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An­nie lay back on her lounger by the blue swim­ming pool and smiled at Tom, her new hus­band, as he got up. ‘I couldn’t be hap­pier!’ she told him, wish­ing with all her heart that it was true. She should be happy; she’d just mar­ried the man of her dreams, af­ter all. They’d had the most beau­ti­ful wed­ding sur­rounded by fam­ily and friends and now they were hav­ing a week in the sun at a per­fect ho­tel in Ma­jorca. Her, Tom and his seven-year-old daugh­ter, Me­gan.

‘Can you keep an eye on her while I go to the bar?’ he asked.

‘Of course!’ An­nie smiled and her eyes wan­dered back to her step­daugh­ter who was just get­ting out of the pad­dling pool. Me­gan had seen her fa­ther go and started to run af­ter him… then promptly tripped over. In an in­stant, An­nie was on her feet.

‘Are you all right, dar­ling?’ she asked, bending down. Me­gan’s face crum­pled into tears. ‘Go away! I don’t want you, I want Daddy!’ she cried, push­ing her away.

Tom was there a mo­ment later. He picked up his daugh­ter and im­me­di­ately con­soled her the way An­nie feared she never could. She went back to the lounger and sat down, feel­ing de­flated, and wished with all her heart there was a fool­proof guide to be­ing a stepmother.

Me­gan soon re­cov­ered and went into the big­ger pool, with Tom this time, then they all went in for din­ner. An­nie looked around the crowded room. To an outsider, they prob­a­bly looked like any other happy fam­ily. If only they were!

‘I don’t want this hol­i­day ever to be over,’ Me­gan said as she ate her omelette. An­nie smiled at her and her hopes rose. Well, that was a good sign.

‘Nei­ther do I,’ she said. ‘It’s been lovely, hasn’t it?’ She went to smooth a hair away from Me­gan’s face, but she pulled away sharply. An­nie’s heart sank.

‘What do you think was the best bit?’ asked Tom, as if noth­ing had hap­pened. ‘Easy!’ Me­gan grinned. ‘The kids’ club. That was so much fun.’

An­nie smiled rue­fully. She’d known she would. That was one of the rea­sons she’d sug­gested this ho­tel for their hon­ey­moon. Her mum hadn’t been able to be­lieve it when she told her what they were do­ing.

‘You’re tak­ing Tom’s lit­tle girl on hon­ey­moon with you?’ she’d cried.

‘It’ll be fine,’ An­nie said. ‘She’s been through so much. She’s had to adapt to her mother dy­ing and then me com­ing into her life and mar­ry­ing her dad. I re­ally want her to feel that she be­longs in this new fam­ily. Be­sides, I’m sure Tom and I will have plenty of time on our own.’

What An­nie hadn’t told her mum was that she’d in­vited Me­gan along on hon­ey­moon with an ad­di­tional ul­te­rior mo­tive. She so wanted Tom’s daugh­ter to ac­cept her but, try as she might, she hadn’t been able to break down the bar­rier be­tween them. It was al­ways Tom she wanted to be with, Tom she told about her day at school, Tom who had to tuck her in bed at night… She’d hoped spend­ing this time on hol­i­day to­gether would bring a new close­ness be­tween them.

‘She’ll get used to you in time,’ Tom had told her be­fore they got mar­ried. That was be­fore Me­gan had re­fused point-blank to be a brides­maid and threat­ened to boy­cott the whole cer­e­mony. Tom had man­aged to bring her round, al­low­ing her to choose her own dress. So Me­gan had ful­filled her brides­maid’s du­ties in the end, but she had glow­ered through­out.

And now they had come away to­gether, An­nie was more con­vinced than ever they’d made a mis­take. They should have given Me­gan more time to get used to the idea of them all to­gether. She sighed heav­ily. If any­thing, Me­gan seemed to be

SHE WISHED WITH ALL HER HEART THERE WAS A FOOL­PROOF GUIDE TO BE­ING A STEPMOTHER

push­ing her away even more now. She’d of­fered to teach her to swim, to take her on a girlie shop­ping trip into the town, but Me­gan hadn’t been in­ter­ested. She’d only wanted to do some­thing if her dad was there too. The rest of the hol­i­day went by far too fast. Me­gan didn’t soften to­wards An­nie, not one bit, but she was trans­formed from the sad lit­tle girl who hadn’t even been able to raise a smile at their wed­ding.

An­nie watched her play­ing at the kids’ club, laugh­ing and run­ning around with the other kids. If only she could be this happy when they got home. And if only, if only, she could come to like her…

The day af­ter they got home, Tom was back at work, Me­gan was back at school, and An­nie was do­ing all the wash­ing, shop­ping, cook­ing and clean­ing while fit­ting in her part-time job and do­ing the school run. Me­gan’s face fell when she came run­ning out of school that first day af­ter half-term and saw that An­nie, not Tom, had come to col­lect her.

‘Where’s Daddy?’ she asked crossly. ‘He told you he wouldn’t be able to pick you up today, re­mem­ber?’ said An­nie. ‘I’ve been bak­ing this af­ter­noon and I’ve made your favourite choco­late chip muffins. If we hurry home, they might still be warm.’

‘I’m not hun­gry,’ said Me­gan, scowl­ing. ‘What’s that you’ve got?’ asked An­nie look­ing at the rolled-up piece of pa­per in her hand. ‘Have you been work­ing on some­thing at school?’ ‘Noth­ing much,’ Me­gan mut­tered qui­etly.

‘Can I see?’ asked An­nie. ‘No,’ said Me­gan hold­ing it away from her. ‘When’s Daddy com­ing home?’

‘She still doesn’t like me,’ An­nie told her friend, Lisa, when she called round the next day. ‘I thought it would be bet­ter once we were mar­ried, once she re­alised I was here for good, but it isn’t.’

‘She’s been through so much,’ said Lisa. ‘Just give her time.’ ‘How much time does she need?’ asked An­nie, de­spair­ingly. ‘I thought Ma­jorca would help.’

‘You were a saint to take her!’ Lisa said. ‘How many brides ar­range their wed­dings so their hon­ey­moon is over half-term and they can take their new step­daugh­ter away with them?’

An­nie shook her head. ‘I couldn’t have left her. She en­joyed Ma­jorca, and it was a lovely ho­tel, per­fect for kids. Have you got time to see our pho­tos?’

‘You bet!’ Lisa said. ‘They’re up in Me­gan’s room. I’ll just get them for you,’ said An­nie. She rushed up­stairs, but when she came down she was car­ry­ing a piece of pa­per and her face was white.

‘What on Earth’s the mat­ter?’ asked Lisa, jump­ing to her feet.

‘This!’ said An­nie. ‘This paint­ing. Me­gan brought it home from school and wouldn’t show it to me. I guess it serves me right for be­ing so nosy and hav­ing a look while I was up there…’

Lisa gasped. The draw­ing was clear and stark. It was of a green hill on a grey day, and on the top of it was what looked like a woman, only deathly white, her eyes dark and soul­less, more zom­bie or ghost than liv­ing woman. Be­side it were the words, ‘An­nie Black­stone.’

‘I knew she wasn’t too keen on me, but I had no idea she hated me that much,’ said An­nie. ‘She’s drawn me as some kind of vam­pire.’

Her voice wob­bled and Lisa rushed to put her arm around her. ‘You’ve got to re­mem­ber what she’s been through,’ she said. ‘She had Tom to her­self for so long. It’s only nat­u­ral she wants that to con­tinue. So much has changed in her short life, it’s in­evitable she wants some sta­bil­ity.’

‘But that’s what I’m try­ing to give her!’ An­nie cried. ‘Oh, Lisa, I’m an ab­so­lute fail­ure as a stepmother!’

‘No you’re not,’ said Lisa. ‘I think you need to sit down and talk to her. See if there’s any­thing in par­tic­u­lar you do that’s up­set­ting her.’

An­nie sup­posed it was worth a try. So when they got home from school that af­ter­noon, she made Me­gan a milk­shake and they sat down to­gether.

‘Are you glad to be back at school?’ An­nie asked her.

‘I’d rather be in Ma­jorca with Daddy,’ said Me­gan.

‘And what about me?’ asked An­nie. Me­gan looked at her and then she shook her head.

For a mo­ment, An­nie didn’t know what to say. ‘That pic­ture,’ she be­gan, even­tu­ally. ‘The one you brought home yes­ter­day. What was it of?’

‘You, ill,’ she said, qui­etly.

‘Oh, I see… and… and why did you paint me like that?’ An­nie asked her, gently.

Me­gan looked up at her and blinked. ‘Our teacher… she said we had to paint the thing we feared most in the whole wide world.’

An­nie stared at her. ‘You’re scared of me be­ing ill?’ she cried. She couldn’t be­lieve it. ‘But… I’m fine, sweet­heart. Where on Earth did you get that idea?’

‘Be­cause Daddy fell in love with Mummy, like he fell in love with you…’ Me­gan be­gan tear­fully. ‘And we were happy and then… and then Mummy got sick and died…’ and she burst into tears.

Sud­denly ev­ery­thing be­came clear. So that’s why Me­gan had been push­ing her away. It wasn’t that she hated her at all. She was scared of his­tory re­peat­ing it­self, of let­ting An­nie get too close so that it hurt her again.

‘Well, I’m cer­tainly not go­ing to get sick or die!’ An­nie said, ve­he­mently. ‘I’m stick­ing around for­ever. Or at least an­other 60 years. I prom­ise you! OK?’

And as Me­gan nod­ded, and as An­nie scooped her up into her arms and held her tight, for the first time ever her step­daugh­ter didn’t push her away. It was then that An­nie knew for sure – they were go­ing to be all right.

THE END

SO THAT’S WHY ME­GAN HAD BEEN PUSH­ING HER AWAY. IT WASN’T THAT SHE HATED HER AT ALL

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