Attention readers! I have the pleasure of bringing you an exclusive sneak peek at the first two chapters of Amelia Thorne's debut novel! Make sure you check back tomorrow to have a look at chapter 3!!
Joy crouched down behind the bush, her heart hammering against her chest. Someone had called the police and now, after two years, she was finally going to get caught.
Her car was hidden in the dark trees behind her and she glanced towards it, trying to decide whether to make a run for it. It was quite far, maybe a hundred metres or more. She peered through the leaves at her would-be captor. He was a lot older than she was and held a bit of weight on his stomach. She was certain she could outrun him. But running would draw his attention, as would the noise of the engine.
She couldn’t get caught, her life would be over.
The policeman walked slowly towards where she was and she tried to make herself as small as possible. He was only a few metres away now. If she was going to run, now was the time to do it.
Suddenly another policeman came round the edge of the house with a dog; a great, snarling Alsatian.
‘Come on Phil, there’s nothing there,’ the dog handler called. ‘There’s no sign of a break in, no damage, it was probably just kids messing about. They’ll be long gone by now. Or shall I release Tiger; he’s dying for a run around?’
Tiger? Joy swallowed as she felt cold sweat prickle her neck.
‘Keep that savage beast on the lead, you know we don’t see eye to eye,’ Phil called back, rubbing his bum as he obviously remembered his last run in with the evil hound.
Tiger and his owner disappeared back round the house and with a last look in her direction Phil turned away too.
Just then her stomach gurgled loudly and Phil whipped back to face her, grabbing his baton like it was a loaded gun.
‘Colin!’ called Phil.
Her heart in her mouth, she leapt up and ran.
‘Oi! Police!’ yelled Phil. ‘Stay where you are.’
Joy leapt over a log and tore through the trees. Behind her she heard Tiger bark and she pushed herself faster. The branches caught her clothes and hair, like fingers dragging her back.
Black metal gleamed in the moonlight and she ran for it. She threw her rucksack into the passenger seat as torchlight danced through the trees towards her.
She quickly started the car, threw it into reverse and seconds later she hit the road. Thanking her brother for teaching her the darker side of how to drive, she slammed her foot on the brake and spun the wheel, executing a perfect J-turn manoeuvre, before tearing off up the road.
The road stayed empty behind her.
She took the first turn off and her wheels screeched as she took several other corners in quick succession. She turned the engine off as she parked outside a quiet, unassuming row of cottages and threw herself across the passenger seat.
A minute later she heard the sound of the police car tearing along the main road. The siren faded into the distance and she knew she was safe.
With a shaky hand, she pushed her hair from her face and waited for her heart to stop pounding. That was close, too close.
‘Please let me lick it,’ Joy said.
‘Uh uh, no way, not in my car,’ Alex said. ‘I’m driving as fast as I can. Bloody stupid country lanes, could you have picked anywhere more remote than this to live?’
She smiled as they passed the village sign: “Bramble Hill; Voted Britain’s Friendliest Village for the Last Nine Years.”
‘I love that it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s so cute and quiet. Fifty-six people live in this village Al, can you imagine. Pretty soon I’ll know them all by name. There’ll be Mrs Twinkly Eyes who will invite me in for a slice of homemade lemon drizzle cake whilst she regales me with stories from her youth. Mr Silver Hair who will come round to offer advice on my garden, and lovely mummies who will invite me round for coffee and we’ll chat in the garden whilst the angelic little cherubs play quietly nearby. And there’s a local pub, a proper local. Do you know how long I’ve wanted a proper local? Somewhere the landlord knows your name, knows your usual tipple and has it waiting for you on the bar as soon as you walk in. There’ll be cake sales and village fairs and people will give me eggs and fresh vegetables in return for my delicious apple pies. I can’t wait.’
She surreptitiously licked a tiny droplet of chocolate ice cream off her hand and looked up at Alex who was smiling at her.
‘What’s it like in your head Joy, is everything slightly rose-tinted? Your glass is permanently overflowing isn’t it? When it rains you smile because it’s good for the garden. Joy by name, Joy by nature.’
She smiled at the turn of phrase he had used for years as he pulled up outside the house.
He leaned over her looking out on the tiny whitewashed cottage. ‘Are you sure about this place? It’s quite close to Blueberry Farm.’
She frowned slightly. ‘I know. That wasn’t my intention. When I agreed to move here, I had no idea it was so close. Maybe it’s fate though; maybe it’s time I came home.’
His face darkened at this. It was the same disagreement they’d had for the last few years. He put his fingers to his heart. ‘Home is in here, you know that, it’s not a much-revered bunch of bricks. And you shouldn’t allow fate, tradition or sentiment to dictate where you live. You just need to open your heart to new possibilities.’ He brushed a stray hair from her face. ‘This is a fresh start for you; I hope you get everything you want from this.’
‘I’ve had a lot of fresh starts and none of them worked. But I have a good feeling about this place.’ She ignored the protest that Alex was quickly forming and pressed on. ‘It’s not just its proximity to Blueberry Farm. There’s something about here that feels like coming home.’ She negotiated the door handle with her little finger and carefully clambered out, holding the two ice creams precariously in her hands. ‘You’ll see. Moving here will be the best thing that has ever happened to me.’
She ignored the look from Alex. Admittedly, she’d said that for the previous eight places she had lived in over the last few years, but this time she hoped it would be different. She turned back towards the house and walked straight into someone.
‘Oh sorry.’ Joy leapt back and to her horror realised that the man now had two large round chocolate stains on his gleaming, white shirt – almost as if two fake breasts had been painted on. An expensive shirt too, she recognised the little logo on the breast pocket.
‘Oh god, I’m so sorry, I…’
He glared down at her and then down at his shirt in shock. She balanced the ice creams in one hand and fished a tissue from her pocket. But as she started to wipe away the ice cream, all she succeeded in doing was mushing the chocolate stain into a larger area across his shirt. He stood watching her as she desperately tried to get some off but made the stain bigger every time she touched him. Now tissue bits were sticking themselves to the shirt too. She abandoned the tissue, which was now hanging off him, and used her hand instead. As she felt his heart thud against her fingers, he suddenly caught her hand and moved it off him.
Joy’s mouth went dry. The man was huge, the largest man she had ever seen in her life. He was almost like a bear in terms of size and build, the hand that had pushed her own hand away was like a giant paw. His hair was a shaggy, dirty blond mess that fell across his eyes. Slate grey eyes, like thunder clouds.
In stark contrast to the angry bear before her, a shaggy grey mongrel stood at his side, wagging his tail, his tongue falling out of his mouth in what looked like an amused grin.
Emboldened by the dog’s smile, she tried one of her own. ‘I really am very sorry. I’ll pay to have your shirt cleaned of course and…’
Suddenly Alex was by her side, obviously sensing there was trouble brewing.
‘Hey, there’s no harm done here – we’ll pay to have your shirt cleaned or for a new shirt, and as it was obviously an accident it would be a shame to start off on the wrong foot. This is Joy, your new neighbour, and I’m Alex, her brother.’
Joy watched as the big man tore his glare away from her and his eyes slid to Alex.
‘Brother?’ he asked, deliberately ignoring Alex’s outstretched hand.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ he muttered as he stormed away.
‘Well you certainly know how to make a good first impression,’ Alex said.
‘I’m sure I can win him round.’
‘I’m sure you can. You’re my favourite person in the world and if he can’t see how fantastic you are, then he’s blind.’
Joy passed Alex his rather squished ice cream and followed him into the house. She glanced back at the large man disappearing down the road and tried to ignore the butterflies that were fluttering with unease around her stomach.
The sun was setting over Bramble Hill as Joy drove down towards the tiny village with the last load of her stuff. She had picked it up from Alex’s house, nearly an hour’s drive from her new home, and waved away offers for him to spend the first night with her.
Next to the village sign she’d just passed was another that she hadn’t noticed before. It was weather beaten, decorated in tiny delicate flowers and said; “Bramble Hill, Home of Finn Mackenzie.” She wondered who that might be; the village founder perhaps, or some old scout leader who had taken boys camping and taught them how to make fires since before she was born. She was sure she would find out over the next few days.
The village looked beautiful basked in the rosy glow of the sun as she drove down the hill towards the cluster of whitewashed cottages. It was peaceful and quiet. There was a tiny duck pond, glinting pink and gold as the little white ducks bobbed on the water, an old beamed pub, called charmingly The Peacock’s Pride, a tiny shop, and that was it. Life here would be as idyllic and quiet as the village itself.
She drew up outside her house and sighed. Home, sweet home.
Opening her boot, she hefted her large chainsaw over her shoulder, picked up a smaller one and grabbed a bag of some of her other power tools.
‘Hey, would you like some help?’ came a voice from behind her.
She turned to see a man hurrying towards her. It was the smile she saw first – an honest, genuine smile that spread to his denim blue eyes. He was quite broad in the shoulder, and wearing very tight jeans. His dark hair was floppy over his eyes, in a sexy, unruly, unkempt kind of way.
Although she had carried the large chainsaw many times over the years and she was used to the weight, she wasn’t about to turn down an offer of help from someone, it might appear rude. Besides, he was the first person who had actually spoken to her since she had arrived.
‘Sure, that would be great.’ She carefully passed the chainsaw into his waiting hands.
‘This isn’t the twelve tonnes of makeup and hair products I was expecting,’ he said, following her into the house.
She smiled at the dig. ‘I’ve already unpacked that.’
‘Now if my detective skills haven’t let me down, you must be Jo Carter.’
‘I’m afraid they have. Joy Cartier, my landlord is Joe Carter.’
He was clearly thrown by this.
‘I know, weird isn’t it? Similar sounding names, but no relation.’
‘This could be a problem,’ he mumbled, clearly more to himself than to her. She looked at him waiting for clarification but his lovely smile quickly returned and he changed the subject. ‘I’m Casey Fallowfield, my brother Zach lives next door. This place looks great.’
They walked through the house and towards the shed. ‘Thanks, though I can’t take any of the credit. Joe did all the decorating. I’m just renting from him. Just put that on the shelf up there.’
The shed was very small and Casey leaned up over her to put the chainsaw on the shelf, revealing a flash of brown, toned belly. She swallowed. He was standing so close and his fresh citrus smell made something clench in her stomach.
He flashed her a grin as he let go of the chainsaw and she blushed. He knew she had just been staring at his stomach.
‘So the chainsaws, what are they for?’
‘Cutting wood,’ she said.
‘This is a very expensive chainsaw though, and are those your initials engraved onto the side?’
She brushed past him as she headed out the shed.
‘You’re not… The Dark Shadow are you?’ He grinned, clearly not believing she was.
She laughed. ‘Isn’t he supposed to be some eight foot tall alien, or a time traveller, or a demon from the underworld?’ Some of the conspiracy theories surrounding The Dark Shadow were ridiculous.
‘I heard it was animals, trying to send us a message. Or fairies, definitely fairies.’
‘I heard…’ she looked around to make sure no one was listening, ‘that it was a Scotsman.’
Casey gasped theatrically. ‘Nooooo.’
‘A nine foot Scotsman with a twelve foot long red beard, eyes of coal, arms of steel, teeth made from razor blades.’
‘Those Scotsmen are savage.’
‘Well I’m sure the Scottish are perfectly wonderful people, it’s just this one that’s savage. Some say he’s actually a vampire and he’s hundreds of years old. Can I offer you a beer?’
‘Sure, then you can tell me about the chainsaws.’
She smiled at him over her shoulder. ‘You’re nosy aren’t you?’
‘People interest me – you interest me, Joy. Where have you come from? Why did you come here? Was it to run away from something or towards something? What do you do for a job? Though it must be something good to afford the rent in this place… and what’s with the hulking great autographed chainsaw in your shed?’
‘Wow those are a lot of questions.’ She passed him a beer and came back to stand on the decking, watching the sun sink behind the hills. ‘Maybe one day I’ll tell you the answers.’
‘Ah a woman of mystery. I suddenly like you a whole heap more.’
She chinked her beer against his. ‘To friendship then, and to sucking out all the gory details of each other’s personal lives.’
‘I like it, that’s what true friendship is all about; being beholden to each other over our deepest darkest secrets.’
She smiled. ‘So what are yours?’
‘I’ll need more than just a sip of beer inside me to tell you that.’
She turned back to the view.
Just then the large man, who she had literally bumped into earlier, walked out into his garden. Her heart leapt. He wasn’t wearing a top and his whole body seemed to shout muscles. He was so tall, nearly two feet taller than her tiny five feet. He was filthy and sweaty and Joy had never been so turned on in her entire life.
She watched him pick up a large tree, as easily as if he was picking up a daffodil, and place it carefully into a large hole. He patted the soil gently around it, as if the tree was made from china. More soil was added until the tree was secure. He stood up and drank long and deep from a bottle of water. As he moved, the sunlight caught a piercing in his nipple. Joy tried to swallow but realised her throat was now parched. She took a long swig of beer and suddenly remembered Casey standing next to her.
She quickly turned to him, blushing furiously at the thought that he would have caught her gawping so avidly. To her surprise his attention was well and truly caught by the beautiful man next door as well. His eyes, as she imagined hers were right now, were dark with lust and desire.
Joy took another sip of beer, whilst she pondered this, watching the man next door pick up his tools and take them to his shed. As he turned back, he caught them watching, scowled first at her and then broke into a huge grin when he saw Casey and waved at him before going back into his own house.
Casey took a long sip of beer, which he had clearly forgotten about whilst he had enjoyed the show, and then looked at Joy in what he clearly hoped was a nonchalant way.
She arched an eyebrow at him and he sighed.
‘That… was Finn Mackenzie, my best friend and the man I’ve been secretly in love with for the last fifteen years.’
Joy smiled at him in sympathy. Unrequited love was the worst.
He chinked his beer against the side of hers, dryly. ‘Come inside and we can start on at least one of my dark and gruesome secrets.’
She followed him in, and sensing this unburdening was going to need a bit more than cheap beer, she grabbed a bottle of wine from the fridge and a huge slab of chocolate. She went through to the lounge where Casey was already sitting on the sofa with his head in his hands.
‘You saw it didn’t you, the way I looked at him,’ he said.
‘What, the same look of desire that I had on my face? Yes, I saw it.’
Casey looked up with a sheepish smile. ‘He is beautiful isn’t he?’
Joy shook her head with admiration and sat down next to him. ‘He’s magnificent. If we’re sharing secrets, I might as well share mine with you. When I saw that pierced nipple, I wanted nothing more than to run over and lick it.’
Casey laughed, loudly. ‘Oh, I know. I went with him when he got that done. It gave me a good excuse to touch it, you know, purely out of curiosity.’
She grinned. ‘Of course.’
Darcy, her great, beloved Newfoundland, hauled herself up from the cool tiled fireplace to finally greet the new visitor. Casey stroked her absently, but his smile faltered as he thought. ‘Do you think he saw how I was looking at him?’
‘I doubt it. Men are blind to these things. Besides, he waved at you. All I got was a scowl.’
‘Yeah I clocked that. It’s your hair, he has a thing about redheads, can’t stand them.’
Joy felt her mouth pop open. ‘That’s a bit… hairist.’
Casey smiled again. ‘To be fair, he’s anti all women at the moment.’
‘Oh… so he’s gay as well?’
Casey laughed even louder at this. ‘Oh god, I wish. That would be all my Christmases, birthdays, dreams and wishes come true in one fell swoop. No Finn is straight. He just hates women after his ex-wife cheated on him. He hasn’t been with anyone since. Though not from lack of offers from the entire female population of Bramble Hill and the other local villages. They were queuing up once Pippa left, but he hasn’t shown a flicker of interest. He has been sullen to the point of rude and still they fancy their chances.’
‘Maybe his marriage broke up because he was gay.’
‘You’re just saying that to cheer me up. No he’s definitely straight. But it’s not just women he has a problem with. He’s rude to everyone; well he has been for the last eighteen months. So don’t take it personally. He says very little, keeps himself to himself, never gets involved with village life. Never gets involved with anyone. You’ll be no different. Well except that you have red hair. He’ll hate you for that.’
‘Pippa was a redhead so now he has tarred all redheads with the same brush,’ Casey explained as he finished his beer and opened the wine.
‘And how do the villagers take to his rudeness?’
‘They love him.’ Casey obviously saw the look of confusion on her face. ‘You know who he is right?’
She shook her head.
‘Finn Mackenzie, the actor?’
She shrugged, still none the wiser.
‘He was in that vampire trilogy years ago – In The Darkness, The Taste of Blood and, my personal favourite, The Spoils of War. God, that bit when he bathes naked in the moonlit lake… I think I ruined my video by pausing it so often in the same place. I should have realised back then that I was gay, when all my friends were drooling over the beautiful Scarlet Rome and all I could see was Finn.’
He must have seen the blank look on her face.
‘You haven’t seen them, really? You must be the only living woman not to. What exactly were you doing twenty years ago?’
‘I was nine, so…’ She trailed off as she realised exactly what she was doing twenty years before.
‘You might have been a bit young to appreciate the first film, but the second and the third? How could it have passed you by?’
She shrugged. ‘I guess it did.’
‘He was fourteen when he filmed the first one and nineteen by the time the last one came out. Overnight he became this Hollywood sensation, the press followed him around everywhere. He hated it. I don’t think he had any idea what it would be like for him to be suddenly famous. After Spoils was finished he withdrew from public life. He had so many offers to do so many different projects, but he wasn’t interested at all. He hasn’t done anything for the last fifteen years.’
She smiled at Casey’s enthusiasm for Finn. ‘I guess it’s safe to say, you’re his biggest fan.’
‘I am yes, but we’ve been friends since we were both knee high to a grasshopper. It wasn’t the fame thing that attracted me. Hell, you’ve seen him – the man’s a god.’
‘I take it you haven’t told him how you feel?’
‘Good Lord, no, definitely not. No one knows I’m gay. You’re the first person I’ve told, and I wouldn’t have told you if you hadn’t caught me drooling. I’m normally better at disguising it than that. Well I hope I am.’
Joy frowned slightly. ‘You’ve been gay for fifteen years and never told anyone?’
‘No. Not really. I mean yes, my inappropriate crush on my best friend has lasted fifteen years but I guess I never really accepted I was gay until recently. A year, maybe two.’
‘But why haven’t you told your parents? Would they be awful about it?’
Casey poured two large glasses of wine, broke off a huge chunk of chocolate and shoved it in his mouth. It took him a few moments to answer whilst he chewed on it.
‘Honestly, I think they would have been ok with it. I come from a very loving family and all they’ve ever wanted was for me and Zach to be happy. But I think their friends would give them hell over it. They’re… Mum’s incredibly wealthy and there’s always social gatherings – balls, seven course dinners, big charity events that they used to attend with Lord and Lady Chalsworth, the Earl of Menton Hall, and Sir Ronald Chase-Matthews.’ He affected a posh voice as he reeled off his fellow socialites. ‘I’ve always shied away from it myself, which I think disappointed them slightly. Zach is more into the social networking, keeping up with the Joneses malarkey than I am. As the oldest son, they would have loved nothing more than if I attended these functions with some beautiful lady on my arm. If I were to turn up with a beautiful man on my arm instead… Well, I don’t think their friends would be as understanding.’
Joy broke off a chunk of chocolate and chewed on it, thoughtfully. ‘So you’re never going to tell them?’
‘I suppose, if I found someone I loved, truly loved and who loved me too, then perhaps I would be brave enough to say, “this is the man that I’m going to spend the rest of my life with”. But it’s hard to find that man when no one knows I’m actually gay.’
‘My brother’s gay,’ Joy said and then laughed at the look on his face. ‘No, don’t worry. I wasn’t trying to set you up with him. I hate that when people do that to me, “oh you’re single, he’s single, why don’t the two of you get together?” No, you’re not his type at all. Alex prefers big men, just as you do it seems. No I just meant maybe he could take you out to some gay bars, give you a chance to meet some men that are in the same boat.’
‘He’s… openly gay?’
‘And how did your parents take to that?’
‘They didn’t. They were both killed in a car accident when he was seventeen. I’m not sure if he had even figured it out by that point. He came out to me a few years later.’
‘Oh god Joy, I’m so sorry, that’s terrible. Your parents being killed obviously, not your brother being gay.’
She swallowed the lump in her throat that was always there when she spoke about her parents. ‘It’s fine. It’s been twenty years.’
‘You were nine?’
She nodded again.
‘That’s what you were doing twenty years ago. I was fawning over my best friend dressed in leather and you were mourning the loss of your parents. I’m sorry. Who raised you after they’d died?’
‘Al did. He was three weeks away from been eighteen. He lied about his age, told the authorities he was eighteen and as such was my legal guardian. By the time they checked, he was eighteen.’
‘He raised you on his own?’
She smiled. ‘I know, looking back, I just took it for granted that he was there. He had always been there, always would be there for me. I didn’t think until I was eighteen myself what he should have been doing – that going clubbing, getting drunk, going to parties should have been a way of life for him. He wanted to go to university, train to be in the film industry. He put it all on hold to look after me. He did a superb job too. He wasn’t just my brother, he was my dad, my mum and my friend. Can you imagine, when all his friends were graduating university, or coming back from travelling the world, he was sitting down with me explaining to me about periods. He was amazing.’
‘Sounds like someone I’d like to meet.’
‘You should, just so you have at least one gay friend to talk to about all this stuff. Maybe he can help you to come out to your family. Or at least help you find someone other than Finn to set your sights on.’
Just then there was a loud knock on the door.
Casey stretched back into the sofa. ‘Well I don’t think we’ve done too badly in the sharing of our deepest, darkest secrets for one night. Maybe we’ll stop there before I discover that the chainsaw is for hacking up bodies.’
‘Damn it, now I’m going to have to kill you too.’ She moved to answer the door and Darcy followed.
Joy opened it and the man standing on the doorstep was so obviously Casey’s brother, Zach. He had the same washed denim eyes, the same black floppy hair, but where Casey’s unkempt style had probably taken seconds to achieve, Zach’s unruly “I don’t care about my hair” look had probably taken hours of styling. He had the sexy designer stubble in comparison to Casey’s clean shaven face. But feeling horribly disloyal to her new friend, she had to admit that Zach had the edge when it came to sex appeal.
‘What have you done with my brother?’ asked Zach, his mouth twitching into a smirk. ‘I know he’s in there with you. I saw him carry that chainsaw into your house, and he hasn’t come out since. If you’ve chopped him up into tiny pieces you’ll have me to answer to.’
She fixed him with a dark look. ‘Why don’t you come down to the cellar and I’ll show you what I’ve done with him.’
‘Ha I’ve seen that film. I go down to the cellar with you and the next thing I’m manacled to a table as you cut out my innards. Not a chance. Unless it’s bondage you’re into, then I wouldn’t mind a bit of manacling.’
She laughed. ‘I’m Joy, you must be Zach?’
‘Ah he mentioned me did he, just before you brutally murdered him?’
Just then Casey appeared behind her. ‘Fret not little brother, she tried to kill me, but I fought her off. Are you ready to go down the pub?’
‘Yep, is the murderer coming with us?’
‘She sure is. We’ll introduce her to the friendly folk down The Pride.’
Joy couldn’t fail to miss the sarcastic way Casey had said friendly.
‘Hey, they’re ok… just not keen on newcomers,’ Zach said. ‘They’ll take a while to warm to you but I’m sure you’ll win them round.’ He moved closer to her, his eyes casting over her. She stroked Darcy, a useful prop to focus on as she found herself embarrassed by the sheer hunger in his eyes.
Casey moved to stand by her side, forcing Zach to move back a bit. ‘Go and grab my wallet would you, I left it on the coffee table.’
Zach nodded and with a last dark look in her direction, he scooted back to his house. Joy tried to calm her heart down before she turned back to Casey. What was wrong with her? Three times her pulse had quickened in the last half hour, each time with someone different. It had clearly been too long since she’d been with a man.
Casey closed the door behind Zach and turned to her.
‘I like you Joy, so let me give you one piece of advice. Don’t get involved with my brother. Women are like a game to him. He’ll lavish you with attention and charm but once he’s had you, he’ll move onto the next. If he had notches on his bedpost, he would’ve gone through several bedposts by now. I shudder to think how many women he’s actually slept with. Don’t be one of them. Now…’ he opened the door and offered her his arm, ‘… let me escort you down The Pride.’
Zach was already waiting with his dark looks of appreciation. Joy sighed inwardly; she really didn’t need to get involved with a serial womaniser. And with her definitely not being Casey’s type, and Finn hating the ground she walked on, it didn’t seem her dry patch would be ending any time soon.
If you enjoyed this chapter, check back here tomorrow to read chapter 3 or you can pre-order your copy here.
The Pride was a rustic, country pub, with low beamed ceilings and a great fireplace which Joy could imagine sitting by in the winter months, chatting with her new friends. Zach and Casey were funny and friendly and the fact that she wouldn’t be getting involved with either of them made things very easy and comfortable between them. She would just have to ignore the way her heart raced every time Zach brushed against her or looked at her.
The unfriendliness of the locals didn’t seem to be a problem either. Chloe, standing behind the bar and serving them, was as overenthusiastic as a puppy. She was sweet and had a huge smile that lit up her entire face.
‘So you’re friends with Zach?’ Chloe said, finally diverting her attention from the man himself, as he chatted with her.
‘She’s my friend actually,’ Casey said and Joy was thrown by the slight protective tone to his voice.
Zach obviously picked up on the tone as well and he slid an arm round Joy’s waist, clearly trying to piss his brother off or make him jealous. Little did he know. ‘He’s always been the same Joy, never wanted to share his toys.’ He turned back to Chloe. ‘Joy’s just moved in next door, so I’m just showing her the sights, making her feel welcome.’
Chloe let out a girly, high-pitched giggle, twisting her hair round her finger.
Joy looked around at the scattering of customers. Was it her imagination or did the pub suddenly go quieter when Zach announced that she had moved in next door? They were bound to be curious about any newcomers to their tiny village, but the room seemed colder all of a sudden. Although a nearby pair of older men were seemingly focused on a game of chess, and three old ladies – all supping pints of dark coloured bitter and wearing thick woolly cardigans, despite the heat of the night – were chatting quietly in a small booth. None of them seemed to be interested in her. She must have imagined it.
Sitting in the corner, reading a paper, was Finn Mackenzie. And there it was, the huge tidal wave of desire crashing over her again. She could see why Casey was head over heels in love with him. The permanent scowl did nothing to detract from his appearance.
She hadn’t made the best first impression on him. But even if she wasn’t his type, they should at least be civil to each other for the sake of neighbourly relations. She turned back to Chloe.
‘Can I get a pint of whatever Finn is drinking?’
Casey and Zach sucked in their breath.
‘Seriously, you really want to go there?’ Zach said.
‘This is not going to be pretty.’ Casey shook his head in warning.
‘Look, I’m not chatting the man up. I just think we started off on the wrong foot after I got ice cream all down him earlier. If we’re going to live next to each other, it makes sense that we can at least be on talking terms.’
Chloe put a pint of bitter on the bar. ‘Good luck.’
‘When he shoots you down, we’ll be over in the corner.’ Zach gestured to the part of the pub that was the furthest away from Finn.
A smile and a free pint went a long way with most men, so she picked up the bitter and walked over to him.
‘Finn, hi,’ she said, gaining his attention. His eyes cast over her for a second, before he returned his gaze to the paper again. She was undeterred – determined to get one civil word from him, she pressed on. ‘Look I know we started badly, but I’m sure we can at least be polite when we see each other. I’m Joy Cartier and…’
‘I don’t care,’ he said, without even looking up.
Annoyed, she stepped closer. ‘I’m not hitting on you and I know I’m not your type but…’
He looked up, appraising her with what appeared to be a look of disgust. ‘You’ve got that right; you are most definitely not my type. Now I suggest you run along back to your friends.’
He turned back to the paper again and Joy felt her jaw clenching at the dismissal. She slammed the bitter down on top of his newspaper, so it splashed over the glass, soaking the article he was reading. ‘You’re welcome.’
With that she turned and stormed back to the warmer side of the pub.
Finn watched her go. The girl could certainly flounce. The black dress she was wearing seemed to flounce as well; it shook dramatically around her bum and legs as she moved. Damn it. He didn’t like short women. He was so big that kissing someone small was always a problem. And redheads? No way, not again. He would just ignore the flash of heat that surged through him when she had walked over.
Joy Cartier though, not Jo Carter as everyone thought. Joy Cartier from Ascot. So she was rich. She probably had a pony called Princess and a butler called James. Even the way she said Cartier screamed of wealth, not Car-te-er but Car-te-yay. She drove a Range Rover too, big flashy thing that had probably never seen a fleck of mud in its life. He didn’t like snobs.
As she walked, the eyes of every single person in the pub followed her. They weren’t friendly either, some glared at her with mistrust, but most eyes were filled with pure venomous hatred.
He pushed away the sudden need to protect her. He forced his eyes away from her and back to his paper. The ale stain was spreading slowly across the article about The Dark Shadow that he had been avidly reading. He tried to pick out the words through the watery mess. He would not get involved.
Joy knew she had a big, stupid grin on her face. Apart from the cretin in the corner, life in the tiny village had started just as she had imagined it would. She already had two friends and was sitting in her local, putting the world to rights. Zach was very funny and, as Casey said, very charming and attentive. Finn was a git, but she wouldn’t let that spoil her mood.
Casey got up to get another round in, coincidentally at the same time that Finn went to the bar. As the appreciative gaze from Zach returned, Joy excused herself to go to the toilet.
It was as she was washing her hands that Chloe came into the toilet behind her. Joy turned round to speak to her, but she was thrown by the look on her face. Gone was the giddy over exuberance and huge smile – her eyes were dark, filled with hate.
Chloe grabbed Joy by the scruff of the neck and threw her against the wall. Pain seared through her as something stabbed into the back of her shoulder. Joy reacted instinctively, without thought. Her self-defence teacher had taught her well and in that moment when the mind was still processing the attack, her body seemingly reacted by itself. She kneed Chloe hard in the stomach and as she staggered back, Joy kicked her legs out from under her and slammed her into the floor, pinning her down with her foot to her chest.
She hadn’t meant to do that. But as Chloe struggled against her, she didn’t think it was safe to let her up any time soon.
‘What’s your problem?’ Joy said, concerned by the amount of blood that was pouring down her arm. She looked round to see some kind of nail or picture hook hanging out of the wall, which Chloe had inadvertently thrown her against.
‘Zach’s mine,’ Chloe growled.
‘Seriously!! You’ve just attacked me over Zach? Honey, I have absolutely no interest in Zach whatsoever. Casey has already warned me off him, says he’s with a different woman every week. I have no desire to be another notch on his bedpost. I’ve just moved next door to him, that’s all.’
‘He loves me. Those other women mean nothing to him. He’s just sowing his seed. When he’s finished, he’ll come back to me. You’ll see. He’s mine, so keep your filthy hands off him.’
Joy shook her head at the lack of comprehending on Chloe’s part. ‘And you’re welcome to him.’
‘And Casey is with one of my friends, so you can’t have him.’
‘He…? Erm… I’m not interested in Casey either.’ That was a turn up for the books.
‘The man’s an arse, I’m definitely not interested in him.’
All the fight seemed to go out of Chloe. ‘Zach does love me.’
Still not sure whether to let her up, Joy kept her foot on Chloe’s chest a moment longer. ‘I’m sure he does.’
The toilet door suddenly opened and another lady that worked behind the bar came in. Joy presumed she was the pub landlady. She was a large, short woman who would look right at home on a rugby field.
‘What the hell is going on here?’
Joy thought this might be an opportune moment to let Chloe off the floor. ‘Just a difference of opinion, right Chloe? I think we’ve sorted things out now.’
Chloe scrabbled up, clearly still winded by the knee to the stomach, and shot Joy a filthy look. ‘She attacked me Pam, said I was to stay away from Zach, she just threw me to the ground for no reason.’
Joy opened her mouth to protest, but stopped. The landlady’s face was like an open book. Joy could tell that Pam knew Chloe was lying, Pam clearly knew of Chloe’s inappropriate infatuation for a man who didn’t return her feelings, and she had already seen the blood trickling down Joy’s arm. But Pam had already decided whose side she was on, and it wasn’t the side where the customer was always right.
‘How dare you come into my pub and attack my staff like this. Get out now.’
Pam took a threatening step towards her and, recognising that that was one fight she certainly didn’t want to have, Joy held up her hands in a symbol of defeat and surrender. ‘I’m going.’
‘And don’t you dare show your face in this pub again.’
Joy scooted out, past Pam and into the pub. She hurried over to Zach’s table and grabbed her jacket.
‘Hey, where you going? I’ve just bought you a drink.’ Casey said, as he sat back down.
‘I’ve got to go. Sorry, you boys stay here, enjoy your evening. Don’t worry about me.’
‘Are you ok?’ Zach stood up, suddenly filled with concern. ‘You’re bleeding. Here, let me walk you back.’
She edged to the door. ‘No, I’m fine. My house is only a minute away. I’ll be fine. Stay here, please and finish your drinks.’
With concerned looks from both of them, she hurried out the pub.
Finn glared at Joy as she ran out the pub. He felt annoyed by the protective feelings she provoked in him.
Chloe was about as unhinged as Kathy Bates’s character in Misery so when he had seen her stalking into the bathroom after Joy, he’d known it was going to lead to some confrontation. He had to physically stop himself from going into the bathroom after them. He was shocked to see Joy hurrying out of the bathroom a few minutes later, bleeding and shaken, but stunned that Pam had to physically help Chloe out of the bathroom seconds after Joy had left. Little Joy Cartier had obviously given as good as she’d got. But he still had this need to go after her to make sure she was ok.
He would not get involved. That would only lead down one path and he wasn’t going to let that happen again.
His eyes flitted to Mrs Brannigan who was hurriedly finishing her pint and heading out the door after Joy. Albert Cole, with a dark look of venom in his eyes, met her at the door and with a mutual nod of understanding between them they quickly left.
Finn was already on his feet as he slammed down the pint that he knew would now go to waste. He cursed Joy for making him care and stormed out of the pub after them.
Outside, Joy slipped off her shoes and leaving her jacket on top of them, she walked down to the edge of the small pond. Moonlight bathed the waters with silvery ribbons. The village was so quiet. There was not a single sound to be heard. It was a beautiful place and she was so desperate to finally find a place that she could call home. But now it seemed that Bramble Hill would go the same way as the other places she had tried, though she had never left because she had been involved in a fight before. She had thought the tiny little village would be the answer. London and the other big cities, where her neighbours had barely said two words to her for the entire time she had lived there, certainly hadn’t been.
She hadn’t even been here a day and she had alienated her neighbour by spilling ice cream down him, had a fight with a barmaid and been banned from her local. It wasn’t the rose-tinted start to village life she had hoped for. Suddenly she was pushed hard from behind and as she tumbled head first into the inky cold water she heard a man speak.
‘Piss off back to Ascot you little bitch,’
But then she also heard a far off shout that sounded like, ‘Oi, leave her alone.’
The coldness of the water was shocking against her hot skin, reeds closed around her like fingers, dragging her down as she fought against them to reach the surface. She gasped out as her head burst through the water and she struggled against the reeds to get to the side. She grabbed a log and pushed her hair out of her eyes, shivering against the cold.
Finn was standing on the edge of the pond, his expression thunderous and she wondered if he was capable of any other expression.
‘Oh very good, payback for me covering you with ice cream was it? A bit childish, but yes revenge is certainly a dish best served cold.’ She was trying to laugh it off, keep some dignity even though she looked like a drowned rat, but she had been shocked by the maliciousness of the push. She heaved herself out of the cold water and clambered up onto her knees, aware of pain in her ankle and shin. The heat of the night did nothing to stop the chill of the cold water on her skin.
‘It wasn’t me,’ he said.
She looked around; the village was quiet and deserted. ‘Well who then? The ghost of the pond perhaps. Oh was it Chloe?’
‘No she was still clutching her stomach when I left. People here are not going to take kindly to you after what you did.’
‘To Chloe? She attacked me, I just defended myself –’
‘I’m not talking about that nut job, everyone round here knows what’s she’s like – though beating her up certainly isn’t going to curry favour with the locals. I’m talking about Mrs Kemblewick.’
She looked up at him in confusion. He was a lot bigger than her, but from her position kneeling on the floor, the feeling of intimidation that seemed to seep from him was certainly more prevalent. She moved to get up, but quickly realised that the pain in her ankle was from a bad twist or sprain. She was determined that he wouldn’t know he had hurt her as well as soaking and embarrassing her, so she stayed where she was. She would wait till he had gone before she hobbled home. She shivered again.
‘Who’s Mrs Kemblewick?’
‘The lady you kicked out so you could move in. Classy, you don’t even know who was living there. Did Daddy’s solicitor handle everything for you?’
Her head was swimming with cold, confusion and pain and he clearly wasn’t going any time soon. She stood carefully, deliberately trying not to put any weight on her ankle. Her dress clung to her and she realised her bra had come undone at the back. To her absolute horror as she stood, one of her breasts fell out the top of her dress.
To her surprise, as she quickly scooped her breast back in, Finn’s coat was suddenly around her. It was huge, swamping her from neck to toe, making her feel like a child in her dad’s clothes. It was warm and smelt earthy.
She glared at him. ‘What the hell is wrong with you? You push me in the pond, then hang around so you can see how humiliated I am, give me some cryptic warning about some Mrs Kemblewick and then give me your coat because you suddenly feel guilty?’
‘As I said, it wasn’t me and if you don’t want my coat I’ll take it back.’
‘Fine.’ Joy shrugged out of it and passed it back to him, then wobbled a bit when she inadvertently put weight on her twisted ankle. Finn grabbed her arm to stop her falling back in.
Joy looked down at her shoulder. ‘I know, where Chloe attacked me, silly cow, threw me against a picture hook.’
‘I meant your shin.’
Joy glanced down and sure enough her shin was pouring with blood from a large gash just underneath her knee. Though the water was probably making it look worse than it was.
‘Just… go away Finn. You don’t like me; you’ve made that perfectly clear…’
Just then Casey came running down the banks towards them, closely followed by Zach.
‘What happened?! Joy, are you ok?’ Casey shrugged out of his jacket and wrapped it round her.
‘Someone pushed her in,’ Finn said.
‘Over Mrs Kemblewick?’ Casey said, rubbing her arms trying to get her warm.
Finn nodded then turned to walk away but stopped when he came face to face with Zach. If she thought the look of anger and hate that he had given her was bad enough, it was nothing in comparison to the look he gave Zach. It was pure venomous loathing. Zach stepped back under the weight of it, and with another filthy look in his direction, Finn stormed off.
Zach watched him go, then quickly moved to her side.
‘Are you hurt?’ he said, his arm round her shoulders.
‘No, not really – my ankle is twisted, I’ve cut my shin, but my pride is hurt more than anything.’
‘Here, lean on me, I’ll help you get back.’
Casey grabbed Joy’s shoes and jacket and with Zach supporting her she hobbled the short distance back to her house. On the way, she explained what had happened between her and Chloe and then with Finn and the pond.
‘It wasn’t Finn,’ Casey said, as he opened her front door for her. ‘I know he can be a moody sod, but there’s no way he would do that.’
Zach nodded. ‘Me and Finn don’t get on, as you no doubt saw, but I’d have to agree with Casey, Finn would never do something like that.’
Joy sighed as Zach helped her onto the sofa.
‘Then who, and more importantly why?’
Zach moved into the kitchen, probably to get some ice and Casey sat next to her.
‘My guess would be Albert Cole and Mrs Brannigan, they left the pub straight after you. I only thought it odd when Finn got up and went after them. He must have known something was wrong.’
Zach came back with a bowl of water and a towel. He knelt at her feet and started to clean up her cut. There was something about the way he ran the damp cloth up her leg that was incredibly intimate. His eyes were on hers as he moved the cloth over her and swallowing the desire to suddenly lean forward and kiss him, she tore her eyes from him and focused on Casey instead.
‘Who’s Mrs Kemblewick?’
‘A very sweet old lady that lived here for twenty years or more – so say the gossips.’ Casey said. ‘It seems she was the lover of the man that owned the house…’
‘Joe?’ That was a surprise. Her landlord was young, very good looking and had struck her as a bit of a ladies’ man. Who knew those ladies were of the elderly variety?
‘His father apparently, Eric Carter from Ascot. He would turn up two or three times a week, keep her entertained, so to speak. He died a few months ago, leaving the house to his child. Joe then gave Mrs Kemblewick notice that if she wanted to stay there she would have to start paying rent, seemingly paying rent in sexual favours for the last twenty years wasn’t going to cut it with the recently bereaved offspring. Mrs Kemblewick, having no income of her own, was forced into a retirement home. Something that the residents of Bramble Hill were less than impressed with. She died last week and I think the locals are baying for blood.’
Zach moved to sit on her other side, so he could clean up her shoulder.
‘We all thought that it was Joe Carter that was moving in. Or Jo as in Joanne. When you introduced yourself to me as Joy Cartier and told me you were renting, I knew we were going to have some problems. Though I didn’t expect this,’ Casey said.
‘Are you saying that my landlord Joe kicked out some old lady from her home and I’m now being punished for it?’
‘Sums it up, yes.’ Casey eyed his brother suspiciously over her shoulder.
Joy turned round to see what Zach was doing and regretted it immediately when she nearly clashed mouths with him. She shuffled away from him and he moved back as well.
‘Er… your cut to your shoulder is pretty deep and as it was a nail, I’d recommend getting a tetanus jab.’
She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘And what the hell is this thing with Chloe about?’
‘She is an absolute fruit loop. I slept with her, three, four years ago, just one drunken night. She’s been like my stalker ever since. I’ve made it clear that it was a one night only thing, that I’m not interested, but she won’t listen. Sorry about that. I’ll talk to her.’
‘So… that’s your thing is it, sleeping with a different woman each week, not worrying about the broken hearts you leave behind?’
‘Yes,’ Casey said. ‘She summed you up pretty quickly.’
‘With a little help from you no doubt.’ Zach glared at his brother. ‘I’m looking for love, Joy. It’s just very hard to find. And when you know that the person you’re with is not the one you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, there’s no point in continuing with it is there?’
His eyes were so honest and she suddenly felt like she’d found a kindred spirit. That’s what she had felt about all the places she had lived in over the last few years. She knew almost instantly that a place wasn’t going to be her home, so there seemed little point in sticking it out.
She felt her frown soften slightly. ‘I suppose not.’
She smirked when she heard Casey let out a sigh of exasperation behind her.
‘Listen both of you, get out. I need to think about how I’m going to persuade the village I’m really very lovely.’
Zach stood and with the sexy smile fixed back on his face, he moved towards the door. ‘I’m already persuaded.’
Casey rolled his eyes as he watched him go, then turned back to her. ‘You ok?’
He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. ‘I’ll probably see you tomorrow.’
She smiled as she watched him go. Damn his sexual preference.
Finn was lying in bed when he heard Joy come upstairs and start to move about in her room. He switched the TV off and listened.
The four houses in Blackberry Row used to be two larger houses and were converted into four smaller cottages, many years before. He shared floorboards with Joy. Zach shared them with Mr and Mrs Butterworth. The split had been done very successfully downstairs, so that you would never know that it once had been one large house. But up in the smaller back bedroom, they had either run out of time, money or patience and the dividing wall between his and Joy’s houses was so thin that he could hear everything. This hadn’t been a problem when Mrs Kemblewick lived there. Her bedroom, the one she shared with the previous owner of the house, was the front one, so Finn didn’t get to hear their sexual antics two or three times a week. But Joy, it seemed, preferred the amazing view that the back bedroom gave, which was the very reason he had chosen it to sleep in too.
The wall was so thin, or built so badly, that he could even see a thin sliver of light underneath the skirting boards. He rolled over to his side to watch the shadows move around the room as she did, finding it oddly comforting to have her there.
He heard her on the phone, putting the person she was calling on loud speaker as she no doubt got undressed.
‘Hello my lovely,’ said a man’s voice, which gave Finn an unexpected surge of jealousy.
Alex. That was her brother.
‘How’s your first night going?’
Finn heard the hesitation in her voice. She clearly wanted to tell Alex all about Chloe and the pond incident and the nasty man next door, but she didn’t.
‘Joy, I know that tone, what’s happened? Is it that moody sod that you spilt ice cream over, is he giving you grief?’
Little did Alex know that the moody sod next door was the least of Joy’s worries.
‘No, well I don’t think I’m going to win him round with my famous apple pie, but … everything’s fine. I’ve met some other people, there’s Casey, he’s lovely. I may give him your number actually; you might be able to advise him on a few things.’
‘Well I’ll let him tell you all about it, it wouldn’t be fair for me to tell you. And I’ve met his brother Zach who lives the other side of me.’
There was a pause from Alex and Finn could hear the laughter in his voice when he spoke.
‘And Zach, is he lovely too?’
Joy laughed. ‘Yes he is, but by all accounts he’s a complete tart. Casey warned me off him, so I’m staying well clear. We can just be friends.’
‘Men and women can’t be friends.’
Finn nodded in agreement. He certainly didn’t want to be friends with Joy, because then it would be friends who would hang out together, friends that would kiss, friends that would… No it would be better all round if he stayed as the moody sod next door.
‘Sure they can. You’ve got lots of women friends,’ Joy said.
‘That’s because I’m gay. That’s like being an honorary female. Besides they know they’re never going to get anywhere with me, so they don’t have to worry about impressing me or making me jealous, they can just be themselves. That’s the only time male/female friendships works. You can sort of be friends with the husband of a female friend, that’s ok as long as the female friend is laidback enough or comfortable enough in their relationship not to get all jealous and psycho every time the two of you speak. Other than that, being friends with a man doesn’t work, especially not when you’re both single and both attracted to each other.’
‘Well I’m going to prove you wrong. Absolutely nothing is going to happen between me and Zach.’
‘How much do you want to bet?’
‘A million pounds.’
Finn sat up. Bloody hell. Was she that rich that she could so easily bandy about that kind of money?
‘Anyway, I’m going to sleep now, that’s if I can shift Darcy off the bed, she’s slept all afternoon, lazy sod.’
‘Joy, are you sure you’re ok?’
‘I’m fine, everything’s okay. Goodnight. I love you.’
‘Love you too, kid.’
There was a beep to indicate the call had finished and then there was a heavy sigh.
‘Yeah, everything’s fine Al, the moody sod next door hates me, the locals are going to run me out of the town with pitchforks and burning torches, I was pushed in a pond, had a fight with a barmaid and I’m now covered in so many cuts and bruises I look like I’ve had a run in with Mike Tyson. Yeah everything is absolutely fine.’ She sighed again. ‘Shift your arse Darcy, you big fatty.’
There was the sound of the bed creaking, the light went out and then silence.
Finn lay back on his pillow. She’d not had the best start to village life and he was part of the reason for that. He couldn’t help feeling guilty. The villagers were going to make her life hell; he didn’t need to add to it. In fact, he was probably the only one that could stop it. His position in the village as local celebrity should be able to afford him some weight in these matters. But then again, her moving out wouldn’t be such a bad thing either. Then he could just go back to his uncomplicated life.
Suddenly there was the sound of a really loud fart.
He sat up in surprise. Surely not.
‘Darcy, I swear, if that stinks, I’m shoving a cork up your bum.’
He smiled to himself. Maybe having her next door wouldn’t be so bad after all. Just as long as they weren’t friends.