Read the first 3 chapters of A Winter’s Tale

Release Date: November 30 2017

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Chapter 1

‘Kitty Shakespeare,’ he said, looking up at her, his lips curved into a smile. ‘That’s an unusual name. Where does it come from?’ Drake Montgomery was the executive assistant to the famous movie producer, Everett Klein. He had her resumé balanced on his lap like a napkin on a diner. His long legs were crossed in front of him, his elbows casually balanced on the armrests of his chair. On one side he was flanked by a beautiful woman he’d introduced as Lola, giving no clue as to her job title or reason for being there. On the other was Mr Klein’s other assistant, Sheryl. Older, with glasses that kept sliding down her nose, leading to a constant battle with her finger. She pushed them up, the glasses slid down. It was almost hypnotic to watch.

Taking a deep breath, Kitty looked around the room. Like all the others she’d been interviewed in, it was bland and impersonal. She’d long since given up hope that she’d be allowed into the producer’s office, where no doubt the walls were plastered with movie posters and photographs of actors, and the shelves stacked with constantly dusted awards. A mere intern – no, not even an intern, more a wannabe – didn’t merit entrance to the inner sanctum, and certainly not an introduction to the producer himself. Which in Everett Klein’s case seemed like more of a blessing than anything else. One of the top producers in Hollywood, he had a reputation that struck terror into everybody that came into contact with him. He was larger than life, with a temper to match.

And of course, everybody wanted to work for him. Having an internship at Klein Productions would be like getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. According to her supervisor at UCLA, even God stopped talking whenever Everett Klein opened his mouth.

With each second that passed, she could feel her heart rate increasing. She hated interviews. Hated talking about herself at all. Every time she opened her mouth she could feel her face heating up until she resembled a ripe strawberry. No wonder she hadn’t got an internship yet.

Drake lifted her resumé up to his eyes, frowning, as if it was the first time he’d read her details. Then he laid the paper back down on the table, folding his beautifully manicured hands on his lap. His eyes scanned her, taking her in. Was he staring at her bitten fingernails? She self-consciously shifted in her seat, trying to hide her hands beneath her as she kept the friendly smile on her lips. ‘Kitty’s the name my older sister gave me when I was born. She said I looked so cute all curled up in my cot, she thought I was a kitty cat. The name stuck.’ She glanced up at him to see if he believed her. It was only a partial lie, after all. The truth was much less heartwarming.

Though according to family lore it was Lucy, the eldest of her three sisters, who gave her the name, the rest was a fabrication. In reality their mother had walked back into the house from the hospital, carrying a newborn Kitty in her arms, and told Kitty’s sisters she had a present for them.

‘A baby?’ Lucy had said, her distaste obvious. She already had two sisters – why on earth would she need another? ‘I’d much rather have a KitKat.’

Yeah, Kitty wasn’t planning on sharing that one with the perfectly coiffed Drake Montgomery.

‘And you’re British?’ he asked, as if her clipped accent and place of birth on her resumé wasn’t enough to give it away.

She could feel the tell-tale beads of sweat breaking out on her forehead. Why wouldn’t her foot stop tapping? She really needed to focus. ‘That’s right. I was born in London. I moved here last year for a postgraduate course in Film Studies.’ She could feel the self-consciousness washing over her again. She swallowed hard, though her mouth felt as dry as the desert. They were all so intense as they stared at her, she felt more like a specimen than an interviewee.

‘And before that you worked with children?’ He winced, showing his perfectly white teeth.

‘I was a nanny for a few years, yes.’ She nodded vigorously. Was she overcompensating? She was definitely on her way to hyperventilating. ‘After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, so I took a job with an American couple living in London.’

Unlike most of her fellow students at UCLA, she hadn’t gone straight onto the course from her undergraduate studies. She hadn’t been able to afford to, for a start. It had taken two years of vigorous saving to pay for her year over here.

‘That must have been interesting.’ Sheryl, the other assistant, offered her the tiniest of smiles. ‘I imagine it’s a bit like looking after the acting talent.’

‘Except children have less tantrums,’ Lola joined in, her voice deadpan.

‘Well, yes.’ Drake cleared his throat, then hastily changed the subject, as though the possibility of children might be catching. ‘What made you decide to move over here to study?’

Kitty grabbed the glass of water that Sheryl had kindly placed on the table in front of her, lifting it up to moisten her lips. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest as she tried to remember the words she’d rehearsed over and again in the mirror. How was it possible to explain the way that movies had saved her as a child? The way she’d immersed herself in the silver screen, found herself comforted by strangers pretending to be somebody else. The way she’d dreamed of having the kind of Hollywood family that only existed in fairy tales.

She swallowed down her mouthful of water, catching Drake’s expectant gaze as she replaced the glass on the table. ‘I’ve always wanted to make movies,’ she said quietly. ‘From the earliest age I was fascinated by films. Not just the stories, but how they’re made.’ She offered him the faintest of smiles. ‘I want to transport people to another world, take their worries away for an hour or two. I want to inspire them and entertain them, and make them leave the movie theatre wanting more.’

It had sounded so much better when she said it in front of the mirror. For a start, her voice hadn’t been wobbly. And she hadn’t been wriggling in a hard plastic chair, either.

Lola checked her phone, then whispered rapidly in Drake’s ear, her voice too low to make out her words. Drake’s eyes grew wide. ‘Tell them I’m busy,’ he whispered back. He pulled his own phone out and looked at it, swallowing hard when he read the screen. He flicked the button on the side that turned the volume on to mute. The girl shrugged, and tapped a message on her own phone without bothering to look up.

Kitty’s hands started to tremble in her lap. How many interviews like this had she been on? She’d already lost count. The rejection letters were piling up on her desk in the Melrose apartment she shared with three other girls, and they were just from those who bothered replying. But this one felt even worse – they seemed to have forgotten she was even here. The bead of sweat that had been clinging to her hairline finally started rolling down her overheated face.

A buzzing noise cut through the loaded silence of the room. Drake checked his phone screen again, wincing when he saw the caller. ‘Shit,’ he whispered, clearly not wanting to be heard. ‘Now she’s calling me.’

Clearing his throat, he looked up at Kitty. ‘I really need to take this,’ he said, sliding his thumb across the screen, and lifting the phone to his ear. ‘Drake Montgomery speaking.’ He paused as he listened to the person on the other end. ‘No, Mr Klein’s on set today, he can’t be disturbed. He left strict instructions not to forward any calls.’ Another pause as he winced again. Clearly whoever was on the other end of the line wasn’t happy with the brush-off. ‘I understand, Mrs Klein, I really do. That must be awful. But I still can’t patch you through.’

The shouting that resulted from his refusal echoed around the room. Drake pulled the receiver away from his ear, his face a picture of panic.

‘Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a nanny around here?’ the female voice screeched. ‘I need Everett to pull in some favours. You get him on the phone right now, before I lose it, Drake. This is a life and death situation here.’

Lola let out a little snigger, and Drake looked at her, his eyes wide. ‘Hold on, Mrs Klein, I’m just in a meeting. Let me take this call outside.’ He stood up, and covered the mouthpiece. Kitty didn’t dare meet his eye, she was too afraid she’d join in the giggles.

‘I’m so sorry, I have to go, I think we have enough to make a decision, though,’ Drake said, looking almost apologetic. ‘Sheryl will show you out. Thank you for your time.’ With that, he pulled the door closed behind him, leaving her staring open-mouthed at the two women left in the room.

A glance at her watch told her she’d been here for less than ten minutes. That had to be a new record. It was only a matter of time before the rejection letter arrived in her mailbox, and she added it to the stack she already had.

It was officially time to start panicking.

* * *

Even after living in Los Angeles for a year, she still hadn’t got used to the temperate climate. As she left the shiny office building that housed Klein Productions, Kitty stepped onto the sidewalk, feeling the sun warming her skin as she walked towards the parking garage. It was early December, but the temperatures were still in the mid-sixties, warm enough to walk about the town without a jacket. She couldn’t remember the last time it had rained. Over here, a bad day consisted of a couple of wispy clouds that occasionally obliterated the sun. No wonder everybody looked so healthy and tanned all the time. It was almost impossible not to.

In a desperate attempt to look festive, the shops and offices lining the street had decorated their windows, filling them with fake snow and tinsel, and trees that sparkled with hundreds of tiny lights. But even with the faux bonhomie it was almost impossible to feel Christmassy. For a moment she thought about London – of the wet streets, of the darkness that descended before four in the afternoon, of the roasted chestnut stands and the hot-chocolate sellers, all the sights and aromas that made the season feel right.

And none of them were here.

It was strange, really, that a city whose livelihood depended on selling the idea of the perfect Christmas had to fake it for themselves.

Climbing into her small Fiat, she felt her phone buzzing in her pocket. She slid her keys into the ignition, leaving them dangling there, before lifting her mobile and checking the caller.

Cesca.

There was something about seeing her sister’s name that always made Kitty smile. As the youngest of four sisters, Kitty had always looked up to them, and even as adults she looked forward to speaking to them.

‘Hello?’

‘Kitty? How are things over there?’ Cesca’s voice was warm. ‘It’s pissing down here. I told Sam that next time he wants to film on location he needs to choose somewhere warm with a beach.’

‘I thought he was over all that lifeguard stuff.’ Sam Carlton – Cesca’s boyfriend – was an Italian-American actor, best known for his role in Summer Breeze, a movie franchise about a sexy teenage heart-throb. He’d met Cesca the previous summer, when they’d both been staying at a villa in Italy. She’d spent hours on the telephone telling her sisters how arrogant he was, and how much she disliked him, when they’d all known she was falling for him. The rest was Hollywood history. He’d declared his love for Cesca on a TV chat show then flown into London to sweep her off her feet.

One of the best parts of living over here in LA had been when Cesca and Sam were in town. Sadly, their visits to the city of stars were all too rare these days.

‘There’s only so much of the tortured, rain-soaked character movies I can take. Give me Sam in a pair of red shorts and nothing else any day.’

‘A million rabid girls would agree with you,’ Kitty said, smiling. ‘There was an outcry when he said he wouldn’t be starring in any more Summer Breeze movies.’

‘Yeah, well everybody’s replaceable, even Sam. And don’t tell him you said that thing about a million girls – his head is big enough already.’ Cesca’s voice lowered an octave. ‘And how are you? Have you had any news about your internship yet?’

‘I just left another interview,’ Kitty told her. She leaned her head back on her seat, her legs stretching out until her feet hit the pedals.

‘How did it go?’

‘About as good as the others,’ she said. ‘Which means terrible. I got all sweaty and panicky again, and said the stupidest things. I even made up an idiotic story about Lucy calling me a cat.’ It was time to face it, she was terrible at interviews. ‘Every time they asked me a question, I felt like an actor who’d forgotten his lines.’

‘Who was it with?’ Cesca’s tone was sympathetic. ‘Maybe Sam can have a word for you?’

‘It was for an internship with Everett Klein.’

‘Oh. Yeah, I don’t think Sam could say much to change that guy’s mind. I’ve heard on the grapevine he’s a bit of an arsehole.’

‘So have I,’ Kitty confessed. ‘But to be honest, I didn’t even meet him. It was his assistant who was supposed to interview me. But even he couldn’t concentrate on me, he was too busy talking to some screaming woman on his phone.’

Cesca sighed, her soft breaths echoing down the line. ‘Do you want me to talk to Sam about helping you with this? He must have connections, I bet he could help you find an internship in no time.’

‘That’s very kind of you, but no thank you.’ Kitty closed her eyes, blocking out the shaft of sun that had found its way through the gaps in the concrete wall. It wouldn’t feel right asking Sam for help. She didn’t want to be known as the girl who only found a job thanks to her sister’s boyfriend. ‘I want to do this by myself.’

‘There’s no shame in asking for help,’ Cesca said softly. ‘I should know, I thought I could do everything on my own, and I just ended up digging my own hole.’

Cesca’s problems were well known among the Shakespeare sisters. At the age of eighteen she’d written an amazing play, and won a contest to have it staged in the West End. What had followed was a spectacular fall from grace, leaving Cesca destitute and depressed, barely able to support herself.

Thank goodness she was on the mend now. During her time in Italy she hadn’t only managed to fall in love with Sam, but she’d also written a new play.

‘I’m not at rock bottom yet,’ Kitty said lightly, though sometimes it felt as though she might be teetering on the edge. ‘I’ll keep practising – who knows, maybe I’ll be able to get through one without breaking out in a sweat. But if things get worse, I’ll let you know, OK?’

‘OK.’ Cesca sounded reluctant to agree. ‘But seriously, think about the offer. Sometimes all you need is a little step up.’

‘I’ll think about it,’ Kitty promised, knowing full well she wouldn’t.

‘And we’ll see you for Christmas in London, won’t we?’ Cesca asked. ‘Have you booked your tickets yet?’

Kitty rolled her bottom lip between her teeth, thinking about her negative bank balance. She really needed to find some extra hours at the restaurant she’d been working at. ‘I haven’t made any concrete plans,’ she told her sister. ‘I’ll let you know when I do.’

There was a pause for a moment. Kitty could hear the pounding of the rain against the window wherever Cesca was. ‘You do that,’ Cesca finally said. ‘Because you know that Lucy will be grilling us all about our plans on Sunday.’

As the eldest of the four Shakespeare sisters, Lucy had played the maternal role in their family since their mother’s death when Kitty was only ten. She was the one who took care of them all, worried about them, and made sure they all video conferenced once a week.

‘I might be working on Sunday,’ Kitty said, trying to remember her rota that week.

‘You can run but you can’t hide,’ Cesca warned her. ‘If you don’t dial in, you know she’ll track you down.’

There were pros and cons to being the youngest of four sisters. Being constantly nagged was a definite con, even if their concern made her feel secretly warm inside.

After they ended their call, she started up the Fiat, driving in the direction of her small shared apartment in Melrose.

She needed to pause, regroup and work out how the hell she was going to find an internship. Her future depended on it, after all.

* * *

Her supervisor paused the video, turning in his black leather chair to look at her. ‘This is great, Kitty, really imaginative. I love what you did with the effects in the second half.’ He clicked on his mouse, dragging the cursor back across the screen to highlight what he meant. ‘What was your budget for this one again?’

Pretty much non-existent. Thank goodness for struggling actors desperate for any kind of exposure. ‘We did it on a shoestring,’ she told him. ‘Does it show?’

He shrugged. ‘A bit, I guess, but you’ve managed to achieve a lot out of very little. That’s a skill in itself.’ He scribbled something down on the printed assessment sheet in front of him. ‘I noticed a couple of errors at around ten minutes in, and near the end the boom was in shot a few times, but apart from that you’re doing great. If you do another run-through of edits, it should be ready to submit in January.’

She couldn’t hide the grin that threatened to split her face in two. This short movie was part of her final assessment, and if it was good enough it should smooth her path to graduation.

‘And how’s the search for an internship going?’ he asked her.

Kitty’s smile faltered a little bit. She tried to stabilise it, the muscles in her cheeks complaining at the effort. ‘I’ve had a few interviews, but nothing concrete yet.’

‘You’ll be fine. Even Kevin D’Ananzo has got a placement.’

That was supposed to be reassuring, Kitty guessed, but it was anything but. Even if he was bottom of the class, Kevin D’Ananzo’s interview skills were obviously better than hers. It wasn’t hard – a stuffed rabbit would probably have impressed Drake Montgomery more than she could.

Stuffing her laptop back into the leather case, she said goodbye to her supervisor and headed out across the campus and to the Young Research Library. The sun was high in the pale blue sky, the light casting shadows on the concrete sidewalks as the rays were halted by the leafy green trees. The campus was quiet –most undergrads had already returned home for their winter break, and her mind filled the silence with worries, about her lack of internship, her showreel, the two assignments that were due in before she left for Christmas.

She had almost reached the steps to the library – a grey, concrete building that always looked more like a parking garage than a place of learning – when her phone started to buzz. She crouched down, rifling through her heavy leather bag, eventually locating her cell on the third ring.

‘Hello?’

‘Is that Kitty Shakespeare?’ The female voice had a valley twang. For a moment Kitty held her breath, wondering if she was finally going to be offered an internship.

‘That’s me.’ Ten out of ten for originality, Kitty. She was really going to knock them dead.

‘My name’s Mia Klein. I hear you’re looking for a job.’

It felt a bit rude to say she had no idea who Mia Klein was. ‘Um, yeah, that’s right.’ She frowned, trying to work out who it was. She’d been to so many production companies they were all blurring into one. Mia Klein… hmm.

‘That’s wonderful. Can you start tomorrow?’

Kitty blinked in the bright sunlight. Tomorrow? ‘I don’t graduate until January,’ she pointed out. What was the best way to politely ask who Mia was and what company she was calling from? ‘I wasn’t looking for a placement until after that.’ She felt a little bit of excitement growing inside her. Had she finally managed to get an offer?

‘Can you work part time?’ Mia asked. ‘I really need you as soon as possible. It’s very important.’

‘I guess,’ Kitty said, still bent down on the concrete in front of the library. ‘Though I work part time in a restaurant, and it’s their busiest time of year. I’d need to work my notice.’

‘You’ll be fully compensated. If I give you an address can you come over tomorrow? Make sure you bring your ID and your references.’

‘Will a reference from my college supervisor work?’ Kitty asked. She didn’t think the restaurant manager would give her anything if she walked out at short notice.

‘I was hoping you’d be able to give me the details of your previous employers. The ones in London.’

Kitty frowned. ‘But I was a nanny over there.’

‘That’s right.’

‘They won’t really be able to say if I’d make a good intern or not,’ Kitty told her, still blinking away her confusion. ‘My supervisor here at film school will be much better placed to say that.’

Mia laughed, a tinkling waterfall of a chuckle that made Kitty feel about two foot tall. ‘Oh no, I’m not calling about an internship, I’m calling about a nanny position. I need somebody to look after Jonas, my son, over the holidays. His last nanny quit, and the new one can’t start until January.’

‘I’m sorry, did you say your name was Mia Klein?’ It was beginning to make sense.

‘Yes. My husband’s assistant passed me your resumé. Drake Montgomery. I believe you met him.’

‘Oh yes. I definitely met him.’ He’d made a big impression, after all. Especially when he abandoned the interview halfway through.

‘So can you make it tomorrow?’ Mia asked. ‘At about two.’

‘Um.’ Kitty looked up at the library, at the grey walls, the shiny windows, her crouched body reflected in the glass.

What was it her eldest sister always said? Never look a gift horse in the mouth. The only problem was, she wasn’t sure if this offer would turn out to be a gift or a poisoned chalice. It wasn’t an internship after all. Nowhere near. But it was an opportunity to prove herself, to get close to one of the top producers in the town.

She thought again of that pile of rejection letters, and of Kevin D’Ananzo, the student at the bottom of the class who’d still managed to achieve what she’d found so elusive.

‘Sure, I’ll be there,’ she finally said, standing and picking her bag up. ‘Just text me the address.’

 

 

Chapter 2

‘So your brother is back in town. How does that make you feel?’

Adam looked at his therapist for a moment, rubbing his bearded jaw with his hand. He felt like a blinding spotlight was shining on him every time the man asked him a question. How many more hours would he have to spend here, answering questions that made every muscle in his body tense up? It had been what, three months since his first appointment, which made it another month until he’d fulfilled his commitment. The one he’d made when the LAPD had agreed to only issue him with a caution.

Another month of inquisitions. He could do that, couldn’t he?

He moved his hand around to the back of his neck, rubbing the itchy skin there. His hair was getting long – longer than he’d ever worn it before. ‘I haven’t seen him,’ Adam admitted, pulling at the collar of his checked shirt. Even the mention of Everett made his skin crawl. ‘So it doesn’t make me feel anything at all.’

Martin – his therapist – stared at him for a moment, as though he could see through the bluster and the hair and the muscle Adam had cultivated as a shield. ‘But he’s here in West Virginia? He’s staying with your parents, right?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And you still haven’t seen him?’ Martin frowned. ‘Are you actively avoiding him?’

Adam stretched his long legs in front of him, noticing the dirt encrusted on his old, frayed jeans. It had been a while since he’d bought any new clothes. A while since he’d done much of anything, except whittle and sledge and pretend everything was OK. He was teetering on the edge between ‘he’ll get over it’ and ‘we need to talk about Adam’. He’d like to stay on the easier side if he could, even if that meant doing a little clothes shopping.

‘It’s a big house,’ Adam pointed out. ‘And I don’t even live in it. I’m at least a ten-minute walk from the main building. I don’t need to be going over there every day.’

‘When did they arrive?’

‘Three days ago.’

Martin raised a single eyebrow. Adam wanted to swallow the words back down. He knew way too much information for a man who was pretending not to care at all, and Martin knew it too.

‘Has he tried to speak to you?’ Martin asked, tapping his pen against his bottom lip. Over the past three months – and countless sessions – Adam had noticed Martin do this often.

‘Not that I know of.’ Adam couldn’t work out if that was a half-truth or a lie. At the end of the day they were both the same thing – he of all people should know that. Lies were never white, they were dark and sharp and cut people like a knife.

‘I really think it would be good for the two of you to meet again.’ Martin’s voice was earnest. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his woollen trousers, the pen still grasped in his hand. ‘You’ve not spoken to him for so long, you’ve built him up in your mind to be some kind of demon. If you talk to him, you’ll realise he’s as human as you or me.’

Adam shook his head. ‘Not gonna happen.’

‘You sound very sure about that. Why do you think that is?’

Adam shifted his head to the side, trying to work Martin out. If you looked at it from a distance, the two of them had a lot in common. They both made money by coaxing out the truth, especially from unwilling mouths. Or at least they did, until Adam had messed it all up. Now he got by on the remains of his savings and his trust fund – supplementing it with income from his handmade furniture when he felt like it.

‘Because Everett’s an asshole.’

The briefest flash of a smile curved on Martin’s lips. ‘According to you he’s been an asshole for all your life, and yet you were willing to spend time with him before. I want you to think about what’s different right now. What you’re trying to avoid thinking about by avoiding your brother.’

‘OK.’

There was a silence for a moment, and Adam waited for Martin to break it. Instead the therapist stared at him until the pause became uncomfortable, enough to make Adam shift in his seat, and rub the back of his neck once again.

Damn, he knew these techniques. He could have written them all. He’d used them on businessmen and world leaders and military personnel who tried to bluff their way through his documentaries. And yet when they were used on him, he felt as awkward as hell.

He wasn’t going to fill the silence in.

He wasn’t.

Goddamn it. ‘I don’t want to see him, because every time I do I want to rip his fucking head off.’

Martin nodded slowly, showing no elation at his technique having worked. ‘OK. And do you think it’s a valid reaction to seeing him?’

‘Yes, I do.’ Adam could feel the blood starting to rush through his veins, hot and thick. ‘And I think I should listen to my instincts. Look what happened last time I confronted him.’ And look where he ended up. Here, in therapy, having to explain himself.

‘Do you recognise how your body reacts when we talk about Everett?’ Martin asked. ‘I want you to check in right now. Explain to me what’s happening.’

Adam closed his eyes, breathing sharply in through his nostrils. He felt torn between wanting to engage, to see if this thing they were doing could really make him feel better, and resisting it, having a little fun until he pushed Martin too far.

Maybe that’s why he’d been so good at his job. He found people fascinating, but he found their reactions irresistible. Some of his best experiences had come from coaxing stoic men into revealing their inner emotions. Strange how being on the other side of the fence didn’t feel quite so satisfying.

Ah hell. What did he have to lose? ‘My heart is pounding,’ he said quietly, trying to tune in with his physiological reactions. ‘And my pulse is racing, I can hear it rushing through my ears.’

‘What about your hands?’

Adam opened his eyes and looked down to his sides, where his hands were tightly rolled into fists. ‘Yeah, I kind of want to punch something.’

‘Do you recognise what you’re experiencing?’

‘Fight or flight,’ Adam said softly. ‘Except I really want to fight.’

‘Now look around you. Breathe in a mouthful of air. Take everything in. Tell me what you see.’

Adam scanned the room, his eyes taking in the details that most people overlooked. The way one of the blind slats was at an awkward angle, as though somebody had tugged the cord too tightly that morning. A gap in the bookshelf – dust free – where something had been removed recently. Martin’s car keys, slung on the table next to the door, alongside his wallet and a yellow piece of paper – was that a parking ticket? As though he’d arrived late and carelessly dropped them down, without thinking of the security risk.

‘I see your office,’ Adam said, taking in another mouthful of air. ‘I see your desk, and your books, and the half-drunk mug of coffee on the table next to you.’ He glanced to his right. ‘And I see your window, with the broken blind. It’s snowing outside, and the flakes are sticking to the glass, as if they’re trying to claw their way into the room.’

‘That’s good.’ Martin nodded encouragingly. ‘Can you see any threats in here? Anything that should cause your body to react the way it did?’

Adam’s eyes darted around the room once again. ‘No.’

‘So how would you classify your reaction?’

Adam’s lips felt dry and sticky. He picked up the glass of water Martin always left for him on the table – next to a box of tissues in case of client tears – and swallowed a mouthful. ‘I’m reacting to something that’s not there.’ He put the glass down and rubbed his eyes with the palm of his hands. Somewhere in the past ten minutes he’d allowed himself to engage in the therapy. It didn’t feel quite as bad as he’d expected.

‘It’s there,’ Martin told him. ‘But it’s not in the physical world. It’s in your mind, or in your memories. It’s like those guys who came back from Vietnam in the seventies: you’re fighting a war that’s long since over.’

‘You think this is just a reaction to what happened in LA?’

Martin shook his head emphatically. ‘No, that’s too simplistic. There are a lot more layers to it than that. We have to peel them back one by one, until you start to recognise them for what they are.’

Adam was interested now. Enough to lean forward, a frown playing at his lips. ‘And if I recognise them, what then? Does it magically make everything better? Will I fall at Everett’s knees and forgive him everything?’ His chest tightened at the thought.

‘Again, that’s too simplistic. The aim of our sessions has never been to make everything feel like a fairy tale. It’s been to help you recognise what’s happening to you, allow you to take control of your reactions. To stop something like LA from ever happening again.’ Martin crossed his legs, one knee over the other. ‘And soon we’ll need to talk about what happened in Colombia.’

Within a second, Adam sat up straight, flinching as though somebody had hit him.

‘Not right now,’ Martin said, putting his hand up. ‘But we have a few sessions left, and before we finish I’d like to explore what happened there.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘We’re coming toward the end of our time. I’d like to give you a little homework before our next one.’ He turned in his chair, pulling a small notebook from the table beside him. ‘I want you to keep a diary every time you react like you did today. I want you to write down what you’re feeling, where you are, and what you think triggered it. Then next time we can discuss what you’ve done.’

‘Sure.’ Adam took the blue book from Martin’s hands.

‘Are you going to do it?’

Adam couldn’t hide the smirk that played on his lips. ‘Probably not.’

Martin sighed, his frustration obvious. ‘You know, this would be so much easier if you just met me halfway.’

Adam could feel his muscles relax, his spine loosening at this return to more familiar territory. ‘But it wouldn’t be as much fun, either.’

‘Fun for who?’ Martin murmured, in a voice that didn’t invite a reply. ‘OK, Adam, you’re free to go. I’ll see you at our next session.’

Adam lifted his hand in a goodbye wave. In the strangest way, he was looking forward to that.

* * *

When Adam stepped out of the tall office building on Main Street, the snow was still falling, forming a fresh blanket of white on the ground. It was the first winter storm for the valley – though in Cutler’s Gap, where Adam lived in his cabin, they’d had snow for weeks.

He had a few jobs to do while he was here in the town – letters to mail out and some supplies to buy. Things he couldn’t buy in Cutler’s Gap, with their single convenience store and run-down old bar. Though he liked the isolation, the lack of amenities could sometimes be a pain in the ass.

All the shops were decorated for the season, their white wooden windows framed with twinkling lights, to highlight the displays inside. The street was decorated, too – the lamp-posts were spiralled with red tinsel from the ground to the top, with lights strung between them. And in the centre square, next to the bandstand, was a huge Christmas tree, standing proudly with a large star affixed to the top.

It was all ready for the Christmas parade, due to take place the following week. It drew visitors from throughout the state, and sometimes beyond, people desperate to enjoy the old-fashioned Christmas they rarely saw anywhere except on their television screens. Adam could remember the parade from his younger years – the intense excitement they’d felt as the band started to play, the way the firemen would throw candy out of the truck, while all the kids gathered around with their hands cupped out. It was a relic from a more innocent time.

Ironic, really, that he’d tried to escape LA and the nostalgia for small-town Christmases, and somehow he was back in the real thing.

It was nearly five by the time he’d finished his errands and bought a coffee to go from the Blue Bear café. The sky was already darkening behind the layer of snow clouds, the sun having given up her fight against the encroaching grey. Adam balanced his Styrofoam cup on the roof of his dark red Chevy truck, and slid his keys into the lock, releasing the door. He threw his bags on the passenger seat and then slid inside, gingerly starting the engine up.

He’d had this truck for years. It had spent most of the last decade in his parents’ garage, surrounded by sleeker, shinier models. But there was something about its familiarity, its solidness, which stopped him from upgrading. Plus it was reliable on the old mountain roads, like a Sherman tank on the slippery ice. That counted for something when a short drive could mean taking your life in your hands.

Of course, short was a relative term. In this case it meant little over an hour for him to ascend the mountains and drive back to Cutler’s Gap. Everything was spread out in West Virginia – it wasn’t unheard of for somebody to drive two or three hours for a fresh loaf of bread.

He pressed his foot on the gas, revving the engine up, then slid the gear into drive. It was time to go home. And as he pulled out of his parking space and into the main road, Adam realised that’s exactly what his cabin in the woods had come to mean to him.


 

Chapter 3

Kitty leaned forward, her nose only inches away from the windshield as she switched the wipers on to top speed. This had seemed like such a good idea a few hours ago, as she stepped onto the aeroplane at LAX, and was directed by an over-fawning flight attendant to the first-class cabin.

Three hours of pure luxury. Now there was an experience she’d probably never have again.

Her drive from Washington Dulles Airport to West Virginia was more like third class. The four-wheel drive she’d been told would be waiting for her at the airport had turned out to be a compact Kia. It was still better than any car she’d ever owned, but apparently it hated snowy mountain roads. But then again, so did Kitty.

The snow was falling thick and fast, the flakes coating the windshield no matter how fast she tried to wipe them. She kept her foot gingerly pressed on the accelerator as she tried to slow her breathing. There was no point in panicking; she’d only make things worse.

A glance at the GPS on the dashboard told her she was less than twenty minutes away from her destination. Or at least from the town nearby. Though Cutler’s Gap appeared in the choices on the GPS menu, the address for Mountain’s Reach – where the Klein family were staying – seemed completely elusive.

The Kleins had flown to West Virginia the previous week, to spend some time with Everett’s elderly parents who had a house there. Though Mia had begged Kitty to leave school early and join them, she’d managed to stand her ground for once. That’s how she’d ended up flying here alone, agreeing to hire a car and make her own way to join them in Mountain’s Reach.

She hadn’t anticipated it would be quite so bloody snowy though.

She was so deep in her thoughts that by the time she realised the GPS was telling her something, she’d totally missed what it said. She glanced down, frowning, trying to work out if she should stay on the road or take a left. When she pulled her gaze back to the road in front of her, it was already too late.

The deer came out of nowhere – a sudden flash of mid-brown fur against the white blanket of snow. She barely had time to pump the brakes before its body hit her bumper with a sickening crunch.

The car skidded to a halt, the engine turning ominously silent as the dashboard lights flickered off. She stared open-mouthed out of the windshield, her eyes taking in the carnage ahead.

Dear God, she’d just killed Bambi.

Her hand shook as she reached for the car door. It took two attempts before she could finally grasp it with her fingers enough to pull the handle, releasing the lock and allowing the door to open.

An ice-cold wind forced its way through the gap, making her shiver even harder. She swung her feet down onto the tarmac and pulled her hopelessly inadequate coat tightly around her. As she made her way to the front of the car she could see the bonnet was crushed from the impact, and the headlights were shattered. It didn’t look as though the car was going anywhere right now.

When she’d heard it was cold in West Virginia, she’d assumed it would be London cold. A few degrees above freezing, maybe a bit of misty rain. But this weather was horrendous. The air felt arctic, making easy work of her thin jeans, light jacket and suede loafers. The snow was already seeping into her shoes, turning the brown suede a dark muddy colour. Flakes clung to her blue jeans, dampening the fabric, making her skin protest at the icy sensation. She looked over at the deathly still deer, wondering if she should just climb back into the car and wait out the storm, but then she saw something that made her breath catch in her throat.

Her heart raced as she stared at the deer, waiting to see if the leg twitch was just a figment of her imagination. But then it moved again, a little harder this time, enough to make her realise the deer wasn’t quite so dead after all.

She went back to the car, grabbing her phone from her bag. Surely somebody could help them. She searched through the contacts until she found Mia Klein’s number, pressing the green phone icon to connect the call.

Nothing.

Not a ring tone, not a voicemail. Just a click and then silence. She pulled the phone from her ear and looked at the display. A single bar was flickering in and out, like a naughty child playing hide and seek. Just as she thought it might be there to stay, it disappeared altogether, replaced by No Service.

Wonderful.

She brushed the snow from her hair, her teeth chattering at the cold dampness on her face. She was starting to feel bone-cold now, the sort of frozen that couldn’t be cured with a simple bath and a change of clothes. No, this would take hours of warming until she could feel her toes again, and until her skin didn’t feel as though it was going through some kind of Captain Birdseye deep-freeze processing.

Sighing, she lifted her phone up, so the display was in front of her, and took a few steps away from the car. The side of the road was lined with snow-covered pines, their tall canopies preventing any reception. Maybe if she walked further along she’d hit a sweet spot. She made her way along the road, her eyes trained on the non-existent tiny bars, searching for some sign of life. Treading tentatively along the frozen surface, her muscles taut from trying to keep herself upright, Kitty rolled her eyes at her situation.

By the time she reached the body of the deer, her clothes were soaked through from the snow. She stood over the prone animal, looking at the blood spilling out onto the road. Her hand shot up to cover her mouth as she felt her stomach begin to heave.

The deer’s front legs began to move, seeking purchase on the frosty ground, but the rest of its body remained still as a statue. Kitty dropped to her haunches, her eyes meeting the deer’s warm-brown stare. It looked as scared as she felt, wide and unblinking, and the reflected fear brought her tears to the surface.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispered, stroking the deer’s surprisingly rough fur. ‘I didn’t see you coming, I never meant to hurt you.’

The deer, of course, said nothing. It could only lie there and gaze with glassy eyes, while its front hooves made the occasional fruitless movement. Kitty watched it helplessly, rubbing her chin, wishing she knew what the hell she could do to help the poor beast.

Above her, the sky was darkening as the storm took hold. Kitty glanced up, then back at the deer. Not a single car had passed her since she’d come to a skidding halt ten minutes ago. When was the last time she’d even seen a house? She’d passed a small town around forty minutes ago, Hartville, or Harville or something? Since then the road had only been lined by snow-covered trees, with the occasional break in the forest for a gravel road that led to who knew where.

Who knew how long she would be stuck here?

Focus, Kitty. OK, so what would her sisters do if they were here? Lucy, her oldest sister, was easy. By this point she would have probably organised some kind of vet ambulance, had her car towed away, and set up an appeal for endangered deer. Juliet, the next eldest, was more of a romantic. She’d be too busy staring at the winter wildflowers and wondering if there were bears living in the forest.

Bears? Oh shit. Kitty bit her lip, trying to remember if there really were bears here. Did they hibernate in the winter? It would be just her luck to be eaten alive and never seen again.

Trying to distract herself, she thought about Cesca, not that much older than Kitty herself. Cesca would probably be as clueless as Kitty, if her description of arriving in Italy last summer was anything to go by. Thank goodness they’d had Lucy to look after them growing up, otherwise none of them would have survived.

A rustling noise came from the forest, the evergreen leaves shaking in the wind. It was just the wind, right? Kitty felt her spine stiffen, her body on high alert. There was no way she could run on this icy ground in her Steve Madden loafers.

She was just imagining all the grizzly ways a bear could kill a person when she heard the low rumble of an engine coming from behind her. A moment later, she could see the headlights, too, cresting over the hill, approaching her and the deer at a fair speed.

She stood up, waving her arms madly. ‘Hey,’ she yelled. ‘Over here!’

It turned out to be a rusty old flatbed truck, dark red paint chipped and peeling from its bulky frame. The truck slowed down, coming to a halt beside her abandoned rental car, the driver turning off the engine and opening the door.

The skin on the back of her neck prickled up. What had seemed such a good idea a moment ago now seemed foolhardy. She was in the middle of a deserted mountain in West Virginia, with a busted car and a phone that wouldn’t work. Now a stranger was climbing out of a beaten-up Chevy, and for all she knew he could be some kind of axe murderer, desperate for his next victim. Maybe a bear attack didn’t sound so bad after all.

Her fears intensified as the driver climbed out of the truck. He – and, boy, it was definitely a he – was tall, well over six feet, with a thick beard and a dark-knit beanie pulled down tightly over his head. Between the hat, his thick coat and his sturdy jeans, his only exposed skin was between his hairline and his beard.

And those molten chocolate eyes that were taking her in.

Oh boy. In spite of her frozen body, she could feel the blood rush to her cheeks. Even though she could only see a small part of his face, she could tell he was attractive, with a strong, straight nose and high sculpted cheekbones. She wasn’t sure whether her heart was pounding from fear or interest.

Glancing over at where Kitty was standing next to the deer, the man grabbed something from his truck, before turning around to face her once again.

He was carrying a rifle.

Yep, it was definitely fear.

Cradling the gun in his arms, he walked towards her. The closer he got, the more she realised just how tall and muscled he was. His proximity heightened Kitty’s fear into some kind of hysteria.

‘Don’t shoot!’ she screamed, throwing her hands up in the air. ‘For God’s sake don’t kill me.’

Surprised, the stranger stopped walking. ‘What the hell?’

His voice was low and rough, matching his determined demeanour. Kitty felt herself start to shake, her muscles quivering as she stared at the serial killer in front of her.

‘I’m sorry.’ She tried to make her voice as even as possible. Don’t show them you’re afraid. ‘Please don’t hurt me.’

The man stared at her for a moment before shaking his head. ‘Do I look like I’m going to kill you?’ An element of derision laced its way through his words. Immediately she felt her hackles rise.

‘You’re carrying a gun,’ she pointed out.

‘To put the deer out of its misery.’ He gestured at the animal beside her, then shot her a scornful look. ‘Unless it’s dead already.’

‘I… I thought it was,’ Kitty said, her teeth starting to chatter, from a mixture of the cold and the shock. Not that the guy in front of her was helping any. He may have looked good, but contempt for her was pouring out of him. ‘But its front legs are moving, see?’

The man came closer still, then crouched down next to the deer, placing his hand against its neck. ‘Its pulse is weak,’ he said, stroking the deer again. Then he lowered his lips, until he was speaking into the animal’s ear. ‘Don’t worry, girl, you won’t suffer.’

It was only when he loaded his rifle that Kitty realised his intentions. Her fear for her own safety vaporised, quickly replaced by indignation. Surely he wasn’t really planning to pull the trigger?

‘Don’t kill it,’ she shouted, about to launch herself in front of the deer. ‘It’s still alive, it just needs help.’

The man cocked his head and looked at her through narrowed eyes. ‘She’s dying,’ he said sharply, stroking the doe, his hand pressed against her spine. ‘The impact’s broken her back. You need to move away so I can take care of her, it’s the kindest thing to do.’

Kitty wanted to cry. Her relief at the deer being alive vanished, replaced by the knowledge that she was suffering from her injuries. Rising up to her feet, in her useless suede loafers, Kitty half stepped, half slid backwards, letting the husky man do what he needed to.

She couldn’t watch him do it, though. She looked away, holding her hand over her mouth and steeling herself to hear the loud bang of the gunshot, waiting for the stranger to kill the poor animal. When the crash came, resonating through the trees, she let out a little scream before fighting tears, trying to ignore the deep sigh that came from the man.

‘It’s over,’ he said, not bothering to hide the irritation in his voice. ‘You can look now.’

When she turned around it wasn’t the deer she saw, but the tall stranger staring at her. Now he was close up, she could get a better look at him. He was younger than she’d first thought, maybe in his late twenties or early thirties, judging by the smoothness of the skin around his eyes.

There wasn’t a wrinkle to be seen. Not that she was looking.

‘Did you call out a recovery truck?’ he asked gruffly.

Kitty shook her head. ‘I couldn’t get any reception.’ She waved her phone at him as if to prove her point.

‘Where are you headed?’ he asked. If she didn’t know any better, she’d have sworn he’d rolled his eyes.

‘To a place near Cutler’s Gap.’

The stranger inclined his head at the truck. ‘Jump in, I’m headed that way myself.’

Kitty paused, trying to work out if that was a good idea. Seeing her hesitation, he sighed again. ‘Listen, lady, it’s been a long day and I just want to go home and drink a beer in front of my fire. You can get in the truck and I’ll take you wherever you need to go, or you can stand right here in your wet clothes and pretty shoes and let yourself freeze to death. The choice is yours. Either way, I’m getting in and I’m driving home, and I won’t be coming back.’

He slung the leather gun strap over his shoulder and bent down next to the deer, lifting its body with ease. Carrying it across the road, he laid it gently in the flatbed of his truck. He didn’t look back at Kitty, but simply walked around to the front of the vehicle and pulled open the driver’s side door, putting the rifle on the back seat. He was sitting down behind the wheel by the time she realised he really meant it. He was planning to start up the engine and leave without her.

Running in her stupid shoes, Kitty reached the truck as he turned the ignition. Breathless, she yanked the door open and climbed onto the worn-out seat beside him.

Without a word, he put his foot on the gas, slowly pulling away from the scene of the accident. His mouth was set in a grim line, his eyes narrowed and piercing.

Welcome to Cutler’s Gap. Home of Dead Deer and Sexy Bearded Assholes.

Release Date: November 30 2018

PRE-ORDER LINKS:

Amazon US | Amazon UK | iBooks |  Kobo 

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