Chapter One

The dulcet tones of Britney Spears echoed through the workshop area of McGuire’s Motors. Dale McGuire had her head under the bonnet of a 1957 Jaguar and she sang along at the top of her lungs.

The weight in the car shifted and her best friend and mentor Sammy Brooks appeared at her side. “Do you have to sing along with Britney Spears, and do we have to hear her twenty bloody times a day?”

Dale glanced to her side and said in her low Scottish tones, “Hey, Britney was a big part of my youth.”

Sammy crossed her arms and gave her a mock glare. “Don’t I know it? When you lived with us, Britney and your other cheesy nineties pop were all I heard day and night.”

Dale chuckled and stood up. “You love it, Sammy. That’s my gift to you and Val. I keep you young.”

Ten years her senior, Sammy and her wife Valentina were the combination of the parents and siblings she didn’t have. They’d taken her in when she’d arrived in London, seventeen and still a moody teenager.

“Yeah, right. Of course you do, kid. More like you turn my hair greyer than it already is. How are you getting on with the engine?”

Dale took the bonnet off its stand and eased it closed. “All done. We should be ready for the race next weekend. She’s going to purr her way around the track.”

Sammy walked back to where she was working on the car door and said, “If we can just get her looking pretty too. That was some bump you took.”

As well as owning McGuire’s Motors in London, Dale ran a classic racing team along with Sammy, and spent most weekends tinkering with their pride and joy, a classic blue Jaguar XKSS.

“Yeah, well, the idiot wouldn’t let me pass his piece of shit car. Don’t worry, she’ll look like the dog’s bollocks in no time.”

Feeling the heat of the workshop, Dale undid the top part of her overalls and tied the arms around her waist, leaving her in a black sleeveless T-shirt. She reached into her pocket, fished out one of the lollipops she was never without, and stuck it in her mouth.

“You’re going to rot your teeth, you know that?” Sammy said.

Dale rolled her eyes and without taking the lolly out of her mouth said, “Yes, Mum. I’ve switched to sugar free so stop being so sanctimonious, and let’s get this bodywork done.”

Sammy walked to the workbench and gathered some tools they would need. “At least bloody Britney’s finished.”

Dale grinned, pulled out her smartphone, and restarted the song that played through the garage’s Bluetooth speakers.

Sammy growled and looked up to the heavens. “Fuck me. If I hear that song one more time I’m going to scream.”

Dale loved to infuriate her best friend, and loved to play the role of annoying younger sibling. It was part of who they were, and she knew Sammy secretly loved it.

“No thanks, you’re not my type, mate.”

They heard the door to the garage open, and the sound of heels echoed across the workspace. A broad smile spread across Sammy’s face. There was only one pair of heels that made Sammy smile like that. The ones that belonged to her wife, Valentina.

“Lunch is here, if you two could stop playing with your tools for a second.”

Sammy stood up and said, “We’ll be there in a second, sweetie.”

“You better be. I walked all the way over to the other side of the shopping mall, in heels, may I add, just to get your favourite, Sammy.”

The look on Sammy’s face was something Dale secretly envied. When she met Sammy and Valentina, they had already been together four years, and were utterly devoted to each other. In the years since, they had gotten married and had a little girl. They were Dale’s idea of a perfect family unit.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of a car pulling up outside the garage and the door opening slowly. “Hello? Dale?”

Dale let out a sigh when she saw it was a woman she’d had a brief encounter with last Friday night. What was her name? Lesley, Lisa…?

Sammy slapped her on the back and said, “I’ll leave you with one of your groupies.”

“No, Sammy, wait—”

But it was too late, she was off and walking to the garage office, leaving her alone with the rapidly approaching woman.

Shit.

“Hi, Dale, you are hard to track down. I tried every other one of your garages and couldn’t find you, but the last one I tried said you might be here.”

“Lisa—” She took a guess and hoped she was right.

“It doesn’t matter. I’ve got you now.”

Lisa stepped close to her, ran a fingernail down her biceps, and swirled it around her Celtic band tattoo, then pulled the lollipop from her mouth and licked it. It was supposed to be seductive, but all Dale felt was a need to get away. Lisa had been aggressively pursuing her for weeks, and she had gotten her.

“Are you going to be at Belles tonight? I’m going with some of my friends and I thought we could hook up again?”

Dale cringed at the word hook-up. Her whole adult life had been filled with hook-ups, mutually beneficial encounters that ended before they even began, but her body was becoming less and less interested. What used to seem exciting before was now becoming routine and boring.

“So? Will you be going, Dale?” Lisa asked.

Dale desperately searched for an appropriate answer. Why was it so hard to say no? Why was this all people wanted from her? These were the questions that had been rattling around her head recently.

“I…uh…”

“Dale?” She was about to agree to whatever Lisa wanted when Valentina shouted over to her from the office. “You have a call from the supplier you were waiting on.”

Thank you, Val.

“Sorry, I really need to take this call, Lisa. Maybe I’ll see you around? Bye.”

Dale nearly ran over to the office and shut the door with relief. “Val, you’re a lifesaver.”

“You’re welcome.” Val got Dale’s sandwich from the food bag and handed it to her.

Sammy was sitting on Val’s desk laughing. “Your face was priceless.”

“Aye, thanks for ditching me, mate.” Dale took a seat at her desk and started to eat her lunch.

“It’s your own fault. You will insist on having a gaggle of groupies following you about.”

“Would you stop saying I have groupies?” Dale said.

Val took a sip of her tea. “Dale, you bring on these awkward situations yourself. Why did you sleep with her if you didn’t like her?”

Dale shrugged. “I don’t know. She wanted to?”

“But you have to think about it more deeply before you jump in. Some of these woman are going to think you want more, a relationship,” Val said.

“A relationship? They don’t want a relationship with me. I’m someone to have fun with for a few nights. They want Dale from the bar—they don’t want the Dale you know.” Nobody does.

Val gave her a pointed look. “That’s because you don’t show them the real you. You could easily have a lovely girl who would want to walk through life with you.”

Dale’s chest tightened in panic at the thought. “You know I don’t like talking about this, Val. I give them what they want and I get something in return. It’s simple. I don’t even go looking for anyone. I just go for a drink and to unwind. I don’t know what they see that’s so exciting. I’m just me. A glorified grease monkey.”

“I don’t either,” Sammy joked.

Dale glared at her. “Very funny.”

“Behave, you two,” Val said. “Dale, you have this cool brooding thing going on. Every woman thinks they can change you. Domesticate you, like I did to Sammy.”

Dale stopped chewing on her sandwich and swallowed. “Domesticate me? I’m not a farmyard animal.”

“Believe me, mate,” Sammy said and looked at Val adoringly. “It’s much better in the long run to be domesticated and tagged.”

“Yeah, but Val’s already taken, so I’m out of luck,” Dale said.

Val was beautiful, warm, caring, and an all-round elegant lady, and Dale had always had a small crush on her. If she was to imagine a perfect woman, Val would come close, but she loved her as a friend and mentor, and Dale didn’t believe there was anyone else out there like Val. Sammy was lucky.

Val looked at her seriously. “You can’t be alone forever. Sammy and I know you have your reasons, but everyone needs love in their life.”

Over the past year or so that’s what had been worrying her. Being alone, forever. But there was no other option for her.

 

v

 

After lunch Dale was in a reflective mood. Val’s words resonated inside her and wouldn’t shut up, so she decided to work on the books and lose herself in the surety of numbers, while Sammy went back to work on the car.

She scanned over the accounts quickly as she clicked from page to page on her laptop. Business was good. Since buying out her former employer eleven years ago, Dale had grown McGuire’s Motors steadily. But as good a business brain as Dale had, she couldn’t have done it without her best friends Sammy and Val.

When she bought the business, she asked her friends to help her. Sammy was her area manager floating between all the sites, and Val was her secretary, PA, and all round office angel. This freed Dale to handle all the business side of things.

The way the books were looking, they could afford to expand if they wanted to, but did she want to? Dale was never really driven by money. She wanted enough so that she and her friends didn’t need to worry about month-to-month income or their futures. But she had no family to support, and as long as she was comfortable that was okay. The one thing that did drive her was the determination to succeed. She was self-made, and very proud of that fact. She came to London with nothing and now she had a thriving business. That did give her satisfaction, and yet she was unsettled.

Dale got up and walked over to the window. She leaned against the frame and let out a sigh. “There has to be more than this.”

Val popped her head around the door and said, “Dale? Do you have a minute?”

Without turning Dale said, “I’ve got too much time.”

“Dale, seriously. There’s someone here to see you,” Val said.

Dale turned around and was surprised at the worry on Val’s face. “Yeah, who is it?”

“I’ll let them explain.”

Val opened the door and a young boy with a soaking wet blue jacket and red backpack walked in. Dale looked from him back up to Val again.

“What—?”

“Are you Mary Dale McGuire?” the boy asked.

Dale narrowed her eyes. “Yes, but I don’t like to advertise the Mary bit. Call me Dale. What is this all about?”

“Yes.” The boy did a fist pump. “I found you at last. I knew I could.”

Dale walked back to the front of her desk, leaned on it, and crossed her arms. “Listen, what’s your name?”

The little boy walked forward and held out his hand for her to shake. It struck her immediately that he was entirely too adult and formal for a child.

“My name is Jake Harper.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper.

“How can I help you, Jake? Are you lost? Are your parents around?”

“No, I’m not lost, and one of my parents is here.”

Dale, on the other hand, was utterly lost, but somewhere deep inside she had a sinking feeling. “Where? What is this about?”

By now Sammy had joined Val at the office door and seemed equally perplexed when Dale looked to her for help.

Jake held out a document and said, “You’re my other mum and I’ve been looking for you. It was hard but I knew I’d find you.”

“Sammy, if you…” Her words died in her throat as she took the document and saw her details on a printout from the Orchard Fertility Clinic.

Dale’s hands started to shake as she read. “No, no, this isn’t real.” She looked up at Sammy and snapped, “Sammy, is this some sort of joke?”

“No way, although I wish I had thought of it. Whoever did has made you go white as a sheet.”

When Sammy started to laugh she got an elbow from Val. “Dale, what does the paper say?”

“This must be a fucking joke.”

“You shouldn’t swear, you know,” the boy said. “Mummy says you should use your intelligence to create positivity with your words.”

This was insane. A boy called Jake was standing in front of her, saying he was her son and giving her a lecture on swearing.

Dale had almost forgotten about the egg donation she had made eleven years ago. It had been done on a whim, and she hadn’t given it too much thought since, although the clinic had warned her that any children resulting from her donation had the right to have her details at age eighteen. Which none of those children could yet be. And the boy in front of her was hardly in that age group.

“How old are you, Jake?”

“Ten. It was my birthday last week.”

Dale felt her legs turn to jelly. “Val, could you take Jake outside. I need to make a phone call.”

Val held out her hand. “Come on, Jake. Let’s get some juice.”

Jake looked between her and Val, weighing up whether or not to go. “You won’t just disappear, will you?”

A surge of emotion welled up inside Dale, and she had to gulp it down hard. “No, I just need a few minutes and Val will bring you back.”

“You promise?”

Dale knew what it was to feel unwanted and to have promises be broken, so she forced a smile onto her face. “I promise, and Val will tell you that I always keep my promises.”

Val nodded. “She does. Come with me, Jake.”

Jake smiled, seemingly happy with that assurance. “Okay. See you soon, Mum.”

 

v

 

“Thank you.” Dale ended the call and threw the phone across the desk.

She held her face in her hands and repeated over and over, “This is not happening. This is not happening.”

Dale’s whole body was shaking and she felt sick.

“Dale? What’s going on?”

She’d been so engrossed in her own turmoil that she hadn’t heard Sammy come into the office. She raised her head and saw that Sammy’s previously jovial demeanour had disappeared.

“I don’t know where to start,” Dale said.

“The beginning is always a good place.”

Dale let out a big breath. It was so hard to say it. She felt like if she said it out loud, only then would it become real.

“Remember when you were planning to have Mia? You had all these brochures from private fertility clinics.”

“Yeah, I remember vividly. It was an exciting and scary time.”

“You left them lying on the coffee table, and one day I started to flip through them. I was curious.”

“And?”

“I came to the section about egg donation and it explained that there was a huge demand for women to donate.”

Her friend’s eyes went wide. “You donated your own eggs?”

She nodded. “It was a whim, but something about helping a couple have a baby together really resonated with me. I felt a need I didn’t really understand, and the money came in useful when I was saving to buy this place. It wasn’t much, but it helped.”

Sammy looked flabbergasted. “You could have told us about it. That’s a big, big decision to take on your own.”

Dale got up and walked over to the window. “I don’t know why—it just felt kind of personal. But I wanted to help someone have something I knew that I would never have myself, if that makes sense. And then as time went on I forgot all about it.”

“Until today?” Sammy said.

“I called the fertility clinic and they said it was true. Their records were compromised at the weekend and they are having an investigation into it.”

“So that little boy out there is your son?”

Dale whipped around angrily. “No, I’m just an egg donor. Nothing more than that.”

Sammy got up instantly, crossed to her, and put her hands on Dale’s shoulders. “Hey, I’m on your side, remember? I know this is a really difficult situation, especially for you, but that little boy is going to be confused and easily hurt. You need to deal with him carefully. Get him home, and then you can face what it means.”

Dale scrubbed her face with her hands. “You’re right. Okay.”

“His parents must be frantic,” Sammy said. “Maybe you should phone the police.”

“No, I’ll drive him home. There must be some reason he came to find me. I think I need to talk to his parents.”

Sammy pulled her into to a hug. “You’re doing the right thing. I know it’s going to be really hard for you, but even harder for Jake. Be careful.”

You were a mistake, you weren’t supposed to happen. The words that haunted all her quiet moments floated across her mind.

“I’ll be careful. I know what being unwanted feels like.”

 

v

 

Dale walked quickly to her car in the garage car park with Jake’s backpack over her shoulder, and with the boy trailing behind in her wake.

“Mum, slow down. You’re too fast.”

Jake had insisted on calling her Mum from the moment he saw her, but every time he said it, the title hurt somewhere deep inside her.

She stopped by her car and opened the door for him. “Jake, you have to stop calling me that. I’m not your mum and your real mum and dad wouldn’t like it.”

He looked up at her with big, sad brown eyes, so much like her own, and said, “I don’t have a dad. It’s just my mummy and me.”

Dale wasn’t expecting that. She’d imagined a couple using a fertility clinic to conceive. “Oh, okay. Well, get in the car and I’ll take you home to her.”

Jake walked up and down the side of her car studying it. “I’ve never seen a car like this. It looks like an airplane.”

“It’s a 1957 Jaguar. I like classic cars.”

That didn’t seem to satisfy him as he went on to prod the soft roof. “Why does it have a roof like this and why does it only have two seats?”

This child was insistent in his quest for knowledge. She could tell he was intelligent, but she wasn’t in the mood for questions.

“The roof comes down in sunny weather and it only has two seats because that’s all I need. Get in the car please, before the rain gets heavy again.”

Dale finally got him in and got in the driver’s seat. While she entered his address in her satnav, she watched Jake touch all the retro car knobs and the wooden dash with reverence.

“It’s like a cockpit,” he said, awestruck.

“Sit back, wee man, before you break anything.”

It would take about an hour to get him home to the village of Plumtun, Croydon, although with the rain now battering the roads, she would have to take them slowly and carefully. Her first thought had been to have him call his mother, but he didn’t have his mobile phone, and his mother thought he was safe in school, so the best thing she could do was get him home quickly and walk away without looking back.

After they set off, Jake was silent for all of thirty seconds. Talking seemed to be his default setting. Dale gripped the steering wheel uncomfortably as she felt Jake’s eyes bore into her.

“Why did you call me wee man? You speak really weirdly,” Jake said.

“I’m Scottish, from Glasgow. That’s why I sound different.” Dale hoped that would be the end of the conversation.

“Scottish?”

But she was wrong.

Jake seemed to mull over the word in his brain for a few seconds before he said, “Do you play bagpipes?”

“No.”

“Do you eat haggis?”

“No.”

“Do you wear a kilt?”

Dale was starting to get annoyed by the incessant questions. She looked at him and tried to keep calm in the crazy situation this day had brought her.

“Are you just rhyming off every Scottish stereotype?”

“What’s Glasgow like? Do you have family there?”

He didn’t appear to filter his thoughts. If one popped into his head he just said it.

“Do I have a grandma there?”

“No!” Dale snapped. “No more questions.” As soon as she snapped she regretted it, but he had touched a raw nerve. She let out a breath and tried to regain control. “I’m sorry, Jake. This is all a bit of a surprise. How did you find me? The clinic told me they had a breach in their files.”

“I hacked into their database,” Jake said matter-of-factly.

“You did what? Come on, you’re ten years old. You can’t do that.”

Jake looked almost hurt she had said that. “Yes, I can. My mummy says I can do anything I put my mind to.”

“Of course you can. I’m sorry.”

Jake gave her the warmest smile. “That’s all right, Mum. You don’t know me yet, but I have lots to tell you as we get to know each other.”

Dale decided just to humour him for the moment, so as not to upset him. “So you hacked and got my name, okay. Did your mummy have a husband or a partner—”

“No, she used a sperm donor. My mummy couldn’t have kids herself.”

Jake said it as if it was the most natural thing in the world for a ten-year-old to be saying. Dale’s head was bursting with emotion and information. For the first time in ten years she ached for a cigarette.

She reached down to the glove compartment and popped it open. Her stash of lollipops, her cigarette substitutes, came tumbling out. She took a cherry one and said, “Help yourself, Jake. Oh, I suppose you’re not allowed to take sweets from strangers, huh?”

Jake eyed the lollipops and grabbed one. “You’re not a stranger, Mum.”

Dale popped the lollipop in her mouth and tried to ignore the M word. “So…why did you try to find me?”

“My mummy needs help. She’s not been well and can’t work very much just now. I thought if I found you and the man who donated sperm, that you’d both help us.”

Dale’s mind was whirling with fear and panic. What on earth was she getting herself into?

“Did you find the other donor then?” Dale asked.

Jake pulled the lollipop out with a pop. “Yes, but he died two years ago. It’s only you who’s left, only you that can help us.”

“How can I help you, Jake? I’m a stranger.”

She caught Jake gazing at her with a look of complete certainty. “You helped my mummy make me. Who else would help us when we are in trouble?”

That innocent sentiment hit Dale like a kick in the guts. “What kind of trouble do you have?”

Jake lifted up his schoolbag and took out a notebook. “I made a list so I wouldn’t forget.”

Dale glanced to the side and saw a neat, numbered list of problems. The facing page was filled with what looked like some complex maths equations.

“You like maths, Jake?”

“Yes, I love it. I’m working on some famous maths problems that haven’t been solved yet. It’s fun, like a puzzle.”

This boy was either delusional or he was the brightest child she had ever met. “So, what’s on your list?”

“The heating keeps breaking down, and the water’s mostly cold. Mummy uses kettles of boiling water a lot. The car is broken down and the sink is leaking…”

As Jake went on with his list, Dale realized why Jake was so determined to find her. Clearly his mother was struggling, and he had taken action in the only way he knew how.


Chapter Two

“I’m sorry to have to let you down, Mr. Gregson, but my health…” Rebecca Harper was in her home studio trying to placate one of her clients over the phone. Her studio was no more than the large bare attic of the eighteenth century vicarage she had recently bought, but with a desk, chair, computer, and excellent photographic equipment, it sufficed until she could decorate. If her client list lasted that long.

“Yes, yes, I know how hard it will be to get a photographer so late in the day but—”

Mr. Gregson clearly had enough and slammed the phone down. Rebecca sighed, then sarcastically said into the phone, “Remember and keep me in mind for next time!”

She laid her mobile down on the desk, and struck another name off her dwindling client list.

This was fast becoming a habit. As a freelance commercial photographer, Rebecca relied on getting out to her clients’ premises. Building sites, restaurants, government buildings, all lucrative contracts, but now in her sixth month of pregnancy, and struggling to cope with high blood pressure and doctor’s orders to stay resting at home, her contracts were leaving her thick and fast.

Very few were willing or able to wait until her health improved, and Becca couldn’t blame them. Her problems were not anyone else’s but her own. She sat back in her chair and gently stroked her baby bump, and feelings of guilt squirmed around inside her.

“It was never meant to be this way, little one,” Rebecca said.

She looked up at the large plans of the house that she had pinned to the wall. Rebecca had designed them herself when she had bought the vicarage ten months ago. Everything had seemed so rosy then. She’d always wanted to make a home far from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Rebecca had been searching for a school that would be able to cope with Jake’s learning needs. Jake had been labelled by psychologists and doctors as a gifted child at a very young age. Now ten, the local school he had been attending struggled to keep up with the pace of his learning, and when a place had opened up in a private school a few miles from here that specialized in teaching gifted children, it had seemed the perfect time to make the move to the farming community of Plumtun.

The once thriving village, which the vicarage had served, had long since died as people were forced to the city to find work. Now all that was left were a few farms and a handful of houses, with the nearest shop five miles away.

For Rebecca, who valued privacy above all, Plumtun was somewhere where they could live quietly, yet have a quick commute to London for her business clients. Then everything changed.

Rebecca gazed at the time on her computer and realized Jake was a few minutes late. Fear, always very close to the surface, spread through her body. She got up as quickly as she could and went over to look for his school bus out of the window.

Jake was meant to be a bit later this evening, as he had computer club after school, but he should have definitely been home by now.

Calm down. It’s only a few minutes, Rebecca thought. The bus was probably stuck behind a tractor or something, a common problem in that rural area.

She checked her watch every few minutes, and the fear started to intensify. If only the car wasn’t on the blink, she would have been able to pick him up as she always did, and would have known he was safe.

After a few minutes more, she picked up her mobile and called Jake, but soon heard his ringtone coming from his bedroom.

“Jake, how many times have I told you to remember your phone.”

Jake had a basic phone she had given him for this exact kind of situation. She hurried downstairs and stood by the front door, hoping beyond hope that the bus would come careening around the corner any second.

Rebecca waited and waited, and after about twenty minutes, she dialled the number for Jake’s school.

“Hi, this is Ms. Harper. Jake’s bus still hasn’t come. Was he kept back at school, do you know?”

The school secretary replied, “I’m sorry, Ms. Harper. Jake never turned up at computer club today. We were just going to call you.”

Rebecca’s stomach dropped like a stone.

 

v

 

Dale pulled the car into the gravel driveway and saw a woman with light brown hair standing by the front door with a silver haired woman near her.

“Is that your mum?” Dale asked.

“Yes, that’s my mum—Rebecca, but everyone calls her Becca, and Granny Sadie from next door. She’s not my real granny but she helps Mummy and me a lot, just like a granny.”

Rebecca started to hurry to the car and Dale was struck by how beautiful she looked. She had long golden-brown hair, which was perfectly styled with a slight wave to it, and her petite, curvaceous frame exuded femininity. “Your mum’s beautiful.”

“I know. She’s really pretty. I wish I could make her happy. She cries a lot when she thinks I can’t hear her.”

“She does?”

Jake nodded. “When Mummy bought this house, it wasn’t nice, and she was going to get it repaired so we could have a home in the country close to my school, but then the baby made her feel sick and she couldn’t work much.”

Dale’s head snapped around. “Baby? What baby?”

“Mummy’s six months pregnant with my baby sister. That’s why we need your help, Mum. Mummy’s not been well.”

Dale saw the well-defined baby bump Rebecca’s hand was resting on as walked purposefully towards them.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Dale said as the reality of the situation dawned on her. Was that child hers as well?

“Don’t swear in front of Mummy. She’ll be angry,” Jake cautioned her. “Oh, and remember, you promised you wouldn’t disappear.”

Dale didn’t know what to say. Her head wanted to drive off into the night and never look back, and her heart wanted to help, to know more about this unusual little family.

Rebecca pulled open Jake’s door and pulled him into her arms. “Where have you been, Jake? I was so scared.”

Dale didn’t know if she should get out and interrupt this moment, so she sat and waited for them to get reacquainted.

“I went to get you help, Mummy. I found my other mum and she’s going to help us.”

Jake handed her the printout from the clinic, and Rebecca went silent. After a few seconds she said coldly, “Jake, go inside with Granny Sadie.”

That was Dale’s cue to get out and talk, she guessed. She walked around the car and Rebecca still hadn’t looked at her once.

Jake looked anxiously at Dale, not knowing whether to comply or not. “But, Mummy—”

“Inside now, Jake,” Rebecca repeated. “Sadie? Could you call the police and tell them it’s a false alarm.”

The older woman stepped forward and took Jake’s hand. “Of course. Come on now, sweetheart. You must be starving. Granny Sadie will make you a sandwich.”

Jake looked at Dale with eyes that tugged at her heartstrings. “Remember, you promised?”

Dale gave him a quick nod and said, “I remember. On you go, wee man.”

Jake walked away with Sadie. Dale walked close to Rebecca and said, “Listen, Ms. Harper. I’m sor—”

Becca snapped her head up and her large expressive green eyes were full of anger. “You are not taking my child away from me. You don’t have any legal rights over him.”

Dale held her hands up in surrender. “Hey, I don’t want your child or any legal rights to him. He found me, not the other way around. He walked into my business with that piece of paper and turned my world upside down, so don’t be angry at me. I just brought him home to you, okay?”

Becca simply gazed at her as if she was taking everything about her in, and it wasn’t an unpleasant experience.

Becca was well put together, her make-up flawless, her clothes elegantly stylish. And she had a sexy upper-middle-class accent that made Dale think she must have a rich daddy somewhere and a trust fund, which made Jake’s assertion that they were in such difficulties all the more strange.

“Then thank you for bringing him home”—Becca looked down at the clinic details again—“Mary, but you have to go and don’t ever think about seeing Jake again.”

Dale was starting to get angry. All she had done was the right thing and she was getting grief for it.

“My name is Dale, and children and a family are the last thing I want, so you don’t have to get all worked up. My life consists of working hard, driving my race car, and going out and having fun. Nowhere in that does a child figure.”

Becca looked at her retro Nintendo T-shirt with the I Scored with the Princess logo and said, “Clearly.”

For some reason she didn’t want to explore, that comment hurt, but she didn’t respond. “I called the clinic and the information is correct. I don’t know how Jake got the information. He said he hacked into the database, but that can’t be true.”

Becca sighed and rubbed her baby bump, as if trying to soothe it. “He can do it. Jake is a special child. He has an IQ of one hundred fifty-five and is an expert in computers. He is one of the youngest children to pass the Microsoft engineer’s exams, and he’s done this sort of thing before.”

“Jesus. What an amazing boy,” Dale said.

“He is.” Becca was sounding a little less hostile now. “I don’t know where he gets it from. The maths and equations he does, I’m lost when I look at them.”

But Dale knew, and it built another connection to Jake and this family in her heart. She had always found numbers extremely easy and had excelled in maths until she went to secondary school, and foolishly thought being cool was more important than her studies.

“You’ve done a great job with him—he’s a polite and clever boy.” Dale’s gaze lowered to Becca’s bump, and she was desperate to ask the question that was burning in her brain.

Becca must have felt her gaze because she immediately tensed. “I’m grateful for you bringing him back, but I think you should go now.”

Dale scanned the once impressive, but now tired looking vicarage. “Jake said you needed help with some things around here. Is there anything I could help you with?”

“It’s none of your concern. We are fine. I can look after my son myself.”

Talk about independent. Rebecca Harper seemed to have a hard shell covering her beautiful body, and didn’t appear as if she ever smiled.

“Okay. If you ever need anything, I’m Dale McGuire of McGuire’s Motors. You’ve probably heard of my business.”

Rebecca gave a sarcastic laugh. “Yes, one of your garages gave me an overinflated quote only a few weeks ago. Mechanics see a woman coming and take them for idiots.”

Dale’s business was one thing she didn’t tolerate criticism of. She was proud of the service and professionalism she provided. “McGuire’s Motors does not take advantage of women. I could work out a good deal for you if you’d like.”

“No,” Becca snapped. “We don’t take charity from anyone. Please just walk away, Dale, and don’t ever think about us again.”

Something inside Dale told her she shouldn’t walk away, but she had to. She nodded and walked around to the driver’s door. Just as she was about to get in, Dale looked up at Becca and asked, “Will you tell me one thing before I go?”

Becca nodded.

“Is your new baby…” She wanted to say mine but knew that wouldn’t go down well. “Are Jake and the new baby from the same donor?”

Becca took a few seconds and then said, “Yes, they’re from the same donor.”

Dale felt her throat tighten, and emotion churned in her stomach. She managed to croak a thank you before getting in her car and speeding off.

 

v

 

Becca closed Jake’s bedroom door and walked downstairs to the kitchen. Sadie was still there and waiting for her.

“I’ve made a pot of tea. Sit down and get the weight off your feet, sweetheart,” Sadie said.

“Thanks.” Becca sat and wrapped her hands around the steaming cup of tea, hoping the heat would seep inside her and reach the cold inside.

Sadie, who lived in the old farmhouse next door, was a great support to Becca and Jake. Neighbours were few and far between around here, so Becca had been really lucky to have Sadie right next door.

Sadie sat down and placed her hand on Becca’s arm. “How’s Jake?”

Becca sighed. “Angry. He’s not speaking to me because I sent Ms. McGuire…Dale away.”

Sadie let out a long breath. “That was a turn up for the books, eh? That boy of yours is a smart cookie.”

My boy, thought Becca. She’d never thought about the donors she had used after she had chosen them. When she had looked through the clinic’s database, she had been drawn to the egg donor who had a high IQ but was also a manual worker. She thought that would give her child a good chance of having a wide range of abilities.

The clinic had always cautioned that her child had the right to search for their donor when they were eighteen, but she’d promised herself she would deal with that if it ever came up. This was entirely different.

“I never thought this could happen.”

“What was she like, this Dale?” Sadie asked.

Becca added some milk to her tea and stirred. “She scared me.”

“Why? She didn’t want to have anything to do with the Jake or the baby, did she?”

Becca gave a hollow laugh. “Going by the childish way she dresses for her age, I doubt it. She scared me because when I looked in her eyes I saw Jake in her.”

It was the first time that she didn’t feel like Jake was totally her child. Whether she saw Dale again or not, now Becca knew there was someone else who had a part in creating her children, and she knew she would never forget that feeling when she looked into Dale’s eyes.

“I don’t want you to worry, Becca,” Sadie said. “You have to think of the baby just now, and I’m sure that’s the last you’ll see of Dale.” Sadie stood up. “I made a casserole for you and Jake for dinner. I’ll just go and get it from the oven at home.”

Becca grasped Sadie’s hand and smiled. “Thank you. I don’t know what we’d do without you.”

“Don’t be silly. It was lonely out here before you and Jake came. This house stood empty for five years, so believe me it’s wonderful to have you two a stone’s throw away. I like to look after people.”

Plumtun’s remote nature had been what Becca longed for, but now six months pregnant, with what the doctor feared might become pre-eclampsia, it was becoming a problem.

“Thank you, Sadie. You’re an angel.”

When Sadie left, Becca looked around her half-finished country kitchen and felt the guilt that was always her companion at the moment. When they had moved in and she’d had the funds to start renovations on the vicarage, the kitchen had been the first thing she’d tackled. The walls were newly plastered but the builders had not painted or finished. The new kitchen fittings and cupboards were sitting still in their packaging in the garage, and not likely to be installed anytime soon.

As her pregnancy had progressed and she began to feel ill, she’d had to take on less and less work. Her funds dried up and the builders packed up, leaving them in an unfinished house.

Becca felt overwhelmed and tears sprang from her eyes. For Jake to go to the drastic step of finding Dale McGuire meant he knew how bad things were for them financially, and that was her fault. She had put their little family at risk because of her need to have another child, and Jake was suffering for it.

Everything was coming apart. Her career, her family, and her relationship with her son, and now Dale McGuire was an even bigger threat looming over it all.

 

v

 

Dale drove into the car parking area in front of McGuire’s Motors and shut off the engine. The garage was all locked up. Sammy and Val had obviously gone to pick up their little girl, Mia, from her grandma’s.

She had always admired what Sammy had achieved. She had everything—a wife like Val, a child, and a family that loved her.

What did she have to hurry home for? Nothing, not even a pet. But although she had admired Sammy’s life, her own had never really bothered her until the last year or so.

Dale was thirty-six years old, and her life was filled with working at the garage during the week, then going out the pub on Fridays and Saturdays, and she was tired of it. The only bright spot about her weekends—besides her racing—was having Sunday lunch with Val, Sammy, and Mia. She loved that.

Mia was her god-daughter and she loved her. Dale was great at being the cool playmate, but she wasn’t the one Mia ran to to take care of her when she was hurt or scared. That was Sammy’s job.

But Jake had run to her.

Jake and Becca had filled her thoughts on the drive home. Dale might have only known Jake for the best part of a couple of hours, but as she drove away, she felt like she was leaving a part of herself behind.

Dale reached down to her glove compartment to grab a lollipop, and found a photograph sitting amongst the lollies.

“How did this get in there?”

She pulled it out and stared at the image of a smiling Becca standing with Jake on what looked like his first day at school.

She turned the picture over and a read a message on the back. Dale read out loud, “To Mum, please don’t forget about us.”

On the last word Dale’s voice cracked, her eyes filled with tears, and a memory floated across her mind as she looked at Jake’s picture.

You were a mistake, Dale. I’ve got my own life now.

Dale wiped away the tears that threatened to fall. “Fuck this.”

She stuffed the picture into her pocket, started her engine, and drove off at a high rate of speed.

Half an hour later, she dropped her car off at her flat in Islington and got a taxi to her regular pub hangout, Belles.

She nodded to the bouncers as she walked through the door, and headed straight to the bar of the trendy all-female club.

Dale could feel lots of eyes on her and lots of whispers as soon as she entered. She was well used to getting lots of attention from women. She didn’t know why, but it had always been like that ever since she had first gone out in the London pub and club scene.

She took a seat at the bar and the owner walked over to her.

“You’re early tonight, mate.”

“I needed a drink, Mac. Can I get a lager and two shots of vodka, just for starters?”

Mac had worked at Belles ever since Dale had first sneaked in here age seventeen. She was part of the furniture and had been a good friend to her over the years.

“It must be bad. Give me a minute,” Mac said.

While she waited, Dale looked around. It was only seven o’clock. Far too early for the serious party crowd, but it was still pretty busy. As she looked around at all the youthful faces, she felt out of place.

Dale had always swaggered into Belles and felt at home, but recently everything that had been so appealing was becoming less so. The music wasn’t as good, the laughter and chatter were too loud, the haircuts too weird, and the women far too young.

What is happening to me?

At the other end of the bar, a girl who looked barely eighteen met her eyes and smiled seductively, clearly trying to hit on her.

Mac arrived back with her drinks. “Here you go.”

Dale immediately knocked back one of the vodka shots and said, “Mac, why do your punters look younger and younger? It’s making me feel old.”

Mac laughed. “You’re right. We’re the two oldest here. The last of the old crowd. Everyone got married and settled down, that’s why. When you’ve got someone to go home to, a night out in a noisy bar doesn’t appeal any more.”

Dale knocked back another shot and took a sip of lager. It was true. Every one of her friends and acquaintances from the bar had dropped out of her life, as they each met a partner and settled down. Now it was just her, and her age only seemed to enhance the attention she got from the younger crowd.

Dale remembered being fresh out on the gay scene in her late teens and chasing the sexy, experienced older women. In fact the first woman she had slept with had been in her midthirties, and taught her everything she knew about making love to a woman. Now, Dale realized for the first time, she was the older, experienced woman in amongst the youthful crowd at Belles.

Feeling utterly depressed, Dale took a long drink of her lager. The young woman who had given her the eye across the bar walked over to her, flanked by her friends, some of whom Dale recognized.

“Hi, Dale. Would you come and dance with us?”

The way her friends whispered and giggled behind her made them appear like a gaggle of schoolgirls, and that made Dale feel even older.

“I don’t really feel like dancing tonight, girls.”

They looked perplexed, and Dale understood why. She always danced, she was always the life of the party at Belles, but tonight partying was the furthest thing from her mind.

“Oh, please, Dale, you always love to dance—”

“I’m sorry, girls. Not tonight.” She shouted over to Mac, “Could you get these girls drinks on me?”

“Coming up,” Mac said.

The girls looked disappointed but reluctantly left her alone with the promise of free drinks.

I feel like I’m at a high school disco.

Her thoughts turned to Becca and Jake and she wondered if they were settled for the night. Jake had said that his mum cried a lot, and she could believe it. When Becca had looked her in the eyes, she had seen sadness and loneliness in Becca’s, as if she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.

“Can I have another shot, Mac?”

Mac reached for the bottle behind her and filled shots for them both. “You don’t usually knock them back like this. Is everything okay?”

Dale reached into her pocket, pulled out the picture of Becca and Jake, and put it down on the bar.

Mac looked at the photo and said, “Beautiful woman, and cute kid. Who are they?”

“That, Mac, is my family in a parallel universe. I’ve got one kid and one on the way, and I’ll never know them.”

Dale picked up her shot and downed it, desperately hoping it would calm the churning emotions inside her.

 

v

 

Becca struggled up the last steps of the oak staircase with a bowl of apple pie for Jake. He’d refused to come down for dinner and so Becca hoped to tempt him with Granny Sadie’s apple pie.

She knocked on the door and got no response. “Jake? I’ve got dessert for you.”

Becca still heard nothing so she opened the door and walked in to find Jake working on his computers. He had his older desktop and Becca’s own laptop she used for work sitting side by side. He needed much better equipment to meet his talents but it was the best she could do.

“Jake? I’ve got apple pie for you.”

“Not hungry,” Jake replied grumpily.

Becca sighed and walked over to sit on his bed. “Jake, I know you’re angry, but please come and eat something.”

“I’m coding a new game. I haven’t got time.”

“It’s Granny Sadie’s apple pie with custard.”

The tip-tapping of Jake’s fingers as they flew across the keyboard came to a stop. He looked around at the bowl and got up from his chair. The temptation was clearly too much.

He sat down on the bed beside her and took the bowl. Becca stroked his brown hair, and again thought of Dale’s thick dark unruly locks, so much the same as her son’s.

“I know you’re not happy with me, but we have to talk about today.”

Jake stabbed his spoon into his dessert and nodded.

“What you did was wrong, Jake. For one, you could get into a lot of trouble with the police for hacking into the clinic’s database. We’ve had this talk before. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. That’s private information.”

Jake looked up at her with tears in his eyes. “I just wanted to get you help, Mummy. Why shouldn’t the woman who helped you have me help us?”

Becca sighed. How could she explain something so complex to a child? Jake might have a higher IQ than most adults, but he was still a little boy, with the simplistic world view of a little boy.

When Jake started to ask why he didn’t have a daddy or another mum like the other kids at school, she had considered not telling him the truth about his conception, but only for a matter of seconds. Becca knew what harm lies in a family could do, and she’d vowed she would never do that to her own child. But she’d never anticipated the steps he’d taken.

“Jake, things could have gone really badly today. You rode on the local bus yourself—anyone could have gotten you. I need to know where you are at all times. Remember, we don’t ever, ever talk to strangers or anyone who wants to know about our family. If you ever go off somewhere yourself without telling me again, there will be no more computer club. Do you understand?”

Jake nodded solemnly. “I just wanted to help. Dale was nice. I liked her.”

Becca gulped hard. It hurt to think Jake might want to have a relationship with his real mother.

As if reading her mind, Jake put down his bowl and hugged her.

“You’re my mummy, and I love you. That’s why I wanted to help. I hate to see you sad.”

Becca squeezed him tightly. “I know you love me, but you have to trust me to handle the problems we have. Ms. McGuire appeared to be a good person, but it could have been someone so different. They could have taken you and I’d never see you again.”

Jake sighed in resignation. “I’m sorry, Mum. I wanted to help.”

“You can help me by not making me worry, Pooh Bear,” Becca said.

Jake kicked his heels against the bed and said sadly, “She called me wee man. I liked it.”

Becca had to change the subject and get him off these new thoughts and feelings. She looked over to the whiteboard on his wall and noticed equations and coding language she didn’t understand on it.

“So, tell me what game you’re coding now.”

“A game to help kids understand maths,” he said sadly.

Becca couldn’t be any prouder of Jake if she tried. Despite being an exceptionally intelligent young man, he had no arrogance and always thought of other people.

She gave him a squeeze and said, “That’s a wonderful idea.”

He shrugged and looked depressed. “I just want to help people, just like I wanted to help you and the baby.”

Again, Becca felt the guilt eat away inside her. Her life seemed filled with trauma and drama. Maybe that was just her fate?


Chapter Three

Dale opened her eyes and found herself in a vaguely familiar bedroom, and a feeling of dread bubbled up inside, not to mention the pounding in her head and sick feeling in her stomach.

She rolled over and saw an alarm clock displaying the day and time: Sunday, 11:00 a.m.

“Fuck me. I did it again.” She groaned.

This was the second day in a row she had woken in someone else’s bed. She hadn’t been on a two-day bender like this in a long, long time. The last thing she remembered was downing some shots with a group of women she met at a club in town, and then…then she’d bumped into Lisa.

Dale rarely saw a woman more than once, but Lisa was persistent. Maybe Val was right—maybe Lisa thought she could be domesticated.

She pushed herself to sit on the side of the bed and her headache got worse. She looked around. Luckily she was alone in the room. Dale spotted a bottle of water on the side table and downed it quickly.

“I’m too old for this,” Dale told herself.

As her head started to clear, more memories of last night came to the forefront of Dale’s mind. She remembered dancing with some girls she met, then being pulled away by Lisa, who had appeared from nowhere. She’d been extremely drunk, and she hadn’t put up much of a fight.

After some kissing in the toilets of the club, Lisa manoeuvred her to a taxi and home to her flat. From there Lisa was all over her, and the one thing that was clear in her mind was that she’d felt nothing. No excitement, no thrill, no nothing. So much so that she had feigned falling asleep to get out of the awkward situation, and that was a first.

Dale had always enjoyed sex, and it came naturally to her. She loved everything about a woman’s body—the feel, the smell, the taste, everything turned her on—but last night and the night before, there was nothing.

She rubbed her face with her hands furiously. Maybe age was finally catching up with her.

Then the gnawing in her stomach, that she had been drinking to get rid of, returned with a vengeance. The image of Jake and Becca, standing outside their broken-down home, crashed into her head.

Dale could hear Jake’s voice loud in her mind. You won’t disappear, will you?

But she had, hadn’t she? She had broken her word, even though she did it because his mother, Becca, had asked her to.

Becca. Something had happened inside when she looked into Becca’s eyes. The sad loneliness she had seen there made her want to chase it away.

“Get a grip, for fuck’s sake, man,” Dale said angrily.

She grabbed her jeans and hurriedly gathered her clothes, and pulled on her boots. The only thing that was missing was her green combat jacket.

Dale headed to where she remembered the living room was, and found Lisa sitting on the couch with her jacket on her lap, staring at her picture of Becca and Jake.

“What do you think you’re doing going through my things?” Dale said.

She made a grab for the picture, but Lisa ducked away, holding the picture up in the air.

“Who is she, Dale?” Lisa voice was ripe with accusations.

“Nothing to do with you. Give me the picture.” Dale grabbed her jacket from her but Lisa jinked out of the way again.

“Look, stop acting like a child and give me my picture back.”

Lisa’s face was red and angry. “This is no way to start a relationship, Dale.”

Dale couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “We have no relationship. We’ve slept together once—last night didn’t even count.”

“Yes, funny that, isn’t it? You fall asleep just when we fall into bed. That doesn’t sound like the great lover Dale McGuire, does it?”

Lisa was clearly deranged, and she had to get out of here. “You don’t even know anything about me. I’ve never said I’m a great lover. I’m just me. Give me the picture now or I’ll take it from you.”

“Tell me who they are first,” Lisa demanded.

Dale had enough and used her long legs to cover the distance between them, catching Lisa by her nightshirt before she could move. She grabbed the picture and put in safely in the back pocket of her jeans.

“Don’t ever get in touch with me again, and if you see me at Belles, don’t come near me. I’m finished being nice.”

Dale put on her jacket and marched towards the front door of the flat. She had to get out of there.

Lisa’s tone changed and she came running after her saying, “Dale, I’m sorry. Please don’t leave…”

But Dale walked through the front door and slammed it shut. The thought of Lisa looking at Jake and Becca’s photo made her really angry.

She pulled out her smartphone and saw countless messages from Val and Sammy, worried about how she was.

When Dale got out to the harsh light of the street, she vowed never to put herself in a situation like the last two nights again.

Dale looked at her watch and realized she was going to be late for her weekly Sunday lunch with her friends, and that was one thing she never missed. She tapped out a quick text message to Sammy, jumped into a taxi, and headed home to get a quick shower and change.

 

v

 

Ashley Duval was woken by a cold breeze coming from the open balcony doors of her penthouse apartment. Her lover Nika had a habit of taking her coffee out there each morning, even when the autumnal chill had descended.

She got up, pulled on her T-shirt and boxers, and gazed with smug satisfaction around the luxurious bedroom. Life was good. Ashley was chief investigative reporter at the country’s biggest tabloid newspaper, on a fantastic salary, and she was sleeping with her editor, who also happened to be the daughter of the owner of the newspaper.

She had been offered the job just at the time when her career was starting to wane, after an early stratospheric rise in the media world. When she had seen Nika at a party, Ash saw her way back to the very top and went in for the kill.

She started to walk to the balcony doors and saw Nika grasping her coffee cup lightly and gazing over the London skyline. Nika was beautiful, but never quite believed it herself. Years of trying and failing to meet her father’s unattainable standards left her with a certain vulnerability, and Ash, being an opportunist, prided herself on using that to get what she wanted.

Ash walked up behind her and put her arms around her waist. She immediately felt Nika stiffen, and that was not a normal reaction.

“Morning, angel. Is there something wrong?”

When Nika only sighed, Ash gave her little kisses on her neck. “You’re not still angry about that girl from the mailroom, are you? I told you, she was lying. Do you think I would have sex with her when I have you? Come on, angel.”

“No, it’s not that. I know you wouldn’t do that to me—that’s why I fired her,” Nika said as she turned in Ash’s arms.

I’m so good, thought Ash.

She had indeed slept with the pretty new girl from the mailroom—a few times—with promises that she could help the girl get a leg up in the newspaper business. Women were so easy. It had given Ash such a thrill to fuck her in the empty office right next door to Nika’s.

“Good, because you know all these rumours are just because they’re jealous of what we have. Don’t you?”

Nika gripped her T-shirt nervously. Something was clearly wrong.

“What’s wrong then?” Ash asked.

“I need to talk to you about work.”

She was beginning to have a bad feeling about this. “What about work?”

“Daddy’s worried about the circulation figures. He says we may have to lose some people from the staff.”

Ash dropped her arms from Nika and took a step back. Her lover looked really nervous, and whatever she was about to say was clearly coming from her father.

She crossed her arms. “And?”

“Daddy says that we need more from you. That you came with a big reputation and got a huge salary for it, but we haven’t had any big stories from you yet. I’ve tried to keep him off your tail but I need you to find something soon. Just to placate him.”

Ash couldn’t believe what she was hearing, and replied angrily, “Does Daddy even have the first clue about how an investigative journalist works? I can’t just produce a story out of thin air. I need to follow leads, wait on tip-offs. It all takes time.”

Nika didn’t take anger very well and started to retreat from her. “I tried to tell him that. Believe me, baby, I’m on your side. I know how hard you work. We just need something like the Carter story. That’s what we hired you for, and I know you’ll come good.”

Ash balled her fists in frustration. The Carter story. The story that had made her as a young, green journalist, and the story that had also been a millstone around her neck, as she’d failed to produce anything as good as that since.

Nika reached out to touch her and Ash hit her hand away. “I’ll get you your fucking story. Then I’ll maybe be good enough for Daddy’s precious girl. I want to marry you, and you doubt me like this?”

Ash walked off, ready to get out of there, and her lover chased after her, tears falling down her face.

“Please don’t go, Ash. I’m sorry. He said I had to talk to you or he would. I want to marry you too—I want you to be part of my family.”

She got dressed quickly and grabbed her coat. “I’ll go and find you a story then, angel. Don’t wait up.” She slammed the front door and heard her lover’s sobs behind the door. “Fucking bitch.”

 

v

 

Dale paid the taxi and walked up the path to Sammy and Val’s suburban home. She spotted an excited face at the living room window. It was Mia, her ten-year-old god-daughter. Mia started to wave furiously and then ran off to meet her at the door.

Dale loved Mia and the special friendship they had, and it only made the guilt she had at leaving Jake intensify.

She rang the bell expecting Mia to answer, but instead it was Val, who immediately threw her arms around her neck.

“Thank God you’re all right. We were so worried when we didn’t hear from you.”

Before Dale got the chance to explain herself, Val pushed away from her, and this time her eyes were filled with fury, not relief. Val pointed an accusing finger in her face and gave it to her both barrels. “Don’t you ever make us worried like that again, Dale! You get some life-changing news, and you just disappear for two days, no phone call, no text. I hardly slept a wink.”

“I’m sorry—” Dale tried to say, but Val just continued.

“No, I’m not interested in your sorrys. You were thoughtless.” Val turned on her heel and walked off full of fury, leaving Sammy and Mia standing in her wake, looking as shocked as Dale felt.

“Mum was really mad, Dale,” Mia said.

Dale walked in the front door and said, “I guessed that, munchkin.”

Sammy clapped her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. She’ll soon calm down. We were both worried, mate.”

“I’m sorry. I had a lot on my mind.” Dale was conscious of saying too much in front of Mia, and Sammy nodded.

“We can talk later. First you look like you could do with some food. Lunch will be ready soon.”

“Do you think Val will feed me, or serve it on my lap?”

Sammy laughed. “She’ll forgive you quickly.”

Mia pulled at her jacket. “I’ve got a new game to play with you and I got this cool Zelda mod for Minecraft. Come on.”

Dale lifted Mia off her feet and threw her over her shoulder. “Great, I can’t wait. Hey, I’ve got a new joke for you. Why do cows wear bells?”

Both Mia and Sammy replied, “Because their horns don’t work!”

“Your jokes are awful. You know that,” Sammy said.

Dale winked at her friend and softly smacked Mia on the bottom. “No more laughing at me, munchkin.”

Mia giggled as they made their way into the house. Dale was home, the only home she had now, and was ever likely to have. She had to stop thinking about Jake and Becca. This was her family.

 

v

 

Dale, Sammy, Val, and Mia sat around the kitchen table enjoying Val’s delicious Sunday lunch. Val had seemed to warm up as the dinner went on and luckily Mia talked nonstop about her computer games.

“The Zelda mod I downloaded for Minecraft is so amazing.”

“Cool, I can’t wait to play it. The gaming expo is coming to London soon. We need to go to that,” Dale said while wolfing down the last of her dessert. Val’s Sunday dinner was a perfect antidote to a hangover.

Mia got down from the table, and asked excitedly, “Can we go and play now?”

Dale looked to Val, who shook her head. “We need to speak to Dale first, sweetie. Adult talk time.”

Mu-um,” Mia whined.

Dale ruffled her hair and said, “You go and get the game started and I’ll be there soon, okay?”

Mia gave her a big hug and walked off happily.

Sammy poured the coffee and said, “So? What happened when you took Jake back?”

Dale took a sip of coffee while Sammy sat down beside an expectant Val. “I met his mum, Rebecca Harper. Becca.”

“What was she like?” Val asked.

Dale fished into her jeans back pocket, pulled out the photo, and showed it to her friends. “That’s Becca. Jake left this picture for me to find in the car.”

They both studied the picture. “She’s beautiful,” Sammy said.

Dale nodded. “She really is, and she’s so elegant. She has a really posh accent, although they live in this run-down house.”

Val took the picture from Sammy, to study it more carefully. “There’s something familiar about her, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“How did she react to you?” Sammy asked.

Dale sighed. “She was terrified I was there to take Jake away from her. She’s a single mother. Jake told me Becca couldn’t have kids herself, and used a sperm donor as well as an egg donor. The sperm donor is dead, so that just left me for Jake to find.”

Sammy handed her back the photo and Dale stared at it.

“You did reassure her it wasn’t your doing, didn’t you?” Val said.

“Aye, I did. She told me that Jake had done this kind of thing before…computer hacking. He’s a bit of child genius by all accounts. She asked me to turn around and forget they existed.”

Val covered Dale’s hand with hers. “And did you?”

Dale gulped hard, and shook her head. “I couldn’t. I felt a connection to them…something deep inside. I mean, Jake, he loves maths, just like me and—”

“He has your big brown eyes,” Val finished for her.

“Yeah, it’s like I know him, and not just him. When I looked in Becca’s eyes I saw sadness and loneliness, something I recognized. I offered to help, but she told me to leave.”

“Maybe that’s best,” Sammy said. “This is an emotional and difficult situation—maybe you should just forget it ever happened.”

Dale rubbed her forehead furiously. “I can’t get them out of my head. That’s why I went on a bender all weekend. I hoped I might forget these feelings if I drank enough.”

“And did it work?” Sammy asked.

“Nope. It got worse. I feel guilty that they have no one to lean on and no one to look after them, and I broke my promise to Jake. I promised I wouldn’t disappear, and I did. I lied to him just like I was lied to by my family. I promised I would never do that to anyone I cared about.”

Val moved her chair closer to Dale and put her arm around her. “You have nothing to feel guilty about. You helped Rebecca have this lovely, clever boy. That’s something to be proud of.”

Dale closed her eyes and remembered the feeling when Becca told her that her unborn baby was hers as well. She felt a rush of emotions, and it brought tears to her eyes.

“It’s not just Jake.”

“What do you mean?” Sammy asked.

Dale looked at her two closest friends with tears in her eyes. “Becca is six months pregnant, and it’s mine too.”

Sammy and Val were stunned into silence.