Authors: H Elliston
Copyright © 2012 by H.C.Elliston
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form or by any means whatsoever without prior written permission from the author.
The moral right of H.C.Elliston to be identified as the author of this work of fiction has been asserted.
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to actual events or real persons, either living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Thank you to all my family, my fiancé and his lovely children and son-in-law, and my friends for your encouragement and for putting up with me while my head was buried in writing this book.
A special thank you to all my critique partners, these especially, who are simply wonderful and have really helped me to keep going, and to shape and finish this book; Carla, Christine, Chuck, Dana, Rachelle and Steph – you’re awesome!
To everyone else who had input or encouraged me to continue my dream (Hannah) – thanks, you’re the best, and I wish good things for you all!
Thank you to readers for taking a chance on me. I hope you enjoy reading it.
A board creaked as I moved along the hallway. “This house is giving me the creeps lately. A break-in, running taps, and that awful smell...”
“I know. It’s weird,” my best friend Nicola said.
“Anyway, creepy or not, this is my home, and if anyone dares to set one foot... this time I’ll be ready!”
Nicola gave me a shoulder-bump as we entered the kitchen. “Lighten up. What burglar would be stupid enough to attempt to break into the same place two nights on the trot,
to venture out in this slippery weather? Huh?”
I cracked a smile. What she said was probably true, but still, making it obvious that the house was occupied would surely ward off a second sweep. I wished I could go just one day without some unwelcome issue pricking at my nerves. I suspected that was a luxury only rich people had.
Nicola grabbed a pen and a roll of tape out of a drawer and headed for the hall. “You sort out some more drinks. Let’s at least try to have a happy evening. I’ll be back in a minute.”
I opened a bottle of wine while Nicola tiptoed around upstairs, doing... I had no idea what, but perhaps something for my birthday tomorrow. She’d moved in with me six months ago when she was between houses, but it served us both equally well. Her craft skills had proved invaluable in helping me to restore this old Victorian house – still a work in progress, but getting there. It was her idea to make latex moulds of the cornices and ceiling roses and fill them with plaster, so we could replace the damaged sections. But three weeks after she moved in, my marriage finally crumbled and my husband moved out. So on top of her skills, I was glad for her company or it would have just been me and my daughter rattling around in this huge house.
Cold air seeped in through the edges of the boarded up window above the sink - the entry point to last night’s burglary which happened while we were at a Zumba class. Thankfully, it got no further than smashed crockery on the drainer. The police found no evidence of who’d done it, and being one of only two homes on this private loop of a street, witnesses were at zero.
My mobile rang. It was my cousin, Brad, checking up on me. “No, don’t cancel your plans,” I said. “You’ve got a date, right?”
“Yes. But if you want a man in the house, I’m happy to come over.”
And flirt with Nicola, no doubt.
“Thanks, but we’ll be fine. Go and enjoy yourself. I don’t want to spoil anyone else’s evening.”
After some brief chitchat, I hung up. How lovely of him to worry about me.
Nicola came back downstairs and joined me in the kitchen. “Christa, have you seen my mobile anywhere?”
Both at five foot seven, we stood at the same eyeline, Nicola far curvier than I, but each forcing a brief smile upon our lips to comfort the other. Our friendship, cemented years ago, meant words were not always necessary.
Our eyes fell away and I handed her a fresh glass of wine from a bottle I’d received along with other goodies, some questionable as to their meaning, in a gift basket on my doorstep this morning.
Nicola held the glass up to the light and examined it. “Are you sure it’s safe to drink? I mean, we don’t know who sent it.”
“It doesn’t look tampered with. Besides, I drank the bottle that came last week and I’m still standing.”
“In that case, bottom’s up! Any more thoughts on who’s sending them?” She tasted her drink. “Hmmm... bit tart but seems fine to me.”
I scrunched my lips, flummoxed. “No card, no note, zilch. Why would someone send wine, or lingerie and beauty products every few weeks? It’s been going on for months, sporadically. It’s really creepy.”
Nicola shrugged. “You’ve been getting them ever since your husband moved out, haven’t you?”
“Or since you moved in. Perhaps they’re for you.”
“I still think my first guess is right.”
“Don’t be daft.”
Nicola heaved a sigh. “Why you and Brian can’t admit that—“
“Not this again.”
She held her palms up. “I’m just saying. I mean... it’s not like you’re upset about getting a divorce from John, is it? Why can’t you admit that you married the wrong guy?”
Please don’t go there.
“There are three of you in this marriage.”
“Yes.” I leaned closer and tilted soft words into her ear. “My daughter Sarah, that makes three.”
,” she stressed, then playfully rolled her eyes.
I sipped my drink to hide my awkward blush then clinked my glass against hers. “Cheers.”
Nicola fished around in the basket, pulled out a tube and read the label. “A face pack? So this person not only wants to get you drunk tonight, but wants your skin to glow. Hmmm... interesting.”
Unlike my paleness, Nicola had beautiful olive skin which gave her a year-round sun-kissed look to envy. “There was fake tan in it last week,” I told her. “Good stuff too.”
“I noticed you had a bit of colour. But I didn’t realise it was another gift.”
“Oh, I thought I’d mentioned it.” I shrugged. “I rubbed it on while I was working in my office last Saturday, and because I didn’t get dressed, I didn’t have any streaks like last time.“
She chuckled into her drink. “I’m happy I had a date that evening. You worked in the buff?”
“Just that night.” I laughed.
“Bet that was a show.” Nicola chuckled. “You look nice today. Shame we had to cancel your birthday plans. Bloody burglars! We should be heading to the restaurant now.”
“I know. I’m sorry. But I’m not leaving my house empty tonight. Oh, that reminds me, I still need to change the lock on the back door. You never know.”
“Is Brian really taking Sarah on a climbing trip at the weekend?”
“That’s what he said. Although it seems daft in this weather.”
Nicola unscrewed the face pack tube. “The seal’s intact. Here goes...” She smeared lumpy green lotion all over her face then rinsed her hands in the sink. “This stuff’s like guacamole. Want some?”
“Maybe later. Are you hungry yet?” As I pulled take-out menus out of the cupboard, a thunder of sharp thuds outside the patio windows made me jump. “What the hell was that?” I grabbed Nicola’s hand. “You don’t think...” We glanced at each other.
“Let’s stay calm,” Nicola said. “We’ll go take a look.”
Nicola parted the white, floor-length curtains while I dashed across the kitchen to flick the garden light on. She pressed her nose against the glass pane and peered out of the doors into the semi-darkness.
“See anything?” I asked, biting my lower lip.
The frown on Nicola’s face fell away. “Relax. It’s not a burglar. I’d say a chunk of your roof has gone a.w.o.l.”
Thank goodness, but... I dashed to her side. “Seriously? The roof?”
“Lucky no one was standing out there.”
“And, oh my God! Look at the snow.” I unlocked the patio doors. A massive spangle of white flakes showered my face under the darkening sky. Cold wind walloped me. After rigging up emergency window locks and a fake alarm box, we’d spent the rest of the day in a private world repainting the original floral pattern back on to worn tiles around the fireplace, and I had no idea the weather had gotten this bad.
“Jeez,” I said, staring down at the heap of cracked roof slates. “Something else to fix.” Taking on such a large restoration project with my husband sounded fun at the time. We both fell in love with the place straight away and Sarah loved it too. The house - so large that Nicola often joked it should have its own post code - was perfect for running my computer repairs business from home. Computers had always fascinated me. I used to spend many an hour fixing up my own and friends’ computers. Until I realised, why not do it for real? So I set up shop a few years ago.
“I owe you this month’s rent,” Nicola said. “That should help you get the tiles fixed. I wish I could give you a bit extra but... it’s a tight month.”
“Very kind. But just the rent is great. I don’t want you to be short.”
“Is your husband still not paying his share of the mortgage?”
I shook my head. “He says I should be thankful he isn’t taking a wage out of the business, seeing as half of it’s in his name.”
“That’s so unfair.”
“I haven’t heard from him since we argued on the phone last week. He said I’m selfish, in denial, and a liar. And now that he’s gone off radar... Well, I feel like I’ve told my secrets to the devil and am just waiting to find out what his next move will be.”
“Some divorces can get pretty nasty.” Nicola tugged me back inside and locked the doors. “You don’t wanna be out there if another slate falls.”
“Oh, John could hurt me all right,” I explained. “He’s got plenty of ammunition to fire and has already threatened to use it if I don’t sign the divorce papers by morning.”
Her mouth gaped in disgust. “He’s given you a deadline?”
I nodded. “He knows I can’t afford his ridiculous buyout figure. But his new terms are unreasonable.” I heaved a sigh. “If I don’t agree, then he wants the house to go on the market and he’s threatened to sell his half of my business to a complete stranger.”
It was lose or lose. Without the house, I would have no business because I could not afford to pay for a separate house and rent an office, and I seriously doubted I’d find another dual-purpose property in the area, in my price range. “He’s trying to push me into agreeing to his terms. He’s already threatened to tell my secrets.”
“Secrets? Come on, we’ve all got skeletons.” Nicola tapped her index finger on her lips, and as if reading my mind she said, “Aha! But you’re not scared of him hurting
, are you? You’re worried about him hurting Sarah.”
I blew out a heavy breath. “The divorce papers are in my knicker drawer. If I don’t sign, he’s threatened to tell Sarah the truth about her dad.”
“Oh my God. Are you being serious?”
“That’s awful. It’s blackmail! Why didn’t you say something?”
“It upsets me just to think about it.”
“You can’t ignore this, Christa!”
I emptied my brain of John, and grabbed my phone to check up on my daughter. Brian, the brother of Sarah’s deceased father and a successful business consultant, answered the phone.
“H-hi,” I blurted, staring at the white scene outside. “You’re not still taking Sarah climbing on Friday, are you?”
“Well, I packed the car early because I’ve got a pretty full diary but.... no. It’s too rough out there,” Brian replied. “She’s listening to her iPod in her room. Can I call you back? I’m trying to get in contact with my girlfriend.”
I noted an edge to his normally smooth and calm voice. “Is everything okay?”
“Not really. Claire ventured out to your place nearly an hour ago. She’s not come back, and she’s not answering her phone.”
I nibbled my lip and spun around to tell Nicola, but she’d left the room. “Why on earth would Claire come here? Your girlfriend hates me.”
“She doesn’t. Sarah’s been complaining about forgetting her new laptop and–”
“New?” I laughed. “As if I could splash out on a new one. A lady swapped her husband’s laptop for a desktop. I said Sarah could have it, but I didn’t get the chance to wipe the system before I dropped her off.”
“Yeah, I remember now. Sarah told us earlier.”
“Anyway, what’s that got to do with Claire?”
“I think she’s driving to your place to pick it up. Sarah told me. She’s trying to be nice.”