Lola and the Single Dad
From the multi-author Outback Babies series
When love comes to town…
Artisan blacksmith Ned Harrow lost his wife and gained a son, all in the space of a day. Since then, he’s been caring for his son, Ollie, and working to rebuild his business. When his neighbour’s visiting goddaughter offers to help, she’s a lifeline and so much more. Ned knows the beautiful and fun-loving Lola isn’t staying long, but she’s impossible to resist and his heart is cracking wide open.
Actress Lola Darcy has never hit the big time and she’s beginning to wonder if she ever will. She’s in-between auditions when she visits her godmother in Wirralong. The country life and adorable baby she can sing to is a balm to her heart that’s been wounded by so many rejections. Lola loves caring for the sweet babe next door, and his eye candy father makes the visit even better.
As Lola and Ned become friends and perhaps more, the part of a lifetime beckons. Should she follow her dream or create new ones in Wirralong?
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Cake box in hand and her shoulder bag loaded with fruit from the Melbourne farmers’ markets—a mere four-hour country highway drive away, Lola Darcy picked her way along the crushed gravel driveway towards the back of her godmother’s house. Surprise visits were always risky, but Lola was ever hopeful when it came to receiving a warm welcome. Especially here. She climbed the steps to the back porch and rapped on the screen door, fully prepared to get loud. “Rosa? Are you there? It’s Lola.” L.O.L.A. and all that.
She could hear music coming from somewhere inside the house, but Rosa, with her beaded silk caftans and oversized earrings, did not appear. And this door, like the front door, was locked. “Rosa, are you about?”
Lola had a key to the house, she’d had it ever since Rosa had taken her in as a kid, but as an adult she’d never once used it to enter uninvited.
What if Rosa was in bed with a magnificent lover and didn’t want to be disturbed?
Or in the shower, shampoo in her ears and a song on her lips?
What if something was wrong in there?
Lola traipsed back around to the front of the house and gave the doorbell yet another press. Ding dong. Not a subtle sound, that one. “Rosa, it’s Lola. Surprise! I hope I’m welcome. I’m coming in.”
Maybe Rosa had walked into town for a meal with her friends?
Maybe Lola should just … wait. Except that something seemed off. And hadn’t Rosa been the one to encourage Lola to trust her instincts?
She was going in.
Once inside, Lola called out again. “Rosa?” An antique rug muffled her footsteps as she walked past the closed doors of the two front guest rooms, past the bathroom—no Rosa in there. Past the main bedroom door, which stood wide open, showing Lola the bed prettily made and the gauzy white linen curtain blowing gently in the evening breeze. “Hello? Anyone home?”
It felt like someone should be home, so why was no one answering?
Dread took hold as Lola headed for the kitchen at the rear of the old blue-brick home. Her chest had that panicked tightness about it that no amount of pretend dread could ever replicate.
This was the real thing, and it was not a good feeling.
Lola pushed open the door to the brightly lit kitchen and saw Rosa crumpled on the kitchen floor with a spilled saucepan and a scattering of green beans next to her. “Oh, shite.”
The cake box went on the counter and Lola went to her knees, sending up a silent prayer when she found the older woman’s wrist still warm to the touch. Warmth meant life. Finding a pulse felt like finding salvation. “Rosa, it’s Lola. I’m calling for an ambulance, okay? Just …” What? Hang in there? Relax? Where was a script when you needed one? “I’ve got you.”
Thank goodness for small country towns where everyone knew each other.
She’d only had to say Ninety-two Bridge Street and that she’d found Rosa unconscious on the floor, and help was on its way. All kudos to Wirralong and its people.
Sliding her phone onto the kitchen table, Lola clasped one of the older woman’s hands in hers. “I’m not leaving you, okay?” Could Rosa even hear her? “I’m just going to open the front door and turn on all the lights so they know to come in. Be right back.”
Rosa stirred fretfully and squeezed Lola’s hand.
“You can hear me? Squeeze if—yes, yes you can.” Lola let out a shaky breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. A responsive Rosa was good news. “Happy birthday.” Lola, you idiot, now is not the time. “I bought cake.” What kind of conversation was that for a fallen fairy godmother? But the truth was, Lola had no experience whatsoever when it came to saving people. “I want to say you don’t look a day over fifty, but I’m thinking of adding another twenty years.”
Rosa’s lips curved in the faintest of smiles and Lola brushed a feathery fine strand of silver hair from the older woman’s face, before getting to her feet. “Hey, you. I know you can hear me, and I’ll be right back, okay?”
She tried to hurry, she really did, but by the time she got to the door and latched it open and turned on the lights in the hall and the verandah light too, concern for Rosa had been joined by an altogether different concern. Because a baby had started crying and, unless someone had left one on the front verandah, which … no baby out there … that wailing baby noise was coming from inside the house. Coming from the room that had been Lola’s bedroom during the years her parents had taken off to the Galapagos.
Could be a ghost baby. A figment of a lively imagination. Heaven knew, Lola had never lacked imagination … She cracked open the bedroom door, fully prepared for the ode-to-pink peony wallpaper, antique Victorian furniture, and red velvet drapery. The bed had been beautifully staged with at least six different types of eye-popping green pillows, and all was as it should be. Hello colour explosion.
Except for the snowy white cot in the middle of the room and the baby standing up in it, clinging to the side bars with chubby hands, its little face a study of woe.
“Who are you?” Not that she expected an answer, but hope in the face of adversity was her superpower and she never had been afraid to ask a stupid question … “Not going to tell me, eh? Okay, keep your secrets.”
The baby started sobbing and instinct warred within her. Baby or Rosa? Who to tend first? She hadn’t held a baby in … okay, she hadn’t ever held a baby but how hard could it be?
“Okay, little one. Let’s go see Rosa.” The baby’s arms were already up, so it seemed only logical to put her hands either side of the fragile little torso and lift. It would have worked, too, if the baby hadn’t clung stubbornly to the bars and refused to let go.
“Okay, okay, I get it.” What was she going to do, pry those little hands free with a crowbar? “You don’t know me, I don’t know you, stranger danger and all that, but I really need to get back to Rosa so …” The baby would be alright in the cot, no harm done. That’s what cots were for. “I’ll come back. Soon.”
She got to the door before the fretful sobs turned into a bellow of pure outrage.
Random changeling babies appearing out of nowhere were bad news in every film she’d ever seen. And this random changeling baby was no exception.
“You want to try being picked up again? Because two strikes and you’re out, those are my rules.”
Look at her laying down the rules for a child who hadn’t yet learned to speak. Or even stand without help, by the look of it.
This time the baby let her pick it up and clasp it to her body with both hands. It snuffled and sobbed all the way to the kitchen. When she knelt beside Rosa the squirming began and then the squalling started up again.
“Exactly how I feel, presh—that’s short for precious—but do you see me giving in to tears? No.” Of course, she was twenty-five and this baby was maybe one? “Are you a boy or a girl?” Hard to tell given the overall lack of hair, the cartoon hippo T-shirt and green shorts atop a cushiony nappy. “Either way, I don’t suppose you could take it down a notch with the noise? Pianissimo, baby, pianissimo. Surely you know that term if Rosa’s looking after you?”
Rosa had been an opera singer and had toured the world in days gone by. These days she gave singing lessons, led the local choir and seemed perfectly content in her semi-retirement.
Lola tried holding the baby with one hand and checking Rosa’s pulse again—an idea that lasted the time it took for the baby to almost fling itself from her arms. Not that it had far to fall, but still … priorities. “Can you just calm down? Do you want food, is that it?” She lunged on her knees for the nearby fridge—one of those three-drawer models with a vegetable crisper drawer in the middle. Carrots! Yes! No! Shite. She had no idea what to feed this kid. “Change of plan, baby. No food for you. Not as if you’re starving.” Because frankly, this little red-faced cherub was heavy. “How about a song? You want to hear a Brahms’ lullaby? Very soothing.” She started humming a sure-fire crowd favourite. The kid cried louder.
“Okay, what about Bowie? Everybody loves Bowie. You want to be a rocket man?”
“What about some Rocky Horror Picture Show?” She’d auditioned for that only last month. “You like musicals? I can do all the voices.” Time was not fleeting—time had slowed right down, and surely the paramedics would be here any minute, but Lola started singing about time warps regardless.
She rested the baby on her bent knee and tentatively took Rosa’s hand again. By the time she was telling everyone to put their hands on their hips the child’s tear-drenched gaze was firmly fixed on her face and the crying had stopped. She glanced at her fallen godmother to find Rosa watching her through slitted eyes.
“Oh, hey. Did we wake you?” Thank God. The baby joined the conversation, garbling at Rosa and waving its chubby arms.
“Am I dead?” the older woman croaked, and Lola smiled her relief, because those words hadn’t been slurred and stroke-like at all. The words were faint but clear.
“Not yet. Although waking up to my singing you could probably be forgiven for thinking you were in heaven, right?”
“Your F4 is sharp.”
“It is not.” No one who auditioned for musical theatre as consistently as Lola did had any business producing a sharp F4. “No, don’t try to get up. Just relax. See? We’re all relaxed and no one’s crying. Party on the floor.” A sharp rap sounded on the door. “We’re in here!”
Lola had never been so grateful to relinquish control of a situation and let the professionals take over. Rosa was concussed, that much was clear. They were putting her on the trolley and strapping her in, wheeling her out to the ambulance, with Lola following along behind as if tethered to them.
She wanted to go with them, and would have, but for the mystery baby in her arms. A baby who’d snugged in tight, head on her shoulder as he—or she—watched the goings on through sleepy eyes, one chubby fist scrunching the neck of Lola’s T-shirt with surprising strength.
The paramedics were local, weren’t they? Surely, they would be fountains of information when it came to who was who in a town as small as this.
She waited until they had Rosa settled in the back of the ambulance, doors open still as one of them ran tests and the other medic stood aside. He was a tall, lean man with curly greying hair and a reassuring smile. They’d already moved past introductions and Lola’s explanation of finding Rosa unconscious on the floor. She’d answered all his questions. They were practically best friends, and now that Rosa was being seen to, she had a question for him.
“Not that I want to alarm you.” Lola bestowed on him her most reassuring smile. “But I don’t suppose you know who owns this kid?”