Emmerdale’s Donna Windsor is a survivor. She endured a stable fire, a tractor crash, a gas explosion and a failed marriage before leaving the not-so-sleepy village in 2009.
But the policewoman, who we last saw transferring to Essex after cheating on husband Marlon Dingle, can no longer face her latest struggle alone.
Unbeknown to Marlon – and viewers of the ITV soap – Donna was pregnant when she left, and has since given birth to his daughter, April.
“Everything has gone wrong for Donna,” explains Verity Rushworth, who is reprising the role after a five-year stint in musical theatre.
“She’s a single mum in Essex, struggling with a daughter who’s starting to ask questions about who Daddy is. She needs to go home and have her family support network, she needs to put it right and she needs to tell Marlon.
“She’s been burying her head in the sand and it’s time to come home and sort it out.”
Stage star Rushworth had no hesitations about returning to Emmerdale for five months (“It’s a really juicy, dramatic storyline with lots of twists and turns”) but she admits that her first day back was nerve-racking.
“I was absolutely petrified. I was in the car, driving into the village and it all came flooding back. It was dark and raining and wet, about 6am and I was like, ‘Oh, I remember it well’,” the bubbly, Bradford-born actress says.
“Thank God my first scene was with Mark [Charnock, who plays Marlon]. It was like I’d never been away, we just slipped straight back into it.”
Understandably, Marlon is shocked to discover he has a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
“He absolutely flies off the handle,” says Rushworth, looking glamorous in a monochrome jacket, slim black trousers and killer heels. “I think Donna was scared because they ended so badly and she felt he wouldn’t want to know. She left it a year and thought she’d left it too long [to tell him].”
Marlon is now in a relationship with kind-hearted former vicar’s wife Laurel, and any chance of more romance between him and Donna is highly unlikely.
“That’s not why she’s gone back. There is high drama, but I don’t think that’s on the cards for them,” says Rushworth. “Donna’s priority is April.”
There’s not much chance of a catfight with Laurel, either.
“Laurel handles it all amazingly well. The mum in her comes through and there are children involved, so she’s actually the calming influence between Donna and Marlon.”
Having joined Emmerdale aged 12, taking over the role from young actress Sophie Jeffery, Rushworth did much of her growing up on the soap.
“I was so lucky, but it’s an unusual upbringing really,” the 28-year-old reflects.
“I needed to go out and do something different, otherwise I wouldn’t have experienced anything as an adult, other than where I’ve grown up.”
What began as a break turned into a much longer absence from the show. “It was meant to be a bit of a sabbatical but I carried on...” she says, smiling.
Rushworth’s first post-Emmerdale role was in the West End production of Hairspray, where she met associate director Dominic Shaw. The pair married last March in the Yorkshire Dales and live in London. Rushworth also played Maria in the 2011 UK touring production of The Sound Of Music, and up until January was in Leicester playing Chicago murderess Velma Kelly.
Having just bought a house in London with her husband, Rushworth says she’d “have to sleep on it” if she was asked to return to Emmerdale permanently.
But for now, she’s delighted to be back on the set which was once her second home: “Emmerdale’s amazing. I’m so proud of the show.”
Emmerdale, ITV1, Weeknights