Never, in all her twenty-nine years, had Charlotte Nicholls imagined life being this good. OK, she didn’t have the right partner, nor was there even the glimpse of some dashing Romeo ready to charge over the horizon, though it had to be said that her horizons these days were truly gorgeous to behold. Surrounded by calmly floating islands in shimmering blue seas, enchanted by dazzling red sunsets that took the breath away, she was actually living in paradise. And this shady cove where she stood now, tucked like a precious secret into the southerly shores of New Zealand’s Te Puna Bay, was home for her and three-year-old Chloe (soon to be four)—along with a rowdy jabber of parrots, a lively orchestra of cicadas, and a whole host of marine life that flopped and skimmed and dived about the waves like circus performers.
Charlotte was becoming quite skilled now at easing memories of the past aside and allowing the joy and the promise of her new life to eclipse all she’d left behind. Gazing out at the bay and reminding herself of how lucky she was to be here usually did it. Not always, it was true, but if it didn’t work, then a single glance at Chloe and how happy she was here, how transformed from the silent, traumatized toddler she’d been a few short months ago, was enough to convince her they were in the right place.
Charlotte had yet to find herself a job. However, she’d resolved not to stress about her future until she’d explored the best ways for her various talents to be put to use.
“There’s no rush,” her mother kept assuring her. “Time is on your side and money isn’t an issue.”
What a strange concept that was for Charlotte, not having money—or the lack of it—as an issue. A definite first in her life, and long might it last.
Long might all of it last, though she knew only too well that it could fall apart in a heartbeat.
But that wasn’t going to happen.
They were safe here with her mother and stepfather, Bob, who lived in the big house on the point of the headland at the far end of the bay’s southern shore. Their exotic stretch of white sandy beach joined Charlotte and Chloe’s cove when the tide was out, so they could walk through muddy puddles across to the lodge. When the tide was in or the weather was rough, they’d walk up the sun-dappled incline from their cove to where Charlotte kept the car, beneath an old puriri tree, and drive through the citrus orchards and vineyards to the main house.
Bob’s grapes were pinot gris, chardonnay, and shiraz—his wines, according to Rick, his irreverent son, were “bloody undrinkable,” but Bob was more bothered by a recent infestation of hares on his land than he was by his son’s uneducated palate.
Charlotte’s mother, Anna, had helped to design the exquisite Cape Cod–style lodge with its pale gray wooden walls, white shutters, and balustrades, while Bob, a semi-retired dentist cum property developer, had built it. The land around, all sixty or more acres of woodlands, orchards, rambling hillsides, and vineyards, constituted the impressive estate. And the quaint beachfront dwelling at the heart of Charlotte and Chloe’s cove, known as a bach—short for bachelor pad—was where Rick, Bob’s son, had lived and partied during his student years. These days Rick was an advertising executive based in Auckland, though he still found time to visit his father’s rambling idyll out here on the magical Bay of Islands.
Charlotte and Chloe loved it when Rick was around. Already he was like the brother Charlotte had never had, and seeing the way Chloe had taken to him, even calling him “Uncle Wick,” was so sweet that it made Charlotte’s heart sing like a bird. Rick’s too, if his beaming smiles and overindulgence were anything to go by.
That Chloe could relate so well to a man after all she’d been through was the greatest source of joy for Charlotte. However, the damage was far from healed, and since they’d escaped the nightmare Rick was really the only man in whose company Chloe seemed able to relax. It pained Charlotte to see how withdrawn she became if Bob spoke to her, especially when he was so gentle and kind. Of course, he understood about her past, and though it must surely sadden him not to be able to swing her up in his arms and rough-and-tumble with her the way he did with his other grandchildren, he never tried to force her.
How awful it must have been for him to be likened in Chloe’s mind to her monster of a father, but he never let it show, nor spoke a single word about the pain this caused him.
For the most part, however, both Charlotte and Chloe were loving getting to know their new family, which also included Rick’s older sister, Shelley, her husband, Phil, and their children, Danni and Craig. Until seven months ago, which was when Anna, Charlotte’s mother, had come back into Charlotte’s life after a twenty-six-year absence, Charlotte hadn’t even known that any of these people existed. Now, after four months of being here, she was already feeling as though she’d known them for most of her life. She felt so much easier with them than she ever had with her adoptive parents, though if the truth were told she knew that something inside her still couldn’t quite forgive her mother for abandoning her at the age of three. Of course she understood why her mother had done it—anyone would understand if they knew the story of what had happened back then. However, Charlotte only had to look at Chloe, who was currently paddling and poking about in the surf as it swirled and foamed around her chubby ankles, to doubt whether she could ever have done the same.
She mustn’t be judgmental. It would get her nowhere, and what she really wanted, more than anything, was to bond with her mother in the way so many daughters did with their mothers. It would take time, she understood that, and they had time now—and once she’d managed to fight off the demons inside her, she felt sure, a close and loving relationship would follow.
She’d never been close to the woman who’d adopted her. Myra Lake, wife of Douglas, the rector, had never been cruel or neglectful, but neither had she ever really wanted her. It was the rector who’d rescued three-year-old Charlotte from the terrible tragedy that had struck Charlotte’s birth family, and he’d taken her home to his wife. Myra and Douglas were both dead now, but their natural daughter and Charlotte’s adoptive sister, Gabby, was very much alive.
It always hurt to think of Gabby, so Charlotte inhaled deeply the tangy salt air that embraced her with warmth and the fragrance of flowers, as though the very essence of her new world could stifle the old one. She listened to the music of the waves and chirrup of cicadas, and let her thoughts drift around the bay along with the terns, shags, and occasional gull. When the tide was in, as it was now, a stream of water curved around the back of their cove like an arm, creating a translucent blue brook between their bach and the beach. A swing on ropes dangled over the far side of the brook, while a white wooden footbridge connected their garden to the shingly sand. There were eighteen stepping-stones leading across their lawn to the bach, and Chloe could count ten of them in Maori.
She was starting to blossom at the Aroha Child Care Center in Waipapa; she had friends now and projects to complete. She was even allowing Charlotte to leave her there for three mornings a week, though Charlotte was always anxious during those hours in case Chloe suddenly blurted out something about her past.
Smiling as Chloe emptied her toy bucket into the surf, Charlotte shouted out, “Find anything?”
Chloe’s pixie face looked troubled as she shook her head. A lazy sea breeze was tousling her wispy dark curls, and her tender limbs, thickly slathered in sunblock, were speckled with clumps of stony sand. She was wearing her favorite red swimsuit and the dearest little pair of yellow Crocs. Standing as she was in the shade of what she called a pokwa tree, being unable to pronounce “pohutukawa,” she looked like an exotic little butterfly. Up until a month ago, the branches of the tree, which hung out over the shallow depths of the surf like a ballerina, had been shrouded in vivid red flowers. It was known as the New Zealand Christmas tree. Only a few of the vibrant blooms remained now, shedding their crimson needles over the beach like tiny shreds of confetti.
This past Christmas had been their first in the sun, with dinner served on a shady veranda of the lodge and nothing but their laughter and clink of glasses disturbing the still of the bay. Both Charlotte and Chloe had received so many presents—more than either of them had had before—that they’d been unable to carry them all home to the bach. Rick had driven them in one of the estate’s old Jeeps, calling it a summer sleigh. Afterward Chloe had helped to row their blue boat back to the white sandy beach where they swam and waterskied and played ball with the rest of the family until the sun went down.
It was unsettling to think of how close they’d lived to the sea in England—a very different kind of sea—and yet Chloe had never been allowed to play in it, or ride the donkeys, or bury her father in the sand.
She could swim now, albeit in a haphazard doggy-paddle way, and she loved to go out on the dive boat with Nanna and Bob when they went to bring up lobsters and scallops. It was her job, with Shelley or Rick or Danni or Craig, to look out for other boats and make sure theirs didn’t drift. She’d come back full of tales about naughty crayfish and their feelers and the dolphins that had spun and leaped around them like they wanted to play.
“Look at me!” Chloe suddenly yelped. Her face was glowing with delight as she waved her hands and wiggled her tiny hips back and forth, side to side, and round and round.
“I’m looking at you,” Charlotte called back, putting pebbles on the corners of a tablecloth to stop it flying off in the breeze. Chloe had collected the pebbles and Charlotte had helped her to paint on funny faces. “Are you ready for your tea yet?” she asked.
Receiving no reply, she glanced up to find Chloe on her hands and knees performing a strange forward-and-backward crawl, and though Charlotte couldn’t make out the words, she could tell she was singing. No doubt this was another of the little Maori rituals she’d learned at child care. Though there weren’t any Maori children at Aroha, she was still being taught tikanga—the Maori customs and traditions. And she adored Maya, Bob and Anna’s housekeeper, who lived on the settlement that curved like a boomerang from the eastern shore of the bay. Over the years Maya had taught her ancestors’ songs to Bob’s children and grandchildren, and now she was teaching Chloe too.
When it came to learning Chloe was like a sponge, soaking everything up until she could take no more, though still she kept trying. Everything fascinated her, from why the clouds changed shape and color to how dolphins could jump when they didn’t have legs and why Mr. Kingfisher kept coming to perch in their pokwa tree. She loved to help Nanna plant vegetables, bake cakes, or fold napkins almost as much as she enjoyed fishing with Rick or horseback riding with Danni. On the way to school she’d recite some of the names of the wildflowers they passed—kaka’s beak, bedstraw, harebells—and when she brought a mangled bunch into the bach as a gift for Charlotte her curly head would tilt curiously to one side as though she couldn’t quite believe how thrilled Charlotte was to receive them. She was like a flower herself, continually blooming and blooming, bringing so much joy to everyone’s lives that it simply wasn’t possible to imagine that she’d ever been anything but the excited and engaging little sprite she was now.
Knowing she could trust her not to go any further into the waves than the depth of her knees, Charlotte stepped back into the kitchen to retrieve a tray of coconut bread from the oven. This was one of Chloe’s favorite after-school treats, though Charlotte suspected it was the sifting, whisking, and mixing of it that she enjoyed the most.
The kitchen of their bach was efficiently compact and yet wonderfully airy, thanks to the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that opened out onto the bay. At the heart of the space was a square mosaic-topped table that was never without something the intrepid explorer and archeologist Chloe had discovered in the garden or the waves. The fridge, with its impressive display of Chloe’s artwork, was decorously lit from above by the seashell lamp Nanna and Chloe had made and given to Charlotte for Christmas. The cupboards, shelves, and work surfaces along the back wall were made from sand-colored tawa wood, as was the bach itself, though the walls and window frames were painted a creamy white. To one side of the kitchen was a door that led into a natural stone bathroom where Chloe’s toys, shells, and fossils cluttered up the old-fashioned roll-top bath and Charlotte’s hairdryer was plugged in next to the sink. How much easier life was with electricity in the bathroom.
Since the main living space was open plan, it was an easy flow across the brushed-granite floor from the kitchen into the sitting room, furnished with a deep comfy sofa, two basketweave armchairs, and a large pine chest for the TV, with more French windows onto the bay. Behind the sofa an oriental-style screen and giant potted palm created some privacy for Charlotte’s sleeping space. The elegance of her bed with its sumptuous plum and ivory linens, built-in wardrobe, and hand-carved driftwood lamps never failed to delight her. Chloe’s room had been added on to Charlotte’s just before they’d arrived in New Zealand, and it was full of everything a little girl and her cherished teddy bear could wish for. Boots, the bear, even had his very own bed, though he’d yet to sleep in it, because he got lonely without Chloe.
There was no door between the two bedrooms, only a jangling bamboo curtain that meant no one could pass through without making a noise. This was a precaution that probably wasn’t necessary here, on the Bay of Islands, but Charlotte felt happier to have it there. Besides, it woke her when Chloe came padding through after a bad dream.
Excerpted from Don't Let Me Go by Susan Lewis. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Lewis. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.