It was Bella's sixteenth birthday, and the second anniversary of her orphanhood. Neither of these events was celebrated or commemorated in any way, by anyone who knew her.
The staff at Hamworthy House had long ago stopped trying to find suitable foster care for Bella. They felt that it was a pointless exercise, and too trying for all concerned. It gave the staff a couple of days break from Bella, but that was the sole advantage. Three other foster mums had removed themselves from the list, and the word was spreading among the ones who had not yet ''been landed with'' her. The last few they had tried had said ''Not Bella Pleasance.'' as soon as they had answered the telephone call from social services. So that was that. All that remained was to count down the days until Bella's eighteenth birthday. And they were doing just that. Behind one of the cupboard doors in the kitchen was a handmade chart on which they took turns to put a cross through the days. Today there were seven hundred and thirty days remaining.
Bella decided that if nobody wanted to celebrate her birthday, she would do so herself. That night she dressed up - mainly in clothes and jewellery she had taken from other girls in the House. At nine o'clock, after supper, she went to the front door and walked out.
''Where do you think you're off to, Bella?'' asked one of the girls on duty.
''Shut it.'' said Bella. And shut the door behind her.
The girl looked at her colleague. They both shrugged.
''Should we tell Mandy?'' one of them asked. Carrie and Neil had left a few months ago, shortly following Carrie's hospitalisation after a near fatal overdose of tranquillisers.
''You want to tell her?''
''Hey. You think she'll be back?''
''Yeah, probably. She'll do what she wants. Always does.''
Bella approached the local pub. She walked in and went straight to the bar.
''I want a glass of red wine.'' she said. The barman did not ask for ID. It didn't even occur to him. No face this grim could belong to someone under eighteen. He handed her the drink and she paid. Bella always had money. She had all of her money from the life insurance policies on her parents, and the sale of their house and other assets, in trust for her, with a generous monthly allowance. She had never touched it. No-one knew quite where this other money came from, and nobody really cared, or dared to ask.
Bella sat down, drinking her drink and watching the customers. No-one came near her. There were several single men sitting at the bar or in seats, but they each took one look at Bella and dismissed her as too ugly or too miserable looking, or both.
Across the room, she spotted a man. He looked to be in his mid-twenties. He was beautiful. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen in her life. She walked over to him and stood in front him. She then said three words she had never before said in her life. To anyone.
''I like you.''
The man was texting someone on his mobile phone. He looked up at Bella, then immediately looked down again.
''Stop doing that.'' she said, and sat down next to him, taking the mobile out of his hands and putting it in on the table.
The man gaped at her. She was weird. She wasn't much to look at, and that awful scowling expression... But it was a boring night and he was intrigued by this odd girl.
She stared at him, unblinking. He felt uncomfortable, but stared back, wondering what this strange female would do next.
''What's your name?'' She asked. This was also a first. She had never in her life asked the name of another human being.
''Jona.'' he said. ''What's yours?''
''Bella Pleasance. Do you live on your own?''
He was taken aback by this peculiar enquiry. He waited, not wanting to answer.
''I want to live with you.'' she said. ''I like you and I want to live with you. You're the only person I like and the only person I want to live with.''
He rubbed his chin. Very odd indeed, he thought. He wondered if she'd escaped from a psychiatric hospital.
''I can pay you.'' she said. She pulled out a roll of pink banknotes from her handbag.
Jona stared. He had never seen so much money at one time. Had she robbed a bank? No, that was silly.
He was between jobs. He had his own place but he needed money. He found this girl's directness strangely compelling, despite her looks. Most of the girls he knew giggled and blushed when they were around him. He knew he was about to take a huge risk, but what was the worst thing that could happen? He had always been a bit of a risk-taker anyway.
''Well... I do have a spare room. How much rent can you afford to pay?'' he asked, taking a swig of his beer and still eyeing the wad of cash.
''This much.'' she said. ''And the same next month.'' He nearly choked on his beer.
He said. ''Well, we could give it a try. Just a week to see how it goes. Separate rooms, though.'' Anything else was too awful to contemplate. She handed him the roll of fifty pound notes.
And then, she smiled at him. Not one of her usual, alone-in-her-room-plotting, nasty smiles. A nice smile. Showing her pearl-white, perfect teeth, with her lips not sucked in for a change. Her eyes crinkled at the corners, making her eyes appear less deep set and close together. She swept her hair back, showing off one of her exquisite ears.
For the first time in her life, Bella Pleasance looked almost beautiful.
For the first time in her life, Bella Pleasance was in love.
For the first time in her life, Bella Pleasance had met someone capable of hurting her.
And he would.