THE ISLAND VILLA
Look out for Sarah's brand new summer book coming in May! Note that in the US/Canada the title of this book is THE ISLAND VILLA
Catherine Swift is a bestselling and celebrated romance author, but her personal story hasn’t been quite so successful; three failed marriages have left her relationship with her daughters strained. Engaged once again, Catherine is counting on this wedding to finally bring them together as a family.
Adeline can’t believe her mother is getting married a fourth time, or that she’s being guilted into attending the wedding at Catherine’s villa in Corfu. It brings back the pain of her mother’s infidelity and the baby who was the result. Not that she blames her half-sister Cassie, but then she's never tried to know her, either.
Cassie, on the other hand, is thrilled by her mother’s news – she has always admired Catherine’s resilience, and she’s excited about meeting the mystery groom. Cassie also has a secret of her own and a summer in Corfu will give her the time she needs to process everything.
As the guests arrive on the island, and the big day approaches, Catherine begins to reveal secrets from her past, and suddenly both Cassie and Adeline realise that they don’t know their mother at all . . .
For the first time in her life she was planning to kill someone.
She never would have thought herself capable of such a thing—she was a romance novelist! Romance novelists didn’t kill people, but she was now forced to consider the unsettling possibility that perhaps she didn’t know herself as well as she’d thought. Perhaps she wasn’t, after all, a person with a kind and gentle disposition. She’d always thought of herself that way, and yet here she was typing a variety of decidedly ungentle questions into her browser and feeling a thrill of interest. Her fingers shook on the keyboard.
How to kill someone and leave no trace.
Best way to kill someone
Murders that remain unsolved.
It had to look like an accident, she’d decided. People would be sad, and probably shocked because death is always shocking even when it is expected. The one thing they wouldn’t be was suspicious, because she was going to be clever. It would be called an “accidental death.” No one would know the truth.
But was the truth really so bad? Was it truly wrong, when she was delivering justice?
The man deserved it, after all.
In fact, if she were truly giving him what he deserved, her search would read how to kill someone in the most painful way possible.
She stared through the window at the smooth calm of the Mediterranean Sea, so many shades of blue and dazzling in the sunshine. She’d decided long ago that the island of Corfu was her paradise. Sun-baked olive groves, soft sand, ocean waves, leisurely days, slow delicious dreams—those, surely, were the ingredients for a perfect life. It was a place where problems were suspended; a place for happiness, for relaxation, for nothing but good things. But expecting nothing but good was a fantasy. She knew that now, just as she knew that light and dark could coexist. The dark often lay hidden, simmering undetected beneath the surface, ready to take a bite out of the unwary, the trusting, those who believed in happy endings. She’d been that person. She’d made so many mistakes.
Lost in the view and her own thoughts, she didn’t hear him enter. She wasn’t aware of his presence until she felt his hand on her shoulder and the sound of his voice.
She jumped and slammed the lid of her laptop shut. Her heart hammered like a fist against a punching bag.
How much had he seen? She was annoyed with herself for not having had the foresight to lock the door. She’d been so absorbed by her thoughts that she hadn’t heard him enter the room.
She needed to up her game if she was actually going to do this. She needed to think like an assassin. She needed to be inscrutable and reveal nothing.
She turned with a smile (did assassins ever smile? She had no idea). “I didn’t know you were awake. It’s early.”
“I didn’t mean to surprise you. I know you hate being disturbed when you’re working, but I woke up and missed you. I came to offer you strong coffee.” He brushed his fingers across her jaw. “You look tense. Is something wrong?”
So much for being inscrutable.
She wasn’t built for a life of crime, but fortunately she wasn’t considering a whole life, just this one teeny tiny murder. That was it. She had no expectations of enjoying it and didn’t intend it to become habitual.
“Nothing’s wrong.” She couldn’t even lie without feeling guilty, which didn’t bode well.
They shared everything—well, almost everything—but there was no way she was sharing this. Not yet. One day, maybe, if she actually went ahead with it. If it all went as planned, then of course he’d find out, but until then she had to keep silent. This was something she had to do by herself.
What would he say if he knew what was really going on in her head?
Would he try to talk her out of it? Tell her that her plan was foolish and dangerous? Or would he preach acceptance and tell her that she just had to let it go. That this wasn’t the answer. He’d probably tell her to move on.
And that was what she was doing, of course.
This was her way of moving on. And not before time.
He bent to kiss her. “I love you, Catherine Swift.”
She felt the brush of his lips and the answering warmth that rushed through her body.
It felt jarring to go from death to love but that was life, wasn’t it? Brutal in its extremes. And assassins were people too. They were allowed a love life.
For the first time in weeks, she felt optimistic and hopeful. She’d been smothered in a dark cloud of gloom, fueled by bitter resentment. She’d felt like a failure for letting it reach this point. She hadn’t been able to see a way forward, but now she could.
The future was clear to her. All she needed was courage.
It was time to make a fresh start. Time to put the past behind her and reinvent herself.
It was a just a shame that someone had to die.
Adeline Swift was on a call with the features editor of Woman Now when the letter was pushed through the door of her apartment.
“The thing is,” Erin was saying, “your advice column has the highest readership of any section of the magazine. People really seem to connect with it. With you. The market research we did recently suggests that seventy percent of people would rather ask you for advice than their best friend. Can you believe that?”
Yes, she could believe that. Few people reached adulthood without suffering some degree of emotional hangover from the past. Hurt. Resentment. Shame. Disappointment. Grief. Regret. Life left scars and you had to find a way to live with those scars. Some people chose denial as a strategy. Ignore it. Leave it in the past. Move on. Others confronted those emotions and spent hours in therapy trying to understand how the past affected the present, in the hope of reaching a point of acceptance. Most just struggled along by themselves, striding and occasionally stumbling, handling the ups and downs of life as best they could. After a few too many drinks they might confide in a friend, but more often than not they’d stay silent because revealing those deep secrets and fears, those most personal parts of yourself, was a risk. It said this is who I really am, instead of this is who I’m pretending to be.
It was those people, alone with their fears, who often wrote to Adeline.
Dear Dr. Swift…
They poured out their problems in the hope that in a few well-chosen words she would help them resolve their crisis, or at least feel better about their situation.
Adeline delivered calm analysis, sympathy, and the occasional pep talk. She employed a mix of empathy, experience, and plain speaking when crafting her answers. It was a combination that worked for people. She fulfilled the role of a sympathetic stranger, someone who would listen without judgment and respect anonymity. But that role meant she existed in a world of problems. In her working day, she was buffeted by the challenges of life, drenched in the pain of others, required to ponder at length on everything from infidelity to unemployment. When people asked how she coped with it, she pointed out that it was easy to cope with a drama that wasn’t your own.
When the drama was hers? That was different.
She stared at the envelope.
It rested innocently on the floor, dazzling white against wide oak planks. Even without picking it up, she could see that the paper was high quality, and embossed. Her name and address were written out in a bold script that was instantly recognizable.
Her heart beat a little faster. Emotions rushed her, buffeting her like a gust of wind. She placed her hand on her diaphragm and forced herself to breathe slowly. She was an adult with her own life, a good life, and yet this small inanimate object had ruined the calm of her day.
And she hadn’t even opened it yet.
Her first impulse was to tear it up without opening it, but that would be immature, and she tried very hard not to be immature and to always exercise self-control.
She tried to be the person she pretended to be in her advice column.
“Adeline?” Erin’s voice wafted into her conscious. “Are you still there?”
“Yes. Still here. I’m listening.” But her focus wasn’t on Erin.
She should open the envelope right now. Or she could simply drop it into the recycling without opening it. She imagined what “Dr. Swift” would have to say about that approach.
With a sigh, she picked it up. She could put it to one side and open it later, but then she’d be thinking about it all afternoon. If she was advising someone in this situation, she’d say that no good ever came from delaying the inevitable and that the anticipation was often worse than the reality. That no matter what lay inside the envelope, she had the tools and mental fortitude to handle it.
Did she though?
Still holding the envelope, she walked across her apartment, opened the French doors and stepped onto her small balcony. The tension in her neck and shoulders drained away. She breathed in the rich scent of honeysuckle, the sweetness of jasmine. Bees hummed around slender spikes of purple lavender. The space was small, but she’d chosen the plants carefully and the end result was an explosion of bloom and colour that felt like an oasis of calm in the busy, noisy city she’d made her home. She loved London, but she appreciated being able to retreat from the blare of car horns, the crush of people and the frenetic pace. Sometimes it felt to her as if everyone was living their lives on fast forward.
In creating her balcony garden, she’d followed the advice she’d given to a reader who had moved to the city from a rural area and was struggling with anxiety as a result.
Adeline had interviewed a horticulturist and compiled her answer accordingly.
Dear Sad in the City, you may not live in the country, but you can still welcome nature into your life. A few well-chosen houseplants can add calm to the smallest living space, and a pot of fragrant herbs grown on a sunny windowsill will bring a touch of the Mediterranean into your home and into your cooking.
After she’d finished researching her answer, she’d gone out and purchased plants for herself, acting on the advice she’d just given her reader. She’d also written two features for other publications on the same topic. It was how she made her living.
She’d trained as a clinical psychologist and had been in practice for six months when a chance meeting with a journalist had resulted in a request to give an interview on a morning chat show on managing stress in the workplace. That interview had led to more requests, which in turn had led to a writing career that she enjoyed more than practicing as a psychologist. Writing enabled her to maintain a level of detachment that had been missing when she’d seen clients face-to-face.
Adeline preferred to be detached.
She put the envelope down on the small table and forced herself to concentrate on the conversation.
“I’m glad the advice column is working out, Erin.”
She was glad, and not only because the column kept her profile high and led to more work than she could handle. The popularity of the column pleased her. It was gratifying to know that people were finding it useful.
She knew how it felt to be lost and confused. She knew how it felt to struggle with emotions that were too ugly and uncomfortable for public display. She knew how it felt to be alone, to be drowning with no lifeboat in sight, to be falling with no cushion to soften the landing.
If the skills she’d learned to help herself could be used to help another person, then she was satisfied. When she was writing her column, she thought of herself not as a psychologist, but as a trusted best friend. Someone who would tell you the truth.
The one truth she never shared was that there were some hurts that no therapist in the world could heal. That knowledge she kept to herself. People assumed she had her own life sorted, and she had no intention of destroying that image. It would hardly fill people with confidence if they knew she was wrestling with problems of her own.
“Good? It’s better than good.” Erin was buoyant, euphoric, proud, because she was the one who had originally had the idea for the “Dr. Swift Says” column. “You’re a hit, Adeline. The suits want to give you more space.”
Adeline deadheaded a geranium and removed a couple of dead leaves. “More space?”
“Yes. Instead of answering one question in depth, we were thinking four.”
Adeline frowned. “It’s important to give a full answer. If someone is desperate, then they need empathy and a full response. They don’t need to be brushed aside with a few lines of platitudes.”
“You wouldn’t be capable of producing an answer that wasn’t empathetic. It’s your gift. You write so beautifully—I suppose in that way you’re like your mother.”
Adeline clenched her hand around the leaves. “I’m nothing like my mother.”
“No, of course you’re not. What you write is totally different. But Adeline, this is huge. I don’t need to tell you what’s happening to freelance journalists right now. Everyone is scrabbling for a slice of a shrinking pie, and here you are being offered a big fat slice of your own. They’ll pay you, obviously.”
She was nothing like her mother. Nothing. Her mother’s life was one big romantic fantasy, whereas hers was firmly rooted in reality.
And more work was definitely reality.
Did she want to do it? Money was important up to a point, but so was work-life balance. Even though she mostly worked from home, she set clear boundaries. The first half of the week, she focused on her advice column. Thursdays were set aside for her freelance work. Friday mornings were spent catching up on admin, and then at two o’clock precisely she switched off her work laptop and went swimming. She swam exactly a hundred lengths, loosening up her muscles and washing away the tension of the week. After that, she walked to the local market and picked up fresh fruit and veg for the weekend.
Saturday and Sunday were entirely her own. She intended to keep it that way.
And maybe her life wasn’t exciting, exactly, but it was steady and predictable and that was the way she liked it.
Did she have time to expand the column? Yes. Did she want to expand the column? Maybe.
“I’d want full editorial control.” She bent down and tested the moisture of the soil in one of the planters. “I don’t want my answers edited.”
“As long as you keep the page within the word count, that won’t be a problem.”
“I choose the letters I answer.”
“Goes without saying.”
“I’ll think about it. Thank you. Have a good weekend, Erin.”
She ended the call and finally faced the only letter that mattered to her right now.
She picked it up and opened the envelope carefully. In these days of emails and messaging, only her mother still wrote to her. Adeline pictured her seated at her glass-top desk in the villa, reaching for her favorite pen. The ink had to be exactly the right shade of blue.
She pulled out the pages and smoothed them.
She winced. Everything about her mother was overblown, flowery, exaggerated. The endearment held as much meaning as one of those ridiculous air kisses that people gave each other.
I’m writing because I have some exciting news that I wanted to share with you. I’m getting married again.
Adeline read the words, and then read them again. Married? Married? Her mother was getting married for a fourth time?
Why? If you failed at something repeatedly, why would you do it again? This wasn’t how relationships were supposed to work. Her mother treated marriage like a game show, or a lottery. She seemed to believe that if she did something enough times, maybe one of those times would work out.
She wanted to scream, a feeling she only ever experienced in relation to her mother. Fortunately for her neighbors, she’d trained herself to keep her frustration inside.
She tipped her head back, closed her eyes and breathed slowly. In, out. In, out.
How could anyone ever think she was even remotely like her mother?
The world would see it as romantic, of course. Catherine Swift, writer of romantic fiction and global bestseller, was once again taking a chance on love.
Give me a break.
Who was she marrying this time?
Adeline opened her eyes and carried on reading the letter. Her mother wanted Adeline to join her on the island of Corfu for two weeks in July (total heart-sink. Adeline couldn’t think of anything worse). All travel would be arranged for her, no expense spared (of course, because her mother lacked many things, but money wasn’t one of them).
She went on to talk about the garden, and how beautiful the villa was right now and how good it would be for Adeline to spend some time relaxing because she worked so hard. She mentioned that Maria, who managed the villa for her, was well. Maria’s cooking was as spectacular as ever, and she’d already planned a delicious menu for the wedding. Her son Stefanos was back on the island running the family boat business and maybe Adeline would enjoy catching up with him as they were once such good friends.
It was a remark typical of her mother, who managed to spin romantic scenarios in the most unlikely of places.
Adeline remembered exactly when she’d last seen Stefanos. She’d been ten years old. He was a couple of years older. For a while, he’d been her best friend, and she’d been his.
It had been two decades since they’d seen each other. What exactly were they going to catch up on? Their whole lives?
The information Adeline really wanted—who her mother was marrying—seemed to be missing.
There was no mention of a man anywhere in the letter. Adeline checked and then checked again. Flicked through the pages. Nothing. No clue.
She’d actually forgotten to mention the name of the man she was marrying. Unbelievable.
She gave a hysterical laugh. Had her mother remembered to invite him to the wedding?
Maybe there wasn’t a groom. Maybe her mother was marrying herself. She was, after all, her own biggest supporter.
My books are my babies, she’d once purred into the camera during an interview on prime-time TV. I love them as I love my own children.
Probably more, Adeline thought savagely as she dropped the letter back onto the table. In fact, definitely more. She’d been ten years old when she’d discovered that painful truth.
You’re going to live with your father, Adeline.
The ache in her chest grew. Old wounds tore open. But this wasn’t only about her. She wasn’t the only one with wounds.
What would this do to her father?
Did he know yet? Had her mother told him?
Hands shaking, dread heavy in her stomach, she reached for her phone and dialed his number. It was just after six in the morning on Cape Cod, but she knew her father would already be awake. He rose early and was often to be found on the beach at dawn, taking photographs or sketching, eager to make the most of the morning light and the solitude. Once other people started to appear, he’d return to his little clapboard beach house tucked behind the dunes, brew some of the strongest coffee known to man and head to his studio to paint. Or maybe today was one of those days when he made the trip into town to teach aspiring artists.
Her father had changed his life after the divorce. He’d given up his job in the city and spent his days focused on Adeline and his hobby, painting. He turned one of the bedrooms into a studio and spent all day splashing paint onto canvases while she was at school. Adeline didn’t know much about art, but those paintings had seemed angry to her. Part of her envied the fact that her father had an outlet for his misery. It had been an awful time.
Originally from Boston, her father had stayed in London for the duration of Adeline’s childhood, but the moment she’d left for college, he’d sold the family home and with the proceeds bought a small apartment so that they had a base in London, and a beach house on Cape Cod. He’d made that his home.
It had been a strange, unsettled childhood, but through all of it she’d never doubted her father’s love. It had been her father who had helped her with homework; her father who had cheered her on at the school sports day and tried to make her a costume for a Halloween party. Her father was the one constant in her life and even though they were no longer living in the same house, or even the same country, she always felt close to him.
Unlike her mother, he’d never married again, and that made her sad. She desperately wanted him to find someone special, someone who deserved him. But he’d stayed resolutely single, and she couldn’t blame him.
Being married to Catherine Swift was surely enough to put a man off marriage for life.
Still, she hated the idea that he’d never recovered from his relationship with her mother.
That was the reason she didn’t want to make this call. However she phrased it, this news was going to upset him. She was about to rip a hole in the life he’d carefully stitched together again.
She waited, holding her breath, and was almost relieved when he didn’t answer because she had no idea what she was going to say.
How was she going to tell him that her mother was getting married yet again?
How could she break the news in a way that wouldn’t cause him pain?
He’d been divorced from Catherine for more than two decades, but Adeline knew he still felt the hurt keenly. He still talked about her mother. Whenever he saw one of her books in a bookshop, he’d pause, pick it up and read the back.
“You can’t switch love on and off, Addy,” he’d said to her once when she’d asked him how he could possibly still have feelings for a woman who had treated him so badly.
Adeline hadn’t pointed out that Catherine seemed to have no problem switching it off.
And here was more evidence to support that. Another wedding. Another victim.
She ended the call without leaving a message. On impulse, she grabbed the letter from the table, stepped back into her apartment and dropped it into the trash on top of a pile of potato peelings and yesterday’s empty yogurt container.
One of the advantages of being an adult was that you could make your own decisions. And she’d made hers.
She wouldn’t be going to the wedding.
There was no way, no way, she was spending two precious weeks of her summer watching her mother making another huge mistake. It would be too difficult. It would unravel everything she kept tightly wound inside her. And the one thing she didn’t need in her life was another stepfather.
She’d send a regretful note, and her good wishes to the bride and groom, even though she didn’t even know his name.
His identity didn’t matter.
Whoever Catherine Swift was marrying this time, she felt sorry for him.