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Title page



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


Thank you to my husband for always believing in me and for being with me on this journey.

Copyright © 2019 L.M. Tate

All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Characters, places and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author.

Chapter 1

Tears streamed down Kat’s face as I cuddled her tight. This was too much for an eight-year-old to have to go through. Kat pressed into me like I could absorb her pain and I wished I could make it all go away but I had no clue what I was doing. To say I was out of my depth was an understatement. Her older sister, Amy, tried to comfort Kat as she batted away her own tears. At just twelve Amy had been the mother figure in this family for too long. Now that responsibility was mine. Their brother Luke stared ahead sadly as their father’s coffin slowly disappeared behind a veil of red curtains. Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes drowned out the muffled sound of crying. Their headstrong eldest brother, Daniel, looked across to me in disappointment, knowing I’d fail. He was seventeen and his father’s death had left him as head of the household until I turned up three days ago, the aunt they never even knew existed.

Their father, Josh Walker, had been my older half-brother. We’d never met, seeing as I was the result of an affair his father had with my mother. Unknown to my mother the charming man who’d swept her off her feet during his business trip already had a wife and was not interested in having a daughter. Even when Josh’s parents had passed away, he’d never tried to contact me. It was a shock when his lawyer contacted to tell me I was named in his will, which meant I was the recipient of a debt amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds and guardian of his four children. Me of all people. I was his only other living relative so he must’ve been desperate. I’d never even wanted children, could never hold down a stable relationship and was so busy as a magazine journalist, I sometimes forgot to even eat, which was not good criteria for being equipped to take care of four other human beings.

At the end of the service I stood next to the vicar at the exit, alongside my nieces and nephews to thank everyone for coming. There was no family but lots of friends. A tall, broad man came over followed by two boys, who were almost as tall as he was and two younger girls. The man was built like a wrestler, with long dark hair tied back in one of those man buns and naturally tanned skin that made his hazel eyes iridescent. His black suit barely contained his muscular frame. Charging straight over to Daniel, the man hugged him fiercely.

“How are you doing son?” he asked. His voice was deep and his accent sounded similar to Australian.

Daniel looked at me with that disappointed look then sighed. “I’m fine. We’ll be fine Coach.” Daniel must’ve played a sport if he had a coach. There was so much I didn’t know about these kids.

The coach looked at me disapprovingly, which was confusing and a little hurtful. He nodded to Daniel reassuringly and squeezed his shoulder. “If you need anything at all. You know where we are. Anything, anytime. Promise me.”

“I promise Coach. Thanks.” Daniel was trying hard to hold back his tears.

The eldest boy, who was coach’s doppelgänger, hugged Daniel like a brother. In fact, all coach’s children acted more like family than friends.

“So, you’re the sister?” the Coach asked with distain as he stood in front of me with arms folded. The way he assessed me let me know I didn’t meet his standards. I tucked my blonde hair behind my ear and pulled at the sleeves on my dress, feeling inadequate. As annoyed as that made me feel, my mother brought me up to be polite. He’d evidently lost a good friend, so he was bound to be upset.

“Yes, I’m Josh’s sister. Nice to meet you, I’m Hannah.” I smiled as kindly as I could and offered my hand. He didn’t take it and I could feel my face flame.

“Do you really think you’re up for this?” His question was like an arrow and it hit exactly as intended because in no way did I feel up to this. He narrowed his eyes. “Bringing up four kids is not easy, I should know. Do you have any idea what you’re taking on? Do you even know anything about these kids?”

I was stunned silent at his directness and I could feel my face redden further. His words shredded my confidence even further. It must have shown on my face as he said, “That’s exactly what I thought.” He walked away shaking his head and I knew he was right; I had no clue what I was doing. Josh had never wanted to know me but I still felt sad for the loss his children had suffered. Now all they had was me, an inadequate replacement. I was ready to cry. At that point I just wanted to go home, curl up in my bed and pretend I did not have four human beings now relying on me.

Chapter 2

The house had to be repossessed and there was nothing I could do about it. It had been three days since the funeral and I’d been staying with the children in their family home. Josh’s debt was so huge that the only way to clear it was to repossess the house. I tried to explain the situation as sensitively as possible to the kids but it didn’t go down well. Not mentioning their father’s huge debts left them with the assumption that I was somehow to blame.

“You’ve been here days and already you’ve lost our house?” Daniel roared.

“I understand you’re upset Daniel but I tried everything I could. Believe me, I did. There is no other way. I’m so sorry.” I felt guilty that there was nothing more I could do to save their home. To lose their home on top of what they had already gone through was devastating.

I took a deep breath to mask my nervousness and pretended I was in control. “We have a month to look for somewhere else to live. You will all be involved in looking with me, so we can pick something we are all happy with. I already have some ideas of places to look at. I know this is not ideal but it will be an adventure for us all.”

Daniel pushed his chair back and stormed out of the room.

Amy stood up next. “I wish you’d never come here,” she shouted before storming after her brother. They hated me and I felt crushed. Kat patted my hand and tried to comfort me but looked up at me with wide eyes that looked worried. I smiled down at her and gave her a little hug to reassure her.

Luke stared down at the table in silence and then looked up at me seriously. “Let me know when you’re going to look. I want to come.” He got up and walked away from the table solemnly with the weight of the world on his fifteen-year-old shoulders. These were grown up problems and I wished I could shield them from this worry. I needed to call my mother. It was all falling apart and I had no idea what to do.

“They hate me mum,” I said to her on the phone when everyone had gone to bed. I paced outside in the huge beautiful landscaped back garden, so there was no risk of anyone hearing me.

“They don’t hate you love. It’s just that they don’t know you. They’ve been through a lot and now losing their home on top of all that is going to be difficult for them.”

“I know mum but they think it’s my fault. I couldn’t tell them about Josh’s debt so they think in the three days I’ve been here that I’ve lost their house.”

“It’s hard sweetie but I think you’re right not to tell them about Josh. They need to hold on to their good memories of their father right now. Maybe when they’re older they’ll understand but right now as harsh as it is, you’re their guardian and when you’re a parent your feelings don’t count so much anymore. It’s all about them honey.”

I thought about what she said for a moment and realised that’s the sacrifice she made for me. She never told me that my dad had rejected me as a child. I figured it out later in life. There was so much she protected me from and she’d always put me first.

“Being a parent is hard work mum and I’ve only been doing it three days. I don’t know how you did it.”

“Well I had a wonderful daughter.”

“I’m selfish mum. I like my time to myself and I don’t like answering to others. There are people around here that want to see me fail. You should’ve seen the way Daniel’s coach looked at me the other day, like I was about to ruin these kids’ lives. You know what, he might even be right. What do I know about kids?” I was working myself into a panic and could feel my anxiety rising. Taking deep breath, I tried to calm myself down.

“Why did you take this on Hannah?”

“You talked me into it,” I answered.

She laughed at that and said, “Honey, I’ve never been able to talk you into anything in your life. This was not my decision. Think about it.”

“I was worried about where they’d end up. I don’t want to see them split up mum. I know they don’t all like me but when I see how good they are together, how close they are, it’s amazing. Although I never really got to meet Josh and he landed me with some major issues here with this debt, he must’ve done something right to have such good kids. Well, when they’re not hating me that is.”

Without even seeing it, I could tell my mother was smiling. “You love them,” she stated. “I know you’ve only just met them but you love them Hannah. I’ve never heard you talk so passionately about anything. That is what will get you through this. You’ll be fine.”

I could barely sleep that night worrying about finding somewhere to live. I’d taken a couple of weeks off from work, so I could dedicate all my time to finding somewhere to rent. As promised, I took Luke to view the first house and Kat came along too. Daniel and Amy were still not talking to me. The house was nothing like their current five-bedroom home. With only three small bedrooms, they would have had to share. It was also pretty run down and would need a lot of work. As we looked around the property, Luke looked at me in dismay, like I was ruining their lives. Unfortunately, there were few options in the town for renting, so we were hardly spoilt for choice but it was not big enough anyway. It was only just affordable on my salary, so I dreaded to think how much a bigger place would be.

“So what do you think?” the property agent asked.

“It’s a bit small for our family. Do you have anything bigger?” I asked hopefully.

“Not in this town I’m afraid. The other properties we have are all two-bedroom apartments. More for young couples than families. I imagine you’ll have a difficult time finding something bigger than this to rent.”

Luke told me he hated it and I promised I’d find something better. The rest of the week, I viewed a couple of houses myself while the kids were at school but the pickings were slim. In the middle of the week I insisted that Daniel and Amy join us for dinner. They’d had enough time to stew and we all needed to talk.

“Did you find anywhere yet?” Luke asked, looking worried.

“Not yet. The ones today were smaller than the one we looked at. I have a few more viewings this week.” The table went silent and Daniel glared at me.

“Coach would let me live with him if I asked,” Daniel announced. “His son Tane is my best mate, like a brother really and I’m always around there anyway.”

I was shocked that he could think of leaving and Kat started to sniffle beside me. Luke looked like he’d been kicked in the stomach but Amy didn’t look surprised at all, like she knew Daniel was going to suggest it.

“No Daniel. We’re not splitting up the family,” I said, patting Kat’s hand in reassurance.

“You’re not our family,” said Daniel. His words stung but I tried to ignore it. “His house is huge. He’s building an extension so there’ll be plenty of room.”

“I said no Daniel. I just need a little time. We’ll find somewhere even if it means moving a little further out of town.”

“I don’t want to move out of town,” Amy said, looking panicked. “I bet Coach would let me move in too. I’m friends with his daughter Maia, so I bet he’d let me stay.”

My knife and fork slammed down more forcefully than I intended and everyone stared at me in silence. It was the first time I’d let my temper show. I’d held back because I knew they were grieving but I wouldn’t let them split up this family.

“There’ll be no more talk of moving in with Coach. I don’t want to hear another word about splitting this family up. I am your legal guardian, whether you like it or not.”

“Dad never even liked you,” said Daniel. “We don’t like you and we don’t want to live with you. What’s the point in us all pretending?” I knew it would take time for them to get to know me but I was stunned at him saying they didn’t like me. It was painful to hear.

“My dad hated you but had no choice but to leave us with you. Coach told Tane all about it. He would have left us with Coach if it wasn’t for the fact that he already has four kids,” announced Daniel.

“Well I think Coach needs to mind his own business,” I shot back angrily.

“You don’t know him and you don’t know any of us,” Daniel shouted and stood up before storming out. As predicted, Amy was hot on his heels and Luke also followed this time.

Kat looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said, “They won’t really leave us, will they?”

“No, they won’t because I won’t let them.” I was resolute about keeping this family together. Daniel and Amy didn’t know yet how stubborn I could be. A pain in the backside Coach was not making things any easier for me and it was time I paid him a visit.

Chapter 3

It wasn’t difficult to find Coach. He was like a saint around town so everyone knew where he lived. Seething from what Daniel had told me the day before and with the added stress of having looked around three grotty properties that day, I was ready for a showdown. The children were at after-school clubs so I wanted to catch him without them being there.

His property was surrounded by a huge stone wall, trees and tall iron gates. I was surprised there was no electronic device but then this was a sleepy town. Where I came from it would’ve needed electronic gates, surveillance cameras, alarm systems and a guard dog.

I walked up the long gravel pathway, past the perfectly landscaped gardens to the large two-storey double fronted stone building. Rallying all my courage, I pressed the doorbell. There was no answer but I could hear machinery at the back. Determined to speak to him before I lost my nerve, I made my way to the back.

It looked like a large extension was being built on to the rear of the house. There were three workmen in hard hats working next to a tractor. Closer to the house was an older man in a contractor’s vest and hard hat. I could only see the broad back of the other man who was wearing a hard hat, jeans, a checked shirt and work boots but there was no doubt that giant form was Coach. His deep laugh at something the contractor said annoyed me. He was having a fine time while he was ruining my life.

I walked up to the men and the contractor raised his eyebrows when he spotted me. I imagined my face did not look happy. Coach didn’t turn around immediately and it took him a second to realise someone was behind him. When he turned and faced me his smile disappeared.

“Oh. It’s you,” he grunted in that accent that I still couldn’t quite place. He didn’t look happy to see me but I didn’t really want to be here either. “Do you make a habit of trespassing on people’s property?”

“Only when they don’t bother to answer the door,” I bit back, hands on my hips. I wouldn’t let him intimidate me, especially in front of these workmen, who all stopped what they were doing and seemed to be enjoying the show.

“So to what do I owe this pleasure?” he asked sarcastically.

“Mika, I’ll just go and check on the men,” the contractor said, looking between us in confusion.

“Thanks Frank,” Coach answered respectfully and shook his hand before turning back to me. “Well? What do you want?” he barked.

“Mika? Is that your name?” I asked.

“Most people call me Coach but I don’t really care what you call me.”

“Well, Mika, I’m here to ask you to stop spouting your mouth off about me to your kids. It’s affecting my family.”

“Your family? You’ve only known them two weeks. I’ve known them their whole lives.”

“Either way, they’re still my family and I’m asking you to stop telling your children things about Josh and me.”

“So what is it I’m supposed to have said exactly?”

“That Josh hated me.”

“He did hate you.” That affirmation stung but I shook it off.

“You don't know that.”

“Yes, I do. We were best friends. He told me how much he hated you and your mother.”

“And did he explain why exactly?”

“I didn’t need to know. He was my best friend. If he hated you, he had a good reason.”

I would not lower myself to tell this narrow-minded buffoon how Josh’s father had treated my mother. He was not worth it.

“That’s none of your business, so I’d appreciate it if you’d stop spreading your venom about me to your children.”

“Venom? The only venom here is you doll. I heard you’ve already lost their house. Have you spent your inheritance already?” He was angry and I was now understanding that he thought I was some sort of gold digger. My fists clenched around the strap of my handbag which I was dying to smack him with.

“No, I did not. The only inheritance I got from Josh was hundreds of pounds worth of debt,” I shouted.

“That is bull. You’re lying,” he shouted back, towering over me. “He was my best friend. If he was in debt, he would have come to me.”

“Well you can’t have been that good a friend because he was up to his ears in debt and that’s why we’ve lost their home. I have a month to find somewhere to rent. That’s the predicament your precious best friend has left me in.” I immediately felt guilty for talking bad about someone who had died.

“You’re a liar. Get out. Get off my property. Now!”

“Don’t you dare call me a liar,” I warned pointing at his chest.

“Out. Now.” He ordered me away like a stray dog. The anger and resentment on his face made me realise I wouldn’t get through to him. Turning my back on him, I stormed out. I could feel the tears at the back of my eyes but thankfully managed to hold them back until I was in my car. All I had done was step in to look after these children because they had nobody else and I was sick of being walked all over. Well I was certainly not going to walk away from this town with my tail between my legs because some egotistical Coach didn’t like me. I was done walking on egg shells and I needed to sort this mess out.

With grave determination, the next day I found a house. It was outside of town but not so far it would cause too many issues. It was slightly bigger than the first one we’d looked at and it would be free in three weeks so I put a deposit down. I just had to break it to my nieces and nephews that they needed to get rid of some things that wouldn’t fit in our new home. As cooking was not my strong point, I bought a platter of take away pizza and nachos to butter up the kids while I delivered the news over dinner.

“I can’t eat this,” Daniel said.

“Why not? I thought teenagers loved pizza,” I answered as I placed a slice on Kat’s plate.

“It’s full of carbs for a start. I need protein. I’m in rugby training. I can’t eat this. Dad never would’ve bought us pizza.”

“This one has chicken. That’s protein,” I offered but he shook his head in disgust.

“It’s too fatty. I’m not eating it either,” said Amy, pushing away her plate.

“You’re twelve. You’re not old enough to worry about dieting yet,” I said.

Luke and Kat were tucking into their food, so at least they were eating.

“It’s good,” Luke said with his mouth full. “Just eat it Dan, one night won’t hurt.” Daniel looked at his younger brother and sighed in resignation before taking a tentative bite. Amy watched her brother then followed. I let them eat for a while before I dropped the bomb.

“So, I’ve found us somewhere to live,” I said, maybe a little too brightly.

There was silence and they all looked at me in shock. “Where?” asked Luke suspiciously.

“It’s a house just a little way outside of town but it’s actually quite cute. It’s bigger than the one we saw. It has three decent sized bedrooms. You may have to downsize with some things that you don’t need anymore but I think you’ll like it.”

There, I said it. I don’t even think I came up for breath through all that.

“Three bedrooms?” asked Amy. “So where are you going to sleep?”

“One of those bedrooms is mine obviously,” I said, folding my arms.

“You mean I’m going to have to share with Kat? She’s a baby.”

“I’m not a baby,” cried Kat staring up at me. “Aunt Hannah, tell her I’m not a baby.”

“She’s not a baby Amy. Look we’ve all got to make sacrifices. It’s the biggest I could find.”

“No way,” said Amy, folding her arms.

“We’re not sharing either,” said Daniel pointing between him and Luke. “What if I want to bring a girl home?”

“A girl? Do you even have a girlfriend?” I asked. It was the first I’d heard about it.

“He’s got a few actually,” said Luke, rolling his eyes. “I don’t want to be watching that.”

I hadn’t thought of girlfriends. Of course, he was seventeen but it just had not entered my head.

“What do you mean a few girlfriends? Is it normal for kids to have more than one these days?”

“I’m not a kid,” demanded Daniel, sitting up straight, to emphasise his height. He was almost six feet but still had a baby face.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that but surely one girlfriend is enough. You know you could catch something from having too many girlfriends.”

“Ugh really? Trying to eat here,” said Amy. They all looked at me horrified. This was obviously not the right place for that kind of talk.

“Sorry, you’re right. Another time.” I held my hands up in apology plus I was feeling a little embarrassed talking about girlfriends. The thought that I might have to have those talks with each of them filled me with dread.

“Whatever. I’m not moving there. You can all do what you like but I’m not going,” announced Daniel.

“Me neither,” said Amy predictably. They were like a little double act and she followed where he led. However, I could be just as stubborn and we had no choice or we’d be homeless.

“You’re both coming. You’re going to go through your stuff and get rid of anything that won’t fit in your new room. I’ve printed off photos of the bedrooms so you have an idea of how much space you’ll have.”

“You’re really going to make us do this?” Luke asked incredulously. I thought he was on my side but obviously not.

“I’m sorry Luke, we have no choice.”

“Can I have pink wallpaper with unicorns?” asked Kat excitedly.

“No! You can’t.” shouted Amy before getting up and storming off.

“Can I take my teddies?” asked Kat tentatively with sad eyes.

“Of course you can take your teddies Kitty Kat,” answered Daniel reassuringly, leaning over to stoke her hair. He looked at her with sympathy and then gave her a big smile before reaching over and pulling her pony tail, making her giggle. As much as he disliked me, I was proud to see him being a big brother for Kat. “I’m still not going,” he declared before walking off.

Chapter 4

I spent most of the next week packing essentials and helped Kat gather the things she needed while deciding on the things she could donate to the charity shop.

“So other children who don’t have toys will get these?” she asked innocently, looking into a box of old toys that she no longer played with.

“Yes, just think of the happiness you’ll bring them,” I said.

She smiled and started adding more things to the box. Her siblings however had still not done any packing. I’d given them a few days to get their heads round the situation but they really needed to get a move on.

I shouted from the top of the landing, “Just so you know, I have a big industrial bin arriving on Monday. Anything that is not boxed up ready to move into the new house by next week is going in the bin.” They needed to know I meant business.

Daniel responded by blasting his music and Amy slammed her bedroom door. I really needed all their help as I didn’t want to throw out anything of their father’s that was precious to them. I also had work deadlines creeping up. The editor at the magazine I freelanced for had been very accommodating but I needed to make sure I didn’t lose my job.

I spent the afternoon the next day in a coffee shop in the town centre going through work emails. It was a relief to get away from the mayhem of packing. I enjoyed my job. It was something I was actually good at and at least with my articles I had some element of control. The independent coffee shop had artwork on the walls for sale, restored vintage furniture and mismatched teacups but I loved its quirks. It had a real homely feel. I was just piecing together my interview notes on my laptop when I felt a presence looming over me.

“Mind if I sit down?” that unmistakable voice said. I was stunned that he was speaking to me after our last altercation. Without waiting for an answer, Mika rolled his eyes and sat down opposite me impatiently. His legs were so long his knees were almost touching mine. He leaned forward, raising his eyebrow, waiting for some response. It was annoying how attractive he was given his mean personality. His long wavy hair was held up in a man bun that might have looked feminine on someone else and his shirt sleeves were rolled up his muscular arms, showing tribal tattoos on his tanned skin. I wondered if they actually meant something or if they were just for fashion. His strong hands were steepled and his hazel eyes looked serious like he was here to talk business. It was then I realised I still hadn’t said anything.

“What can I do for you?” I asked as politely if a little snootily. He annoyed me and I wasn’t in the mood for another argument. The sooner he got whatever was on his mind over with, the sooner I could get my work finished.

He narrowed his eyes and looked down at my laptop. “Don’t you have Wi-Fi at home?”

“Yes?” I answered with a question, wondering why it was any of his business. My lack of answer appeared to annoy him.

“I thought you’d be too busy packing to be sitting here on social media.”

“Actually, before you interrupted, I was working.”

“Working? In a coffee shop? Of course you were.”

“I’m a freelance journalist, so all I need is a laptop and somewhere to sit.”

“A hack. I should have guessed.”

I took a deep breath and told myself not argue with him. “No, not a hack actually. That’s extremely rude by the way but I suppose that’s to be expected.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” I sighed. “You have such a winning personality.”

“Whereas I see yours is making you plenty of friends around here.” He glanced around to emphasise I was sitting on my own.

“I’m here to work not gossip with friends.” My hands were clenched and I wanted to wipe away his smug smile. I sighed, just wanting this conversation to be over. “Is there something you wanted?”

“Daniel and the kids don’t want to move into that hovel you’ve agreed to rent.”

“It’s not a hovel. It’s a nice house. Yes it’s a little smaller than where they are now but they’ll get used to it.”

“So you think it’s healthy for them to be cramped together like that? They need their space.”

“If this is about Daniel moving in with you, I’ve heard all about that idea and it’s a no. I’m not splitting up my family.” His eyebrow raised questioningly when I referred to them as my family.

He leaned back, arms folded and narrowed his eyes assessing me then he shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m even suggesting this but yes it’s about that.” I went to interrupt him but he held his hand up to stop me. “Look, just listen for a second. That place you agreed to move into, I checked it out and it’s not suitable for four kids.”

“You had no right to do that and no offence but this is really not your business.”

“It is my- business. These are my best friend’s kids. They’re like my own and I won’t have them living there,” he said annoyed.

“I’m their legal guardian. They’re my responsibility and that house is the biggest I could find on our budget.”

“That’s why I want you all to move in with me.”

“What?” I spluttered, unable to believe what he’d said.

“You heard me. I want you all to move in with me. You’re right, the family shouldn’t be split up right now after everything they’ve been through but they’re not living in that hole. I’m building an extension on my house and it’ll be finished in six months. Even until then, there’s enough room at my place.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m not living with you. Are you insane?”

“It makes sense and it’s not like you have a whole lot of options.”

I snapped my laptop shut and stood up, angry at his high handedness. No way was I going to live with him. This was his sneaky way of taking over guardianship of the children. “Thanks but no thanks.”

Picking up my bag I turned to walk away but he grabbed my arm. “Look, at least sit down and discuss this. I’m serious.”

His huge hand was clamped around my arm, telling me he wouldn’t let me leave easily so I sat down. “Last time we spoke you threw me off your property and called me a liar.”

“I realise now that I might’ve been wrong.” He glanced away sheepishly before holding my gaze again.

“About which part exactly?” I pressed.

“I had my lawyers look into what you told me. It’s true, Josh was in some financial difficulty so I know you didn’t spend all their money.”

“Wow, thank you. I’m so grateful. That means so much to me.” Sarcasm was not beyond me when I was annoyed.

“Just hear me out for a second and stop being stubborn. The children are the priority here. This is the best option for them.”

“I decide what’s best for them not you,” I pointed at my chest for emphasis. He went to speak then closed his mouth and nodded before adding, “Fine, I get it. You’re their guardian. I just want what’s best for them. You should too. That’s what you do when you have kids. You put them first.”

“Of course I want what’s best for them,” I said. “I dropped my whole life to come here. I am putting them first.”

“Choosing that house is not putting them first, especially when living with my family is the better option. Dan and Amy already practically live with us anyway, they spend so much time at my house. That place is practically a shed and it gets really cold here in the winter. You’ll all freeze in there.”

“I’ve already paid the deposit so I can’t back out now or I’ll lose the money.” It was true but I was looking for any excuse not to move in with him. The children may be fine living with Mika but I wouldn’t. I didn’t like him and I knew the feeling was mutual.

“You’ll get it back. I already spoke to the owner Doug. He said he’d give you your deposit back.”

“You what? You had no right to do that.” I was livid. This is what I was afraid of, that he would barge in and try to railroad me and he was already trying.

“Chill out. I saw him in passing and just asked about it. It’s no big deal.”

I didn’t believe he just saw him in passing but I had no proof he’d gone meddling into my business to get his own way.

“I don’t know who you think you are but stop trying to take over our lives. We have a house and we’ll be fine. Thank you for the offer but no thank you.” I stood up abruptly.

He was shocked. “You’re really saying no? You’re going to be that stubborn?”

“This is between me and my family so please stay out of it.” I was getting a stress headache and needed to get home.

“I told you, I love those kids like they’re my own. I’ll do everything I can to make sure they’re looked after,” he warned. So long as that didn’t involve me living with him, he could do what he wanted. I stormed out of the coffee shop, flustered but determined. I wanted to get our boxes packed as soon as possible. The quicker we moved the better so we could settle into a new routine.

Chapter 5

“I’m sorry Hannah but I had to let the house out to someone else. It was an agreement I could not get out of and I’ve signed a contract with them now.”

“We were supposed to move out next week. We’ll be homeless,” I shouted down the phone to Doug desperately. It was lucky the children were at their after-school clubs again and would not witness my meltdown. “I paid you a deposit. That’s the whole point of a deposit so you keep the house for me.”

“I’m really sorry, honestly I am but we didn’t sign any documents. There was no binding agreement and you’ll get your deposit back. I honestly feel really bad but there is nothing I can do. I am so sorry.”

“Well tell that to my kids who’ll be living on the streets.” I was bitter and panicked. This was just unreasonable. There was silence for a second before he said gently, “I heard Coach made you an offer, maybe you should consider that.”

“He told you about that?” Suddenly I became suspicious.

“Well it just came up in conversation.”

“Yes a lot seems to come up in conversation with that man.”

“He’s a good man. Your family could do worse than have someone like him looking out for them.”

“Did he put you up to this?” I asked.

Doug didn’t answer my question. “Why don’t you speak to him about his offer? Hear him out.”

“Thank you for the advice Doug. I really appreciate it,” I spat out. Realising that Mika must’ve had a hand in this made me want to throw something at the wall. His meddling could leave my family homeless. I was in my car and outside his house before I realised what I was doing. It was ironic that the last time I was here he practically marched me off the property yet now he was trying to force me to stay here. I stormed up to the front door and pushed hard on the bell. After a minute of waiting I went around to the back. I spotted him in his hard hat helping the construction workers to lay concrete. His back was to me so he didn’t see me approach.

“So, I suppose you think taking my house from underneath me is really mature.”

He stiffened then stood up to face me. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said dismissively, clearly lying.

“I just had a conversation with Doug. Apparently, there was an agreement that he couldn’t get out of and now my family are homeless. My guess is that it’s all down to you.” Pointing my finger into his hard chest, I glared at him.

“Your family is not homeless. You all have a home here and are very welcome. There’s no need to thank me for putting the kids first and being so hospitable. I’m even willing to overlook how rude you’re being right now. See, that’s how much I love those kids that I’m actually willing to put up with you.”

I wanted to take a swing at him, not that I could have reached up to his big head he was so tall. Instead I balled my hands into fists like a child and thought really bad things about him. I imagined shoving him into the concrete he was laying then that smirk he was wearing right now would be permanently stuck on his face.

“You don’t like me and I don’t like you but it doesn’t matter. It’s about the kids and doing what is best for them. I owe it to my best friend. For some reason he felt he couldn’t come to me for help when he was alive but I can help his family now.”

I held back tears of frustration, feeling trapped. There was nowhere else to live in this town. I’d visited all the vacant properties. Then I thought about my nieces and nephews. Maybe I could force myself to put up with this man for a little while just until I got us settled into a routine and gave the children a chance to get to know me better. They might even come to like me, though that was wishful thinking. He must have sensed I was backing down as his smile got bigger.

“I can’t afford to pay you any more rent than I was going to pay Doug,” I said.

“Don’t be absurd, I don’t want rent. It’ll be a bit cosy for the next six months but once this is built, there’ll be plenty of space for everyone.”

“I’m paying rent. That’s my condition of moving in here. I’m not living here for free.”

Mika let out an exasperated sigh. “Fine, whatever you want. You’re a pain in the backside, do you know that?” It was the biggest compliment he could have given me and a pain in his behind was the least he deserved. I just hoped I could put my own feelings aside for the children’s sake. When I told them that night, they were delighted. We joined Mika and his family later that week so we could all talk through the plan.

As we all sat around his large dining table, I could tell Mika’s children were a little suspicious of me. After all I was a total stranger who would be living in their home. The eldest boy Tane, who at seventeen was already a giant like his dad and played rugby with Daniel, sat scrutinising me. He was like a brother to Daniel so I could understand him being protective. Matiu was Mika’s second eldest at just a year younger than Tane and he had a smart mouth with just enough charm to get away with it. “So do we get to call you aunt as well?” asked Matiu with a cheeky smile. “Actually you’re too pretty to be our aunt.” He was definitely going to be a handful.

Mika choked on a piece of chicken he was chewing. “Watch your mouth Matiu. Have some respect for grown-ups,” making the point clear that Matiu was in fact still a boy. Everyone went quiet. Mika’s word was obviously the law in this house.

“Sorry dad, I was just joking,” said Matiu, looking embarrassed.

“It’s fine. How about you call me Hannah?” I smiled at Matiu, trying to keep the peace.

Matiu nodded and gave me his charming a smile. His younger sister Maia, who was just thirteen, rolled her eyes at her brother. She smiled at me reassuringly and I smiled back gratefully. I looked up and saw Mika watching our interaction. His eyebrows drew together and he seemed put out. I thought he’d be glad I was trying to get on with his family.

Mika’s youngest boy Niko, who was nine, was trying to make Kat laugh by playing drums with pieces of chicken. It warmed my heart to see her smile. Looking around I wondered how Mika had managed to bring up such good kids on his own. I could see why him and Josh had become friends, given their similar circumstances. He probably felt a little lonely at the loss of his friend. I glanced at Mika who was smiling at a rugby story Daniel and Tane were telling him. He looked at me and his smile dropped, reminding me we’d never be friends. I would need to remember to treat him like any other landlord.

The morning we finally moved in with Mika was emotional for the children. They were saying goodbye to their childhood home where they had memories of their father and mother. Daniel and Amy still blamed me for our predicament but at least they got on with Mika and his kids. Kat was helping me bring the lighter boxes downstairs when Mika arrived with the removal van which he’d insisted on arranging.

“This is a lot of stuff. Did you get rid of anything at all?” Mika asked.

“I got rid of a lot but some of it is Josh’s old stuff that I don’t think they were ready to part with yet.”

“Fine, we’ll keep some of it in storage and maybe go through it another time.”

“Are you sure about this?” I asked him, glancing around at the mounds of boxes. “There’s still time to back out,” I joked.

“Of course I’m sure. I would never back out of this,” he said seriously.

“I know, I was just kidding.” He frowned making me feel foolish for joking.

The van was filled, then Mika and I followed it to his place in our cars. Daniel opted to travel with Mika and his family in the four-by-four. I think Amy would have joined them if there’d been any room. Instead she had to slum it with Luke, Kat and I in my old Fiesta. As I pulled up into Mika’s driveway, I took a deep breath and let it sink in that this was going to be our home now.

“Let us show you all your rooms before we start to unload the boxes,” Mika said. “It’ll be a bit of a squeeze for a while but once the extension is built, you’ll all have your own rooms,” he assured. Luke was sharing with Matiu and Niko in one of the big rooms. Amy, Kat and Maia took the other big room, while Daniel and Tane had a smaller room each. That left a box room for me, which was at the opposite end of the house, furthest away from Mika’s. It looked like it may have been a walk-in wardrobe at some point as there were clothes rails on one side but it had a window. There was enough room for a bed under the rails and a wardrobe but not enough for a desk. That was actually fine as I spent a lot of time working in coffee shops anyway. Was I being paranoid that he put me in a room away from everyone else? I supposed someone had to be in there and it wasn’t as though I could afford to be choosy.

“I thought you might want your privacy. Plus kids can be noisy when you’re not used to them.” He gave me a patronising look. I got the message loud and clear. He was an expert at raising a big family and I had no clue.

“Thanks. That’s very considerate,” I forced myself to say.

“It’s not like you have a lot of stuff, so I’m sure you’ll be fine in here,” he almost sneered. I wasn’t materialistic, so he was right in a way. My only possessions were my suitcase, laptop and car so I really didn’t need much space. A single bed was fine too. It wasn’t as though I’d be bringing a boyfriend back home. In fact celibacy was on the cards for me for at least the next decade.

“Great, thank you,” I said cordially, refusing to let him get a rise out of me.

Adapting to the routine of the household took a bit of getting used to. There were only two bathrooms so the mornings were a little chaotic. Both Kat and Niko were at the same school so I volunteered to drive them, while the others all piled into Mika’s giant car. Mika and I stayed out of each other’s way for the most part but he insisted we all had dinner together every night. It was his family’s routine and now it was ours too. When I’d been living alone, I’d mostly just snack between deadlines so sharing mealtimes with so many people was a little overwhelming at first but I enjoyed listening to all their stories. I was still l feeling like nobody really wanted me there plus Mika never tried to include me in the conversation so I mostly just watched the interaction.

The building work on the house was also coming along well and I was learning a lot watching the construction crew. When Mika was in work, I lent a hand and they had even let me lay some of the foundation bricks, which was actually quite fun. I enjoyed being useful. The crew were entertaining and I could tell they enjoyed having me around, even if it was just to make them cups of tea.

“So what did you do today?” Mika asked. He was cooking as he never trusted me to make it. Maybe he thought I’d poison him. We’d all been living together for about a month and the question felt strange as it was the first time he’d initiated conversation outside of talking about the children.

“Erm, nothing exciting. I helped the guys out in the back yard with some of the building work and managed to file a story through for the magazine.”

He dropped the ladle he was using to stir the pot of stew. “You helped with the building work?”

“Well, I just helped move stuff and lay a few bricks.”

Mika stared at me for a few seconds and turned to face me with his hands on his hips. “Why? Also, since when do you know how to lay bricks?” He looked annoyed.

“The guys taught me how to do it. I’ve been helping them for a few weeks. It’s interesting.” I felt like I was in trouble but I couldn’t understand why.

“The guys? What so you’re all friends now?”

“Not really, they’ve just been teaching me some things and I thought I could be useful.”

“I’ve paid good money to get the best men in to do the work. I don’t want my house to come tumbling down just because you felt like having a go.” he growled.

“They wouldn’t let me do something if they thought I couldn’t do it. Don’t be so patronising. I only laid a few bricks.”

“I’ve spent too much money on the work for this house to have you come along and mess it up. I don’t want you anywhere near those builders.”

“I’m not a child Mika. I would never ruin the house. It’s fascinating to me to see the house being constructed and I just wanted to learn.” I was actually feeling upset that he thought me so incapable of doing anything.

“It’s not your business, so stay out of it and no more trying to help out. I don’t want you distracting them and having us fall behind deadline.”

“I’ve helped out lots of times and I have not distracted them at all. If anything they appreciated the help.” My hands were on my hips now and I was really annoyed.

“I bet they did,” he said in a low voice. He really did hate the thought of me having any interaction with anyone he knew.

“I just wanted to be more involved and to help. I was always supervised so there’s no need to worry,” I said defensively.

“I invited you to stay here because the kids need a home and I want them with me. I know that means you have to be here too but don’t forget you’re a guest so I don’t want you meddling into my business or the plans for my house.”

His words hurt. I realised despite everything I was still an outsider to him. Even though I was paying rent, this was his house so I had to accept that.

“Fine, message received. It’s not my house and I’m just a guest. I get it.”

All of a sudden the road ahead felt even lonelier as I thought about what the next ten years would be like until Kat was an adult. There was no way I would last that long living with Mika but I really didn’t want to uproot the children again anytime soon.

He must have seen how close I was to wanting to pack our things and said, “I didn’t mean it like that. Living here is one thing but trying to build my house is not acceptable.”

“I wasn’t trying to build your house. I was just helping out because I was interested.”

“Is it really the cement you’re interested in or is it the guys mixing it?” He narrowed his eyes at me fiercely. I was offended that he thought I would stoop so low just to ogle the workmen.

“You know what? It’s none of your business,” I shouted.

“Stay out of their way Hannah, I mean it,” he warned, grabbing my arm.

In my head I was imagining smacking Mika over the head with a shovel and burying him in the foundation of cement. Instead I pulled my arm out of huge giant hand and stormed off. He couldn’t see the middle finger I put up to him as I disappeared over the top of the stairs on the way to my bedroom. It was childish but he brought out the worse in me. Unfortunately, I didn’t see Matiu reaching the top of the stairs at the same time.

“Did you just flip my dad off?” he looked shocked and laughed.

“No! I was checking my nail. I think I broke it.” My answer was quick but I was so red faced at having been caught that he had to know it was a lie.

He laughed. “Don’t worry, I do it all the time.”

“Well you shouldn’t,” I said trying to admonish him but knowing I couldn’t really have the moral high ground after he’d caught me doing the same thing.

“But you just did it.”

“I told you. I was checking my nail,” I lied.

“Sure you were,” he almost sang as he walked down the stairs. I would have asked him not to tell his father but then I’d have had to admit what I’d done, so I kept quiet. This parenting lark was not easy.

Chapter 6

Despite the run in with Mika I still continued to help out with the construction while he was in work. He was being unreasonable and what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. I bribed the workers with tea and biscuits so they wouldn’t tell him. I got on especially well with the architect, Nick Martin, who had started visiting now the groundwork was done. The plans looked amazing and Mika actually had great vision for the house with huge windows and lots of light travelling through. Nick had taken Mika’s ideas and produced a plan for an eco-friendly house that would be a work of art when it was finished. It was just a shame I had to keep my enthusiasm a secret from Mika, who avoided me most of the time and when he did see me struggled hide his annoyance at my existence. My relationship with the kids was improving as in they tolerated me but apart from Kat, I couldn’t be certain they would have even noticed if I had suddenly disappeared without a trace.

I was brushing Kat’s hair in the bathroom before school and attempting for the third time but failing miserably to put it into a braid, when I heard sniffling in the bedroom she shared with Amy and Maia.

“Kat, if you brush the sections, I’ll come back and try the braid again in a minute okay?”

She nodded and got to work on pulling the brush through her long brown hair. I held my ear to the girls’ bedroom door and could hear whimpering again. There was no response when I knocked lightly, so I walked in.

Amy was crying and her face crumpled when she saw me.

“Go away,” she said burying her face in the pillow.

It was a shock to see her so distressed. I sat down next to her on the bed desperate to know what was wrong. Tentatively I stroked my hand along her hair like my mother used to do to me, knowing any second, she could turn around and bite my head off.

“Amy what’s wrong?” I asked gently.

“Nothing. Just go away.”

“I know I’m not your parent but you know you can tell me anything.”

“I want dad,” she sobbed. “I just wish he was here so I could talk to him.” My heart broke for her. She’d been through so much, they all had, having lost their mother to cancer five years before and now their father.

“I know you do sweetie. Life is cruel and you have all had to deal with too much.” I stroked her hair again. “You know in a way he’ll never really be gone if he’s in your thoughts. You can even talk to him if that helps. When my granddad died, I’d still talk to him about anything that was bothering me and I’d imagine what he would tell me to do. I still do it now and it feels like he’s still with me. Try it. If your dad was here what would you tell him?”

“I’d tell him I want him back and that I hate my classes because my friends aren’t speaking to me. They think I’m miserable all the time but I don’t want to have sleep overs and talk about boys. Who cares?”

“So you’re having problems with your friends?”

“It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. It’s all just stupid.”

“It’s not stupid and it does matter. It’s upset you so it does matter. Something must have happened to make you feel like this.”

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