To mark the publication day of the third book in Rober Bryndza’s Detective Erika Foster series, Dark Water, I am giving you a treat of the prologue for the book. Have a read and hopefully you will like what you read and want to read the rest of the book! Enjoy.
by Robert Bryndza
It was a cold night in late autumn when they dumped the body in the disused quarry. They knew it was an isolated spot, and the water was very deep. What they didn’t know was that they were being watched.
They arrived under the cover of darkness, just after three o’clock in the morning – driving from the houses at the edge of the village, over the empty patch of gravel where the walkers parked their cars, and onto the vast common. With the headlights off, the car bumped and lurched across the rough ground, joining a footpath, which was soon shrouded on either side by dense woodland. The darkness was thick and clammy, and the only light came over the tops of the trees.
Nothing about the journey felt stealthy. The car engine seemed to roar; the suspension groaned as it lurched from side to side. They slowed to a stop as the trees parted and the water-filled quarry came into view.
What they didn’t know was that a reclusive old man lived by the quarry, squatting in an old abandoned cottage which had almost been reclaimed by the undergrowth. He was outside, staring up at the sky and marvelling at its beauty, when the car appeared over the ridge and came to a halt. Wary, he moved behind a bank of shrubbery and watched. Local kids, junkies, and couples looking for thrills often appeared at night, and he had managed to scare them away.
The moon briefly broke through the clouds as the two figures emerged from the car, and they took something large from the back and carried it towards the rowing boat by the water. The first climbed in, and as the second passed the long package into the boat there was something about the way it bent and flopped that made him realise with horror that it was a body.
The soft splashes of the oars carried across the water. He put a hand to his mouth. He knew he should turn away, but he couldn’t. The splashing oars ceased when the boat reached the middle. A sliver of moon appeared again through a gap in the clouds, illuminating the ripples spreading out from the boat.
He held his breath as he watched the two figures deep in conversation, their voices a low rhythmic murmur. Then there was silence. The boat lurched as they stood, and one of them nearly fell over the edge. When they were steady, they lifted the package and, with a splash and a rattle of chains, they dropped it into the water. The moon sailed out from behind its cloud, shining a bright light on the boat and the spot where the package had been dumped, the ripples spreading violently outwards.
He could now see the two people in the boat, and had a clear view of their faces.
The man exhaled. He’d been holding his breath. His hands shook. He didn’t want trouble; he’d spent his whole life trying to avoid trouble, but it always seemed to find him. A chill breeze stirred up some dry leaves at his feet, and he felt a sharp itching in his nostrils. Before he could stop it a sneeze erupted from his nose; it echoed across the water. In the boat, the heads snapped up, and began to twist and search the banks. And then they saw him. He turned to run, tripped on the root of a tree and fell to the ground, knocking the wind out of his chest.
Beneath the water in the disused quarry it was still, cold, and very dark. The body sank rapidly, pulled by the weights, down, down, down, finally coming to rest with a nudge in the soft freezing mud.
She would lie still and undisturbed for many years, almost at peace. But above her, on dry land, the nightmare was only just beginning.
Beneath the water the body sank rapidly. Above her on dry land, the nightmare was just beginning.
When Detective Erika Foster receives a tip-off that key evidence for a major narcotics case was stashed in a disused quarry on the outskirts of London, she orders for it to be searched. From the thick sludge the drugs are recovered, but so is the skeleton of a young child.
The remains are quickly identified as seven-year-old Jessica Collins. The missing girl who made headline news twenty-six years ago.
As Erika tries to piece together new evidence with the old, she must dig deeper and find out more about the fractured Collins family and the original detective, Amanda Baker. A woman plagued by her failure to find Jessica. Erika soon realises this is going to be one of the most complex and demanding cases she has ever taken on.
Is the suspect someone close to home? Someone is keeping secrets. Someone who doesn’t want this case solved. And they’ll do anything to stop Erika from finding the truth.
From the million-copy bestselling author of The Girl in the Ice and The Night Stalker, comes the third heart-stopping book in the Detective Erika Foster series.
Watch out for more from DCI Erika Foster.
She’s fearless. Respected. Unstoppable. Detective Erika Foster will catch a killer, whatever it takes.
1. THE GIRL IN THE ICE
2. THE NIGHT STALKER
3. DARK WATER
Ava Devlin swiped the email hard to the left and watched it disappear from the screen of her iPhone. That’s what you did with messages from liars and fakes who had whispered one thing into your ear, as they wrapped their arms around you, and did the complete opposite when your back was turned. She swallowed back a bitter feeling. She had always worried that Leo – successful, rich, good-looking in a Joey Essex kind of way – was maybe a little bit out of her league.
‘Boss or boyfriend?’
The question came from Sissy, the hairdresser who was currently coating Ava’s head in foils and a paste that felt as if it was doing nuclear things to Ava’s scalp.
‘Neither,’ she answered, putting the phone on the counter under the mirror in front of her. A sigh left her. ‘Not any more.’ She needed to shake this off like Taylor Swift.
Giving her reflection a defiant look, she enlarged her green eyes, flared the nostrils of her button nose and set her lips into a deliberate pout she felt she had never quite been able to pull off. With her face positioned like she was a Z-list celeb doing a provocative selfie on Twitter, she knew she was done. With men. With love. With everything. Her ears picked up the dulcet tones of Cliff Richard suggesting mistletoe and wine, floating from the salon sound system. Her eyes then moved from her reflection to the string of tinsel and fir cones that surrounded the mirror. This rinky-dink Christmas crap could do one as well. Coming right up was a nation getting obsessed with food they never ate in the other eleven months – dates, walnuts, an entire board of European cheeses – and a whole two weeks of alterations to the television schedule – less The Wright Stuff and more World’s Strongest Man. And now she was on her own with it.
‘Well,’ Sissy said, dabbing more goo on Ava’s head, ‘I always think Christmas is a good time to be young, free and single.’ She giggled, drawing Ava’s attention back to the effort Sissy was putting into her hair. ‘All those parties… people loosening up with goodwill and…’
‘Stella Artois?’ Ava offered.
‘You don’t drink that, do you?’ Sissy exclaimed as if Ava had announced she was partial to Polonium 210. ‘I had a boyfriend once who was allergic to that. If he had more than four it made him really ill.’
‘Sissy, that isn’t an allergy, that’s just getting drunk.’
‘On lager?’ Sissy quizzed. ‘Doesn’t it mix well with shots?’
Ava was caught between a laugh and a cry. She swallowed it down and focussed again on the mirror. Why was she here having these highlights put in? She’d booked the appointment when she’d had the work do to go to. Now, having caught Leo out with Cassandra, she wouldn’t need perfect roots to go with the perfect dress he’d bought her. She didn’t even like the dress. It was all red crushed velvet like something a magician’s assistant might wear. Like something her mother might wear. But Leo had said she looked beautiful and she remembered how that had made her feel at the time. All lies.
‘Stop,’ Ava stated abruptly, sitting forward in her seat.
‘Stop?’ Sissy clarified. ‘Stop what? Talking? Putting the colour on?’
‘All of it,’ Ava said. She put her fingers to the silver strips on her head and tugged.
‘What are you doing? Don’t touch them!’ Sissy said, as if one wrong move was going to detonate an explosive device.
‘I want them off… out…not in my hair!’ Ava gripped one foil between her fingers, pulling.
‘OK, OK, but not like that, you’ll pull your hair out.’
‘I want a new look.’ Ava scooped up her hair in her palms, pulling it away from her face and angling her head to check out the look. Nothing would make her jawline less angular or her lips thinner. She sighed. ‘Cut it off.’ She wanted it to come out strong, decisive, but her voice broke a little at the end and when she looked back at Sissy, she saw pity growing in her hairdresser’s eyes.
‘Well… I have to finish the tinting first.’ Sissy bit her lip.
Ava didn’t want pity. ‘Well, finish the tinting and then cut it off,’ she repeated.
‘Trim it, you mean,’ Sissy said, her eyes in the mirror, looking back at Ava.
Ava shook her remaining silver-wrapped hair, making it rustle. ‘No, Sissy, I don’t want it trimmed. I want it cut off.’ She pulled in a long, steady breath. ‘I’m thinking short… but definitely more Bowie in his heyday than Jedward.’
‘That short.’ Sissy was almost choking on the words.
‘You did say a change was good,’ Ava answered. ‘Change me.’ She sat back until she could feel the pleather at her back. ‘Make me completely unrecognisable even to my mother.’ She closed her eyes. ‘In fact, especially to my mother.’
With her eyes shut, she blocked out everything – Cliff Richard, the tinsel and fir cones, Leo. A different style was just what she needed. Something that was going to go with her new outlook on life. A haircut that was going to say, You can look, but if you set one eyelash into my personal space, suggesting joy to the world, you will be taken down. Nothing or nobody was going to touch her.
Ava’s phone let out a bleep and she opened one eye, squinting at the screen. Why didn’t Leo just give up? Why wasn’t he suctioned to Cassandra like he had been for God knows how long? She was betting Cassandra had never had to use Clearasil.
Sissy leant forward, regarding the phone screen. ‘It says it’s from Debs.’
Cheered considerably, Ava reached for the phone, picking it up and reading the message.
[TEXT STARTS]I know I said not to bring anything, but I totes forgot to get something Christmassy. Can you get something Christmassy? To eat… like those crisps that are meant to taste like turkey and stuffing or roasted nuts and cranberry. And bring red wine, not white, because I got three bottles of white today. And if you’ve completely forgotten all about coming to mine tonight for neighbourly nibbles before I leave for Paris then this is your reminder. Debs xx[TEXT ENDS]
Debs texted like she was writing a dissertation. There was no OMG, FFS or TMI with Ava’s best friend. And Ava had forgotten about the ‘neighbourly nibbles’. That was what having a break-up on your plate did to you – addled your brain and fried the important relationship circuits. Well, she was taking control now – elusive and aloof to anyone but her best friend – and the only frazzled motherboard was going to be the one with wires connected to men.
Ava looked into the mirror at Sissy. ‘After you’ve cut it, Sissy, I want you to make me blonder,’ she stated. ‘And not the honey kind.’ She smiled. ‘The Miley Cyrus meltdown kind.’
They say Paris is the City of Love, so bring your je ne sais quoi and don’t forget the mistletoe! Ava and her best friend Debs arrive in Paris just as the snow starts to fall. The Eiffel Tower glitters gold and the scent of spiced wine is all around, but all Ava can think about is Leo, her no-good, cheating ex.
Debs is on a mission to make Ava smile again, and as they tour the Christmas markets, watch lamplight glittering on the river Seine, and eat their body weight inpain-au-chocolat, Ava remembers there’s more to life than men … Until they cross paths with handsome, mysterious photographer Julien with his French accent and hazelnut eyes that seem to see right inside her.
Ava can’t ignore the intense chemistry between them, but her fingers have been burned before and she can’t forget it, especially when her ex, Leo, starts texting again. Can Ava really trust Julien – and what exactly is his secret?
Will Ava go home with a broken heart, or will she find true love amongst the cobbled streets of Paris?
Join Ava and Julien in the most romantic city in the world this Christmas, as they discover the importance of being true to themselves, and learn how to follow their hearts.
One Christmas in Paris is a gorgeous, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy – perfect for fans of Jane Costello, Miranda Dickinson and Lucy Diamond.
About the author:
Mandy Baggot is an award-winning author of romantic women’s fiction and a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. In Feb 2016, her Bookouture novel, One Wish in Manhattan was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Romantic Comedy Novel of the Year award. A contributor to writing blogs and short story anthologies, she is also a regular speaker at literary festivals, events and women’s networking groups.
Mandy loves mashed potato, white wine, country music, Corfu and handbags. She has appeared on ITV1’s Who Dares Sings and auditioned for The X-Factor and lives in Wiltshire, UK with her husband, two children and cats Kravitz and Springsteen.
Leah used the scissors from her Christmas wreath-making project to open the package from Nan, her hands trembling. She missed her grandmother so much that she held her breath from the moment her fingers touched the envelope. She set the scissors next to the pile of spruce needles that were still on the kitchen table and ran her fingers through her thick, blonde hair. She’d straightened it that morning, but after all day in the rain and sleet, it had started to curl back up.
Tipping the package upside down, Leah caught a lone key in the palm of her hand, recognizing it immediately. She pulled out a stack of documents with a note in Nan’s scratchy handwriting clipped to the top. The notepaper was pink and lacy, the edges rounded delicately with little holes punched out. She laid the documents on top of a few Christmas cards that had come in the mail and focused on the letter, aching to hear Nan’s soft, reassuring voice again.
“Mama,” Leah’s daughter, Sadie said, pulling her out of her thoughts. She was still wearing the red-and-blue leotard Leah had gotten her as a surprise for her birthday. Sadie had seen it in her gymnastics magazine and she’d kept the page open to it all the time. When Leah had asked her about it, she’d said that one day she’d like to have one of her own. Together, they’d made the matching bow clip in her white blonde hair. Every day after school she put it all on to practice her gymnastics. And she was quite the natural.
“The Girls are here,” Sadie said. She bent down, placing her hands on the tile floor, between the table and the kitchen counter, keeping her feet in place until she lifted a leg into the air. Slowly, from a perfect standing split, she put her other leg up, straightening out into a handstand. Sadie had learned to do this move slowly, as swift movements used to send Leah leaping across the kitchen, throwing her arms around Sadie’s legs while simultaneously grabbing dishes and knick-knacks to keep them safe. But when Sadie did it slowly, Leah was able to see the precision in her movements, her skill evident, and she didn’t worry at all. Leah grinned.
Sadie righted herself and opened the side door that led to the driveway, sending a wave of wintery air in past the new wreath Leah had made from evergreens she’d found in the woods. She’d just hung it today. Leah slid the contents and the letter back into the envelope and put the key in her pocket. Another gust sent a chill through her as The Girls came in chattering together, Roz short and Louise tall, both swaddled in their winter gear.
“The Girls” was the name Leah had given to herself and her two best friends when they’d first met. They’d started out as a single mothers’ group of around seven women, which Leah had joined after meeting Roz, her coworker at the florist’s. But over the years, The Girls had dwindled to three—Leah, Roz and Louise—and they’d become more than a support group. They’d become best friends. Tonight, Leah was having them over for a late dinner.
“You’re early,” Leah said with a grin as Roz, all bundled up in a dark burgundy, double-breasted peacoat and striped fingerless gloves, set a bottle of wine on the counter dramatically. It was some sort of cutesy specialty wine with a gold, swirling Christmas tree on the label.
“Louise was insistent that the snow was going to fall all at once and if we waited any longer we wouldn’t be able to drive here,” Roz said, pulling off her gloves and dumping them on the counter. She ran her hand around Sadie’s ponytail affectionately and gave her a wink. Then she shrugged off her coat. Roz walked over to the cupboards and started rummaging around for wine glasses. Leah smiled—she liked how Roz felt as comfortable as if she were in her own house. She was like family.
“At least I can say we’re safe,” Louise said, giving Leah a side hug as she was holding a bowl of salad and a tin of cookies in her other arm. She was covered from head to toe, with a hunter-green, wooly scarf wrapped tightly around her neck, covering her long, red hair. “And you’re sure we can camp out here if the snow does start to fall?”
“We hardly ever have that kind of snow this early in the season,” Roz said, busying herself at the sink. “But I brought my toothbrush just in case!”
Leah’s house was small—a brick rancher tucked away behind a thick strip of woods that separated it from the main street, a four-lane expanse of pavement which was teeming at this time of year with holiday shoppers as they crawled along in traffic to get from one shop to another. But the woods allowed some privacy, and at night, in the dark, it seemed almost secluded. She had rented the house for its proximity to work and the cozy feel of the living room. Although quite crowded when everyone got together, it had offered a comfortable space to make memories with Sadie.
Louise looked at Leah thoughtfully for a second, as if just noticing her. “How are you?” she asked, studying her face until the pop of the wine cork behind them pulled her attention away.
Her friend could always read her. Leah was dying to see what Nan’s letter said, but she didn’t want to bring everyone down tonight by bursting into tears. It was supposed to be a fun night with The Girls.
“I’m fine, thanks.” Leah smiled. “I was just going through the mail…”
“Well, ignore it!” Roz said, swinging a glass full of red wine her way. The purple color of it nearly matched Roz’s dark hair. It was bottle-black, her latest beauty experiment, and in the light, it had almost a reddish-purple tint to it. “We’re going to have an amazing night of…” As she pressed her bright red lips together in thought, she handed the other glass to Louise. “What are we doing tonight besides drinking wine and having dinner? Did anyone get a movie or anything?”
“I thought we could play cards,” Louise piped up, taking a dainty sip from her glass and looking back and forth between Roz and Leah. “I brought some. They’re Toy Story though.”
Roz snorted as Louise pulled her five-year-old’s cards from her handbag.
“I couldn’t find mine so I took some from Ethan’s room,” she said.
Sadie climbed up into a kitchen chair and reached for one of the silver, foil-wrapped chocolates that Leah had put out for tonight. The two of them had started their Christmas decorating today, and they’d been nibbling on those chocolates since early afternoon. Leah gave her daughter her best not-too-many face.
Roz poured one more glass of wine for herself and then filled a glass full of fruit punch for Sadie. Both Roz and Louise had the weekend free since their children were with their fathers, but Leah didn’t have anyone to help with Sadie, so Sadie always joined them. She was like an honorary member of The Girls.
ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS by Jenny Hale – out 6th October
All I Want for Christmas is a big, cozy Christmas story about the importance of family, the strength of childhood friendships, and learning to trust your heart.
Fans of Carole Matthews, Susan Wiggs and Susan Mallery – and anyone who likes the glow of Christmas lights and the rustle of wrapping paper – will fall in love with this feel-good Christmas treat.
Christmas comes once a year . . . But true love comes once in a lifetime.
Snowflakes are falling, there’s carol singing on every corner, and Leah Evans is preparing for a family Christmas at her grandmother’s majestic plantation house in Virginia. It won’t be the same now that her beloved Nan is gone, but when Leah discovers she has inherited the mansion, she knows she can give her daughter Sadie the childhood of her dreams.
But there’s a catch. Leah must split the house with a man called David Forester. Leah hasn’t heard that name in a long time. Not since they were kids, when Davey was always there to catch her.
Now David is all grown up. He’s gorgeous, successful, and certain of one thing: Leah should sell him her half of the house.
They can’t agree, but as they share memories over wine by the log fire, Leah notices a fluttering in her stomach. And by the look in his eyes, he’s starting to feel it too.
Will it be Leah or David who must give up their dreams? Or, with a little bit of Christmas magic, will they finally understand Nan’s advice to them both about living life without regrets … and take a chance on true love?
About the author:
When she graduated college, one of Jenny’s friends said “Look out for this one; she’s going to be an author one day”. Despite being an avid reader and a natural storyteller, it wasn’t until that very moment that the idea of writing novels occurred to her.
Sometimes our friends can see the things that we can’t. Whilst she didn’t start straight away, that comment sowed a seed and several years, two children and hundreds of thousands of words later, Jenny finished her first novel – Coming Home for Christmas – which became an instant bestseller.
Whimpering, Lena Cona looked down at the ground to where her brother lay.
The two men were shouting now, their voices angry, intimidating.
She tried to comprehend what they were saying, but their jumbled words were muted, merging into background noise as her ears began to ring loudly, a high-pitched screech filling her head.
She was in shock.
Unable to think straight, Lena tried to move, but she couldn’t.
Her legs were shaking, but her feet felt weighed down, as if her shoes were filled with lead.
She was afraid. Paralysed to the spot, all she could do was stare; her eyes fixated on the thick stream of blood that oozed out from the gash at the back of Tariq’s head.
He’d been hit.
The taller of the men had whacked him around the head with the butt of his gun.
They had a gun!
Panic ripped through her at the sudden realisation.
Lena tried to shout out; opening her mouth, a strained squeak barely louder than a whisper was the only noise that crept out.
‘Get in the car.’
The man pointed his gun at her now. Aiming it straight at her. His words were devoid of emotion, reflecting the same vacant hollowness that she could see in his eyes.
Stepping closer, he shoved the barrel against Lena’s chest.
‘Now!’ This time he bellowed, his face twisting in anger as he pushed the gun harder against her skin.
Lena could see his finger hovering threateningly over the trigger. This wasn’t an empty threat. She knew he was dangerous, but still she couldn’t move.
A few minutes ago she and her brother had been laughing and joking together.
Tariq had been walking her home from school.
That was her parents’ order: that her brother would walk her to and from school every day.
Lena had thought her parents were overreacting. Of course there were risks, but they didn’t apply to her, surely. Now she’d realised she’d been stupid, naïve. She remembered, with increasing terror, Néné’s harrowing tales of girls from Shkodër being snatched. Abducted and taken to the city’s main port, Vlorë, before being shipped off on speedboats across the Adriatic Sea, never to be seen again.
Her parents had pleaded with her to stay at home, to accept the traditional life of a normal Albanian girl just as many of her peers had done, but Lena was anything but normal.
Strong-willed. Defiant. Unlike most of the other girls in her class who had left school at the age of twelve or thirteen due to the pressures that their families had bestowed on them, Lena had refused to follow suit, insisting on completing her education. Why should she be penalised just for being born female? Why should she submit to a life doing what was expected of her? Instead, adamant to remain, schooled in a classroom of eleven boys, Lena had strived to be top of her class.
Not only had Lena excelled in mathematics, but she was also fluent in English. Her teacher had been impressed. He had told Lena that she had mastered the language so well that, eventually, she’d be able to teach it herself.
Lena had loved that idea. Travelling the world, working as a teacher or a translator. Practising daily, she’d even started to educate her parents and her brother. Just the basic words of salutation, or naming the food they ate.
She wanted to learn as much as she possibly could, so that, one day, she could have more than just what her parents had chosen for her. She didn’t want to be stuck here in Albania as just somebody’s wife, or somebody’s mother.
It may have been enough for Néné, but it would never be enough for her. Lena wanted so much more: to be treated as an equal; to experience the same opportunities and freedom that her brother had.
Unwilling to back down, she’d argued so intently that her parents had finally given in; insisting, in the end, that if Lena must continue with her schooling until she was nineteen then she could, on the condition that Tariq chaperone her.
Only now it seemed that fate had played out a cruel hand. Staring down at him she could see that Tariq was hurt, maybe dead.
And it’s all my fault, a voice screamed in Lena’s head.
‘Help me! Please, somebody?’ Shouting hysterically, Lena finally found her voice as she prayed that someone would come to her aid.
‘Help me, please… ’
Lena caught the gaze of a woman across the road, her eyes pleading with her to help her, but all that stared back at her was the woman’s fear. With an apologetic look, the woman put her head down and kept walking, pretending that she hadn’t seen.
Crying now, desperate, Lena scoured the street, looking for anyone that might help her, but the dusty road was almost deserted. School had finished; people were already indoors, evading the mid-afternoon scorching heat.
A single car passed by. Slowing down, the people inside stared out from behind the glass windows, but they didn’t stop to help her. They didn’t dare.
‘Pick her up,’ the taller man shouted now, directing the shorter man.
He did as he was told: grabbing her roughly from behind, clamping his hand over her mouth to mute her cries.
Lena saw their car. It was a battered-looking bright blue Mercedes, covered in flaky patches of orange rust. The back door was wide open; the engine running.
They are going to take me?
Gripped with fear, Lena dug her heels into the dry mud, trying her hardest to resist as one of the two men tried to grab at her feet, but it was no use. The men were much stronger than her.
Overpowering her, they lifted her off the ground, hauling her over to their car.
A hand came from behind her, clamping tightly across her mouth, making her gag for breath. Silencing her. Lena struggled to break free but her attempts only caused the men to hold on to her tighter.
‘Stay still, you stupid bitch!’
The man’s voice was commanding. He was losing patience. The sternness of his tone indicated that he’d had enough of her not complying. ‘Do as you are told, or you will be punished.’
Lena twisted her head back to where her brother lay sprawled out on the ground, motionless.
Hadn’t they punished her enough already?
She had no idea who they were or what they wanted. All she knew was that she couldn’t let them take her.
Her brother needed her. Despite feeling helpless, Lena couldn’t just leave him like this.
Kicking and clawing at the men like a wildcat as they tried to force her onto the back seat, her body convulsing, Lena fought to break free from her abductors.
If she got inside this car, maybe she’d suffer the same fate as all the girls before her.
She had to fight.
Kicking out her heel, her foot connected with the shorter man’s face. She startled him, just enough for him to lose his footing and his grip. Stumbling, he dropped her legs. But her small victory was short-lived.
A massive thud exploded at the back of her skull. The almighty blow from the man behind her immobilised her in an instant.
‘I warned you.’
Lena flopped forward like a rag doll.
She felt the man grab at her roughly, breaking her fall just before she hit the ground.
She felt herself being lifted up, thrown into the back of the car. She was dizzy, her head pounding.
A sharp burn of her scalp as the man seized a fistful of her long auburn hair. Wrapping it around his fist, he twisted her around to face him.
He was just inches away from her now; his face almost touching hers. He was so close that she could smell his stale rancid breath, see the glistening beads of sweat forming on his forehead. His face was puce from the heat and the struggle to get her into the car.
Still woozy from the blow she’d received to the back of her head, she tried to focus. Her vision blurred; she was surprised at how young her abductor looked. She had expected someone older. This man looked only a few years older than Tariq. No more than twenty, she guessed.
‘So, you think you’re a wild one huh?’
The man’s steely grey eyes flickered then, and Lena thought that she saw the tiniest hint of amusement behind them as he yanked at her hair even harder, ripping a clump from her scalp as he did so. The pain so acute, it forced Lena alert once more.
‘Well, it won’t take me long to tame you.’
Lena kept eye contact. Refused to let him see her pain; she stared back at him with nothing but pure contempt.
‘Stupid little girl.’
He punched her again, this time his fist locking hard with her cheek, her neck snapping back, her head smacking against the window behind her.
Slumped in the car now, Lena had nothing left. She was exhausted; her body weak and broken.
‘Tie her up,’ the man commanded, as the shorter of the men slid in beside her.
The man did as he was told. He bound her legs together tightly with coarse brown rope before wrapping thick black strips of tape firmly around her wrists. He was obviously taking no more chances with her.
The car began to move.
Petrified, Lena sat slumped in silence as she stared out of the window. Her gaze fixed on Tariq’s body, motionless, on the ground.
Move! Please, let me know that you’re okay?
Only Tariq didn’t. He remained completely still, lifeless, as the car continued off into the distance.
Lena watched until her brother was completely out of sight. All hope from her now gone.
She could feel the stream of blood pouring from her nose; the metallic taste mixed with the saltiness of her tears, filling her mouth.
Silent tears ran down her face as she wondered what fate was ahead of her.
She thought of Néné’s words once more.
About those girls. About what happened to them after they were taken.
How they were trafficked around Europe like cattle.
Her mother hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell her young daughter why the girls had been taken, but Lena knew. Rumours in Shkodër were rife. People in the village had spoken of how the girls that were taken were used for sex. Forced to earn money for men in ways so disgusting it was almost unimaginable to Lena.
Except maybe now she didn’t have to imagine it.
Maybe she was destined to experience the horror of it all herself, first hand.
Lena sobbed as she thought how she should have listened to her parents.
They only wanted the best for her, to keep her safe, but she’d been so foolish, so pig-headed. She’d put Tariq in danger.
These men were savages, animals.
Capable of anything.
Resting her head on the window as the car made its way out of Shkodër, out towards the rural mountains of the countryside, Lena closed her eyes and said a silent prayer.
She had no idea what fate lay ahead of her, but one thing she knew for certain, her nightmare was only just beginning.
When you’ve lost everything, you’ll do anything to survive.
Saskia Frost’s world is blown apart when her dad dies. Without any family, she’s on her own now and up to her eyeballs in her father’s debts. He owed a lot of money to some very dangerous men – Joshua and Vincent Harper. Before long, aspiring ballerina Saskia finds herself lap-dancing in a London club to survive. A club run by the infamous Harper brothers. Saskia is now their property and they’re going to make her pay every penny back.
Teenager Lena Cona has fled a cruel and controlling marriage. She arrives in England with her newborn daughter, desperately relying on strangers for help. But she soon learns that not everyone can be trusted as she finds herself caught in the clutches of Colin Jefferies, a twisted individual obsessed by his own sinister secrets. As the sickening truth is revealed, Lena is forced to fight for her life – and her baby’s.
When their worlds collide, Lena and Saskia form an unlikely friendship. But with the terrifying Harper brothers on their tail, as well as Lena’s vengeful and violent husband, can they escape with their lives?
About the author:
Born in Cuckfield, West Sussex, Casey Kelleher grew up as an avid reader and a huge fan of author Martina Cole.
Whilst working as a beauty therapist and bringing up her three children together with her Husband, Casey penned her debut novel Rotten to the Core. Its success meant that she could give up her day job and concentrate on writing full time.
I am really excited to be part of the blog tour for Melody Bittersweet and The Girls’ Ghostbusting Agency. I mean have you ever heard a better name for a book?! I’ve heard lots of talk about it too and how funny it is so it’s great that If Only I Could Read Faster can give you the first chapter to read before you click to buy it!
An absolutely hilarious, totally entertaining, spookily sexy read that you won’t be able to put down!
Life’s tricky for Melody Bittersweet. She’s single, she’s addicted to sugar and super heroes, her family are officially bonkers and … she sees dead people. Is it any wonder no-one’s swiping right on Tinder? Waking up lonely on her twenty-seventh birthday, Melody finally snaps. She can’t carry on basing all of her life decisions on the advice of her magic 8 ball; things havegot to change.
Fast forward two months, and she’s now the proud proprietor of her very own ghostbusting agency – kind of like in the movies but without the dodgy white jumpsuits. She’s also flirting with her ex Leo Dark, fraternising with her sexy enemy in alleyways, and she’s somehow ended up with a pug called Lestat.
Life just went from dull to dynamite and it’s showing no sign of slowing up anytime soon. Melody’s been hired to clear Scarborough House of its incumbent ghosts, there’s the small matter of a murder to solve, and then there are the two very handsome, totally inappropriate men hoping to distract her from the job…
Welcome to Chapelwick, home of the brand new and hilarious Girls Ghostbusting Agency series, where things really do go bump in the night.
Melody Bittersweet and The Girls’ Ghostbusting Agency
‘So, what do you do with your spare time, Melody?’
I look my date square in his pretty brown eyes and lie to him. ‘Oh, you know. The usual.’ I shrug to convey how incredibly normal I am. ‘I read a lot . . . Go to the movies. That kind of thing.’
I watch Lenny digest my words, and breathe a sigh of relief when his eyes brighten.
‘Movies or books?’ I ask, stalling for time because, in truth, I don’t get much in the way of spare time to do either.
‘Movies. Action or romance? No, let me guess.’ He narrows his eyes and studies me intently. ‘You look like a sucker for a rom-com.’
‘Do I?’ I’m genuinely surprised. I’m five foot three and look more like Wednesday Addams than a Disney princess. Maybe Wednesday Addams is over-egging it, but you get the idea; I’m brunette and my dress sense errs on the side of edgy. I don’t think anyone has ever looked at me and thought whimsy. Maybe Lenny sees something everyone else has missed, me included. I quite like that idea, mainly because everyone who knows my family has a head full of preconceptions about me, based on the fact that my family are all crackers.
‘Four Weddings?’ He shrugs hopefully.
I nod, not mentioning that the only part of that particular movie I enjoyed was the funeral.
Again, I try to look interested and hold my tongue, because I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear that I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than ever watch an over-optimistic Kate Winslet drag some old guy around a swimming pool again.
I’m relieved when the bill arrives and we can get out of there, because so far Lenny has turned out to be a pretty stellar guy and somehow I’ve managed to convince him that I walk on the right side of the tracks. Maybe this time, things will be different.
Lenny pulls his dull, salesman’s saloon into the cobbled cartway beside my building and kills the engine. I don’t mind dull. In fact, my life could really use a bit of dull right now, so I shoot him my most seductive smile, cross my fingers that my mother will be in bed, and invite him in for coffee.
Oh, just when it had all been going so well. Why couldn’t I have just given him a goodnight kiss, with maybe the smallest hint of tongue as a promise, then sent him on his way? He’d have called for a second date, I’m sure of it.
But no. I got greedy, pulled him by the hand through the dark back door, placing my finger against my lips to signal he should be quiet as we tip-toed past my mother’s apartment and up the old wooden staircase to my place.
He rests his hand on my waist as I turn the key, and a small thrill shoots down my back. Look at me, winning at this being-an-adult thing today! Dinner with an attractive man, sparkling conversation, and now back to mine for coffee . . . and maybe even a little fooling around. It’s not that I’m a virgin or anything, but it would be fair to call my love life patchy of late. By ‘of late’ I mean the last two years, ever since Leo Dark and I called things off. Well, by Leo and I, I mean Leo called things off, citing conflict of interests. Ha. Given that he was referring to the fact that my mad-as-a-bag-of-cats family are the only other psychics in town besides him, he was, at least in part, right.
But enough of Leo and my lamentable love life. Right now, all I want is for Lenny not to know anything at all about my peculiar family, to keep seeing me as a cool, regular, completely normal girl, and then to kiss me.
‘You remind me of Clara Oswald,’ Lenny whispers behind me at the top of the stairs. ‘All big brown eyes and clever one-liners. It’s very sexy.’
Lord, I think he’s just brushed a kiss against the back of my neck! My door sticks sometimes so I shoulder it open, aiming for firm and graceful but, I fear, ending up looking more like a burly police SWAT guy ramming it down. Thankfully, Lenny seems to take it in his stride and follows me into my apartment. Then I flick on the table lamp only to discover that my mother is standing on my coffee table in a too-short, too-sheer, baby-blue negligee with her arms raised towards the ceiling and her head thrown back.
‘Shit!’ Lenny swears down my ear, clearly startled. He isn’t to blame. My mother’s a striking woman, ballerina-tall and slender with silver hair that falls in waves well beyond her shoulder blades. It isn’t grey. It’s been pure silver since the day she was born, and right now she looks as if she’s just been freshly crucified on my coffee table.
I sigh as I drop my bag down by the lamp. So much for me being normal.
Slowly, she takes several heaving breaths and opens her eyes, changing from crazy lady to almost normal human lady. She stares at us.
‘For God’s sake, Melody,’ she grumbles, taking her hands from above her head and planting them on her hips. ‘I almost had the connection then. He’s hiding out in the loft, I’m sure of it.’
I risk a glance over my shoulder at Lenny, who sure isn’t kissing my neck anymore.
He lifts his eyebrows at me, a silent ‘what the hell?’ and then looks away when my mother beckons to him like a siren luring a fisherman onto the rocks.
‘Your hand, please, young man.’
‘No!’ I almost yell, but Lenny is already across the room with his hand out to help her down. My mother eyes me slyly as she steps from the table, keeping a firm hold of Lenny’s hand.
‘Long lifeline,’ she murmurs, tracing her red talon across Lenny’s palm.
‘Mother,’ I warn, but my somber, cautionary tone falls on her selectively deaf ears. I expected nothing else, because she’s pulled this trick before. Admittedly, the standing-on-the-table thing is a new twist, but she’s got form in scoping out my prospective boyfriends to make sure they’ll fit in with our screwball family from the outset. Not that her romantic gauge is something to put any stock in; Leo passed her tests with flying colours and look how that ended up. I got my heart broken and he got a spot on morning TV as the resident psychic. Where’s the justice in that?
Look, we may as well get the clanky old skeleton out of the family closet early on here, people. It’s going to come out sooner or later, and despite my attempts to pull the wool over Lenny’s eyes, there’s never any running away from this thing for long.
My name’s Melody Bittersweet, and I see dead people.
It’s not only me. I’m just the latest in a long line of Bittersweets to have the gift, or the curse, depending on how you look at it. My family has long since celebrated our weirdness; hence the well-established presence of our family business, Blithe Spirits, on Chapelwick High Street. We’ve likely been here longer than the actual chapel at the far end of the street. That’s probably why, by and large, we’re accepted by the residents of the town, in a ‘they’re a bunch of eccentrics, but they’re our bunch of eccentrics,’ kind of way. What began as a tiny, mullion-windowed, one-room shop has spread out along the entire row over the last two hundred years; we now own a run of three terraced properties haphazardly knocked into one, big, rambling place that is both business and home to not only me, but also to my mother, Silvana, and her mother, Dicey. Gran’s name isn’t actually Dicey, it’s Paradise, officially, but she’s gone by Dicey ever since she met my Grandpa Duke on her fifteenth birthday and he wrote Dicey and Duke inside a chalk heart on the back wall of the building. He may as well have written it on her own racing heart.
Speak of the devil. Does no one go to bed around here?
I open my door to find Gran on the threshold with her hand raised, poised to knock. I guess I should be glad she’s slightly more respectably dressed, if a floor-length, purple shot-silk kimono, bearing huge technicolor dragons could be considered as such. Her usually pin-curled gold hair is piled elegantly on her head and she wears a slash of fire-engine-scarlet lipstick for good measure. Most people couldn’t carry the look off, but thanks to her poise, confidence and couldn’t-care-less attitude, Grandma Dicey wears it with artful success. She glides past me without invitation and gazes at my mother and Lenny, who are still hand-in-hand on the rug.
First thing tomorrow morning, I swear, I’m going to look for a new place to live, somewhere, anywhere, that is not in the same building as my mother and my gran. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a charming old place and I love my family dearly. It’s not even as if I don’t have my own space here, because, theoretically at least, I do. Mum and Gran have the ground floor apartment behind Blithe Spirits, and I have the smaller flat upstairs, at the back. In lots of ways this makes me fortunate; I get to have a nice little home of my own and stay close to my family. It would all be fine and dandy, were it not for the fact that my family are officially bonkers and liable to come up and let themselves into my flat – using the spare key I gave them for dire emergencies only – and embarrass the shit out of me.
‘Why is Silvana entertaining a man half her age in your flat?’ Gran looks from me to my mother. ‘You should have said you were expecting company, darling. I’d have gone out.’ She touches her hand lightly against her hair. ‘Put a towel on the doorknob or something, isn’t that the modern way to signal these things? Don’t come a knockin’ if the caravan’s rockin’?’
She looks spectacularly pleased with herself, and one glance at Lenny tells me that he knows he’s way out of his depth with these two and is in the process of writing me off as the worst date he’s ever had. His eyes slide from me to the door, and I can almost hear him begging me to let him go unharmed.
‘He’s not mum’s date, he’s mine. Or else, he was,’ I mutter, and then I’m distracted as a beer-bellied pensioner in a soup-stained shirt slowly materialises through the ceiling, his flannel trousers not quite meeting his bony ankles. Stay with me; I see dead people, remember? As do my mother and my grandmother, who also watch him descend with matching expressions of distaste.
‘Finally,’ my mother spits, dropping Lenny’s hand so she can round on the new arrival. ‘Two hours I’ve been chasing you around this bloody building. Your wife wants to know what you’ve done with the housekeeping she’d hidden in the green teapot. She says you better not have lost it on the horses or she’s had it with you.’
Grandma Dicey rolls her eyes. ‘I rather think she’s had it with him anyway. He’s been dead for six weeks.’
‘You’re a fine one to talk, given that you still sleep with your husband twenty years after he died.’ Mother flicks her silver hair sharply. Touché.
Lenny whimpers and bolts for my front door, turning back to me just long enough to splutter ‘something’s come up, gotta go,’ before he hoofs it out and down the stairs two at a time.
I listen to the outside door bang on its hinges and wonder what came up. Probably his dinner.
Kitty French lives in the Black Country with her husband, two young sons and two crazy cats. She’s a lover of all things romantic – songs, music, and most of all, books. Her USA Today best-selling Lucien Knight series topped the erotic chart on both sides of the pond, and she also writes romantic comedy as Kat French for Avon, HarperCollins. She’s over the moon to join Bookouture with her brand new paranormal romantic comedy series, Melody Bittersweet and the Girls Ghostbusting Agency.
Melody Bittersweet and The Girls’ Ghostbusting Agency by Kitty French is out now and available from Amazon UK and Amazon US.
Today I can share with you an excerpt from Nigel May’s book Lovers and Liars, published by Bookouture.
LOVERS AND LIARS BY NIGEL MAY
The paint on the domed ceiling of the Velvet hotel’s specially erected sports arena was barely dry before the boxing match was announced globally. Hatton Eden, reigning welterweight champion of the world, the man known to his legion of superfans worldwide as ‘TMM’ – The Main Man – was to take on newcomer Orlando Vince in what TV sports channels around the globe had dubbed the ‘Belter in the Swelter’ from the moment tickets for the 18,000-seater arena went on sale. The boxing world had lived through the legendary ‘Thrilla in Manila’ and been hypnotised by the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ and now a new gladiatorial pairing was set to make sports history.
The Belter in the Swelter was the perfect title for the match which would take place at the famous Velvet hotel in Barbados, the island’s six-star celebrity haunt and the flagship of the lucrative worldwide chain of luxury hotels owned by Sheridan Rivers. Situated on the west side of the island, the hotel was a triumph of cool, with the Hollywood elite, fashionable rich-kid popstars and megabucks media moguls alike booking in to sample its many amenities and to feel their skin change colour as they lay on the powder-fine sands under the blistering heat of the Caribbean sky.
It was Sheridan who had fought to have the arena built at Velvet in the first place, determined to draw the boxing crowds away from Las Vegas and bring the sporting superstars of the world to the tropical jewel in his billion-dollar crown. And when Sheridan Rivers decided he wanted something, nothing or no one could stand in his way. The Brit businessman had not built his empire, now with twenty-plus hotels around the world in destinations ranging from Tokyo to Honolulu, by rolling over and submitting to money men who said no, planners who tried to wrap him in red tape or architects who said that something couldn’t be done. Everything was possible in Sheridan’s world so long as you didn’t have to listen to other people’s opinions and surrounded yourself with ‘yes’ people who would always loyally agree with everything you suggested.
And after months of hard work the night of the bout had finally arrived. Sheridan couldn’t have been happier as he watched the crowds starting to take their seats at the beginning of the evening. He was watching from the highest point of the arena, a gangway that ran around the top edge of the dome. It was the perfect vantage point from which to calculate how much money he would be making from the evening. He’d spent a lifetime looking down on others so why stop now? All 18,000 seats had been filled, with tickets ranging from $1,500 through to $7,500, and then there were the pay-per-view TV rewards to be considered. All in all, he’d make a tidy sum out of tonight’s proceedings, maybe enough to open another hotel, which considering everything that had happened in the run-up to fight night was pretty incredible. It had been quite some ride and he was glad that the night was finally underway.
He gazed down at Blair Lonergan, famed DJ and worldwide music star, the man spinning his musical web of wonder from a purpose-built stage on the far side of the arena. His latest chart-topping collaboration, a funky slab of dance-floor-filling beats mashed with vocals from some vacuous pop starlet of the moment, boomed out from a bank of speakers either side of the stage. New Yorker Blair was adored worldwide and even Sheridan had to admit that he could see why – even if he wasn’t his number-one fan. He was ridiculously handsome, his chiselled features giving him an almost action-hero quality. His blond buzz cut, streetwise air of cool and rock-hard abs had made him the poster boy of the DJ world and the face and body of countless fashion houses. He was Abercrombie & Fitch fit with a talent that had seen him bag DJ residences around the world, including a twelve-month run at a succession of Velvet hotels across the globe. He was the best and that’s why Sheridan had employed him, both for regular nights at his hotels and also to keep the party pumping before the evening’s main event.
‘Make the most of it though, you fucking upstart,’ sighed Sheridan as he watched. ‘Because this is it.’ A smile spread across his face, a grin of knowledge and power puffing out his chest as he spoke. Sheridan felt good – he always did when he was on top.
A female voice sounded beside him. ‘It’s time to get ready, sir. The fight starts in about an hour and a half and you need to be looking your best – the eyes of the world are upon you tonight. Not that you ever look anything less, of course.’
Sheridan turned to look. ‘Thank you, Kassidy. Is my suit ready for tonight?’
‘Yes, sir. Clean, pressed and set for wearing.’
‘And my diamond cufflinks are here?’
‘Two commissioned diamond boxing gloves arrived by courier from London this afternoon.’
‘I had one of the bellhops shine them until he could see his face in them.’
‘Nikki will be here despite everything. Have you two managed to—’
‘I’m not talking about that now.’ Sheridan’s words, brusque and sharp, cut Kassidy off in full flow. ‘What about Heather?’ Sadness washed over him as he asked.
‘Well, boxing’s not really her thing but she said she’d be here. I’ll check for you.’
‘And my wife?’
‘Mrs Rivers has booked herself into the hotel spa for a last-minute manicure and facial and says that she’ll see you at your seat for the fight.’
‘Typical Sutton,’ stated Sheridan. ‘So, we’ll be alone again in the penthouse then, Kassidy. Mind you, my wife’s not slept there for days anyway.’ He moved towards her and gave her backside a squeeze as he walked past. Not as firm as it used to be, he thought to himself. ‘Good, I’m thinking there might be some last-minute odd jobs that need doing.’ He gave his growing erection a squeeze too as he felt it through his linen trousers. ‘You reckon you can sort that for me, too?’
‘Of course, sir,’ smiled Kassidy. But it was a smile riddled with doubt. After ten years of being both Sheridan and Sutton Rivers’ personal assistant, a job she had started when she was just nineteen, Kassidy Orpin was more than a little over blowing the boss whenever he demanded. But as she trotted off behind him in the direction of his hotel penthouse she knew she’d be on her knees within a few minutes – it was what she did. If she wanted to get ahead and realise her ambitions then giving head was just one of the many things on her to-do list. It was how she’d secured the job in the first place. A willing mouth and no gag reflex could erase a CV stating that she left school at sixteen back in Dublin with no real qualifications, especially if your potential boss was a player who couldn’t keep his prick in his pants. And Sheridan Rivers had been good to her over the years, which is why she had loved him, both in and out of the bedroom. But only when he chose. And only when Sutton was not within nagging distance – and preferably in another time zone.
Today If Only I Could Read Faster is taking part in the blog tour for The Little Village Bakery by Tilly Tennant. It’s nice to have something bright and colourful on the blog for a change! I have yet to read the book but today I’m sharing the first chapter with you.
THE LITTLE VILLAGE BAKERY by TILLY TENNANT
On the hottest day of the year so far, the sprinklers on the green of the tiny village of Honeybourne made miniature rainbows in the shimmering air. Jasmine Green’s triplets, Rebecca, Rachel and Reuben, squealed as they raced backwards and forwards through the water, while Jasmine folded the last of the bunting from her stall of homemade crafts and furnishings.
‘It’s been a fabulous day for it,’ she commented cheerily to the vicar as he wandered over.
‘Certainly has,’ he agreed, looking round at the other stalls lined up around the perimeter of the green, their owners also packing away. ‘I love the fête, the one day of the summer when the whole village comes together to have fun.’
‘The children have certainly enjoyed it this year.’ She looked fondly over at her offspring, now soaked through but grinning all over their faces.
‘Some of the adults have had a good time too,’ he replied, angling his head to where Jasmine’s husband, Rich, was sitting on a deckchair looking distinctly sunburnt despite his dark hair and complexion, grinning drunkenly and staring into space.
She blew a ringlet the colour of candyfloss from her damp forehead and giggled. ‘I told him to be careful with Frank Stephenson’s scrumpy.’
‘Who’s got scrumpy?’ Rich asked, now squinting up at them.
‘No more for you today,’ Jasmine scolded, but only half-heartedly. He pouted like a little boy and she smiled indulgently. ‘If you can manage to walk in a straight line, how about you gather the kids up and help me get this stock back to the van?’ She folded her arms. ‘I suppose I’m driving home too as you’ve lost the ability to coordinate your limbs properly?’
He pushed himself up from the chair and made a move to take her into his arms. ‘Who can’t coordinate his limbs? You wait till later, my gorgeous little hippy chick,’ he said, wrapping her in his strong embrace. ‘I’ll show you how to coordinate limbs.’
‘Richard Green, the vicar is standing right there!’ Jasmine giggled.
‘Don’t mind me,’ the vicar said amiably, ‘I’ll just peruse the lovely items you have left on your stall here. Honestly, this metalwork is quite spectacular.’ He picked up a pendant and turned it over in his fingers. ‘You have lots of special things here, Mrs Green, but in the main a remarkable talent for making unusual jewellery.’
‘Take something home for Mrs Vicar,’ Rich said with a grin. ‘Pretty trinkets always work on the missus.’
‘Not when the missus has made them herself, they don’t,’ Jasmine said with a mock scowl.
‘Fair point.’ Rich hiccupped. He was a good foot taller than Jasmine and she had to stretch up to kiss him.
‘Go and get your children, there’s a good boy,’ she laughed.
He let go of her and staggered off. But when Jasmine looked up again, he was chasing the children through the sprinklers, making monster noises as he went, sending them scattering and squealing with delight. Some of the other villagers had joined in with their children. Jasmine stopped her packing for a moment and watched them all play their elaborate game.
‘You know, Vicar,’ she said in a voice full of lazy contentment, ‘I really don’t think there is a happier place to live on Earth than here.’
* * *
In her kitchen, a hundred miles to the north of where Jasmine Green was ushering her reluctant family into a van, Millicent Hopkin – Millie to the handful of people who dared get close enough – was sobbing. It felt like she did little else these days, though she was always careful to save it for when she was alone. Some would take great satisfaction in her pain. She probably deserved it, but that still didn’t give anyone the right to victimise her.
The car had been the last straw. She’d spent the last three hours trying to scrub away the vile words. Whoever wrote the old rhyme about sticks and stones was wrong. The smashed windows, the faeces shoved through her letterbox, the mysterious taxis and pizza deliveries in the early hours that she had ended up having to pay for when they insisted she’d ordered them – she’d borne it all with a quiet fortitude. But the words… Words had magic, they had power – the power to heal, to hurt, to make things happen, and the ones she’d failed to
remove from her car, even though she’d rubbed and rubbed until her hands were raw, had hurt her as much as any stick or stone could. She’d had enough.
Drying her tears, she tried to concentrate on the task in front of her. The only constant in her life now was her creativity, and baking was the one creative thing she could still do that brought pleasure to others. Although these days she didn’t know who she could share this one with when the people she had once called friends had all turned against her. She had tried to be a good person, to set things right, but in the end it had meant nothing. Turning her attention to the mixing bowl in front of her, she added ingredients to the mix – cinnamon and nutmeg, vanilla, a pound of dried fruit, a sprinkle of heartsease, her unintentional tears – and thought about how she needed a new start, somewhere far away where people didn’t know her. Somewhere people wouldn’t judge her or hurt her or blame her for everything that had gone before.
She focused on the thought, on the photo of a tumbledown old building on a property website that had captured her imagination, four walls in an adorably named village that might just be the new start she’d been searching for. She closed her eyes, pictured the bakery – her bakery – and tried to imagine the sweet smells, the bright colours of the cakes, the chatter of customers, opening the shutters on every new day and welcoming it in; she tried to remember what happiness felt like, how
it was to want to live. She longed for it with every fibre of her being. In less than a week, if the universe was finally smiling on her, maybe she would find out.
When the mix was done, she poured it into a tin and whispered a last wish before she put it into the oven. She needed a new start. Perhaps the cake would make it so.