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 2 or you can pre-order your copy here.