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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:

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

Read the first four chapters of Welcome to Paradise

Hello, readers! Welcome to Paradise, the first book in my new Resort Series, will be out on 30/10/2021 and is now available for pre-order. Read the first four chapters below to get a taster 🙂

Chapter 1

“Hey, pretty lady. Why don’t you put that phone down and come join us in the pool for an aqua aerobics class?”

“No, thank you.” Lisa shook her head, avoiding the young man’s gaze. Manuel’s voice was annoyingly animated as he tried to persuade her to get in the pool for the third time that day. She knew his name because he had the equally annoying habit of talking about himself in third person, and the only reason he kept bugging her was because so far, she’d been the only one to turn down his invitation for an ‘ab-tastic’ class. All the women along the poolside swooned over him, but she would not jump on the Manuel train. Not now, not ever.

“Come on, I know you want to. Ab-tastic Manuel gives the best workouts; you’ll feel amazing after.” He flexed his muscles and Lisa could not resist an eye-roll before she shot him a glare.

“Will you stop bugging me? I’ve asked you nicely three times now. I don’t want to get in the pool, especially not with you, and if you don’t leave me alone, I’ll go and speak to your manager.”

“Of course.” Manuel stepped back and held up a hand, seemingly just now grasping that she really wanted to be left alone. “I’m sorry if I overstepped.” His tone was genuinely apologetic, and Lisa noticed the sideways glances from other hotel guests. She had an idea of what they were thinking; How can anyone be grumpy on holiday in Paradise?

The thing was, she wasn’t on holiday, and although the hotel was called Paradise, it was far from exotic or even pleasant.

Hotel guests jumped in the pool when Manuel blew his red whistle, and Lisa put her phone under her towel to shield it from the splashing water. After the lockdowns in the UK and around Europe, people were desperate for human contact and so craved any opportunity for interaction, even forced fun. She was pretty sure a couple of the holiday makers deliberately jumped in right in front of her, and although she normally wouldn’t care what rowdy and tipsy English tourists thought of her, right then, she felt judged and that wasn’t a nice feeling.

Lisa demonstratively got up from the sunlounger, put on her shorts and grabbed her phone, her suntan lotion and her towel. Then she walked past Manuel, who was yelling inspirational quotes from her end of the pool, without giving him a second glance and headed for the bar. A drink might calm her down, even if it was the cheap, watered-down all-inclusive kind. Again, eyes followed her, and she wished then that she could just disappear into thin air.

They think I’m by myself because I’m too miserable to hang out with. Truthfully, she was miserable; even two months in Spain couldn’t change that. Forget it, she told herself. Most of the guests would leave at the end of the week, new people would arrive and hopefully by then, everyone in the animation team would recognise her as the woman who didn’t want to participate in mass fun.

“Rum and Coke, please,” she said in a forced, chirpy tone to make up for her earlier outburst.

“Rum and Coke coming right up.” The man made a show of pouring the rum over ice, spilled half of the Coke over his wrist and on the floor, then added a pink umbrella and a pink, glittery straw.

“Thank you.” Lisa took a sip, pretending to scan the premises so she wouldn’t have to talk to him. Benidorm was a strange place. The town being so popular with the English, it didn’t feel like she was abroad at all, yet it was nothing like London either. Well, the sunshine was nice, she had to admit that. It certainly wouldn’t have been this sunny in London, especially during June. After only four days there, her tan was already deep, and her long, blonde hair had even paler streaks running through it.

“How long are you staying?” the bartender asked.

Lisa smiled through a clenched jaw. She’d had this conversation with a couple of bartenders already, but she hadn’t met this one yet. Looking away clearly didn’t help and she was starting to realise that it didn’t matter what she tried; the staff were trained to entertain their guests, period. “Two months,” she said. “Maybe three, depending on my situation.”

“Your situation? Well, that certainly doesn’t sound like a bad situation.”

“I suppose so,” was all Lisa could think of to say, and looked over her shoulder when she heard heavy breathing.

“Another beer, mate,” the man who had come up behind her said to the bartender. “Actually, make it two. One for me and one for the missus.” His face was bright red from the sun and sweat was dripping down his hairy chest. When his eyes met Lisa’s, his mouth pulled into a grim smile, exposing chipped, yellow teeth. “Hello there, beautiful.”

“Hi.” Lisa stood up, took her drink and waved her orange wristband at the bartender to show she didn’t have to pay for it. “Thank you. Have a good day.” Talking was the last thing she felt like doing and apparently her small, stuffy room was the only place she could escape the curious questions from the staff and unwanted flirtations from drunken guests.

Crossing the wide, paved square that led to the hotel’s back entrance, she downed her drink in one go and placed it on one of the glass collection stations, regretting she hadn’t ordered another one.

Paradise Hotel looked like a building lifted straight from the old Soviet Bloc. It was a dirty shade of off-white, rectangular and tall, and whoever designed it had crammed as many rooms into the building as possible. To make up for the basic accommodation, they’d planted palm trees around the two big pools outside and placed two tiki bars on the premises, assuming that would be enough to justify the name. It wasn’t the only hotel of its kind. On her walk last night, she’d seen many cheap all-inclusive hotels with similar exotic names lining the beachfront of Benidorm. ‘The Pearl of the South’, ‘The Grand Mermaid’, ‘Emerald Bay’ and ‘Premier Sunset’—a smaller hotel that was entirely blocked from the sun by Paradise Hotel—all had the same worn-out look and eighties architecture.

Going on the cost of her room she’d expected her accommodation to be basic, but nothing could have prepared her for this. The lift rattled loudly as it went up, but with most guests spending the day outside, at least it didn’t stop twenty-four times on the way to her floor. Even with her mask on the smell of mouldy carpet penetrated her nostrils, and with no air-conditioning in the corridors, she held her breath while she rushed to her room. She was grateful for the strict safety measures though, and the hotel guests all seemed to adhere to the rules inside the building, wearing masks in the communal areas and even gloves at the buffet. In her room, she quickly switched on the old air con unit that was stuck to her wall, its sides held together with duct tape. She could only be thankful it worked after hearing guests complain about their broken devices.

Her balcony doors led to a concrete base that was too small to hold the only rickety chair in her room, so she’d made a nest of the throw and her pillows to sit on. Compared to her beautiful South West London flat, which she’d given up last week, this looked more like a room in a halfway house, but she kept reminding herself that coming here had been the right decision as paying almost four-thousand pounds in rent a month just wasn’t an option anymore. Nothing would be the same again, at least not for a while, and she’d have to somehow come to terms with that.

Sinking down in her nest, Lisa leaned against the railing as she opened her inbox for the tenth time that day. Surprised at seeing an email from one of her headhunters, she felt a tiny spark of hope.

‘Hey Lisa,

I’m sorry to tell you that Levius Tech have decided to go with another candidate. Don’t worry though, you’ve got this and I’m positive we’ll find you something soon. Your CV is strong, but Levius felt that candidate 4 was better suited to their company.

Regards,

Cammie Peterson.’

“Fuck,” Lisa muttered, sighing deeply as she flung her phone onto the bed. She’d been willing to take a huge salary cut and lower her standards with Levius Tech, which was a joke compared to the super brands she’d previously worked for. When it rained, it poured. She was still waiting for a reply from another company, and she’d look for more jobs tomorrow. Surely, they wouldn’t all turn her down?

Chapter 2

Stella lowered her shades as she watched the blonde woman sneer at Manuel. Being on lifeguard duty meant that she could rest her legs for a couple of hours as well as keep an eye on the team from her chair raised six feet above the pool. Not that they needed much supervising. They were excellent at their jobs, but every so often, people were just not interested in their attempts to entertain them and that seemed to be the case right now. She made a mental note to ask Manuel about their exchange after the team meeting tomorrow and fixed her eyes back on the pool.

Even though this was an over eighteen resort, accidents happened regularly. Some guests got in the pool drunk, others fell asleep in the burning sun, then jumped in oblivious they had caught sunstroke. There had been heart attacks and strokes too, and she’d had to use the defibrillator twice since the resort had fully reopened again. Living an unhealthy lifestyle during lockdown, coupled with the endless supply of unlimited food and drinks in the resort, was a dangerous combination, but it wasn’t her job to educate them. As the poolside manager, she had to make sure everything ran smoothly, that her team performed to their highest standards and that their guests were happy. And occasionally save someone’s life when the on-site doctor couldn’t get there on time. That too.

As Stella followed the woman with her eyes, she noted that she looked irritated as she stomped towards the bar and sat down with a huff. Drunk guests were annoying and difficult to handle, but angry guests were worse. This woman looked way too high maintenance to be holidaying here, and Stella suspected she’d complain about her team before the week was over. Not because they hadn’t done a good job, but because some people couldn’t help themselves; they complained about everything. Fair enough; the rooms, the food and the service weren’t great at Paradise, but this wasn’t the Shangri-La. This was a cheap and cheerful all-inclusive resort where you got what you paid for and all in all, their guests had a really good time.

Just as she’d expected, the woman ordered a rum and Coke. She’d probably tried the wine already and decided it tasted more like vinegar—which truthfully, it did—and that the lukewarm beer wasn’t much better either. She could picture her at the buffet, grimacing at the colourless food that was tailored to the majority of their guests who had simple tastes; fish and chips, chicken nuggets, pie and mash, pizza and garlic bread. All beige and starchy.

Stella refocused on the pool. They couldn’t afford any trouble as times had been hard enough over the past year. They’d been closed for eleven months over the pandemic and now they needed to make up for their losses. Barely surviving on the ten hours a week the staff got paid during the periods the hotel had been closed, many had looked for jobs in factories, farms or in other sectors, and she’d had to train twenty-one new people within three weeks as the decision from management to reopen instead of closing had come last-minute. Now, miraculously, they were at full capacity and it looked like they might be one of the few lucky businesses to survive.

She reached for her walkie-talkie as it crackled. “What’s up?”

“It’s Florence. We have a situation here at tiki bar one. Drunk man throwing a tantrum.”

“Right.” Stella sighed. “Can you come here and take over from me? Tell Dave to keep him there; I’ll deal with him.” Her physical break was short-lived, and although she had no trouble with the intense ten-hour days, it took some time to get used to being on her feet for so long again. She climbed down from her lifeguard chair and handed Florence her fluorescent vest. “Here you go.” 

“Thanks,” Florence said, putting it on. “He’s angry because Dave refused to serve him more beer. Good luck.” She shot Stella a grin and chuckled. “By the way, it’s payday today and the day shift is meeting up at that new tapas place for happy hour. Are you coming?”

“Sure, I’ll join you.” Stella shot her a smile and made her way to the bar. She wasn’t a fan of the staff nights out, but they’d worked very hard and the least she could do was buy them a round. The woman was no longer sitting there with her rum and Coke; she’d probably left right after the drunk man had arrived. Curiously, Stella wondered why she was still thinking about her. Guests came and went, and although she was always friendly and pretended to recognise them, the reality was that she rarely did. This woman had only been here for a few days, and yet she’d noticed her every single day.

“Hi there. I’m Stella, the poolside manager. What’s going on?” she asked, looking from Dave to the man and back. “I hear there’s a problem?”

“Yes, we have a problem,” the man sneered. “I’ve paid a fortune to drink whatever the hell I want, and this man is refusing to serve me.” He held up his hand to show his all-inclusive wristband.

Stella crossed her arms in front of her chest and faced him, letting him know she wasn’t one bit intimidated. “What’s your name?”

“Pete.”

“Okay, Pete. It’s within our hotel’s policy to refuse alcohol to guests if they are causing disruption or discomfort to others. You’re being loud and obnoxious, so I think it’s safe to say you’ve had enough for now.”

“That’s not up to you to decide,” Pete yelled, leaning in.

“Keep your distance, please, Pete. You know the rules.” Stella took a step back. “And yes, it is up to me, actually, so I suggest you go to your room, drink some water and sleep it off. Come back down when you’ve sobered up, and Dave will be happy to serve you.”

“This is ridiculous!” Pete’s wife said as she joined them. She was unsteady on her feet, her eyes red-rimmed. “Come on, Pete, put your T-shirt on. We’ll go to Pit Stop; happy hour starts in twenty.” Narrowing her eyes at Stella and Dave, she waved a finger in front of them. “And you two… expect a formal complaint tomorrow.”

“Go ahead.” Stella kept her cool as she took the coffee Dave handed her before making one for himself. Thankfully, situations like this didn’t occur very often. “Complaints can be filed at reception.”

Pete and his wife waltzed towards their sunloungers to pick up their bags, and Stella chuckled when Pete tripped on his way to the exit. There was no point getting worked up about it; in a couple of days, they would be gone.

Chapter 3

Dinner was most bearable between six and seven pm, and although that was a little early for Lisa, at least the food wasn’t completely stale by that point, and the dining area was still fairly quiet. On her first night, she’d made the mistake of going down at eight, and the place had been like a zoo. People throwing themselves onto the buffet, nowhere to sit, loud talking and shouting, and the cheesy nineties pop songs played in all communal areas had driven her to leave after ten minutes.

Now, it was mainly the cheesy music that tormented her ears, but she could deal with that. Scanning the food that was the same as every other day, her stomach was already protesting and screaming out for something fresh. Perhaps she should just go somewhere else tonight. After all, Spain wasn’t expensive, and dining out one day a week wouldn’t eat into her budget that much.

“What can I get you?” one of the chefs behind the long table asked her. “Today’s special is spaghetti carbonara. Or would you like a bit of everything?”

Lisa shook her head as she knew exactly what that meant. People who asked for ‘a bit of everything’ literally got that: chips piled onto pizza and pasta, topped with brown gravy that spilled onto the floor as they headed to their tables. “I think I’ll just have this,” she said, reaching for a piece of garlic bread with her gloved hand. “Thank you.”

“Hey, you can’t take food outside the dining area,” he called after her, but she was already gone.

Lisa was pretty sure the staff all had their own ideas about her, and she suddenly felt an urge to get off the premises as fast as she could. The animation team thought she was a miserable git, the chefs thought she was a food snob—which admittedly, she was—and the housekeeping team probably thought she was boring for spending too much time in her room.

The night air did Lisa good as she wandered over the Lavante Beach promenade in search of somewhere to eat. It was warm and humid, but the sea breeze cooled her skin a little. At least out here she was anonymous, rather than ‘that woman’. Soon enough, the staff at Paradise Hotel would start to wonder why she was spending months in a place she didn’t even like, and why she wasn’t taking part in the hotel’s extensive social activities—she wasn’t looking forward to the questions they were sure to ask.

The sun was lowering into the ocean, and she stalled for a moment to take in the sunset. The last beachgoers were leaving, looking tired from hours in the sun, but apart from families dragging towels, cool bags and inflatables along, the main stretch was fairly quiet. Lisa had already worked out the daily Benidorm routine. Most holiday makers had gone to their rooms by now, to take a nap and freshen up for the night ahead. Later, they would come out here to ‘parade’ as they called it, before attacking the buffets and enjoying more drinks at their hotels. It was a funny and alien concept to her, holidaying without any culture whatsoever. Spain was beautiful—she’d visited the country many times before—but this town didn’t feel like Spain at all. To her left was the Mediterranean, to her right were numerous hotels, pubs—in the most English sense of the word—and supposedly Italian restaurants that served the same beige food she’d had all week. It wasn’t pretty, but anything outside Paradise Hotel was a bonus by now, and Lisa decided to venture into the side streets, hoping to find an authentic Spanish restaurant.

As she found herself wandering through the old town, restauranteurs left, right, and centre tried to catch her attention. “Best pizza in Benidorm!” one waiter shouted. “Best value for money”, another one said, then added: “Unlimited buffet!”

Lisa upped her pace, making her way through the network of streets filled with bars and restaurants. She didn’t like to be hauled in and she didn’t like to feel forced to join long tables with rowdy strangers. It was a whole new world to her, and she realised then how sheltered she’d been. Not sheltered in the traditional sense; her parents weren’t strict or Victorian in any way, but she’d definitely always lived inside a comfortable, wealthy bubble of politeness and this was not a part of that life. She was not their kind, and they could smell it as they followed her with their judgmental stares. When she finally escaped the crowded streets, her anxiety rose to alarming levels, and she sank down on the pavement. Six more weeks. How am I going to survive this?

Taking deep breaths, she waited for the panic to subside as she held onto her chest. She rarely had panic attacks but her break-up, losing her job and months of worrying about paying rent and bills had made her vulnerable beyond belief. Get a grip, Lisa. You’ve been all over the world, for God’s sake. This is Benidorm, so calm the fuck down.

When she opened her eyes again, the white noise finally faded, and she saw that she was in a quiet alleyway. Opposite her, gentle Spanish guitar music was playing from a small tapas bar where they were setting the tables for the night. It felt daunting to go inside in her current state, but at least it was quieter and sitting out here wouldn’t get her anywhere either, and so she got up and peeked through the window.

“Buenos dias!” A tall waiter with a perfectly groomed goatee opened the door for her and spread his arms. “Our first customer ever.”

Lisa managed a smile as she followed him into the restaurant that only held about a dozen tables. “Ever? I doubt that.”

“It’s true. It’s our opening night.” He rubbed his hands together. “We need to make a good first impression, and that means you won’t find better Spanish food anywhere else in town tonight.”

“That sounds good to me.” Lisa sat down at the window table, after he pulled out a chair for her. The décor was rustic and basic and that was a welcome change after the neon-lit bars and kitschy restaurants she’d just passed.

“I’m Joachim. Give me a shout if you know what you want to order. That’s our menu,” he said, pointing to a blackboard. “We only have house wine, but it’s good house wine.”

“Thank you. Then I’ll have a glass of red, please.” Lisa scanned the board, mentally translating the dishes and already salivating at the look of it. “And can I have the Padrón peppers and a slice of tortilla to start with?” she paused, pursing her lips. “Oh, and a tomato salad and the grilled squid, please.”

“Of course.” Joachim wrote down her order and when he walked off, she heard him whisper something about a potential reviewer to one of his English colleagues. It made sense that he thought she might be from a magazine. She hadn’t seen many people here on their own and with her dark jeans, white shirt and trainers, she certainly looked different from the rest of the British women, who wore colourful dresses with rhinestones and were smothered in make-up and novelty jewellery. She sat back and thought of her ex-girlfriend, Sandrine, who used to nickname her ‘The Slayer’, after the notorious food reviewer. But then again, it could work to her advantage today. If the waiter didn’t ask her straight-up, then who was she to contradict his suspicions?

Chapter 4

“Isn’t it a bit early to eat?” Stella asked as she followed Manuel and eight other team members to Hostaria, the new tapas bar Manuel’s cousin had opened.

“It’s never too early to eat.” Manuel waved at his cousin, who was smoking a cigarette outside. “Besides, this coño here was worried no one would show up, so he needs the place to look full. Drinks half price. Just tonight and only for us.” He patted the man’s shoulder, then stole his cigarette and took a drag before they hugged and exchanged some small talk.

While they caught up, Stella’s eyes were drawn to the window table, where a familiar-looking woman was dining on her own. Is that the grumpy woman from Paradise? She didn’t voice her thoughts, as she was worried Manuel, who had already consumed quite a few drinks, may crack a joke a little too loud, and official complaints about her team members was the last thing she needed.

“This is our bossy-boss, Stella,” he said to his cousin, patting her shoulder.

“Hello, Miss Stella. I’m Joachim and this is my new bar.”

“It looks nice.” Stella shot him a smile and held out her hand to let Joachim squeeze it, even though she couldn’t care less about male attention. “And it’s really nice to meet you. Congratulations on your opening and thank you for arranging the staff happy hour.” Her eyes shifted to the window again, drawn to beautiful Miss Grumpy. “Could we have a table in the back?” she asked, just to be on the safe side. The woman really was gorgeous, she decided then, and as she followed everyone inside, her stomach did a flip when her eyes met Miss Grumpy’s for a split second. They were blue and intense, her stare as cold as a winter’s morning, but there was also sadness in them, and something else she couldn’t quite put her finger on.

Joachim, who had seen the brief exchange, leaned in and whispered: “I’m pretty sure she’s a reviewer. It’s cool, no?”

“Really?” Stella gave him a puzzled glance but before she’d had the chance to enquire any further, they were seated and Joachim began to serve everyone wine, followed by sizzling chorizo and bread with dips. It was the first night she’d been out with some of her new team members, and she told herself to forget about the woman and focus on her people instead. After all, in her experience, it was way easier to get them on board if they liked her. It had taken her years to build a well-oiled machine of staff members who always had each other’s backs, and although everything had fallen apart, she knew she could do it again. Even if it would cost her a good chunk of her wages.

“Drinks on me tonight,” she said, smiling at the party. “Now, why don’t you all tell me about your day. Who has a funny story to share?”

There was always something amusing to report, and with most staff members being Spanish, they were even more baffled by the English hotel guests than their English colleagues.

“Someone peed in the pool today,” a girl called Luciana said. “The new signs are big and clear, but there was still an accident and then the water went green.” She laughed. “I love these new chemicals, but it’s so annoying that everyone has to leave the pool for thirty minutes. It means they spend more time at the bar.”

Manuel shrugged. “They did it before too, it’s just that no one ever knew. And now…” He clapped his hands together dramatically. “Bam! Busted!”

Luciana burst out in laughter too, and they speculated about which guests may have committed the crime. The chemicals that turned urine green had led to a lot of hilarity when they’d first started using them, but now that the pool had to be cleaned more often, it was getting rather tiresome.

“I’ll see if we can get some better signs with a visual,” Stella said, turning to Luciana.

“As if that’s going to help.” Manuel rolled his eyes. “Everything changes, but one thing stays the same. The guests.” He sat back and took a sip of his wine. “Although currently, there is this woman who’s quite different from our usual crowd. She’s hot. In fact, she’d be super sexy if she just smiled for once. I swear, that woman is miserable on every level and she even—”

As soon as she put two and two together, Stella kicked Manuel’s leg under the table while her eyes shifted to the woman by the window, but it was too late. Manuel continued his rant of insults and the woman stood up, slammed some cash on the table and walked out.

“Wait, your food is ready!” Joachim called after her. “I can bag it up for you if you like…” He opened the door, but she was already out of sight.

“What the fuck, Manuel!” Stella shot him a glare. “I was kicking you. Did you not get the hint?”

“What hint?” Manuel frowned. 

“The woman you were talking about was sitting right over there.” Stella got up and sighed as she shook her head and gave Manuel some money. “Here, pay for the drinks and don’t wait for me. I need to sort this out.” Although she knew it was Manuel who should be apologising and not her, he was too tipsy to do that right then, and anyway, she was much better at smoothing things over than him. “Could you bag that food up for me please?” she asked Joachim. “I’ll drop it off. I know where she’s staying.”

Did you like the sample? You can pre-order ‘Welcome To Paradise’, book 1 in The Resort Series here:

Read the first three chapters of ‘The Next Life’ by Lise Gold and Madeleine Taylor.

Chapter 1

This house has been like an empty shell since I moved in permanently. I’m constantly aware of my own breathing and register every footstep I take on the hardwood floors. The weight of my soul thuds heavily, reminding me I’m the only person left in this big, modern mansion. All the work, all the love I poured into it. The open-plan kitchen fitted out with the latest appliances. The glass staircase that spirals so beautifully around its own spine-like axis. The spacious terrace with the long, narrow pool overlooking the ocean. The interior designer I hired to make every detail just perfect, so my life would be perfect. So our life would be perfect. And then she stole my husband. Nothing about this is right, and I realize that each time I look around, staring at this endless perfection. All it does is remind me of everything that’s broken. Everything I’ve lost.

Villa Reina, named after me, used to be our summer home, the place where we spent quality family time on weekends and during the holidays. It was a place of happiness and fun, and wanting to hold onto memories of those halcyon days, I insisted on keeping it after the divorce. I don’t know what I was thinking; perhaps it would have been better to stay in New York, where I had more friends all-year round. Apart from my friend Sasha, no one but my daughter has visited over winter and the space that used to be filled with laughter, music and lively debate is now a hibernating carcass, still, as if waiting for something that will never return.

I open the kitchen cupboard, grab a mug and put it under the state-of-the-art coffee maker. The thought of barista-standard coffee at home seemed like a good idea at the time but now the sound of the grinding beans is killing me, and I wince. Too much wine last night. Everything here is polished to perfection, and when I see I’ve left a fingerprint on the stainless-steel grinder, I wipe it off with the silk sleeve of my equally spotless robe. Nola, my housekeeper is nothing but efficient and although I could easily take care of the cleaning myself now, I like having her around. She works for my ex-husband too, and we gossip about him. Out of the friends I’ve made here in the Hamptons over the course of twelve summers, Nola is one of the few who has always been on my side.

In Aubrey, our interior designer—or ‘Bree’ as she likes to be known—my husband found a younger, blonder, and prettier version of me; fresh-faced and trim, with supermodel legs and a smile to die for. She also happens to be successful and super creative, and with Sandeep being a celebrated architect, they found a lot in common. He moved straight out of our house into the blonde bombshell’s dreamy, bohemian palace down the road. I can’t blame our mutual friends for preferring to spend time with the happy couple. It’s certainly bound to be more fun than hanging out with a depressed woman who doesn’t know who she is anymore. I’m no longer Sandeep’s wife, and I’m no longer Reina, the always cheery crowd-pleaser and wife.

My daughter Nicole moved here with me until she started at NYU last fall and ever since, I’ve been painfully aware of her absence. I suppose every mother has to go through this, and I’m no different. She still comes home on weekends, and that’s when the house comes back to life, and that’s when I feel a tiny sparkle of happiness, see a glimpse of my old self again. When our joint voices ring through the corridors, and her music blasts from her room. When I smell bacon frying in the morning. Her meaty cooking used to make me nauseous but now it makes me happy and excited for the day ahead. I luxuriate in her company when she’s here.

Nicole is my everything. She’s witty, intelligent and very pretty, with her long dark hair, sharp brows, big, brown eyes and full, plump lips. She’s not tall but has this enormous presence—her confidence and friendly demeanor dazzling everyone when she walks into a room. I used to be like that, and some people say she looks like me, but I don’t quite see it. With Sandeep being Indian and myself of Persian descent, she’s just a beautiful concoction of cultures, blessed with the best of both worlds.

Our son, Eddie, is amazing too, but he’s more of a daddy’s boy. Sandeep and I were young when we had him, and the father-and-son relationship has morphed into a friendship. They hang out and play golf together and now that Sandeep isn’t here anymore, I don’t see that much of Eddie. Anyway, he’s gone backpacking with his girlfriend, and I don’t expect him back anytime soon. He’s somewhere in Goa at the moment, kite surfing and sleeping in hammocks on the beach while he looks for items to sell on his website. He runs an online business that allows him to travel, have fun and still make an impressive living. I keep track of his social media posts and send him messages every day to see what he’s up to, but it’s only once a week that I get a reply back, and it’s never much more than ‘All good. Miss you, Mom.’ He doesn’t really miss me; I know that, and that’s fine. But Nicole does miss me, I think. Or maybe she just feels sorry for me. No job, no purpose… Poor Mom.

She’d be right to think that, because I have no purpose. Not since I don’t have a family to take care of. I’m not a homemaker anymore, and my life has become nothing more than a string of predictable events and a lot of waiting. I wait for my cleaner, hoping she’s in a chatty mood, I wait for my daughter to come home on the weekends, and I wait for the day to be over. Nicole left last night, and I have to wait for another five long days before I see her and feel whole again.

Mondays are the hardest. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t sit around and do nothing all day; I just feel flat. I go to yoga at eleven am, and after that, I usually grab a green juice with Sasha. Sasha is the wife of a real estate mogul, and they practically live next door. We used to be very close, but now we’re in a weird space. We don’t socialize like we used to; it was always the four of us. Our Thursday cookouts in our backyard have been cancelled but our Saturday morning tennis games at their estate are still on track, only it’s not me making up the doubles anymore. My ex-husband brings his new flame nowadays, and I know it puts Sasha in a difficult position.

Crossing the open living area with coffee in hand, I grab my phone, open the sliding doors onto the terrace and sit down in my usual chair by the pool. Our poolside is a slick space; a spacious slate terrace with white designer furniture. It’s early May and soon, New Yorkers will start flooding the Hamptons, and the traffic will make it difficult for Nicole to drive down every weekend. Perhaps I’ll plan a couple of trips to New York instead, so I open a booking website and scroll through available hotels. As much as I’m looking forward to summer and having more people around, it will also be the first summer I’ve spent on my own, the first summer I’ll be attending parties and events solo, and I feel the need to get out of here for a while, to get as far away as I can from that toxic, happy home down the road, where I suspect they’re currently fucking each other’s brains out before starting their day—no doubt one that will be filled with inspirational projects and interesting meetings.

“Good morning, Mrs. Kumar.”

I startle and look up to find a woman in a white tank top and denim shorts standing by the pool with a toolbox in hand. “Hi. Who are you?” Shading my eyes from the sun, I narrow them as I study her. “And how did you get in here?”

The woman holds up a key fob that opens our gates and simultaneously taps the logo on her red baseball cap. “Barry broke his arm; he won’t be coming in anytime soon, so Pool Masters sent me instead. I’m Belle.”

“Oh. Is Barry going to be okay?” I ask. Truth be told, I don’t know Barry very well, and I actually thought his name was Larry. Although he’s been servicing the pool three times a week, he’s not much of a talker. When he first started, I offered him coffee and refreshments, but he always declined, so, eventually, I gave up.

“Yeah, he’ll be fine. Just had a nasty fall.” The woman’s eyes shift from me to the pool, then to the wooden hatch that breaks up the poolside tiles and leads into the underground machine room. “He told me where everything is, so no need to get up,” she adds when I’m about to.

“Okay. Well, let me know if you need anything.” I give her a smile. “Oh, and Belle?”

“Yes?” She bends down, opens up the hatch and straightens herself again, turning to me.

“It’s Miss Amari. I’m not a Kumar anymore.”

“Oh, sorry about that.” The way she says it sounds like she’s referring to my divorce rather than her using the wrong name. “I’ll change it in the system.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that. Can I get you a coffee?” I ask, for some reason not wanting the conversation to end. “Or something cold instead?”

Belle shakes her head and smiles back. “I’m okay for now. The pool looks in good shape, so I’m sure I won’t be long.”

Watching Belle descend into the machine room, I note she doesn’t look like a ‘Belle’. Belle sounds Southern, and everything about her screams New York; her accent and her appearance. But Belle is also a very feminine name, and this woman is… a little rough around the edges, perhaps? She’s lean and muscular, and her hair is short and choppy. I don’t usually stereotype but the way she moves and talks makes me think she might be gay. Women like her used to give me a pleasant physical reaction in college, and I suppose I still feel somewhat of an attraction to her type. I just haven’t been around women like her since I met Sandeep.

A message from Sasha lights up on my phone, pulling me out of my thoughts. ‘Hey hun, do you mind picking me up on the way to yoga? The housekeeper borrowed my car.’

‘Sure. I’ll see you in half an hour’, I reply, then get up and grab a bottle of cold water from the fridge and make another coffee, just in case Belle wants one later.

“Belle?” I yell, glancing down the steep concrete stairs that I’ve actually never seen before.

“Yeah?” She squints against the bright sunlight as she looks up at me.

“I have to go soon, so I’ll put this here for you in case you want it, okay?” I place the beverages on the edge of the pool, then quickly close my robe when I realize Belle is staring at my cleavage as I’m bending over her.

“Sure.” Belle quickly averts her gaze and looks into my eyes instead but this too, is making me nervous for some reason. Her eyes are intense, her expression curious as if she’s sizing me up. “Thank you very much, Miss Amari. Have a good day, I’ll be back on Wednesday.”

Chapter 2

Belle – Monday

The first house I’m visiting today is absolutely stunning and so is the woman who lives here. She puts down a coffee and a water for me, chats for a moment, then turns to leave but not before I catch another glimpse of her cleavage. Once again, I try very hard not to stare. She’s so pretty; long, dark hair, flint like eyes and perfectly arched brows. She’s petite with a child-like, almost shy smile but there’s also a certain sadness to her. I’ve seen it before many times. The Hamptons is often the last-chance saloon, a place where couples buy a house with the idea of spending more quality time together in order to save their marriage but more often than not, they fail to repair what’s broken.

I know she lives here permanently. My records tell me this pool is one of the few that’s been serviced over winter. Normally we shock the water by adding unstabilized chlorine, then a winterizing product to keep the pool free of algae before the winter cover goes on but instead, it’s been heated twice. It must have been lonely here in the cold months. Very few people who own a second home in Southampton come here between October and March and the rental prices are so extortionate that no one considers renting in winter as it’s simply not worth it. However, the beach is beautiful and quiet when it’s cold, so maybe she likes that.

As I check the temperature of the water, which is supposed to be an exact twenty degrees Celsius in this particular pool, I see Miss Amari has changed into figure-hugging sportswear and she’s talking to what I assume is her housekeeper on the terrace. Yoga perhaps? Women are all into yoga around here, always striving to look their best. If that was her aim, she’s certainly succeeded. The black knee-length tights and tank top show off her curves and amazing breasts that may or may not be real. She’s toned and when she stretches, I catch a glimpse of her honey-colored midriff. Eyes on the pool, Belle, I remind myself.

My job is fascinating in many ways. I get to see a glimpse of lives very different to mine, a sneak peek into another world. Miss Amari’s world is rich, polished and designed to perfection, but my guess is that she lives here alone and spends her days wondering what she could have done differently to stop her husband from straying, beating herself up about something that isn’t her fault. I wouldn’t trade my life with hers for the world. Her kitchen is the size of my whole apartment and even though she drives a reasonably understated car, her Mercedes hybrid still costs more than Pool Masters pays me in a year.

Just as I close the hatch to the machine room my phone rings, and I grab my coffee and take the call while I walk to the end of the yard. Through the wrought iron gate in the secure fence, I see a stilt bridge that stretches over the dunes, down to the beach. It’s a stunning location; the house is so close to the ocean that I can hear the gentle pulsing of the waves. “Hey, Jules.” I smile, happy to hear my friend’s voice. She’s also the booking manager for an agency I work for part-time and she’s calling from her work number.

“Hey, babe. A booking just came in for tonight. I know it’s a little last-minute. Are you available?”

“Yes, no problem. Where am I going?”

“West End Road, Mrs. Ashworth. She asked if you could come earlier as she wants to have dinner with you first. She’s offering seven-hundred dollars extra.”

“Sorry, I can’t do that,” I say. “I want to put Suki to bed before I leave. The usual time is fine for me, though.” It’s totally ridiculous that someone is willing to pay seven-hundred dollars just to have dinner with me, and as tempting as it may be, I have to draw the line somewhere, especially with a four-year old. Besides, my clients tend to get carried away if we spend too much time outside the bedroom, confusing reality with a fantasy they’ve paid a lot of money for. Mrs. Ashworth is one of those clients and I don’t want her to get the wrong idea about us.

“Okay, I’ll let her know you’ll be there at eight-thirty.”

“Great.” I glance at the house and lower my voice, but Miss Amari has disappeared from my line of sight. “Any special requests?”

Juliette is silent for a moment, possibly scrolling through her notes. “No. Just bring your extension.” She chuckles. “Same as always.”

“Okay.” I give a conspiratorial laugh too and roll my eyes skyward. “I’ll be ready for pick-up at eight.” Mrs. Ashworth has a dirty mind, but her vocabulary is sparkling clean, and she’s even managed to come up with a word that makes a strap-on sound innocent.

“Perfect, have fun. And on a personal note, I’ll see you on the weekend,” Juliette chimes before she hangs up.

Sliding my phone back into my pocket, I take another moment to enjoy the view before I head to my next job. The beach looks inviting today, with the ocean lying peacefully behind the sand that sparkles in the golden sunlight. It’s a priceless view, one that undoubtedly looks even more spectacular from the top floor of the house. A man is strolling along the shore, throwing a ball for his dog. The Labrador enthusiastically tears into the white foam to catch it, then comes running back, its ears flapping as it shakes out its coat right in front of the owner, making the man laugh out loud. I smile as I watch them and think of Suki, who’s been begging me to get her a dog for months. We don’t have the space in our small apartment, and I can’t expect her sitter to be responsible for both a child and a dog when I’m at work, so I’ve told her she’ll have to wait a couple of years.

Behind me, I hear gates open, the rattling sound pulling me out of my thoughts. Turning to grab my toolbox, I watch Miss Amari get in her car and drive off.

Chapter 3

Reina – Monday

“Are you okay, honey?” Sasha looks at me intently. It must be the dark circles under my eyes that make her worry; I’ve had trouble sleeping lately.

I’m about to mumble my usual ‘I’m fine’, but something about the way she asks makes me want to open up. “Not great, to be honest with you,” I say, a little uncomfortable as I haven’t had a serious conversation in months. Sasha and I don’t talk like we used to, that intimacy has gone. The nights when the four of us—her, me, Sandeep and her husband Igor—used to get tipsy on cocktails followed by deep conversations around the firepit have been replaced by yoga and green juice, and this crammed hipsteresque coffee and juice bar is not a place one would naturally open up. “I just feel flat and…” I pause and shrug, poking a straw through the lid of my cup before I drink from my kale juice. “I just feel really fucking purposeless and I don’t know what to do with myself. I thought it would get better eventually but it’s only getting worse.”

“Hmm… I’m so sorry to hear that.” Sasha stares at me while she slurps from her own carrot-apple-ginger concoction. “Isn’t it nice to have the house to yourself, though? Your own little paradise where you decide what happens?”

“No, I don’t like being there alone. It feels hollow.” I arch a brow at her, a little irritated that she seems surprised by my confession. “What did you expect? That I’d be ecstatic that my husband left me out of the blue?”

“Of course not. I just thought…” Sasha clears her throat. “Well, it’s been almost a year since you split up, and I thought you’d appreciate your freedom eventually. That you’d enjoy your new life once you’d gotten used to being on your own, you know?”

“You’re right,” I say, reminding myself that I’m essentially very lucky. “I shouldn’t complain. I have enough money to live comfortably, I have a beautiful home, two wonderful children, my health…”

Sasha pushes my hand down as I raise it. “I didn’t mean it like that. You have every right to be hurt, sad and depressed; you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. But you can do anything you want now, Reina. Anything. And you’re doing nothing.” She’s silent for a moment, chewing on her straw. “Honestly, sometimes I envy you.”

“How can you say that?” I pause and return her stare. “I thought you were happy.”

Sasha shrugs and reluctantly shakes her head from side to side. “I am… We are, but it’s not what it was when we first met and we’re long past the phase of being in love. Igor and I are more like a well-oiled machine, I suppose. We work seamlessly but our marriage has become mechanical.” She sits back, then lets out a long sigh. “Have you never dreamed of starting over? Even when you were with Sandeep?”

“No. My current situation is my worst nightmare. I’d never leave my family.”

“I know that. But have you never fantasized about being with someone else?”

“That’s not the same thing,” I say resolutely. This is not where I expected our conversation to go. Frankly, I don’t know what I expected. A little pity, maybe? Some reassuring words, her telling me everything will be fine? But instead, she seems jealous of my freedom.

“But you have?” Sasha presses on.

“Everyone fantasizes, but that doesn’t mean I wanted out, or that I’d act on it. It doesn’t mean I wanted my heart shattered and our family broken apart. Sandeep made his fantasy a reality, I didn’t. That’s the difference.”

Sasha nods and gazes out of the window, following a jogger who’s passing by. He’s a good ten years younger than us. Handsome with a great body. “Can you keep a secret?” she asks.

“Of course.”

“It could ruin my life if what I’m about to tell you gets out,” she continues, turning back to me with a warning stare to let me know she’s never been more serious.

“I promise I won’t tell a soul.” I’m relieved she feels secure enough to confide in me. It means our close friendship has survived the past year, and that she still needs me in her life even if she hangs out with Sandeep’s new girlfriend way more than me nowadays.

“I cheated on Igor,” she says, her big, blue eyes widening as if she immediately regrets her confession.

“You didn’t…” Leaning in, I continue in a whisper. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah.” Sasha leans in too and lowers her voice. “Lately I’ve been wondering what it would be like to sleep with someone else after twenty years with the same man. To be honest, I’ve thought of little else.” She pauses. “And so I did.”

“Okay.” I try not to sound too shocked because I want her to feel comfortable talking to me. Sasha, my friend, a loving mother and loyal wife has cheated on her rich, handsome, likeable and successful husband. “How did it happen? Did you just meet someone you felt attracted to?”

“No, I hired someone I was attracted to.” She glances at the door, making sure no one from our yoga class has entered the premises.

“What do you mean?”

“Come on, Reina. You know exactly what I mean.” Sasha pulls a business card out of her purse that says Hamptons’ Escorts’ and hands it to me. “I found this in the restroom at a beach bar. As soon as I got home, I checked out their website and last week, when Igor was away for work and the kids were with friends in New York, I booked a sexy, young man to give me the night of my life.”

“Noo…” My jaw falls wide open.

“Uh-huh. Ben was twenty-nine, tall, blond and ripped, and he cost me twenty-five hundred dollars plus travel expenses. It was so worth it.” She licks her lips and gives me a wicked smile. “He came to our house and I was super nervous, but he was amazing at putting me at ease. We had a drink together, he gave me a massage and after that, we had hours of amazing, animalistic sex like I’ve never experienced before.”

“Fuck… So, it was good?”

Sasha chuckles and plays with a lock of her bleach blonde hair. “Yes, it was out of this world good. It was so good that I can’t stop thinking about it. The upside is that I won’t have to worry about him calling me, and I don’t feel guilty because there are no feelings involved. I don’t know Ben’s real name, I’m not in love with him, he’s not in love with me and so my marriage will survive this weird phase I’m going through. In fact, it might even make my marriage stronger because I won’t look for distraction elsewhere and it’s made me appreciate what I have a whole lot more, if that makes sense.”

To me, it makes no sense at all, but I don’t say that. Finishing my juice, I contemplate what she’s just told me. “Are you planning on doing it again?”

“I might, if another opportunity arises. It’s kind of addictive.” Sasha crosses her arms in front of her and purses her enhanced lips. She’s the typical Hamptons mom. Always dressed to look her best, her nails and hair pristine. “Look, I was eighteen when I met Igor— one year older than you were when you met Sandeep—and Ben’s only the third man I’ve had sex with.”

“Sandeep’s the only man I’ve ever slept with,” I say, putting down my cup that is as empty as my life. “The only one.” It’s a sad fact to admit but also true.

Sasha gasps. “God, I thought I was a saint. How have we never had this conversation?” She whistles through her teeth. “Was it even good with him?”

“What? The sex?” I pause for a moment to think about that. “It was okay, I suppose. I have nothing to compare it to. But sex was never that important to me. Mostly, it was about love and connection and trust.”

About to reply, Sasha opens her mouth, but a message comes in on her phone and she groans in frustration. “Damn it. Igor wants me to pick up his dry-cleaning. Our housekeeper had an emergency—that’s why she borrowed my car—and I thought it could wait but he needs his favorite white shirt for a meeting this afternoon or he won’t survive the day.”

“Can’t he pick it up himself?”

“Apparently not.” Sasha rolls her eyes. “Do you mind if we stop off there on the way back?”

“No, that’s fine. I’m ready to go if you are.” I slide the card back to her but she shakes her head.

“You keep it; I should have gotten rid of it, but I felt this strange urge to keep it as a reminder. Have a look at their website; it might inspire you.” She slings her purse over her shoulder and gets up. “This conversation isn’t over though, I have so much to tell you. Want to talk over a glass of wine later in the week?”

“Yeah, absolutely,” I say, my answer a little more eager than I meant it to be. Relieved that Sasha and I seem to be back to where we were before my life fell apart, I grab my purse and my yoga mat. It’s the first time since my divorce that I actually feel as if I’ve had a meaningful conversation, and I can’t wait for us to continue what we started. “How about tomorrow?”

“Can’t. We’ve got a dinner party. But I can do Thursday.”

“Thursday works for me.” I don’t even need to check my diary; it’s been close to empty lately. Aside from the fact that the summer season hasn’t started yet, singles are generally not invited to lunches or dinners. Parties, sure. They want us to make up the numbers. But sit-down events where people actually talk to each other seem to be reserved for couples only.

“Great.” Sasha lingers for a beat, then steps forward to give me a hug. “I miss you, Reina.”

“I miss you too,” I say, swallowing down the lump in my throat. I contemplate throwing the business card into the trash can by the door as we walk out but change my mind and slip it into my gym bag instead. It’s not for me but I’m still curious…

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