Blog

Read the first three chapters of ‘In the Mirror’ by Lise Gold and Madeleine Taylor. Out 26/05/2022!

Chapter 1 – Faith

Wincing against the morning light, I turn on my side and cover my face with a pillow. It’s the intercom, and whoever is at the door just won’t give up. A delivery guy, maybe? That’s unlikely on New Year’s Day. Anything can wait; my head hurts and I feel nauseous. Squeezing my eyes tight shut, I try to ignore the noise, but the buzzer is too loud. Desperate to make it stop, I stumble out of bed and head for the hallway, cursing under my breath as I see a woman on the screen with a smile way too chirpy for this time of the day. She’s wearing a beanie and she’s carrying a gym bag over her shoulder.

“Who is this? Do you have any idea what time it is? I’m trying to sleep.”

“Miss Astor? It’s Silva. We have an appointment at eight.” The woman frowns when I don’t answer, wracking my brain over who she could be. “Personal training?”

“Oh, fuck.” It all comes back to me then. The party, the afterparty, champagne, more champagne, dancing, drunk conversations with my friend Roy about how we’d like to get in shape and look fabulous in the new year and booking a PT at an extortionate last-minute price to kickstart 2022 with a “bang,” as it said on the website. They’re only vague flashes, but I remember last night’s mantra clearly. Everything will be better next year. “Sorry, I forgot. It was a mistake.” I hesitate, then continue in a croaky voice, “I assume it’s too late to cancel?”

Silva shrugs. “Yes, it’s too late for a refund. Can I at least come in for a minute? It’s kind of cold out here.”

“Sorry, of course.” In my groggy state, I barely registered it was still snowing hard, so I buzz her in and fetch my robe. I barely have the chance to tie it before she’s made it upstairs and knocks on the door.

“Good morning and a happy new year,” she says, her beaming smile almost making me laugh. She’s the epitome of health, her cheeks rosy and her eyes sparkling with energy. The opposite of me, I suspect, although I haven’t looked in the mirror yet, and I have no intention to do so.

“Yes, good morning and the same to you.” I clear my throat and take a step back to let her in. “Please call me Faith. Would you like a coffee?”

“Yes, please. And why don’t you make yourself one too?” She takes off her beanie and her coat and hangs them on one of the wall hooks by the door.

“I think I’ll hold off on the coffee. I intend to go back to bed,” I say, hoping she’ll get the hint. She’s welcome to warm up; it’s my fault that she came all the way out here for nothing, but then again, I’ve already paid her, so if I want to sleep in her time, that’s my prerogative.

Silva shakes her head and ruffles a hand through her shaggy, blonde hair. “Hey, let’s not start off like this. You wanted to feel good about yourself again, so why not get the ball rolling right now? You’ve got me for three whole hours, so it’s not too late to wake up and kickstart the new year with a fresh and positive mindset.”

“Feel good about myself?” I walk to the kitchen, and she follows me and drops her bag on the floor.

“Yes, you filled in the questionnaire on my website. It said you wanted to feel good about yourself.” Silva hesitates and arches a brow at me. “Actually, your exact words were that you longed to feel desired again.”

“Oh.” I chuckle uncomfortably and blush. “That was drunk me talking. Drunk Faith tends to say dumb things sometimes. I feel just fine about myself.” Focusing on the coffeemaker, I avoid her gaze. I wonder what she thinks of me. “Milk?”

“No, thank you, I like it black.” Silva takes a seat at my kitchen table, and as I fill two cups and add a shot of soy milk to mine, I feel her eyes on me. She’s judging me, for sure. Silly, impulsive woman. No self-control and no respect for her body. Isn’t that what all health freaks think about people who like to have fun? Looking down at the two mugs, I realize I’ve done exactly the opposite of what I intended. I’ve made myself a coffee and I’m about to sit down and talk to her.

“So, how much did I pay for your visit?” I ask, reaching for the box of aspirin in the fruit bowl. I pop out two pills and wince as I swallow them with the hot coffee. “And how on earth did I manage to get an appointment on January first?”

“You paid five hundred dollars,” Silva says as if it’s nothing. “Purely because of the date. I’m normally only a hundred an hour.”

“Only…”

“It’s a small price to pay for feeling great,” she says, glancing around my modern, open-plan apartment as she sips her coffee, undoubtedly thinking I can easily afford it.

She’s not wrong; I can afford it, but whether I want to work out or not is up to me, not her.

“And to answer your second question,” she continues, not in the least fazed by my look of offense, “the reason I had a free spot is the same reason you’re about to send me away. Someone got drunk and canceled late last night, giving up before they’d even started.”

“And that was not refundable either, I assume?”

“No. I have a forty-eight-hour cancellation policy.”

“Right.” I nod and rub my temple. The throbbing has started now, and it’s radiating toward my eye sockets. “So you’ve just made a thousand dollars? Smart.”

Silva sits back and crosses her arms. “Hey, don’t insult me. You’re making it sound like this is some sort of scam, but I’m actually not doing it for the money. It’s not my fault someone canceled, and it’s not my fault you booked me while you were drunk.”

“I’m sorry, that came out wrong. I don’t think you’re a scammer.” I let out a long sigh and shoot her an apologetic look. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” She leans in to look me in the eyes. “I like helping people and you need help, so please give it a try. Let’s at least talk about what you want to achieve. I see you’re in no state to start the heavy work right away, but we can make a plan together.”

I’m quiet as I consider this. I’m not awake enough to make a decision, so I leave it with her. What’s the worst thing that can happen? It’s only three hours, and when she leaves, I’ll go back to bed where I’ll spend the rest of my day watching Netflix. “Okay.”

“Great.” Silva points to my robe. “Before we start, take ten minutes for a shower while I make you a smoothie. I promise it will make you feel a little better. Now, do you have any fruit or vegetables in the house?”

“I may have some,” I say, my eyes flicking from the sad selection of wilted fruits in the bowl to the fridge, then to the juicer I’ve never used, and back. I quickly get up and open it just far enough to check the contents without giving her a view of the vodka bottles. It annoys me that we haven’t even had a conversation and I feel judged already. Relieved to find half a bag of spinach and two avocados, I place them on the kitchen counter. At least the kitchen is tidy, apart from the empty champagne bottle Roy and I polished off before we went out last night. The living room, on the other hand, is littered with clothes, as I couldn’t decide what to wear, and I cringe as I spot a pile of lingerie on my sofa. “Will this do?” I ask, gesturing to the greens.

“That’s perfect.” Silva gets up and pats me on the arm. “Leave it with me.”

“Okay, I guess I’ll go and have a shower.” Her bouncy energy is annoying me already, but maybe this isn’t such a bad idea after all. I really do want to get in shape, and it’s not like I’ve made plans for today.

Chapter 2 – Silva

 

I look away and try not to laugh when Faith hastily clears a bunch of lingerie from the sofa on her way to the bathroom. The apartment is beautiful; spacious, open-plan, and all white with luxurious fittings and furniture. She must pay a fortune on rent, or perhaps she owns it? As I throw the spinach into the juicer and scoop out the flesh from the avocados, I wonder what she does for a living. Faith Astor. The name rings a bell, and her face looks familiar. It’s a typical rich girl’s name, and I can’t deny that I was prepared for my morning to go exactly like this. People don’t make rash decisions that involve five hundred dollars in the middle of the night unless they’re wealthy and can afford to pull off a stunt like that. I’ve seen this many times, and although it’s easy money for me, I don’t like it. Still, her answers to the questionnaire seemed brutally honest, and they told me she needs a change in her life. Maybe I can help her.

The juicer still has a sticker on the inside, so I peel it off and throw in the ingredients, then add a shriveled apple and the juice from half an old lemon in the fruit bowl that holds more hangover cures than actual fruits. Aspirin, vitamin C tablets, and Tylenol—I suspect Faith parties a lot. Despite her sorry state this morning, she’s very pretty. No older than thirty-five for sure, she looks like the kind of woman who is used to being pampered. Her nails are pristine, her hair—although a little messy—looks well taken care of, and her skin is flawless. She’s curvy with a figure most people would be envious of, but I’ve learned from my years of experience that self-esteem is sadly often linked to weight, especially in New York.

I pour the smoothie into a tall glass I find in her cupboard, then open my bag and take out my iPad. I like to get an idea of people before we start, but her apartment is devoid of any trinkets or personal pictures, at least as far I can see. She does like art; that much is clear. A huge painting of a woman and a baby is hanging on the wall above the fireplace in her seating area, and she has numerous photographs and sculptures on display. Art dealer, maybe?

Before I have the chance to contemplate any further, Faith appears dressed in yoga pants and a sweatshirt. Her dark hair is wet and brushed back, the mascara stains are gone from underneath her eyes, and her skin is shimmering from the cream she’s just applied. She looks innocent; nothing like the sexy vixen in the red, silk robe who opened the door to me twenty minutes ago.

“Okay, I’m ready.” She eyes the big, green smoothie on the table. “As long as it doesn’t involve anything too strenuous because my head is seriously killing me.”

“Let’s talk for now,” I say, not wanting to put her off the program on her first day. I gesture to the smoothie, and she picks it up and starts sipping it. “So, your primary goal is to lose weight, it says here.” Flicking through her questionnaire on my iPad, I skip past her personal details and get right into the motivational section. “Your secondary goal is to feel des—”

“Forget the desire bullshit,” she interrupts me, clearly embarrassed. “As I said, I was drunk. But I wouldn’t mind losing weight. I’ve gained a couple pounds over Christmas, and it’s all piled on here.” She pats her thighs and behind and sighs. “I want to be back in shape before New York Fashion Week. It’s a big deal, and I need to look my best.”

“Okay. So how long do we have? Four, five weeks?”

“It starts on February nineteenth.”

I nod and make a note of the timeline. “Forty days. That’s good. Are you a model?”

Faith throws her head back and laughs as if that’s a ridiculous question. “No way. I could never get away with being in front of the camera. I’m a fashion photographer.”

“Oh.” My first thought is that she’d look beautiful in front of the camera, but it’s too early for conversations like that, so I smile and glance at a picture on the kitchen wall instead. It’s a photograph of a woman who looks a lot like Faith, except she’s younger, taller, and slimmer. She’s dressed in black, standing in a desert with a crow perched on her arm. It’s dark and a little unsettling but beautiful, nevertheless. “Is that your work?”

“Yes. That’s my sister.” Faith picks at her fingernails. “She’s the pretty one. I’m the creative.”

“Well, I have to disagree on the looks,” I say, then continue when she doesn’t answer, “You must be pretty successful. You have an amazing apartment.”

“I do all right, but my mother bought this apartment for me. She’s a celebrated artist. Mary Astor-Goldstein—you might have heard of her. I carry her last name. I don’t like my stepfather’s last name.” Faith peels off the tip of her thumbnail and flicks it in the ashtray on top of a dozen or so cigarette butts.

“Yes, I’ve heard of her. Well, it’s a beautiful place. You’re lucky.” Faith doesn’t answer and avoids my gaze. She seems uncomfortable talking about her family, so I change the subject. “Tell me about your lifestyle. If you want fast results, we’re going to have to make some changes.”

“My lifestyle…” She shrugs and sits back, then finally meets my eyes again. Hers are big and dark, almost feline. The way she bites her lip while in thought is incredibly sensual, but I don’t think she knows that. “I ehm…” She pauses. “I go out a lot. I’m what some people might call a socialite, and I get invited to a lot of parties and networking events. And because I go out a lot, I probably drink too much. Too much in your opinion, anyway.”

“I don’t judge,” I say, making a note. “How many drinks would you say a week?”

“I’m not sure. Three to four a day, maybe? I rarely get drunk. It just helps me cope with all the socializing. Well, apart from last night. I was definitely drunk then,” she adds with an uncomfortable chuckle. “But it was New Year’s Eve, so I’m not going to beat myself up about that.”

I laugh along and shake my head. “So, in a normal week, would you say you drink every day?”

Faith is quiet for a long moment before she answers. “Six days a week, probably. I have social commitments most days.”

“And you find it hard to be social without drinking?”

“Yes.” Faith crosses her arms in a defensive manner, as if she’s expecting me to tell her off. “I don’t see how anyone can be social without a drink. It’s just awkward.”

I’m not going to argue with her. If she takes a disliking to me, we’ll never get anywhere. “Do you smoke?” I ask, glancing at the ashtray.

“Not much. Only when I’m alone.”

“Drugs?”

“Not anymore.” She purses her lips and shrugs. “I used to, but I managed to break that habit. It was getting out of hand.”

“Well done,” I say. “That’s something you should be proud of. It’s not easy.”

“How do you know?” Faith shoots me a skeptical look, and I know she’s thinking I can’t possibly relate.

“Because I used to have an addiction problem too,” I say honestly.

“Oh.” Her expression softens. “So you weren’t always a shining beacon of health, huh?”

“No, I was quite the opposite.” I refocus on the questionnaire because this is not about me. I have no problem being open about my past, but she’s paying for my time, and I want to get to know her so I can help her achieve her goals. “Do you exercise? Walking counts too.”

“Not really. I’ve tried the gym, but I wasn’t motivated enough to actually go there, even though there’s one in the building. It bored me. And no, I don’t walk much either. I usually take a taxi.” Faith winces as if, again, she’s expecting me to tell her off.

“When was the last time you went for a walk by yourself?”

At that, she laughs. “Just a walk for no reason?” She glances at the ceiling like she’ll find an answer there, then shakes her head. “Never, I guess. That’s terrible, isn’t it?”

“Nothing is terrible,” I assure her. “The good thing about bad habits is that you can change them. Do you eat healthy, regular meals? What do you eat in a day?”

“Hmm…” Faith picks up her green juice and finishes it. “Nothing like this, that’s for sure. I only eat real meals when I’m out for lunch or dinner, which I don’t do very often because I don’t really care for food. If I’m home alone, I’ll get a takeout, and sometimes I’ll throw together a salad.”

“You never have breakfast?”

“When I’m off work, I rarely get out of bed before midday, and on the days I work, I usually have to leave so early that I’m not hungry, so I bring protein bars with me.”

“Okay.” I write everything down and notice she’s eyeing my notepad. “Would you like to read what I’ve written? I’m not analyzing you. I’m just jotting down the facts.” The latter isn’t entirely true; I always analyze my clients, but that process takes place in my head, not on my iPad.

“No, it’s fine. You have a lot of questions.”

“And I have many more.” I look outside to check on the weather. It’s not snowing as hard anymore, but I still expect resistance to my next question. “How about we discuss the rest over a walk?”

Faith’s eyes widen as she follows my gaze to the window. “A walk?”

“Yes. The act of physically moving from A to B while putting one foot in front of the other,” I joke. “Do you have walking shoes and a warm coat?”

“But… it’s cold,” she protests.

“We’ll warm up once we start moving.” I get up and wait for her to follow. Miraculously, she agrees and peels herself off her stool. “Come on, and drink a glass of water too. You need to hydrate.”

Chapter 3 – Faith

Walking and talking is an alien concept to me. I always have somewhere to go, somewhere to be, and I never saw the point of walking just for the sake of it. I’d expected to be too hungover to walk, but the fresh air is making me feel better. New York on New Year’s Day makes for a surreal experience. It’s quiet; even most coffee shops are still closed. Last night’s celebrations turned the sidewalks brown and slushy, but now the streets are covered in a beautiful, fresh layer of snow. The city looks so innocent in its virginal white and dormant state, like it’s still waiting for the new year to kick off.

“So, you think you can get me in shape by February nineteenth?” I ask, burying my hands deep in my pockets.

“That depends on you, of course,” Silva says. “But I think you can do it if you’re open and ready for change. You see, this is not just about losing weight or getting fit. That’s only a small part of the work I do. My aim is to make you feel good about yourself. And if you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to make healthy choices. It’s a vicious circle—a positive one.”

“You sound more like a life coach than a personal trainer.”

Silva shrugs. “It’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned since I started working as a personal trainer. It may sound cliché, but in the end it’s about how you feel inside, not about how you look.” She picks up her pace a little, and I’m struggling to keep up as my feet keep sinking into the snow. I found a pair of snow boots I’d never used, and my big, fake-fur coat is keeping me warm.

“What other lessons have you learned?” I try not to sound skeptical because to be honest, everything she’s said so far does sound like a total cliché.

“That drastic temporary actions may give direct results, but that small, permanent lifestyle changes have a much bigger effect.” She pauses. “And that the process needs to be fun. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to stick with it.”

“Sure. That’s what everyone says.” More clichés.

“That’s because it’s true.” Silva looks over her shoulder when I fall behind. “Are we going too fast?”

“Yes,” I say, stopping to catch my breath. “But I have to give it to you. You’re smart. I had no intention of leaving my bed before you arrived, and here I am, plowing through the fucking snow at stupid o’clock.”

Silva laughs. “It’s good to get your heart rate up. You’ll feel the difference when you get home, and you’ll be thankful we did this.” She stops and turns to me. “Are you in a relationship?”

“No,” I say and leave it with that. The last thing I want to talk about is the string of useless men I’ve dated in the past years, or the last one who dumped me just before Christmas.

“Are you recently single?”

I’m not sure why, but the question irritates me. Perhaps because I’ve been trying so hard not to think about that. “Why are you so interested in my love life? I don’t understand what it has to do with getting in shape.”

Silva holds up a hand. “Hey, I’m not hitting on you. I’m just trying to get an idea of your life.”

“I know you weren’t hitting on me.” I frown. “Why would I think that? That’s just—” I swallow my words. Of course. She’s gay. “Oh. Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“That’s okay. The reason I asked is because all of this has to do with mindset. If you’ve recently gone through a breakup, your subconscious revenge system may give you an extra kick of motivation. Simultaneously, it’s important to remember that you’re doing this for you and not for someone else.” She beckons me to start walking again. “But you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

I nod and look away, embarrassed that I raised my voice at her. We turn into Maddison Square Park and follow the outer path that circles around it. “My last relationship ended ten days ago,” I finally say after a long silence.

“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s very recent.”

“We hadn’t been together for very long,” I say with a sigh. “It wasn’t that serious, so I’m not heartbroken, but I won’t deny that yet another breakup has dented my confidence. I can’t stop wondering what’s wrong with me because I’ve never been in a long-term relationship. It’s New York men, I suppose. They’re all the same, always looking out for someone younger, prettier, richer, and more successful.”

“You sound like my sister. She always complains about New York men. But there are nice men out there. You’re probably just attracted to the wrong kind.”

“It must be a lot easier dating women,” I say.

“I can assure you that dating women is not much different from dating men. Not that I’ve ever tried and tested it with men,” she jokes. “But I believe in faith. Finding a real connection isn’t a given, and it will happen when it happens. I’m not looking or waiting for anything.”

“So you’re single?” I ask.

“Yes. I’ve been single for years.” She winks. “Doesn’t mean I don’t have fun.”

“Oh.” I blush as a vision of Silva kissing another woman flashes before me. She’s very attractive, and I imagine she’s quite popular with the ladies. “I’ve never been into one-night stands.”

“Well, I don’t make a habit of them either, but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional fling.” She speeds up again, and I rush after her. “Now, let’s talk about what you enjoy doing. Because as I said, this has to be fun. Running, yoga, dancing, weightlifting, swimming—it can be anything.”

I take my time to think about that, but nothing comes to mind. “I have no idea. I haven’t tried much, to be honest. Apart from swimming in the ocean, which I love, but that’s kind of challenging in New York.”

Silva laughs and shakes her head. “Wild swimming is about the only thing we can’t do here, but let’s try some different things so you can figure it out as you go along.” She locks her eyes with mine and gives me a beaming smile. “How does that sound?”

Like this sample? You can pre-order ‘In the Mirror’ here:

The Little Black Book by Lise Gold

“Will this take long?” Beth Spencer fidgeted with her wedding ring while Arnold Snow, the attorney, checked her passport. His office on the top floor of a seven-story building in Downtown Brooklyn was basic at best and nothing like she’d imagined. The brown carpet smelled moldy, the white walls showed cracks and damp stains, and the furniture had seen better days. “It’s uncomfortable for me to be here since…” Her eyes darted around the room before she finally met his gaze. Arnold reminded her of a toad, the way his fat head seemed to be attached directly to his shoulders, rather than his neck, and his bulgy, almost yellowish eyes peered at her from behind round, black-rimmed reading glasses. “Well, since you were the last person to see her alive,” she finally said.

“I was, and I’m very sorry for your loss.” Arnold’s voice sounded croaky. “I can assure you that your wife did not seem suicidal when she was here. If I felt she appeared distressed, I would have alerted the police as it’s not uncommon for people to make a will when they’re planning on taking their own life.” He gave her back her passport along with a form to fill in. “As her sole beneficiary, you will receive the sum of $20,000.” Sliding another form across the desk, he added: “And you’ll need this when you go to the police station. The items found on Mrs. Spencer’s body are ready for you to pick up.”

“Twenty-thousand?” As she sat back, Beth needed a moment to process the information. “But as far as I was aware, Sammy didn’t have any savings.”

“This amount represents the latest royalties from her crime novels,” Arnold clarified. “We may need to arrange a follow-up meeting to make sure these go directly to you from now on.”

“Right.” Beth was feeling an array of emotions, torn between relief and a deep inconsolable sadness. Coming into an unexpected large sum of money was a welcome surprise as she’d been struggling to keep up with the rent since Sammy had jumped off the roof of Mr. Snow’s building, four months ago. How had she not known how unhappy she was? She’d been on mild anti-depressants and she’d suffered from writer’s block from time to time, but not once had she seen her low enough to worry about her mental health. In fact, Sammy had seemed inspired in the weeks leading up to her death, often writing until the early hours. She signed the form and sighed, knowing it was unlikely she’d ever find the answers she was looking for.

“I think that concludes our business. The money will be in your account shortly.” Arnold stood up to shake her hand. “Chablis and sushi tonight?” he called after her as she left.

“What did you just say?” Beth stalled and turned in the doorway, meeting his grin. It gave her chills; not just because the question felt inappropriate, but also because he had appeared to read her mind.

“Chablis and sushi. Isn’t that what all New York women have on Friday night?”

“Oh…” She managed a smile and shrugged. “Yes, I might. Thank you and I’ll give you a call to set up that meeting.” Even after she’d closed the door behind her, she could still feel his eyes on her.

***

Later that night, Beth slumped down on her couch with a bottle of Chablis and two California rolls. Arnold Snow was right; she was pretty predictable when it came to take-out. On the couch next to her was the envelope she’d picked up from the police station after work, containing Sammy’s wedding ring and her leather wallet. The one thing that was missing though, was her little black notebook. Being a writer, Sammy always carried one around in the back pocket of her jeans, and Beth had desperately hoped there might be something in there that could help her understand why she’d killed herself.

Her notebooks not only contained ideas for her novels, but also her most private thoughts, and Beth had gone through all of them with a fine-tooth comb. It had felt like a betrayal at first, but she was looking for clues as to what she’d been feeling and thinking so she could stop blaming herself. If Sammy hadn’t carried it with her on the day she died, then where was it?

Something drew her attention to the bookshelves. An indistinct flash of light moving so fast she’d barely registered it. She’d seen it a couple of times recently, but it was always when she was drinking wine by herself in the dark, so she’d put it down to the alcohol. Narrowing her eyes, Beth continued to stare but it had disappeared. Could it be the sign from Sammy she’d so desperately hoped for? Was she trying to reach out to her? She’d never believed in the afterlife but her desperation for answers had caused her to act out of character lately, so she turned on the reading lamp and walked over to the spot where she’d first observed the light.

Beth gasped when she saw Sammy’s missing notebook. Sitting on the second shelf, it had been there all along in plain sight, folded open with its black Moleskine cover facing her. The edge of the cover was tucked under the shelf above, as if she’d strategically placed it there for her to see. But she hadn’t seen it. Looking at Sammy’s precious books had been too hard, and she’d ignored the layer of dust that had settled over them in the past months.

“Sammy are you there?” she whispered, then waited while her heart thumped violently in her chest.

The room remained silent, and Beth internally scolded herself for her irrational behavior that was bordering on insanity. After long moments, she hesitantly picked up the notebook, terrified of what she might discover. Sitting back down, she randomly opened pages to read Sammy’s notes and look at her sketches. Sammy had always been a talented artist. A couple of years ago, she’d asked Beth to take art classes with her, but Beth had laughed it off, knowing she’d hate it. What she wouldn’t give to take one of those stupid classes with her now. 

Just like the other notebooks, this one not only contained ideas for storylines, but also short diary entries, and once again, she felt like an intruder.

‘Had a fight with Beth. She wants a baby but I’m not ready. How can I support a child if I barely make enough money to pay the rent? Feel like a failure sometimes.’

Tears rolled over Beth’s cheeks as she held onto her stomach. It had never been her intention to make her feel like a failure; she’d simply suggested she think about getting a part-time job to substitute her meagre income from writing as they’d talked about starting a family. Caressing the pages one by one, she traced Sammy’s messy handwriting while she cried. Title suggestions, plot ideas and chapter numbers with key words followed, but she didn’t take much in until a character drawing made her pause. The man looked familiar, and as she studied the sketch, a sense of foreboding coursed through her. ‘Reptile neighbor’, it said. Beth frowned, taking in the bald, neckless figure with intense bulgy eyes that Sammy had colored in yellow, then read her notes next to it.

‘Our neighbor, The Reptile, as I like to call him, is a strange man. I saw him for the first time outside the apartment block today when the fire alarm went off.  He told me he was an attorney, then asked me if I had a will. After a short chat he offered me his services for free, which seemed crazy. Who works for free these days? He also asked me how Beth was, but Beth has never mentioned meeting him. I’ll keep an eye on him as he made me feel uncomfortable and I got the impression he’d been watching us. Won’t tell Beth about it as it will only worry her. He’s great material for a character though, and I’m suddenly feeling very inspired.’

Reading the paragraph once more, Beth told herself she was being paranoid, but the coincidence was too haunting to ignore. On the next page was something about a murder weapon and a couple of scribbles about a crime scene, the text boxed and connected with arrows. Although they were clearly just a figment of Sammy’s vivid imagination, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong, and her hand trembled as she flipped to the next page.

‘I visited The Reptile today while Beth was at work, using the excuse that I wanted to take up his offer regarding a will. It was slightly awkward, and he didn’t invite me in, but we talked in the doorway for quite some time. He asked me about my writing, and even though I don’t recall telling him my profession, I found myself opening up to him. I’m not sure why I felt the need to see him again. Perhaps because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about those strange eyes. He’s inspired me to write, and that feeling is addictive. There’s something evil about him that fills me with dread, yet words and ideas flow when I picture him in my mind. I told him I’d drop by his office on Thursday afternoon, so I’ll have another chance to observe him up close. The Reptile is going to make an excellent killer in my new novel.’

Beth slammed a hand in front of her mouth, her mind spinning with contradictory thoughts. Their neighbor had never been mentioned in the suicide investigation and as far as the police was aware, Sammy did not personally know the attorney who last saw her alive. But then again, neither her, nor the police knew they were the same person. Her first thought was that Arnold Snow should have mentioned living next door, her second was the fact that he hadn’t, and that made her fearful. Why keep quiet about something so significant?

Shaking on her legs, Beth got up, closed the curtains facing the street, then glanced into the hallway and around the living room. Lingering in a corner of the room, as far from the window as possible, she fought to stay calm. There was only one more entry in the little black book before the pages turned blank.

‘I found a hole in the wall behind one of the books when I was looking for something to read, and when I looked through it, I could see right into The Reptile’s living room. It was definitely not there before we moved in. Time to go to the police. Or perhaps I should confront him about it tomorrow?’

Even before Sammy’s death, Beth had never looked closely at the bookshelves that were mounted on the wall. She didn’t have many books herself and just saw them as clutter. But now, she held her breath as she studied the shelves closely, noticing every detail, every screw, every mark on the timber. There was a significant gap between the books on the second and the third shelf where smaller paperbacks were stored; a gaping mouth warning her off. Kneeling in front of the shelves, Beth spotted the hole even before she’d swept the books to the floor. It was big enough to see through from a short distance, and despite fear twisting in her gut, she leaned in. What she saw made her freeze in horror. Staring back at her, was a bloodshot, yellow eye. She recognized his croaky voice too.

“Hello, Beth.”

Read the first three chapters of ‘Cupid is a Cat’ by Lise Gold

Chapter 1 – Nora

“Are you sure this is the right bar?” Melanie grimaced as she scanned the camp tiki bar that was adorned with phallic, rainbow-colored Christmas decorations. “I definitely sense a gay energy in here, but not of the female kind.”

Nora checked the address on her phone again and nodded, her eyes darting to the sign above the bar that said I love anal. “Hmm.” She chuckled. “Yes, it’s here, according to my email, but it does seem like a strange choice of venue.” A man in a cowboy hat was sleeping on a stool, his head resting on the bar next to an empty glass. A group of men clad in sparkly purple tank tops were crammed into one of the booths, and male couples were scattered around the standing tables. Apart from them, she counted three women who all looked equally lost. “Women-only speed-dating event. Seven-thirty p.m.,” she read out loud. Jumping at the excuse to get out of it, she turned back to the door. “It looks like there’s not much happening. Shall we go for a drink somewhere else?”

Melanie took her wrist when she turned to the door. “No. You promised me speed dating and I want speed dating. This was your idea, not mine. You got me all excited and now you want to leave?”

“But I don’t see any women, and anyway, I’m not feeling it anymore.” Nora groaned. “I should never have told you about the invitation. It was a stupid idea.”

“Nonsense. You need the distraction, not me. It’s Thanksgiving, after all, so what better way to say fuck you to your ex than go speed dating on the night you were supposed to meet her family?” Melanie clapped her hands together when four women entered the bar. “See? Women. We were just early.”

Nora regarded the women with little interest. She wasn’t in a place to date yet, she knew that, but Melanie was right. She did need the distraction tonight. Two months ago, Barbara, her ex in Seattle, had ended their long-distance relationship. Apart from the fact that they were living on separate continents, she’d used just about every excuse under the sun to break up with her. Difference in interests, age, life stages… Nora didn’t blame her, but that didn’t make it any less painful. Some days were filled with hurt and regret, and she so desperately wanted to feel normal again. After she’d cancelled her flight to the US, Thanksgiving felt like a cursed date looming before her, so when she had gotten the invite for a speed-dating event taking place on that very same day, she’d taken it as a sign, even if it was only to stop her from thinking about her ex for a couple of hours.

“These guys seem to know where they’re going.” Melanie took Nora’s hand and followed the women to the back of the bar, where a semi-closed-off area sloped down into a cozy, long, and narrow makeshift living room with a fireplace, a big sofa, and small tables and stools scattered around. “Come on.”

“Hi, guys. Are you here for the speed-dating event?” A woman with a flipchart walked up to them. “I’m Sally. Sorry about the last-minute change in venue. The original bar flooded, so we had to find an alternative.” She pointed to the huge, wooden penis statue next to the fireplace. “Just ignore all the dicks. This is a men’s bar, and we didn’t have time to redecorate our little nook.”

Despite her sudden change of mood, Nora couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s okay. I didn’t even know there was a change in venue. Is this the Cupid event?”

“You could call it that if you like.” Sally smiled widely. “What’s your name?”

“Nora. Nora Bloom. And I’ve brought a plus-one. Melanie McDermott.”

“Nora Bloom…” Sally frowned as she scanned the list of names. “I don’t have you on the list. Can I see the confirmation email, please?”

Nora opened the email and handed her phone to the woman. “I received this yesterday.”

“Hmmm. The Cupid Event? I thought you were joking when you said that. That’s definitely not from us. We’re called LGBTQ Speed Dating London.” Sally shrugged. “It looks like a mix-up, but since we’re a little low on numbers tonight, we’d be delighted if you both joined. We’re expecting about twenty women, and we generally like to have a few more than that.”

“Sounds good to me,” Melanie said, taking the clipboard the woman handed her before Nora had time to change her mind again.

“Perfect. I just need your name, number, and email.” Sally pulled a sheet of blank labels out of her shoulder bag and scribbled their names on them. “You’re number twenty-one,” she said, sticking one of the labels onto the chest of Melanie’s top. “And last but not least…Nora, you are number twenty-two. Are you ready to find love?”

Nora let out a sarcastic chuckle as she stuck the label onto her shoulder. “Sure.”

“Hey, you need to take this seriously,” Melanie whispered when it was Nora’s turn to fill in her details. “Who knows, you might meet The One.”

Nora stopped what she was doing for a moment and stared at her friend. “Mel, I’m not here to find love. I’m done with that. I’m here to have a drink and talk to strangers so I can stop my mind from churning. We might as well go bowling or see a movie, it’s all the same to me.”

“Whatever. But we’re not going bowling and we’re not watching a movie. Tonight, we’re going to flirt.” Melanie’s eyes darted to a woman by the bar. “See that blonde over there? She’s totally my type. A little tough, natural, good smile, nice teeth… What about you?”

“I don’t have a type,” Nora said.

“I know that, but isn’t there anyone here you find attractive?”

Nora looked around and shook her head. “No. But as I said, that’s not the point. I’m sure we’ll have a good time.”

“That’s the spirit.” Melanie tapped her purse. “Now, first things first. I’ll get a round of drinks if you grab that couch by the fireplace.”

Chapter 2 – Cupid

Cupid observed the crowd, amused by the ignorance of the women in the pub. If only they knew what was coming. Were they ready? Some were, but others would need more time. For them, this was just the initial encounter, the catalyst of many encounters that would lead them to the right person eventually, because like love, heartache was part of life. The mistakes people made, and their failed relationships taught them valuable lessons and prepared them for meeting The One. Happily ever after wasn’t meant to be easy; it had to be earned, and Cupid’s interference was the ultimate reward.

Ranking directly under The Almighty—the maker of the universe and holder of higher powers that controlled destiny—Cupid followed orders and spread the love. Cupid wasn’t a cherub with a bow and arrow, and they weren’t male nor female. They didn’t have any physical form for that matter, but they were able to infinitely multiply and morph into any creature to help earthlings find love. They manifested in many ways, and tonight, in this obscure bar in South London, they were a chubby, ginger cat called Toby. The name was engraved on a silver tag attached to their sparkling, blue collar, and they looked too comfortable and well fed for anyone to worry about them just yet. The guests assumed Toby belonged to the pub owners, and the staff, who had never seen them before, was delighted to have some furry company. They’d discussed finding the owner but there was no phone number on Toby’s tag, so they’d left them to it for now. By the time the event was over, they would probably try to find their rightful owner, but by that time, Cupid—or Toby as they knew him—would be gone.

Cupid liked being a cat, and they were having fun with it. Out of all creatures, cats were the most comfortable skin to live in. They’d tried them all—dogs, insects, birds, and reptiles—but more often than not, they came back as a cat. Cats were able to adapt and blend in, so they could get close to people. They didn’t need to be in the presence of an “owner,” like dogs, and they were fast, agile, and experts at climbing trees and jumping walls.

Toby was purring, delighted with the premium spot on the sofa by the fireplace, and the petting was nice too, especially the scratching behind their ears. Cupid didn’t need to take on a form: they could simply be nothing; but earthlings needed help, and apart from being excellent conversation starters, animals tended to make them feel comfortable. Besides that, the old cliché was true. Lesbians loved cats, and this was a women-only speed-dating event.

“Oh, look at you. You are so cute,” a blonde woman cooed as she sat next to them. She leaned in to read their name on the tag. “Toby. You’re such a pretty boy. Yes, you are a very, very handsome boy.”

And you are about to have a very, very meaningful encounter, Nora. Toby purred louder, thoroughly enjoying the soft strokes of her hand. It was funny how women always put on high-pitched voices when talking to animals. They were perfectly able to understand them without the drama.

Nora was wearing jeans, a black sweater, and white Nikes, and her long hair was pulled into a messy top knot. People didn’t tend to “dress up” for speed-dating events, but they did spend hours in front of the mirror attempting to look like they’d made no effort at all. Earthlings were strange creatures; no one dared admit this was important to them, but Nora was an exception. She’d come straight from work to meet her friend here, and looking her best genuinely wasn’t important tonight because she had no desire to find love. None of that mattered, though, because The Almighty had spoken, and free will was debatable. So here she was, unknowingly ready for someone to leave a lasting impression on her.

Toby turned to the door as Yael walked in. As expected, she didn’t look too keen either. Tall, lean, dark-haired, with striking, almost black eyes, many heads turned her way, but she was on her phone and had no idea all attention was upon her. Following her friend to the registration table, she was still on the call as she scribbled down her details. Nora looked up at her but only for a second. She was too busy fussing over Toby to really notice her, and that was fine. They would soon have their three minutes of conversation; the catalyst that would change their lives forever.

“Have you made a new friend?” Nora’s friend Melanie, put two large gin and tonics on the table and joined them on the couch. “Oh my God, you’re so fluffy.” Again, the high-pitched voice, but Melanie was a good scratcher, so she was forgiven.

“His name is Toby,” Nora said.

“Toby, you are a chubby little boy. I just want to eat you.”

Please don’t. Your friend needs me. Toby licked her, then stopped themselves when they tasted the bitter liquid Melanie had spilt over her hand. Yuck. Gin. Why do people like alcohol? Their attention turned to the bar, where two men shared a portion of chicken wings. That would be nice, though. Or a bit of cream or some steamed salmon.

“What a good boy. Yes, you are the best, best, bestest boy,” Melanie continued, stroking Toby’s tummy when they turned on their side.

You have no idea how good I’ll be to you, Melanie. But your time has not come yet.

“It’s strange…” Melanie furrowed her brows as she studied Toby. “From the way he looks at me, I’d almost think he understands me.”

Nora chuckled. “Have you already downed one of those by the bar by any chance?” She pointed to their drinks. “They’re huge.”

“Animals understand more than you think, and no, I didn’t. But I did order a triple shot for liquid courage.” Melanie picked up her glass and took a sip. “Better have some before the first round starts.”

Chapter 3 – Yael

“We received your down payment, I’ll get back to you tomorrow with a delivery date.” Yael hung up on her client, then glanced at the women around her as she ordered beers at the bar. Her friend Jess had gone to the bathroom to check her hair for the second time since they’d arrived, and Yael suspected she was more nervous than she was letting on. But that was why she was here; for moral support. She’d practically dragged Jess along, insisting it was time she put herself out there after being single for three years.

“There you are,” she said when Jess reappeared. “Stop hiding and smile at people. Make eye contact.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re just my wing woman.” Jess looked terrified as she took a sip from her beer and followed Yael down into the lion’s den, as she called it. “I think I’ve forgotten how to look women in the eyes.”

“How about those two on the couch by the fireplace? They look friendly and approachable. And they’re fussing over a cat. You like cats, so that’s already one thing you have in common.” As if she could feel Yael’s eyes on her, the blonde looked in her direction, and so did the cat. The two heads turning simultaneously was such a comical sight it made Yael chuckle, and the blonde, who assumed she was smiling at her, smiled back.

“Everyone likes cats. It hardly classes as common ground.” Jess pursed her lips, then let out a long sigh. “Fuck, I’m so nervous.”

“Don’t be. You’re the most interesting person I know, Jess, so just be yourself,” Yael said. Again, the blonde’s attention turned to her, and their eyes locked. Hers were light, almost icy gray.

“Hey, the buzzer just went.” Jess nudged her.

“What?” Yael turned to her friend. “Oh. So, what do we do now?”

“We go to our allocated starting table, and we circle around. Three minutes each.” Jess looked at the list on the wall. “You’re number four, so you start by talking to number five, over there at that table.” She took a long sip of her drink and squared her shoulders. “Okay, wish me luck.”

“You can do it, charmer.” Yael grabbed her drink, stood up, and patted Jess’s shoulder, then went to her table to meet a petite woman with shoulder-length gray hair. Although the woman was already sitting down, Yael guessed she’d probably reach up to her chest with their difference in height. She was also the only one wearing a mask, and it was hard to read people’s expression when their mouths were covered. Not that it mattered; Yael wasn’t here to find a date, but perhaps she’d make some new friends. She didn’t feel like she was doing anything wrong by being here. A lot of people went to speed-dating events to support their friends, and the woman she was currently seeing knew where she was tonight.

“Hi, I’m Yael,” she said, reaching out to shake the woman’s hand as she took a seat.

“Sorry, I don’t touch,” the woman said in a strong German accent, leaning back before she adjusted her mask over her mouth. “Emma.”

“Hi, Emma. Sorry about that. How are you tonight?”

“I’m good.”

Yael waited for Emma to elaborate, but she remained silent. Okay. This is a bit of a rusty start. “Where are you from?”

“I live in London,” Emma said, staring at her stoically.

If she’s trying to be charming, she’s not going to have much luck tonight. “I mean your accent,” Yael said. “Are you German?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. I’m from Israel, but I’ve lived in London for twelve years. What about you?”

Emma mumbled something Yael couldn’t understand. It wasn’t her accent but rather her whispering way of speaking that made it close to impossible to work out what she was saying, and with the mask, she couldn’t lip read either.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Again, something vague, but Yael was pretty sure Emma was asking about her age.

“Oh, okay,” she said. “I’m thirty-four. How old are you?”

“Does it matter how old I am?” Emma said, loud enough for Yael to hear her this time, and she sounded irritated. “Because it shouldn’t matter.”

Oh boy, this isn’t going well. Yael braced herself for a long night, and she was relieved when the buzzer went. “Well, it was lovely to meet you, Emma. Have a good night.” She slid off her stool without waiting for a reply and headed for the next table, where a butch-looking woman was waiting for her. Eyeing her hungrily, the woman introduced herself, and Yael felt mildly uncomfortable as she held on to her hand for way longer than necessary.

“I’m Jackson.” She looked Yael up and down. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes? I think we’re going to get along.”

“Uhm…I’m sure we will,” Yael said, shifting on her stool. “So, tell me about yourself.”

“Why don’t you start?” Jackson suggested. “That way, I’ll know where to find you in case I blabber on too much and our three minutes run out. Where do you live? Where do you work? Where do you hang out?”

“Oh, I’m actually quite private, so I’d rather not go into specifics, but I live in London and I’m in the jewelry business,” Yael said, trying to keep her information as vague as possible. Already regretting coming here, she reminded herself that she was here for Jess, and that she would just have to suck it up.

Did you enjoy this sample? Cupid is a Cat is out on 25/09/2022 and available for pre-order:

Travel tips!

Hello, hello! Lise Gold here with travel tips.

I’m writing this blog because I’ve had lots of emails and messages from people asking me how I’m able to travel so much as a self-published author. The simple answer is that travel doesn’t have to be expensive. I love to travel, and I love to explore. Although the places I visit are beautiful and fascinating, you’ll be surprised at how affordable traveling can be if you’re willing to be creative and open-minded. Luxury hotels and organized tours may be convenient, but they won’t give you a real taste of your destination’s culture, and they will cost you an arm and a leg. However, you’ll have to be healthy and able-bodied when exploring the globe without the help of tour companies, and I appreciate that not everyone can do that. My secret for affordable travel is that I never pay much for hotels. I find real gems for a fraction of the price of a commercial hotel but with way more charm. As traveling is different for every country, I’ll use Thailand as an example.
So, here are some tips that will make a trip through Thailand very affordable.

Flights and transportation

Now that I work for myself, my days of airmile upgrades are over, so I fly economy. When flying long-haul, certain airlines provide super low fares in return for nothing but getting you from A to B. Scoot, for example, does not provide food or entertainment but will get you a return UK-Thailand for £350. For a direct, 13-hour flight, that’s really good. The amount of legroom is the same as with other airlines, and the luggage allowance is almost the same. Make sure you download entertainment (for example, Netflix) on your phone or tablet, bring headphones and an extra battery pack, and bring plenty of water and snacks. In Asia, domestic flights are very cheap, so don’t book them in advance. You may want to stay longer in one place before heading to the next. Use local airlines and fly on the cheapest days.
Be open to different forms of transportation. I love to take motorbike taxis as they’re fast and fun, and if someone offers, I’ll happily jump into the back of an open truck. Alternatively, you can rent a motorbike or a bike. Taxis in Thailand are cheap, but unless I use Bolt, I like to negotiate a price upfront as the meters are often rigged. Bolt provides both taxis and motorbike taxis here. Another great way of traveling in Thailand are night busses. They are very comfortable and air-conditioned, so you can sleep. When you’ve arrived at your destination, walk and get lost. Walking is the best way to soak up the culture, and you’ll find gems you wouldn’t see when driving past in a closed vehicle. If you get lost, there’s always Google maps or just ask away. Check out 12Go for transportation in Southeast Asia. It’s the best website by far. Don’t rent a car. In case of an accident, the foreigner is generally charged, no matter whose fault it was.

Accommodation

If you want a super affordable trip, don’t book everything upfront. You may want to book something for the first two nights while you acclimatize, but while you do that, look around and find your favorite neighborhoods. Also, ask other travelers as they may have great tips. My favorite website is Booking.com; you can search on location, price, amenities (if you struggle with heat, you’ll probably want a pool), and rating. Hostels are not scary and not only for backpackers in their teens and early twenties. For £10 a night, I stayed in a lovely hostel in Bangkok. I had my own room with a private bathroom, a spacious balcony, and the place was located in a lovely part of town in a quiet courtyard. They had great food and breakfast, and even air-conditioning in the rooms, and the staff was very friendly and helpful. I generally pay between £10 and £15 per night for two people, including breakfast, a chain hotel will cost you ten times as much. Our hotel in Pai was a lovely boutique hotel with beautiful rooms, surrounded by green. It was walking distance from the village, and they even had bikes for us to borrow. The pool was clean and lush, and it was very quiet (apart from dogs, crickets, geckos, frogs, and tropical birds who form a choir at night). I wouldn’t recommend Airbnb in Thailand. There are plenty of places available, but it’s illegal, so it’s not worth the sneaking around pretending you’re the owner’s friend. Here are some pictures of places I stayed for $15 a night.

Food

Don’t be afraid to try new things and eat local dishes. Local food is super cheap in Thailand and so, so good. In an average restaurant, you’ll pay between £2 and £8 for a nice meal, but the best places to sample food are the markets and food trucks. Watch the queues. If the locals go there, it’s generally good, and the reason why is because these food trucks sell only one thing, and they’re specialized in it. So, if you want sticky rice and mango, go to a sticky rice and mango truck with long queues, and you won’t be disappointed. If you’re too tired to go out, download one of the many food delivery apps. Foodpanda and Grab are both excellent here, and they’re incredibly cheap.

Sightseeing

Unless you have limited time, don’t book excursions upfront. Excursions booked online can be up to 10 times more expensive than when you book them locally. Check out the different providers (you will spot them along the road in touristy areas), and book them on the spot. Don’t expect an English-speaking tour guide but you will see breathtaking sights and meet new people. Always take plenty of water. Alternatively, you can ask for a taxi or tuk-tuk driver’s number and negotiate a price for them to take you around for the day. The going price is 1100 Baht for ½ day (approximately 5 hours) or 2200 for one day (that’s 60 USD). They’ll drive you anywhere you want and wait for you while you do your thing. They are locals, so they might take you to more exciting places than tour companies would.

Luggage

Travel light. If you’re traveling through Thailand, it’s unlikely you’ll dress up, so pack light. Have you ever packed an entire suitcase and only found yourself wearing a third of what you brought? You’ll find that in hot climates, you may only wear a fraction of that. Because of the heat and humidity, you’ll want to wear your lightest and most comfortable garments, so think about that before you pack. I always try to travel with hand luggage only. It’s quicker, cheaper and it ensures I never lose my luggage. Bring a hat or a cap for sun protection. If you’re stuck somewhere without much shade, you’ll be glad you did, and you’ll also need a cover-up for your arms and legs if you visit temples. In Thailand, you can do your laundry for £1.50, and no one will care if you wear the same clothes all the time. Don’t waste weight on shampoos or hair products. In humid climates, your hair will look shit, and nothing is going to change that, so use what your accommodation provides. Packing light means you won’t have to pay for check-in luggage on internal flights, and you’ll never have to wait for your luggage.

Work (a little)

If you can, work. For those who work remotely, get permission to work while you travel. In hot climates, it’s easy to get up early or stay up late, so why waste precious holidays when you can work in paradise? It’s a win-win, and that way, you can stay longer. Make sure your accommodation has good WiFi, and if not, there will be plenty of coffee shops that can function as office space. I like to get up at 6/7 am and write, then spend the afternoon doing whatever I feel like, or the other way around. I’m inspired when I travel, so I’m more productive, even if I work half the hours I usually do.

Hope this was helpful, if you’d like to know specifics, feel free to ask!

Read the first three chapters of After Sunset.

Chapter 1

When Marcy came out of the shower, the woman in her bed looked like she had no intention of leaving. Playing a game on her phone, she took her sweet time sipping the coffee Marcy had made for her over an hour ago. Waiting for her to make a move, any move, was awkward, and she reminded herself once again that this was why she didn’t make a habit of inviting women to sleep over at her home. Well, home was an understatement. The caravan she was currently living in stood on a plot in a holiday park with over a hundred other caravans, the majority privately owned by retired British pensioners. The bedroom and the bathroom were tiny, but she spent most of her time outside in the private garden, so the lack of space didn’t bother her. As long as she was by herself.

“So, Bisou, what are your plans for today?” she asked, hoping the dark-haired French woman wasn’t planning on lounging in her bed the whole morning. At least she remembered her name. Bisou was a tourist who shared a room with a friend at Paradise Hotel in Benidorm, so going back to her hotel together hadn’t been an option last night. They’d met in a bar and Marcy had flirted with the straight woman purely to kill time while she waited for her friends to arrive. To her surprise, Bisou had reciprocated her flirtations and here she was. It really was that easy.

“Depends. What are your plans?” Bisou asked, glancing up from her phone for a split second.

“I have to work.” Marcy knew exactly what she was doing; messaging her friends and telling them all about her first experience with a woman. She was pretty sure there would be no complaints about her performance. Bisou had voiced her pleasure so loudly her screams had forced her neighbours to bang on the side of her caravan; something they only did when her music was too loud for their liking.

“But last night you said you had the day off.” Bisou looked up again and arched a brow at her. Then her screen lit up, her eyes flicked back, and her fingers continued to tap manically.

Marcy suppressed a groan as she dried her hair and slipped into a pair of boxers and an old T-shirt. Couldn’t the woman take a hint? “Yes, I’m off work,” she said, trying not to sound too impatient. “But I have another project I work on during my days off and I have some urgent things to take care of.”

“Okay. Do you want me to come with you?”

Marcy shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t bring anyone there.” That wasn’t a lie; no one knew about her secret project, not even her parents, and she certainly wasn’t going to bring a stranger there. With the amount of time Bisou spent on her phone, pictures would be all over the internet in no time.

“So, you want me to leave?” Bisou jutted out her bottom lip and batted her lashes.

“No, you don’t need to leave right now,” Marcy said, not wanting to be rude. “Take your time.”

“If you’re not in a rush…” Bisou patted the mattress. “Why don’t you come back to bed for a while?” She finally put her phone aside and sensually removed the cover, revealing her naked body. “Just for an hour, then you can kick me out.”

In two minds, Marcy stared at the pillow princess. She had a long to-do list for today, but she’d never been able to resist temptation, especially not in the form of a beautiful woman. Besides, she could think of worse ways to start her day. “Okay.” She grinned as she got on the bed and hovered over Bisou, steadying herself as she balanced on her hands and knees. “So, you enjoyed last night?”

“I did.” Bisou shot her a mischievous grin, her dark eyes flashing with desire as she ran her fingers through Marcy’s hair. “Will you do that thing to me again?”

“That thing that made you wake up my neighbours?” Marcy joked as she moved down Bisou’s body. She kissed her breasts, her ribcage and her belly, then moved back up to her breasts to suck a nipple into her mouth. She bit softly, just hard enough to cause the sting she knew would shoot between the woman’s thighs and smiled when she gasped in delight.

Bisou moaned and jerked underneath her, her head turning from side to side, and just like last night, Marcy felt a little smug for being her first woman. She felt Bisou’s muscles tense as she traced the inside of her thigh and kissed her way down her belly to the neat strip of dark hair between her legs. “Is this the thing you were talking about?” she teased, sliding her fingers through Bisou’s wetness before entering her. Simultaneously, she brought her mouth to her centre and ran her tongue up and down.

“Yes!” Bisou fisted Marcy’s hair so tightly she was worried she would pull it out. “Fuck, yes!”

Quick breaths followed by a high-pitched groan rang in Marcy’s ears and she smiled. “Good?” She recognised Bisou’s body language now, and knowing she was close, she put more pressure on her centre, moving faster until a loud cry escaped her. Marcy tried to muffle the noise with her hand, but Bisou’s head was tilted back so she couldn’t reach. Damn it. I should have closed the windows. Another cry, and another one, until Bisou collapsed into a panting heap of bliss. When silence finally returned, she shook her head and laughed.

“Good? Do you honestly need to ask me that?” She traced a hand over Marcy’s cheek. “I’m still here for another week. Want to meet up again?”

Marcy wiped her mouth, sat up in bed and let out a sigh. She hated this part, but she had to be honest. “I really had fun with you, and I think you’re great, but I can’t do that.”

Bisou nodded. “Are you one of those emotionally unavailable types? The one-night only type?”

“Something like that.” Marcy attempted a regretful look as she got up. “I’m sorry.”

Chapter 2

“My baby, come here!” Ling flew around her daughter’s neck and squeezed her tightly. “Oh, I’m so, so glad to have you back home.”

“Mum. I’ve missed you.” Zoe dropped her duffel bag and held her mother for long moments, then stepped back to take her in. “You look good.”

“Not as good as you.” Ling rubbed Zoe’s arms. “But you’re way too skinny. Come in, come in. You must be hungry after your long journey.”

“I wouldn’t mind some food,” Zoe said with a smile, leaving her suitcases in the hallway. She followed her mother into the kitchen and sat down at the dining table. “Mmm… did you make dumplings? I smell dim sum.”

“Yes, your favourite.” Ling chuckled, checking the bamboo baskets that were piled on top of each other and steaming over a big pan. “Although I bet you’ve had much better ones in Hong Kong over the past five years.”

“They’re never as good as yours.” Zoe glanced around the kitchen while her mother served her a selection of dim sum. Nothing had changed in here. Still the same tea towels, the same pictures of her and her sister—who also worked abroad—on the walls, the same kitsch curtains with strawberry print. And her mother, who looked a little older than last time she’d seen her, but she seemed happy and healthy. Zoe had indeed lost weight from working fourteen hours a day, but her mother had put on a few pounds, and it suited her. “Shouldn’t we wait for Dad?”

“No, your father will be home soon but knowing you’d be hungry, he wanted us to start, so I’ve kept some aside for him.” She took a seat opposite Zoe, shifting on her chair in excitement. “So, how was your flight?”

“Flights,” Zoe corrected her. “I had a stopover in Kuala Lumpur and one in Paris. Twenty-six hours. I’m totally exhausted but so happy to be home.” She reached over the table and squeezed her mother’s hand. “I’ve missed you and Dad, but it was worth the experience. I’ve had an amazing time in Hong Kong.”

“I know you did. It’s good to connect with your roots.”

“Yeah, it’s been good. My Cantonese is much better, and I’ve made some new friends,” Zoe said, then continued with her first mouthful. “And it was lovely to get to know our family better.”

“Good. I miss them.” Ling helped herself to food. “It’s time I paid them a visit again, now that travel has fully opened up. Last time I was there must have been…” She narrowed her eyes, digging through her memory.

“Two-and-a-half years ago,” Zoe said, finishing her sentence. “Way too long.”

“Yes, well, first I want to enjoy having you at home for a while, just like the old days. So, you said you have a new job lined up already and it’s here in Benidorm?”

“I do. It’s in a newly refurbished hotel and is due to open in two months. It’s not a touristy one, more like a boutique hotel that is also looking to attract businesspeople. I didn’t expect to find something so soon, but the headhunter did an excellent job. She had five interviews lined up for me within a week of signing up to her agency and they hired me on my remote interviews and CV alone.” Zoe shrugged. “It’s not how I would usually do it, but I’m not complaining. It’s a great opportunity when you consider what the hospitality industry’s been through these past couple of years.”

“I’m so proud of you.” Her mother shot her a warm smile. “And best of all, you’ve returned to your home town for the next chapter in your life.”

“Good old Benidorm.” Zoe chuckled and rolled her eyes. “I couldn’t wait to get out of here after finishing catering college, but it’s actually nice to be back. There’s a certain comfort about this town, knowing nothing ever changes. It’s predictable, and I could do with predictable right now.”

Her mother nodded. “You’ve travelled and worked all over the world since you were eighteen. No wonder you’re craving some stability. Well, you’ve got it here, honey. Your father and I were saying how nice it would be if you settled down near us so we can see you more often. Perhaps you’ll meet a nice man?”

“Please, Mum. No talk about men, you promised.” Zoe sighed in frustration and for a split second, her mind went back to Joanna, who she’d left behind. Their romance had fizzled out long before she’d decided to return to Spain; they’d always been better off as friends. With no hard feelings involved, her departure hadn’t been particularly difficult or emotional, but she was going to miss having someone to wake up with.

“I’m sorry, I forgot.” Her mother held up both hands in defence. “Just looking out for my single daughter, that’s all. You haven’t dated since that boy you met at school. What was his name again?”

“Thomas,” Zoe mumbled with little enthusiasm. Thomas had been her first and her last boyfriend. Handsome and fun, she’d felt no reason to say no when he’d first asked her out, but she’d never felt that spark that the girls in her class talked about. She’d never been in love with him, and she realised soon enough it was unlikely to ever happen. Because Zoe fell in love with a girl while she dated him, and even though she didn’t act upon her feelings until two years later, she didn’t need to sleep with a woman to know that she was gay.

“Yes, Thomas, that’s right. I wonder if he ever got married. You were crazy about him, had dinner there every Sunday. Do you remember?”

Because I had a crush on his sister. Zoe ignored the remark and helped herself to more food. She was saved by the sound of the door slamming and her father calling from the hallway.

Chapter 3

“Where the hell are we?” Bisou winced against the bright August sunlight as they stepped outside. “It was so dark last night; I couldn’t see anything while we walked here. Is this a caravan park?”

“It’s a residential caravan park, love,” Marcy’s neighbour, Maevis, shouted in a raspy voice before Marcy had the chance to answer. “Had a good night, did you? When I heard the screaming last night, I thought there were a couple of foxes outside but now I can see the error of my ways.” Taking a long drag of her cigarette, she curiously gave Bisou a knowing look.

“Morning, Maevis,” Marcy said with a smile, ignoring her question. “Sorry about the noise. It won’t happen again.”

“No problem, love. I’m glad someone’s getting some action around here. Sounds like Jake could learn a thing or two from you.”

Marcy laughed and walked on before Jake, Maevis’ husband, came out to join in the conversation. “Everyone knows everyone around here,” she explained to Bisou. And yes, it’s a residential caravan park that also includes holiday homes, but most people live here all year round.”

“Oh.” Bisou looked unimpressed and that didn’t surprise Marcy, but she liked living here, at least for the time being. “Are we far from my hotel? I don’t remember the taxi drive very well.”

“No, we’re quite close. Want me to drop you off at Paradise?” Marcy greeted everyone sitting in front of their caravans, some shaded by parasols and some smothered in sunscreen as they baked in the full sun.

“Morning, Marcy! Are you busy tomorrow?” one of the residents asked. “I’m having trouble putting up a shelf over my kitchen worktop.”

“Good morning! I can drop in before work tomorrow. Just after eight okay with you?” Marcy couldn’t recall the woman’s name, yet everyone seemed to know hers. Being the youngest and strongest in the park, and owning a wide range of power tools that she was very good with, people asked her for help with just about anything from moving heavy objects to fixing things.

“That would be great. Thank you so much!”

Marcy gave her a thumbs up and turned left towards the car park. The park consisted of long, straight paths with homes on either side. The standard low fences surrounding the small static homes meant there was little privacy, but people here seemed to like that as no one bothered to raise the height of the fences or grow hedges. There was a ‘clubhouse’, a communal swimming pool and a shop that sold a very limited selection of mainly British food products and the site’s committee often organised events such as bingo or quiz nights.

Marcy’s parents didn’t understand why she hadn’t bought a house yet. Being a contractor for her father, who owned the biggest building company in the region, it wasn’t like she was short of funds, and her mother kept reminding her she wasn’t going to find a girlfriend if she only hung out with old aged pensioners. But Marcy had other plans. Living here meant she had more money left to pour into building her own house, and after three years, her dream home was close to completion. She hadn’t told her parents about her project as it was something she wanted to do on her own—something that didn’t involve her father’s tradespeople and where she could ignore his advice and not have to explain why she didn’t want his money. He meant well,  but he could be quite opinionated, and although she knew her mother only had her best interests at heart, she equally tended to get too involved in her business.

“Climb in,” she said to Bisou, unlocking her pickup truck.

“Okay…” Bisou laughed as she struggled to climb in. “Are you seriously going to drop me off in this monstrosity?”

“Why, what’s wrong with it?” Marcy tapped the steering wheel. “I love my girl. She’s reliable, spacious, beautiful…”

Bisou laughed even harder at the ‘beautiful’ comment and shook her head. “Oh, God. So, you live in a caravan and drive a truck. You’re such a stereotypical lesbian. All you need is a cat and you’d tick all the boxes; I can’t wait to tell my friends about this.” She was typing on her phone as she spoke.

“I guess I am.” Marcy felt a pang of annoyance at her barbed comment because she liked her life, and she wasn’t ashamed of anything. The caravan site was a nice place to live and her truck was her best friend. Deep down, she kind of wanted to show Bisou her project, just to see the envious look on her face, but if she were to choose anyone to see it first, it would be her father. Instead, she pulled over a few minutes’ walk away from Paradise Hotel. “Well, this is my turn,” she said, pointing to the right. “Your hotel is just a short walk that way.”

“Oh… you’re not dropping me off at the door?”

“No. It’s not far, but it takes forever to turn there with all the tour busses waiting. Besides, what if your friends see you in my nasty old truck?” Marcy added with a hint of sarcasm.

Bisou looked taken aback as she stepped out and for a brief moment even stopped looking at her phone. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s fine, I’m just kidding. It was lovely to meet you, Bisou. I had a great night. Enjoy the rest of your holiday.” Marcy sped off before Bisou had the chance to ask for her number and saw her stunned expression as she looked back in her rear-view mirror. What was it with people and their phones? She hardly spent any time on hers.

Relieved to be alone again, she turned on the radio and hummed along to a song she didn’t know the lyrics to. Driving out of town, the scenery gradually started to change, with high-rise buildings soon replaced by the mountainous landscape of Benimantell. She passed the Guadalest Reservoir with its emerald-green water, and dozens of farms until she reached the private road that spiralled through forest and fields, heading for her soon to be home.

Did you like this sample? After Sunset is available for pre-order and will be out on 14/02/2022