Book extract: Chasing Athens

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Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Chasing Athens a romantic comedy by Marissa Tejada. Chasing Athens was recently released as part of the Terpsichore contemporary romance imprint from Musa Publishing.

**

 

Within a minute, I found myself face-to-face with the Greek police. I raised an eyebrow noticing that they also happened to be three handsome twenty-something rookies, each sporting the typical young Greek masculine look: short, dark brown hair, and scruffy, day-old facial hair. Dressed alike in crisp, navy blue uniforms and black combat boots, they stood up at the sight of us. Two had stopped swinging their koumbolois, a string of rosary- like beads that Greek men carry around, oftentimes clicking and petting out of habit. The third police officer put down his iced coffee, which Greeks called a frappe.

The officers eyed me up and down as the ticket officer caught them up on the story of my transgressions. I yearned to catch some meaning, but the Greek sounded like Greek to me and too fast.

“Mr. Panos say you left your wallet at home,” one officer said in perfectly clear English. Finally, there was someone who spoke my language well. Perhaps, there was hope. “You walk in Greece with no diavatirio.” He cleared his throat before he corrected himself. “Passport?”

“All of my ID cards were in my wallet and I was in a rush,” I said, wide- eyed. “Besides, I’ve been living here for seven months now.”

He looked unimpressed. “Name?”

“Ava Martin.”

“Age?”

“Um, thirty.” I bit my lip wondering why that mattered.

“Really?” He narrowed his eyes at me. In my rush out the door, I threw on a pair of baggy jeans, a green T-shirt, and my blue Converse. I looked like a college student; adults my age usually dressed to impress. But I hadn’t been feeling very adult lately, to be honest. It was clear that this officer thought I was a complete liar. My hopes sank.

“Thirty, yes,” I confirmed.

The officer glanced at his two co-workers who gave him a look I didn’t understand. He composed himself to return his attention to me.

“Married?” he asked quite professionally.

Silly question but it was a common inquiry even among Greek strangers, so why not from a police officer?

“Yes, my husband isn’t in Athens this week.” I resisted the urge to add something about the fact that Greg was never home lately. But I had enough sense to realize that airing my marriage’s dirty laundry probably wasn’t going to make the situation any better.

The officer lifted his dark brows with interest. “He is a Greek?” “No, we’re both American. I’m from New York and I’m here with Greg Brown, my husband.” The officer shot me a glance, his lips pressed flat. Did he not believe me?

Then it came to me. “Oh, I never changed my last name. He’s Brown and I’m Martin, but we’re together…together forever,” I heard myself say in a singsongy voice.

He looked at the bus officer then back at me, his face emotionless. I cupped my hands together in front of me. “He’s in Rome, I think.” My voice began to crack. Why did I have to say his name? Why did I have to talk about us? Maybe, I just gave up too much information. I talked too much sometimes. In any case, Greg and I had hardly talked, Skyped, Facebooked, Vibered, Whatsapped, or even e-mailed for the past two weeks. I wished he could’ve helped me but he wouldn’t have even answered his phone if I had called.

“How we know you say the truth?” The officer’s blunt question jolted me back to reality. “I promise,” I said, realizing that it sounded entirely lame. “I swear. I’m American, and lately, I’m behaving like a total moron.” As if promising and swearing to be an American moron could be a legitimate argument. I flinched. Gosh, I’d put me in jail.

**

More about Chasing Athens:

Travel writer and journalist Marissa Tejada’s debut novel is set in Athens, Greece, the Greek Islands and Ithaca, New York, and follows Ava Martin, a heartbroken American expat, whose new husband unexpectedly ditches her after their move abroad. Instead of returning to the States, she makes an abrupt decision to stay. Despite pressure from her mother, uncertainty over her divorce, and issues with her long-estranged father, she’s determined to make it on her own. With her Greek friends, she laughs and learns while facing culture shock, language barriers and the charm of Mediterranean men, until a life-threatening emergency back home in sleepy Ithaca, N.Y., forces her to confront her disappointing past, and forces her to redefine the meaning of home.

You can find the rest of Chasing Athens on Amazon and at eBook seller.

 

 

Book extract: Down on the Other Street Vol 1

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Today I am hosting an extract from Jennifer Cie’s new book, Dowon the Other Street which is published today!

Excerpt from Down On The Other Street:Vol I –The Photo:

“With a burger in one hand and a hotdog in the other. That’s how I want to die. Like a true American.”

Streaks of yellowing pimples topped off with a variety of green and white caps waved from each side of her cheeks; the new haircut was not a strategic cover like the others. This was good. I needed a distraction to keep me from laughing when she talked like that. Not more than five foot three with a twang that grates on my nerves every lunch break, I hate to love Melissa.

“Seriously! How dare you come in here with a damn rice burger! I oughta call your momma and tell her you need to be re-baptized in Coke and freedom fries.”

I didn’t want to laugh, but that’s the effect she has on me. One minute I’m giving her the smuggiest of smug looks I can muster up, the next I’m laughing at her ignorance. In a weird way, I think I’m going to miss her the most.

“Yes! Coke and Freedom fries! Don’t act like you only eat salad. I can see the truth.”

I didn’t get a hug or “good luck” when she found out I gave my two weeks’ notice. She just kind of hovered around my cubicle for a while. I think she was staring at the picture of us. It’s the one of you spilling beer all over your shirt while I’m kissing your cheek.

I know you hate that one butterfingers, but it’s my favorite.

“You could use some lettuce though—that Diet Coke ain’t shrinking on nothing.”

The last words Melissa will probably ever utter to me were fat shaming. It’s kind of fitting since the first time we met she called herself a reformed “working second shift at the grocery store pale fatty.” Still not sure how she went from unloading trucks at Walmart to no minimum qualifications met assistant pretending to be the manager, but that’s the recession for you—messing up logic since 2006.

I kind of wonder what would have happened if the government had of got itself together and the burst never happened.

Would you have been at the “Elite 8” party curling up your nose at those guys butchering your name? Could we still have had that first eye contact with each other from across the room when we both yelled, “Hit the free-throws,” at the screen? I like to pretend that you still would’ve somehow been at the Blue Monkey. I love to imagine that you still would’ve sauntered over to me in your gray Memphis Tigers shirt holding out a beer.

I want to believe that I still would’ve heard you say, “Ey, I’m Ly Pham—good aggression coach,” and swooned…Too bad that’s just wishful thinking.

You can find out more about both Jennifer and her book at the below links:

Twitter: @JenniferCie1

Book extract: Behind the Glass

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If you are looking for something to read this week as part of the Sex Me Up Readathon, then look no further! I am very pleased to host an excerpt of Kristen Morgen’s New Adult book, Behind the Glass today. Enjoy and join in the conversation on Twitter by tweeting Kristen @KristenMorgen and using the hashtag #sexmeupreadathon

 

Chapter One ~ Rebecca

 

Few people came here this late at night. The occasional patrons who did wander in at this hour were usually either weary college students needing a quick shot of espresso to keep going, flocks of lively young girls taking a short break before the second round of club-hopping, or on occasion, two lovers engaging in a secret romantic rendezvous.

During her many nights of coming here, she had seen it all.

It was just minutes to midnight, that wondrous part of the day when she finally allowed herself to slow down but wasn’t quite ready for sleep just yet. She had grown to love this special part of the night that belonged only to her. It was undoubtedly her favorite time to come here.

After a long, arduous week, the serene calm and quiet solitude of her beloved bookstore café had become her most vital oasis. She had come here every week for months, always alone, always at this time of night, and she’d grown to love this stylish little shop’s atmosphere. Something innocuous about it made her feel at home and she was completely at peace here. And her favorite soft velvet reading chair on the second floor could always be depended upon to be waiting for her.

The shop was an eclectic little gem tucked away inconspicuously into the fabric of downtown Madison, Wisconsin, on State Street, the city’s renowned pedestrian mall. Set back slightly between the adjacent storefronts, its unadorned façade and soft lighting from within made it virtually glow from the street at night.

The open two-story space inside could be seen clearly from the street through a simple storefront consisting of virtually seamless glass. Its clean design contrasted sharply with the adjacent brick and stone facades, giving it a light, airy feel. The openness of its design was initially what drew her here. The shop itself was quite figuratively an open book.

Inside the shop, on either side of the entrance, three evenly-spaced, colorful glass light fixtures highlighted local artwork that the shop showcased to the public. Farther inside, the first floor’s main space was filled with groupings of wood tables and chairs, large lush reading chairs, and oblong coffee tables displaying books.

Immense mahogany bookcases flanked each side of the main space and a simple granite café counter in the rear ran the entire width of the shop. A long staircase nestled into one side of the shop led to a loft area above that overlooked most of the main space below.

Unlike the first floor, the loft area above was a smaller, much more intimate space with quiet acoustics and soft lighting that made for an excellent reading environment. The gorgeous mahogany floors and dark textures in the cherry wood furniture brought warmth to the space, while the lighter wall colors and simple lines of the railings made it feel open and welcoming.

She made an immediate connection to this secluded area of the shop and habitually took refuge here each week, happily losing herself in her books and letting the busy world fall away for a while.

It was quiet at this late hour, other than the faint echo of a distant conversation and the soft music playing over the sound system. The acoustics throughout the shop were superb and the music set a relaxing tone. The inviting smells of rich coffee and baked goods filled virtually every cubic inch of the two-story space.

To her, it was heavenly, and she considered her nights here a true indulgence.

By nature she had never been the type who took time like this for herself. She was focused, disciplined, and her daily obligations to her two jobs during the week took most of her time and energy. She was, by her definition, a struggling artist paying her dues and was willing to make the needed sacrifices.

By day she worked as a staff photographer for the Isthmus, a local weekly newspaper in town. It wasn’t a glamorous position by any stretch of the imagination, but it gave her a chance to do what she loved; photography was her passion. She had been intrigued by it since high school when she took an introductory photography class for her art elective, and was immediately hooked. She had a natural eye for it and loved spending endless hours in the darkroom.

Her position didn’t pay much, and the subject matter was usually somewhat menial, but she learned from it every day and expanded her education constantly. She captured the best of whatever assignment she was given on film, whether it was Madison’s annual Art Fair on the Square or simply the pet of the week. Whatever the challenge, she was simply content to have her dependable, manual 35mm camera in hand.

The income from her daily job scarcely paid her bills, which made her second job an inevitable necessity. By night she worked as a waitress at a local high-end restaurant downtown, owned by a childhood friend’s family. The hours were long and being on her feet all day was sometimes exhausting, but she couldn’t deny how lucky she was to work there. The tips were lucrative and she truly couldn’t ask for better people to work for.

It was actually while walking downtown after a long day of work one night that she discovered this wonderful little shop. The fact that the shop displayed local artwork every month was an added bonus. She was inspired by it each week, and imagined seeing her photography in its windows one day.

Her weekly routine of escaping to this oasis over the past several months had become something she truly looked forward to. After the typical monotony of a long work week, she enjoyed treating herself to her favorite coffee: a caramel latte with whipped cream served in a large hand-thrown pottery mug. After exchanging pleasantries with the owners, she would always take her time to admire the local artwork as she walked upstairs to the loft area, and then quietly settled into her favorite comfy reading chair, eagerly getting lost in whatever book she was reading that week.

Her minutes-to-midnight ritual had become a comforting constant in her life.

This week as she walked upstairs to the loft with coffee in hand, something profoundly beautiful caught her eye in the artwork at the stairs. Tonight one minor element of her evening routine was noticeably altered.

The local art normally displayed on the café walls each month was amateur at best. It was quite appealing to the untrained eye but was by no means extraordinary. The work of art before her tonight however, was a striking exception.

As she halted on the landing, fascinated by the painting in front of her, her surroundings gradually faded away as she examined the work. It was unexplainable, but something about it captivated her deeply and the effect was magnetic. She was inescapably drawn to it.

The painting itself was no larger than a standard piece of paper, yet it appeared far more substantial to her. Framed in a simple white mat inside a basic black frame, the contrast in colors appeared sharp, yet soft simultaneously. In the foreground stood three abstract white houses set against a harsh black sky. A single blurry white line above indicated a distant skyline with dark looming blue-gray clouds above.

It wasn’t the subject matter that caught her attention but rather the feeling the scene evoked. The landscape was mysteriously barren and cold, yet strangely welcoming. As her eyes carefully scanned every minute detail of the painting, she found herself wondering what it would feel like to be inside this peculiar space. She imagined it would probably feel cool, but not cold. The wind might be blowing softly, the way it does before a storm. It would likely be quiet and peaceful. Voices and sounds, if there even were any, might echo.

Then it hit her. The feeling she connected with so strongly was loneliness.

As if created only for her, this brilliant artist had captured the feeling of being completely alone in such a beautiful way. Her usual feeling of peace and contentment in this place became abruptly emotional as she realized why this painting spoke to her so completely.

Entirely lost in her own unsettling thoughts, the sharp sound of several ceramic coffee mugs crashing to the floor at once pulled her abruptly back to reality. She spun around quickly in surprise, momentarily losing her balance on the landing and almost spilling her hot coffee. Her heart jumped to her throat and she stopped breathing for a moment. She hadn’t realized how detached she had become and nearly couldn’t remember where she was.

It was then, as she quickly scanned the main space below her, immediately identifying the source of the startling clamor, that her eyes unexpectedly noticed him.

He was sitting alone at a table near the rear of the shop, staring directly up at her with stunningly intense eyes. It was his atypical expression that caught her eye; he looked as if he had been staring at her for a long while.

He was a genuinely handsome young man with soulful, deep-set dark brown eyes. His face was striking with flawless bone structure and a strong, square jaw. His short, dark brown hair was slightly tousled and he wore two-day-old scruff on his perfectly sculpted face. His lean build and broad shoulders were indicative of someone active and athletic. Dressed casually in jeans and a dark gray button-down shirt, he was, by all appearances, definitely a man women noticed when he walked into a room.

He made absolutely no effort to look away and their eyes locked onto each other for a long moment. Feeling unexpectedly self conscious, she could feel her face begin to flush and her heart begin to race. She wasn’t used to being noticed this way by someone who looked the way he did. The intensity in his eyes continued but a slight look of curiosity began to emerge as his expression softened slightly.

Noticing this, she unconsciously tilted her head slightly and fought back a sudden urge to smile. Reluctantly, she finally forced herself to look away slowly, released from his intense gaze.

Flustered, she swiftly turned and headed upstairs, stumbling on the first step and not noticing what she dropped on the stair below. As she reached the top of the stairs she quickly made her way to her usual reading chair and settled in quietly, her heart still racing.

Unaware that a tiny smile had emerged on her lips, she felt goose bumps up and down her arms and nervous butterflies in her stomach. She had no idea who he was or why he had been staring at her so intently, but her curiosity and wonder made it nearly impossible to focus on her book or anything else.

A sudden shiver went down her back.

She focused and tried to think, trying to remember if he had been sitting there when she first walked in and ordered her coffee. Surely she would have noticed him, so it’s possible he came in later. She wondered how long she had been admiring the painting but couldn’t be sure. Maybe that was why he had been staring at her. She simply couldn’t make sense of it.

Why would he notice her? She shook her head, smiling. It was definitely a mystery.

Ultimately deciding to shrug it off as nothing more than an isolated incident she would likely forget by tomorrow, she tried not to give it any more thought and began refocusing on her evening. She was four chapters into her latest book and it was getting interesting, so diving back into it would be an excellent way to redirect her mind. The new author she was reading had a remarkable way of taking her far from reality, which was exactly what she needed tonight.

She took a few sips of her coffee and nestled comfortably into her chair.

She was halfway through chapter five when she heard a faint creak at the top of the stairs. Quickly snapping her head up, she was completely stunned by what she saw. The handsome young man from downstairs was standing at the top step gazing in her direction clear across the second floor.

As she looked at him, her heart jumped and she silently caught her breath. An equal mix of excitement and panic shot through her as he started walking directly toward her, his beautiful eyes locked onto hers again.

He stopped squarely in front of her and handed her a familiar object.

As she peered up at him, he seemed much taller than she had imagined and unbelievably, more handsome.

“You dropped this on the stairs.”

His voice was quite possibly the most mesmerizing she had ever heard.

Her heart pounded as every muscle in her body tensed up.

She struggled to release herself from his beautiful eyes to slowly look down at his outreached hand. The object he held was a beaded bookmark her mother had made for her on her last birthday. She obviously hadn’t noticed she’d dropped it.

She took it from him slowly without a word, desperately trying to form a coherent thought. After a few moments a nearly inaudible ‘thank you’ was all she could manage.

The way he looked at her and the way it made her feel seemed to prevent her from thinking clearly or acting normally. She continued to look at him, speechless.

He slowly sat down in the chair next to her with a subtle smile on his face.

“Are you alright?” he asked quietly.

There was something so familiar about his voice, as if she’d known him for a long time. She couldn’t understand it but his tone seemed to instantly put her at ease.

“I’m fine,” she answered as calmly as possible. “Why?”

She could only imagine what she must look like from his perspective. She wasn’t normally this tongue-tied and she hoped he didn’t think there was something wrong with her.

“You look like your mind is somewhere else right now, somewhere far away.”

He was perceptive. Her mind was somewhere else. And completely blank.

“Yes,” she began, desperately trying to focus. “I suppose it is. I … I usually come here to relax. It must be working.”

Wondering if she had even made sense, it was the best she could come up with for now. As her heart rate finally approached normal, she slowly started to relax a little.

“So that’s why you come here then,” he asked with a raised eyebrow, “to relax?”

She wondered about the suspicious tone in his voice.

“Yes, this shop is a great place to unwind.”

“Interesting.”

Again, his tone made her wonder.

“Why is that interesting?” She tried to read his eyes.

His expression had changed as if he knew something she didn’t.

“You look like you come here to hide.”

His eyes met hers again as he spoke, carefully watching her reaction.

To her surprise his comment hit a nerve and her mind began to race. She came here to hide? She couldn’t imagine what possible interest he would have in her reasons for coming here and wondered why he would say something like that to someone he didn’t know.

“And what would I be hiding from exactly?”

“You tell me.”

His stunning eyes studied her reaction again as if he knew what she was thinking.

“I’m not hiding from anything,” she asserted, her tone slightly more defensive than intended. She tried to understand where this conversation was leading.

He shook his head and smiled. His breathtaking smile practically knocked her over. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her life. He definitely had an unfair advantage looking the way he did, and she was finding it hard to keep her focus.

“Sure,” he speculated, “you come here to relax.”

“Why is that so hard to believe?” She was truly intrigued.

“So,” he began thoughtfully, “you choose this hour at night, when the shop is practically empty, to come and sip coffee and read a book, something you could easily do at home. You didn’t come with anyone and I’m guessing no one even knows you’re here. If you’re not hiding from anything, then why not stay at home and read?”

Tilting her head slightly, she glared at him, unsure what to make of what he had just said. She wondered how he had even known about her weekly routine. Had he been here before?

She felt the blood rush to her face.

“I honestly don’t see how this is any of your business, but I happen to like this place. It’s … tranquil. And I love coming here. It’s actually a great little shop with a lot to offer.”

She knew she was reaching but it seemed to make sense.

“You come here for the artwork,” he stated with a subtle sarcastic tone.

Again his comment hit another nerve.

“The artwork happens to be exceptional this month. I’ll admit it’s not always at a particularly high level but it’s encouraging to see people putting themselves out there like that. It’s inspirational.” And maybe one day if she were brave enough, her photography would be displayed here too, she thought to herself.

“This month?”

“Excuse me?”

“You said the artwork is exceptional this month,” he clarified. His expression was suddenly warm again. She looked into his deep brown eyes, instantly shaking off their previous conversation and recalled the beautiful painting at the stairs.

“Yes,” she began thoughtfully, “it’s wonderful.” She paused for a moment, remembering how the painting had affected her so deeply. “The artist this month is extremely talented. There’s a depth to the work that’s very raw.”

He took a moment before responding.

“You seem to appreciate art. To really connect to it, I mean. That’s a rare thing. You seemed to really like the painting at the stairs earlier.”

Embarrassed, she realized he must have been watching her when she was admiring it for what she assumed to be a noticeably long time.

“Yes, I guess you noticed that.”

“It was hard not to,” he replied, smiling warmly.

His stunning smile made her heart skip a beat. She returned the smile involuntarily.

“I was connecting, as you put it.”

Feeling slightly uncomfortable, she hoped he would change the subject.

“What did you like about it?”

His curiosity was puzzling. She couldn’t understand why this ridiculously attractive stranger she had just met had so many questions for her. When she looked at him he appeared genuinely interested in her answer.

“I generally don’t connect with art unless I can relate to something I see in it. The painting at the stairs …” She paused, carefully choosing her words. “I could imagine being in that scene, what the physical environment would feel like to me, how being there would make me feel, what the artist may have been trying to convey. If it touches me on an emotional level, I like it. For me, that’s what art is supposed to do. Of course it’s different for everyone.”

He quietly focused on her, listening intently, hanging onto her every word without responding. He looked somewhat reflective, taking in what she just said. She felt slightly self-conscious, hoping she made sense. She tended to ramble when she discussed art.

She took a sip of her now lukewarm coffee and decided to try to change the course of the conversation. She had been cooperative thus far and had answered his questions. In fact, she had been more truthful than she had intended. Something about him made her feel less guarded and her words seemed to pour out, unfiltered.

This handsome stranger was surprisingly easy to talk to.

“So, why do you come here at this hour? Is it the artwork or do you just enjoy interrogating strangers?” She tried to keep her tone light so he knew she was joking. He smiled, obviously enjoying her sense of humor.

“I know the owners. They’re old friends of mine. And for the record, I wasn’t interrogating you. I apologize if that’s how I came across.” He sounded sincere. “You just intrigue me.”

She intrigued him?

Apparently he had more of an interest in her than she originally thought. As she considered this, she slowly began to realize that this may not have been the first night they had been there together. If he knew the owners then surely he would know how often she came there and when. Over the many months she’d been visiting the shop, the husband and wife owners began to anticipate her weekly arrival. But why would they tell him about one of their customers? The more she pondered the idea, the crazier it sounded.

“Why is that exactly?” she asked, trying to read his eyes.

He hesitated slightly before he answered.

“Let’s just say you’re a bit of a mystery to me, an unsolved puzzle.”

Now that was ironic. She was the mystery here?

“So it’s puzzling to you that I come to a bookstore café late at night and like to read alone? Some people just like their ‘me’ time. How is that unusual?”

“It’s not. But that’s not why you come here,” he clarified, with the same intense expression he had downstairs.

The finality of his tone made her feel as if he knew much more about her than he was letting on, and ultimately made her realize something that she hadn’t wanted to admit to herself. He was right on target.

“That’s not the only mystery,” he added before she had a chance to respond.

Implying more than she thought he intended, she was given a perfect opportunity and her curiosity couldn’t let it go.

“So, how can I be so intriguing to you in such a short period of time? We just met. You don’t know anything about me.”

He looked down and paused momentarily before answering.

“Tonight … isn’t the first time I’ve seen you here,” he admitted, still looking down. “I’ve been here late at night before.” He slowly looked up at her, carefully reading her expression.

As it finally starting making sense, she was filled with an unexpected flood of emotions. She was both flattered and profoundly confused at his interest in her. Realizing that he had likely been watching her for who knows how long actually didn’t make her feel uncomfortable, which surprised her. If anything, his very presence put her at ease.

“How long?” she asked softly. It was all she could manage to say. His piercing gaze made it hard to concentrate again.

He seemed to know exactly what she was asking.

“A while,” he said quietly, “longer than I’d like to admit.”

Her heart skipped a beat and a chill went down her back. He noticed her reaction and smiled apologetically. She didn’t quite know what to make of all of this but strangely, was far from being upset by it.

“Did you know I’d be here tonight?”

“Yes,” he replied evenly.

She wondered how many nights she had come here in the last several weeks when he had been here too. She never really took notice of the other customers in the shop, but surely she would have noticed him. She wondered how lost in her books she usually got when she was here. Would she have even been aware of a secret admirer, if that’s what he was? It sounded absurd.

“Why did you choose tonight to talk to me?”

“That wasn’t entirely planned. You saw me downstairs.”

It was hard not to. She almost blushed again as she remembered.

“But you came upstairs, to me.”

He held up the bookmark and smiled.

“You gave me an excuse.”

She couldn’t get used to his smile. It was overwhelming. She tried in vain to get a hold of herself. It wasn’t just his beauty that made her feel the way she did. When he looked at her and spoke to her this way she felt connected to him in a genuinely real way. It was unfamiliar and as much as she didn’t want to admit it, wonderful.

He sensed her apparent uneasiness and leaned away from her slightly in an attempt to put her at ease.

“I apologize if this is strange for you. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

The words strange or uncomfortable didn’t seem to apply here. Truthfully she couldn’t find a word for what she felt at this moment.

“Strange no, confusing maybe.”

This threw him completely.

“Why is it confusing?”

She didn’t exactly know how to explain it to him or even to herself. This whole scenario was definitely unchartered territory for her.

“It’s just hard for me to understand … why you would take so much of an interest in me.” Or even notice her for that matter, she thought to herself.

His expression was hard, unreadable for a few moments, until it finally softened as if he had just solved a puzzle. He smiled softly and looked directly into her eyes as he leaned in again.

“Trust me, from my perspective it’s extremely easy to understand.”

He didn’t elaborate. He simply looked at her with warm eyes as if trying to convey the extent of his feelings. His answer was somewhat cryptic yet she knew exactly what he meant. For some unfathomable reason he was drawn to her. To say that she was drawn to him as well was an understatement. The attraction was instant and magnetic.

As she leaned in slightly looking into his eyes, she realized his answer pleased her more than she wanted to admit. It was hard to believe she could have feelings of this magnitude toward someone she had just met and it didn’t make sense to her.

Things like this didn’t happen every day, she knew that, and not to her, yet she wished she could understand why tonight of all nights their paths had crossed.

As the reality of the situation began to finally settle in, anxiety inevitably shot through her and a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach told her she should probably go home. As difficult as it was, her instincts told her that leaving was the right thing to do.

Looking away from him she subtly began gathering her things.

Oblivious to her sudden internal battle he interrupted her before she could leave.

“I have another question, if you don’t mind,” he asked politely.

She knew she shouldn’t stay any longer, but she was curious.

“Imagine that,” she replied with a smile, trying to stay casual.

He returned the smile, sensing her apprehension.

“Earlier you said that if art touches you on an emotional level, you like it. I was wondering how the painting at the stairs made you feel.”

He seemed to have an uncanny ability to ask the one question she had no desire to answer. She couldn’t imagine why it mattered to him what she thought of the painting, and tried to think of a way to answer him without admitting too much.

“It’s hard to put it into words.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Art is a personal thing.”

As she looked down she realized it was difficult to be anything but completely honest when she looked at him and she didn’t trust herself.

His silence told her he respected her privacy, which she appreciated.

As they sat quietly together in a comfortable silence, she reflected on how incredibly rare this whole thing was. This was definitely not how she had envisioned her evening playing out tonight, meeting him.

Though her heart was telling her to stay there with him, her rational, determined mind was stronger, as always. She had answered his final question and it was now time to go.

Slowly she gathered her things and stood up. He looked up at her, clearly trying to understand what was happening. She stood in place for a moment not wanting to move. She could feel his eyes on her as she took a small step forward.

“Don’t go,” he whispered.

Her heart sank. She took another small step.

“Please,” he said, slightly louder.

She stopped and was now standing next to him, only inches away.

Deep down she wanted to stay, she couldn’t deny that. She wanted to learn everything there was to know about this man, wanted to answer any question he asked, wanted to talk to him for hours. But she had to leave. She had her own reasons for leaving and she wished she could explain them to him.

“I think I should go now,” she barely uttered, taking another step.

“Wait,” he said, looking up at her. “You said that I don’t know you, or anything about you.”

“Yes.”

She didn’t look at him, afraid of what she might do or say if she did.

“I’d like to, very much.”

In a flash, she was sure that every ounce of blood in her body had reached her face at once and she instantly felt hot. She felt light headed and her heart began to race again. She could feel his eyes on her and desperately wanted to look at him.

She tried to focus and think of what to say.

“I’m flattered,” she breathed, “but I can’t. I’m sorry, I wish I could.” More than he would ever know she wished she could stay there with him. “I really have to go.”

As she took a few more steps, he stood up. He appeared as if he was about to follow her but something stopped him. In response she halted, as if being pulled back toward him.

He stood in place for a moment before slowly walking toward her. He lightly touched her hand with his as she quickly looked up at him. His light touch was unexpectedly amazing. Every nerve in her body suddenly seemed to come alive at once. It was the first time they had stood face-to-face and she noticed that he was a good bit taller than she was. Her heart felt as if it would pound out of her chest as she looked up into his stunning eyes.

“Will you please give me one thing then?”

At this moment she would have given him anything he asked for.

“Yes.” Her voice cracked into a whisper.

“Your name.”

Surprised by his simple request, she breathed a sigh of relief. She didn’t know if she would ever see him again and if nothing else, she was actually comforted by the idea of him knowing her name.

“Rebecca,” she answered evenly, looking into his eyes one last time.

As a faint smile crossed her face she slowly looked away and started toward the stairs, feeling his eyes on her with every step.

She hesitated for a moment at the top step, wanting to look back at him again but thought better of it. The temptation to stay would be too much to resist.

Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, trying to ignore the sinking feeling overtaking her. Before she could change her mind, she quickly opened her eyes and pushed forward, down the stairs and out the front door of her wonderful oasis without looking back.

The rest of the book can be found on Amazon.

Book extract: Dear Lizzie

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Here is the first chapter of Dear Lizzie, the new book by Annie Lyons, which is published tomorrow by Carina UK.

Chapter One

Late July

 

The church was chilly. This came as a surprise to Lizzie Harris, walking in out of the summer sunshine, and she pulled her jacket more tightly around her for comfort. She almost hadn’t come today. As she got ready that morning, she had thought about what would happen if she simply didn’t turn up. No one would come to find her. Nothing would change. She would simply be living up to expectations. But she had come. She had come because of one person; the person she cared most about in the world and one of the few who cared about her.

So Lizzie had pulled herself together, put on the purple dress she’d bought especially for the occasion, dragged herself into her car and arrived uncharacteristically early. She had watched as other people arrived, keeping a safe distance, not wanting to attract anyone’s attention. Not yet. She wasn’t quite ready to face it yet. Every time she spotted a recognisable face, she closed her eyes and told herself that she was doing the right thing. She had to see this through, had to be strong. She waited until five minutes before the service was due to start. Only a few stragglers were entering the church now. It wasn’t seemly to be late on such an occasion. Lizzie had to tell her feet to keep walking as she made her way up the path and into the church. Breathe and walk. Her stomach was churning with nerves as she looked around the packed church. She spotted Joe sitting at the front, his arm wrapped around Sam, who looked impossibly small for a boy of ten. They were both staring out towards the front of the church, where the coffin sat draped in a purple silk Pashmina. One mourner, a man of around fifty, approached them, resting a hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe looked round and smiled weakly at him. Lizzie wondered if he might recognise her and lifted her hand in greeting but he turned to the front again, his face glassy with grief, pulling his son closer to him. The congregation was a riot of colour, the women all dressed in varying shades of purple, the men wearing purple ties or buttonholes as requested. The church was heavy with the scent of lavender and ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ was piping through the speakers to the accompanying sound of subdued whispers and the occasional loud sniff.

Lizzie was wondering where to sit when she became aware of someone standing next to her. She turned and looked into the face of a woman worn down by grief.

‘Hello, Mum,’ said Lizzie in a hoarse whisper.

Her mother surveyed her as someone might look at a persistent stain and Lizzie noticed something else behind this, something which she had always seen in her mother’s eyes: disappointment.

‘Well at least you’ve made it to your sister’s funeral,’ she said. ‘But I hope you’re not thinking of embarrassing me by skulking at the back. At least do Bea the final courtesy of sitting at the front with her family.’ And with that she turned, her skirt a flash of purple as she made her way down the nave and took her place to Joe’s right.

Lizzie remained frozen to the spot. She had a sudden urge to rush out of the church, drive home and lock the door on the world. After all, who would really care if she did? It would confirm all her mother’s worst opinions of her and Joe would understand if she put it down to grief. He was hardly a man to challenge anyone; he’d certainly never challenged his wife.

Olivia Newton-John’s plaintive tones were fading and the congregation quietened in readiness for the service to begin. One of the vergers approached Lizzie and touched her gently on the elbow.

‘Lizzie?’ She turned to face a woman she recognised from her childhood; Evelyn Chambers, the vicar’s wife. ‘Do you want to go and take your place at the front?’ she said, ushering her forwards with practised efficiency. ‘The service is about to start.’

Lizzie wasn’t sure what she was doing as she made her way down the nave. She felt numb, almost as if she was watching herself from above, unable to control her own body. She had no choice but to keep going. She noticed the odd nudged elbow and whispered comment as she passed. She reached the front and looked to her mother, who ignored her with stiff-lipped coldness. Joe glanced up and gave her a grateful smile of recognition, gesturing for her to sit to Sam’s left. Lizzie took a deep breath and settled next to her nephew. He looked up at her in surprise and then, frowning at this father, said in a loud whisper, ‘Who is that?’ Lizzie could feel people around her shift at his words but kept her face fixed to the front as the service began.

 

******

 

Everyone agreed that it had been a wonderful send-off; a fitting tribute to a much-loved daughter, wife, mother and sister. The vicar had spoken warmly of the woman he’d known through childhood and into her adult life and the choir had sung with reverent fondness. Once Joe had delivered his trembling eulogy and the funeral cortege had carried Bea’s coffin down the central aisle with Sam leading them towards the door, the sobbing had reached a crescendo. Only Lizzie and her mother remained dry-eyed. Lizzie knew that her mother was not one to show her grief in public and Bea had given her sister strict instructions.

‘No wailing like a banshee during my big finale, Lizzie Lou. We’ve done our crying. I don’t want my last exit to be ruined by your mucus-stained face,’ she had grinned. Lizzie had worried whether she would be able to obey these wishes. It was all very well agreeing to these things when Bea was alive. It was the easiest thing in the world to make promises when the person you loved most in the world was still there. It was a different matter when they were no longer there to guide you. Lizzie hadn’t thought she would break down in a fit of hysterical sobbing but she was surprised at how surreal she found the experience of sitting in the church, staring at her sister’s coffin. She felt like a spectator, almost cocooned from the reality of the situation. She had no place here among these people. She was merely watching from the sidelines and she couldn’t connect the sister she had known with the body in the coffin. Lizzie felt numb as if momentarily anaesthetised against the grief of her loss; it was still there but buried deep inside.

The mourners in the pews behind them waited patiently for Lizzie and her mother to walk out together following the coffin. Ignoring her daughter completely, Stella Harris made her way out into the aisle behind the procession. Lizzie felt panicked as all eyes were drawn to her. She could almost hear their thoughts. Surely she should be supporting her mother on today of all days. Mind you, she’s hardly been the supportive one. Not like Bea. Lizzie avoided their critical glances, concentrating instead on her sister’s coffin, taking courage from her presence in death as she had in life. She fell in step behind her mother and followed her out of the church.

Once outside, Lizzie felt the sunshine warm her face and shielded her eyes as she watched Joe and the other attendants slide her sister’s coffin into the waiting hearse. There was to be a cremation but Bea hadn’t wanted anyone to be there. ‘Too bloody sad. When they shut that curtain like the door finally closing on your life? No thanks. I want it to be a celebration. I want it to be like the kind of party I would enjoy. Why does everyone get so hung up and sad about death when it’s actually as natural as life?’ Most people didn’t share Bea’s sentiment. They honoured her wishes; they wore purple and played the music she’d requested, but they were the ones left behind. They were the ones who had to deal with life without her and particularly when they saw Sam, a ten-year-old robbed of his mother, it couldn’t be a celebration. It was a tragedy playing out in front of them.

It was different for Lizzie. She didn’t know their version of Bea’s world. She only knew the world of Lizzie and Bea as sisters. She wasn’t part of Bea’s life in this community, as a successful lawyer, devoted wife and mother, beloved daughter. To Lizzie, she was Bea. Just Bea. The one who had picked her up so many times, who had always been there for her. She was the only reason Lizzie was here now and as she watched the hearse pull away, she could see no other reason to linger.

As the mourners began to disperse, Lizzie decided to escape. She planned to go back home, put on her pyjamas and watch Bea’s and her favourite film, Grease, whilst drinking as much red wine as she could handle or possibly a little more. She wanted to slip away from the helpless feeling that her life was like a ship, cut loose by her sister’s death, with no hope of getting back on course. How would she cope without Bea to guide and protect her? She had known this moment was coming for the past six months. She and Bea had talked about it but still, nothing quite prepared you. In a fight or flight world, Lizzie’s instinct had always been to flee but you couldn’t flee death. You could ignore it, pretend it wouldn’t happen, dismiss it from your mind, but you couldn’t escape its inevitability.

When Joe had phoned Lizzie to tell her that Bea had died, she had greeted his call with quiet resignation. It had felt odd to be receiving news about her sister from a man she hardly knew. She had wanted to end the call as quickly as possible. Joe’s voice had been heavy with grief and Lizzie had no idea what to say to him.

‘Thank you for letting me know,’ she had said, embarrassed by the inadequacy of her response.

‘I’ll call you with the funeral arrangements,’ he had said before ringing off.

Lizzie had stared at the phone after he’d gone wondering how she was supposed to feel. Bea was gone. It was over. Lizzie was alone now. And yet, there she stood, two feet on the ground, the sun shining outside, life continuing without her sister. Part of her was stunned. She had half-expected the walls to start closing in or the ground beneath her feet to shift at the moment of Bea’s death. She had also expected tears – wracking sobs of loss and grief – but none came. Minutes became hours became days. Lizzie thought about Bea during every waking second at her job in the bookshop, on trips to the shops, whilst making dinner but still no tears came. Every night she would fall into bed exhausted from thoughts of her sister but did not cry; she couldn’t and the worst thing was, Lizzie didn’t know why. She had thought that the funeral might be a catalyst for tears but she remained dry-eyed. The grief was still there though. It felt like something heavy and solid at the very centre of her being.

She could see Joe and her mother surrounded by people, all wanting to offer their condolences, as if their words could soothe away the pain of loss. They were all glad it wasn’t one of their loved ones and who could blame them? No one approached her and she felt this gave her the permission she needed to escape. She put on her sunglasses and started to walk to her car without a backward glance. Once inside she exhaled with relief and placed the keys in the ignition. It was at this moment that she heard a light tapping on her window. She glanced over to see Joe’s worried face peering in at her with a frowning Sam at his side. She felt her insides sink with shame as she pressed the button to open the window. How could she let this poor bereaved man and his son follow her as she tried to escape? His opening words made her feel even worse.

‘’llo, Lizzie. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to speak to you in the church. I just wanted to say thank you for coming.’

Lizzie mumbled a response along the lines of, ‘of course’. There was an awkward pause and she wondered if it would be okay to start the car, whilst inwardly praying that she didn’t run over her brother-in-law’s foot as she sped off.

‘We’re having a party for Mum,’ said Sam, his face fierce and suspicious. He was clearly offering her a dare.

‘Oh right, well I’m not sure if –’ stammered Lizzie.

‘You should come,’ said Sam as if it was the simplest thing in the world.

‘Sam, I’m not sure if Lizzie is able to come,’ said Joe, trying to placate the situation and making Lizzie feel both grateful and wretched at the same time.

‘Why not? Mum would want her to be there. She’s her sister,’ declared Sam.

‘Well of course, if you would like to come, we would love you to,’ said Joe.

Lizzie looked at Sam and knew that there was no getting out of this. He had an air of Bea in his frowning face; it was a look that said, ‘Come on sis, do it for me.’ And like everything else her sister had ever asked her to do, Lizzie agreed without question.

‘I’d love to come,’ she said with a small smile.

‘Excellent,’ said Joe. ‘We’ll see you back at the house.’

 

******

 

The Goode Family lived just outside Smallchurch very close to where Lizzie and Bea had grown up. When Bea and Joe married, she had made it clear that she wanted to stay near to her parents and give their children the countryside upbringing that she had enjoyed. Joe had been so in love with Bea that he would have lived in a sewer if she’d told him to and so they settled in a rambling old farmhouse surrounded by large fields and impressive views over rural Kent. Bea loved it because its boundary was flanked by cobnut bushes and fruit trees. The house itself needed a great deal of work and they had spent a lot of money and time making it into a comfortable family home.

Lizzie had never been to the house but she wasn’t surprised by its size or decor. Her sister had always had great taste and an eye for style. She felt sick as she parked her car at one corner of the gravel drive and made her way through the open front door. An impressively large staircase sat in the middle of the hall, sweeping up towards a wide landing. Lizzie imagined an exquisitely decorated Christmas tree sitting at the top of the stairs. When Bea and Joe bought the house, she remembered her sister telling her that, ‘it has room for two Christmas trees. I’ve always wanted a house big enough for two Christmas trees!’ Along with a lifelong passion for the musical achievements of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, Bea was also hopelessly devoted to all things festive. Lizzie smiled at the memory but the moment was interrupted as she heard voices approaching the door of the room to the right of the staircase. She made a beeline for the left-hand room. She needed to give herself a little more time before speaking to anyone. A buffet was laid out on a long rectangular table, which flanked one wall. Lizzie had been too nervous to eat breakfast that morning and felt queasy at the sight and smell of the food. She turned away and immediately caught sight of Sam. He was standing in front of the fireplace staring up at a large canvas photograph of him with his mother and father. It was an informal shot of the three of them, wide-eyed and laughing. Lizzie noticed Bea’s arms locked protectively around Sam’s body. If it hadn’t been for her sister staring down at her, Lizzie could have been looking at a photograph of any family. She felt as if she were intruding. This place had nothing to do with her. As she hesitated, Sam turned round to face her. It was like an electric shock jolting through her body. His resemblance to Bea was astonishing.

He didn’t smile but he wasn’t frowning any more either. His face was more a picture of curiosity. ‘Do you want a cake?’ he asked, wandering over to the food table and helping himself to a large chocolate muffin. ‘Mum and I made these before she died. We put them in the freezer so that they didn’t go off before the funeral,’ he added.

Lizzie’s stomach groaned with a mixture of nerves and hunger but there was something about Sam’s casual acceptance of her that made her take one. She nibbled the top. ‘They’re delicious,’ she said.

Sam seemed satisfied. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you my rope swing.’

She watched him walk towards the door, unsure whether she should follow. She had been on the verge of leaving and yet she was torn. He paused in the doorway and looked her straight in the eye. There it was again. That look. That determination.

‘Come on,’ he repeated.

Lizzie couldn’t refuse him any more than she could refuse his mother. She followed him out into the garden, across the sweeping lawn which led down to a stream. The rope swing hung from the bough of a sturdy-looking apple tree.

‘Can you hold my cake please?’ asked Sam. Lizzie obliged and watched as he took hold of the fat stick which served as a seat and swung across without a sound. He stared at her triumphantly. Lizzie realised that some sort of reaction was required so she said, ‘That’s very clever,’ although it sounded flat to her ears. Sam probably felt this too and swung back to stand next to her and reclaim his cake.

‘You can have a go if you want,’ he said offering her the stick. Lizzie didn’t think her mother would appreciate her estranged daughter making an exhibition of herself at Bea’s wake, although she suspected that Bea would have loved it.

‘It’s all right. I’m enjoying watching you,’ she said, realising that this was true. Sam nodded solemnly and embarked on another swing, cake in hand this time.

‘Why haven’t you ever come here before?’ he asked once he was back at her side. Lizzie admired his candour. For Sam, this was merely a question that needed an answer, whereas for Lizzie, it was a can of worms she’d stuffed in the back of the cupboard a long time ago. Why hadn’t she returned to the place of her childhood for fifteen years? Why had she stayed away so long?

‘Well, I live a little way from here.’

‘Where?’

‘Just outside London,’ said Lizzie hoping Sam’s geography wasn’t up to much.

‘That’s not far,’ he declared. Damn, thought Lizzie, why are kids so clued up these days?

‘Well I work a lot,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ said Sam, seeming to understand this. ‘Mum used to work a lot too before she got sick.’ Lizzie nodded, hoping the subject was closed. It wasn’t. ‘I suppose we could have come to visit you though.’

‘I suppose you could have.’

‘Why didn’t we then?’

Lizzie didn’t know what to say. This was the first time she’d properly met Sam and it was clear that he and Bea shared more than just facial resemblance. There was something in his honest and direct questioning that reminded her so much of her sister. ‘You’re very like your mum,’ she said fondly, hoping to buy a little time.

‘Everyone says that,’ observed Sam, sounding bored. ‘So why didn’t we see you then?’

Lizzie sighed. ‘It’s complicated.’

Sam kicked at a stone. ‘Adults always say that.’

Lizzie didn’t feel qualified to deal with this. Sam needed answers. She just wasn’t sure that she was the one to give them. ‘I used to see your mum.’ She knew how inadequate a response this was even before the words were out of her mouth.

Sam narrowed his eyes. ‘Don’t you like kids?’ It was black and white to Sam. You chose not to see me. You don’t like me.

‘It’s not that.’

‘What then?’ Lizzie was silent. ‘Is it something to do with Granny?’

‘Yes,’ said Lizzie uncertainly.

‘Because she never mentions you. Or rather we’re not supposed to mention you when she’s around.’

‘Oh. Right.’ At least I know where I stand, thought Lizzie. ‘Did your Mum ever talk about me?’

Sam shrugged. ‘Sometimes. She said you’d fallen out with Granny and so didn’t want to come home.’

Lizzie nodded. ‘That’s about the size of it.’

‘Do you miss my mum?’ he asked, eyeing her closely.

‘Very much,’ said Lizzie without hesitation.

Sam nodded, satisfied that he was getting an honest answer. ‘I’m going to get another cake,’ he said, heading back up the lawn without a backward glance.

Part of Lizzie longed for him to stay. It might be odd to confide your innermost feelings to a ten-year-old but Lizzie got the sense that he understood, that he knew Bea like she knew Bea; an uncomplicated relationship based on love and trust. They had both lost the source of their comfort and protection. The difference was that whereas Sam had his father and grandmother and no doubt plenty of friends to envelop and help him through his grief, Lizzie had no one. She was alone. She had deliberately built her life in this way because she’d always had Bea. Now that Bea was gone, she literally had no one to turn to. She felt her stomach twist with panic at the realisation of this truth. She stared at the house, trying to imagine her sister appearing at the back door, waving and wandering down the garden to join her.

‘I miss you Bea,’ she whispered. She considered going back inside to find Sam but then she risked bumping into Joe or, even worse, her mother. It was at that moment that she noticed a male figure make his way out onto the lawn and walk towards her. At first she thought it might be Joe but as she shielded her eyes against the sun, she recognised him. She felt an overwhelming urge to run away but he was striding purposefully towards her, waving and smiling so she stayed rooted to the spot. It was fifteen years since she had seen him and as she watched him stroll down towards her she was immediately transported back in time. She remembered how her heart had surged whenever he had walked into the room, her teenage self filled with longing for his attention. He had made her feel protected and special until it had all turned sour. He must have noticed her guarded expression because at first he looked unsure, studying her face for a clue as to whether he was welcome. She told herself to stay calm. She didn’t need to deal with this now, in fact she was unsure if she ever wanted to deal with the hurt this man had caused her. She wanted to be on her way. She looked into his clear blue eyes and did her best to keep her face neutral. He smiled confidently. He had always been confident. It had been one of the things she had liked most about him. As a teenager he had been boyishly good-looking with the charm of youth to carry him. Age had allowed him to grow into his looks, and his once dark hair was now flecked with a little grey.

‘Hello, Lizzie,’ he said. ‘It’s good to see you.’ His voice was warm and genuine but Lizzie wasn’t about to be drawn in by his easy charm. Too much had happened since the time she had been his girlfriend. He had been one of the reasons she’d left Smallchurch and one of the reasons why she hadn’t come back until now.

‘Hello, Alex,’ she said coldly. He either didn’t pick up on her tone or chose to ignore it.

‘How are you holding up?’ he asked, reaching out to touch her on the arm.

She took a step back. ‘Yes, okay thanks,’ she said. It was a complete lie but she wasn’t about to share confidences with this man. ‘I was just leaving actually.’

He looked surprised but gave a small nod of his head. ‘Of course. I just had to tell you how sorry I am about Bea. I know how close you were.’ His eyes misted with grief and Lizzie felt enraged. How dare he try to hijack her loss? How dare he try to act as if he understood anything? ‘If there’s anything I can do,’ he said.

Such kind words, thought Lizzie, if they were uttered by another person, but from Alex they were like a cheap unwanted gift. She could have reacted in a hundred different ways, said everything she’d practised in her head over the years, but today wasn’t about Alex Chambers. Today was about Bea; her darling lost sister. ‘I’ll be fine thank you,’ she said turning away and walking back towards the house. It was another neat lie. Five reassuring words that meant nothing.

She hurried through the patio door, past a small gathering of people chatting in hushed tones over the strawberry pavlova. They turned as she entered but she ignored them all. She was giving herself permission to flee. Bea wouldn’t want her to stay, not after her encounter with Alex. She had almost made it to the front door when she heard a voice behind her.

‘Oh Lizzie. I didn’t realise you were here.’ From another person, this might have been a declaration of pure joy but from Stella Harris it managed to sound both cold and critical.

Lizzie turned to face her mother. In the gloom of the church, she hadn’t looked at her mother’s features properly. Now, in Bea’s brightly lit hall with the sun streaming into Stella’s face, Lizzie was shocked by how much she had aged in fifteen years. Her mother had been forty-five when she had last seen her. If someone had described Stella as being in her late sixties, Lizzie would have believed it. Her face was a mass of wrinkles, like a map of her life’s experiences. She observed her daughter, unsmiling, unimpressed. Lizzie couldn’t bear that look. ‘I’m going now. Would you say goodbye to Joe for me?’

‘I most certainly shall not,’ snapped Stella.

Her mother wanted a fight. Lizzie saw this now. ‘Goodbye,’ said Lizzie turning away. She couldn’t handle this. Not today. She knew it had been a mistake coming to the house. It was like being smacked in the face by the past over and over again. She might have been able to deal with this if Bea had been here but not on her own.

‘Well I don’t suppose I’ll see you again then,’ said her mother. There was something about the way she said this that was less critical and more regretful.

Lizzie turned back and looked at her, seeing sadness in her face that mirrored her own. She couldn’t bear it. ‘Goodbye, Mum,’ she repeated.

She hurried to her car and flung open the door, flopping down into the driver’s seat and telling herself that it was nearly done. She had almost made it through the day. All she had to do was drive home and she would be safe. Someone tapped on her window and she jumped. It was Joe. He was holding his hands up in apology, a parcel tucked under his arm. She sighed as she wound down the window.

‘Hi, Joe. Sorry, I was going to say goodbye but I couldn’t find you,’ she lied.

‘No worries,’ said Joe ever reasonable. ‘I just have something I need to give you. From Bea.’ He held out the parcel and Lizzie stared at it. As soon as she saw Bea’s writing and the name, ‘Lizzie Lou’, she felt her pulse quicken.

‘Do you know what’s inside?’ asked Lizzie, her voice almost a whisper as he handed the parcel through the open window.

Joe shook his head. ‘No, but Bea was very precise in her instructions. I was to give it to you on the day of her funeral. You know what she was like,’ he said with a fond smile.

Lizzie nodded. She looked down at the writing and ran her hand across it. Joe took a step back as if he were intruding on a private moment. ‘Well, I should let you go,’ he said. ‘Thank you for coming. It meant a lot to Sam and me.’

Lizzie knew that she should have a better response for Joe, something heartfelt and consoling, but she was too caught up with thoughts of Bea’s parcel and the need to be on her way. She laid it carefully on the seat next to her, like a mother placing her newborn in a cot.

‘Thank you, Joe. Goodbye,’ was all she could manage before she drove off. She didn’t make it very far before she pulled over at the side of the road and sat with her hands on the steering wheel, staring out at the bright summer sky, her mind racing with thoughts of her sister. She picked up the parcel and hugged it to her chest as the tears fell easily and the sobs overcame her so that she thought they would never stop.