Augustine

Prologue

October 1995

Bramos watched the child sleeping. She couldn’t have been more than five or six, but even in the half-light of dawn her plump features were still recognisable as the woman he once knew. She held on to a small teddy bear – a blue one with a white chest and one ear missing – and when she flung her arm above her head the bear fell and landed on the floor by his feet.

He looked down and frowned.

A moan escaped her rosebud lips as a chubby hand groped for the bear, then suddenly she opened her eyes. For a brief moment their eyes met, a spark of recognition … then the scream.

Footsteps signaled the arrival of the child’s carer moments before light spilled into the room, illuminating the multitude of dancing girls that covered the cold brick walls, and a woman – nightgown flapping loosely behind her on a trail of cigarette smoke – rushed to the girl’s side. ‘What’s all the commotion about this time?’ she said. ‘I’ve barely been gone half an hour.’

‘He was here again,’ the girl sobbed. ‘He was looking at me.’

‘Nonsense,’ the woman said, ‘we’ve been over this a dozen times. It was just a dream.’

‘No it wasn’t,’ the girl said. She thrust out her bottom lip and it was all he could do not to laugh.

Impatience darkened the woman’s face before being quickly replaced with a well-worn smile. ‘Fine,’ she said, ‘then let’s have a look, shall we?’ She sighed and reached a weathered hand to the bedside light, and with a flick of the switch the room lit up forcing the shadows to the far reaches of the room. The child’s eyes slid towards him, unseeing as he skulked in the corner.

‘See,’ the woman said, ‘no-one here but me, and Uncle Ted.’ She picked up the bear and waggled it in the girl’s face.

‘But he was here,’ the girl said, ‘I saw him. He was standing right there.’ She pointed to the spot where the woman stood with her shawl pulled tightly around frail shoulders.

‘Now that’s quite enough,’ the woman said, ‘you can clearly see there is no-one here.’ She shoved the bear beneath the covers and began tucking the child in. ‘Now close your eyes, we have a big day tomorrow.’

‘Sing me a song?’ the girl said.

The woman looked down; eyebrows arched over tired eyes. ‘If I do, will you promise to go straight to sleep?’

The child looked up, wide-eyed and doubtful, but gave the merest nod of her head.

‘Very well,’ the woman said, and sat on the edge of the bed. The little girl shoved a thumb in her mouth – finger curled over the tip of her nose – and looked to where Bramos now stood at the foot of the bed. He smiled to himself. She knew he was there, but she would not see him if he did not wish it, and this time, he did not.

‘What would you like me to sing?’ the woman said. The little girl shrugged. ‘How about something my mother used to sing to my sister and me, when we were scared of the dark too?’ The little girl nodded, eyelids already beginning to droop, and curled up into a ball, bear hugged tightly to her chest. ‘Very well,’ the woman said. Then she began …

Hush little baby, don’t say a word

Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird

And if that mockingbird won’t sing

Momma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring …

Bramos stood back and leaned against the wall – arms folded, legs crossed at the ankles – and listened patiently. She had a good voice – soft, yet gravelly – and could carry a tune well, but as the child gradually drifted off, the woman choked on the final words. She leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on the girl’s forehead before turning off the lamp.

Shadows crept back across the wooden floor and Bramos moved with them, drifting to stand beside the woman as she clutched something at her chest. Her shawl – frayed at the edges, its colour long faded from the forest green it once was – reminded him of the one Augustine used to wear, though hers had been made of the finest fabric money could buy. The temptation to make himself known to her then was strong, but to reveal his presence would serve no great purpose and would only trouble the child further if she were to suddenly wake up. But still, he stepped a little closer, daring her to see as she reached up to her neck and removed the silver chain that sat there. A pendant hung from it, a crystal that glinted briefly where the hunters moon caught its amorphous surface before she slipped it neatly beneath the sleeping child’s pillow. He smiled. The crystal was as much a part of his past as it was the child’s future.

The woman turned to him then, eyes searching, head cocked as though listening to some far-off sound. She reminded him of someone he knew – the tilt of the head, lips full and sensual despite her aging years – but the eyes were all wrong – dove grey instead of green, and full of self-loathing and fear. She shivered, knuckles white where she gripped the shawl too tight, and with one last look around the room, she turned towards the door and walked out.

Chapter 1

13 September 2015

Rae watched the coffin being lowered into the ground and realised she had never before felt so utterly miserable. As the priest spoke his final words of committal she looked around at the gathering of family and friends and wondered if any one of them had ever truly cared for Grace Winters. She thought not, at least not in the way that she did. Funerals were never easy, that went without saying, but some were worse than others. Granddad’s funeral had been a quiet affair, something that he had insisted on, but the few mourners in attendance had at least been there out of love and respect for the wonderfully compassionate man that Winston Winters had been.

Grace’s funeral, however, was a different affair entirely.

To say it was lavish would be doing it an injustice. If the coffin had been made of solid gold it would not have looked out of place amongst the obscene amount of flowers that adorned the headstone – a headstone whose cost could have fed a small family for an entire year. But that was Grace all over – rich as a queen, generous to a fault and effortlessly over the top until her dying day, and Rae could not have loved her more.

She only wished the same could be said of the mourning congregation.

Umbrellas popped up as the first drops of rain fell onto the cemetery. Most were a respectful black, but the odd blue and red, and even a polka dot yellow surfaced amongst the canopy of brollies. Rae suppressed a smile. Grace would have approved greatly, however Matilda – Tilly to those who disliked her the most – was not so easily impressed.

Watching Rae with the piercing glare of a hawk, Tilly looked stiff and uncomfortable in her tailored skirt suit and ridiculous high heels, and Rae found herself wishing, just for a moment, that the inappropriate footwear would get stuck in the mud leaving Tilly to squelch her way back in only her stocking feet.

Grace would have approved of that too.

One of the umbrellas, the yellow polka dot one, found its way over Rae’s head as an arm looped through the crook of her elbow and gave a gentle tug. She didn’t want to leave, not yet, she would’ve preferred to stay with Grace a little longer, but she allowed herself to be carried along with the flow, and away from the only person who could begin to understand what she was going through.

‘You OK?’ Ronnie, Rae’s only friend, looked glass-eyed beneath a fringe of flaxen curls. ‘Stay a little longer if you need, I don’t mind waiting in the car until you’re ready.’ She blew her nose loudly into a tissue that smelled strongly of balsam.

Rae looked back towards the grave where solemn faced men stood idle with their spades, keeping a respectable distance until they could fill in the last grave of the day, and shook her head. ‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘Let’s just go.’

Ronnie’s cherry red rental stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the long line of black funeral cars parked beneath an ever-present stormy sky and brought a rare smile to Rae’s face as she headed straight for it. ‘I think Cruella would rather you travelled with the family,’ Ronnie said, inclining her head to where the heat from Tilly’s glare could be felt four cars back from the front of the funeral procession. Rae ignored her and climbed into the red car as Ronnie gunned it into life, just as Peter, Tilly’s hulking great lump of a husband, headed their way.

Peter, younger than Tilly by five years, fit into the Winters family like a puppy in a den of wolves. Rae pitied him almost as much as she pitied their equally docile son, Angus, who now held an umbrella over Tilly’s head as she watched her husband trudge through the soggy grass towards Rae.

‘You wanna talk to him?’ asked Ronnie, as Peter’s fat fingers rapped on the glass by Rae’s face. Rae fastened her seatbelt and stared straight ahead. ‘Fuck em,’ she said, ‘let’s just go.’

Rae had been staying in a hotel ever since Grace had taken ill, and it was here that Ronnie was headed before embarking on the long drive back to Inverness. ‘You’re doing the right thing, you know.’ Ronnie’s voice was soft but guarded as she pulled out of the cemetery and into the afternoon traffic.

Rae didn’t say anything, only stared out through the rain-streaked window at the blur of pedestrians going about their daily business. She was thinking of Grace. Trying to remember her before the yellowed skin and sunken eyes took over, but every time she summoned that beautifully aged face it was cruelly snatched from her as though it had never been there at all.

‘I was really proud of you today,’ continued Ronnie. ‘I know how hard it must have been without you know who there, but … well, I just want you to know I think you were really brave.’

Brave? thought Rae, I couldn’t be more of a coward if I tried. ‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘it means a lot you being here.’

‘Least I could do for my best bud,’ Ronnie said. ‘I’m only sorry I couldn’t come sooner, you know, before Grace died.’ She cast a glance at Rae, and Rae smiled in return, but the effort of keeping up appearances for Ronnie’s sake was beginning to take its toll.

‘You sure you’re OK?’ Ronnie said. ‘You look awfully pale. I could stay another night or two if you like. I’m sure Adam won’t mind.’

‘I’m fine,’ Rae said. ‘I leave for Cranston Myre tomorrow, and as forgiving as Adam is, I doubt he’d be happy if his pregnant wife was at the opposite end of the country to him for any longer than necessary.’

‘It’s only a train journey away,’ Ronnie said, ‘and besides, it might be just what he needs. Make him appreciate me more.’

‘He appreciates you just fine. You’re lucky to have him.’

‘I know,’ Ronnie said, sighing dramatically. ‘He is pretty wonderful.’ She glanced at Rae, then added, casually, ‘I don’t suppose there’s any chance that you and—’

‘Don’t start, Ronnie,’ Rae said, ‘not today.’

‘I’m not. I promise. I totally respect your decision. I just thought, under the circumstances …’

Rae shot her friend a warning glance. She knew exactly where this was headed and had no intention of letting Ronnie take it any further. It had been bad enough dreading Darryl showing up at the funeral, his absence being the only good thing to come out of this depressing day.

‘Don’t look at me like that, Rae. I know he did a shitty thing, but none of us are perfect. I just worry about you, that’s all.’

‘Well don’t,’ Rae said, turning back to the window, ‘I’m perfectly fine.’

‘Really? Because you look like crap, and Darryl said you won’t answer any of his calls.’

Rae snapped her head round and glared at Ronnie. ‘You spoke to him?’

‘Not exactly. He texted me a few times to see if I knew where you were, and—’

‘You didn’t tell him, did you?’ Rae suddenly had visions of Darryl showing up on her doorstep – shoulder still bandaged from their fight – and her stomach dropped several feet.

‘Of course not,’ Ronnie said, ‘what do you take me for? But he did seem really worried, Rae. Are you sure there isn’t something you’re not telling me?’

Darryl’s face, twisted in agony, popped into Rae’s mind. ‘Positive,’ she said, ‘now can we drop it?’

‘Fine,’ Ronnie said. ‘But at least promise you’ll get a dog. I hate the thought of you being out there all alone.’

‘I hate dogs.’

‘Nobody hates dogs, Rae. Now you’re just being facetious.’

‘Fine,’ Rae said, ‘if it will make you feel better, I promise to think about getting a dog. Now will you please stop worrying and just drive.’

Chapter 2

The drive to Cranston Myre took longer than Rae anticipated, and was in no small way down to the tumultuous amount of rain that continued to fall. Had she been in a better frame of mind she might have postponed the journey until the next day, when blue skies and fluffy white clouds were forecast, but the need to get away was far greater than the threat of any storm.  

Tilly’s shrill voice down the phone the previous night, demanding to know why Rae hadn’t shown up at the wake had only confirmed that leaving was the right thing to do. Not that she really needed validation. Now that Ronnie had returned to Scotland there really was nothing left in Manchester for Rae. And then of course there was Darryl. Leaving Darryl behind was the biggest incentive of all.

A sign flashed by announcing Rae’s exit. She indicated, changed lanes and left the motorway. She hadn’t eaten since early morning, only managing half a slice of burnt toast even then, and her stomach now grumbled its displeasure as streetlights tapered off giving way to open countryside. Evening was slowly creeping in, enveloping the countryside with its ominous presence, and echoing the emptiness that Rae had felt since Grace’s death. Rae was a loner at heart, preferring her own company to that of others, but Grace’s sudden demise, together with Ronnie’s departure to Scotland had hit her hard. Veronica Maine, or Ronnie if you ever wanted her to speak to you again, had been Rae’s closest friend since childhood, and apart from Grace was just about the only other person in the world that Rae trusted. But Ronnie didn’t know about Rae’s secret. Not even Grace had known about that.

In an effort to drown out the self-pity, Rae turned on the radio. Close to You by The Carpenters was playing, the same song Darryl would sing when nightmares woke her in the middle of the night. She turned the radio off and continued the drive in silence.

Forty minutes later the village of Cranston Myre finally came into view.

It shone like a beacon of hope in the distance and Rae felt her spirits lift a little. She picked up speed, eager to start her new life far away from the ever-watchful eyes of her hateful sister and the never ending phone calls from Darryl, and with a lighter heart she reached the edge of the village and pulled over to double check the directions.

Grace had purchased a property in Rae’s name when Rae was only very young, but for reasons unknown had kept it a secret. Its existence was revealed not long after Grace’s death, and Rae was now the proud owner of a cottage on the edge of Dolen Forest. Grace’s intentions for purchasing the cottage remained a mystery, but Rae was grateful that she had. Money wasn’t an issue, but having somewhere she could go, somewhere of her own that was quiet and isolated from her estranged family, was the only thing that had kept Rae sane during the build up to the funeral. The executor of Grace’s Will, an aged solicitor that had served the Winters family for more than fifty years, had contacted Rae the day before the reading of the Will. He had given Rae an envelope that contained a map and a key. The decision was left with Rae whether to tell the family where she was going or keep the cottage a secret as Grace had done. She chose the latter. When the Will was finally read, Tilly had received the lion’s share of the Winters’ estate, leaving Rae with a sum modest enough to keep Tilly happy. But what Tilly didn’t know was that Grace had been feeding discreet amounts of money into a savings account in Rae’s name for years. It was a calculated decision by Grace, and one that gave Rae the means to escape quietly while ensuring that Tilly did not feel the need to contest the Will, something that Rae was most assuredly grateful for.

The map showed the cottage wasn’t far, perched on the edge of the forest, secluded for privacy but close enough to the village that Rae wouldn’t be entirely cut off from the world. It had also been empty for close to 20 years so she wasn’t expecting much, but it was enough. She slid the envelope back into her bag and pulled out onto the high street.

The Rook & Wheel pub oozed old world charm as Rae drove past it, with Georgian windows, hanging lanterns and window boxes filled with flowers that refused to wilt even with the onslaught of rain. A sandwich board on the roadside promised a warm fire and the best pies in the south, and Rae decided that as the cottage had stood alone all these years, another hour wasn’t going to hurt it. She swung the car around – narrowly missing two young girls huddled beneath a shared umbrella – and pulled into the empty car park. She waved an apology as she climbed out of the car, was rewarded with a two fingered salute, and grabbed her raincoat before holding it over her head and running to the door.

Inside was a large open fire that crackled invitingly, with fairy lights hanging from its mantel – an early reminder that Christmas was not far away – and thick bodied candles glowed from inside glass cases. A large, leather couch took pride of place in front of the hearth, and tables adorned with tea lights in miniature vases dotted the space in between. The pub was mostly deserted save for a man and his two female companions on the couch by the fire, and a much older gentleman perched at the end of the bar. The soft click of a pool cue could be heard through a large alcove to the right where raised laughter caught Rae’s attention. She recognised two of the occupants as being the girls from the car park, both hovering over a group of young lads more engrossed in their game than their female companions. Girl number one – a pretty blonde with too much make-up and not enough skirt – looked up as Rae approached the bar and whispered into the ear of her friend; a much stockier version of herself with a face less pretty, more bulldog. Both looked at Rae and grinned.

‘Pay no attention,’ the bartender said, ‘they’re harmless enough. What can I get you?’

Rae tried to ignore the peel of laughter that echoed from the pool room. ‘Coke, please,’ she said, ‘and a menu if you have one.’

‘We normally close the kitchen at eight during the week but given it’s only ten past I’m sure we can rustle something up. Would steak and ale pie do you?’

‘Sounds perfect,’ Rae said, feeling her stomach warm at the prospect of food.

‘Sit yourself down then and I’ll bring it over in a jiffy.’

‘Can I get one of those too, Bob?’ A woman appeared beside Rae, with closely cropped pink hair that dripped water down her young face. She wore a black leather jacket with blue denim jeans and grinned at Rae as she produced a ten-pound note that she slapped on the bar.

‘You’ve eaten here often enough Alex to know what time the kitchen closes,’ the bartender said.

‘Oh, go on Bob,’ she said, grinning, ‘Maggie won’t mind.’

Bob sighed and shook his head but took the money before heading off through a small opening at the end of the bar.

‘I’m Alex,’ pink hair said, turning to Rae and holding out her hand. ‘I’ve been waiting all day for you to show up.’

Rae bristled. Anonymity was the biggest draw for moving to Cranston Myre, and within minutes of arriving it was blown out of the window. ‘I’m sorry, do we know each other?’

‘I hope so,’ Alex said, ‘otherwise I’ve just made a fool of myself. Alexandra Graham? Didn’t Grace mention me? She sure as hell talked a lot about you. You’re exactly as she described, except for the eyes, she said they were brown, but they look more—’

‘They’re hazel,’ Rae said, a little more tersely than she intended, ‘they change according to my moods. I’m sorry, Alex, but Grace never said a word. How exactly did you two know each other?’

Alex looked a little embarrassed as the bartender placed two Cokes on the bar, and Rae instantly regretted being so harsh. ‘Food will be over shortly,’ he said, ‘if you ladies would like to go and sit down.’

‘Shall we?’ Alex said. She picked up the Cokes and walked off without waiting for an answer.

Rae stared after her. This was not how she had envisioned the first night of her new life going, nor did she wish to eat dinner with a total stranger. Alex chose the table nearest the window and beckoned for Rae to join her by whistling across the pub and pointing to the empty stool opposite. Great, thought Rae, just what I needed. With an air of reluctance that she didn’t care to hide, she walked over, dropped her coat on the floor and pulled out the empty stool.

‘Sorry to put you on the spot like that,’ Alex said. ‘I just assumed that Grace had told you all about me. I’ve been taking care of The Briar for the last few months, getting it ready for your arrival today. Grace insisted the fire be lit and the cupboards full for when you got here. I would have called to confirm a time, but Grace never gave me your number.’

Rae stared at her, as though doing so would jumble her words into something that made a modicum of sense. ‘The Briar?’ she said, shaking her head.

‘The cottage,’ Alex said, ‘the place you’re going to be living in? It’s just a nickname but pretty much everyone around here calls it that. Sorry to hear that Grace passed by the way. I knew she was sick but it’s never easy when the end finally comes. I sent flowers,’ she added, when Rae didn’t say anything. ‘Lillys. They were her favourite, weren’t they?’

Rae nodded. She didn’t know what to make of this strange pink-haired girl who seemed to know more about what Rae was doing than Rae did. ‘What you said, about me arriving here today, it doesn’t make any sense,’ she said. ‘I hadn’t decided if I was coming here at all until a few days ago, so Grace couldn’t have known.’

‘Here you are ladies.’ A rotund woman with flushed cheeks placed two plates of steaming hot pie, mashed potato, broccoli, and cauliflower on the table, then disappeared.

Alex shrugged. ‘What can I say? I’m just acting on Grace’s instructions. Maybe she knew you better than you thought?’

The rotund woman appeared again, this time armed with cutlery, napkins and salt & pepper. She pulled out a stool and sat down, kicking her shoes off under the table. ‘Don’t mind if I sit here for a minute, do you?’ she said. ‘My feet are killing me.’

Alex picked up a knife and fork and immediately tucked in. ‘Maggie,’ she said, through a mouthful of food, ‘this is Raewyn, she’s moving into The Briar. Got any brown sauce to go with this?’ 

Maggie reached over and clipped Alex behind the ear. ‘Don’t you dare, missy, my pie can stand on its own, thank you very much. Wish I could say the same for my poor feet though.’

‘You should take a night off?’ Alex said. ‘Get Bob to do some of the work for a change.’ She winked at Rae as Maggie chuckled and leaned back on her stool.

‘Hear that, Bob,’ she shouted. ‘Alex says I need a night off.’ Bob rolled his eyes, shook his head, and turned back to wiping down the bar.

‘So,’ Maggie said, turning to Rae, ‘The Briar eh? I hope young Alex here has told you what you’re letting yourself in for?’

‘No, not really,’ Rae said, turning to Alex when she groaned loudly.

‘Leave it out, Mags,’ Alex said. ‘She only arrived a few minutes ago.’

Maggie folded her arms and gave Alex a stern look. ‘All the more reason to tell her then, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Tell me what?’ Rae said. She looked between the two women and caught the look of warning Maggie shot Alex before Alex rolled her eyes.

‘Fine!’ Alex said, ‘Margaret thinks the place is haunted, which of course it isn’t, so pay no attention.’

‘Not just haunted,’ Maggie said, leaning in close. ‘Cursed, and not just the cottage either. Those woods are not for the faint hearted, my love. Take my advice, Raewyn, you give that place a wide berth. You’ll not find a single local walking in those woods. They know better, you see. Mark my words, it’s better if you stay away from that place. Get your head down here if you like, we’ve room enough and don’t charge the earth like some places, and what’s more you’ll have a good hearty meal like that one in your belly each and every night. I can’t say fairer than that.’

‘She’ll end up the size of a house if she eats your food every night,’ Alex said. ‘Stop trying to drum up business, woman, and fetch me my sauce, this pie is dry.’ That earned Alex another clip around the ear, but she laughed it off and turned to Rae. ‘It’s just stories,’ she said. ‘Old folktales, stuff and nonsense, the cottage has sat empty for years so people just make shit up.’

‘And why has it been left empty all these years?’ Maggie said. ‘A place like that? It should be a gold mine and yet no one has been near it for as long as I can remember.’

‘Well maybe the owner didn’t want anyone near it,’ Alex said, ‘ever thought of that?’ She shook her head at Rae, and Rae raised an eyebrow in return.

‘Mock all you want,’ Maggie said, ‘but there’s something up with that place.’

‘Noted,’ Alex said. ‘I’ll be sure to have it exorcised first thing in the morning.’

‘Maybe you should,’ Maggie said. ‘You younguns, you think you know everything about everything, but in my experience, you know nothing at all.’

‘Says the woman who thought using olive oil and vinegar instead of sun cream was a good idea.’

‘That was a long time ago,’ Maggie said, ‘and I wish I’d never told you.’ She winced as she slipped on her shoes and lifted her hefty frame from the stool. Bob was tapping the face of his watch behind the bar. ‘Look at him, the cheeky beggar,’ she said. ‘I swear that man thinks I’m a machine. Alex, will you ask Dee to make up some more of that foot cream for me. It did miracles for my bunions last time.’

‘Only if you promise to stop bad mouthing Rae’s cottage.’

‘How about I promise not to put you over my knee, lady. Honestly, kids these days.’

‘I’ll have your cream ready tomorrow afternoon,’ Alex said, ‘my treat. You should probably go before Bob has an apoplexy.’

Maggie thanked Alex, winked at Rae and mumbled something about men and slave drivers before shuffling off towards the bar.

‘Pay no attention,’ Alex said, shovelling another forkful of food into her mouth. ‘Folk round here are a bit weird. Takes a while, but you’ll get used to them.’

‘You were about to tell me how you met Grace.’ Rae still hadn’t touched her food and scooped a forkful of mashed potato into her mouth.

‘We didn’t meet,’ Alex said. ‘She found me about three months ago. I’d been helping my cousins renovate their place and fancied myself as an interior designer. I’d only just got a website up and running when Grace phoned me. Asked me to spruce up the cottage, give it a clean, lick of paint, new furniture, that sort of thing, even opened a bank account especially so I could have carte blanche over the project. Quite trusting really given we never physically met, but we talked often, and I sent her regular updates. I don’t think she realised just how much of a state the place was in until I took her on a virtual tour.’

‘But she must have visited at some point, surely?’ Rae scooped up more mash. It really was delicious.

‘Dunno,’ Alex said, ‘didn’t seem like it. All I know is she wanted it top notch for when you arrived, and no expense was to be spared.’

Rae tasted the pie. It was every bit as tasty as the mash, but she suddenly found she had no appetite. ‘It just doesn’t make sense,’ she said, putting down her knife and fork. ‘How could Grace possibly have known I was coming here today?’ Alex shrugged as though the how of it was of no concern, but to Rae it meant everything. Because if Grace had known she was sick three months ago, then why had she told Alex and no one else? It stung that Grace had felt she couldn’t confide in Rae, because Rae would have told Grace anything, even about what happened with Darryl if Grace hadn’t already been in hospital. She turned to the window in an attempt to hide her hurt feelings and ran a finger down the misted glass. It was still pouring outside. She couldn’t have picked a worse day to pack up her life and move away from everything she knew.

‘Why Grace?’ Alex said suddenly. ‘You never say mum, why is that?’

The question prickled but was one Rae had been asked many times over and the answer was well practiced. ‘Habit,’ she said, ‘Grace adopted me when I was very young, but she already had a daughter who was less than pleased by my sudden appearance. I learned to refer to Grace by name rather mum. It seemed to placate Tilly, and rather than upsetting the apple cart further, I guess it just stuck. Grace didn’t seem to mind, and she was a wonderful mother in every way that mattered.’

‘But not your mother,’ Alex said with a nod. ‘I get it.’

Rae opened her mouth to object, feeling that she needed to defend her reasons for having never given Grace the title she deserved, but decided against it and instead grabbed her coat. ‘Thank you for the company,’ she said, ‘and for taking care of the cottage…’

‘But you’ve hardly touched your food.’

‘… and give my apologies to Maggie, will you.’

‘Wait,’ Alex said, ‘I’ll come with you. The turn off can be difficult to see in the dark.’

‘No, thank you,’ Rae said. ‘You finish your dinner. I’m sure I’ll manage.’

Rae didn’t bother to cover her head as she stepped out the door, and instead let the rain sluice over her shoulders and welcomed the cold water on her face. Alex had been a surprise, and an unwanted one at that, and the only thing Rae could think of right now was slipping into a hot bath before losing herself to the sweet oblivion of sleep. She slung her coat over the back seat and slid behind the steering wheel. She checked herself in the mirror and frowned at the pallid skin and sunken eyes. She needed this break more than anything. Needed the time to be alone, to figure out who she was, what she was, and what the fuck she was going to say to Darryl when she finally plucked up the courage to call him. She opened the glove compartment and took out her phone. It was switched on but the volume was turned low so she wouldn’t have to the listen to the constant chiming of Darryl’s texts. She pressed the button and held her breath as the screen came to life. Sure enough, there they were. She counted seven messages and four missed calls, all from Darryl. With a sigh she threw the phone into her bag, put the key in the ignition, and turned. The engine kicked to life briefly but died before she could slip it into gear. She turned the key again, and then again, and then again. With a sigh of frustration Rae let her head fall back. Of all the bastard nights, she thought. But in truth she was amazed the car had made it this far. She should have traded it in months ago but had been too preoccupied with her failing relationship, and then Grace’s illness, to do much of anything. She pulled her phone from her bag and was about to search for a taxi when there was a tap on the window.

‘Car trouble?’ shouted Alex, over the rain.

‘It’s probably just the battery,’ Rae shouted back. ‘I was just about to call a taxi.’

‘Nonsense,’ Alex said. ‘I’m going your way anyway. Pop the boot and I’ll help with your bags.’

The drive to the cottage took less than ten minutes, but that was perhaps more down to Alex’s Lewis Hamilton impersonation than anything else, and the turn off for Foxglove Lane was near impossible to see in the dark, helped in no way by the overgrown hedge that blocked the sign from view. A lone streetlight cast an eerie glow over the entrance to the woods as Alex turned onto the long driveway, expertly navigating the muddied ground with precision and speed that both impressed and terrified Rae at the same time. ‘Here we are,’ she said, finally grinding the car to a halt. ‘Home sweet home.’

Rae hadn’t expected much, but she hadn’t expected to feel so underwhelmed either. The exterior was bare except for a few vines that crept over the grey stone wall, barren of leaf or flower and giving the impression of bulging veins beneath a pair of aged hands. The thatched roof sagged in the middle and any charm the pale blue picket fence may have given was marred by the grind of the gate as it swung on its rusted hinge. It was a moonless night, the only light coming from Alex’s headlights, and as the wind ripped through the woods Maggie’s words of warning suddenly took on a much more sinister feel.

‘Doesn’t look like much does it?’ Alex said. ‘But it’s better in daylight, you’ll see. I’ll get the bags while you open the door.’

Steeling herself for further disappointment, Rae stepped onto the porch, inserted the key, and held her breath. A rush of warm air greeted her as the door swung open, and perhaps it was only the imagination of a tired mind, but it seemed to Rae that the house had been holding its breath too, and as one they released it when Rae stepped over the threshold.

‘If you like I can show you where everything is,’ Alex said, squeezing past Rae to dump the bags by the kitchen table. She switched the light on then turned to Rae with hands on hips. ‘So, what do you think, not too shabby after all, eh?’

Rae felt some of her anxieties slip away as she looked around. ‘It’s … perfect,’ she said, and meant it. Simply furnished with an understated rustic charm, it was Rae down to a tee.

‘My instructions were simple,’ Alex said, ‘muted colours, nothing fussy and definitely no chintz. Did I hit the mark?’

Rae swallowed as a lump formed in her throat. ‘Smashed it out of the park.’

‘Well don’t thank me yet,’ Alex said. ‘You still haven’t seen the bathroom. To say its small would be an insult to small bathrooms. I would’ve liked to do a complete refurb, but I did the best I could with what little time I had.’

There it was again, reference to Rae’s imminent arrival. She opened her mouth to say something but changed her mind. Fatigue crawled through her veins like concrete and the last thing she wanted was more conversation. ‘I’m sure it’s absolutely fine,’ she said, ‘but I expect you’ve got better things to do than show me around.’

‘Oh, it’s no bother,’ Alex said, draping her coat over the kitchen table. ‘I’ll stick the kettle on, shall I?’

Rae’s stomach dropped. ‘Alex. I’m really grateful, but …’

‘Say no more,’ Alex said, grabbing her coat again. ‘I have a tendency to overstay my welcome. I also talk too much so I’ll spare you a headache and get out of your hair. Before I go though, I should warn you there is no central heating. The fires already stoked and there’s a tonne of wood stacked in the shed out front. You’ll also find the cupboards and fridge well stocked too – plenty of wine, chocolate, more wine, and some of the not so important stuff like actual food. Oh, and before I forget, there’s a rather delicious looking banana cake in the pantry, and a batch of homemade cookies courtesy of yours truly, so you might want to do a taste test with those first. Other than that, everything you need should be here.’

‘I don’t know what to say,’ Rae said. ‘I feel like I’m throwing you out.’

‘Nonsense,’ Alex said. ‘If I were you, I’d throw me out too. Right, I’ll be off then. Don’t forget to holler if you need anything, I’m only a stone’s throw away. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?’

‘Sure,’ Rae said, ‘and thanks again.’

When the door closed, Rae sagged into the nearest chair. The weight of the last few weeks bore down like a mountain of guilt, and while she’d made a promise to herself to stop wallowing in self-pity, she was finding it difficult to do without either of her best friends by her side. She grabbed the phone from her bag and pulled up Ronnie’s number. She may not have Grace to talk to anymore, but Ronnie was still only a phone call away. Then she threw the phone down without pressing the green button. Ronnie had problems of her own with twins on the way, the last thing she needed was a clingy friend dropping all her shit at her front door.

Rae grabbed her overnight bag, turned off the light and headed upstairs.

Chapter 3

Rae woke the next morning with a dry mouth and a duvet wrapped around her like a cocoon. She threw back the curtains to greet the first dawn of her new life, then quickly hopped back beneath the covers. It was freezing, and by the distant glow on the horizon, still very early. Wrapping the duvet back around her body, she padded down the stairs to the kitchen and flicked on the light. The fire had died a lonely death in the night and for a second she considered trying to re-light it, but the thought of faffing around with wood and matches seemed like too much effort, so she switched on the kettle instead. While the water took its own sweet time to boil Rae picked up her phone from where she’d left it on the chair and switched it on. The phone was as old and knackered as her car, but Rae was a creature of habit who loathed change, however small it might be. Moving to a new village, far from everyone and everything she knew was a huge leap, but one born of necessity rather than choice. The phone came to life as the kettle finally boiled and she poured the hot water over coffee granules while the phone pinged, and pinged … and pinged. She drank the coffee first. If she was going to face umpteen messages from Darryl, then she needed something warm inside her belly.

One message was from Ronnie with the simple words ‘home safe – speak soon’ and the rest were from Darryl, all in the same thread, and all asking her to call him. There were several more missed calls from him too, none of which she intended to return. What had happened between them was still too raw and left her feeling sick and dejected whenever she thought about it, and despite his infidelity, Darryl did not deserve what she had done to him. But it wasn’t only that that troubled her though. A thought had been gnawing away at her ever since she’d laid her hands on him. A feeling really, that Darryl wasn’t the first person she’d hurt, that she’d done it before, to someone else. She wrapped her hands around the coffee cup and shuddered. What if she did it again? The thought terrified her almost as much as knowing there was some part of her that had actually enjoyed it. Sure, she’d been angry when she caught Darryl with another woman – unjustified as it happened, given the two of them hadn’t really been a couple for some time – but it wasn’t catching him with his pants down that had set her off. Something had snapped inside, some primal rage buried deep within, hidden even from Rae until that night. Whether it was the strain of knowing Grace was dying, or the confirmation that her relationship was truly dead in the water, Rae didn’t know, but she had let that rage out and Darryl had bared the terrible brunt of it, and if not for the screams of the slut he’d brought home with him that night, Rae may very well have killed him.

As it happened, Darryl was only left with second-degree burns, and whether out of guilt or fear of reprisal, he had persuaded whatserface not to call the police. His wounds had been treated and his shoulder had healed, but the acrid stench of burning flesh was something that Rae would never forget, and nor should she. It was a stark reminder of the monster that lurked within, and it was also because of this – she was convinced – that Grace had deteriorated so quickly. Rae had never told her what happened, but Grace knew, she was sure of it, and for that Rae would never forgive herself.

She tipped the remainder of the coffee down the sink, threw her phone back on the chair, and trudged up the stairs, trailing the duvet behind her.

Unable to get back to sleep, Rae had finally given up and instead decided to unpack. An hour later she was showered, dressed and feeling a little more like herself when there was a knock at the door.

‘I’m taking you for breakfast,’ Alex said, ‘I won’t take no for an answer.’

She drove them to a cafe on the main street, just down the road from The Rook & Wheel where Rae noticed with alarm, that her car was no longer there.

‘My friend John towed it early this morning,’ Alex said. ‘He’ll drop it back at yours when it’s fixed.’

‘That was kind of you to arrange,’ Rae said, though she couldn’t help but feel a little disgruntled that Alex hadn’t thought to ask if it was OK with her.

‘Think nothing of it,’ Alex said, pulling over to the side of the road. ‘I called in a favour, that’s all.’

Sadie-Lou’s Tea Rooms was written above a Georgian window in black curlicue letters. The door was painted the same cornflower blue as Rae’s picket fence and had the same basket of autumn flowers hanging beside it as had turned up at the cottage that morning. Alex caught the look on Rae’s face and grinned. ‘John does them,’ she said. ‘I asked him to make an extra one for you. Hope you don’t mind.’

Inside, the cafe was almost full, save for a table by the window that Alex had called ahead and reserved. It had a frilly gingham tablecloth to match the frilly gingham curtains, with a bottle of brown sauce, laminated menu and salt & pepper pots in the shape of double decker buses. The waitress appeared from nowhere as they took their seats.

‘Can I get you two ladies a drink?’

‘Tea for me,’ Alex said, ‘and a full English.’

‘Same for me,’ Rae said. She had intended only to have teacakes, but the smell coming from the kitchen convinced her otherwise.

‘Is Sadie around?’ asked Alex.

‘She’s out back,’ the waitress said, without looking up from her pad. ‘Want me to get her?’

‘Nah, but if you could ask her to pop by Dee’s later. I need to have a quick word.’

The waitress stopped writing and raised an eyebrow. ‘Let me guess … Michelle?’

‘Something like that, yeah,’ Alex said.

‘I’ll pass it on, Sadie will be thrilled.’ The waitress left and returned a moment later with two pots of tea, cups and saucers, and cutlery bundled into napkins. ‘Food won’t be long,’ she said, then turned to a young couple at the next table whose toddler had just knocked orange juice all over the floor.

‘So, how did you sleep last night?’ Alex said, pouring the tea, ‘good I hope?’

‘Like the dead,’ Rae lied. She’d spent most of the night tossing and turning, drifting from one bad dream to another.

‘Country air will do that for you,’ Alex said. ‘Not that you got much of that with last night’s rain, couldn’t wish for a better day today though. Did you manage to get that fire going?’

Rae shook her head and winced as she took a sip from the too-hot tea. ‘I’m sure I’ll figure it out though.’

‘There’s plenty of wood to see you through the winter. John chopped a load before you arrived.’

Rae raised her eyebrows. ‘He sounds like a real catch, this fella of yours.’

Alex spluttered her tea. ‘Oh, John’s not my boyfriend. God no, he’s way too old for me. We’re just friends. He’s a moody bastard most of the time, but I like him just fine. You will too. He’s probably closer to your age anyway.’

‘Oh really?’ Rae said. ‘And what age is that?’

‘Mid-thirties?’ Alex said, shrugging.

‘I just turned twenty-five,’ Rae said, ‘but thanks for the compliment.’

Alex grinned. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I just assumed you were older from the way Grace spoke about you.’

Rae prickled at that. ‘What exactly did Grace say?’ she said, casually stirring her tea.

‘That you were branch manager of a retail shop until she became sick. That you gave it up to spend time with her, and … that you caught your boyfriend in bed with another woman.’ She grimaced at that and added, as though by way of apology, ‘she did say that he got what he deserved though.’

Rae almost choked on her tea but didn’t get the chance to say anything as the waitress chose that exact moment to show up with the food. ‘I think Sadie’s trying to fatten you up,’ she said to Alex, plonking two overloaded plates of food on the table. ‘You do know she’s planning to fix you up with her nephew, don’t you? She’s hoping you’ll take him as your plus one to the party.’

Alex groaned. ‘Not that again,’ she said. ‘I swear she has an endless supply of nephews. Tell her I’m already spoken for. Besides, Rae is coming as my plus one, aren’t you Rae.’ She nudged Rae’s foot beneath the table and gave her a pleading look.

Rae was still reeling about what Alex had just said and answered without giving any real thought to what she was agreeing to. ‘Ahh, yes,’ she said, ‘looking forward to it.’

The waitress narrowed her eyes and looked at Rae as though she’d only just noticed she was sitting there. ‘Haven’t seen you around here before,’ she said. ‘Just visiting?’

‘Rae’s a friend of mine from up north,’ Alex said. ‘Don’t forget to tell Sadie I need to see her, will you?’ 

The waitress raised an eyebrow but refrained from asking any more questions before walking away.

Alex picked up a sausage and bit off the end, apparently unconcerned by her string of blatant lies. She caught Rae looking at her and shrugged. ‘If you saw Sadie’s nephews, you’d understand the size of the bullet I just dodged. Besides, you’ll soon learn that everyone around here is in and out of each other’s business like a swinging door, and Carol is about as discrete as the town crier. If you want any privacy at all, probably best not to tell Carol anything.’

Rae picked up a piece of bacon and began chewing on it. ‘Thanks for the heads up. What’s the party for then?’

‘My cousin, Emma’s throwing it,’ Alex said, ‘the whole village will be there. You’ll love it.’

‘You weren’t serious?’ Rae said, ‘I don’t know anyone.’

‘Precisely why you should come,’ Alex said. She stopped eating and looked up. ‘You’d be doing me a massive favour. You can’t leave me at the mercy of Sadie’s nephew, it would be a fate worse than death. Worse even. I’d rather eat dinner with Hannibal Lector.’

Rae screwed up her nose. ‘I don’t know … parties aren’t really my thing.’

‘If you want me to beg, I will,’ Alex said. ‘I’ve been looking forward to this for ages, if only to see the look on Emma’s face when it all goes tits up. She’s expecting it to be all cocktail dresses and canapés but throw free booze at this lot and you’re just asking for trouble. It’ll be less Fred Astaire and more Dirty Dancing. Please say you’ll come. Pleeeease.’

‘You make it sound so inviting!’ Rae said. ‘Besides, I have nothing to wear.’

‘Wear anything,’ Alex said. ‘It’s a garden party, no one will care. I can guarantee half the villagers will be there in jeans and t-shirt. You have to come. If we’re going to be neighbours, then I think it’s a prerequisite that you attend.’

‘Neighbours?’ Rae said. ‘Where is this party?’

‘Carrion Hall,’ Alex said. ‘You must have seen it this morning – can’t miss it from your place. Big ugly thing on top of the hill.’

‘The mansion?’ Rae said, ‘you live there?’ It had been the first thing she’d noticed when she threw back the curtains that morning – a black smudge on the horizon haloed by the rising sun.

‘Close,’ Alex said. ‘I live in one of the cottages on the grounds, but Emma lives there, Chris too – he’s my other cousin. We’ve spent the last two years renovating it along with half the tradesmen in the village. The party is Emma’s way of saying thank you, but mainly so she can show off. It would be impolite not to introduce yourself … oh come on,’ she groaned, ‘you’re allowed to have a bit of fun. Plus, it’s my birthday on Sunday so it’ll be a double celebration. Say yes and I promise not to pester you for anything else. Cross my heart and hope to die.’ She drew an X over her chest then clasped her hands together, bottom lip stuck out like a sulky child.

‘Fine,’ Rae said. ‘I’ll be your plus one, but only if you stop pulling that face.’

Rae ate only half her breakfast, and after declaring that she would have to buy bigger clothes if all the portions in Cranston Myre were so big, she decided to go for a walk rather than accept Alex’s offer of a ride home. Alex offered to go with her, but Rae declined, saying she’d done quite enough already, but in truth she wanted to be alone. Alex seemed nice enough, but her constant banter was beginning to give Rae a headache.

They parted ways on Tawny Lane outside Lotions & Potions, a natural remedies shop where Alex worked part-time in-between interior design and renovating old mansions. The village was busier than Rae had expected. It was the start of autumn, the new school year had already begun, and it was the middle of the week, yet the streets were teeming with people. Not quite the retirement village she had expected then. Eager to be away from the shops and the cacophony of tourists, she turned down a quiet cobbled street, saw a sign for the village green, and headed in that direction.

It was a warm day despite the crispness in the air, and Rae began to feel her spirits lift as she followed the road in relative peace. All her life Rae had felt a sense of displacement, as though she didn’t belong anywhere – not with Darryl, not at home in Manchester, and certainly not with her estranged family – but it had taken Grace’s death to give her the push she needed, to make her realise that her future never was and never had been in Manchester, even if leaving also technically meant she was running away. But now that she was here, letting the ebb and flow of village life wash gently over her she knew it was the right thing to do.

The village green was the size of a small park, filled with trees beginning their autumnal cycle, and freshly painted benches. In the centre was a stone monument, a cross dedicated to the brave men and women who lost their lives during the war, and surrounding the monument, protected by an iron fence barrier, was a display of artificial poppies befitting a king. The smell of wood smoke drifted on the breeze, reminding Rae of autumns as a child, and she breathed it in, savouring the memories it evoked. Autumn had always been her favourite season, even more so than winter and Christmas. Autumn brought bonfire night and the endless task of helping Granddad tidy the garden, getting it ready for the abundance of aunts, uncles and cousins that would descend upon the Winters’ house for fireworks. It had been one of Rae’s favourite things to do, trailing behind Granddad with a wheelbarrow, wellington boots on up to her knees and a cup of hot chocolate (marshmallows included) waiting for them when their shift was over. Granddad would make his own fireworks – better than anything bought in a shop – that would make even the stony faced Tilly squeal with delight as they lit up the sky, and while Granddad set them off Grace would be in the kitchen, dishing out chilli-con-carne and preparing toffee apples for bobbing. It had been a wonderful time of year, when family bickering was put on hold and the usual animosity forgotten, just for that one, wonderful night – until everything changed.

Rae shrugged her shoulders to cast off the dark thoughts before they could take purchase. She closed her eyes, tilted her face to the warm sun, and let her boots sink into the soft earth, still wet from last night’s rain. She took a deep breath, drawing in the country air then let it go in a slow, calming release. A breeze caught her hair and brushed it away from her neck like the hands of a lover. It felt good, soothing in an almost intimate way, and she allowed herself the slightest wisp of a smile.

Lost in the moment Rae hadn’t noticed the large dog bounding towards her until it was too late. The wind was knocked right out of her as a great lumbering St Bernard knocked her to the ground. Huge paws pinned her down while a wet, slobbering tongue trailed saliva across her cheek. ‘Urrggh, get off me,’ she said, pushing the beast’s head away only to have the attack redirected to her ear. The dog must have weighed 200lbs and smelled like it had been rolling in pig shit.

‘Bart, get off her.’ The dog was dragged off Rae by its collar and quickly re-acquainted with his lead before his owner – a scruffy looking man with an unkempt beard and an unsightly stain down his mottled grey t-shirt – offered Rae a helping hand. ‘Sorry about that,’ he said, ‘he gets excited when he sees something he likes. You OK?’

Rae waved him off with an air of disgust. ‘Aren’t there laws about controlling your animal?’ she said, clambering to her feet and trying in vain to wipe down the muddy paw prints that covered her t-shirt. She gave up and settled for zipping up her jacket instead. ‘Maybe in future you should keep it on that lead.’

‘He’s not usually so badly behaved. I apologise, and so does Bart, don’t you Bart.’ Bart gave a resounding woof. ‘He said he promises never to do it again.’

‘Better not,’ Rae said, glaring at the dog while she dusted off her jeans.

‘Not much of a dog lover then, eh?’ Bart’s owner said, grinning as he picked up Rae’s bag and handed it to her.

She snatched it from him and fixed him with a cold stare. ‘I like them just fine when they’re not knocking the wind out of me,’ she said. ‘Look at the state of me. I look like I’ve been attacked by a bear!’ The man took in her appearance and made a poor job of stifling a smile. ‘Well as long you’re amused,’ Rae said.

‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I can see that you are genuinely angry—’

‘Of course I’m bloody angry. I’m filthy!’

‘—but, in Bart’s defence, he was only saying hello, weren’t you Bart.’ He ruffled the dog’s ears, and to Rae’s utter annoyance the dog barked back.

‘Is that supposed to make me feel better?’

‘Obviously not. What if I offer to buy you a cup of coffee, would that help?’

Rae gave him an exasperated look. Coffee, really! She was soaking wet, filthy dirty and had a good half hour walk to get home.

‘A beer then,’ he said, ‘I’ll even throw in some washing powder.’

‘Stick your beer up your arse,’ she said, ‘and stick your washing powder too. I’d rather swim naked with sharks whilst covered in blood.’ She swung the rucksack over her shoulder and turned to leave, but Bart’s owner grabbed her arm.

‘Hey, look,’ he said. ‘I really am sorry. It was my fault; I should have been watching Bart, but I was … distracted. Will you at least accept my apology?’ Rae glared at him. There was something about him. Something familiar. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘maybe it would help if I introduced myself. My name is—’

‘Not interested,’ Rae said. She yanked her arm free and marched off, not daring to look back but all too aware that Bart and his owner were watching her hasty retreat. Anger flared hot in her cheeks. She knew her reaction was irrational and embarrassingly over the top, but she just couldn’t help herself. Something about him had set her on edge, his eyes or his aftershave maybe? Despite his appearance he’d actually smelled kind of nice, though all she could smell now was the stink of Bart the friendly dog. She stomped all the way to the end of the green, cheeks flushed and feeling like a fool, only glancing back when she felt it was safe to do so, and further angered to find Bart and his owner were still staring after her. Unbelievable!

She pushed into the nearest shop, so eager to escape their accusatory glare that she hadn’t even noticed what shop it was until she was greeted with a thick wall of incense. A bell tinkled overhead as she opened the door and a woman appeared, smiling with the anticipation of her next sale. Rae would have walked straight back out if not for Bart and his condescending owner, so she smiled back and feigned interest in a wooden chess set by the window. The pieces were crafted into witches, wizards, and goblins and came with a hefty price tag that suggested the hand-carved set had been there for some time. She moved on to the next aisle – so cramped with wind chimes and dream catchers she had to remove her rucksack to keep from knocking them over. Bejewelled dragons filled the shelves of the next aisle, along with crystal balls, elvin statues, tarot cards, goblets, pentagrams, and wands. There was even a leather-bound spell book mounted onto a wooden pedestal to satisfy the discerning wiccan, and a grimoire of dark magic and enchantments. The shop owner was discreetly watching from behind the counter, pretending to flick through a magazine, and Rae was tempted to walk out (slobbering dog and arsehole owner be damned) but the items on display inside the glass covered counter caught her eye.

Rae had very few memories of her early years with Grace, and none at all of the time before. She had become Grace’s ward at the age of five after she had been found alone and afraid, abandoned by her birth mother who was later discovered dead in an empty warehouse with a needle sticking out of her arm. Grace became Rae’s foster mother not long after, and her adopted mother not long after that. Rae’s memory up until that point was a blank canvas, one that Grace either couldn’t fill, or for reasons unknown, simply wouldn’t. Rae suspected it was the latter, but despite her loss of memory Rae had always known one thing; that she was different, and it wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Just after Rae’s thirteenth birthday Grace had given her a gift. ‘It’s very special,’ she had said. ‘A powerful thing for such a young girl to have.’ Rae had held the pendant in the palm of her hand thinking it ugly and not very powerful looking at all. She had said as much to Grace, causing Grace to laugh out loud. ‘Oh, my sweet girl,’ Grace had said, ‘one day you will understand. Until then you must promise to keep it with you, always.’ And Rae had. She had treasured the pendant, wearing it everywhere she went, even at school, tucked beneath her shirt away from prying eyes. It was unspectacular, nothing that anyone else would want, but to Rae it meant everything, because it had belonged to Grace and now Grace had given it to her.

‘Can I help you with anything?’ The shop owner sidled up beside Rae as she peered into the cabinet, intent on finding something similar amongst the crystal and silver jewellery. ‘Are you looking for anything in particular? Everything you see is hand crafted and each with a tale to tell. Is there something you’d like to try on maybe?’

‘No, I don’t think so,’ Rae said, ‘but thank you.’ She moved further down the cabinet and bit the inside of her lip when the shop owner followed.

‘I have others,’ the shop owner said. ‘If it’s a necklace you’re after, I have plenty more.’

‘I’m looking for something more specific,’ Rae said, ‘you have lots of lovely stones, but I had hoped to find one that matches my own.’ She had checked many jewellery stores over the years, every crystal shop and stall she had encountered, but had yet to find someone who could identify the crystal in her pendant.

‘Really?’ the shop owner said, perking up. ‘That sounds like a challenge. What stone do you have? I have all manner of things in the back still unpacked, including many gemstones. You never know, I may have just what you’re looking for.’

‘Oh, I don’t want you to go to any trouble,’ Rae said, ‘I’m really just interested in what kind of crystal it is.’

‘Then you came to the right place. If there’s one thing I know about, it’s crystals. Do you have the necklace with you?’

Rae unzipped her jacket, giving a brief apology for the state of her t-shirt, and pulled out the necklace from beneath. She held the stone up to the light where it changed from a murky brown to a fiery orange.

‘My my, that is a beauty. May I?’ Without waiting for a reply, the shop owner reached out and carefully took the stone in her hand. ‘The workmanship is exquisite,’ she said. ‘The way the thorns weave around the crystal, it’s almost … haunting wouldn’t you say?’ She looked up at Rae with grey eyes full of intrigue; a look that Rae had seen many times, in many shops just like this one.

‘What about the crystal?’ Rae said. ‘Can you tell me what kind it is?’

‘Do you mind if I take a closer look?’ The shop owner looked expectantly at Rae, and while her enthusiasm was touching, Rae still hesitated. ‘I’ll be super careful, I promise.’

‘Of course,’ Rae said, feeling as always, a small twinge of guilt as she lifted the necklace from around her neck. She handed it over to the shop owner whose palm was eagerly waiting.

The shop owner then pulled out a small magnifying glass from her pocket and held it close to the pendant. ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ she said.

‘No,’ Rae said. ‘I arrived yesterday.’

‘Just passing through, or do you have family here?’

‘Neither.’ Rae said. ‘I’m staying at a place in the woods. You probably know it as The Briar?’

‘Yes, I know it, but I wasn’t aware it had been sold.’

‘It hasn’t,’ Rae said. ‘I inherited it from my mother.’ Not technically true, but easier than trying to explain that Grace had bought it for Rae and kept it a secret for twenty years.

The shop owner handed back the necklace and returned the magnifying glass to her pocket. ‘Carnelian,’ she said. ‘Quite common but very beautiful if you like that sort of thing. You have a magnificent piece. Uncut. Pure. If you’re looking to sell I’d be happy to take if off your hands.’ Rae pulled the leather strap over her head and tucked the pendant back beneath her t-shirt. She must have shown it to at least thirty other vendors, and none had had a clue what it was. ‘Do you mind me asking where you got it?’

‘It’s a family heirloom,’ Rae said, zipping up her jacket. ‘That’s all I know.’

‘Well, if you do decide to sell it, you know where I am. Is there anything else I can help you with?’

Rae was about to say no, then spotted a small silver ring in the bottom left corner of the cabinet. It was old and tarnished and probably only big enough to fit the little finger, but the belt buckle design struck Rae as unusual and she thought it would make a perfect gift. ‘Actually,’ she said, ‘I’ll take that.’

It was an uphill climb all the way back to the cottage and Rae was already regretting stopping by the small supermarket on her way home. She was halfway up the hill, laden with more shopping than she could comfortably carry, when the heavens opened and this time, they brought long their big brother, Billy Wind. Rain lashed against Rae’s face as she struggled to keep the thin hood of her jacket up whilst juggling three heavy bags, and after some choice words that would make a hard core sex worker blush, she finally gave up and instead concentrated her efforts on getting home as quickly as possible.

Home.

The word felt hollow on her tongue. Would anywhere ever be home again?

Ducking her head against the wind, she trudged on until she reached the lamp post that signalled the turn off for Foxglove Lane. The sign was barely visible even in daylight but brought with it a brief respite from the rain. Foxglove Lane, so named for the purple flowers that edged the road in the summer, was also lined with silver birch. Their boughs swayed dangerously in the wind but kept the worst of the rain at bay whilst Rae picked her way along the gravel path, dodging the larger puddles only to step into smaller ones mistaking them for shallow. She gritted her teeth as water sluiced into her boots, and shifted balance as the shopping bags dug painfully into her hands, but her mood lifted a little when she saw that her car was parked outside the cottage. It was to be short lived however, as the moment she drew closer she realised the lights were on in her living room, and smoke was pouring from her chimney.

Rae’s first thought was that it was Alex. Alex still had a spare key from looking after the cottage for Grace – she had mentioned it at breakfast and had promised to drop it in on her way home from work – and while it was a little weird that she would let herself in, not to mention highly irritating, at least she was someone Rae knew. But there was another car parked on her driveway, a white pick-up truck that Rae didn’t recognise. She stopped dead in the middle of the driveway. What if it was Darryl? What if Ronnie had caved and told him where she was staying. It wasn’t his usual car, but he could’ve hired a rental. She stood there, rain dripping down her face, stomach tied in knots at the prospect of having to face him before she was ready. She forced herself to think rationally. If it really was Darryl making himself at home, then how did he get in?

She crept up to the picket fence, swung a leg over, and peered through the misted glass. She could just make out the figure of a man crouched by the fire, poking at burning logs. His back was broad, arms thick and strong unlike the slim figure that Darryl usually cut, and he wore his hair short and messy, not slicked back without a strand out of place. He closed the door of the wood burner and stood up, dusted his hands on the back of his jeans and turned towards the window. Rae gasped, kicked over a potted plant as she swung her other leg over the fence, and swore under her breath as she stormed towards the porch and barged through the door.

‘What the hell are you doing in my house?’ she said, dumping the shopping bags on the kitchen table.

Bart gave a friendly woof and ran to greet her, but Rae ruthlessly pushed his nose away and glared at his owner, who didn’t seem half as surprised to see Rae, as she was to see him.

‘I brought your car back,’ he said. ‘Alex asked me to fix it.’ He was smiling, clearly still amused by his uncanny knack for getting right on Rae’s tits.

‘That still doesn’t explain why you’re in my house,’ Rae said, ‘did Alex ask you to break in too?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘but she did ask if I could drop off your spare key, and also mentioned you were having trouble with the fire, so I thought—’

‘What?’ Rae said. ‘Thought you’d just let yourself in? Make yourself at home while your dog drools all over my rug and … is that cake he’s eating?’ She stared incredulously at Bart munching down on a huge slice of Alex’s home-made banana cake.

‘It was on the cupboard,’ he said, ‘I didn’t think you’d mind. It’s a big cake!’ Rae glared. She knew it was a big cake, but it was her fucking cake. ‘Do you always glower like that when someone’s trying to help you?’ he said, ‘a simple thank you would do.’

Rae blinked, of all the …

‘Thank you for what, exactly?’ she said. ‘For having your dog maul me in the street? Or for breaking into my house and making yourself at home while I freeze my arse off in the rain? Or should I be thanking you for something else? Perhaps you’ve had a nap in my bed or taken a soak in my bath. There’s wine in the fridge, why don’t you help yourself to that too, I’m sure Bart would like a drink to wash his cake down with.’

John, if he even was John (he could be a mass murderer for all Rae knew) considered her for a moment, his cool eyes only stoking her already raging fire. ‘You do know you’re dripping water all over the floor, don’t you?’ he said.

She did, but she most definitely didn’t need him to point that out to her. She was also letting in a cold blast of air and slammed the door shut with her foot before he had something to say about that too.

John’s eyebrows shot up, but he said nothing as he grabbed a bunch of keys from the mantelpiece, walked over to Rae and held them out. ‘You’re welcome by the way,’ he said, dropping them into her hand. ‘Your car should be fine for a while, but you’ll need a new battery soon and your front tyres are nearly bald. Probably shouldn’t leave the key in the ignition either, never know who might be hanging around.’ He leaned forward, putting his face closer to Rae’s than could be considered comfortable, and for one heart-stopping ridiculous moment she thought he was going to kiss her. But then he grinned, reached up and grabbed his jacket off the coat rack that was directly behind her head, and called to Bart. The dog padded obediently to his master’s side as John shrugged on his jacket and opened the door. ‘See you around, Rae,’ he said, then winked as master and dog stepped out into the rain.

Rae looked down at the keys in her hand – a twin to her own front door key, a large brass key, and the key to her car. She opened her mouth to say something but didn’t know what, so closed it again and did the only thing she could think of and slammed the door after them.

Unable to concentrate on much of anything Rae spent the rest of the day stomping about the cottage, cleaning things that were spotless and muttering about men and their superior attitudes. This continued well into the evening, until finally, after lowering herself into a bath of hot bubbles, she admitted that the whole unpleasant situation had been brought about by her own tendency to overreact. It didn’t make her feel any better though, quite the opposite in fact. Instead of angry, now she felt like a fool and could only imagine what John must be thinking. She exhaled slowly and slid lower into the bubbles, hoping the hot water might sooth her injured pride. It didn’t, and after a few minutes of wallowing she climbed out, dried herself off and headed for bed, deciding that sleep was her only solace. Tomorrow she would seek John out and apologise for her terrible behaviour, but until then she wanted him out of her head, and she would gladly surrender herself to nightmares to do it.

Chapter 4

Moonlight spilled through the open curtains, washing the bedroom in a milky glow that didn’t quite reach the corners. Bramos stood in one such corner, watching as he had done the night before, and would do so for many more nights to come. Her face was turned toward him, dark hair spilled across the pillow, and features, now matured and more lovely than ever, so reminiscent of the woman he had once loved. Her lips curved up in a smile as he whispered her name, lips that he longed to kiss, and he smiled remembering her touch, the smell of her hair, the taste of her mouth. Was she dreaming of him? He hoped so.

He sat down, leaned against the wall and rested one arm on his raised knee as he watched the rise and fall of her chest. The swell of her breasts was just visible beneath the thin cover of the bed sheet and the temptation to take her was almost more than he could bear. But it was too soon. Too soon. Time was a fickle thing, everything to some, yet meaningless to others. It moved fast or it moved slow, came to a stop, or seemed not to exist at all. But for him it was nothing more than a test of his patience and restraint. He neither trusted time nor feared it. Instead, he respected and embraced it, and in return it had given him more power than he had ever dreamed possible.

But not the power to heal. It would take more than time for that.

So, for now, all he could do was watch.

He watched for a long time, until the sun crested the horizon, and the crows greeted the new day. He rose from the floor then to look out above the tree tops where Carrion Hall stood proud atop the hill, dark and brooding as it ever was, and he marvelled at how the place had withstood the test of time.

If only flesh were as durable.

She stirred then, and he turned to see her rise from the bed, dark hair loose about her shoulders. Ah, but what a sight to behold she was, more lovely in this world than she had been in the other, and as she moved to join him by the window he stepped aside, not yet trusting himself, even in shadow. He watched as the dawning light changed the colour of her eyes from the softest chestnut brown to the colour of autumn leaves, and as she turned her face towards him he withdrew into the shadows and dissipated into the night.

Chapter 5

‘Hey sis, where do you need me? I’m all yours for the morning.’

Emma looked up from the menu in front of her and sighed. ‘Really Chris? Now you want to help?’ She gave the menu back to Georgina with a brief nod. The culmination of a month’s work was finally coming together, and today’s opening was going to be perfect, no thanks to Christopher.

‘Use me or lose me,’ he said, flashing a grin at Georgina as he stole a pastry from a wicker basket on the table.

‘I suppose you could pick up my dry cleaning,’ Emma said, checking the drinks order for the umpteenth time that day. ‘Or perhaps assist Luke with the waiters. I hired local boys thinking it would be a good idea, but I’m beginning to re-think that decision with each passing minute. They’ve got about as much decorum as a band of thieves.’

Chris grabbed another pastry and shoved half into his mouth. ‘Not really my thing,’ he said. ‘What else do you have?’

Emma slapped his hand when he reached for his third pastry. ‘Why don’t you help Henry with the gazebo then?’ she said. ‘I’m sure he’d appreciate another pair of hands.’

‘He’s already got Carlos helping him. You should see the two of them, it’s like the blind leading the blind.’

‘Then all the more reason to help them, wouldn’t you say?’

‘I think my talents would be better served elsewhere.’

‘Then what do you want to do?’ Emma said, losing patience.

‘I could help with the food,’ he said, sneaking another pastry before Emma could stop him. ‘You wouldn’t mind would you Georgie?’ He winked at Georgina sending her face a deep shade of pink.

‘The girls have that perfectly under control, thank you,’ Emma said, ushering Georgina through the door with the basket of pastries in hand. ‘And I’m not sure we’d have any food left if you were in charge. We could do with a few more silver platters though. I think I saw some in the attic. Maybe you could get those for me.’

‘And ruin my best suit? Em. Come on. You know me better than that.’

‘Then get out of my way while I do it. Honestly, I don’t know why you even bothered to show up.’ She pushed past Chris and opened the door into the main hallway.

‘Don’t be like that, sis,’ Chris called after her. ‘I’ll check on the drinks then, shall I? You’re doing a great job, Em.’

Ignoring him, Emma hurried across the hallway and through to the drawing room. She loved her baby brother dearly, but some days it was all she could do not to brain him.

Edward Frobisher was waiting in the drawing room and greeted Emma with a huge grin as he took a step back from the fireplace to admire his work. ‘Not a bad job eh, Miss Ashley.’

He was a small man, with a large ego and a pinched face that reminded Emma of a weasel. She disliked him very much, but he had come highly recommended. She smiled tightly and joined him at the fireplace, careful to keep a respectable distance lest he feel the need to rest his hand on the small of her back as he had done on numerous other occasions. ‘Must I remind you once again, Mr Frobisher, that I am a Stanford-Ashley, Stanford for my mother, Ashley for my father.’

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘My apologies, though perhaps you would permit me to call you Emma. Such formalities seem absurd in this day and age, don’t you think?’

Emma bristled at the sound of his voice using her first name. ‘On the contrary, Mr Frobisher,’ she said. ‘I consider a lack of formality to be a lack of respect for one’s peers, a mistake that has played its part in the downturn of the youth of today, wouldn’t you agree?’ She felt him stiffen beside her and wondered what Chris would think of her pompous attitude. Call her out for being a stuck-up bitch no doubt, but Edward Frobisher was too cowardice for that.

‘As you wish,’ he conceded, bowing his head in acquiescence. ‘The painting then. I trust you are happy with my work?’

Emma looked up into the face of her father, a man she recognised only from the few photo’s her mother had kept and felt the same twinge of sadness that she always did. He was a good looking man, not handsome in the way that George Clooney or Clark Gable were – his features were too sharp, nose just a little too large, the chin just a little too wide – though good looking in his own right, with a kind face and a warm smile. But the real charm came from his eyes. They were the colour of glacial lakes on a clear day, a blue so soft as to be almost turquoise, with flecks of amber when the light caught them just right. They were open, friendly and trusting and though it pained Emma to see, so very much like her own. The artist had captured them perfectly and Emma could only surmise that he, or she, had known her father very well. ‘I have to hand it to you, Mr Frobisher, you’ve done an amazing job.’

Edward Frobisher nodded in agreement beside her and folded his arms. ‘I’ll not lie, it was a tough one, but I’m not known to shy from a challenge. Have you had any luck discovering who the artist was?’

‘None at all,’ Emma said. ‘I’ve all but given up. I’m afraid our mystery painter is to remain just that.’

‘Such a shame, I would’ve liked to know. The workmanship is quite exceptional.’

‘Yes,’ Emma said, ‘I see that.’ She stepped closer to get a better look at where the painting had been repaired and knew by the shuffle of feet beside her that Edward Frobisher had joined her. She could feel his sour breath on her neck where he peered over her shoulder, and she gave an involuntary shudder. ‘Amazing,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would never believe there had been any damage at all. I have to hand it to you, Mr Frobisher, your work is nothing short of genius.’ His face was uncomfortably close to Emma’s and she flinched as he leaned in closer and cleared his throat.

‘Perhaps, to the untrained eye, but if you look closer you can see there are tell-tale signs.’ He retrieved his glasses from the top pocket of his jacket, unfolded them and carefully balanced them on the end of his nose. ‘See here,’ he said, and pointed to where her father’s hand rested against the fireplace – the same fireplace they were now stood in front of. ‘There’s a slight discolouration just there, on the ring finger where a small part of the canvas had been torn away completely, and there, just above the neckline, whoever attempted to destroy this painting had all but severed your father’s head. There was some damage due to mold, but nothing we couldn’t handle at Frobisher & Rotherham. All in all, I think you’ll agree that the result is excellent.’

Emma smiled politely. ‘Absolutely incredible,’ she said, stepping back and almost bumping into him. ‘It really is amazing.’ They’d thought the painting irreparable upon its discovery in the attic, slashed in several places and suffering from exposure to a damp, abandoned attic, but Emma was stubborn if nothing else, and had refused to accept defeat. ‘I trust your invoice will be in the mail?’

Edward Frobisher’s thin lips smiled wetly at Emma as he reached into his jacket. ‘I have it with me,’ he said, handing over a long white envelope.

‘Of course you do,’ she said, recoiling when his fingers lightly brushed hers as she took the envelope from him. ‘I’ll arrange for it to be paid immediately. I’ll show you to the door, shall I?’

‘I see you’re having a party,’ he said. ‘Is it a special occasion?’

Emma bit the inside of her mouth and forced a smile. ‘I suppose you could say it is, yes. The renovations on the Hall are finally complete, today is a way of saying thank you to the locals for putting up with us for the last two years. Many of them put a lot of work into restoring the Hall to its former glory, so I think a few drinks on the lawn is the least we could do.’

‘Oh, it looks like much more than that,’ he said, with a glint in his eye. ‘Was that a bandstand I saw earlier?’

Emma accepted defeat with a sigh. ‘Would you care to stay, Mr Frobisher?’

‘How wonderful of you to ask, Miss Stanford-Ashley. I would be delighted.’  

‘Excellent,’ she said. ‘I’ll have Georgina show you to the terrace. It will be a while before the other guests arrive but I’m sure she can fix you a bite to eat.’

She left Edward Frobisher in the hands of Georgina, a young woman with a short fuse who was not known to suffer fools, while Emma, feeling like she suddenly needed a very hot shower, left them to it.

She made her way across the newly fitted wooden floors, back through the drawing room and into the west wing where the narrow staircase that would take her to the first floor was housed. The tang of freshly painted walls still clung to the air, but this part of the house would be closed to guests once the party started. It was here that Carrion Hall had suffered most of the damage. It was also where Emma’s Aunt Evelyn had locked herself in the attic after killing her husband and setting fire to the Hall. Emma had no great fondness for this part of the house and found the atmosphere to be particularly disagreeable, but it was the only way to reach the attic and the only place where she could watch John without being seen.

The attic stairwell was set back on the first floor landing, hidden in an alcove at the far end of the house. There were two doors, one that opened up the stairs and the other that opened into the attic itself. Both were locked at all times and Emma was the only one to carry a key.

The familiar staleness hit Emma as she stepped into the dark attic and she was reminded as always that this was far more than just an attic. During the fire it had become her aunt’s tomb, sealing her in while the rest of the house perished, and miraculously protecting her from the worst of the fire. But however it came to be that the attic was mostly untouched by flame, the same could not be said for smoke. Evelyn had died from smoke inhalation, a seemingly merciful death considering her crimes, and her face had looked remarkably peaceful, as though she had died in her sleep – quite fortunate given what came afterwards. There had been many rumours surrounding Evelyn’s death and more still regarding Carrion Hall, all of which Emma chose to dismiss. To give credence to any one of them would be to fan the flames of superstition that blanketed Carrion hall, and she was not one to indulge in such lunacy.

However, the great fire of Carrion Hall had been twenty-five years ago, and although the stench of death no longer permeated the air, the musty smell of abandonment could not be stifled. Emma locked the door behind her – a habit she had become accustomed to – and began the ritual of walking the expanse of the attic, flinging open the too few windows and letting in some much-needed fresh air. The flames of the great fire may not have penetrated the stone walls of the attic, but the fireman’s hose knew no such boundary. Water damage had been the biggest problem when she had taken over the restoration of Carrion Hall and although the rest of the house was all but shiny new, she had insisted that the attic remain untouched.

The sound of raised voices caught her attention as she opened the last of the windows. She recognised them both as belonging to Henry and Carlos. Henry was the assistant gardener and Carlos, his younger brother. Emma had taken pains to use local tradesmen wherever possible on the restoration of Carrion Hall, and the same could be said of the hired help today. However, judging from past experience she should have known better than to put Henry working alongside his brother. They were both grown men, and each had their own particular talents, but when put together they became nothing more than squabbling children. She sighed, once more exasperated by her brother’s lack of interest in anything that didn’t have large breasts and a firm arse. Carrion Hall may well have been left solely to Emma, but she had never considered it as anything but a family venture. Even Alex had been included wherever possible, and she was far from Emma’s favourite cousin. If only Chris would do his part, she would happily have signed over half of the estate to him long ago. But as it was, he was irresponsible and unpredictable, choosing to spend most of his time doing God only knew what with the red-haired vixen from the village. Emma may have her differences with Alex, but even she had to admit that their cousin was far better suited to running Carrion Hall than Chris would ever be.  

Another voice caught Emma’s attention and her pulse quickened at the sound of it. The attic windows, though useful for letting in air, were too high up to be any good for looking out of, unless of course you happened to have a handy box nearby to stand on. But where the attic and the west wing both gave Emma the creeps, the tower gave her only a sense of calm and wellbeing. She headed up the small flight of stairs that would take her into the brightly lit space where she had found herself wiling away many an afternoon when John was working in the gardens. The room was small and round and reminded Emma of a lighthouse with its 360-degree view. It was an odd addition to the attic but one that had its uses if solitude was what you wanted. From here you could see the entire estate, including the woods, and on a good day, most of the village. It was her favourite place to be when a time-out from the chaos of renovating an old abandoned Hall was needed, and if it meant traversing the west wing and the attic for her place of serenity, then she was happy to do it.

In the centre of the room there was a wicker chair with a plush cushion, and a small table with an LED lantern on top. She had carried the chair and the table herself from the terrace, not wanting to share her secret place with anyone. The lamp she had purchased on a whim the last time she visited Harleybrock. It had been used only a handful of times but of late she had found herself in need of a midnight visit more and more often. She put it down to the stress of organising the party – she had insisted on overseeing every minute detail herself – and the unexpected feeling of emptiness at having finally finished the renovations to the Hall. Rebuilding Carrion Hall had taken the best part of two years, two years that had not only given her a sense of purpose but had also brought her the only man she had ever deemed worthy of her heart.

She ignored the comfort of the wicker chair in favour of leaning on the stone sill to look out of the window. Only one of the windows opened here, and it was this one that Emma now peered out of to watch the proceedings below. John – strong, agile and deliciously handsome – had joined the fracas and was, with some measure of success, diffusing the situation between Henry and Carlos by assisting them with the gazebo, the same way her brother could have done had he but half of John’s zeal.

She watched as he directed the brothers with the grace and authority of someone with far more responsibility than tending the gardens, though that in itself was no small task. Since John had taken over as chief gardener, the Carrion estate had blossomed into something that had become quite the talking point, reaching far beyond the boundaries of Cranston Myre. So far so, that a representative of Gardens of Interest, a highly reputable magazine, had asked if they could send one of their reporters to take pictures during today’s party. John being John, had of course refused an interview, preferring his own company to that of “nosey bloody reporters” but Henry had had no such qualms and was more than happy to oblige. Emma sighed as she watched his tanned arms erect the gazebo with ease, arms that had, until twelve months ago, wrapped themselves around her when the two of them had been lovers. If only John felt as she still did, she would willingly give up the Hall just to be with him, indeed she would give up everything if it meant they could be together once more. But he had made himself very clear more than once. He and Emma were over, their brief affair and been nothing more than just that. But what they’d had was so much more than just a fling, the passion they had shared was so much more than just sex, and she wasn’t going to let that go without a fight.

Promoting John to chief gardener, despite her brother’s arguments to the contrary, had been a smart move on her part. As chief gardener he was entitled to one of the two cottages that had been converted from the old stables and bordered the courtyard on the west side of the Hall. The new stables, something that Chris had insisted on, were now situated closer to the grazing fields on the far side of the formal gardens, with its own private access road. It was Chris’s plan to include horse treks into Dolen Forest once the hotel side of Carrion Hall was up and running, his only offering to the running of the Hall so far. But that was some time off yet, and Chris’s commitment to the project still debatable. Given John’s close living quarters and dedication to his job, it meant that Emma got to see him for at least some part of every day. He was still an integral part of her life whether he knew it or not, and Emma had decided long ago that one way or another she would prove to him that she was an important part of his too.

The gazebo was finally finished, thanks mainly to John, and as if sensing her presence, he turned, looked toward the tower and waved. Emma resisted the urge to jump down and hide, so startled was she that he knew she was there. Had he known she was there on all the other occasions? She waved back and smiled. Henry and Carlos waved too before all three made their way back to the terrace where Georgina was sure to be waiting with her famous pink lemonade.

Reluctantly, Emma dragged herself away from the window and headed back down the stairs into the attic. The platters were leaning against the south wall where she had left them the last time she was up here with Alex. Indeed, the last time anyone had been up here other than herself. Chris may be disinterested in anything to do with the Hall, but Alex most certainly was not. When Emma had offered her the job of assisting with the renovations, Alex had all but bit her hand off. Her passion had been admirable in the beginning, she even managed to stir up a little bit of enthusiasm in Chris, though that had been short lived, and her desire to know every part of the house right down to the foundations had been commendable. She even preferred to work in the west wing feeling that her talents would be put to best use in the worst of the damage. But twelve months into the project, when the portrait of her father had been discovered, Emma had decided to re-delegate Alex elsewhere. Alex had not been happy, but the offer of a selection of rooms to do with as she pleased did the trick. Alex was placated and Emma was left in sole charge of the attic.

Emma had never fully understood why she had felt the need to divert Alex to the other end of the house, other than the fact that she had experienced an overwhelming desire to have the attic all to herself, as though to have anyone else up there was a desecration of the space itself. A feeling that had been enforced further when she discovered Evie’s diaries. The diaries were now piled on the tower floor, waiting for Emma to continue with her reading, a task she had set herself hoping to discover what had put her shy and placid aunt onto the road of self-destruction. But the diaries were long, in no particular order, and half the entries undated, so the truth of that fateful night had so far eluded her.

She crossed the open space to the cluttered south wall and counted the platters. Five in total, none of them matching and all filthy, but with a good bit of spit and polish they’d look just the part in the hands of the hired waiters. She picked them up and shuddered as a familiar coldness slipped down the back of her dress. Resisting the urge to look towards the hole in the wall she turned, and with a quickened step exited the attic leaving the dust to swirl and gather where she had just been standing.


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