Overview: With new arrivals comes new responsibilities...

The sun is shining, wild flowers are blooming and Hedgehog Hollow is officially open for business.

For Samantha, the proud owner of this beautiful rescue centre, life has never been busier. But with an influx of new hogs and hoglets to take care of, not to mention a full-time job and ongoing family issues, can she accept the possibility that she has taken on more than she can handle?

Fortunately, she has the love of her life, Josh, by her side for support and encouragement. But Josh has his own family troubles to deal with. And soon he must decide if he's ready to do the one thing he swore he’d never do - forgive his father.

For both Samantha and Josh it's a season of change and for figuring out whether the past can ever truly be forgotten.

 

New Arrivals at Hedgehog Hollow by Jessica Redland Book Chapter One

 

‘I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.’ Josh attempted to plant his hands on his hips but the bulk of his enormous hedgehog costume prevented it.

‘The leggings and footwear combo are particularly sexy.’ I tried to hide my smirk but failed abysmally. ‘I promise you won’t have to wear it all afternoon. Just an hour or so.’

There was a knock on the lounge door and my best friend, Hannah, poked her head round it. ‘Just checking how you’re… Oh my God! Josh! That’s hilarious. I need pictures.’ She whipped her mobile out of her jeans pocket.

Josh groaned. ‘Veterinary surgeon morphs into giant muppet. What a come down!’ There was laughter in his tone and I knew he didn’t mind really.

After Hannah left, laughing at the photos, Josh turned to me and smiled. ‘If at any point in the future, you have even the tiniest doubt about how much I love you, picture me wearing this costume and know that I did it just for you. This right here?’ He indicated the outfit. ‘This is what true love looks like.’

I stood back, taking in the padded furry costume with curved spines down the back, the brown leggings and long-sleeved T-shirt clinging to his muscular legs and arms, the large paws on his feet and the matching paws for his hands. His face and a tuft of dark hair peeked out from the underside of the hedgehog’s head and my heart melted.

‘Every day you amaze me and every day I love you even more.’ I gently kissed him, laughing as the head from his costume dishevelled my hair. ‘Ready to introduce Mickleby the Hedgehog to his public?’

He screwed his face into a mock-mortified expression. ‘Ready as I’ll ever be.’

 
* * *

I squinted in the bright sunshine. It was such a beautiful early May day with a cornflower-blue sky and a few wispy clouds floating lazily on the gentlest of breezes. Pulling a bobble out of the pocket of my dress, I scraped my long, dark hair back into a loose ponytail.

Josh stumbled as we crossed the farmyard and I felt a twinge of guilt that he was dressed like a giant football mascot while I was wearing something much more understated and weather-appropriate. He’d given me some hedgehog-themed dresses as a present yesterday and I’d selected a blue short-sleeved one with a red and white hedgehog print for today. I’d combined it with the hedgehog wellies that my good friends Rich and Dave had given me as a housewarming gift when I moved out of their cottage and into the farmhouse a month ago.

As we approached the large stone barn that housed Hedgehog Hollow Rescue Centre, there were several high-pitched squeals and suddenly we were surrounded by children, stroking Mickleby’s spines and trying to grasp hold of his paws.

A stream of children followed us, as though Mickleby was the Pied Piper, as we made our way to the side of the barn. We’d created a meet and greet space there using a woodland backdrop and some wooden red and white spotted toadstools borrowed from the performing arts department at Reddfield TEC – the local college where I’d worked as a Health and Social Care Tutor since September last year. The scene was perfect for parents wishing to take photos of their children with our new mascot in exchange for a small donation towards the running of our charity.

Hannah and her husband Toby had volunteered for ‘crowd control’ duties. Their eight-month-old daughter, Amelia, was fast asleep in her buggy under the shade of a gazebo. I took a quick peek and smiled at the outfit they’d chosen: a pink cardigan with a hedgehog on each side worn over a pale blue pinafore dress with a giant hedgehog and butterfly on it. She looked so adorable lying there with her fists scrunched up against her cheeks and her lips intermittently smacking together.

Peeling my eyes away from her, I stood back and watched Josh for a while. As a vet, he was understandably superb with animals but this was the first time I’d seen him around children. He was such a natural, getting down on all fours so the smaller ones could stroke his spines and pretending to snuffle for food round the toadstools.

All around me, the sounds of laughter and chatter warmed my heart. We’d really done it. Hedgehog Hollow Rescue Centre was now fully operational, taking in poorly and injured hedgehogs and orphaned hoglets. When we’d officially opened yesterday – a low-key event for the press, local dignitaries and immediate family – we’d had twelve hogs but another two arrived during the evening. I’d been half-expecting someone to thrust one at me today at our Family Fun Day but, so far, there hadn’t been any more patients.

Set out in the pasture was a bouncy castle, face painting (hedgehogs being a popular choice) and various stalls selling locally produced food, drink and crafts. Dad, Uncle Simon, Rich and Dave were in charge of the barbeque. Josh’s mum Connie and her twin sister Lauren (who was my manager at the TEC) were running a tombola and raffle while Chloe and my Auntie Louise were supervising some children’s crafts.

‘I’m off to do another talk,’ I told Hannah. ‘Look after my favourite hedgehog for me.’ I nodded towards Josh.

‘I’ll make sure I keep him hydrated. And maybe a pouch of cat food if he’s hungry.’

‘Yummy! As long as it isn’t fish because—’

‘Because hedgehogs need meaty food, not fishy food.’

I grinned at her. ‘Have I laboured that point too much?’

She shook her head. ‘I’ve learned loads of new things and I’ll admit to being completely smitten with hedgehogs now, thanks to you.’

I waved goodbye and made my way to the barn. If Hannah had learned a lot, my learning curve had been of epic proportions. I’d always loved animals – a trait picked up from my dad who, like Josh, was a vet and from my Gramps who’d adored wildlife – but I’d known very little about hedgehogs. Hours spent researching online, reading nature books and poring over pamphlets from The British Hedgehog Preservation Society, plus three days helping at an animal rescue centre, had given me a speedy education although nothing could beat being hands-on with my very own rescue hogs.

 
* * *

Late that afternoon, I sat forward in my chair in the deserted barn, rested my elbows on the treatment table and closed my eyes. I’d assured everyone I was fully recovered from my time in hospital and ready to face a busy weekend but that had been a big fib. I was still exhausted and ideally needed much more recovery time than I’d allowed myself. If I’d admitted to Josh how drained I was, he’d have insisted on delaying the opening and that was the last thing I wanted. The Grimes boys had already destroyed so much and I couldn’t let them destroy our opening plans too. That would be like letting them win.

Although we hadn’t officially opened for business when they torched the barn, we already had five hedgehogs. I saved four of them but the barn roof collapsed on me when I returned for the fifth. Josh pulled me to safety but I spent nine days in a coma and was devastated to come round to the discovery that the barn was gone and so was Quilly.

Three of the hedgehogs I’d saved from the fire had since been released but Mr Snuffles was still a patient. With a broken leg, he needed much longer to heal. Even though I tried not to have favourites, I’d always have a soft spot for him after what we’d been through together and I was already dreading having to one day say goodbye to him.

I reluctantly opened my eyes again and stood up. If I stayed there any longer, I was likely to fall asleep. Josh and I had no plans for tomorrow so I’d have a much-needed chance to relax and recover then.

Outside, I found Hannah pulling a rope across the photo scene while Josh simultaneously gulped down a bottle of water and wiped his brow with the back of his hand, his paws abandoned on the ground beside him.

‘Aw, Josh! I didn’t expect you still to be in costume,’ I croaked, reaching for a towel and gently mopping his sweaty face. ‘You must be melting.’

‘I am! They never stopped coming. I’ve never been so in demand.’

‘I can’t thank you enough. I owe you big time.’

He winked at me. ‘I can think of a few ways you could make it up to me.’

Hannah put her hands over her ears. ‘Argh! Stop it! Not listening!’

Laughing, I prised her hands away. ‘Sorry. It’s gone well, then?’

She nodded. ‘I think we’ve raised quite a lot.’

I flipped open the cashbox lid and whistled at the pile of notes and coins. ‘That’s way more than I expected.’

‘People have been very generous with their donations. It was lovely to see so much kindness.’

‘The locals have been amazing. I’m so lucky.’ While I was incapacitated, the outraged community had pulled together, salvaged the stones and re-built the barn even better and more fit for purpose than it had been before with a proper second floor instead of the mezzanine we’d had installed in the original barn. Today’s Family Fun Day was therefore a celebration of Hedgehog Hollow being open for business but also a massive thank you to everyone who had so generously donated their time, resources or money.

‘And you’ve been amazing too,’ I added, giving my friend a hug. ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’

‘Absolute pleasure.’ Hannah squeezed me tightly. ‘I’m so proud of you and everything you’ve achieved. You’re such an inspiration.’

Tears pricked my eyes. ‘Where’s Toby and Amelia?’ I asked, keen to take the focus away from me. It was a happy day and I didn’t want to spend any of it crying.

‘She needed changing so he’s at the car sorting her out.’

‘You look done in,’ Josh said, pushing back his hedgehog head and rubbing the towel over his hair. ‘And you’re losing your voice.’

I rubbed my hand over my throat. ‘I didn’t think so many people would attend my talks. I’ve done more than double my estimate but it’s nothing some hot blackcurrant won’t sort out. Are you ready to get out of Mickleby?’

‘Never been more ready.’ He picked up the abandoned pair of paws.

‘There were way more visitors than we expected,’ Josh said as we slowly made our way across the farmyard, me carrying the heavy cashbox in both hands and Josh holding a paw in each of his. ‘I’m thinking it’s been pretty successful.’

‘Definitely. I’m full of ideas for next year already.’

‘I knew you would be. And I bet they involve me dressing up as Mickleby again.’

I smiled at the mock-resignation in his voice as I gave him a playful nudge. ‘He’s your alter-ego now. There’s no escaping.’

He laughed. ‘I might regret saying this but it’s been good fun. Hot and sweaty but definitely fun.’

We’d almost reached the farmhouse when a woman’s voice shouted Josh’s name. We both turned to face a very pretty pregnant woman with long, pale blonde hair scraped back into a high ponytail. She looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place her. Then my stomach plummeted. I’d only ever seen her in a photo at Josh’s cottage but it was definitely her. Beth. The woman who’d broken his heart.

I glanced at Josh, cringing for him coming face-to-face with his ex-girlfriend while dressed as a giant hedgehog. How mortifying must that be? What was she doing here anyway? He’d made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with her and understandably so after what she’d done.

His eyes were narrowed, his jaw tight. With a low snort, he turned his back on her and shuffled towards the farmhouse as fast as his outsized feet would allow.

I didn’t want to strike up a conversation with her but it felt rude to completely ignore her so I shrugged my shoulders apologetically and muttered ‘sorry’ before turning and following Josh.

‘Please Josh!’ Beth cried.

‘I’ve got nothing to say to you,’ he shouted back to her before disappearing into the house.

‘Josh!’

Sighing, I stopped and took a couple of steps back towards Beth. I was going to have to say something. ‘I’m not sure that turning up here without warning was the best idea.’ I hoped I sounded like I was giving her an explanation rather than a lecture.

She stroked her hands over her baby bump. ‘I know, but he hasn’t left me much choice. He’s blocked my calls and emails. You’re his girlfriend, right? Samantha, is it?’

I nodded, narrowing my eyes warily, unsure as to how she knew my name or where to find Josh. As though sensing my confusion, she added, ‘I’ve got a friend who still works at Josh’s practice. They weren’t gossiping about you. I don’t want to—’

‘It’s okay,’ I reassured her.

‘I’m glad Josh has found someone special,’ she said. ‘He deserves it. He was an amazing boss and a lovely boyf…’ She broke off and shook her head, her pale cheeks colouring. ‘I’m sure you already know that. I really do need to speak to him. Could you have a word with him? Please.’

Her ice-blue eyes fixed on mine pleadingly and I felt a wave of compassion for her. She wasn’t what I’d expected. Josh had never said much about their relationship. All I knew were the basic facts leading to them splitting up about eighteen months ago. They’d been together for two years and he’d been in love with her but she’d been having a secret affair with his dad, Paul, for the whole of that time and five years prior to that. It all came out when she fell pregnant with Paul’s baby – a hell of a shock for Josh and his mum – resulting in Connie filing for divorce and Josh severing all ties with Paul and Beth. I’d therefore built Beth up in my mind to be a horrible person as surely only someone really nasty could deceive him like she had. I’d imagined her to be self-assured and probably a bit arrogant but the woman in front of me looked lost and vulnerable which threw me.

‘I’m sorry but it’s really nothing to do with me. Josh has made it clear that he doesn’t want anything to do with you, his dad or your family, and I have to respect that.’ I kept my voice as gentle as I could.

‘Please,’ she begged again. ‘It’s really important I speak to him.’ Tears glistened in her eyes. ‘I know how stubborn he is and I know how much we hurt him but surely you can…’

Her voice tailed off as I shook my head vigorously. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t. It’s Josh’s decision and I’m not going to interfere.’ I absolutely didn’t want to get involved. Relationships between families could be complicated – something I knew first-hand – and I didn’t want to say or do anything that might suggest to Josh that I didn’t understand how he felt, because I absolutely did. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the woman stood before me but she’d made her choices and she had to live with them.

She nodded slowly. ‘Okay. Thanks anyway.’

I watched her trudge back across the farmyard, her shoulders slumped and her head low. She opened her car door and my stomach churned as she sat in the driver’s seat with the door wide open. The minutes ticked by and I worried she was psyching herself up to coming back and trying again.

‘Please go,’ I muttered. ‘He doesn’t need this.’ Thankfully she closed the door, reversed out of the space and set off down the track.

I released a deep breath then headed into the farmhouse, shaking my head. Just when things were going really well…