“Mark!” Hoisting their six-week-old baby girl higher in the crook of her arm whilst simultaneously hanging onto their wriggling seven-year-old, Melissa called frantically after her husband, who’d set off at a run towards the burned-out cottage diagonally opposite their own. The fire was doused now, fire officers wearily reeling in hoses, but it couldn’t be safe to go near the property yet. “Mark, come back!” she shouted, and he hesitated for a split second, obviously debating his options before deciding on access to the back of the cottage via the garden gate. And then he was off, the distressed mewl of a cat driving him to instinctively react, as he tended to.
Oh God, what was he doing? Melissa held her breath as he scaled the back gate and disappeared over it, then her heart lurched violently in her chest as their daughter tore her hand from her own and made a determined dash to go after him. “Poppy!” she screamed.
“It’s all right. I’ve got her.” Moving faster than Melissa, their neighbour, the owner of the property that had caught fire in the night, went after her, sweeping Poppy up into her arms.
The fire officers had cordoned off the lane, and Melissa would have caught her before she’d gone far, but even so . . . Her world had gone off kilter for a nauseating few seconds. “Thank you.”
Her heart rate returning to somewhere near normal, Melissa smiled gratefully at the woman as she walked back towards her. She’d moved in just before Evie had been born. Melissa had meant to pop over and see her, but then, with a new baby to care for and her business beginning to take off, providing she could fulfil her orders, she hadn’t managed to make time. She should have. She was clearly the kind of person you would hope to have as a neighbour.
“I want to go with Daddy,” Poppy whimpered, kneading her eyes tiredly with her knuckles. “I’m frightened.”
“He’ll be back in a minute, sweetheart,” the woman assured her, gently coaxing her hand from her face. “I think he knows how terribly frightened my cat is, too, so he’s gone to try and rescue her. He’s a very brave man, isn’t he?”
Poppy surveyed the woman uncertainly for a second, then she sniffled and nodded over the thumb she’d plugged into her mouth. “He’s a policeman,” she said shyly.
“Is he?” The woman widened her eyes, looking impressed for Poppy’s sake. “Well, he’s a very brave policeman indeed. I think he should have a medal, don’t you?”
Poppy nodded happily at that. “Yes,” she said, settling more easily into the woman’s arms.
“I’ll hold onto her, shall I?” The woman smiled and nodded towards Melissa’s bundle. “You seem to have your hands full.”
Melissa followed her gaze, down to the content little miracle in her arms, who, amazingly, had slept through the cacophony of noise around them. “Thank you,” she said again, looking back to the woman, who was actually not much more than a girl in her early twenties at most. “Are you all right?” she asked her worriedly. Just a few short hours ago, Mark, having noticed the ominous orange glow through their bedroom window, had raced outside to find Monk’s Cottage thoroughly on fire and her sobbing in the lane.
“Well, you know.” Managing a tremulous smile, she shrugged. “I suppose there’s always a bright side. At least I’m alive.”She was clearly the kind of person you would hope to have as a neighbour.
“Mummy, when’s Daddy coming back?” Poppy asked, as Melissa pondered the stupidity of her question. Of course she wouldn’t be all right, what with all her earthly possessions gone up in flames.
“Soon, sweetie,” Melissa promised, glancing from her daughter’s huge chocolate-brown eyes, which were so like her father’s, every emotion dancing therein, and then back towards the smoke-blackened cottage, praying that Mark hadn’t gone into the building. No, surely not. Distressed cat or not, he would be well aware of the dangers. Nevertheless, Melissa’s apprehension grew as she watched one of the fire officers heading that way after him.
“I don’t know your name,” the woman said, chatting to Poppy, trying to distract her. Melissa was grateful.
“Poppy . . . What’s your name?”
“I’m Jade. And I think your Daddy will be out very soon. Do you know how I know?”
Poppy furrowed her brow over the thumb she still had wedged in her mouth. “How?”
“Listen.” Jade cocked an ear. “What do you hear?”
Poppy tilted her head to one side, the little furrow in her brow deepening as she concentrated. Then, “The cat’s stopped meowing,” she said delightedly.
“That’s right. Which probably means your daddy’s found her, which means your daddy’s a hero.”
“He is.” Poppy nodded importantly. “He catches all the baddies and puts them in prison so we can all be safe.”
“I bet he does.” Jade exchanged a knowing glance with Melissa. “I bet he rescues all sorts of animals and people from all sorts of dangers, too.”
“He does. And he shoos the scary bug monster from under my bed,” Poppy informed her, her little face earnest. “I’m going to be a policeman when I grow up, aren’t I, Mummy?”
“That’s right, sweetie.” Melissa smiled distractedly, her gaze still fixed on the gate.
“Daddy’s going to teach me, isn’t—”
“Oh, thank God.” Melissa blew out a sigh of relief as her husband finally reappeared, nursing the cat, which appeared to be subdued, miraculously. No doubt Mark had worked a little bit of his magic on it. The man was as soft as a brush when it came to animals and children. Melissa had no idea how he did the job he did, witnessing such despicable acts of cruelty sometimes, things that really could make a grown man cry. Mind you, she arranged her face into a suitably annoyed expression as he neared her.
Obviously sensing he might be in the doghouse, Mark did his usual trick, disarming her with that sheepish and far too winning smile of his, the look in his soulful brown eyes somewhere between contrite and teasing. DI Mark Cain obviously knew her too well, confident she would forgive him his sins—because she loved him, irrevocably. He was her rock, there for her when she’d been lost, gently helping her find the will to go on when depression had been a dark, cloying blanket threatening to suffocate her. She hadn’t wanted to go on after losing Jacob. Wouldn’t have, if not for Mark, whose heart had been quietly breaking too. Mark had loved their little baby boy, who’d been so outwardly perfect, but whose tiny lungs couldn’t function independently. It had been there in his all-telling eyes. He’d so wanted the family she couldn’t give him. The normal functional family that, with his awful, abusive childhood, he’d never had. He’d never made her feel inadequate, not with a look, not with a gesture, but she had felt inadequate. Especially after the miscarriages.
Mark had his flaws, a tendency to withdraw when he was immersed in some horrendous case, seemingly moody to those who didn’t know the caring man underneath, but from the first time she’d met him, forcing herself to report her previous boyfriend, a manipulative excuse of a man who’d eventually shown his true colours and hit her, she’d known Mark was one of the good guys. He’d handled the case sensitively, checked up on her afterwards, become her white knight. He’d been a catch. This much Melissa knew, because, having told him that much once, Mark had never missed an opportunity to remind her he was. He didn’t do a bad back massage either, she reminded herself, unable to stop her mouth curving into a reciprocal smile as he stopped in front of them.…Mark did his usual trick, disarming her with that sheepish and far too winning smile of his, the look in his soulful brown eyes somewhere between contrite and teasing.
“He’s got her! He’s got her!” Poppy exclaimed, bouncing excitedly in Jade’s arms. “Daddy! You’re a hero!” She extended her own small arms, obviously wanting to latch herself onto him, inconsiderate of the poor cat.
“Definitely a hero,” Jade agreed emotionally, her eyes filling up as she stepped towards him. Blue eyes, Melissa noticed—striking ice-blue. The sort of eyes you couldn’t fail to be mesmerised by.
“Er . . .” His arms full of her cat, Jade’s full of his child, Mark looked nonplussed at how to make the swap. “Jump down a sec, Poppet,” he asked Poppy, giving her a reassuring smile. “I’ll pick you right back up as soon as Jade has her cat back.”
“Is she your baby?” Poppy asked, dutifully allowing herself to be lowered to the ground while Mark passed Jade his furry charge.
“Yes.” Jade nodded, reaching to take the cat gently from Mark’s arms, and then leaning in to plant a soft kiss on his cheek. “She’s my whole world. Thank you, Mark.”
“My pleasure,” Mark said, looking ever-so-slightly embarrassed as he bent to swoop Poppy up into his arms. And then he almost choked when Poppy locked her arms around his neck and announced, “Daddy’s good at making babies, too. He made one with Mummy, didn’t you, Daddy? He could make you a proper one if you asked him nicely, couldn’t you, Daddy?”
“Um, I, er . . . Ahem.” Mark clearly didn’t know where to look as Melissa and Jade swapped amused glances.
“I think Daddy’s a bit too busy, Poppy,” said Melissa, deciding now might be a good time to rescue him.
“Busy causing chaos,” the chief fire officer added, a despairing look on his face as he approached.
“Don’t do a solo again, hey, mate? You, above all people, should know it’s not on. No one near the property until it’s been cleared by the fire safety officer. I ought to report it. You’ll land me in hot water up to my neck if you end up suffering from smoke inhalation.”
“Yes, sorry.” Mark looked contrite. “I didn’t—”
“She wasn’t inside. She was in the tree. She got scared and ran before I could catch hold of her,” Jade interrupted, clearly seeing that Mark might need rescuing here too. “When will it be? The fire safety officer’s visit, I mean,” she added, neatly changing the subject.
The fire officer turned to her, and did a double take, literally. Melissa wasn’t surprised. Wearing a nightie under the jacket one of the firemen had supplied her, albeit a modest winceyette affair, and with her long blonde hair tousled and just-got-out-of-bed gorgeous, Jade was undeniably attractive. “I’m not quite sure,” he said, clearly taken with her. “Do you want to come over to the engine while I make a call?”
Melissa watched them go, Jade cuddling her cat, looking fragile and vulnerable, despite her well-developed curves, the fire officer unable to resist looking sideways at her. “Do you think he’s trying to impress her?” she asked Mark.
“Undoubtedly,” Mark concurred. “I doubt he’ll get very far though.”
“Oh? Because she’s beautiful, you mean?” She idly wondered if the girl had had Botox. Her lips and eyebrows were perfect. But then, she supposed, at her age they probably would be.
“Yes.” Mark nodded, keeping his gaze fixed forwards. “And young,” he added, his mouth curving into a mischievous smile as Melissa glared at him.
“Uh-oh,” Mark said, winking at Poppy. “I think I might be in the doghouse, after all.”
“Don’t be silly.” Poppy sighed expansively, giving him a despairing roll of her eyes. “Hercules doesn’t have a house. He sleeps on my bed.”
“I think he might need to move over to make room for me.” Mark laughed, reading the now very peeved expression on Mel’s face. “I meant that he’s twice her age,” he clarified, obviously realising he was on thin ice. “And, yes, Jade is pretty, as you’ve just pointed out, but not half as gorgeous as you, Mrs. Cain, is she, Poppet?”
“No’s the right answer,” he whispered, as Poppy looked doubtful, making Melissa laugh. She couldn’t help it. The two of them together were mischief in the making. “Especially wearing my shirt,” Mark added, rescuing himself this time. “Though I prefer it without the leggings under.”
“Hmm?” Melissa wasn’t ready to let him off the hook yet. “You don’t wear leggings,” Poppy piped up, her huge eyes saucered in astonishment as she squirmed in Mark’s arms to stare at him, which caused them both to burst out laughing.
“Only on Sundays.” Mark assured her, hoisting Poppy onto one arm to reach in his pocket for his beeping mobile.
“You’ve met her then?” Melissa asked, easing the shawl to one side to check on Evie, who was still sleeping soundly.
“What?” Mark looked up distractedly from his phone.
Work texting him, Melissa guessed. “Jade.” She nodded towards where Jade was gathering quite a uniformed fan club. “I noticed you knew her name, so I assumed you’d met.”
“Out jogging. She runs around the same time I do,” Mark confirmed, his mind clearly more on the text he’d received than their new neighbour.
“She is very young, isn’t she? To own her own home, I mean?”
“That’s what I thought,” Mark said, his brow furrowed in concentration as he thumbed in a reply.
“Her parents passed away recently, apparently. Left her a tidy sum.”
“Oh no.” Melissa immediately felt for her. Losing her own mum before she’d hit thirty was bad enough, but to lose both parents at Jade’s young age would be terrible.
“You have to admire her pluckiness, buying a property, especially one in need of renovation.” Mark glanced at Melissa and then back to Poppy, who’d clearly figured out that Daddy’s mobile beeping early in the morning meant he would soon be leaving, and who was now fastening herself more firmly around his neck.Noticing the fresh tears brimming in the girl’s eyes as she reached them, Melissa’s heart went out to her.
“Especially now,” Melissa said, looking across to what had been reduced to an uninhabitable property and then towards Jade, who was walking back towards them, looking like a lost soul. Noticing the fresh tears brimming in the girl’s eyes as she reached them, Melissa’s heart went out to her. “I take it it’s going to take a while?” she said sympathetically.
Nodding, Jade dropped her gaze and nuzzled her cat. “It looks like it was probably an electrical fault, but they can’t be sure until they’ve done all the checks.”
“So, what will you do?” Mel asked, trying to make eye contact with Mark, whose phone was now ringing.
“Start the renovation over, I suppose.” Jade sighed, and then, clearly seeing that Mark needed to take his call and Melissa was struggling to manoeuvre Evie into the crook of her arm, moved to coax Poppy down with promises of chocolate.
Again, Melissa was grateful, if not overjoyed at the chocolate temptation. “She’s allergic to dairy,” she said, smiling nevertheless. “But she can have a vegan chocolate bar, since she’s being such a good girl, hey, Poppy?”
Amazingly, Poppy allowed Jade to unlatch her from her father, who was incapable of being strict with her.
“Allergic?” Jade looked utterly stricken as she lowered Poppy gently to the ground and took hold of her hand, as Mark stepped away to take his call. “God, how stupid of me,” she said, closing her eyes.
“Don’t look so mortified.” Melissa laughed. “You weren’t to know.”
“No, but we covered food allergies on my course so it should have occurred to me to ask,” Jade said dejectedly. “I did a childcare course in college,” she supplied, as Melissa eyed her curiously.
“Well, it will next time.” Melissa smiled encouragingly. “I actually meant where will you stay?” The girl was standing in the road with barely a stitch to her name.
Jade shrugged disconsolately. “I have a friend I could ring,” she said, looking uncertain.
Again, Melissa felt her heart twist for her. “No family you can call?” she asked carefully.
At that, Jade quickly shook her head, and then looked down at Poppy with a reassuring smile. “I’ll sort something out, don’t worry,” she said, giving her hand a squeeze.
Poppy, though, didn’t look convinced. “You can’t go out in your nightie,” she said, her huge brown eyes aghast. “It’s not allowed.”
“Come home with us,” Melissa offered. It was the least she could do.
“Yay!” Jumping on the spot, Poppy immediately gave that idea her seal of approval.
“I’m sure I can find you something to wear. We’re about the same size,” Melissa went on, as Jade hesitated, “if you don’t mind jeans or leggings, that is. I spend most of my life up to my eyes in clay when I’m not changing nappies or doing the school run, so it’s jeans or evening wear, I’m afraid.”
“She can’t wear a sparkly dress in the day, Mummy,” Poppy pointed out exasperatedly.
“Who can’t?” Mark asked, a familiar faraway look in his eyes as he turned back from his call.
“Jade,” Poppy informed him. “She’s coming home with us. Mummy’s going to share some of her clothes with her.”
“Good idea.” Mark smiled. “Sorry, got to go,” he said, bend- ing to plant a kiss on Poppy’s nose and another gently to Evie’s forehead.
“Um, haven’t we forgotten something?” Melissa asked him, as he turned towards his car.
“Damn.” Squeezing his eyes closed, Mark turned back to kiss Melissa, now looking definitely distracted, she noted. The call must have been important. She’d seen that look many times before.
“I actually meant your car keys,” she said.
“Ah, right.” Realising he was minus said car keys, and work jacket, and his ID, having dashed out when he’d spotted the fire, Mark headed swiftly past her back to their own cottage.
Rolling her eyes good-naturedly as he disappeared through the front door, Melissa beckoned Jade and—with Poppy skip- ping happily alongside her—they strolled more leisurely in the same direction.
Thirty seconds later Mark bowled past them again. “Bye,” he said, spinning on his heel to smile apologetically. “Sorry, it’s—”
“Urgent. I gathered. Go.” Melissa waved him onwards.
“Bye, Daddy!” Poppy called after him. “Love you bigger than the sky.”
“Bye, Poppet,” Mark called. “Love you bigger than the sky and all the stars.” Blowing her a kiss, he shrugged embarrassedly at Jade and then climbed quickly in the driver’s side.
“He’s nice, your daddy, isn’t he?” said Jade, as Mark started the engine and pulled away.
“Yes.” Poppy nodded adamantly. “Mummy says he’s too nice for his own good sometimes, but I don’t really understand what she means.”
“That people might easily take advantage of him,” Jade explained, with a knowing smile.
From THE BABYSITTER. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grand Central. Copyright © 2019 by Sheryl Browne.