Fleur Lester tied back her wispy blonde hair then twirled it into a knot on top of her head. Her phone rang and she reached for it, smiling at her brother’s name on the screen. ‘Hey, Jono.’
‘Fleur. How are you?’
‘Good. Just getting ready for work.’
‘When do you start?’
She liked the familiar sound of his voice. Liked having a family member involved in the everyday details of her life. She had missed him so much during all her years in foster homes. ‘I’ve got a couple of hours before I start.’
‘Getting ready early?’
‘Yep. It helps me prepare mentally.’
‘Are you still seeing a counsellor?’
She tensed. ‘Not at the moment.’ Why was he asking? ‘Clare helps me more than any counsellor does.’ She wasn’t sure why she failed to tell him that Shadrach Broughton had also taken her under his wing. She wasn’t sure what to make of the opinionated young man she’d met at the combined youth group bonfire night.
‘Yeah, she’s good value,’ Jono said, and Fleur heard the smile in his voice.
Good value was an understatement when it came to Clare. How did you ever repay someone who had stood by you, even when you tried to push them away? Someone who shared the love of Jesus with you so that you had a reason to live?
‘Fleur?’ She was brought back to the present as Jonathan drew in an audible breath. ‘I have some news.’
Her heart rate picked up. His tone was so serious. ‘What’s going on?’
‘I got a call from the prison hospital. Dad has passed away.’
She drew back and tried to process what she was hearing. ‘Already? You’re sure?’
‘Yes, Fleur. It’s over. He’s gone.’
She shook her head. She had known he had cancer but hadn’t expected this so soon. She didn’t know what to feel. She was numb. Jonathan’s voice brought her back. ‘You okay?’
‘I will be. Just trying to take it in.’
‘I told them we don’t want a funeral.’
Profound relief filled her. She couldn’t pretend to grieve for Ken Lester. ‘Thank you.’
‘You want me to come? I can come if you need me.’
‘No. I’m okay.’
‘Promise you’ll give me a call if you change your mind? If you need anything?’
He hesitated, as though trying to work out if she meant it. ‘Okay. There’s something else I need to talk to you about. Are you up to talking about the house in Caldon?’
She bit her lip. Dad had put their childhood home in her name to preserve his assets the day he was given his life sentence. When she turned eighteen the house had become hers, but she still hadn’t felt safe going back. If her father had ever escaped from prison he’d have known exactly where to find her. But now he’d never find her again.
She picked up her hairbrush and absently twirled it in her hand. ‘What about it?’
‘The tenants left a few months ago and I didn’t want to put it back on the rental market in case you decided to go back now. The agents are pressuring me to let someone else in. I wondered what you’d like me to do?’
She sat down on her bed and stared out her window. ‘I’ll think about it.’
‘Good.’ He sounded pleased. His voice softened. ‘It’s really over, Fleur.’
She let out a long breath, her shoulders slumping. ‘It doesn’t feel real.’
‘I know. It might take a while.’
‘Are you okay, Jono?’
‘Honestly?’ He sighed. ‘I’m sad he never tried to contact you. Sad he never said sorry or asked you for forgiveness.’
‘I didn’t want him to. I wouldn’t have let him, anyway.’
‘I know. But he’s our father and I wish he’d tried. I guess I wish … I wish he was someone else.’
She knew what he meant. ‘I’m glad you’re nothing like him, Jonathan.’
‘Me too.’ His words were so quiet, so sad, she almost missed them. ‘But it scares me, you know. What if I was? What if those genes had been passed on to me?’
Was it about genes? Or was it about being completely selfish and depraved and not caring for anybody else in the world?
‘You’re a good man, Jonathan.’ And he was a Christian now. In her experience, that made a person trustworthy. She drew in a deep breath. ‘I need to get ready for work. I’ll call you back when I decide about the house.’
‘Thanks. I love you, Fleur.’
She froze. He’d never said that before. She managed to mumble something back and ended the call. Her hands were shaking. She dropped her phone on the bed and went to the top drawer. She needed a cigarette.
The first draw wasn’t enough. She took another.
She was supposed to have forgiven her dad, she knew that. But she hadn’t been able to manage it and now he was dead. Too late.
Maybe she should head off to work early. She didn’t like the idea of being alone in her flat, memories stabbing her, reminding her of wounds still open and bleeding.
She wasn’t sure why she still pushed people away rather than allowing them to be there for her. Maybe she should call Clare, but Clare now had a fiancé to absorb her every waking thought. Clare Bateman was proof that some people’s lives did turn out okay. Maybe hers could too, now Dad was gone.
She lifted the cigarette to her lips again, remembering that awful day her nine-year-old heart had shattered into tiny pieces. She’d heard her mother’s heart-rending cry and run into the kitchen. Mum was staring at Dad’s laptop screen, and Fleur caught a glimpse of the pictures of herself. Mum looked up, her expression filled with absolute horror, anguish and pity. Before Fleur could speak, Dad walked in. He realised what Mum had seen, panicked and tried to wrestle the laptop from her. Mum raced for her phone, and Fleur watched in terror as her parents struggled. Dad shoved Mum hard, there was the sound of a sickening crack and Mum’s head hit the kitchen bench. Dad ran, and it was the last time Fleur had seen him. Mum hadn’t survived. The one person in the world willing to fight for Fleur; to protect her no matter the cost, was gone. As was her innocence, her family, her reason to live.
Her father’s betrayal destroyed her soul.
Until two years ago.
She bit her lip, remembering that day. Sixteen years old, she lay in hospital, frustrated but also relieved her attempt at suicide hadn’t worked, trapped somewhere between the will to live and the belief she had nothing to live for.
And that’s when her friend Clare had stepped into her hospital room and spoken the words that reached somewhere deep inside and offered hope.
‘Just because one person didn’t love and respect you the way they should, doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be loved and respected.’ Her tone begged Fleur to believe her.
How desperately Fleur wanted her to be right. But could she take the risk and dare to trust someone again?
Clare had then asked her if she believed in God.
She’d seriously considered it. She’d seen the difference faith made in Clare’s life. ‘I want to … but …’ She gathered up the courage to ask the question that burned inside her; the one that left her so twisted up inside; that no counsellor had been able to answer. ‘How could God let my dad do what he did to me?’
Clare bit her lip, expression pained. ‘I don’t know. But I do know that God didn’t make your father make the choices he did. He’s totally against it. And I know God wants to help us through this life; be our closest friend.’
Fleur’s heart twisted. ‘But you’re nice, Clare. If God knows everything about me he can’t love me.’
‘He knows.’ Clare’s earnest brown eyes begged her to believe. ‘He also knows what I used to be like; what I’m still like sometimes, deep down inside.’ Clare swallowed hard. ‘Believe me, I’m not nice. But God is helping me, changing me. It’s God’s love that made me care so much about you, no matter what you said to me.’
Fleur grasped the lifeline. How desperately she wanted to believe; to be like Clare, to learn to trust again. ‘And you believe he loves me too?’
‘With everything within me. He’s just waiting for you to turn to him for help. He knows we need it!’
‘But why would God care about me?’
‘Because he made you. He made you and he wants you back. All you have to do is forget your pride and accept.’
Tears stung Fleur’s eyes that day as she stood on the cliff edge between life and death. She pictured God reaching out his hand, begging her to trust him, to let him love her and give her a reason to live. ‘God is my only hope,’ she whispered, recognising the truth of it. She needed a miracle. ‘I need him. I can’t keep living with this pain. This loneliness.’
Clare’s eyes filled with desperate hope. ‘Can you tell him that?’
Fleur closed her eyes. Could she? Could she trust God? What other hope did she have? God, I want to trust you, but you’ve never done anything to show me that I can.
But neither had she given him a chance. What if he let her down? What if he didn’t really care? There was only one way to find out. She’d ask him to grant her dearest wish.
God, if you’re real, can you please help me find my brother? She hadn’t seen Jonathan since their mother’s funeral. He had tried to reach out to her, but she had curled up in a ball and shut her eyes tight, refusing to speak to him, shutting out the world. She hadn’t known who she could trust.
Nothing had changed, except that she now had Clare, a friend she could trust. That counted for something, didn’t it? She reached out and grabbed Clare’s hand as doubt warred with hope. ‘Clare, I have a brother somewhere. His name is Jonathan and I haven’t seen him since I was nine. Can you find him for me?’
Clare’s eyes widened, then she blinked a couple of times. ‘How?’ she finally asked.
‘I don’t know. Didn’t you say God can do anything?’
She told Clare about Jonathan. That he would be in his mid-twenties by now. He’d been eighteen when she was nine and their lives had been turned upside down. She didn’t remember a lot of that time. Didn’t remember where he’d gone.
Clare promised she’d pray and she’d look.
She had. And God had done it. Clare found Jonathan working in a lawyer’s office in a nearby town and brought him into the hospital to see her. When Jonathan threw his arms around her and wept, Fleur knew, for the first time, deep in her soul, that God was real and he cared for her.
‘I thought you didn’t want to see me again,’ Jonathan said as he clung to her. ‘I thought I must remind you of Dad.’
She reassured him of her love and told him what God had done. Now they both believed. God was real and he cared for them. And Dad was no longer a threat. Everything was going to be okay.
The doorbell rang, jarring Fleur from her memories.
She moved to the front door and opened it, forgetting the cigarette still between her fingers.
Her eyes widened. Shadrach Broughton stood there, tall, wiry, glasses resting on his studious face. Who’d given him her address? She certainly hadn’t.
He looked down at her hand and the blood drained from his face like a sink draining of water. He stared at her, speechless, his horrified gaze fixed on the cigarette between her fingers. She stared back, equally horrified to see him standing on her doorstep. ‘What are you doing here?’
At first, she thought he wasn’t going to answer, but then he finally managed to force out a few stilted words. ‘I thought you were a Christian.’
It sounded very much like an accusation. ‘I am.’
‘But you’re smoking.’
‘Yes.’ She kicked herself for not expecting this from him. He’d taken it upon himself to help her grow as a Christian and his last email should have alerted her. His tirade about Christians who took their freedom to the extreme and didn’t live a righteous and holy life.
He continued to stare and she felt warmth creeping up into her face. She hid the cigarette behind her back. If only her fingers weren’t shaking. ‘You came to see me?’
‘I did. We need to talk.’
She made a split-second decision. ‘Okay.’ She stepped outside, dropped the cigarette and stepped on it. She saw his look of revulsion. Everything in her wanted to tell him it was a bad time and send him away, but she needed to know what he was doing here and who had given out her address.
If only she could relax. He stood so tall and straight she thought his spine might snap.
‘Can you bring some chairs out?’
So it would be a long talk. She’d prefer to stand there, but she did as he asked.
He watched her struggle to get the chairs out the door, then took one and sat down. He nodded for her to do the same and, reluctantly, she did. His piercing look made her nervous, but she hid it well behind her practiced blank expression. This was a side of Shadrach she hadn’t seen when she’d first met him at the combined youth group bonfire at the Cairns’ farm.
He took off his glasses and cleaned them. She waited. He put them back on his nose and sniffed before he finally spoke. ‘I don’t know what to think, Fleur. Have you been deceiving me all this time?’
She stiffened. If he meant lying by omission, then maybe she had. But there was no reason to tell him everything about her.
He shook his head. ‘I don’t get it. When I first met you, I was so impressed. You had such a humble, servant heart.’
If he meant the way she had offered him a hot chocolate, which he had refused, she had done that for everyone. That was her role that night.
‘You went out of your way to meet my needs.’
Yes, he’d informed her he was on a Daniel diet of just fruit, vegetables and water, so she’d gotten him a glass of water.
‘You didn’t flaunt your body or flirt or draw attention to yourself like so many of those loud, attention-seeking girls. And you listened so carefully to the talk, your eyes shining. And now …’ He sniffed again, lifting his chin, a superior expression on his face—a judge considering his verdict. His eyes went to her white blouse and short black skirt—the required uniform for a barmaid. Then he dropped his head into his hands. ‘I was so sure you were the one.’
Fleur could hardly breathe. What was he saying? If she’d had any idea what he was thinking, there was no way she would have encouraged his daily emails and texts. He had said he was sending them because she was a new Christian and his God-given role was to disciple and encourage new Christians.
She hadn’t understood half of what he’d sent, but she’d appreciated his intent.
He reached a hand toward her, palm open. ‘Fleur, if you repent, you will be forgiven. I don’t believe this is the end for us. New life begins with repentance. It will be a beautiful way for us to begin our relationship.’
She drew back. Tried to speak. Choked. Tried again. ‘Who told you where I live?’
‘Your church minister. I explained I’ve been mentoring you, developing a relationship …’
She jumped up, cutting him off. ‘Shadrach, I had no idea … I mean, I never … I’m not interested in a relationship. With anyone.’
‘You don’t plan to marry?’ He looked like she’d just told him she was a thirty-year-old male.
She let out a short, bark of a laugh. ‘Never.’
His face hardened and he pulled his hand back. ‘God commands us in the book of Genesis to be fruitful and multiply.’
He jiggled his knee impatiently as though he shouldn’t need to explain. ‘God wants us to marry and have children.’
Fleur couldn’t believe what he was saying. She’d never come across a Christian with his views before. If Clare had expressed the same ideas, Fleur would never have believed God loved and understood her. She would never have committed her life to him.
‘Fleur, it’s so obvious why God sent me to see you this afternoon. He knows you need a strong, male leader in your life. Women are easily deceived and led astray. That is why God commands women to obey their fathers and then, once married, their husbands. I can help you.’
Fleur didn’t know whether to laugh or scream or run and hide. As a child she had done exactly what her father told her to do and … She stepped back, crossing her arms and hoping her shaky legs held her. ‘I don’t know where you got the idea that you have any say in my life, Shadrach, but you don’t. I’d like you to leave.’ She gave him her best icy stare.
He stared back. ‘Don’t do this, Fleur.’
‘Don’t do what? Let you manipulate and control me? Hold some kind of power over me? I want you to leave. Now.’
Something in the low, dangerous tone of her voice must have gotten through to him. He stood, but still appeared undecided.
She wanted to scream at him that her father had just died. That he had no idea about her, her life, her past. But she refused to feed him information that might give him any inclination he knew her, any knowledge he could use against her.
‘If you don’t leave, I’ll call the police.’
That did it. He stormed down her path, shoved open the gate without bothering to close it again and disappeared.
Fleur ran inside, sank to the floor and groaned. Could she never escape the curse of … of whatever it was that made men want to claim her, own her?
Confusion swirled, leaving her dizzy. She bit her lip. Imagine if Shadrach knew the truth about her; the full, horrible truth that only a few people in the world knew?
Oh God, oh God …
It was so hard to hide from her past. She felt as though she was living in deceit. And the fact that Shadrach had found where she lived was frightening. She needed to get away from him and his expectations and impossible standards.
‘God, should I go back to Caldon?’ She had been free to be herself in her childhood home. If only she could go back to being that innocent, happy little girl she had been before Dad had packed their family up and moved them to the city. Perhaps going back to Caldon would give her some closure. Some peace. Dad was dead and the house was officially hers. What did she have to lose?
* * * * *
Framing Fleur is the second book in the Bateman Family Series by Jenny Glazebrook. The official launch of Framing Fleur will be in Gundagai on Friday 28 May, 2021. Find the details HERE
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