A chilling tale, written with humour and drenched in the sights and perfumes of the rural Dordogne, a must-read for those who like a romance with a ghostly twist. Curl up by the fire and revisit your holiday in France ....
Excerpt One: Melissa arrives at the mill and loves it. She has a swift look around while Rory prepares a meal for her. (A bolly is what the locals call a verandah)
The white table already held a bowl of salad, a wicker basket of bread and the opened bottle of wine. He was fast and efficient. No sooner had she taken her seat than he put a plate of steak before her and offered the salad bowl.
She tilted her head back and smiled at him. How good to have a man prepared to cook for her. “This looks delicious. Does Jonny plan to do a lot of work here?”
He picked up his cutlery and cut into his steak. “The grand plan is for two bedrooms and a bathroom on the lower level so Jonny can invite friends. The bathroom’s finished, but the rest is a muddle.”
That meant no bedrooms on the lower floor, and only one on this level. An ugly suspicion bloomed in her mind. Melissa heaped salad onto her plate and replaced the steel salad servers carefully in the bowl. “Then am I right in thinking there is only one bedroom here?”
The chilly edge to her voice brought his head up.
His peacock blue eyes narrowed. “’fraid so. That isn’t going to be a problem, is it?”
Dismay at his deception roared through her, and small flash of fear and timidity followed it. Yes, one bedroom most certainly would be a problem. She wasn't ready. Not yet. Talk about being taken for granted—the conceited ass expected her to tumble into bed with him without a second thought. She inhaled sharply. “It is presumptuous of you to assume I’ll share a bed with you right away.”
He stopped eating and stared at her, surprise etched into the lines of his face.
Had she misjudged him? Maybe she had jumped to the wrong conclusion. He'd be insulted if that was the case. So she offered a sweet smile and spoke gently. “Unless I’m wrong and you intend to sleep on the sofa?”
“Presumptuous?” His gaze darted across her face. Presumably he was trying to read her expression. He didn’t know how to answer her. Melissa lifted her brows slightly, smiled without opening her mouth and waited.
He put down his cutlery and picked up his wine glass. “What do you mean?”
She frowned. How could he pretend he did not know what she meant? “We are not lovers.” She bit off each word. “We may become so, but right now I expect a room of my own.” Heat rose through her skin, and her hand trembled on the rim of the table. She whipped it out of sight. Let him make of it what he would.
Rory swallowed too soon, choked and coughed.
He flung himself out of his chair, coughing, one fist to his mouth as he strode across the bolly. As the fit lessened, he thrust one hand against the oak upright supporting the roof and stood there, head down, breathing hard.
Annoyance did not stop her admiring the way his shoulders heaved with his breathing, or the graceful way he stood even when he was in some distress. His attention was not on her. It was the first time she'd seen him rattled, and his reaction interested her. When his breathing calmed, he slowly strolled back to the table and took his seat.
His eyes still watered a little, and he blinked rapidly to clear them. “Christ, I feel as if all sorts of pits are yawning at my feet. Would you believe me if I said I honestly hadn’t thought about it?”
Melissa sipped her wine. She didn't believe him for a moment. “How could you ignore it? There is only one bed.”
He winced, as if her words pained him.
Refusing to weaken, Melissa stabbed at her steak. How arrogant was he? Did he think every woman in the world begged to be bedded?
Birdsong sounded all around them in the warm green silence.
Her heart flipped over at the sound. His deep brown voice stirred her senses just as it had the first time they’d met. She must get a grip, or she’d be lost. Her pulse ran fast and her chest tightened. This was important. She looked up, prepared to fight.
Watchful intelligence overrode his initial surprise. Now he sat back and sipped his wine and she remembered he was a successful solicitor, with an important and well-known law firm.
“Please don’t feel under any pressure. We’ve only just met, and…I don’t want to spoil things by rushing them. If you want to sleep alone, that’s fine.” He hesitated, as if he might add some comment, and then thought better of it. “There’s a large squashy sofa in the living room. I’ll sleep there.”
The tension in her shoulders disappeared. She ought to be pleased he’d capitulated, but something rankled. She’d expected him to try and change her mind, persuade her. He might have tried. Part of her, inexplicably miffed that he hadn’t, made her say, “We’ll toss a coin for it. That would be fair.”
He raised his wine glass and offered an agreeable smile. “I’ll drink to that.”
Instantly she regretted the surge of independence that made her make the offer, and hated the easy arrogance that allowed him to accept her challenge. He'd probably win, and she'd be the one on the sofa. She'd been outmaneuvered.
He had such charm and knew how to use it. Once, in a rare mother-daughter-sharing-secrets evening, she’d asked her mother what had led her to the one-night stand with Lt. Col. John Hazlerigg. Her mother had smiled, rolling the wine glass against her cheeks as she considered the question.
“Power,” she’d said at last. “Not money, but a physical presence and an air of command. Charisma, allied with such certainty your knees—well, mine in this case—wobble and everyone knows he’s the alpha male in the pack.”
Melissa had spent the next week analyzing the concept, but reached no definite conclusion. Now that she’d met Rory, she understood something of her mother's explanation. There had been that odd tingling in the back of her knees when Jonny introduced them, and the way her heart skipped about in her chest when he spoke in that gorgeous voice.
If she’d ever met her father, she might have had some standard to judge by, but Hazlerigg was married and out of bounds. Mother had refused to inform her lover that he had fathered a child because he would have felt impelled to marry her. That would have ruined his career and broken the heart of his then fiancée.
Melissa’s fingers twisted together around her wine glass. She rarely thought about her illegitimacy now, and had never betrayed her mother's secret. But the old, churning feelings returned whenever she was reminded of it. Tonight she had an additional worry. If Rory ever found out, what would he say? His parents would certainly hate her. Relationships could not survive without honesty, yet she was constrained by a promise never to speak of her father.
“This dressing is delicious.” Her voice sounded brittle in her ears.
Not speaking of her father had been hurtful all through her childhood. When the other kids boasted of theirs, Melissa had nothing to offer and suffered agonies trying to hide the fact. Promising herself that the same sort of relationship would not do for her, she had vowed never to sleep with a man until she knew him really well. Maybe even until she was married to him. Adrian had been a terrible mistake.
“Easy enough to make here. Garlic is fresh and olive oil plentiful. What were you daydreaming about?”
“Oh, nothing special.” She glanced up, smiled brightly at Rory while she tried to think of something to cover her lies. “Listening to the birds. They sound so close and there are so many. It’s not like this back home, is it?”
Rory cleared the plates, and the break gave her time to regain her composure. Another glass of wine helped calm her, and when Rory produced strawberries for dessert, she exclaimed in genuine pleasure. When they were eaten, Melissa stretched out her legs toward the evening sunshine and let him clear the table. Two glasses of wine, a good meal and she was more at ease with herself.
Excerpt Two. Melissa volunteers to sleep on the sofa instead of Rory.
Melissa looked at her watch. It was well past midnight. The sofa was comfortable, but the unaccustomed heat kept her awake. Spending summer in a romantic old water mill in the Dordogne did have disadvantages. When she ran tentative fingers over her flanks, her skin was slick with moisture.
The warm breeze from the open window moved through the room, but brought little relief. Crickets chirped so vigorously they might have been sitting on the hearthstone five feet away. A cold drink would be good. She scrambled off the sofa and tiptoed across the floorboards, hoping she wouldn’t step on any insect life. With her hands under the kitchen tap, she welcomed the gush of cold water, gulped some from her cupped palm and ran her damp hands over her face.
Fumbling her way through the shadows to the door, she released the latch and stepped outside.
That was better. Cool air breathed across her skin. Ignoring the quick rustle of lizards scurrying toward crevices in the old walls, she strolled to the chairs, pale and cold in the moonlight.
She sank into one of them, and flinched at the coldness of the plastic against her skin. Stars blinked above the massed ranks of dark trees. A breeze that never reached the valley floor swept across the topmost leaves of the tall trees in the meadow and produced the soft susurration in the air that was already familiar to her.
Rory slept in the big bed on the other side of the wall. He did not like their current sleeping arrangements. The tightening of his mouth, the flexing of his jaw muscles had shown that, and said very clearly that he’d let her have her way but he was not the kind of man who gave up easily. Had his pride suffered when she refused to share his bed? He had certainly been surprised. Would he try and persuade her, or sulk until she gave in?
It had been a good decision not to let Rory sleep on the sofa for then she would have felt beholden to him. Much better that she owed him neither gratitude nor thanks at this point.
She stroked her thighs. Already the slickness dried from her skin. A wisp of long grass whisked along the flagstones, breathed across her foot and vanished. Rory had shown her a shed snakeskin as a warning not to be frightened if she saw the owner one day. The fragile, almost translucent skin had been trapped between the stones of the bolly and the old drain not four feet from where she sat.
A cold breeze wandered by. Melissa hugged herself against the sudden chill. Perhaps this was a crazy idea after all. Flickers of movement caught her eye. For no reason, her heart thudded in her chest. With her teeth pressing on her lower lip, she stared at the western end of the bolly where one of the four oak pillars supporting the tiled roof stood out sharp and clear in the moon's glow.
Beyond them, the shrubs and rose bushes were gray against the dusty, moonlit ribbon of the drive. Nothing moved. She heard nothing but the soft sound of the breeze, yet her heart bounced faster, as if she were in danger. Muscles tense, she sat poised, ready to run.
The shadows made it difficult to see anything. The blackness moved and twitched close in against the house wall, less than ten feet away. A pale shifting blur morphed into hands and a face. Melissa’s fingers clung to the chair arms while she strained to see through the darkness. Hair lifted on the back of her neck and goose bumps sprang on her arms. She stared at two pale blurs, one above the other, moving very close together. Sure it must be some young couple seeking privacy, she opened her mouth to call out. But some instinct held her rigid and silent. What if they weren't real?
Her heart beat so loudly that whoever lurked by the wall must surely hear it. She forced herself to inhale slowly and quietly. Her heartbeat slowed a little. The air around her was cold. It’s always cold when—she slammed down on the thought about ghosts before it formed in her mind. She looked at the space between herself and the door, and the door and the dark, shifting shape.
She could reach the door. She had to.
The chair scraped across the flagstones and drowned the slap of her bare feet as she hurtled into the mill, slammed the door and rattled the bolt home.
Flexed from the hips, palms braced against the half glass door, she waited, mouth open, panting. Through the mottled glass and the wrought iron Perigourdine goose that guarded it, moonlight lit the grass beyond the bolly. Nothing moved. Her breathing slowed. She remembered she’d seen a baseball bat by the door and groped for it without taking her gaze from the door. The smooth wooden shaft came comfortingly to her hand.
Something creaked behind her. Melissa whirled on a sharp indrawn breath. The bat cocked and ready, she watched the door to the hall open. A large, shadowy form ambled into the living room. “Wha’s the matter? Did you shout?”
“There’s somebody out there.”
“On the bolly.” She flung out an arm and rattled her knuckles on the goose guard. “Ow.”
Rory ducked his head, ran both hands over his face. Straightening his shoulders, he walked toward the door. “I’d better have a look.”
Melissa stepped aside. He stooped, fumbled for the bolt in the gloom and pulled the door open. Melissa held out the baseball bat. “Take this.”
Rory blinked at the three feet of pale, solid wood and made no move to take it. “I could kill someone with that.”
“Take it.” She thrust it into his hand. It seemed imperative he have some protection. There was something nasty out there.
Reluctantly, Rory hefted it and stepped across the threshold. “Put the lights on.”
Melissa pushed the door curtain aside and ran her palm down the bank of switches. Light bloomed inside the mill, and floodlights snapped on at each end of the bolly. Startled birds squawked, complained and clattered about in the trees.
“There’s nothing here, Melissa. Come and look.” He sounded wide awake.
Suddenly aware that she was wearing only a tee shirt, Melissa whipped the door curtain across her hips and peeped around the doorjamb.
Moonlight emphasized the broad shoulders tapering down to a lean waist and flat stomach. Wrinkled, striped boxers hung low on one hip. His hair stuck up about his head, and the baseball bat dangled from the fingers of one hand. The width of his chest and the prominent muscles of his arms and thighs were reassuring.
“They might—” Her breath caught in her throat as all her initial attraction to Rory rushed back and choked her. She coughed and tried again. “They might have gone round the back of the mill.”
Jen Black’s blog: http://ow.ly/5gg86
There’s a trailer for this on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGml0vxiJU8
SHADOWS is available from Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadows-ebook/dp/B006JBXJRA
Strong men, smart heroines, make for a good story.