Read The Mill House Online

Authors: Susan Lewis

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #contemporary romance

The Mill House



The door flew open, his arms went wide and as she ran into them they laughed and laughed and spun round and round.

'Ah haaa,' he cried, pleasure resonating in his voice as he held her tight.

'Ah haaa,' she echoed, loving him madly.

It happened this way sometimes - he'd be home early from the office, and would greet her coming in from school as though they hadn't seen each other in weeks. It was a daft little ritual that pleased them immensely, always had, for as long as Julia could remember. He was her best friend, though she never admitted that to anyone, or they'd probably think she was weird - who had their dad as a best friend, for God's sake? Strange! Creepy. Grow up and get a life. But no-one else had a dad like hers. He was different, special, someone she could tell anything to, even which boys she liked and who'd asked her out. He listened when she had something to say, helped with her homework, got involved in her hobbies

and never minded about keeping a distance if he had to. It made him proud to know she was growing up and starting to manage without him.

Everyone else Julia knew, all the girls, had much better relationships with their mothers - when they weren't fighting and hating each other, that was. They shopped and gossiped together, borrowed each other's clothes and even slept in the same bed when their dads weren't around. Her sister, Pam, was definitely close to their mother, but neither of them went in for fun, girlie things, nor did they ever sleep in the same bed. Sometimes, their dad would snuggle in under the duvet with Julia when it was freezing outside, but they didn't ever mention that to anyone, because other people would only get the wrong idea, and they both knew there was nothing wrong in it, nothing at all. Her mother would say there was, though, so would her sister, but they were a much more serious pair, level-headed, introverted and even, some might say - and Julia was one of them - cold. No, give her her father any day, because he was always warm and light-hearted, silly when he knew it would make her laugh and full of sympathy and understanding if anything upset her. He knew how to make things better, whether it was a kiss on a scratched knee when she was three, or a cheer-up train ride to London after her first boyfriend dumped her when she was fourteen.

'He was a bit peculiar anyway,' he'd commented as they rumbled and rolled through the countryside on their way to Paddington and Piccadilly and the best theatre seats he could buy. 'His ears were too big.' Heartbroken she might be, but a bubble of laughter managed to find its way through, and by the time they took the last train back to Gloucestershire she was at pains to remember the boy's name, never mind how much she'd liked him.

It was a shame that Pam was so quiet and withdrawn, because Julia knew their father loved her too, but Pam didn't like to be touched, or to share her thoughts, or even to spend time in the garden where their father laid out flower beds specially for them, and built swings and ponds and a very grand gazebo. Their mother took a great deal of pleasure in the garden, and Julia loved to listen to her praising her father's efforts, or to watch the rare moments of affection between them, for her mother didn't usually care for public displays of any kind.

'Daddy, do you and Mummy love each other?' Julia used to ask when she was little.

'Of course we do,' he'd answer. 'We're just different in the ways we show it.'

'Tell me about how you met,' she'd urge, because she never tired of romantic stories, particularly where her parents were concerned.

So he'd tell her about the first time he saw Alice Hope, a tall, extremely elegant young lady whose beauty had dazzled him, and whose quiet gentleness had totally captivated him. Julia loved the way his grey-blue eyes twinkled with mischief and merriment, indicating perhaps that he might be inventing some of the things he told her. But it didn't matter, his stories were always wonderful and exciting and full of the kinds of

adventures she longed for. She'd sit there entranced for hours, never wanting them to end. Sometimes Pam would be found listening at the door, but whenever their father tried to encourage her in, she'd slink away and go back to the books in her room.

'She's a dedicated reader, my girl Pam,' their father used to say, 'but Julia, with her love of the bizarre and fascination for everything new, will be a famous writer one of these days.'

This had become Julia's dream. She would prove him right, because it was what she wanted more than anything, to be a successful writer, and to make him proud. Her mother would be proud too, she was sure of it, she'd just have a different way of showing it.

Then suddenly, just before her sixteenth birthday, the terrible thing happened. Julia never knew what it was, she only heard her mother's screams in the sitting room one night, and her father shouting back. She'd never heard him raise his voice before, so it frightened her more than the loud crashes and bangs that told her they were smashing the house apart, and probably even each other. She tried to get out of her room to go and make them stop, but Pam had tied one end of a rope to her door handle and the other to her own.

'You're besotted with that child,' she heard her mother yell. 'It's not right.. .'

'Don't you dare .. .' her father roared.

'You're sick!' her mother screeched. 'I want you to get out of this house, and never come back.'

'No!' Julia screamed, banging on her door. 'Dad, let me out! Let me out!'

In the end he came up to her, his face cut and bleeding, his lovely, lively blue eyes dull with pain. It' s all right,' he told her, taking her in his arms, 'it'll be all right.'

'What happened? Why is Mum so angry?' 'Ssh, we won't talk about it now,’ he told her, stroking her silky dark hair. 'Later. We'll talk about it later.'

But they never did.

'What do you mean, he's gone?' Julia cried, coming home from school one day the following week. 'He lives here. He can't go.'

'Well he has,' her mother responded, tight- lipped and pale, 'and the quicker you get used to it..'

'Nooooo! Where is he? What have you done to him.-. ?'

'Julia, pull yourself together. I'm not discussing this. It's better that you don't know .. .' 'You have to tell me.' 'Go to your room, now!' 'I will not. I want to know where he is.’ Her mother advanced on her, eyes flashing with fury. 'You're a wicked girl,' she seethed, 'and if there's any justice in this world that man will be locked up and never allowed near you again.'

'What do you mean? He's my father. He'd never hurt me .. .'

'Don't be a fool, Julia. You saw what he did to me. How do you think I got these bruises?'

Julia looked at her with wide, frightened eyes. Her father couldn't have caused those livid dark shadows or the red cut on her mother's eyebrow, he was gentle and kind and would never hurt

anyone - but she'd heard them fighting, had seen the marks on him too.

Three months later their house, near Cirencester, was put up for sale and they moved in with her mother's brother and his wife. Julia had never cared for her uncle, nor had her father. They used to make jokes behind his giant back, and have to smother their laughter. If George caught them he'd try to make them join him in a prayer asking God for forgiveness, which would make them laugh even more.

Without her father there to turn the sombreness and sobriety into fun and laughter, the ordeal of living with her aunt and uncle became almost intolerable. Julia tried to make a friend of Pam, to find out if she hated it too, but Pam was even colder and more distant than ever, and it wasn't long before she left for college. So Julia was alone with her uncle's interminable prayers and her mother's growing hostility. They fought almost all the time, as Julia kept demanding to know where her father was, and refused to believe he didn't care for her any more. She waited, week after week, month after month, for him to contact her, but he never did. No-one she asked seemed to know where he was or what had happened to him, none of his friends, nor his colleagues nor their old neighbours - or if they did, they weren't saying. He had no other family but them, so there were no relatives to turn to, only her mother and uncle and aunt, and as her resentment at their silence grew it became edged with hatred. Julia could hardly wait to go to university, and when the time came she left vowing never to visit her mother again.

Not until she met and fell in love with Joshua Thayne did the ice around her heart start to thaw. He was a man she knew her father would have adored as much as she did, and who adored her too. There were never any doubts about marrying him, or about supporting him at the start of his career with her own generous salary as a book editor, or about having his children.

They were happy, fulfilled, and over the years, as their children grew, Julia came to think of her father less and less. The pain was buried deep inside her now, as were the longing and the memories of all the happy times they had shared. The horrifying suspicion of why he had abandoned her was something she only ever confided to Josh, reluctantly, but even with him she found it difficult to put it into words. It was best to keep the lurking fear hidden, locked away, for no-one had ever actually told her the truth, so why should she be the one to voice it? As far as she was concerned he was the man who'd loved and protected her, who'd always been there for her until her mother had made him go away.


Chapter One


Julia's dark eyes rounded with shock. 'What the hell is that?' she demanded.

Josh was amused. 'Well, what does it look like?' he countered.

She blinked and wished it would go away. 'I'll tell you what it looks like,' she responded. 'It looks like something I really don't want to be seeing outside my front door.'

'Oh come on, darling. It's beautiful - and it's our front door.'

Before he could go any further she turned to face him, struggling to keep her temper in check. 'Please tell me this isn't what I think it is,' she challenged, her flawless ivory complexion flushing to a shade of red that, did she but know it, rather matched the offending object at the gate. 'Tell me you are not making an early morph into a cliche. Take a breath, think about your answer, then tell me this is a joke.'

'It's not a joke.'

'I'll laugh,' she assured him.

He laughed.

'You are thirty-seven years old,' she heard herself trying not to shout, as though some nasty little shrew had swooped in from the wings to appropriate her voice. 'You're not supposed to have a toy like that until you're at least fifty.'

He laughed again. 'I don't know what you're getting so worked up about. It's only a car.'

'With two seats, Joshua. Two. By my reckoning, that makes one for you and one for Barbie.'


'Don't be obtuse. We're a family of four, remember? That means the kids and I are right here, living in this house, on this street, where you also happen to live, when you find time to drop in that is, and where, until this morning, a much beloved and trusty old Peugeot estate, which we need to function, as a family, was the sentinel at our gate. So where is it now, Josh? Did you trade her in? Is that what you've done to the fifth member of our family? Is that the fate the rest of us can look forward to, now you've decided to become peri-menopausal and get a Porsche?'

Josh's humour wasn't holding up. The playful light in his normally irresistible blue eyes had been effectively snuffed by the dig about him dropping in, as though he were an estranged father with visiting rights, rather than a man whose family meant everything to him, which well she knew. In fact, virtually none of their friends could boast the kind of closeness they had always shared, a closeness he valued above anything else in his life, which was why he really didn't appreciate remarks like that, any more than he admired the woman his wife

seemed to be turning into lately. The Peugeot's at my office,' he said tightly. 'I was hoping to take you for a spin and then we'd go to pick her up.'

Julia regarded him with her exquisite, slanted eyes, the natural flare of her nostrils widening with temper, the fullness of her usually red mouth seeming pale and drawn. She wasn't even close to being pacified, though she was relieved to hear that dear old Patsy, who'd been with them since Daniel, their adorable eleven-year-old, had come blinking into the world, hadn't been shoved aside for a younger, sleeker and altogether racier model. In her heart of hearts she was terrified of such a thing happening to her. Being three years older than her glamorous, high-flying husband hadn't seemed to matter when they were twenty-four and twenty-one, and her remarkable beauty had turned as many heads as he had. Now that she was fat and forty, it was mattering a lot. Well, OK, not fat, exactly, but she'd definitely started filling out over the summer, mostly around the waist, and her long, lithe legs and taut buttocks needed much more work at the gym than previously. As for her bust, which had always been far too big for her slender frame, the battle was really on now to stave off its descent into knickersville, which wasn't easy after breast-feeding two - and with a husband who, at least until recently, had insisted she go braless at every opportunity. 'I'm a brunette. I'm not impressed by Porsches,' she snapped, wondering where this nastiness was coming from. What had happened to the tolerant and supportive wife who'd always adored her dashing husband and his moments of rashness?

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