viola.’

Both the women smile at me warmly. I assume we’re all a similar age, in our late twenties or early thirties, and I can immediately see why Lexi thought I might be a good fit. I know musicians should never be judged on their looks, but the depressing reality is that booking agents and managers are going to scoop up performers who are pleasing to the eye and tick all the diversity boxes, and this small group does just that. Lexi, the lead violinist, is tall, long-boned with ebony skin and numerous strands of black, beaded hair. Kira, who plays the cello, is a curvy redhead with titian locks that tumble over her shoulders and big dimples in her creamy cheeks. Suzy is of Chinese descent, a surprisingly petite girl considering she plays a full-sized viola, with rosebud lips, a ring in her nose and hair razored so close to her head, it looks like a tightly fitted sheer hat. And then there’s me, who ticks the white Caucasian box, with my blonde hair and blue eyes. For a moment, this repels me. Do I want to be part of this wokeness? Shouldn’t we just be chosen because of how well we play our instruments and how blended our sound is? But beggars can’t be choosers. I need a lucky break, so I smile at them and take my violin out of its case, warming up with a few scales. We then take our seats, and Lexi hands out some sheet music.

‘Let’s start with some of the easier pieces,’ she says. We tune up and start playing. There’s tightness in my neck and tension in my fingers and shoulders. It’s been so long since I’ve performed, and I feel judged, but after a few minutes, I lose myself in the music. Although I make the odd mistake, I’m good enough to improvise. Besides, I know most of these tunes, if not these particular arrangements. Eventually, Lexi takes her violin down from her shoulder.

‘So, girls, what do you think?’

Suzy bursts out laughing. ‘The last woman we auditioned was out of here in three minutes flat. How long have we been practicing for?’ She glances at her watch, and I do the same, amazed that we’ve been playing for over an hour. ‘Time flies when you’re having fun, hey, Mia?’ Suzy says.

‘Welcome to the band.’ Lexi leans over and pats me on the shoulder. ‘All agreed?’

Suzy and Kia simultaneously nod and smile at me.

‘We’ve got a four-week tour of Europe coming up, starting with Paris next week. Are you up for that, Mia?’ Lexi asks.

‘You bet I am!’

I walk out of that London townhouse with utter relief. I feel like dancing and singing and giving thanks that my luck has changed at long last. This is a new start for me. I’ll be back doing what I love the most, travelling the world, and although the money is lousy, at least I’ll be able to save, as all my living expenses will be paid for. And best of all, no one has asked for references. Of course this isn’t a permanent post, just until the main second violinist recovers from her broken arm, but it certainly feels like my lucky break. Now, I’ve got four days to get my life together, practice the repertoire as much as I can and step into my future. A future where having a criminal record isn’t going to be a problem.

THREE DAYS LATER, I’ve given notice on my bedsit, and I’m lugging two suitcases to Dad’s place, with my violin case strapped over my back. Inside the bags are all my worldly belongings, most of which I’m going to leave at his flat. Lexi has explained that space is at a premium in the small six-seat tour minibus that their agent has rented. One seat for each of us girls, one for Kira’s cello and another seat for the cases for our two violins and one viola. The paltry boot will fit our luggage, which includes our black concert clothes and toiletries. I’m not worried about the lack of space, because I don’t have much stuff anyway. I’m just thrilled that I’m going to be travelling through Europe and playing the violin most nights with three other talented players. This is freedom personified, exactly what I dreamed of.

Dad lives in a tower block in Fulham. That’s the thing about London: You have all the fancy multimillion-pound houses, and right next door is a tower block or two. I don’t suppose the Fulham yummy mummies are too keen on the yobbos who live in the council tower blocks, but we’ve been here longer than they have. Dad’s flat is small. He has one bedroom and a living room. When I stay over, I sleep on the sofa. I’ve just pressed the button on the lift – which today, fortunately, is working – when my phone rings, displaying a withheld number.

‘Hello,’ I say, wedging the phone under my chin.


I recognise the voice immediately.

‘It’s Robin Featherstone. How are you?’

‘Um, alright. And you?’ This is awkward.

‘I’m doing well, but I’d like to see you.’

‘I’m about to go off on tour. I’ve joined The Tangobles, they’re a gypsy jazz band.’

‘Congratulations! I’m delighted for you. I’ve been wondering how you are. Do you think you could come and see me before you leave? It’s important.’

I hesitate, because I only have one day left and I’d hoped to spend it with Dad.

‘It’s very important,’ he reiterates. ‘A private matter. And I want to apologise to you in person. Letting you go was not my decision. Please come and see me, Mia.’

‘Okay,’ I say reluctantly, agreeing only because Robin Featherstone is so influential in the music world, and a reference from him could be very useful. And, of course, I like the man, not that that counts for anything.

‘Thank you, Mia. Come early tomorrow morning. Can you manage 8 am? I’ll leave the door on the latch so you can let yourself in. I think it’s best if you avoid seeing Pavla or Tamsin, don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I say cautiously. This is very weird. Why does he want me to go so early in the morning? I’m about to ask whether I can delay seeing him until my return, but Robin has already hung up. What does he want with me?

THE NEXT MORNING, I’m up at the crack of dawn. I hurry to Victoria Station, which is very quiet this early on a Sunday morning. I’m relieved that the train is on time. I take a taxi from Horsham station to Stave House using money that Dad insisted on giving me last night. I wonder if Robin has any idea how financially stretched I am. Just asking me to visit him puts me in the red. Maybe I can ask him to pay my travel costs.

It’s a chilly but bright morning, and a low mist has settled across the fields, making it look as if the trees are hovering over a sea of smoke. I feel a weird nervousness as I ask the taxi driver to drop me at the bottom of the drive, worried that the crunching of the car tyres might wake up Tamsin or alert Pavla. I have no desire to see Tamsin again, although that feeling of anger has dissipated. She probably did me a favour by sacking me, as I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now, about to go off on tour.

It’s strange walking up the driveway of the house I thought I’d never see again. Spring is late this year, and the trees are just beginning to bud, and daffodils are poking their heads out of the neatly maintained borders either side of the drive, at an earlier stage of growth than in London. I can’t see Pavla’s cottage from the drive, and I’m glad not to see Marek or her husband, Thomas, either. The curtains in the upstairs rooms of the house are drawn, and for a moment, I wonder whether I’ve been asked here on false pretences. I step up to the heavy white front door and see that it’s very slightly open. I push it and walk inside, tiptoeing through the familiar entrance hall and down the corridor towards R