How do you find a home when your heart is in ashes?
With their mum dead and their father on remand for her murder, Leo Hendry and his little sister, Lila, have nothing in the world but each other. Broken and burned, they’re thrust into the foster care system. Leo shields Lila from the fake families and forced affection, until the Poulton household is the only place left to go.
Charlie de Sousa is used to other kids passing through the Poulton home, but there’s never been anyone like his new foster brother. Leo’s physical injuries are plain to see, but it’s the pain in his eyes that draws Charlie in the most.
Day by day, they grow closer, but the darkness inside Leo consumes him. He rejects his foster parents, and when Charlie gets into trouble, Leo’s attempt to protect him turns violent. When Leo loses control, no one can reach him—except Charlie. He desperately needs a family—a home—and only Charlie can show him the way.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The old Swindon house had broken doors. They stuck, never closed properly, or opened on the first try. The front door was no exception. Until the fateful morning Dennis Hendry kicked it open with a single blow of his steel-capped boot.
“Wendy! Where are you?”
Leo jumped and jostled Lila, who was eating her Shreddies beside him. Milk sloshed onto the table, and their mother froze, dishcloth in hand. “Oh God. It’s your dad. Leo, quick! Get in the cupboard.”
The front door banged again as Dennis slammed it shut. Leo gathered Lila in his arms and scrambled for the cupboard under the stairs—the dark, cramped place where they’d hidden from Dennis and his rage for as long as Leo could remember.
A shadow darkened the kitchen doorway as they made it inside. Wendy moved to block the cupboard door and nudged it shut with her foot. Inky blackness swallowed them, save for a crack of light just wide enough for Leo to see his father’s face for the first time in six months.
Bastard. Weathered, and flushed with booze and rage, Dennis hadn’t changed. He slammed his fist on the kitchen table, and more milk spilled out of Lila’s bowl. “Look at this bloody mess. This how you keep my house, eh?”
“It’s only milk,” Wendy said. “What are you doing here?”
“What do you think?”
Dennis towered over Wendy, leering with his flinty gaze. She leaned back, and he caught her by the throat. “Oh, no, you don’t. You stay put and hear how it’s going to be. I’m getting tired of that manky bedsit. I want to sort this nonsense out today.”
Wendy’s plea was cut off by the squeeze of Dennis’s hand around her neck. He tightened his grip until her face reddened and her eyes bulged. Then he let her go with a sneer. “Clean this mess up, then sit down. We’re going to have a little talk.”
Wendy didn’t argue. She shot a furtive glance Leo’s way, and set about clearing the detritus of their abandoned breakfast: Lila’s Shreddies, Leo’s toast. She picked up her own teacup, and her hand began to shake.
Dennis growled. “Get on with it, woman.”
Woman. A sudden coldness swept over Leo, and the panic in his heart subsided to a steady beat of fear-laced rage. He closed his eyes and imagined bursting out of the cupboard and punching Dennis so hard his teeth shattered, like the plates Dennis threw against the wall when his whiskey ran out. Or grabbing the cricket bat leaning against the door and cracking him over the head with it.
Instead, he opened his eyes and remembered the instructions left by the kindly policeman who’d accompanied them to court to file the restraining order: “Don’t fight him. Call for help.”
Leo reached behind him. His mother’s handbag hung open on the hook, like it always did. He felt around and found her phone, swiping at it until the screen flashed to life. Shit. Leo flinched and eyed the gap in the door, but Wendy had Dennis’s attention.
She set the breadboard on the side as he watched her every move. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
Dennis folded his arms across his broad chest. “Do you think I was stupid enough to listen to them coppers, you daft bitch?”
“What do you want, Dennis?”
“I want what’s mine. I got the papers in the post this morning. Divorce, eh? Who the fuck do you think you are?”
Wendy sighed. “We’ve been separated for long enough now. Please, Dennis. You need to go.”
“It’s my bloody house! My house, my things, my kids.”
Dennis took a menacing step forward. Leo instinctively tightened his grip on Lila.
“The kids aren’t here,” Wendy said, her voice rising in pitch. “Take what you want and leave.”
“Not here, eh?” Dennis glanced up at the ceiling. “Maybe I should go and check. Is Leo in bed? Maybe I should drag him out by his poofy hair. Show him my belt again.”
It was Dennis’s favourite way to break Wendy, certain in the knowledge that she’d do anything—take anything—to protect her children. But this time, she didn’t falter. “Check all you want, then get the hell out.”
Dennis turned his lips up in a snarl, and his impotent posturing morphed into deadly fury. He lunged for Wendy and grabbed her hair. Her terrified shriek rang out as Leo jammed 999 into the phone.
“Emergency services operator. Which service do you require?”
“My dad’s hurting my mum.”
“Speak up,” the operator said. “I can’t hear you. Can you tell me your name?”
Dennis threw Wendy against the wall. The impact rattled her bones and snapped her head back.
“Please,” Leo whispered.
Dennis seized the abandoned bread knife from the kitchen counter. Leo closed his eyes. Buried his face in Lila’s sweet-scented hair. A dull thud rattled his skull, then another, and another, like the kicks and punches he’d heard so many times before.
But this wasn’t like the other times. Wendy’s gasp was different, stuttered and strangled. Empty. Hopeless. The phone line buzzed and crackled. Leo counted three heartbeats before the operator took a breath.
“Hello? Are you still on the line? Which service do you require? Do you need assistance?”
Leo opened his eyes. Blood oozed across the tiled kitchen floor.
Dennis was by the stove, bending down with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. A nearby tea towel caught alight. He shoved it aside into the stack of newspapers ready for recycling. They ignited. Leo watched the flames begin their dance, and clutched the phone tighter. “Come quickly. My dad just killed my mum and set the house on fire.”
Charlie de Sousa made himself comfortable on the bottom of the stairs. The third step up was the best one. The bottom two creaked like crazy, and though he wouldn’t get in real trouble for eavesdropping on his parents, he didn’t want to interrupt their discussion before they got to the juicy bit.
“It’s a risk, Kate,” Reg said. Charlie could almost see him running his hands through his unruly mop of white hair. “Taking one traumatised child is a challenge in itself, but two? I don’t know. Do we even have room?”
“Of course we have room.” Charlie heard Kate get up and pace around, like she always did when she was annoyed. “The boy can go in the study. We’ll just have to move the computer downstairs.”
“It’s not ideal.”
“‘Ideal’? For God’s sake, Reg. Nothing ever is. If it was, these kids wouldn’t need us in the first place.”
Silence. Charlie strained his ears and wondered if the conversation was continuing in sign language. Kate was hard of hearing, and could read lips and speak, but she and Reg often continued conversations in sign language if they didn’t want the rest of the house to eavesdrop. Charlie considered creeping to the door and taking a peek, but Reg always caught him when he did that. The bloke had ninja senses.
Someone in the dining room sighed; Charlie couldn’t tell who. Then Kate spoke again. “Look, I know it’s a big ask, but these kids have been through the mill. They need a safe place to heal, and we can give them that. I know we can.”
“What about the family we already have?” Reg countered. “It says here that both kids have medical issues from that fire, and the boy was in trouble at school before that . . . fighting and drinking. Truancy. Is it really fair to bring that into our home?”
“We can help them,” Kate said. “And we should ask the others before we make a decision. It’s how we do things in this house.”
Reg’s dry laugh told Charlie that Kate had got her way. He tensed, ready to flee upstairs, but the dining room door opened before he could move. Reg fixed him with a stare that said he’d known Charlie was there all along. “Go fetch your sister. I’m going to call Andy. Family meeting as soon as we’re all here.”
Charlie scrambled upstairs. He found Fliss in her room, headphones on, watching some vampire crap while she talked to her mates on Facebook. She didn’t acknowledge him, even when he blocked her view, but that wasn’t unusual. Charlie had joined the Poulton family when he’d been barely two. Fliss had been six, and the only child in Reg and Kate’s full time care back then. She’d never quite forgiven Charlie for encroaching on her territory, and that suited Charlie fine. Fliss was a stuck-up bitch, and she always used all the hot water.
He unplugged her headphones.
She hissed and punched his arm. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Dad wants us. Family meeting.”
Charlie shrugged. He wasn’t about to share his stolen knowledge with Fliss. Stuff that. He’d enjoy her being the last to know. “Just come downstairs, yeah?”
He left without waiting for her response. Kate would deal with Fliss if she didn’t show.
Charlie drifted downstairs and took his place at the dining room table. Kate appeared and set a big bowl of her special houmous in the middle of the table, a sure sign that the discussion might get heavy. In this house, nothing soothed frayed nerves better than Kate’s home cooking.
She ruffled Charlie’s hair. “Okay, chicken?”
Charlie scowled and fixed his too-long dark hair, but he didn’t mean it. He enjoyed Kate’s motherly affection far more than he cared to let on. “Did Dad get hold of Andy?”
“He’s on his way. Have you done your homework?”
Charlie waited until Kate had finished faffing with the table, then quickly translated what he wanted to say into signs that would make sense—or, at least, quickly for him. Kate switched between signing and English like breathing. For Charlie, it took a little more thought. “Yes. Just art left. Dad will help me.”
Kate smiled and flitted in and out of the room a dozen more times until Charlie’s burly older brother arrived a little while later.
Andy Poulton filled the room and lifted Kate off her feet in a bruising bear hug. “All right, Ma?”
Kate beamed. Andy was Reg’s son from his first marriage, but he’d called Kate Ma since she’d married Reg twenty years ago, and there wasn’t much that made her happier. “How’s the cat?”
Andy grimaced. “She shredded the couch again.”
“Maybe you should get another one to keep her company? She’s probably bored while you’re at work all day.”
“Nah. I think she’s evil.”
“I don’t believe that, sweetheart. She just needs some love.”
Andy grunted and swiped a finger through the houmous. “Anyway, why am I here? Dad said it was important. Is something wrong?”
Kate glanced briefly at Charlie and shook her head. “No, no. It’s nothing like that. Let’s wait for the others, then your dad and I will explain everything.”
She left the room to fetch drinks. Andy dropped into the chair beside him and ruffled Charlie’s hair.
“Stop it,” Charlie snapped. What was it with people messing with his bloody hair?
Andy chuckled. “Got a girlfriend yet?”
“What? Not even a snog up the cricket pavilion?”
“Piss off.” Charlie cringed and angled himself away from Andy. Was it too much to ask that his own brother didn’t pester him too?
Apparently oblivious, Andy laughed again and put a fraternal arm around Charlie’s shoulders. “Easy, mate. Just pulling your leg. Where’s Fliss?”
“Did you tell her about the meeting?”
Charlie turned to Reg as he entered the room. “I tried.”
Reg gave him a patient glance and banged on the ceiling. “Fliss! Downstairs. Now.”
It took a while for them all to settle at the table. Beside Andy, Charlie waited for Reg and Kate to drop their bomb.
Reg went first. “We got a call from social services this morning. Though we haven’t taken any new children for a while, we’re still, technically, available for emergency foster placements.”
Here it comes.
Kate took over. “We’ve been asked to take two siblings, a boy and a girl, with immediate effect.”
“No way.” Fliss groaned. “I don’t want the house full of screaming kids again. We’ve only just got rid of the one.”
“Freddie left more than a year ago,” Reg said in the tone he reserved for Fliss when she got bratty. “And they aren’t screaming kids. The boy is fifteen, the same as Charlie, and his sister is profoundly deaf.”
“Is that why they want you to take them?” Andy asked. “So Ma can help with sign language and stuff?”
“Partly.” Reg exchanged a look with Kate. “But there’s a little more to it than that. They lost their mother a while ago in quite horrific circumstances, and they’ve both had some trouble, uh, settling since.”
Reg’s waver didn’t go unnoticed. Fliss sat back in her chair and folded her arms. “Settling how? Are they nutters, or what? I’m not living with a pair of skanky ASBO kids.”
“Fliss.” Kate’s tone was sharp. “That’s not how we talk about people in this house. Mind your words and think before you speak.”
Fliss rolled her eyes, but a stern frown from Kate cut off her inevitably spiky retort.
“What happened to their mum?” Charlie asked.
Reg shook his head. “I can’t tell you that. If they do come to us, it’ll be up to them if they want to share their story. For now, all we can tell you is that these kids very much need a home, and your mother and I would like to offer them one.”
Offer. Charlie absorbed the word and turned the prospect over in his head. What if the kids didn’t want to come? Reg and Kate were the best parents in the world, but the kids wouldn’t know that.
“Where would they sleep?” Andy reached for the snacks Kate had spread on the table. “You’ve only got one spare room.”
“And it’s all set up and ready to go,” Kate said. “The girl would sleep in there.”
Of course she would. The room closest to Reg and Kate’s had always been reserved for the newest kids, or the youngest, depending who needed them most.
“What about the boy?”
Charlie waited for Kate to repeat the proposition he’d overheard her put to Reg. For all this was a family discussion, it seemed they had the finer details worked out already.
“We were thinking he could go in the study.”
“The study?” Andy raised a doubtful eyebrow. “Bit small, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, but Charlie is just across the hall. We were thinking the boy could store most of his things in there.”
Charlie sat up sharply. That wasn’t the plan he’d overheard, and his cupboards were jam-packed with his own stuff. “You want him to share my space?”
“To start with,” Kate said. “We’ll get it sorted as soon as we can, but the interaction with you might do him some good.”
“Contact. Conversation. These kids have been through a lot, and their files say neither of them sleep well. Having Andy around helped you settle when you first came to us.”
Kate looked beseechingly at Andy, who took his cue. “It’s true. You screamed the place down the first night we had you, then I came to stay for the summer holidays and voila: sleeping like a baby.”
“I don’t remember that.”
Andy shrugged. “Why would you? It was just a few weeks, but it worked. Might help this kid too.”
Reg nodded his agreement. “It would be temporary, Charlie. We’d get some new furniture in due course.”
“Okay . . .” Charlie was coming around to the idea. He’d shared his wardrobe before. He could do it again, right? And perhaps a good clear out would do him good. “I’m in. I vote yes.”
Fliss huffed. “So it’s settled, then, is it? Charlie gets to decide for everyone?”
“Nothing’s decided.” Kate put her hand on the files Reg had brought to the table. “This is a big decision, and it affects us all. We’d like to help these children, but not at the expense of the family we already have. So please, keep asking your questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them.”
Charlie considered the offer. “Where are they now? With another family?”
“Yes, but no one there can sign for the little girl except the brother.” Again, Kate looked to Reg. “They’re in Swindon at the moment. Social services think they’d be better off starting out somewhere new.”
“‘Starting out’?” Fliss frowned again. “How long are they going to be here?”
“If . . .” Reg held up a hand to quiet Fliss. “If they come to us, how long they stay would depend on what we could do for them, and that hangs a little on the rest of you. Kate and I can’t do this alone, and we wouldn’t want to. We want to do this together, as a family.”
Reg had a way with Fliss no one else did. After a protracted stare down, she relaxed—the aggression seeping out of her—and shrugged. “Whatever. Just keep them out of my room, yeah?”
“What are their names?” Andy asked.
“Leo and Lila. It says here that Lila likes arts and crafts and animals, and Leo . . .” Kate flipped through the thick file. “He likes football.”
Leo: three tiny letters that changed the mysterious boy from an abstraction to a tangible person, in Charlie’s mind at least.
“Football?” Fliss snorted. “He’ll have fun with all Charlie’s anime shit, then.”
Charlie bristled, but a frown from Kate kept him quiet. He was no mug, but bitching with Fliss was a battle he’d surely lose. Who cared if she didn’t know the difference between anime and manga?
Kate closed the file again. “Any more questions?”
Charlie couldn’t think of any. He tuned out Andy’s practical suggestions about building an extra cupboard. They’d put the decision about taking these kids to a vote, of course, but with Fliss on board, there was little need. It was happening, and Charlie refocussed on the discussion just in time to find out he’d have new housemates by the end of the week.
* * * * * * *
Later that night, Kate tapped on Charlie’s open bedroom door. Charlie nodded, knowing she’d come in anyway, like she did most nights on her way to bed.
“How are you doing, sweetheart?”
Charlie tucked his drawing pad and pen under his pillow. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Kate smiled. “Come on. You can do better than that, sunshine. We dropped a bomb on you today. Anything you want to talk about?”
“Nothing at all?”
“I brought you something.” Kate took up her customary perch on the edge of Charlie’s bed and held out an envelope. “Take a look.”
Curious, Charlie opened it. Inside were two photographs: one of an angelic little girl and the other of a striking boy. The boy, tall and lean, with wild curly hair and sharp green eyes, was beautiful. Charlie compared the image with that of his sister. Though they had different hair, their fair complexions gave them away as siblings.
That, and they both looked utterly miserable. “Is this them? Leo and Lila?”
“Yes, these were taken at Christmas in their last foster home.”
Charlie thought back to the rowdy Poulton family Christmas just passed: Food, presents, laughter. “They don’t seem very happy.”
“I don’t think they are, darling.”
“Is that why you want them to come here so much?”
Kate smiled. “Reg knew you were sitting on the stairs.”
That didn’t surprise Charlie. Reg knew everything, even when he said nothing at all. “Is Leo going to come to school with me?”
“I hope so.”
Kate’s tone made Charlie look up from the photos. “You hope so? Why wouldn’t he? I thought you said he was my age. Is he going to go to college or something instead?”
Kate held up her hand. “Slow down. Even after a decade of practice, I still can’t lip-read in the dark.”
“That’s okay. Repeat yourself, and I’ll do my best to answer.”
Charlie voiced his questions again with more consideration. Kate absorbed them with a nod. “Leo had a bit of trouble at his last school. We think it would be better if he settled in for a few days before we threw him into Heyton High.”
“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”
Kate paused, clearly weighing up how much she could say without betraying the boy’s confidence. “There have been a few incidents . . . fighting, and such. Nothing too out of the ordinary for boys your age, but that’s part of the reason I—we—would like him to spend some time with you. You’re a good balm for a quick temper, chicken. I should know.”
Charlie frowned. Kate often said cryptic things like that, and he never quite understood them.
She touched his cheek. “Don’t think so hard, sweetheart. You’ve always been my little brooder.”
“‘Brooder’? Why are you so obsessed with poultry references?”
“Because I’m a mother hen.” Kate grinned, but her gaze sobered as she rose to leave. “You’ve always been a calming influence on me, Charlie, in the same way Fliss’s sharp tongue is good for your father’s reticence. You remind us how human we are, and how much value there is in being different. Life would be boring if we were all the same.”
It was a nice sentiment, but Charlie didn’t see how it would help Leo stay out of fights at school. Heyton High was a pit of hormones, angst, egos, and despite Kate’s faith in him, not a day went by that Charlie didn’t want to deck someone.
Not that there’s anyone there worth decking.
Kate paused at the door, her hand on the handle. “Fliss thought you could stick some of those posters you did for the Olympics in Leo’s room.”
“Yes, she did. You know she’s not as heartless as she makes herself out to be.”
“If you say so.” Charlie would have to take Kate’s word for it, though a lifetime of living with Fliss told him that she was indeed a class-A bitch. “I’m not sure about the posters. The Olympics were years ago now. Do you really think he’ll like them?”
“Can’t hurt,” Kate said. “I know they’re not football, but he might like other sports too.”
She said good night and left Charlie to it. Alone again, he considered what artwork he could bear to part with, even if it was only going across the hall. The study was tiny, but if they put Leo’s bed under the window, the posters could go on the ceiling.
Charlie closed his eyes, picturing the finished result, and fell asleep still holding the haunting photograph of the most beautiful boy he’d ever laid eyes on.
Heyton High School was the bane of Charlie’s life, and never more so than at lunchtime. He didn’t smoke, play football, or fight, and that left hanging around the tennis courts with the girls, listening to them talk about periods and shagging.
Most days he sat quietly between Jess and Lucy, his BFFs, doodling cartoons of them with the bigger boobs they craved, but not today. Nah. Today, he couldn’t sit still, and it didn’t go unnoticed.
“Bloody hell, Charlie,” Jess said as Charlie paced around. “You got ants in your pants, babe?”
Charlie shot her a baleful glare. “Piss off.”
“Oooh. Someone’s touchy.”
“I’m not touchy.” But Charlie gave in and drifted back to his usual place all the same. “My parents are taking some new kids. They’re coming today.”
“Ah. Are you pissed off about it?”
“No, my folks have taken plenty of kids before.”
Charlie shrugged. “Dunno. It’s just been a while. Forgotten what it’s like to have new people in the house. Mum’s been cleaning all week and moving the furniture around. Feels weird.”
Jess gave him a cuddle. Across the tennis court, a year-eleven douche shot him the stink eye. Dickhead had been trying to get in Jess’s knickers since year nine, and he had it in for Charlie, if the graffiti scrawled on Charlie’s locker was anything to go by: Gaylord Zone. Ha. If only they knew.
“So,” Jess pressed. “How old are these new foster kids? Are they little ones?”
“Not really.” Why did people always assume the only kids who needed help were bloody toddlers? “Six and fifteen.”
“Boys or girls?”
“One of each. The boy is fifteen.”
“Oooh, a boy?”
“Yep.” Charlie tried not to notice the flare of curiosity in Jess’s gaze. Then he tried to ignore the irritation he felt when he failed. “His name’s Leo.”
“What does he look like?”
Charlie thought of the photo in his desk drawer and shrugged. “No idea.”
“He sounds hot.”
“You got that from his name?”
“You can tell a lot about someone by their name.”
Charlie snorted. “You’ve been reading too much Heat.”
“Better than those crap comics you read.”
Charlie grinned. Jess’s scowl always made him laugh. Her nose screwed up and made her resemble an angry racoon. And he tried not to think about the odd urge he felt to shield Leo from her attention. Or, as he glanced around the tennis court and took in the gangs of posturing boys and tarted-up girls, anyone else’s.
Get a grip, de Sousa. It’s not like he’ll notice you anyway.
Apart from Charlie’s loyal band of girls, and the goons who liked to pull his hair and call him a poof, no one ever did.
* * * * * * *
Charlie cycled his BMX home at half three. As usual, along the dirt track that cut behind Heyton’s town centre, he encountered the gang of year elevens who often heckled as he pedalled past. They didn’t let him down today.
“Backs to the wall. Faggy Charlie might jump ya.”
Wankers. Though Charlie couldn’t deny that they were kind of astute when it came to his sexuality, aside from the jumping, of course. Darren Stroud was the chief idiot, and Charlie wouldn’t touch him if he was the last boy on earth.
After running the gauntlet, Charlie usually loitered in the park in a fruitless attempt to convince himself that the whole world didn’t think like year eleven’s finest, but not today. Today, everyone in the Poulton household had strict instructions to come straight home, except Andy. He was never around on Thursdays, and Kate wanted everything as normal as possible.
But nothing felt normal when Charlie pushed his bike up the garden path and stowed it in the shed. For starters, Fliss was home and downstairs, rather than holed up in her room, living her life on the internet.
Charlie chucked his bag on the kitchen table. “What are you doing here?”
“What do you think?” Fliss opened the fridge and retrieved sausages and a bag of potatoes. “Mum asked me to cook dinner for the new arrivals.”
“Only them? Or are you making some for everyone?”
Fliss tossed a glare over her shoulder. “Very funny. Maybe I won’t bother with your plate.”
It was a hollow threat. Dinnertime was sacred in the Poulton house, and for all her faults, Fliss was well versed in Kate’s compulsion to feed people. “What time are Mum and Dad coming back?”
“Mum called five minutes ago,” Fliss said. “They’re leaving Swindon now, so a couple of hours. Have you got homework? Mum says you have to do it before dinner.”
“What do you care?”
Fliss shot Charlie another sour look. “I don’t, but Dad will do his nut if he has to bitch you out in front of the new kids. Just get it done.”
A dozen insults crossed Charlie’s mind. He uttered none and swiped a Mars bar from the forbidden cupboard, dodging the spoon Fliss chucked his way. On the table, his phone flashed with a new message from Jess.
Are they there yet? Lucy wants a pic!
Charlie rolled his eyes and turned his phone off. “I’m going upstairs.”
Fliss grunted, and Charlie left her to it.
Upstairs, he closed his bedroom door and leaned back against it. He had physics homework, but that could wait . . . it could all wait until he’d put the finishing touches to Leo’s room. He rummaged under the bed and found the box storing the illustrations he liked enough to keep, but not enough to put on the walls. The Olympic sketches were at the very bottom. He’d drawn them for a school project and never thought of them again until Kate had relayed Fliss’s suggestion.
He spread them out on the carpet. Diving, long jump, and boxing: nothing that resembled football in the slightest, save the fact they all featured men in shorts . . . except the diving, of course, which was pretty much—
Charlie caught himself before he got carried away with his pen-and-ink effigy of Tom Daley, and gathered the sports sketches into a pile with a few other random pieces. He considered the small room Kate had kitted out for Leo. There wasn’t much to it, but the bed and a tiny chest of drawers. Leo didn’t even have a lamp yet. Fliss has two. I wonder if . . . Nah. That wouldn’t happen. Fliss was toeing the line because Kate and Reg had told her to, but giving away her stuff was never going to happen. Shame, because after Charlie had ventured into the study, clambered on Leo’s bed, and tacked the sports posters to the ceiling, Leo’s new life still seemed pretty bare.
The rest of the afternoon dragged out in a dull haze of homework. Charlie was falling asleep over the origins of the universe, when Fliss stalked into his room just before six.
“They’re nearly here. Remember we’re not allowed down till Dad calls us.”
“I know.” Charlie sat up and shoved his homework in his bag. It was standard practice to introduce the family one by one when new kids came, though it had been a while. “I forgot to ask Mum if Lila can speak. Does she?”
“No idea. There’s something really bad in their file, though. I caught Mum crying over it last night.”
“Yeah. Not all of us sleep like babies.”
That’s because some of us get up in the morning. But Charlie kept that to himself. Fliss had a bar job at the pub down the road and seemed to think a few late nights a week gave her license to sleep till noon every day. Not that Charlie cared. Did he want to dodge Fliss in the bathroom every morning? Hell no. “Why was Mum crying?”
Fliss shrugged. “Dunno. I reckon it’s to do with their father, though. I asked Dad where he was. He wouldn’t tell me, and I heard him telling Mum he was going to keep his distance from Leo for a while.”
“From Leo?” That caught Charlie off guard. Kate and Reg specialised in caring for girls who’d suffered abuse wherever they’d been before, and he’d half expected Reg to leave Lila mostly to Kate, to start with, at least. But Leo—angry, disillusioned, struggling at school—was the kind of kid that bohemian woodwork teacher Reg lived for. It didn’t make any sense. “Why Leo?”
“I don’t bloody know. Piss off with the questions, will you? Ask Dad yourself.”
Fat chance. Reg had a thing for respecting privacy. If Fliss hadn’t been able get it out of him, no one could.
The front door opened. Charlie scrambled from the floor and took a step toward the door before he remembered he had to stay put.
Fliss peered through the window, solving the mystery of why she’d come to Charlie’s room in the first place, rather than her converted-attic lair. “Can’t see anything. Mum must’ve brought them in before Dad unloaded the car.”
“Let’s go down—”
“No. Not until they call us. Besides, it doesn’t look like there’s much stuff in the boot, so it won’t be long anyway.”
Charlie scowled, and there wasn’t much to do but sit on his bed, doodling in his sketchbook and straining his ears, until Reg knocked on the door and summoned Fliss downstairs.
It seemed like a lifetime before he came back for Charlie.
Charlie’s frown deepened. “How come Fliss always gets to go first?”
Reg offered a tired smile. “Because that’s how we do this, and routine is good for all of us in times of great change.”
Charlie grumbled and slid off his bed. “You sound a hundred years old when you talk like that.”
“As of today, I have five kids. It’s hardly surprising that I sound old. Now, come on. Leo needs rescuing from your mother and Fliss.”
Charlie refrained from pointing out that, at twenty-five and nineteen, Andy and Fliss didn’t count as kids, and followed Reg downstairs.
Reg stopped at the living room door. “In you go.”
“You’re not coming?”
“I’m going to finish off dinner,” Reg said. “Go on. You can put a film on if you want.”
He disappeared into the kitchen. Charlie put his hand on the living room door and felt a strange shot of nerves that quelled the anticipation he’d harboured all day. From his picture, Leo Hendry appeared good-looking and cool, like the hot lads from lower sixth who played football in the park after school, but the longer Charlie had stared at his image, the more something had felt off. Still felt off. The wait to meet his new foster siblings had been unending, but suddenly seemed nowhere near long enough.
The feeling remained as Charlie pushed open the living room door. A stranger by the window turned and met his gaze. Leo. Tall and curly-haired, like his picture had promised, he appeared just as Charlie expected, save the bandage that covered his entire left arm, and the emptiest eyes Charlie had ever seen.