“And this girl was on the boat when you woke up?”
Inessa confirmed the policeman’s question for the fifth time since arriving at the station.
“But you don’t know how she got in.”
Inessa shook her head. Inspector Buxton span around in his leather chair, rolling his pen between his fingers.
“And what is your name?” he asked.
“Sarah,” Inessa said, her feet fidgeting beneath the chair.
“And your last name?”
He typed it down on his computer.
“Thank you, Sarah,” he said. “Thank you for bringing this girl to our attention. You may call your parents to pick you up, now.”
Inessa squeezed her bottom lip through her teeth. “Actually . . .” She trailed off. Buxton looked up at her with an expectant expression. What should she say? That she had no family members to contact? That she didn’t even have a phone with her?
“If you don’t mind,” she said, “I was wondering if, perhaps, you could let me stay with the girl a little longer. You know, just until I know she’s okay.”
Buxton scratched the top of his bald, chocolate-brown scalp. “I’m afraid we can’t do that for confidentiality reasons,” he told her. “She will be in the hands of the hospital now. Her medical details can only be disclosed to close friends and family members.”
“Does she have any?”
Buxton sighed, looking fed up with Inessa’s questions already. But still, he tried to stay polite. “To my knowledge,” he said, “we are still trying to identify the girl.”
“No.” The inspector cut her off. “I can assure you she will be in good hands—I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of our teams. But I must stress that there is nothing more we can do for you.”
“Come on, sir.”
Inessa turned at the new voice. She noticed the female officer who sat in the corner of the room, watching the exchange. “She did rescue the girl, after all. I know it goes against protocol, but she at least deserves to know how the girl is doing.”
Buxton glanced at his colleague briefly before turning his attention back to Inessa. He didn’t say anything, just scowled, causing Inessa to squirm in her seat. He didn’t trust Inessa, and he made no attempt to hide it.
“I’ll give her a lift down to the hospital so she can meet the girl when she arrives,” said the female officer, making Buxton’s decision for him. She beckoned for Inessa to follow. With hesitation, Inessa followed her out of the room. She tried to avoid the sergeant’s curious glances, fiddling instead with the frayed cuffs of her blue hoodie.
It was quiet at the station that morning. Their footsteps echoed along the empty corridors.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you around,” the officer said after a while. Inessa didn’t respond. “I’m Sergeant Hammond.”
The woman’s warm smile was not returned; Inessa didn’t feel like smiling. Hammond opened the door of the station and they stepped out into a pool of sunlight.
“It has certainly warmed up since this morning,” she commented when they stepped out into the open air. Her local accent was rich. “Hopefully, we should start to see more tourists today. Always a troubling time for Buxton—so many of them take the legend to heart!”
Inessa raised her gaze.
“You haven’t heard the legend?” Hammond questioned. “Of course, I don’t suppose you would have if you’re not from around here.” She stepped a little closer to Inessa. “They do say,” she said, as though revealing a big secret, “that there is a mermaid living in our harbour.” She leaned back and chuckled. “Of course, some of the tourists take it a bit too literally. Last summer alone, we had eighteen reported sightings. Drives Buxton mad!”
Sergeant Hammond had her grey hair tied back in a serious knot at the back of her head, but her face was much friendlier than Buxton’s. Nothing about this situation made Inessa feel easy, but at least she felt more comfortable talking to Hammond than Buxton. Not that Inessa was doing any of the talking.
Inessa remained silent for the whole journey. She stared out of the tinted windows at the old shop fronts as the car crawled up the hill. Signposts and shop names told her she was in a place called ‘Luther’s Rock’. She knew of it, but wouldn’t be able to place it on a map.
“So, are you hiding from the law?”
Inessa turned her head away from the window and towards the policewoman.
“I know your name isn’t Sarah,” she said. Inessa turned back to the busy shoppers. “You know that lying to the police is a criminal offence,” Hammond continued. She steered around the corner and the road levelled out. The road was still busy, but at least the traffic now flowed a little quicker.
“How old are you?”
Inessa ran a finger along the bottom of the window, collecting the dust that settled there.
“I don’t believe that either. But I won’t tell.”
The drive to the hospital was short. Sergeant Hammond waited quietly with Inessa in the foyer until the officers arrived from the station with Chloe. It seemed Hammond was starting to get the hint that Inessa didn’t want to talk.
A few minutes later, Chloe was escorted in by two officials, both of whom supported her as she struggled to place one foot in front of the other. They led her over to the wheelchairs and placed her in the nearest one before pushing her through the foyer.
Hammond explained how none of the team were even sure if her name really was Chloe. It was the only word she had spoken, and they didn’t know if it was her own name, the name of or a family member, or even that of a pet. In the last three hours, Inessa had wondered more than once how the girl came to be in her boat in the first place. They had to have been several miles out at sea. How could she have swum that far?
Inessa was glad to see the police had dressed Chloe in something more appropriate than the brown rags she found her in. With her matted blonde hair ridden with debris from the sea, she attracted the gazes of more than a few people in the foyer. That probably wasn’t helped by the way she kept muttering to herself under her breath.
“They’re going to give her a full check-up,” Hammond explained. “I doubt the doctors will let you see her before all the checks are done.”
Inessa said nothing, just watched as the officers and medics pushed her through the foyer. They rounded a corridor, out of sight.
“I understand how you feel,” Hammond said as she watched over Inessa’s shoulder. “You feel responsible for what happens to her. But the doctors know what they’re doing; she’s in safe hands.”
Under normal circumstances, Hammond told Inessa that she wouldn’t have been allowed to see Chloe. But Sergeant Hammond did some special persuading, using her police status to gain Inessa access.
By the time the doctors allowed Inessa into the ward, she had already eaten a chocolate bar and read through a magazine Sergeant Hammond bought for her. She couldn’t get her head round why the woman was being so nice. It wasn’t something she was used to.
In a private room, Chloe lay on her side, half asleep. Now dressed in a blue hospital gown, she looked even paler than before. She was wrapped in a layer of thick blankets with nurses fussing around her, keeping her as warm as they could. One nurse fumbled to hook her up to a machine which monitored her heart rate.
A noise came from Hammond’s phone. She checked in, then apologised to Inessa, as she had been called back to the station. Inessa was left on her own.
“We’ve run some of the basic tests,” explained one of the nurses beside her. She didn’t appear too comfortable with divulging this information to someone who was not related to the patient. Still, as Hammond explained, this was a special circumstance. “So far,” the nurse continued, “the results do not give us any great cause for concern. She has mild hypothermia, but we are confident we can clear it up. The girl does seem to have swallowed a large amount of sea water, though, which is likely the cause of her confusion.”
Inessa stepped a little closer to the hospital bed. In her semi-conscious state, Chloe mumbled to herself. While her vocabulary had now stretched beyond the word ‘Chloe’, her words were still mostly unintelligible.
“As she has personal possessions,” the female nurse went on, “we have yet to identify her. For argument’s sake, we are calling her Chloe but, as you know, we cannot confirm if that is actually her name.”
“What’s going to happen to her?” asked Inessa. She was still not confident enough to walk the rest of the way over to the girl’s bed, where she twitched between the covers. At least she was shivering now. That was a good sign.
“We will track her progress,” the nurse said. “It’s hard to say exactly what will happen to her over the next couple of days.”
“Can you let me know if something happens to her?”
The nurse pursed her lips. “I’m not sure about that,” she said. “It goes against our protocol.”
Inessa nodded in understanding, kind of glad Hammond wasn’t there to insist. She found it somewhat embarrassing to have a police officer speak for her.
Of course, she cared about what happened to the girl. But she couldn’t help but wish things hadn’t turned out this way. She knew she couldn’t leave Chloe now—not after this. She was going to have to stay in this town, but how was she to keep a low profile if she was always flitting between the police and the hospital? This girl had ruined her chances at starting over.
No, she corrected herself. This girl saved her life.
“Thank you for checking in on your friend, Sarah.”
It took Inessa a moment to realise the nurse was speaking to her.
“We will need you to fill in the contact form, in case it helps us or the police track down the girl’s family.” She looked down at the clipboard in her hands. “We have your name down as Sarah Woods,” she read, “but we still need your details.” She got a pen ready in her hand. “Where do you live?”
Inessa swallowed. “I don’t.”
“I don’t live here,” Inessa explained, dropping her gaze. “I’m travelling by boat. I’m still looking for accommodation.”
The nurse looked pensive. “Okay,” she said, still surveying her notes, “that shouldn’t be a problem. Can I take your phone number instead?”
“Um.” Inessa wrapped her arms around her midriff. “I don’t have one,” she said. “What I mean is, I had a phone, but I lost it overboard. Just the other day.” It wasn’t technically lying. She just left out the fact that she’d actually thrown the device into the ocean in an act of rage.
With a sigh, the nurse dropped both her clipboard and her pen to her sides. “So, you have no address, and no phone number.” She narrowed her eyes at her. “Is there something the police need to know about?”
Inessa shook her head. “No!” she said. “No, I’m just a traveller. That’s all.” She could tell the nurse had more questions biting at her tongue, but, thankfully, she held them back.
The nurse squinted at her, no doubt wondering if Inessa was telling the truth. “Do you have any form of identification?” she asked.
Now that, Inessa could do. She fished out her purse from her back pocket and held up the driving license so the nurse could see it.
Seemingly satisfied, the nurse gave a shrug and then left the room. Inessa breathed out a shaky sigh of relief, hoping she wasn’t about to talk to Sergeant Hammond about her lack of contact details.
With the nurse away, Inessa now found herself alone in the room with the girl she rescued. She inched closer to the bed and crouched in front of her. Chloe’s eyes were shut, but the movements behind her eyelids were frantic, like she was having a bad dream.
“It’s going to be okay,” Inessa said. She reached out her hand and placed it on the girl’s trembling arm. Almost immediately, she stilled. “You’re going to be fine. And so am I.” She turned back to the door the nurse exited through. “At least,” she added, “for now.”
It was still light outside. Though she’d spent most of the day at the station and the hospital, Inessa still had a few hours before she settled for the night.
Hammond offered to give her a lift back to the harbour, but she declined. She knew Hammond was suspicious of her already, but what could she do when Inessa refused to tell the truth? The best thing she could do at the moment was avoid her.
Inessa followed the signposts down the hill back to the harbour. The tide was rising fast as she went back to her boat. By all comparison, the vessel was old and discoloured, but that didn’t make it mean any less to Inessa.
She wondered if Sarah had noticed she was missing yet. Would she be mad that she took the boat? Since their father died, it was legally hers now anyway.
The morning’s events left Inessa feeling tired, but she wasn’t ready to go to bed. Not just yet. In the cabin, she took that moment to change into some more beach-worthy clothes. She ran a damp cloth over her face, hoping to remove some of the evidence that she hadn’t slept much that night.
She reached for her purse and inspected the money inside. It was barely enough to live by, but at least it meant she could feed herself tonight.
She slipped the purse into her backpack and made her way to shore. From what she’d seen of it, Luther’s Rock looked to be a charming little seaside town, and so a nice eatery shouldn’t be too difficult to come across.
Sergeant Hammond was right—the town had certainly filled up with tourists since earlier that morning. Thanks to the warm weather, the beach swarmed with giggling children and relaxing parents. It reminded Inessa of the days her family would spend on the beach back in her home town.
Her shades lowered, Inessa strode along the sea-front, taking in all the various shops. Like any other typical British seaside town, buildings from all eras lined the streets. One in particular caught her eye.
Behind the counter of the Tudor shop front, a burly man sat in a striped deckchair, a handkerchief sitting lopsided on top of his balding head. In front of him was a colourful array of delicious-looking ice-creams.
“Good afternoon, young lady,” he said in a heavy accent. His warm smile only broadened as Inessa proceeded to order a raspberry ripple ice-cream with a double flake. She even smiled herself as she took her order from the infectiously chipper vendor.
The row of shops lining the sea-front carried on further down. Inessa followed the street along as she finished her ice-cream, admiring the many colourful facades. From here, she had a spectacular view of the families enjoying themselves on the beach below. It felt almost . . . nice. Like a vague sense of normality trying to push its way into her otherwise turbulent life. If only she could lower her barriers enough to allow it in.
She read the shop signs as she passed: A jeweller’s, a drug store, a couple of clothing shops, and a couple of quaint little tea shops. It was all rather similar to her own home town, but in a different kind of way.
Right at the end of the street, with barely enough room to exist, a small art gallery was tucked away. Inessa stepped a little closer and peered in through the front window to admire the work on display. One painting on show drew her eye. It was a view of the whole of Luther’s Rock’s sea front. Viewed from the ocean, the painting was large-scale and used the most incredible colours. With its focus on the glorious beach huts in front, the rest of the town tapered off into a colourful horizon.
What other creations lay beyond the window display? She moved towards the door to find out, only to find disappointment when she saw the “closed” sign. Oh well. Perhaps some other time.
But when? Inessa realised that her stay in Luther’s Rock could only be a short one, at best. Since setting out the day before, she’d barely covered a few miles. For sure, her sister would already be looking for her. No, she needed to get further away.
But Sergeant Hammond was right—she did feel responsible for Chloe. She couldn’t leave this place until someone came to claim the girl. Or at least until she was discharged from the hospital.
So, maybe this was going to be a longer stay than she anticipated. In that case, perhaps she ought to make the most of it; enjoy her visit while it lasted. Maybe sample some of the local culture.
Inessa turned to leave when she nearly collided with something. In front of the closed gallery stood a statue. Made of stone, the piece had certainly seen better days, but its shape was still clear: A mermaid. Inessa walked round to the front of the sculpture. The life-size creature had her tail folded up in front of her and she rested her head on its scales. She looked like she was crying.
The statue reminded her of the legend Sergeant Hammond mentioned. Was this a depiction of the mermaid that allegedly roamed the harbour? There was no plaque attached to the statue to either confirm or deny her assumption.
There was, however, an engraving that labelled the piece to be a donation from the Luther’s Rock Heritage Centre. That sounded like a good place to begin her cultural tour of the town.
She’d been so enthralled by the mermaid sculpture that Inessa nearly didn't notice when an elderly man walked up to the gallery door. The jangled of keys caught her attention. He said something to her, and she looked up.
“Hmm, what?” she said.
The older man chuckled at her response. “I said he’s watching ya.”
Inessa blinked, not catching his drift. He nodded towards something over the top of Inessa’s shoulder. She turned and jumped at the sight of a giant seagull perched upon a railing, eyeing the remnants of her ice-cream greedily.
“He’s a crafty one, that ‘un,” the man continued. “I calls him Malcom. I never trusts him.”
Taking her cue, Inessa threw the empty cornet in the nearby bin.
“What,” the man said. “You ain’t gonna eat the wafer? That’s the best bit, that is!” Inessa just smiled and stuck her hands in the pockets of her shorts.
The door to the gallery opened with a tinkling bell, and the man stepped aside, gesturing for her to enter.
“After you.” His tan face crinkled with lines forged from years of welcoming smiles. As much as Inessa’s purse protested otherwise, she accepted his kindly gesture and headed into the darkened shop. The man entered close behind her and switched on the light.
“Name’s Noah,” he said, stooping down to pick up the mail on the doormat. “How can I helps ya today?”
Inessa stood and stared in awe at the many paintings adorning the walls of the gallery. Oil paintings, pastel sketches, pencil drawings, as well as other media filled the room with a hundred shapes and colours. With so many masterpieces, she found it hard to keep her eyes in the same place for more than a couple of seconds.
“I saw you outside admiring the mermaid,” Noah said when she didn’t answer. “That were given to us recently by the Heritage Centre. I takes you’ve heard the legend?”
“I’ve heard of it,” Inessa said as she continued to admire the paintings.
“I suggests heading over to the centre sometime. They have a wonderful exhibition on the Luther’s Rock mermaid.”
Noah fell silent as he rifled through the morning’s post.
“So,” he said after a while, “you here on ‘oliday?”
Inessa shook her head, not peeling her eyes away from the rack of painted postcards she was surveying.
“Where you staying?”
Inessa shrugged. “Around.”
“You don’t talks much, do you?” Noah observed. A smile tugged at the corner of his lips. Inessa shrugged again.
“Where you from?”
Inessa turned to face Noah. The look she gave him made him lift his palms into the air.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I asks too many questions, me. Just an old man with too much curiosity. It’s the sea air, ya know.”
That made her smile. Just a little. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to answer his questions—she just wasn’t ready yet.
She continued to sweep her gaze around the shop. The paintings were gorgeous. Many of them she could envision hanging on the walls of her father’s boat.
“Does anything in particular takes your fancy?” asked Noah from behind his desk. Even his small workspace overflowed with talent.
“Actually,” said Inessa, fiddling with the hems of her sleeves, “there was one. On display in the shop window.”
“Want to show me which?”
Noah removed the wooden board separating the main part of the shop from the window display. She didn’t even need to point to the one that caught her eye, as he removed it straight off the easel and turned it to face her. Inessa recognised the vivid beach huts immediately.
“This one,” he said, “am I right?” Inessa nodded. “It has certainly sparked a lot of interest with my regular customers. I must say, it is one of my favourites.”
“I would take it,” Inessa said as she wrapped her arms around her torso, “honest. I love it. But—”
Noah nodded. “Oh, no, I understands. It’s a lot of money. I don’t expects you to take it.”
“I will be back,” she said as he went to put it back in the display.
“I don’t doubts that you will. Here. Take one of my cards. You can pop in any time. I’m usually around.”
Inessa took the card brandishing the store’s contact details. She couldn’t wait to come back—hopefully when she could afford one of the masterpieces. Whenever that may be.
She wished she’d packed more money. She had enough for a life on the run in a boat, but nothing to even scratch the cost of living in a town like Luther’s Rock.
But there was a bigger problem to contend with; something far worse than being tied here by her loyalty to Chloe.
She realised, with horror, that she was beginning to like it here.
There was a queue at the ATM machine. A mother at the front stood rocking a crying baby in a pram with her left arm while chastising a stropping toddler to her right. Six impatient people stood behind her while she simultaneously tried to withdraw cash.
Inessa decided to wait. Instead of joining the queue, she headed into the grocery store opposite. She could always use her card to buy herself some supplies in the meantime.
Inessa had no idea how much money was on the card, so she made sure only to buy the bare essentials. She didn’t know how much longer she was going to be living in her boat, so she chose things that would keep well and that didn’t require any cooking.
Bread, biscuits, and cereal made up most of the space in her basket by the time she was done. She breathed out a huge sigh of relief when her card was accepted at the checkout, and left the store with a small sense of achievement.
She must not have been looking where she was going, as she collided with a body emerging through the doors at the same time. Her mind barely had a chance to register what was going on as groceries spilled onto the path and tumbled towards the road.
“Oh, God!” she cried out as she chased after the falling fruit and veg. “I’m so sorry!” She scurried after an apple as it rolled off the pavement.
“Don’t worry about that,” a male voice said as she followed the apple into the road, still carrying the goods she’d already retrieved.
The apple stopped rolling, so she bent to pick it up. But her fingers barely grazed its skin before the sound of a beeping horn made her look up. A truck was right in front of her—just feet from running her over. She didn’t have time to react. It was someone else’s arm that grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her back to the safety of the pavement. The action caused her to drop all the groceries she’d previously been carrying. She heard the sickening crunch as the truck’s wheels squashed everything to a pulp. People stared at the scene of devastation she just caused.
She looked at the face of the person whose shopping she just destroyed.
“I—” she stammered, face flushing, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to . . . I should have looked where I was going.”
But instead of looking angry, the boy she bumped into looked at her with an amused expression. His brown eyes looked as though he were about to burst into laughs at any moment, only heightening Inessa’s embarrassment. Her cheeks stung, and not just from the blossoming blush.
“No worries,” he said, “there’s no harm done.” He cast his gaze towards the squashed food in the middle of the road. “Well, maybe a little.” He chuckled.
But Inessa struggled to see the hilarity. With tears threatening to spill over, she held her gaze downcast and picked up her bag, ready to walk away from the probing stares of the passers-by.
“Hey, wait.” The stranger stepped in front of her before she could move away. Though she avoided his gaze as much as she could, she could already tell he was about her age. She had to get away from there before she made any more of a fool of herself. She tried to sidestep him.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. “Look, it’s an accident. These things happen.” He tried to look her in the eyes. Inessa looked up, but only enough for him to see the pools of water lining the lower ridges of her lids. He sent a scowl out to the gathered onlookers, causing them to scatter.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
It was only after she said that she realised she’d just given him her real name.
“It was just an accident,” he reiterated. “Honest. Look, am I worried?”
Inessa blinked and wiped away an escaping teardrop.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “It’s been a tough day.”
The stranger nodded in understanding. “Ah,” he said. “The straw that broke the camel’s back, yes?”
Inessa mustered a modest smile. The whole situation felt off. She wasn’t used to people being this nice to her. More tears began to form. The stranger noticed and handed her a tissue. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him chewing on the corner of his thumb nail. It was clear he had no idea what to do in this situation. He’d probably never had a perfect stranger burst into tears in front of him before.
Inessa took a deep breath and tried to speak. “This—” she said, “this isn’t something I usually do. You know, crying. In public.”
He smiled and said, “Don’t worry. These things happen to the best of us.”
She realised she was worrying the tissue in her hands. Instead of using it to dry her face, she was scrunching it and ripping little pieces off.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked in response to her silence. “Call a relative; get you a taxi? Buy you chocolate? I hear it’s a miracle cure for girls.”
Inessa laughed but, through her sniffs, it came out as more of a cough.
“Can I talk?” she asked. He looked baffled.
“Well, I seem to hear you pretty well.”
“I mean, I need to talk. About everything. I guess . . . there’s just so much going on in my head, and I need to sort it out. I think it would help if I talked to someone.”
He looked a little thrown by her odd request, but he took it in his stride.
“Erm, sure,” he said. “I have to get back to work soon—I’m on lunch break. But if you come with me, we can talk there. I work at the Heritage Centre, and we have a decent coffee shop.”
Blinking away the few remaining tears, Inessa nodded and took in a deep breath. That didn’t sound too bad.
She wasn’t sure exactly what spurred her into demanding such a request, but maybe she was right. Maybe she did need to get some things off her chest. Maybe telling it to a perfect stranger wasn’t such a good idea, but he already knew her name now, so what had she left to lose? She began to wonder just how long she could remain anonymous in this town before the truth came out.
“Nicholas, you’re early,” said a grumpy looking receptionist. “Good! You can take my spot.”
“Actually, Wendy,” said the boy from the grocery store—Nicholas, he said his name was. “I came here with a friend. You’re going to have to wait until the end of your shift.”
Wendy’s face contorted into a grimace as she blew on her wet nails. Nicholas rolled his eyes discreetly so only Inessa could see, before leading her towards the coffee shop.
Though the building itself was old, the interior was a beautiful mix of both old and new. The coffee shop was opposite the reception area and, in contrast to the sleek, modern design, was bedecked in old-fashioned, slightly miss-matched furniture and ornaments. The combination, though unique, gave the place a strangely homely feel.
“Two of the usual please, Jim,” Nicholas called out to the barista before seating himself at one of the tables. Nervous, Inessa took the seat in front of him.
“I’m assuming you don’t live here,” he said. Though now recovered from her embarrassing act, Inessa still struggled to meet his gaze.
“Are you here on holiday?”
The two of them were silent for a while, and Inessa found herself shrinking further and further into the padded seat.
“Don’t you want to talk?” Nicholas spoke up after a few seconds.
“No. I mean, yes. I do. I just . . . I can’t seem to find the right words.”
Nicholas said nothing more as she steadied her breathing, fiddling with the ends of the plastic tablecloth between her fingers. At least he was patient.
It wasn’t until after the coffees arrived that Inessa worked up the strength to speak.
“I did something terrible,” she said. “It was an accident, but it was still terrible.” Inessa did not tear her gaze from the froth floating on the top of the coffee. The liquid wobbled with the jittery movements of her legs. “So I ran. I know it was foolish, but it was the only thing I could think to do. I couldn’t imagine she would ever want to see my face again.”
“Who?” asked Nicholas.
“Sarah. My sister.”
From their position in the cafeteria, Inessa could see the people walking past the window. Most of them were families; nearly all of them were smiling.
“I set out in my father’s boat, and I sailed away. I had no idea what I was doing, or where I was going.”
“You stole his boat?” Nicholas interjected. “Does he know?”
He fell silent. “Oh,” was all he said.
“My mind was numb,” Inessa continued. “I couldn’t think straight. I might have done something drastic if . . .” She trailed off.
“I found a girl in the boat,” she explained. “She was shivering.. And wet. I think she was drowning. I brought her back to land. She’s in the hospital now, but she’s in a bad way.”
“It sounds like you owe a lot to that girl.” Inessa raised her head at Nicholas’ words. “If she hadn’t turned up when she did . . .”
“I dread to think what I would have done.”
Another silence passed between them.
“It’s different now,” Inessa said, though more to her coffee that to Nicholas. “It’s like . . . I have a responsibility. And it’s worth going on for. I can’t remember the last time I ever had that.”
Nicholas took a sip of his drink as he considered her words. Inessa couldn’t believe how well he was taking all this. Not only was he listening to her, but he actually seemed interested in her story. She could not put into words how much that meant to her.
“I understand how that feels,” Nicholas said with a nod. “It’s a bit like having a good job. When you know you have something worthwhile to get up for in the morning, it makes a heck of a lot of difference.”