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The Presence by Charlene Neil

 

Prologue

 

 

1901, The Anglo Boere War, South Africa

 

 

“Papa…Papa…Papa…Papa!” The voice echoed from far in the distance, starting low and growing louder, as Catherine woke bit by bit from a deep sleep. Arising in the mornings was getting harder and harder each day since her husband, Joshua, left to fight in the war. Life wasn’t the same without his arms around her when she awoke and without his soothing voice when she needed comfort.

 

A deep depression had set in since his departure, and she wanted to lie in bed all day, every day. Sometimes, she just wished her life would end.

 

But Catherine had a daughter to think of. Exhausted, she yawned and dragged her heavy body out of bed, and went over to her window. She pulled the curtains aside. A dark and gloomy sky greeted her, matching her mood. She glared down at Carrey, her daughter, in the front yard. She turned and tried to focus her eyes on the clock by her bedside table. Six-thirty in the morning. Can a person never sleep late?

 

“Papaaaaaaaa!” Carrey called out again. It sounded as if she’d squeezed the last bit of air out of her lungs.

 

Catherine grabbed her gown. She wrapped it around her bare shoulders and shuddered. The thin gown offered little protection from the cold. She turned too fast and kicked her toe into the sharp edge of her bedroom door.

 

“Ow…” She limped down the hallway. “Carrey!” She raged breathlessly on her way down the stairs with only the echo of silence greeting her. She skipped every second step in order to get down as fast as she could, groaning every time she put weight on the throbbing toe.

 

She opened the front door and shoved the screen door aside. When she let it go, the loud bang against the rotted wooden doorframe echoed loudly. There was no one else for miles of their farm in Hoekwil, but sound travelled far in the frosty space of nothingness. The icy chill whipped her long light-brown hair around her face. She gasped at the sudden hit of freezing cold, and the frosty air burned down her throat. She took Carrey by the wrist and pulled her inside to the kitchen where it was warmer. Catherine feared that if the British soldiers were in the vicinity, their lives would be at stake.

 

The instant they set foot inside the house, the weekly newspaper on the table caught her eye. Catherine dreaded the published list of perished soldiers. She knew the army would have sent her a telegram if anything had happened to her husband, but it was possible the telegram could be delayed. The nausea that she felt every week at opening the newspaper maneuvered its way up her gullet. Joshua. She hadn’t had the stomach to open the newspaper yet, even though it had arrived the day before.

 

She tried to refocus on her daughter and crouched down to Carrey’s height. “What were you doing outside by yourself, especially at this time of the morning, little missy?”

 

“I’m waiting for Papa.” Carrey spoke very well for a four-year-old.

 

“You know it isn’t safe out there all by yourself. How many times must Mama tell you that?” Catherine had heard so many gruesome stories of the English soldiers taking women and children to concentration camps where they received no food or water and were beaten and neglected. Hair stood up at the back of her neck at the very thought of that happening to her only daughter. They had lived in concealment ever since Joshua went to fight in the war. At night they’d not lit a single candle and had closed all the curtains just in case somebody was passing through.

 

“But I thought I saw Papa out there, Mama! I went outside to show him the way home. I don’t think he saw me, though. He was too far away. But he looked like the man in the photo you showed me.” Carrey’s hair was much darker than her mother’s and long, all the way down to her tiny waist. Long dark lashes decorated her big green eyes.  She had her father’s mouth and hair, but her eyes were Catherine’s.

 

“Honey, how do you know he looks like Papa if he’s so far away?” 

 

Before Carrey could say anything, movement out of the corner of Catherine’s eye caught her attention. She craned her neck to look in the direction of the door. The door that was still wide open. Fear clenched her heart like a fist. The man who stood there was not Joshua. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Present day, Sedgefield, South Africa

 

By three that afternoon, it felt like every pet owner in Sedgefield had needed Kayleigh Gibbs’s veterinarian assistance for a medical emergency. By the time Kayleigh left to collect her eight-year-old daughter from school, she was exhausted but not complaining about the influx of patients. Since opening her practice, business had been slow.

 

She spun her black Jeep Wrangler out of its parking space before another worried pet owner could have the chance to spot her.

 

She understood the slow start of her practice. Carl Jones, just down the road, had been the only veterinarian in town for years and it seemed that most people did not accept the change of vet readily. When the townsfolk saw she was up-to-date with her equipment and techniques, they slowly started to accept her and bring her more business. Dr. Jones could hardly see anymore, and Kayleigh secretly dreaded the day he would remove an animal’s bladder instead of its uterus.

 

The wind felt cool on her face. Kayleigh loved driving in the Jeep with the top down. It made her feel free. She switched from the radio to the current CD in the shuttle and selected her favorite song. A rhythmic beat flowed through the sound system, and she pumped up the volume.

 

As she drove, she thought of the lack of young people, let alone men, in this town. Kayleigh wasn’t interested in men, really, and she’d had her fair share of bad experiences, enough to know men didn’t know how to make her happy. She’d never felt the butterflies and so-called spark she’d heard about in the conversations she’d endured in school and university.

 

If true to herself, she realized she enjoyed her freedom. Besides, having a man around would tip the scales, and cause a disturbance in her perfect equilibrium.

 

Sarah was already standing by the gate when Kayleigh pulled into the schoolyard. Sarah placed her foot on the huge back wheel and hopped into the Jeep without opening the door.

 

“Hi, Mommy.”

 

“Hi, sweetness. How was your day?”

 

“Awesome! We had a party in class because it was Zia’s birthday. We ate cake and sweets and drank soda.”

 

“Great. A sugar rush. Plus caffeine.” Kayleigh shook her head.

 

All the way home, Sarah controlled the music in the car. She loved singing along to The Girl Next Door,” a song by a local group, which she played twice before they reached home.

 

“Lunch box and juice bottle in the sink. Schoolbag in your room,” Kayleigh called out to Sarah as soon as they entered the house. Sarah had the annoying habit of dumping her schoolbag on the couch.

 

“All right, Mom.” Sarah sighed loudly before she did as she was told.

 

“Homework?”

 

“Nope. I finished all my homework in class.”

 

Kayleigh studied Sarah. “Homework is for home. Like it says. Home. Work.”

 

“The teacher said it was all right. She was done with class and told us to do our homework. Then we could have the whole weekend off.” Sarah sang the final three words as she spun around on one foot.

 

Kayleigh grabbed The Edge, the local newspaper, and slumped onto the nearest breakfast nook stool. Her feet were killing her from all the running around today. She leaned over the counter and gazed through the rental listings. She felt her cell vibrate in her back pocket. Retrieving it, she looked at the caller ID before flipping it open.

 

“Hello, Bag,” she said to her best friend, Lindsay Norris.

 

“Quit calling me that. I’ll undo my wife’s leash and let her attack you.”

 

“You know you earned that nickname in college.” Kayleigh smiled.

 

“So I had about five bags when I moved into the dorm room, big bloody deal. You didn’t seem to mind borrowing most of my clothes.”

 

Kayleigh laughed. “More like twenty bags, Bag.”

 

Lindsay chuckled. “Moving on. Are we still on for tonight?”

 

“Most definitely. Babysitter’s arranged. The works.”

 

“I got the tequila, you bring the beers and the oranges. You know tequila tastes better with oranges than with lemons,” Lindsay said.

 

“I do know and I will. How many people are coming?”

 

“Not too many, just a few of Judy’s college mates and an old friend from high school. The poor chick recently relocated here from Cape Town, and she doesn’t know a single soul. Lord knows why she moved to this small town.”

 

“Any attractive guys?” Kayleigh asked with a hint of sarcasm.

 

“Sure, there’s Bennie and Paul. Queens. You might like them.”

 

Kayleigh giggled. “Perfect. See you later, Bag.”

 

“Stop it.”

 

After ending the call, she returned to reading the newspaper. “Two-bedroom apartments, six-month contracts, needs some work, blah blah blah....”

 

All of them were the same, and Kayleigh wanted a long-term lease. Besides, the prices were sky-high. She knew the owners never extended the short leases because of the town’s proximity to the sea. The owners made a fortune renting to the December influx of holiday comers and kept their houses open for that purpose. She’d be damned if she would move again anytime soon.

 

The wind blew in through the open window and lifted the bottom corner of the newspaper. She placed her elbow over the paper to keep it still. Her long brown hair hung loosely over her shoulders and brushed against the top of the newspaper. With a swift movement of her right hand, she flicked her hair over her shoulder as she reached the lower part of the newspaper. With a loud and frustrated sigh, she moved her elbow to look at the rest of the page, when a listing in the bottom corner caught her attention.

 

“Four-bedroom house on large farm to let. Hoekwil.” The rental was half what she was currently paying on her lease. “Wow. What a bargain.”

 

She’d been looking to get a bigger place before she and Sarah got cabin fever. Without taking her eyes off the advertisement, Kayleigh grabbed her cell phone and dialed the number of her estate agent, Graham.

 

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