You read it here first folks! PHS's exclusive Free Read is an extract from Mollie Blake's An Unconventional Affair.
This month PHS's free read column is kicking off the new year with a sneak peek at Mollie Blake's coming release, An Unconventional Affair Book Two. So now, without further ado, the reveal!
This second part of An Unconventional Affair finds Barrington Stone working in Australia for a year. Tranquility “Tee” Hammond, fifteen years his senior, has ended their affair, but for Barrington it was never over. He can’t wait for the year to pass to go back to her. However, after a drunken encounter, with a woman he later discovers is a sex worker, his life is changed forever. How can he possibly leave Australia, now that he has a daughter?
After accepting that Barrington won’t be coming back to the UK, Tee rekindles her relationship with the charming-yet-unconventional Sebastian Chandler, owner of a motorsports racetrack. Although living with Sebastian is “complicated” and life for the couple isn’t perfect, they are settled and Tee is happy.
But everything changes when Barrington returns. Tee’s heart is in turmoil, and Sebastian is afraid he will lose the woman he loves. As the plot thickens and twists unravel, Barrington must decide if there is one risk worth sharing.
Eight Years Later, Melbourne, Australia...
Barrington stared at the young woman who had just opened the door. She looked old and thin.
“Hello, Lindsey.” He was holding a small bouquet of white roses arranged in a clear glass vase. “Come on in.”
Barrington didn’t move for a moment as she turned away from him. The sight of this young woman hobbling toward the kitchen was distressing. It took a determined mental effort to move and follow her.
“You sit down,” he said as he put his hand under her arm and started to lead her back into the lounge. “I’ll make the coffee.”
She stared up at him, her eyes full of surprise. But her body leaned against his, grateful for his help. He waited until she was settled in a large, softly padded, reclining armchair—it looked comfortable, and new. Before going back into the kitchen to make the coffee, he placed the flowers on the small table next to the chair. There was no ashtray full of cigarette ends this time.
“They’re beautiful,” Lindsey said quietly as she gazed at the roses. When he returned with the drinks, she was smelling the cream petals on the stem she had extracted from the display. “I haven’t smelled roses in…well, it feels like forever. Thank you.” Her cheeks turned the palest shade of pink. “Ruby’ll be home from school soon. Daisy brings her.” She sipped her coffee. “You haven’t changed.”
He wished he could say the same. But he hardly recognized her. Gray strands of hair fell forward, striking a stark contrast with the rich brown hair that had managed to resist the sign of premature aging. He had only ever seen her with blonde hair before. Dark circles around her eyes seemed to shrink her facial features, and she looked tiny, wizened even, in the vastness of the new chair. Those once voluptuous breasts that could never quite be contained by the skimpy tops she always favored, were indistinguishable now beneath her cotton-checked shirt. And her denim shorts revealed skinny legs, with bony knees and painful looking ankles—the flesh barely looked sufficient to stretch around them.
“It’s been a long time,” he ventured, looking around for other new features in the apartment to distract him from the sadness that engulfed him. “I see you bought new furniture. And the place has been decorated.” He managed a smile. At least the dinginess had disappeared. Together with the odor of stale tobacco.
They drank their coffee in silence.
Barrington was the first to speak. “Has he gone?”
Lindsey nodded. “He moved out two years ago.”
He stared at the woman who had changed his destiny.’
“He wouldn’t quit smoking, and I wouldn’t get better. The odds weren’t good, were they?” She seemed to be laughing at her fate. Her own brother had signed her death warrant. Yet it was ironic that cervical cancer was killing her now and not AIDS or her passive-smoke-filled lungs. “Once he realized I wouldn’t be working for much longer, he went to Sydney to “protect” a couple of young girls who were hoping to get some of the pickings there.”
“Didn’t he know about the money I was sending?” Barrington found it hard to believe that Shane hadn’t tried to get his hands on some of it.
“No. At least not all of it. I told him you were just a student and could only give us enough to help with food and clothes for Ruby. He wasn’t exactly going to tell me to go to the authorities for more child support, was he? Then I told him you’d gone, and there wouldn’t be any more money.”
“So you did all this,” he looked around the apartment, “after he’d gone?”
“Yes.” She smiled but it made her face twist and the smile appeared lopsided. “You send us a lot of money. I spent some on making this place a bit better. We’ve even got Wi-Fi and a games console.” She pointed to the black box next to the TV. “I know she’s only eight, but she likes playing on it. She drives me mad with Mario Kart.” Lindsey nodded toward the sofa. It was new too, matching the chair. “Sit down. You’ll have to move the abacus, but be careful. It’s permanently there.”
Barrington was still crouched beside Lindsey’s chair. He got up and picked up the abacus before he sat down. He studied it, careful not to disturb the beads. “What’s the significance of two thousand six hundred and seventy seven?”
Lindsey smiled again. “I think your daughter has your brains. We figured out how to count with it. She started asking about her daddy. I said it would be a way she could play with his gift—she’s keeping a track of the number of days you’ve been gone.”
Barrington could feel the blood drain from his face. He’d been gone eight years. It took a phone call from Lindsey Addis, asking for his help for the first time, to compel him to come back. He had never seen his daughter since that morning he had bathed and dressed her.
He stared at Lindsey. “You wanted me to stay away. Every time I suggested I come to visit, you told me it was better if I didn’t.”
“It was better. But…” Her voice trailed away, and eyes filled with regret stared back at him. “Well, you stopped suggesting. She was growing up and asking about you and you stopped asking to see her.” There was no accusation in her voice, only immense sorrow.
Barrington threw his head back against the sofa. “I thought you hadn’t told her about me.” It was more of a whisper to himself, but Lindsey heard him.
“I didn’t tell her much. Except that you lived a long way away and couldn’t get here.”
He leaned forward and gazed down at the abacus still lying on his knee. “Did she know about the photos? Did she know that you took them for me?”
Lindsey had kept her promise and sent him photos of Ruby every month. Images of his beautiful daughter flashed before his eyes, but it was the one of him sleeping beside her cot that he loved the most. Ruby had just been disturbed and Lindsey managed to get a fantastic shot of her gazing over her daddy and straight at the camera, her eyes bright and shining. It was the last thing he saw as he climbed into bed every night in Adelaide, and it was the screen saver on his laptop.
“Yes. I always told her to smile for you. As she got older and understood that I took them to send to her daddy, she decided she wanted to keep copies of them so she would know what you saw.”
He was silent a moment. How would Ruby judge him? What would she think of the father who only had photographs of his child, the father who never came to see her? His own parents had been an ever-present foundation of his young life. At the age of eight, he doubted a single day would have gone by in which they didn’t play a part.
He had made such a mess of things. The reason he stayed in Australia was to be there for his daughter. He should have tried harder to see her. Lindsey told him not to come, but he chose not to come so he didn’t have to juggle things with work. He didn’t have to put himself to any trouble.
And he got side-tracked. Things had gone well for him at Nyton Mining. His career had soared and he flew high on his success, wealth and reputation. He had even been offered a position in the Nyton Group. He left PZ and remained in Adelaide. It was easy to forget about the real responsibilities he had as a father. It was easy to believe Lindsey when she told him that she didn’t need him and it was better for everyone if he didn’t visit. It was easy. For him.
Now, as he looked at Lindsey’s withered body and saw the discomfort on her face, he could see how ill she really was. And he understood why she never included any photographs of herself when she sent pictures of Ruby to him—he would have been able to see her deteriorate as the HIV devoured her immune system. If he had been here, he could have made sure she took her medication correctly. He could have insisted she went for health checks. He could have forced her to stop working. But instead, left alone, Lindsey didn’t do any of those things. She kept more than just his daughter from him.
Until two days ago. That was when she rang him. She had cervical cancer, which had spread, and she was dying. “Ruby needs you now,” she’d said.
The sound of a key in the door broke the silence that had descended once more on the lounge.
A young woman walked in and smiled at Lindsey before turning to stare at Barrington. Two young curly haired little girls followed her.
“Come on, Ruby,” one of them yelled, turning back to the door they had just come through. She fell silent when she saw the tall stranger stand up.
In a hushed voice, the woman asked the girls to be quiet before returning back into the corridor. A second later, she came in with her arm around a small girl with long, dark brown, straggly hair splayed across her shoulders. An unruly fringe had been pushed back to reveal two green brown large eyes, which were now transfixed on Barrington. Her red T shirt was smattered with patches of mud, and knobby knees peeping out from baggy denim shorts bore similar splodges. Gray socks collected around matchstick ankles and crowned scuffed, threadbare trainers. She looks unloved, thought Barrington with a chill, before composing himself and stepping forward.
When he moved, Ruby immediately positioned herself behind the other woman, disappearing from his sight.
The woman smiled at him as she held her hand out behind her in a gesture meant to comfort the wide-eyed, and sullen looking, little eight-year-old. “Hi,” she said, holding her free hand out to Barrington. “I’m Daisy, Lindsey’s friend.”
Barrington gave a firm handshake. “Barrington. Barrington Stone.” He felt awkward.
Daisy turned to Lindsey. “Hi, darling. You okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” Lindsey propped herself up on her left hip and peered around Daisy to get a glimpse of Ruby who was still hiding behind the other woman. “Has she been all right?”
The question didn’t seem right, Barrington thought. Why didn’t Lindsey ask Ruby if she was all right? Surely the relationship between mother and daughter had improved over the years? But what right had he to question how Lindsey raised their daughter? He remained silent.
“Her teacher made her tie her hair back in a ponytail. She pulled it out as soon as we got in the car. Apparently, she told Miss Marcher that if she wanted nits she was bloody well going to get them.”
Lindsey shook her head and her eyes shot to Barrington. He couldn’t be certain that his mouth hadn’t fallen open. But he hoped not.
Daisy looked from Lindsey to Barrington and then back to her friend. “But hey. She won the spelling competition again. Right, girls?” She finally let go of Ruby’s hand and turned to her daughters. “It’s time we went and let Lindsey get some rest. Be good, Ruby, and we’ll see you in the morning.
Ruby had shown an immense interest in the carpet as soon as her human shield had moved away. Now she raised her eyes just enough to see Daisy. “Can’t I come to your house for tea, Daisy?”
“Ruby. Let Daisy go home.” Lindsey was abrupt and appeared impatient to let her friend and the other two girls leave. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Daisy. Bye, girls.”
Duly dismissed, the three “outsiders” went out into the corridor, but not before Barrington heard the older girl ask, “Who the hell was that?”
A fusion of unease and deafening silence fell on the remaining three occupants of the apartment.
Barrington took a deep breath. “Hello, Ruby.” He looked down into those green brown eyes, the same color as his own.
Ruby stared up, scrutinizing him as if trying to decide if he was up to the job of being her father. He didn’t feel up to it. Catching sight of the abacus, out of the corner of his eye, he took the chance to be in his own comfort zone, knowing he probably wouldn’t be staying there for very long. He picked it up, careful not to disturb any of the beads.
“How do you like your abacus?” He was conscious Ruby still hadn’t spoken to him, but after waiting a second for a response he spoke again, not wanting to be deterred from the chance to get to know her. “This looks like some serious counting. Can you explain it to me? Shall we sit down?”
Keeping his eyes on her to see if she would follow him, he edged toward the sofa.
Lindsey watched them from her armchair. Barrington glanced at her, still seeking approval for any contact he might have with Ruby, just as he had done from the very first time he had seen her as a baby. But this was a different Lindsey—one who seemed to be looking at the world for the last time. He was fairly certain the old Lindsey would have gotten up and left them to it by now. But this one just looked at him.
Ruby’s eyes widened when Barrington lowered himself onto the sofa and purposely tilted the abacus with just enough motion to ensure the beads at the end of the rows moved just a fraction along the bars. She took one step toward him.
“It’s okay,” he reassured her, “I’ve got it.”
Within a flash, she was sitting beside him, holding her hand out. “You have to be careful. Let me show you.”
Small hands with grubby nails reached out to take the abacus, and a very proud little girl began to tell her father how to read the numbers on the toy. She was pretending to be the teacher.
“So? What do you think the number on this next row is?” She gave Barrington a condescending look, smug in her belief that she knew the answer and he didn’t. This was such an easy assumption for the little eight-year-old because her mum and Daisy never knew the answers. Only teachers knew how to use an abacus.
Barrington’s posture relaxed and he smiled. “Now, let me remember what you’ve already told me. This row tells me there are seven tens…seventy…right?” He placed his finger on one of the beads.
“Yes,” Ruby said as if she were praising her student. “But don’t touch.” She placed her hand on his, about to pull it away. Then she froze.
Her touch felt like an electric shock. When he saw her eyes fill with apprehension, he whispered, “I’m sorry.” He was so sorry for everything he had and hadn’t done.
Ruby stared at the abacus on her knee. “Two thousand, six hundred, and seventy seven.” Keeping her head, down she continued. “It’s you, isn’t it?” She didn’t wait for an answer as she tipped all the beads to one side and dropped the abacus onto the floor. “You’ve ruined it now. I’ll have to start all over again. Tomorrow. When you’re gone again.”
Barrington looked at her for a moment and then turned to Lindsey. The idea that she had turned Ruby against him all these years stung his mind. But it didn’t matter now. He couldn’t blame anyone else for his actions. He turned back to Ruby. It was up to him to make amends. He knew what Ruby would have to go through before too long, and he felt the loss of his own mother all over again. He took a deep breath. “Ruby. Look at me.”
She didn’t need to be asked twice. Eyes filled with reproach looked up at him.
“You’re right, Ruby. I am your dad.” He picked up the abacus. “And I’m sorry I’ve ruined your counting project. But I’m not going away again. You won’t need to start all over tomorrow. I’m going to come back. If you won’t mind, that is.” He paused to see if he got a response. He didn’t. Ruby just stared at him. He felt he was being deservedly punished by her reticence. But he wasn’t a quitter. “And I can show you some other games you can play on this. I want to get to know you, Ruby. I want us to be friends.”
“Daisy told me not to make friends with her friends.”
Ruby didn’t have to look at her mother. The defiance in her voice said it all. There was no conventional mother-daughter relationship here. He knew that now.
All this time, Lindsay had remained silent. Apart from the occasional glance in his or Ruby’s direction, she simply stared out of the window or flicked through a magazine she had picked up from beside her chair. She appeared distant and frequently shuffled in her seat as if she was trying to get comfortable.
Barrington wasn’t accustomed to talking to eight-year-olds, and he could see he wasn’t going to get any support from Lindsey. But he was determined to break through this inevitable awkward, stressful introduction, in the hope that he would have some small foundation, no matter how weak, on which to start to build a relationship with his daughter.
“I’m not one of those friends of your mum’s.”
There was silence.
He carried on. “But I am your dad. My name is Barrington.”
“You talk funny.”
Well, that was something at least.
“I’m from England, the UK. Do you know where that is?”
Ruby shook her head.
“It’s over fifteen thousand kilometers away.”
“I can do that.” She picked up the abacus and moved the beads into the correct position.
“Yes, you can.” Again Barrington found himself thinking aloud.
“Why have you come here?”
Oh. The question he didn’t want to have to answer. He wanted to say it was his need to see his daughter that had brought him here. But that wasn’t true. He had suppressed that need, hidden it so deep inside him until it finally stopped eating away at him. Lindsey had told him that Ruby knew she was ill and that she had asked her father to come to them. “I’ve come to help.”
“Oh,” Ruby muttered, mindlessly running her fingers over the beads on the abacus. “You didn’t come to see me then. Why did you never come to see me?”
Her simple question, asked with the innocence of a child, boomed in his head. All the heartache, regret, and guilt manifested themselves in the tears that streaked down his cheeks.
“I told him not to come to see you, Ruby. He wanted to, and I told him never to come here.”
Ruby glared at her mother. “You told him?” Those big eyes had become narrow slits, and she didn’t hold back the anger—anger which seemed to have been bottled up for all her life, anger which weighed too heavily on such young shoulders. “You ruin everything.”
There was silence. Barrington finally managed to control himself enough to speak. “Ruby. Your mum did what she thought was best. For her and for you.”
“You never asked me. Nobody ever asks me what I want.” She was still looking at her mother. “You don’t care about me.”
Barrington’s eyes switched from one to the other. Lindsey stared with the same dispassionate look he had seen on her face so many times. But Ruby was livid. Her face was red, her eyes filled with anger, and her fists gripped the wooden frame of her toy so tightly her knuckles were white.
“You’re mum’s poorly, Ruby. You know that.” Barrington tried to put a halt to the escalating animosity while trying to assess the level of understanding his daughter was capable of. He was beginning to see that she was sharp and perceptive. Before turning up at their apartment today, he had learned from Lindsey that Ruby knew her mother was very ill and that there would have to be some changes in their lives. She knew her father would be coming today and that someone else would be coming too, to look after her mother. “I’ve arranged for someone to come and help her.”
“You can’t make her better. She told me no one can make her better.”
It was hard to hide his exasperation. Ruby talked as though her mother wasn’t even in the room with them. Her words were filled with resolute bitterness. Perhaps Lindsey was already dead in her daughter’s mind. How could he possibly help her to come to terms with such inevitability? “I know. But we can try to make your mum comfortable. We can try to stop the pain that’s hurting her all the time.” He ventured to take one of Ruby’s hands in his. “And I’ve come to help you. To be with you.” The small hand didn’t pull away so he continued. “I know I’ve never been here for you, Ruby. I can be here now, but I need to know that you want me here. That you will let me help you and your mum.” .
He felt a tear drop onto the back of his hand. Although he was still afraid of being pushed away, he placed his thumb under Ruby’s chin and lifted her head up to face him. He wiped her eyes with his fingertip. “Can I stay?”
Immediately he pulled her to him, and for the first time after so many years, he hugged her to his chest and shared her tears. “It’s going to be fine. You’re going to be fine, sweetheart.”’
Mollie Blake's latest novel An Unconventional Affair-Book Two is releasing this month. For more information about Mollie and her writing, check out her website, and follow her on Twitter, and Facebook.
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