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Read the first three chapters of Northern Vows! Out 28/20/2020 and available for pre-order.

Photo by Damir Spanic

Chapter 1 – Monday

“Wow, it’s…” Kristine stared out over the rugged landscape and swallowed down the lump in her throat. “It’s so pretty here.” She and Hannah were standing on top of a hill, the spectacular view revealing a narrow path that led down to a large tree-lined, lake below them. Behind the lake, mountains rose as far as the eye could see, their snow-covered tops a vivid contrast against the vivid blue sky. The nearest farms and homes were mere colored specs in the distance, and it felt incredibly secluded, with the dense pine forest behind them and lush green fields stretching out to their left and right.

“And so peaceful.” Hannah wrapped her arms around Kristine’s waist from behind, rested her chin on her shoulder and inhaled against her hair. “We’d better enjoy this quiet time together before our lives change forever over the coming months.” They were in the process of adopting two foster children—a brother and sister—and it had been a long journey from their caseworker completing the home study, to the adoption agency monitoring pre-placement visits. This and the anticipation of coming here, not knowing exactly what to expect of their wedding location, had made her tense but now, she couldn’t be happier. “So, so pretty.”

“Welcome to Valdres,” Espen said as he started lifting their suitcases from the trunk of his car.

“We totally love it here.” Hannah helped him and passed one of the suitcases to Kristine.

“Good. So do I. Dani was worried your guests might be bored if they’re staying for a while; there’s not much to do around here.” He slammed the trunk shut and scratched the stubble on his chin. “But we have a couple of boats, and I can take people out fishing if they want, and there are plenty of hiking trails. There’s also a shortcut to Fagernes through the woods, so you’ll be able to walk there if you get cabin fever. Although it’s very traditional and has more of a village feel, it’s the biggest town in the district of Valdres.”

“I doubt our guests will be bored,” Hannah assured him. “In fact, I think they’ll be delighted to have some quiet time to themselves, and this seems like a great place to catch up with everyone. It’s so private.”

Espen, who ran the small eco-resort together with his wife Dani, had picked them up from the airport and as each mile passed, the more they’d slipped into the wilderness. The last evidence of civilization had been the quaint town they’d driven through fifteen minutes ago, but even that seemed like a world away now. He’d parked the car just behind the gates of a large fenced-off field, filled with fruit trees and wildflowers. Rustic, traditional wooden cabins were dotted around, and to the rear stood a house with an outbuilding next to it. A Norwegian flag was flailing from a pole by the house; most people seemed to have one here. In the middle of the field, a tall wooden cross with rings on both sides rose from the ground and two men were balancing on ladders, decorating it with leafy greenery.

Hannah cast a curious glance over the pagan looking pole. “What is that?”

“We’re setting up the maypole for Midsummer’s Eve,” Espen said. “And since it’s also your wedding night, we’ll make sure it looks extra spectacular this year. These guys are attaching the foliage and we’ll add the fresh flowers last minute.” He waved at the men and shouted something in Norwegian before he turned back to Hannah and Kristine. “In most countries they decorate maypoles in May to celebrate the start of spring, but we don’t get flowers here until June, so in Norway, we decorate it for Midsummer.”

“It looks like something from the movies but without human sacrifices, I hope.” Kristine sniggered and nudged Hannah. “I love you more than anything, darling, but if it comes to that, it’s every woman for herself.”

Espen laughed and shook his head. “No human sacrifices here, don’t you worry.” His eyes lit up when he saw his wife Dani walking up to them with a little girl on her hip. “I see the little pork chop has woken up.”

“Hi, guys! Welcome, I’m so glad you’re here.” Dani greeted them both with a sideward hug and lifted the little girl higher. “This is Evi, our daughter.”

“Hey, Evi.” Kristine smiled as Evi fisted her hand and waved it around wildly while shooting her a toothy grin. “She’s grown so much since the last pictures you emailed us.”

“Yes, she’s almost two, now. A Midsummer child,” Dani said, looking at her daughter lovingly. Evi started screeching and pointed to the ground. “And she wants to do everything herself at the moment, so she’s also a handful,” she added, putting her down in the grass.

“You’re very cute, but I bet you know that already, huh?” Hannah pulled a face at Evi, which made her laugh.

“She’s great, we feel very lucky.” Dani turned to Espen. “Do you mind taking her inside so I can show the ladies around?”

“Not at all.” Espen took Evi’s hand, said something to her in Norwegian, and lifted her up on her feet so she could toddle along back to the house with him. “Hannah, Kristine, make yourselves at home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

They waved at them, and Hannah took two of the suitcases they’d brought. Kristine also took two and Dani the last one, leading the way up to their cabin.

“I’ll show you your little hideaway first, so we don’t have to drag these around.” She looked over her shoulder and smiled. “We feel so honored that you guys want to get married here in our new resort.”

“We’re so excited,” Kristine said. “And it made total sense for us to get married in Norway as we met here; that week in Kirkenes holds such special memories.”

“I know you wanted to get married in our hotel up north, and I’m sorry we couldn’t make that happen,” Dani said. “When you called me to set a date, we were just in the process of selling. The buyer had big plans for renovations, so he wasn’t sure when he was going to reopen.” She carried the case up to the steps of the small porch and searched for the keys in her pocket. “But if you ask me, this part of the country is way more romantic for a wedding.”

“You’re right; it’s even better.” Hannah put down the cases, took off her hoodie, and tied it around her waist as she glanced over the charming porch. The thatched roofs of the wooden cabins were covered in moss and flowers, red and white checkered curtains hung behind the windows, and a padded porch swing, a coffee table, and two recliners made for a lovely outside seating area next to the front door. “I never thought I’d be wearing just a T-shirt; the weather is amazing.”

“We get very nice summers here. It doesn’t get too warm, but warm enough to take a swim in the lake and get a nice tan.” Dani opened the door and let them in. “I was actually really excited myself when we moved here. It’s nice to have lots of daylight again, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.”

“Why did you leave Kirkenes?” Hannah asked.

“Well, we had Evi, and everything changes when you have a baby. Espen and I have traveled a lot, and we both lived in cities when we were younger. We weren’t sure if it was fair to our daughter to bring her up somewhere so secluded, so we started thinking about different options. She got very sick when she was around three months old—she caught pneumonia—and I lived in the hospital in Oslo with her for two weeks. When we came back, I was uncomfortable about being so far away from a good children’s hospital, so that sealed our decision to sell the hotel.”

“That must have been quite a challenge; I remember how dark it was when we visited, and that was only for a few days. I can’t imagine many people wanting to live in the dark for most of the year,” Kristine said. “Even though it’s beautiful up there.”

“Actually, it wasn’t challenging at all, and you’d be surprised how many nature freaks would kill for a life like that. It’s pretty unique, of course, so that helped, too. When we had our hotel valued, we were a little shocked to learn how much it was worth, and it was sold only two weeks after it went on the market.”

“And now you’re here…”

“Now we’re here, and we have more space than we ever dreamed of, plus a private strip of land beside the lake, and we’re only ninety minutes away from Oslo.” Dani opened the curtains to let in the light. “I hope you’ll be comfortable in your ‘hytte’. It’s the Norwegian word for cabin.”

“Are you kidding me? This is adorable.” Kristine squeezed Hannah’s hand as they took in the cozy space. There was a little seating area to their left in front of the windows, and a small kitchenette with a table and four chairs to their right. Handmade blankets were draped over the couch and the armchairs, and the walls were adorned with watercolor paintings of local scenes. Behind a dividing wall in the back stood a big bed, and there was another sleeping area in an alcove in the living room that doubled as a reading space with built-in bookshelves and a reading light.

“Good.” Dani smiled. “The bathroom is in the back, and there’s also a tiny sauna next to it. The cabin is big enough to sleep three more people—one in the reading nook and two on the couch that can be pulled out and made into a bed—but I figured you honeymooners should have your privacy, so don’t worry; you won’t have to share.”

“So, everyone’s okay with the sleeping arrangements?” Hannah asked. “If not, we can share, it’s no problem.”

“Absolutely not, it’s all arranged.” Dani pointed to the field outside. “We had three additional camper vans—or RV’s as you Americans call them—delivered today. They’re luxury ones that come with a tent and a portable firepit, so they should be comfortable enough for everyone, and they’ll provide plenty of additional space.” She handed Kristine the key. “Want me to show you around the site, or are you tired?”

“No, we’d love to see everything.” Kristine gave her a beaming smile. “I saw on your website that you grow your own vegetables. I have a veggie patch myself, so I’m super excited to see it.”

“Kristine is obsessed with growing stuff,” Hannah added with an endearing smile. “You have no idea how many hours she’s slaved over seedlings, caring for them like a newborn.”

“I think you’re going to love our vegetable garden, then. Of course, the climate is very different from Louisiana, so we’re limited to the vegetables and fruits that thrive here.” Dani walked to the kitchen and opened a cupboard. “Let me show you where everything is before we do a tour of the premises.”

Photo by Vidar-Nordli Mathisen

Chapter 2 – Monday

“To the front, as you can see, is the lake,” Dani said when they were back outside. “It’s deep in places, so be careful not to go too far out if you’re not a great swimmer. The other side of the lake is really pretty too, and there are popular hiking trails that lead through the mountains. We have a private dock down by the water and although the water is still chilly this time of year, it’s really nice to swim there.”

“That’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to seeing you in a bikini.” Hannah shot Kristine a flirty smile. “The swamps back home aren’t exactly tempting to dive into, and this looks lush.” The water was so clear that she could see the bottom of the shallows, where fish swam over the rock-covered floor.

“By the way, skinny dipping is totally okay here.” Dani winked. “Also, topless sunbathing is more or less the norm in Norway, so you won’t have to worry about the occasional local hiker passing through. They honestly won’t even blink an eye.”

“Even better.” Kristine looked around, trying to spot the nearest neighbors, and from where they were standing, she could only see a small, red farmhouse and a barn in the distance. It was very, very private indeed.

“This is our house,” Dani said as they neared a cute buttery yellow wooden house with white roses climbing up the trellis on either side of the door. Colorful garden furniture stood at the front, along with a shed that had a chicken run next to it. “The reception area for guests is just through the front door and there’s usually someone there, so just let yourself in if you need anything. We have a handful of sheep and a couple of cows that roam freely, but they tend to stay in the back, on the forest side or in their shelter, at night. Our two full-time employees look after the sheep and the cows, make artisan cheese with their milk, and shear the sheep in spring. We then sell the wool to local craftspeople to make blankets.” Dani had a proud look on her face as she turned the corner, heading toward the back of the house where a white picket fence surrounded a vast veggie patch.

“This is awesome, do you mind if I try some?” Kristine bent over the fence, broke off a piece from one of the plants and smelled it. “Mustard. That’s so exciting.” She picked another sprig and sniffed it. “And dill.”

“Please feel free to try anything. The herbs are here more for convenience; dill grows practically everywhere in the wild around here, but as you can imagine, I don’t have time to go and forage every day. We do get seasonal stuff from the forest, though, like mushrooms and berries.” Dani cast a glance over the neat rows of produce. “Let’s see, apart from herbs, we also grow cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, onions, lettuce, peas…” She paused and narrowed her eyes, trying to work out what was what. “Oh, and kohlrabi, of course. It’s very popular here, and over there we have carrots, beets, asparagus, and watermelon. But we buy stuff too, from the farm shops in town, and from neighboring farmers. This region is known for eco-friendly tourism, so we’re very keen to keep our business sustainable. We serve fresh fish that Espen catches from the lake; he loves fishing so that’s not exactly a chore for him, and we also make our own bread, butter, elderflower lemonade and other things like that.”

“That’s so cool. I’ll have a proper look tomorrow if that’s okay with you,” Kristine said.

“Of course, you can roam around anytime you want.”

Hannah turned to the left and raised a hand above her forehead, shading her eyes from the bright sun. “Is that a farm over there?”

“Yes, the land behind the fence belongs to old Einar, our neighbor, and the forest is part of the Norwegian national parks and is therefore protected,” Dani said. “The land on the other side belongs to a farmer too, but in general, you can walk anywhere you want; they don’t object, and we don’t mind if people pass through on our property either. Einar’s got goats, so don’t forget to close the fence behind you when you leave or return; we don’t want them to get in here.”

“Cute. I love goats.” Despite their long journey, Kristine felt full of energy.

“They’re cute, yes. But they can also be a little intrusive, so be careful.” Dani gestured to a path by the gates. “There’s a hiking trail there; it will take you through the fields, over the hills and into the forest in a big circle, and it ends right over there where the cows are. The fence is charged, so make sure you don’t touch anything apart from the wooden gates.”

“Any wild animals we should be aware of?” Hannah asked.

“Be cautious of moose, we have quite a few around here, and if you go out at night, take a stick with you to rustle the grass in front of you. The noise will scare away snakes and badgers.” Dani chuckled at Kristine’s wide-eyed expression. “Come on, you’re from the land of alligators, surely you can handle a badger or two? Anyway, both Espen and I are trained in first aid, so if anything happens, just call me.”

“I think we’ll be okay.” Hannah smiled at her. “Thank you. I’m really looking forward to spending a week here.”

“We’re delighted to have you, too. As I said, reception is through our front door. Either Espen or I will be there with Evi most of the time, so just come in if you need anything. Breakfast is served from eight to ten every morning, and dinner is at seven. We’ll set up a long table in front of your cabin where everyone can gather, so just let me know if you or your guests plan on walking into town for dinner instead. Oh, and you can use the rowing boat by the dock, and if you’d like to use the motorboat, I can explain how it works; it’s pretty easy.”

“Great. You’re the best, Dani. I feel at home already,” Kristine said.

“That’s what we want.” Dani put her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. “Well, I’m going to get dinner started. I’m sure you’re eager to freshen up and have a rest after your long flight.”

“Yes, a shower would be wonderful right now.” Hannah took Kristine’s hand and gave Dani a wave. “Come on, babe. Let’s get cleaned up and explore.”

Picture by Nandhu Kumar

Chapter 3 – Monday

“You look ravishing, wearing that,” Hannah said, glancing at Kristine’s legs under her short, white summer dress. She looked angelic strolling through the high grass with the sun shining on her happy face. Her long, blonde hair was drying in the wind after their shower, and she kept doing that thing where she tucked it behind her ears over and over. After three years, Hannah’s feelings for the wonderful woman who had conquered her heart had only grown, and she was still so madly in love with her that she couldn’t keep her eyes off Kristine when she was near.

She put an arm around her as they walked along the edge of the hill and passed through the gates. The view was incredibly romantic—a patchwork of fields stretched out before them covered in spikey purple-pink fireweed, yellow meadow buttercups and white daisies—and she was so glad they’d decided to come here to get married. There wasn’t a soul in sight, and both the resort and the neighboring house were mere colored specks in the distance. “It’s so quiet here.”

“Yeah. I love it.” Kristine turned to her and grinned. “So, I have a bucket list and there’s this thing on there…”

“What?” Hannah’s lips pulled into a mischievous smile as she tilted her head and studied Kristine. “I didn’t know you had a bucket list and I’m not sure what’s coming, but that look tells me you’re up to no good.”

“That depends…” To Hannah’s surprise, Kristine stripped off her dress. She tossed it in the grass behind her, leaving her in a delicate light blue lingerie set that looked bewitching against her tanned skin and blue eyes. “You see, I’ve always wanted to make love in a field filled with wildflowers.”

“Is that so?” Hannah’s eyes roamed over her lingerie. “Fuck, you look hot. Is that new?” she asked, inching closer.

“Uh-huh.” Kristine got down in the grass and lifted her arms over her head. “And there’s a lot more where that came from because I plan on seducing you all week.” She shot Hannah a heated glance. “Come join me.”

“How about I make you wait until our wedding night?” Hannah teased. She took off her T-shirt and got down on her knees to straddle Kristine in her torn denim shorts and sports bra. She needed a moment to take Kristine in because she was just such an idyllic sight, lying there. Her golden hair rippling over her toned shoulders made her look like a Nordic goddess, and her toned and curvy frame was surrounded by tall sprigs of grass and little yellow flowers. “You know what? I take that back; you’re too irresistible…”

Hannah leaned in and kissed her softly, but Kristine pulled her closer and deepened the kiss, moaning as Hannah’s body covered her own. Moving a hand under Kristine’s blue bra, she sighed as she felt her nipples harden against her fingertips. “As much as I love this bra, I really, really want to take it off,” she mumbled against her mouth.

Kristine nodded, her pulse quickening as she steadied herself on her elbows so Hannah could unclasp it and take it off. The sight of her full breasts made Hannah take in a quick breath, and she licked her lips as she moved down Kristine’s body to run her tongue over her nipples.

“Fuck, Hannah…” Kristine arched her back, raising her chest to meet Hannah’s mouth. “You know exactly how to…” Her voice trailed off, and she moaned as Hannah slipped a hand into her panties and cupped her center.

“How to what?” Hannah asked in a teasing tone, her mouth still on Kristine’s breasts. “You mean like this?”

“Oh God!” Kristine’s hips jerked up when Hannah pushed two fingers inside her and bit down on her nipple. She smiled against her breast as she felt her squirm. Although she vaguely registered the sound of bells somewhere in the distance, she was too focused on Kristine and the delicious sounds she was making to realize what was happening.

A loud bleating noise behind her made her stop and turn around, and at the same time, Kristine’s eyes widened as she screamed at the sight of at least a dozen goats charging toward them. The two goats who were already there were fighting over her dress, their goatees swinging from side to side as they both chewed and pulled separate ends.

Hannah jumped up and managed to save her T-shirt before one of the other goats got to it. “Fuck. Come on, let’s go.”

“But my dress…” Kristine grabbed her bra, then decided there was no time to put it on as all eyes were on the dangling blue object in her hand now.

“Forget about the dress, it’s too late.” Hannah took Kristine’s hand and they made a run for it. She’d expected the goats to follow, but they seemed happy enough with the white fabric that she could hear being torn apart as they rushed through the gates and closed them.

“I heard the noise, so I thought I’d better come and check,” Dani said in an amused tone as she came walking up to them. “What is it with you two and getting yourselves in trouble? I seem to recall an incident where you’d locked yourself out in the freezing cold wearing nothing but blankets, and now…” She laughed as she glanced at Kristine’s arms folded across her naked chest and the goats in the neighboring field, running around with strips of white fabric. “Now, this.”

“Hey, you could have warned us about the goats,” Kristine said with a sheepish look on her face.

“I did!” Dani laughed even harder now, tears rolling down her cheeks as she took off her cardigan and handed it to Kristine to cover herself up. “Oh boy, the goats. They’re not aggressive, but yes, they will chew anything they consider a tasty meal, and that includes textiles. I’ve had tourists abandon their cars because they opened the doors to feed them, despite all the signs warning against that. The goats climbed into their car and ripped out chunks of the chair upholstering.”

“Jesus…” Kristine stared at her in disbelief as she put on the cardigan, but Dani seemed serious.

“So, let me give you some advice,” Dani continued with a smirk while she tried to compose herself. “If you’re planning on getting undressed in the wild again, make sure you don’t hear any bells. The goats roam around freely and they’re not always near but when they see people, they’re hoping to find a snack. They feed on grass and the grass here is of such a fantastic quality—you’ll know when you try Einar’s cheese—but once they’ve had a taste of sandwiches, cakes, or even a shoe, they won’t forget. Ever.”

“We’ll keep that in mind.” Hannah rolled her eyes lovingly at Kristine and gave her a kiss on her cheek. “You and your bucket list.”

Dani laughed. “Bucket list, huh? Well, I hope you got to cross that particular item off.”

“Well, let’s just say the goats were never a part of my fantasy.” Kristine shuffled on the spot, looking at the herd of big, white goats who all seemed to be staring at her now. “Are they going to be okay?” she asked. “After eating my dress?”

“Yeah, they’ll be fine. They occasionally steal laundry from our washing line when people forget to close the gates.” Dani shrugged. “Sorry about your dress.”

“It’s fine. I packed plenty of dresses.” Kristine held up her bra and laughed. “At least I managed to save my expensive lingerie.”

Picture by Y. Kvam

Like this sample? You can pre-order Northern Vows here:

Traveling during COVID

I’ve just arrived in Bermuda to work on my next novel. Although it’s lovely to be away again, it’s a different world now and I won’t lie; it can be a little daunting to get from A to B. During the preparation, paperwork and testing leading up to my journey, I thought back to the ‘good old days’ when everything was simple. If I wanted to go somewhere, I’d book a train, a rental car or a flight, and I went. I usually left accommodation until the very last minute. Sometimes, I didn’t book anything and just followed my intuition or asked locals for tips. For the first time since I started traveling, I had to prepare everything in detail, and let me tell you, that took a lot of time. I thought I’d share my experience for those of you who are thinking of flying somewhere. Here it goes:

The preparation
Twelve days before departure: I didn’t feel like my current travel insurance was good enough, so I went shopping for a one-off deal with an extensive medical cover and accommodation in case I got stranded.
Seven days before departure: I was tested for COVID, then prayed my results would be in on time to apply for Bermuda travel authorization. This is a test done by a private lab and costs £175. Luckily, I got my negative result 2 days before my flight, but all in all, it was very close with only one day to spare by the time I got my authorization.
Basically, my mindset shifted from ‘I’m going’ to ‘I might be going if I’m lucky’, and I was okay with that. Make sure you have a last-minute cancellation cover on your flight and accommodation as that will take away some of the stress.
When I arrived in Bermuda, I had to show my ‘fit for travel certificate’. I was then tested again ($75) in a tent set up outside the airport, before taking a taxi straight to my Airbnb, where I self-isolated until I got the (negative) results. During my stay, I’m required to get tested twice more, and then I’ll do one last test when I land back in the UK (another £175), where again, I’ll be self-isolating in a hotel in London until I get my results. The last one is not mandatory and purely to make sure I don’t pass anything on to others. Still, even without it, that’s a lot of testing. It doesn’t come cheap, so keep that in mind when you see a heavily discounted holiday in a country where ‘fit for travel certificates’ are required.

Packing over COVID is a whole different thing, too. There’s no need for make-up, as I’ll be wearing a mask and mainly just be by myself. I also had to bring a thermometer as I’m required to take my temperature three times a day and upload the results onto an app. I won’t be going out either, so I left my glad rags at home. Instead, I packed food in case my arrival test would take longer than usual to process. I never thought I’d be filling ¼ of my suitcase with noodles, cereal bars and instant coffee!
Usually, it takes me about ten minutes to pack as I just throw whatever I can find in my suitcase, but to avoid having to go into shops, I made a list and made sure I had everything I needed.

The Journey
I stayed in a hotel close to London Gatwick Airport the night before my flight. Due to COVID, there was no night staff when I arrived, but they’d left my key in an envelope with my name on for me. It’s a small, family-run business, and they’ve had to furlough most of their staff as they’ve been missing out on their airport traffic. When I got to my room, it was a sauna. The heating was on full blast, and in an attempt to turn it off, I pulled off the knob by accident and was unable to put it back on. After several fruitless attempts to fix it while burning my hands, I gave up and went in search of tools as there was no one there to help me or move me to another room. Roaming the hotel’s corridors, I found the kitchen (super creepy in the middle of the night, got some ice cubes for my drink), and finally, a staff storage room. There were no tools, but I did find a big standing fan that I dragged down the stairs and into my room, where I aimed it at my bed. Then I opened the window fully (ground floor, also creepy) and managed to sleep through the night. It was certainly an interesting hotel experience, and I had a good laugh about it with the manager the next day, who was super apologetic and sweet and drove me to the airport, together with his dog Walter.

Gatwick airport was blissfully quiet, and the flight was pleasant as the plane wasn’t full. Passengers stayed in their seats instead of pacing up and down the aisle. The airline provided antibacterial wipes, etc., and all the food was wrapped. It felt very clean and safe.

Accommodation
I usually like to be in the middle of the action and prefer staying in a city so I can properly soak up the atmosphere but like most people, I don’t want to be in crowds right now. My Airbnb is remote, located at the very Northern tip of the island, and the view from my patio is breath-taking. Non-residents are not allowed to drive here and there’s not much public transport, but I love walking and it’s only a half-hour walk into St George’s. Overall, it will be 12 days of solitude, just me and my laptop, which means I’ll be able to get lots of words down.

So, here I am on the veranda, with a million-dollar view, an instant coffee, and already super inspired. It was so worth it.

Let me tell you a scary story

Lady Grim, a Halloween anthology with stories from 13 great authors, is now available for pre-order, and I’m super excited to be a part of it. My story ‘The Grand Malum’ is mainly set between two hotels; ‘The Bonum Hotel’ and ‘The Grand Malum,’ both sitting along a deserted mountain road in Virginia. If you’ve had Latin in school, you may have an idea where the story is heading.

Do you believe in ghosts? I do.

I won’t give anything away about my short story, but I will tell you about my own paranormal experience, twenty-one years ago.

I was seventeen and visiting my father and his wife in London. They’d spent a year renovating this huge redbrick Victorian mansion on Elgin Avenue in Maida Vale, a leafy residential neighbourhood, and had only just moved in. 

Although the house was beautiful – filled with antiques and restored to perfection – I felt uncomfortable there but didn’t mention this as they were so proud of it. 

They put me up in a lovely bedroom with an ensuite upstairs, and that first night, I had trouble sleeping. When I woke up from a restless dream around 2 am, the room looked different from before, and that confused me. The white walls were now covered with red wallpaper, and I remember sitting up in bed, wondering what was going on. There was a shimmer in the air, like a highway mirage, yet the room felt unusually cold.

The bathroom door opened, and a woman walked out of with a silver tea tray. She was wearing a yellow dress and a white apron. Her hair was long and gray, pinned up neatly, and round glasses were sitting low on her nose. The impression I got from the way she looked was that she came from another time. I assumed it was a dream, so I didn’t panic but instead tried to wake myself up.

But then she looked at me as if she’d only just become aware of my presence, and at that point, I became so scared that I couldn’t breathe. It didn’t feel like a dream anymore, but at the same time, she didn’t feel real either. What I knew for sure, though, was that there was something very, very wrong about her.

I think I screamed because my father and his wife came upstairs and tried to shake me out of my terrified, frozen state. I was in shock, shivering with fear and cold for hours after that. 

When I was finally able to speak again and described my experience, this was what they told me:

*They’d stripped red wallpaper from the walls in my room during the renovation.

*There used to be a food lift where the bathroom was now.

*They’d flown over a psychic woman from Poland only a month before because the housekeeper’s five-year-old son kept talking up the stairs as if he could see something others couldn’t, and the pets in the house frequently became restless and frightened. My father and his wife had felt uncomfortable, too, at times.

*The psychic woman had performed a ritual to rid the house of evil spirits 

I slept downstairs, and the next day, they called the psychic woman as clearly her ritual had not worked. She told them to pack up and get out of there as she felt something terrible was about to happen. They didn’t – it was their house after all, and although they were planning on selling it, they hadn’t even put it up on the market yet. 

A couple of weeks later – by that time I was back in the Netherlands – my father and his wife were out for the night and got a phone call from the neighbors, who urged them to come home immediately. 

The house had spontaneously caught fire.

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Read the first three chapters of ‘Masquerade’ by Madeleine Taylor!

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‘Masquerade’ by Madeleine Taylor will be out on 27/08/2020 and is now available for pre-order through the link at the bottom.

Chapter 1

I’m a little nervous as I follow my friend Tessa past the long rows of enormous properties that make up the Garden District in New Orleans. She insisted we come here tonight and although I was excited while we were shopping for our costumes and masks this afternoon, my normally self-assured demeanor is starting to crumble now that I’m about to enter a party in a city that I only stepped foot in last night and where I don’t know anyone apart from Tessa.

“These houses are out of this world,” I murmur, peeking through the gates to admire the huge yards and pristine pools. “Are you sure we’re dressed appropriately?”

“Are you serious? You look fabulous, Ivy.” The masked party being thrown in her friend’s huge house is supposed to be the place to be tonight and we’ve gone all out, following the ‘Black & White masquerade’ dress code printed on the formal invitation.

“Thank you. So do you.” I stare down at my long, black dress and decide that I do indeed, look fabulous. It’s vintage and has lace trumpet sleeves that match the skirt part. The black corset I’m wearing over it makes me look a little gothic, and in combination with my black Venetian style feathered mask, long, dark hair and naturally pale face I could very well pass for a ghost in the dark. “And I can’t believe how fast you’ve managed to make friends, considering you only moved here just over five weeks ago.”

“What can I say, people are just naturally drawn to me.” Tessa bats her eyelashes at me before she pulls her mask over her face, letting me know we’re close. She’s wearing a white dress we found in the same store. With her blonde hair and white feather adorned mask, we’re quite the pair, and passers-by are staring at us from a restaurant terrace as we turn a corner looking like ballerinas about to audition for the leads in Swan Lake.

“This one?” I ask incredulously as she stops in front of a huge house that looks stunning and even grander than the pastel-colored French colonial buildings next door.

“Yeah, I think this is it,” Tessa says, checking the details.

“How can you not be sure? I thought you knew…” I take the elegantly designed invitation from her and read the name of the host. “Countess Montgomery, which I assume is an alias.”

“Knowing is a strong word,” Tessa says as the heavy cast-iron gates open, and we’re asked by the security team to step into the front yard. An enchanting fountain sits on the lawn to our right. It’s lit up from below, the five cherubs in the middle shooting jets of water through their raised trumpets. The beautiful mansion is painted white with pastel green windowsills and shutters. A wide balcony with ornate railings runs along the second floor with French doors painted in the same shade of green. Large trees covered in Spanish moss are lined up on both sides of the long driveway that leads to the front door, and the many lanterns in the trees make for a spectacular sight.

A dozen or so women who have just arrived are hanging out by the gates. Some are wearing suits, but most of them are dressed in skimpy dresses, or very little but an elaborate mask and elegant lingerie with a separate train or a tuxedo jacket. Although they’ve all respected the black and white theme, their outfits are a lot more daring than ours, and I’m starting to wonder if we got the dress code wrong.

Studying the guests, I make a second observation and voice it. “I don’t see any men here.” Not that I mind; men are not my thing and I’m here to have some fun.

“You’re right. I think we may be in luck tonight.” Tessa smirks. “It’s been a while since I’ve been to a women-only party.”

My eyes are drawn to a woman in a short, black latex dress, smoking a cigarette under one of the trees by the gates. She’s wearing a mask that looks like lead has melted over half her face; silver wax-like drips run down her dark cheeks to complete the effect, but I can see from what’s exposed that she’s very pretty. Wild curls frame her mahogany face, and the mask accentuates her full lips. Another woman joins her wearing a sharp-tailored black suit. She has short, slicked back dark hair and is wearing a distinctly shaped Phantom of the Opera mask. Her eyes are so black that I wonder if she’s wearing contacts as she stares at me, sizing me up like prey. It’s giving me chills, yet I can’t help but look at her, too.

“Good evening,” Tessa says, flashing the invitation at one of the female security guards.

“Good evening.” A woman the size of a tree looks down at Tessa and raises a brow. “Password?”

I glance at Tessa, whose eyes flash back and forth between me, the talking tree and the street behind us. “It’s ehm…” Tessa shuffles on the spot, then lets out a deep sigh. “Fuck.”

I groan at her, because by now, I know exactly what’s going on. “Where did you get that invitation from?” I whisper at her. “Be honest. It’s clear you weren’t invited.”

“I found it,” Tessa says in a thin voice, looking deflated as her shoulders drop. “On the floor of the public restrooms, in the hotel I was staying at before I got the keys to my apartment.”

“No password, no entry,” the tree-like woman says in a friendly but pressing tone, gesturing to the gates for us to leave.

“I can’t believe you pulled this on me again,” I mumble in embarrassment, remembering New Year’s Eve, the last time she falsely claimed to have been invited to an exclusive party in New York, where we both lived at the time. “I’m thirty-five and you’ve made me try to crash a party for the second time in a year. It’s embarrassing beyond belief.”

Tessa doesn’t reply, clearly mortified herself, but just as we’re about to leave, the woman in the suit walks up to us. “Wait, they’re with me,” she says to the security guard before taking my hand, bending forward and kissing the top of it. Her lips press so softly against my skin that I can barely feel it, yet a shiver runs through me as I watch her bow. Something about her is incredibly sensual, and I’m curious to know what’s behind the mask.

“Miss…?” Her voice is low and husky.

“Miss Black,” I lie, not feeling entirely comfortable giving my surname to a stranger, even if the stranger has just saved us from humiliation.

“Welcome to the party, Miss Black.” The woman turns to Tessa. “Then you must be Miss White?” An amused smile plays around her lips. “Are you… together?”

“No,” I’m quick to say, unsure why I desperately want her to know I’m single. Tessa is my ex, but our attraction faded over twelve years ago and we’ve been best friends ever since. We recently agreed during a drunken night that we’d rather chew our arms off than sleep with each other again, so there’s never even been as much as a flirty comment between us since we were in our early twenties.

“Good.” The woman’s smile widens. “Let me introduce myself. In case you hadn’t worked it out I’m the Phantom, and this is my friend Stephanie,” she says when the woman in the latex dress joins us. “Stephanie, will you show Miss White to the bar, please? I’ll make sure Miss Black gets a drink.” She holds out her arm and instinctively I hook mine through it as I glance at Tessa, who is being whisked away by the other woman.

I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable around the Phantom, as she calls herself; she’s persistent, acting as if she’s already got me in her pocket, and I’m aware of the heavy gates closing behind me. When I observe guests entering the mansion, I note that they have a strange air about them, and that the atmosphere is way darker than I expected. The idea of finding Tessa and sneaking out after one drink crosses my mind, but first, I need to apologize. “I’m terribly sorry about gate-crashing the party,” I say, looking up at her. “My friend told me she knew the hostess, but that’s clearly not the case.”

“Don’t worry about it.” My handsome companion takes a tighter hold of my arm as she leads me to the entrance. “I know most people here and you’re with me, now. I couldn’t have wished for a better surprise than a gorgeous stranger showing up unexpectedly, so please allow me the pleasure of your company, at least for a little while.”

 

 

Chapter 2

“Cocktail?” The Phantom hands me a tall glass with a black liquid that smells faintly of licorice. “There’s champagne at the other bar if you prefer, but I thought this suited your looks tonight.”

“Thank you.” I take a sip and let it roll over my palette. “It’s good.”

“Of course.” She says it as if it’s a given that anything this party has to offer is good. “It has a couple of secret ingredients, but don’t worry—it’s all natural.”

“Are you telling me the drinks are spiked?” I raise a brow at her and tilt my head.

“No. I’m saying the cocktail contains certain herbs. There’s nothing synthetic in there and it won’t make you go crazy or do anything you don’t want to do.” She winks. “It might enhance your desires, though.”

As her words linger between us, I contemplate handing the drink back and leaving, but I can’t seem to tear myself away from her. She has an air about her that draws me in, and I find her incredibly attractive. In desperate need of liquid courage, and for no reason other than that my intuition tells me it’s okay, I decide to trust her and take another sip. “Very well, I’ll take your word for it.”

I must admit, the place looks very, very impressive as she offers her arm and shows me around. Two bars are set up in the spacious living room that is dimly lit and decorated with antique furniture, rich tapestries, huge chandeliers and exquisite, old oil paintings. Despite the opulence, I can see that the furniture is worn-out, and that there has been little maintenance done in the past years. It must be terribly expensive to maintain a house like this, but the paintwork that is chipped in places and the slightly damaged wallpaper, only adds to the charm.

The scent of incense hangs thick in the air and my sight is blurred by the occasional clouds of mist coming from the dry ice machine behind the DJ booth, which is set up in a corner of the room. An androgynous looking woman dressed in nothing but a pair of black shorts and a tuxedo jacket, is playing a slow, eerie tune that adds to the mysterious, laid-back vibe. In the middle of the room, the furniture has been cleared, and women are slow dancing, which is something I haven’t done since my high school graduation party.

People are everywhere, loitering on the sweeping staircase that leads up from the grand hallway and we spot others in various rooms as we pass their open doorways. The staff hired for tonight are dressed in simple black suits and black masks, and it’s kind of intriguing not being able to see anyone’s faces. Perhaps my companion is the most intriguing of all; her nonchalance and total confidence making me more and more curious by the minute. She’s clearly interested in me too, as she hasn’t taken her intense black eyes off me for a second and is blatantly ignoring everyone else.

“So, does the Phantom have a first name?” I ask.

She tilts her head and takes a sip of her drink, and her smile sends shivers down my spine. “Not tonight. Tonight, I’m just the Phantom.”

“Right.” I chuckle. “So, is The Phantom of the Opera your favorite musical?”

“Not quite.”

“Okay,” I say, wondering why it’s so damn hard to get any information out of this woman. She’s clearly not one for small talk. “Well, my name is…”

“Shh…” She hushes me, placing her thumb on my lips and it’s making me tingle all over. “Don’t you like the anonymity we’ve got going on here?” She leans in closer to whisper in my ear. “Don’t you like the idea of having a mind-blowing night with a stranger who will please you in ways you can’t even begin to imagine?”

Her last question makes me take in a quick breath, and as my lips part, she keeps her thumb there, wedging it between them. It sets me on fire and parts of me that have been neglected in the past year suddenly come to life, reminding me of what I’ve been missing. I can’t say the thought of kissing her hasn’t crossed my mind in the ten minutes I’ve spent in her company. Her lips are alluring, and her eyes have something dark and dangerous about them that arouses me each time she looks at me. Sex with a stranger is not something I’d normally even consider, but still, I make no effort to remove her thumb. Quite the opposite; I fight the urge to suck it into my mouth, and when she straightens herself and pulls her hand away, I feel a flicker of disappointment.

“I don’t know what to say to that.”

“But it’s simple.” Again, there’s that stare. “Does that idea turn you on, or not?” Awaiting my answer, she takes my drink from me and puts it down before she pulls me in by my waist, drawing me against her. “Never mind, where are my manners? I should at least offer you a dance to give you time to think about it.”

I’m grateful for the dancefloor as I’m not sure I can manage to hold a conversation after her indecent proposal, so I let her lead the way.

“Do you know how masked balls started?” she asks, pressing her hand firmly into the small of my back.

“No,” I whisper, aware of the alarming lack of distance between our lips. “Tell me.” I’m not a great dancer and I have no idea what I’m doing, but it doesn’t matter. There’s music, we’re moving, and our physical closeness feels amazing. It’s been a while since I’ve felt a woman’s body against my own, and hers does not disappoint. Strong arms, her thigh brushing between my legs each time she takes a step forward, her hips against mine…

“Balls have a long history, but masks were first worn during carnival season, where big indulgent celebrations were held before Lent; generally seen as a time of somber fasting,” the Phantom says. “People wore masks to hide their identity, so they could drink as much as they wanted, express controversial opinions and even have sex with people from different social classes, without having to face the consequences. Masks gave them the anonymity they needed to be free. Eighteenth-century masked balls were especially of an erotic nature.” She pauses, and her lips pull into a smile. “I feel like indulging tonight. Do you?”

“I think I do,” I hear myself say, but I’m not sure if I mean it. Although my body wants to, from the way it’s reacting to her, it seems a little extreme for me. I came here with the intention of maybe meeting some new people, to have some fun, to flirt a little but not to dive under the covers with a stranger.

Scanning the crowd and simultaneously searching for Tessa, I notice a lot of people are making out and, in some cases, it’s getting very heated. Considering it’s not even ten pm, I doubt any of these people are too drunk to realize what they’re doing. There’s a voyeuristic atmosphere, as if by some silent understanding, it’s okay for them to do whatever they want here tonight. “What kind of party is this?” I ask, not sure if I’m ready for the answer.

“The fun kind. The hedonistic kind.” The Phantom moves her hand lower, so that she can caress my behind and she then roughly squeezes it. “Are you okay with that?”

I bite my lip and nod, then realize what I’ve just done and shake my head. “Not my scene,” I say, still drawn to her mouth. It’s like I can’t take my eyes off her lips, and I’m dying to know what’s under the mask. Her short hair is gelled back, the way a fifties salesman would wear it, or perhaps phantoms, if they were real.

“Then you shouldn’t have gate-crashed.” She winks, letting me know she’s joking. “If you want me to walk you out, I will, but I can’t help thinking it would be a waste of a wonderful opportunity for both of us.”

I choose not to answer, buying myself time. Finally, I spot Tessa on a chaise in the corner of the room, talking to Stephanie. They’re sitting next to each other and Stephanie already has her arm around her. Seeing how engaged Tessa looks, I know that I won’t be able to drag her away from the woman if I try, but I have a spare key to her apartment, so it doesn’t really matter. I’ll leave when I want to leave, I tell myself, although I’m not totally sure what I really want regarding anything at this point. My seductive temptress of a phantom has planted a seed in my mind, and I keep wondering what it would feel like if she kissed me.

The song comes to an end, and the Phantom takes my hand and leads us back to the bar. “How about another drink, Miss Black?”

 

 

Chapter 3

“So, what do people talk about without giving anything away about themselves?” I ask when we’re sitting on a couch in something that looks like a reception room. There are fewer people in here, but the vibe is the same; steamy, heated, sexual. No one is taking it any further than kissing so far, but their hands have started to wander now, and it’s hard not to look. “I can’t ask you about your name, how you know the hostess, or what you do for a living,” I continue, desperate to take my mind off the woman opposite me, whose hand is now making its way up another woman’s thigh.

“We could talk about what you’d like me to do to you in bed,” she suggests matter-of- factly, making my heart rate go up so fast that I clutch onto my chest. “I take it from your reaction that public intimacy isn’t your thing, but I have a nice room upstairs. Countess Montgomery is fine with me using it and it’s very private.”

“Of course you do.” I can’t help but laugh because she’s simply not giving up. After my second drink though, I’m feeling more relaxed and the chemistry between us is explosive.

“Well?” She arches a brow. “What do you want, Miss Black?”

A blush rises to my cheeks and I hide behind my glass. Being a professional nightclub singer, I’m not normally the shy retiring type, but I seem to have lost my ability to speak tonight. “I’m not sure if I know what I want. Not right now, anyway.”

My seductress nods, the corners of her mouth tugging up. “Then maybe you should let me decide what you want. Do you like handing over control?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You know very well what I mean. Does the idea of me being in command appeal to you?”

“No.” As the answer leaves my lips in a breathy whimper, I know I’m lying. Although I’ve had many fantasies, I’ve never submitted to anyone. “Maybe.”

“Maybe means you’re curious. Are you curious, Miss Black?” Her eyes flash back at me and I let out a quiet breath before I finally give in.

“Yes.”

It’s just one word, but somehow, I feel like that one word is about to change my world. A rush of heat spreads between my thighs, making me quiver. Clearly, I want this more that I realized, and if I’m ever going to try something totally out of my comfort zone, it might as well be with an anonymous stranger who I will never see again.

“Are you sure?” Her hand slides up my thigh, making my chest heave. “You know what? It doesn’t matter; you can change your mind anytime.” A gentle squeeze is all the encouragement I need, because all I can think of now is having that hand in other places. I have no idea how she’s done it, but within the span of an hour, I’ve agreed to go upstairs with her and let her do God knows what to me.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Then let’s explore together.” Taking my glass from me, the Phantom stands up and holds out her hand. “Let me show you to the room.”

My legs are trembling as I get up, but deep down, I know I’ll regret it if I don’t do this tonight. I told Tessa earlier I was ready to have some fun again, after my girlfriend left me for someone else eight months ago, and this woman is not only devilishly attractive and charming, but the sexual chemistry is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. My body is craving to be touched again, and her fleeting caresses and dark eyes have set me on fire. “Wait… I need to check on Tessa.”

“I have no doubt she’s enjoying herself.” The Phantom leads me to the living room, where I see Tessa making out with Stephanie in a big armchair. She’s draped half on top of her and she seems to have been sucked into the same sexual energy as everyone else. It’s typical Tessa, throwing herself into the arms of the first woman who pays her attention—she’s always been that way—but Stephanie is smoking hot and I’m happy for her. Besides, I’m in no position to judge her as I’m about to do exactly the same thing myself.

“Tessa,” I say, gently nudging her shoulder.

“Oh, hey.” Tessa looks from me to Stephanie and back as if I’ve just woken her up from a spell. Realizing her bra is visible, she frowns and pulls the shoulder strap of her dress back up. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’ll just be gone for a bit. Do you mind?”

Glancing down at Stephanie, she grins before she turns back to me. “No, I don’t mind. I’ll be right here if you need me.”

“Are you okay?” I have to ask, because even for her, this is unusual behavior. “Do you feel weird in any way?”

“No. I feel…” Tessa takes a moment to think about it, then says, “I just feel immensely turned on, that’s all.” Then Stephanie pulls her back toward her mouth and they fall into another heated kiss like I’m not even there.

The Phantom doesn’t seem to think this is strange at all, and judging by the situation in the room, I know we need to either leave or join in, being the only voyeurs among many heated bodies. Groups have started to form naturally, a mysterious organic attraction pulling women together and I can see where this is heading. Concluding Tessa is fine, I take a deep breath and give my new friend a look that tells her I’m ready.

We walk up two flights of the broad staircase and head for a door at the end of the corridor. There’s nothing but silence between us, but it’s not uncomfortable. On the contrary—it only adds to the excitement and anticipation that is growing inside of me. I’ve just surrendered to my fate for the night, even though I have no idea what will happen. She takes a key out of her pocket and unlocks the door. “After you.”

Read the first 3 chapters of ‘The Scent of Rome’, out 28/05/2020!

 

Chapter 1

Nadine Costa was waiting at the bar of the St. Regis in Rome. Her red silk dress, black stiletto heels, long dark hair and elegant physique made her the center of attention and she knew it. People’s eyes were always drawn to her, wherever she went, especially when dressed the way she was tonight. She scanned the opulent space as she inhaled the scent of luxury. It was hard to define the ingredients that made up the hotel’s signature scent, but she picked up on a hint of rosewood and leather, no doubt carefully selected to leave a lasting impression on its guests.

It wasn’t the first time she’d been here, but the grandeur of the hotel always impressed her. The marble floor of the meticulously renovated palazzo sparkled like it had just been polished, reflecting the light of the crystal chandeliers in the ceiling. Even though this wasn’t Nadine’s scene, she looked like she belonged here as she waited for the man who would be her date for tonight while sipping a glass of champagne. She was early as always because she liked getting acquainted with her stage, as she thought of it, taking her time to prepare for her performance.

It was pretty simple, but the rules were strict. All meetings happened in public places, no exceptions. Touching was not allowed, unless it was a hand on her back while leading her to a table or opening a door, or maybe a peck on the cheek to convince others of their affection. Possible topics of conversation had been sent through prior to their meeting, so she could make herself familiar with the material. She also had a file with information on the man she was meeting, including a basic script on how they’d ‘met’. His name was Flavio Russo, a Rome-based investor and tonight, she was playing the role of a wealthy American on holiday in Rome, who had recently met Flavio in a café. After dinner, during which she would charm the hell out of his business partners, her agency would send a limo to pick them up, as she never got into private cars. The driver would drop off her client first before she went back to her own apartment in Trastevere.

Her privacy was protected by the high-end escort company she worked for, and sleeping with the clients was against the agency’s policy within their contracts. They often asked her out on a real date by the time the night was over, but it was purely a job to her and she had no interest in dating.

Nadine wasn’t afraid of anyone finding out what she did for a living. Her mother was back home in New York, and she didn’t have any close friends in Rome. What she did was innocent in her opinion; making the men and women who booked her look good for others. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was boring, but it was always strictly business.

“I love your dress.”

Nadine turned upon hearing the distinct American accent and smiled at the woman standing next to her at the bar. “Thank you. You look pretty great yourself.”

The woman frowned for a moment, clearly not expecting her to be American too. “Thank you back I guess,” she finally said. “I never know how to dress for meetings, it’s not my strong point.”

Nadine studied the petite woman, taking in her blonde bob, striking blue eyes, black knee-length pencil skirt and black top. She was carrying a simple leather envelope file and a small black purse hung from a silver chain over her shoulder. Her legs looked great in the high heels, but Nadine noted that just like her purse, they were designer replicas, which told her the woman was pretending to be wealthier than she actually was. “I’ll have to disagree on that.” She winked. “What are you drinking?”

“I was going to join you and order a glass of champagne.”

“Then please allow me.” Nadine gestured to the bartender to order another drink. “I’ll put it on my date’s tab.”

“No, that’s not necessary, I…”

“Please.” Nadine smiled as she handed her the glass. “I’m Nadine.”

“Rome. It’s nice to meet you.”

Nadine laughed. “Rome? Are you kidding me?” She studied the woman’s delicate features for a hint of humor, but she seemed serious.

“No, I’m not joking.” Rome laughed too. “I’ve never had that reaction to my name before but now that I’m here, suddenly everyone seems to think it’s funny. There’s no connection; my parents just thought it sounded exotic, and it’s actually my first time in Rome. I only arrived this afternoon.”

“Then you’re in for a treat. How long are you staying in town, Rome?” Nadine repeated her name because she liked the sound of it. It was unusual but cute and bold, full-bodied like a good Bordeaux.

“Depends. If my meeting goes well, a couple of days to round up the contracts, then for a considerable stretch of time after I’ve gone back home to Portland to pack my things. If it doesn’t go well, I’ll be flying back tomorrow.”

“Let’s hope this evening is a success, then. It would be a waste of the long-haul flight if you don’t get to see anything.” Nadine took a sip of her champagne, careful not to smudge her red lipstick. “What is it that you do?”

“I’m an app developer.” Rome shot her a goofy grin. “It’s very nerdy; I won’t bore you with the details but I’m here to meet a potential investor. I arrived early so I could take on some liquid courage and mentally prepare for my pitch.”

“Then I shouldn’t be distracting you.”

“No, it’s fine. It’s nice talking to you; it settles my nerves a little.” Rome tilted her head, then looked Nadine up and down. “Where’s your date?”

“He’ll be here soon. I came early too.”

“Oh. First date?”

Nadine thought about her answer for a moment, then decided to be honest. “All my dates are a first. It’s a paid date,” she said, lowering her voice, then clarified: “I’m an escort.” Rome’s wide-eyed reaction amused her. The response was to be expected but it wasn’t like they would ever see each other again and Nadine felt no need to defend what she did to make ends meet.

“So… he’s taking you out to dinner and then you go home with him?”

“Gross, no. I don’t sleep with them, it’s only dinner.” Nadine grimaced. “Wealthy men tend to like a younger woman on their arm to impress their business partners. I occasionally sleep with my female clients though, but only if I really want to and when I initiate it.” She winked. “Free of charge of course as that’s purely for my own pleasure. I have needs too, and it’s not exactly easy to maintain a relationship when you’re in this business.”

Rome seemed even more stunned now as a blush appeared on her cheeks. “Oh… So you only sleep with women? Because you’re…”

“Because I’m gay, yes.” Nadine locked her eyes with Rome and saw a hint of nervousness in them. “What about you? Men or women? Or both?”

“Men,” Rome answered almost immediately.

“Husband? Boyfriend?” Nadine was surprised to feel a little flicker of disappointment at Rome’s reply. Not that she expected anything to happen between them, but she liked flirting with women, and it was clear that she was not going to get anywhere with this one. A beautiful stranger who might only be in Rome for one night would have been perfect, because it had been a while since she’d had some action between the sheets.

“No, I’m single. Too busy with my nerdy stuff to meet people, and anyway, I’m not that bothered.” Rome hesitated for a moment. “Can I ask you something? Just out of curiosity…”

“Anything.”

“How much do you get paid to have dinner with your clients?”

“You mean how much does it cost to spend time in my company?” Nadine chuckled. “I don’t normally disclose that but as you have the best name I’ve ever heard and the best ass I’ve ever laid my eyes on, from what I can see in that skirt…” Inching closer, she decided to flirt with her anyway. She wasn’t doing anything wrong and besides, she liked how Rome blushed when she looked at her. Nadine was good at reading people and there was definitely something there, straight or not. “I’m seventeen-hundred Euros a night. Out of the seventeen hundred, I get twelve hundred and my agency takes five hundred. The duration of the date is flexible but as a general rule, I like to be home by midnight. That’s harder in Rome, though. People tend to stay up later than in New York and Paris, where I did this before.”

“Jesus.” Rome frowned as she processed the information. Or maybe she was processing the comment about her ass, Nadine wasn’t sure. Either way, she looked flustered. “So, you get twelve-hundred Euros just to have dinner with someone? Nice, fancy dinners in the best places in town?”

“I wouldn’t call them the best places. My personal tastes are a little more authentic than this, but yes, that’s the deal.”

“And your agency takes five-hundred? That seems like daylight robbery to me.”

“It’s not unreasonable.” Nadine shrugged and smiled. “They do a background check on the clients and make sure it’s safe for me to go out with them. They also protect my privacy and prepare an information pack, so I know exactly what I’m getting myself into. They’ve been good so far, so I’m not complaining.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound so daunting now that you’ve explained it.” Rome leaned against the bar and sighed. “Maybe I should look into it. Then I wouldn’t have to drag my presentation around the world while maxing out my credit cards.” She finished her champagne and shook her head. “But I couldn’t, I’d feel dirty.” As soon as she realized what she’d said, Rome slammed a hand in front of her mouth. “Oh God, I didn’t mean it like that.” Regret was written all over her face and it was endearing how her gaze kept shifting to the ceiling, trying to think of something to pull her out of the hole she’d dug for herself. Nadine didn’t mind the comment so much; she was used to it, and her line of work wasn’t for everyone. “I didn’t mean to insult you, I…” Rome’s clumsy stammering stopped when a big, bald man in a sharp, black suit came walking up to them, eyeing Nadine.

Nadine realized she’d lost track of time and turned to him with her most charming smile. Damn it. I never make mistakes. He looked extremely wealthy in his Brioni suit and patent leather shoes. A gold Rolex peeked from underneath his right sleeve, and his wedding band was still on his ring finger; it was something men often forgot. Or perhaps he simply didn’t care.

“Nadine, there you are. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” He eyed her up and down, then pointed to her dress. “You look beautiful as always.”

“Flavio.” Nadine kissed him on both cheeks and patted his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I got distracted talking to this lovely lady here.” She turned to Rome. “Flavio, this is Rome. Rome, this is Flavio.” She noticed Rome looked even more uncomfortable now as they shook hands.

“Flavio Russo, the CEO of Nero,” Rome said. “It’s great to finally meet you in person. I’m Rome Foster.”

Flavio’s gaze nervously shifted from Rome to Nadine and back and Nadine cursed herself as it clicked. An investor… of course. How could she have been so stupid? She was clearly not thinking straight, too immersed in flirting with the captivating woman who was apparently going to be at her table for the rest of the night.

“Rome was just telling me all about her app,” Nadine lied, trying to put him at ease. She knew it was vital for him that their secret was safe, yet she’d just told Rome about their arrangement. “It sounds like a great opportunity.” She gave Flavio another smile and knew that she had him then, as his shoulders relaxed and he smiled back, checking out her cleavage.

“Yes, we’re looking forward to hearing all about it.” Flavio put a hand on Nadine’s back and led them to their table, where another two men were waiting.

Nadine took a deep breath and braced herself for the evening ahead, then introduced herself and sat down next to Flavio.

 

 

Chapter 2

Rome watched Nadine immerse herself in the conversation with the confidence and flair of someone who was used to mixing in wealthy circles. The beautiful dark-haired woman who had been shamelessly flirting with her only five minutes ago knew exactly how to wrap men around her little finger; that much was clear. Nadine’s comment about her ass still lingered in the back of her mind. Women never flirted with her, and it was both exciting and distracting. For some reason she couldn’t explain, she was just as worried about what Nadine thought of her as the men around the table who were making the decisions. She could tell Flavio was happy with his ‘date’ by the way he kept looking at Nadine, as if she was the only thing that mattered in the room. Knowing that he’d hired an escort for the evening made Rome secretly loathe him, but she needed his money badly, so she tried not to think about it. She was down to the last of her savings, after dragging her presentation from one side of the world to the other, and he was her last hope. Other investors had been interested, but most of them were worried about privacy issues. So, she’d spent months adjusting her program and here she was again with the latest update of her app, which she was hoping would change the world for the better. It was now or never.

“I apologize for bringing a date to our meeting,” Flavio said. “But Nadine is only here for another two weeks and we wanted to spend as much time together as we could.” He shot his hired girlfriend a creepy grin and the two men nodded their agreement, looking a little envious as Flavio put an arm around Nadine and squeezed her shoulder. Nadine flinched for a moment, but immediately corrected herself and gave him a playful look. Rome found herself unable to take her eyes off the escort when her bright red lips stretched into a wide and infectious smile, showing perfectly straight, white teeth. God, she’s gorgeous.

“I understand. Young love is precious,” Rome improvised as her eyes locked with Nadine’s for a brief moment, letting her know that her secret was safe. “So, would you like to order first of shall I just go right ahead and tell you about my product?”

“Let’s eat first,” Flavio’s dark and handsome co-investor, who had introduced himself as Rob, said. “I can’t think on an empty stomach.”

“Me either,” Matteo, his chubby neighbor agreed. “I haven’t even had time for lunch today and that’s a crime in Rome, so thank God for the St. Regis’ sirloin and the two beautiful women at our table.” The men laughed, and Rome and Nadine laughed along half-heartedly. She realized then, that although they were there for different reasons, they were both in a similar position. They both needed something from the men in their company, and now she was the one who felt dirty.

Rome waited for her hosts to pick up their menus, then opened her own. If there was one thing she’d learned from boarding school, it was manners. “I must admit, I like how you do business here in Rome. I can’t say I’ve ever done a pitch in a restaurant before, but it sure beats a boardroom.” She didn’t mind eating first and was silently hoping the men would be more impressionable once they had a couple of glasses of wine in their system. She’d make sure not to drink more than one glass herself though, as she needed to stay focused.

“Hey, you’ve come all the way here to tell us about your app. Taking you out for dinner first is the least we can do,” Matteo said, then mumbled something in Italian to his friends.

The way they chuckled told Rome he was referring to the women at their table, but she pretended not to notice. Don’t say anything rude, Rome. You need this. “Well thank you, I appreciate it.” She scanned the menu and became internally outraged when a few moments later Matteo took it upon himself to order for her and Nadine.

“The ladies will have the artichokes, followed by the Sicilian red prawns, then the polenta with summer vegetables,” he said to the waiter in English so they could clearly hear what he’d ordered. “And we need champagne of course, and the best red wine on your list.” After that, Flavio, Rob and Matteo ordered for themselves in Italian.

Rome was shocked when she realized Matteo had not just only decided what she was going to eat, but he’d also ordered all the low-calorie dishes on the menu for her and Nadine. If they’d been on a date tonight, she would have waited for the food to arrive and then thrown it at him. Nadine’s eyes met hers for a moment and they exchanged a knowing look, acknowledging they were on the same page about his misogynistic behavior. It was a small comfort, knowing she wasn’t the only one appalled by his actions.

“So, as I explained, the Carbon app is connected to the Carbon Card. Think of it as a credit card,” Rome said after discussing the practicalities of her pitch. It had been a long dinner, but the espresso was doing its work and keeping her alert. “It’s an app to measure your carbon footprint, so before you start using it, you have to answer around two hundred questions. Various things like the type of car you drive, whether your house has double-pane windows or not, your utility usage, etcetera. Then, every time you purchase something, and you pay with the card, the estimated carbon footprint of the purchased items is stored in your profile. If you take a bus to work for example, you can enter that manually and Google Maps will pick up your location and measure your journey accordingly. Public transport gives you positive credit, of course, and walking is even better. The system can be connected to your health app too, so it tracks your physical journey. You can also use the app to scan products in grocery stores or anywhere you want really, and it will give you better alternatives in terms of mindful products and packaging. The Carbon platform is the future; it will change the way people think about consuming and living in general. It’s simple, like a calorie app. Every single thing you do in your day to day life counts.” Rome looked smug as she always did when she finished her pitch. She was proud of her product, even though it was surprisingly hard to physically get the idea out there. “I’ve patented the analytical part of the platform. Copycats are obviously still a risk, but they won’t be able to extract the data the way my program can.”

“Okay…” Flavio took his time to think about it, but it was Matteo who came up with the first question.

“I believe you when you say consumers are changing. You explained the shopping behavior of the new generations and I can see that. But, as far as I can see, the demographic that makes up the truly conscientious ‘green’ consumers still only represents a small percentage of the population and quite frankly, I think it’s too early to invest in this. People aren’t ready yet.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. People just need a catalyst.” Rome looked at all three men, then rested her eyes on Nadine, who appeared to be the only one captivated by what she had to say. For a moment, she almost lost her train of thought, but she quickly pulled herself back together and answered just like she had over a hundred times before. “Not everyone cares about the environment. But everyone cares about what others think of them. Humble bragging is real and showing the world you’re doing good online is the new status symbol, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.” She gave them a confident smile. “Imagine major influencers and stars using the app to tweet their progress on cutting back on their carbon footprint. It will be the most positive trend the world has ever seen, and I’m giving you the opportunity to be at the forefront of this huge universe of information that is not only immensely valuable, but also world-changing.”

“Why are you doing this?” Nadine studied Rome intently and seemed genuinely interested in the answer. She looked caught out as soon as she’d asked the question, like she only then realized then that her role was just to sit there and look pretty. Flavio seemed to be curious about the answer too though, his eyes flicking to Nadine as she spoke.

“Yes, why are you doing this?” He repeated the question, studying the file containing the financial details of Rome’s global roll-out proposal. “It’s a huge risk; sixteen million is a lot of money. And it’s not only risky for us, but for you too. If this goes wrong, no investor will ever touch you again.”

“And sixteen million is a bottom guestimate,” Matteo added. “We would have to put a team of experts together to work with you, and that will add significant investment too.”

“I know there’s a considerable risk. But I believe in this, and I’m doing it because I genuinely care about the environment and worry about global warming. I’m invested, and it’s been my life-long mission to make the world a better place. You may find that naïve, but it’s the only honest answer I can give you.” Rome focused on Nadine as she passionately answered the question, then remembered she was addressing the wrong person and turned to Flavio instead. Besides the fact that he was the biggest shareholder in their tech investment company, she’d already figured he was their main negotiator too. “But for you, it’s also an opportunity to make a lot of money. And I mean a lot. It is for all of us.”

Matteo cleared his throat. “What about user privacy?”

“Well, I’m glad you asked because I’ve been working on that. The products that are bought or consumed do not register to individual accounts. Once they’re processed, they move to the main database and only leave a code on the user’s app which is then converted into the ever-changing percentage of their own carbon footprint as they continue to use it. The history is deleted, so to speak. Therefore, it would not be possible for me to see what you, Rob and Matteo have purchased this week but I would be able to see how many combined quarts of milk have been purchased by all the people using this app, or how much gas they’ve gone through while driving. Although the data is not personal, and therefore direct marketing is not an option, the data is still very valuable because the people who will be using this app are the consumers of the future and the insights are pretty precise. The data can be used to predict how popular certain consumer goods will be before they’re even launched, and as a result, companies will be willing to pay a fortune for such lucrative information.”

“Hmmm…” Flavio scratched his chin and let out a deep sigh. To Rome’s surprise, it was Rob, who had been fairly quiet so far, who voiced his opinion first.

“I think sixteen million is a lot for something that’s never been trialed before. Nero tends to follow proven formulas, we don’t lead, and that’s been the key to our success so far.”

Rome sank back listless in her chair as she watched her life fall apart. She was pretty sure she wasn’t going to secure their investment tonight. She’d put all her bets on this app, confident that no one in their right mind would say no to it. How could she have been so stupid? I’m so fucked.

“Excuse me. I’m going to visit the restrooms while you gentlemen discuss business.” Nadine stood up and walked away with the sexiest sway in her hips Rome had ever seen. Despite the outcome of her meeting dampening her mood, she suddenly felt an urge to follow her and seize the opportunity to apologize in case she’d insulted her earlier. She sensed Nadine was fun and even though she was playing a role tonight, Rome had a feeling she was a lot smarter than she was letting on. Maybe she would have some advice on how to rope these guys in, because if they didn’t invest in the app, she might need an escort job of her own, soon.

“I’ll be right back.” Rome stood up too and rushed after her. Her heart rate accelerated when she saw Nadine reapplying her red lipstick, stretching forward as she looked into the mirror above the marble basins.

Nadine smiled at her through the mirror, then pursed her lips and ruffled a hand through her dark hair that fell over her back in long waves. “How do you feel the meeting is going?”

“I’m not sure,” Rome said, a little deflated. “But if my gut is anything to go by, it’s not looking good.”

“No, they’re not going to bite, I can tell. Believe me, I’m good at reading people.” Nadine turned, put a hand on Rome’s shoulder and gave her a wink. “But maybe I can help you. I can’t promise anything, though.” She headed for the door without waiting for a reply.

“Wait.” Rome watched her turn back and her stomach felt funny as Nadine’s dark eyes flashed back at her. “I wanted to apologize for what I said. I don’t think you’re dirty.” She rolled her eyes and let out a nervous giggle, then raised a hand to her temple, shaking her head. “Okay, that came out wrong.”

Nadine laughed too and walked back to her, then did something so unexpected that Rome froze on the spot. Closing her eyes, she leaned in and inhaled deeply against Rome’s neck, taking her time as if drinking in her scent. Rome’s pulse raced when she felt the woman’s breath on her neck. “You smell amazing,” she whispered, bringing her mouth close to Rome’s ear. “And the comment… don’t worry about it. I’m plenty dirty.”

Rome tried to compose herself after Nadine had left. Fuck. Her hands were visibly shaking as she opened the top three buttons of her top to get some air. She leaned against the wash basin and splashed cool water on her face as she focused on taking one deep breath after another. What was this woman doing to her? Shaking her head, she told herself not to get distracted by the unexpected turn of events. Nadine was a woman and her reaction to her made no sense. Go back and do what you do best. You need that money.

 

Chapter 3

When Nadine returned from the restroom, she knew she’d been right. The three men seemed keener to have another couple of drinks with their female companions than they were to discuss investment opportunities. Flavio put a hand on her back when she sat down, and she suppressed the urge to shrug it away.

“What would you like my dear?” he asked her in a sickening endearing tone. “More wine? Another glass of champagne, perhaps?”

“Just another espresso would be wonderful, honey. I’ve already had way too much alcohol,” she answered, giving him a saccharine smile. Her eyes followed Rome as she joined them a moment later and for the first time in months, she felt a little flutter in her belly. The woman was beautiful and sexy, and smart, too. Extremely smart. And that, in Nadine’s eyes, was a total turn-on. Not only was Rome able to put together a world-changing proposal and make it sound simple and understandable, she was also clearly passionate about her idea, and for those reasons, she desperately wanted to help her.

“Well gentlemen,” she said, after their last round of drinks had arrived. “If you’re not interested in getting involved in this gem of a plan, I’d like to introduce Rome to my very good friend Harold Gardner. I understand your concerns as, unlike Harold, you tend to follow, but this sounds like it’s right up his street.” Suddenly all eyes were on her and the mood took a nervous shift. “In fact, I’ll call him right now if you don’t mind,” she continued, pulling her phone out of her bag in a fake-tipsy state. Nadine never drank more than two glasses of wine, but her companions rarely noticed. “He’s always up late and I know he’s still in Europe; I spent a couple of days on his yacht in the South of France before I came here.” She managed to hold back a chuckle at their perplexed expressions.

“You’re friends with Harold Gardner?” Flavio asked, studying her for any signs that she was bluffing.

“Yeah. Didn’t I tell you last time we went for dinner? We met a couple of years ago at a charity event.” Nadine knew there was a plausible chance Flavio would believe her. Harold, the world-famous tech-investor was also a well-known ladies’ man and it was likely Flavio would suspect she was his regular companion. She watched his right eye twitch, enjoying the game. Flavio’s weakness was now her strength because she knew Harold Gardner was his nemesis. Nadine never went anywhere without doing some research herself, simply because she found people intriguing.

“You can’t do that,” Matteo said then. “We haven’t decided yet, so the first offer still lies with us.” Flavio and Rob nodded in agreement.

“Of course. I apologize, I was just trying to help out this lovely lady.” Nadine looked at them innocently, a little apprehensive about overstepping her boundaries. “How about you think about it for twenty-four hours, so Rome doesn’t have to leave her namesake just yet?” She had no idea why she’d suggested it, but it seemed like a good idea, even if she was treading on dangerous ground. If her agency found out she’d been toying with one of their clients and interfering in his business matters, she’d never work for them again. Why was she taking such a risk? Maybe she cared less, now that she was nearing thirty and approaching the end of her escort career. Or maybe she wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Rome. She liked how the woman had been thrown off her game by her flirtations and even though Rome would never admit it, she could see that she’d been affected more than she had let on.

“Fine. Let’s speak in twenty-four hours,” Flavio agreed. By now, Nadine had a feeling she could get him to do anything and she liked that. He would probably book her again this week, if his wife was still out of town like she assumed.

Matteo and Rob nodded and mumbled something along the lines of it giving them time to discuss funding and timing.

They stayed for a little longer—Nadine and Rome drinking espresso and the men sharing another bottle of red wine. Matteo was desperately trying to impress Rome, but she was vaguely aware it had more to do with her looks than her brain. It was obvious that Rome was keeping her distance but her replies were clever and witty and she pulled them in with her charms without even so much as a flirty glance. She’d also noticed Rome’s top was unbuttoned after returning from the restrooms and the idea that it might have something to do with her, pleased her. The men were getting tipsier now and she decided to call it a night, saving Rome from more hungry glances.

“Maybe if we’re done here, you’d like to go home soon?” Nadine batted her eyelashes at Flavio. “After all, as you said, we only have two weeks left.”

Flavio’s cheeks turned red hot as he looked at her. He knew he wasn’t going to get any more than a cab ride out of this, but he clearly liked that his friends didn’t know that. Or maybe he was hoping she’d fallen for him already. They were all suckers like that.

“Of course, my dear. As you wish.” He stood, reached into his pocket for his wallet and slammed a pile of cash on the table without bothering to count it. When Nadine arched a perfectly sculpted eyebrow at Rome, an amused look passed between them. She was glad she’d told her about her situation tonight; she’d be terribly embarrassed if Rome actually believed she was dating a man like him.

“Gentlemen, have a good night.” Nadine stood up too and gave Matteo and Rob a kiss on each cheek, before turning to Rome. “Rome, it was an absolute pleasure to meet you. I wrote down my number, let me know if this doesn’t work out and I’ll put you in contact with Harold.” She shot her a conspiratorial wink and saw Rome’s hand trembling as she took the slip of paper and put it in her purse.

“Thank you. That’s very kind of you, and it was great to meet you too.” She held Nadine’s gaze for a couple of beats, and Nadine was so captured by her blue eyes that she almost fell out of her role, but she quickly composed herself, remembering she was leaving with Flavio, and not with Rome. “Enjoy the rest of your stay,” she said, casting one last glance over her shoulder as they walked away.

‘The Scent of Rome’ is now available for preorder: