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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…

Like this sample? You can pre-order ‘The Next Life’ here:


Read the first three chapters of ‘Blue’

Chapter 1

The preparations for the night ahead were in full swing as Celia roamed the dark corridors of the medieval Krügerner Castle in search of someone who could lend her a blow-dryer. All doors were open, airing the spacious guestrooms that were decorated with lavish fabrics and wallpapers, and filled with antique furniture. Maids in traditional black and white uniforms were rushing in and out with towels and linens, preparing the rooms for the annual summer ball.

Coming here was like going back in time. Celia liked the smell of damp in the old walls, and the sound of the floorboards creaking under her feet when it was quiet at night. Many would find it creepy, but this place was her home away from home, and she was genuinely excited to be back again. Although the winters here were spectacular, with snow-covered mountains and crisp air, summer was her favorite time of the year in Switzerland. It smelled fresh and green, and the lake that stretched along the back yard lay still, shimmering in the sun. The white roses that grew up against the walls gave the castle a romantic touch, and especially at night, it looked spectacular when the facade was lit up by spotlights.

The impressive property in Lucerne, Switzerland, was owned by her uncle, an eccentric aristocrat who despite being semi-retired, also happened to be one of the biggest art dealers in the world. Since Celia was family, she was one of the lucky few who always had a room waiting for her, and after visiting since her childhood, she knew the castle inside out. The interior hadn’t changed much over the past twenty years, as Dieter Krügerner liked everything to be original, down to the smallest details. Sometimes that meant comfort had to give a little. There was no central heating in the hallways or corridors, and it was cool inside, even in the midst of summer.

Celia buried her hands deep in the pockets of the black velvet robe, her family crest embroidered in a dazzling gold thread over the left side of her chest. Her hair was wrapped in a towel as she’d just come out of the shower, and she was barefoot, allowing the deep red nail polish on her toes to dry. She was still recovering from jet lag, after arriving from New York yesterday, but the two-hour nap had perked her up a little, and she was excited for the night ahead and keen to get ready.

“Can I help you, Frau Krügerner?” One of the maids asked her.

Celia pointed to the trolley that the maid was pushing toward the next room, holding appliances and a variety of toiletries. “Yes please, Lina. Can I take one of those blow-dryers?”

“Of course.” Lina handed her one. “Do you need anything else?”

“No, thank you, I have everything in my room.” Celia smiled at her. “Have any of the other guests arrived yet?”

“Not yet.” It wasn’t the maid who answered, but her uncle who had snuck up on them. He was wearing a velvet robe too; his, a deep green that matched his padded slippers.

“Uncle Dieter!” Celia flew around his neck and gave him a long hug. “It’s so good to see you again. Sorry I missed you last night; my flight was delayed.”

“Good to see you too, kiddo.” He squeezed Celia so hard that she could barely breathe. “You should have come a couple of days earlier like I asked you to. Her ladyship will be here soon, so the peace will be short-lived.” The cheeky undertone in his voice as he referred to his sister-in-law—Celia’s mother—hadn’t gone unnoticed, and they both laughed.

“Believe me, I wanted to, but I had a problem with one of my shipments and I wanted to solve the issue so I could relax while I was here.” Celia only saw her mother a couple of times a year, and the summer ball was one of the occasions she had to put up with her demanding and irrational behavior. The woman was simply impossible, and so was her brother, who was always at her heel. “I heard she’s bringing a date,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Poor man. Or perhaps I should say poor boy, as I doubt he’s a day older than twenty-five; that seems to be her limit these days.”

“I’m sure the poor boy knows what he’s getting himself into.” Her uncle narrowed his eyes as he looked at her. “But speaking of dates, I see you’ve come alone this year, and that’s a first.”

“I didn’t feel like company.”

“Or maybe you were hoping to reacquaint yourself with someone here?” He paused. “Erin, perhaps? She’s confirmed her attendance.”

Heat rose to Celia’s cheeks just at the mention of Erin. Her uncle was right; the woman she’d met here last year had been on her mind ever since, and Celia was secretly hoping she’d see her again. Nothing had happened between them, as they’d both brought a date, but that one dance they’d shared had stayed with her like it was yesterday. The way Erin had held her; tight and possessively… She’d never been held like that. Even after the song had finished, they’d lingered in the middle of the dance floor until Erin’s girlfriend had pulled her away for the next dance. Celia suspected she’d spotted the instant attraction that had sparked between them that night, no doubt aware of the way Erin’s fingers were caressing her back, and how her hands had lowered to pull her in closer.

“No. I’m genuinely happy with my own company,” Celia lied after a passing maid pulled her out of her thoughts, and she chuckled when her uncle’s lips stretch into a knowing smile. “Besides, the last time I saw Erin she had a girlfriend. A very beautiful girlfriend,” she added, thinking of the cute blonde who had been on Erin’s arm. Not only was she tall and stunning, Celia had also learned that she was a civil rights lawyer in the brief conversation they’d had, and there was no way she could compete with that.

“I don’t think it was very serious between them,” her uncle said casually.

“Really?” Celia nervously fiddled with the buttons on the blow-dryer. “Do you mean she’s single now?”

“I knew it. You were smitten then and you still are; I can see it all over your face. You never could hide anything from me.” Her uncle laughed, holding onto his belly. Extravert, overweight, bald, and with a rugged, white beard, he was larger than life in all senses, but for the first time in decades, he was looking slimmer and his face even looked a little gaunt. “I’m not sure about her current status. I guess you’ll just have to wait and find out.” He scratched his shiny scalp and shot her a challenging grin, knowing he was driving her crazy with his relentless teasing. Erin and her uncle were good friends, and there was no way he wasn’t informed about her dating life.

“Okay, I confess, I might have found her somewhat attractive,” Celia admitted with a smirk. She looked him up and down, now noticing he really did look significantly different. “Have you lost weight?”

“I have, can you tell? I stopped dieting altogether and guess what? The weight just started dropping off.” He spread his arms and shrugged. “Anyway, it’s a beautiful day, so let’s not linger here in the dark. Care to join me for breakfast by the lake?”

Chapter 2

Erin dropped her weekend bag on the floor and hung up her suit before she opened a beer from the minibar in her hotel room, tired after the journey. An eleven-day journey, to be precise. But it had been a fabulous eleven days on her yacht, and she’d gotten a lot of work done while sitting at the covered seating area on the upper deck, enjoying the view over the Atlantic. Her tan was deep now, and even with her short hair, she looked like her mother, she thought as she stared at her reflection in the mirror.

Sipping her beer, Erin took in the room. It was a little over the top and she didn’t like the design, but it was practical for a couple of nights until she headed back to France, where her yacht was moored. The view from her corner suite, however, was exquisite. Endless green mountains with grazing cows dotted around stretched out in front of her. The charming old city of Lucerne lay below stretching along the large lake. She could see Krügerner Castle, her destination, on the other side of the lake, and the sight sent a flutter to her belly.

It would be her second year attending Dieter Krügerner’s summer ball—a widely anticipated event held in June—with invitations so sought after, they were like gold dust. She’d met Dieter a couple of years back through mutual friends when she was in California visiting her parents, and a wonderful, tight friendship had developed, despite their age-gap and their backgrounds that couldn’t have been more different.

Erin was looking forward to seeing her lovely, fun friend again, but the main reason she’d been a little nervous over the course of her journey, was the thought of seeing Dieter’s niece, Celia. They’d only shared one dance last year, nothing more, but she remembered every moment of those brief five minutes. The way Celia smelled as she held her; fruity and sweet. Her long, dark hair that tempted her to run her fingers through it, her big, brown eyes and her beautiful smile… Her voice and her enchanting laugh, so delicate in her ear. Erin could still recall how her hand felt in hers, how they’d moved, like they’d danced together for years. But even after replaying that dance over and over, there wasn’t one specific thing she could pinpoint that had drawn her in the minute they’d been introduced to each other. What had slayed her was the invisible force that seemed to radiate around them; one she couldn’t name or explain it if she tried. Chemistry just wasn’t a strong enough word.

The instant attraction had come as a shock to her because frankly, it was unheard of for her to fall for someone she didn’t know. Just one glance was all it had taken, one second of eye contact and she’d wanted Celia like she’d never wanted anyone before. She’d seen a twinkle in Celia’s eyes too, and looking back, that made sense because something as powerful as the pull she’d felt couldn’t be entirely one-sided.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. She’d brought a date to the ball last year, and Celia had brought her girlfriend, Darcy. Darcy was the polar opposite to Erin; feminine, elegant, sophisticated, and frankly, she’d been surprised when Celia had asked her to dance while Darcy was distracted.

Her own date had been nothing but a brief affair. The woman was stunning, intelligent and sweet. Erin had even entertained the idea that it could grow into something more serious, but after meeting Celia, she just wasn’t feeling it anymore, and she’d been comparing women to her ever since.

It was only ever one dance and Erin had told herself many times to forget about it, to put the woman out of her mind. Celia came from aristocracy. It wasn’t just the gold signet ring she wore with the family’s crest that gave that away; it was apparent in her poise and the way she moved and spoke, the way she held herself in conversations; polite but with a certain distance. She belonged in a whole different league, quite possibly darting through life like a princess and no doubt running in high circles. Erin herself was wealthy, but she was self-made and came from a working-class background. Having worked her ass off for everything she owned, the last thing she needed was a high-maintenance woman by her side who took everything in life for granted.

Still, Erin longed to kiss her, even a year later, and that was the reason she’d come alone tonight. She wasn’t short of women in her life—in fact, she was very, very popular with the ladies in Bermuda—but she knew it wouldn’t be fair to bring a date to the ball if her focus was on someone else. Women sensed things like that, just like they always sensed Erin wasn’t long-term relationship material.

She zipped open the bag she’d hung on one of the clothes hooks, her mouth tugging into a smile as she studied the custom-made tuxedo. Just like last year, she’d certainly stand out as the only woman wearing a tux, but Erin hadn’t worn a dress since she’d last visited her grandmother in Morocco at the age of fifteen, and anything other than a suit simply wasn’t an option. Attending a ball solo was kind of frowned upon too, but Dieter was a good friend, and she knew he didn’t care about etiquette and appearances like the rest of his family. Besides, she was donating a significant lot to the charity auction that would be held over dinner, so that should impress his guests.

Stripping off her clothes and grabbing a towel, another rush of excitement coursed through her at the hope of seeing Celia in a couple of hours. It was likely she’d bring a date, or perhaps she was still with the same woman. Erin had tried to find out, but Celia’s social profiles were set to private, and she knew Dieter and Celia were close, so she hadn’t dared to ask him about her love life either.

Erin finished her beer and headed for the shower. Date or no date, she was planning on making a lasting impression on the woman who had been on her mind since last summer. And if for some serendipitous reason Celia came alone, well, then she’d do everything in her ability to charm the hell out of her. If there was something Erin wasn’t short of, it was confidence.

Chapter 3

Celia let the satin fabric of her red gown fall down over her stiletto heels, then adjusted her thin shoulder straps in the mirror. It fitted her like a glove and was the perfect dress for the occasion; elegant and sexy but not revealing enough to be considered vulgar. The bias-cut fabric emphasized her slim waist, modest curves and full breasts, and although the low back didn’t allow for a bra, she could still get away with not wearing one at thirty-eight. Besides, she was in the mood to seduce tonight and showing a little skin would only help in that department. Her long, brown hair fell over her shoulders in loose waves, and apart from mascara and the bright-red kiss-proof lipstick that claimed not to smudge or wear off, she was wearing little makeup. She smiled at herself in the mirror, feeling satisfied with how she looked.

An unexpected knock on the door made her jump, and she rushed over to open it. Letting out a dramatic cry, she gave her mother a hug and told her all the things she wanted to hear; that it was great to see her again, that she’d missed her, and that she looked beautiful and ten years younger than the last time she’d seen her.

“Thank you, dear. I paid Dr. Sebastian a visit last week, and he agrees that I look ten years younger, too.” Her mother stroked the fabric of her silver ballgown, then looked Celia over while she pointed at her dress. “It’s red,” was all she said before her big lips pulled into a straight line of disappointment.

“Yes, it is.” Celia raised her brows questioningly and waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t. Her mother never let a chance pass to take a compliment whilst subtly offending another woman over her appearance, and that included her own daughter. It didn’t sting; Celia was used to it and she’d decided a long time ago that she couldn’t care less what her mother thought of her. “Where is your chaperone?”

“Leopold is coming.” Her mother looked over her shoulder. “Leopold, hurry up for God’s sake! I need my purse.”

Celia’s heart went out to the man who joined her mother in the doorway and handed her a silver pouch. He was older than she’d expected; probably her age, which was an improvement from the last string of boyfriends, and he shot her a sweet smile as he held out his hand to shake hers. “Leo. Nice to meet you.”

“Leopold,” her mother corrected him. “He goes by Leopold.” Celia doubted anyone of his age still went by that name, and the absurd idea of her mother insisting he presented himself as such, almost made her laugh.

“Hi. I’m Celia. It’s really nice to meet you too.” She was about to engage in small talk with him, but her mother interrupted them.

“Have you seen the table plan, dear? They’ve just put the board with the table plan up by the ballroom entrance and I saw that you’re not even seated at the family table. It’s simply unheard of; I’m going to speak to your uncle about it right away.”

That news was like music to Celia’s ears and she swiftly put a hand on her mother’s arm and smiled in an attempt to calm her down. Apart from her uncle, there were very few relatives she enjoyed spending time with, so she’d be the last person to feel insulted or complain about not sitting with them. “It’s fine, Mom. Please don’t bother him right now, he’s a little stressed today.” Another lie had slipped from her tongue. Uncle Dieter was rarely stressed, and he’d been nothing but chirpy since breakfast. Her mother was right though; it was unusual, and it might even spark rumors about a family feud, but she was sure he’d done it for a reason. A tingling sensation spread through her core as she speculated what the reason for the curious arrangements might be. “It’s okay, really. We’ll have plenty of time to catch up tomorrow.”

‘Her ladyship’ looked bitter at being thwarted and drew in her lips as if she’d sucked on a very sour lemon. “All right. But he has to know that it is unacceptable. I don’t even know the people you’re sitting next to. Brian Prendergast and Erik something…”

“Erin?” Celia asked hopefully.

“Could be. I didn’t pay attention as the surname didn’t ring a bell. Something foreign.” Her mother let out a deep sigh. “Basically a nobody.”

Celia’s face flushed, and her pulse started racing. Good old Uncle Dieter. He’s made me a very happy woman. “I really don’t care, so let’s not make a fuss. Please,” she begged, until she finally saw her mother relax a little. “How about we have an aperitive together? I’d love to get to know Leo better.” She turned to him and winked. “Apologies, I meant Leopold.”

“Fine.” Her mother turned on her heel. “We’ll see you in the entrance hall in ten minutes. Your brother and his girlfriend should be there, too.”

“Wait… Girlfriend?” Celia was talking to herself now as her mother had already disappeared. She let out a silent groan as she closed the door. Her pompous brother Fabian was quite possibly her least favorite member of the family but luckily, he had just as little interest in her. He had her mother wrapped around his little finger, leeched off her, and he hadn’t worked a day in his life. Frankly, she had zero respect for him.

Coming from old money in a long bloodline of Swiss bankers, of which most moved to the US two generations back and started investing there, the small fortune Celia had inherited from her father was enough for her to do the same. She liked to work though, and she felt good about herself when she accomplished things on her own.

Unlike her relatives, she lived in a modest three-bedroom apartment that she’d bought a couple of years back, and she didn’t waste money on expensive cars, women or drugs. Instead, she ran a compact business that exported organic baby food to China because she’d seen an opportunity there seven years ago. It had become very successful and what she liked about it was the simplicity. Apart from one middleman in Beijing and an assistant and an accountant in New York, she had no staff, and that gave her the freedom to take time off, or to go away whenever she wanted.

Despite her easy lifestyle, Celia didn’t date much. Burned by numerous women in the past—who turned out to be more interested in Celia’s family fortune than in her—relationships had taken a backseat, but the lack of intimacy didn’t bother her. She liked her own company, she was popular in the casual dating department and all in all, she was comfortable in her life. Sometimes, she longed for something more, but it was hard to find a woman she both trusted and liked, especially if she took the very important factor of chemistry into account. Chemistry was rare, at least for her, and as much as she’d like to lose herself in passion, that wasn’t in the cards for her right now. Or maybe it is, the little voice in the back of her mind told her as she grabbed her purse and headed out the door. Her head was spinning just at the thought of seeing Erin again.

Did you like the sample? ‘Blue’ will be out on 11/02/20211, and it’s available for pre-order here: https://www.amazon.com/Blue-Lise-Gold-ebook/dp/B08TVZ1QGC/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=lise+gold&qid=1612894377&sr=8-1

Read the first three chapters of Madeleine Taylor’s ‘Santa’s Favorite’!

Chapter 1

Is he really staring at me again? I narrow my eyes at Santa, who’s been ogling me each time I walk past. His big stage on the ground floor has been strategically placed at the far end of Bergman’s, and he’s sitting in an elaborately decorated sleigh filled with presents, led by a group of animatronic reindeer. The Norwegian pines that surround the stage look like a real forest, and the long winter wonderland walkway that leads up to him is simply irresistible to kids; moving trees, fake snow and Santa’s deep voice welcoming everyone with a ‘Merry Christmas’ draws them in like bees to honey.

While parents are perusing the aisles of this exclusive department store in Manhattan, kids wait in line for their turn on his lap, to hand him their letters and to have their picture taken with him.

His beard has come loose on one side and his gold half-glasses are sitting crooked on his nose. I can feel his eyes on my behind and let out a groan of frustration as I realize I’ve forgotten the item I came to pick up in the first place. Fuck. Now I have to walk past him again.

My mind is all over the place today; it’s the third time I’ve been lost in my own thoughts, forgetting stuff on the wish list that keeps growing on my tablet. Unfortunately, my personal to-do list keeps growing too, and as I’m working overtime at Bergman’s over my Christmas break, I’m lagging behind on my studies. Just six more days, I tell myself. Then it will be full steam ahead and I’ll be able to focus on my exams and apply for my legal internships.

The store’s VIP customers have an easy life when it comes to their Christmas shopping. All they have to do is send through their shopping list and underpaid suckers like me make sure their gifts are wrapped up beautifully and sent to their family members, kids, wives, husbands or lovers along with a handwritten card so no one would ever entertain the idea that they haven’t put the effort in themselves. We even have phone consultations with the big spenders and give them suggestions on additions or upgrades.

I turn back and head for the jewelry counter to pick up the gold watch with inscription. Bergman’s spans six floors and over a million square feet, so wasting fifteen minutes before arriving upstairs empty handed is not an option, especially over the busy holidays. As much as this job bores me, I need it too, and I don’t intend to get fired just before Christmas.

“All done.” My colleague who mans the jewelry counter hands me the watch and I turn it around to check the inscription that says, ‘For Renate, with love, Henry’. Henry didn’t even pick it himself; I did that. He told me he wanted to buy his girlfriend a watch and that he believed she preferred gold to silver, although he wasn’t entirely sure. When I asked him what inscription he would like, he asked me for suggestions. Ninety percent of my clients are men. They love the easy way out, and more often than not, they ask me to pick something for the ladies in their lives.

“Everything is in the box,” my colleague continues. “Warranty, extra strap in camel leather, receipt for you to email. Do you have any more inscriptions for me today?”

“So far, no. But the last minute orders keep coming in so I might be back.” I give him a smile and a wave and brace myself for another walk past creepy Santa. I could make a detour, but since I’m wearing a Bergman’s name tag, shoppers assume I’m part of the floor team and stop me every few steps for enquiries, so I’d rather take the quickest route to the staff elevators.

The ground floor always annoys me as it’s where most of the festivities happen. ‘Santaland’—an area that provides the whole Christmas experience for adults and kids alike—currently covers three quarters of the ground floor. There’s the winter wonderland walk with Santa’s stage, the interactive nativity exhibition with real animals and actors playing Mary and Joseph, and there’s the huge fake Christmas tree in the atrium that reaches all the way up to the third floor. The VM team have sprayed it with something pine scented that’s so synthetic it’s making me nauseous. Each booth representing a brand, or a range of products, has its own little twist on Christmas and with all of them competing under one roof, it’s culminating into an insane mix of decorations, lights, glitter, sounds and smells that clash like thunder. Our customers love it though, and Bergman’s has been awarded Best Visual Merchandiser three years in a row.

I’m not a big fan of Christmas and working here right now is giving me Christmas overload. The carols that are constantly on repeat, the artificial smells that are way too strong to be pleasant, and the annoyingly chirpy ‘Merry Christmas’ messages and enquiries from colleagues each time I pass them. ‘What are you doing over Christmas?’, ‘How’s your tree looking?’, ‘Big family gathering?’

The excitement they display is beyond me. My family consists of my mother and me, and neither of us cares. We don’t have the best Christmas memories and my mom was never able to afford decorations or presents when I was younger. She even used to take me to work with her at the diner on Christmas Eve, as she was unable to find a babysitter over the holidays. I didn’t mind back then as I was quite happy keeping myself busy with a coloring book and a hot chocolate, but it did sting sometimes when friends from school told me about how their parents had spoilt them with lavish gifts when we were back at school. Now, looking around and seeing what Christmas has become, I despise it even more. It’s a commercial circus and everyone falls for it like a fool.

Quickening my pace, I keep my eyes fixed on the elevators ahead of me as I pass Santa again. Thankfully, he’s got a toddler on each knee and is too busy to notice me this time. I hear both the children and the parents surrounding him burst out in laughter and find it hard to imagine that he’s actually funny. Perhaps he’s not that bad at his job, but I’d still rather see him go. I’ve worked here three years now and the Santa we had before was a lovely old man, but I guess he’s retired now.

“Lucy, wait!” I smile when my colleague and friend Bridget quickly slips into the elevator with me before the doors close. “Don’t you just love Christmas?” she asks, holding up a huge cinnamon cookie wedged between a napkin. “Free cookies and lots of happy people.” Pressing the button for the sixth floor where the staff break room, the mail room and our gift-wrapping room are situated, she takes a bite and holds it out for me. When I decline, she laughs and shakes her head. “Never mind. I know how you feel about Christmas.”

“Sorry. Just not hungry,” I say, not wanting to come across as a miserable Christmas grinch. Bridget never complains about her job. She’s one of those super optimistic people with a wonderful work ethic and sometimes I wish I could be more like her. We’re polar opposites, but we got along from the first day I started here, and she makes me laugh when I’m going through stressful times. In the looks department, we couldn’t be more different either. I’m dressed in a pencil skirt, a white blouse and high heels that make up for my height. My black shoulder-length hair is immaculately styled and my ever-present red lipstick reapplied hourly. Bridget is dressed in black slacks, the same white blouse Bergman’s provides, and comfortable black flats. Her dark curls are sitting on top of her head in a messy jumble and she rarely shows off her shapely hourglass figure I’m so envious of.  Even though eating outside the break room is against the store’s policy, she somehow manages to snack all day long without anyone noticing, and she’s constantly on her phone too.

The elevator ride always seems to take forever but there’s something soothing about the silence in here. The ground floor is for jewelry, cosmetics, and Santaland, the first floor is womenswear, the second menswear, the third childrenswear and toys, the fourth interior, the fifth electronics and besides the various staff areas the sixth floor also houses an assortment of restaurants and a small ‘adult’ section.

“Anything saucy?” I ask when I see her grin while scrolling through her messages.

“Yeah. This guy Jack sent me an interesting picture. Wanna see?”

I laugh and raise a brow at her. “Gross no. Unless Jack is short for Jackie, I’m good.” Bridget’s divorce got finalized six months ago, and she’s been hooked on dating apps ever since. “Are you going to meet up with him?”

“Maybe. There’s someone else I like more, but I’m leaving him hanging in case I get a better offer. It’s almost Christmas, so it’s not like we’ll be meeting up until January.” She changes the subject as the elevator stops on the third floor and another staff member steps inside. “Anyway, I know it’s temporary as you just want to earn some extra cash, but how are you finding your first full-time week?”

“It’s actually harder than I thought,” I say. “Tiring more than anything. I don’t know how you do this day in, day out. And especially right now… Fake enthusiasm, the carols and so much sparkle that my eyes hurt.” I rub them demonstratively. “And then there’s Santa downstairs. He’s been undressing me with his eyes each time I walk past and I’m thinking of taking it to HR. He even winked at me the other day. That’s not okay, right?”

“Santa?” Bridget stares at me, open-mouthed.

“Yeah.” I return her stare. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

She laughs as we step out onto the sixth floor. “Santa’s not a man. Santa Claudia as I’m calling her this year is actually a woman.” Reaching the black door that says, ‘staff only’, she swipes her pass and lets us into the small gift-wrapping room that we share with the team of personal shoppers, then switches on the kettle.

“What?” I put the watch aside because wrapping it can wait until we’ve finished this intriguing conversation. Taking a striped candy cane out of the large bowl next to the kettle, I start picking at the wrap while perching on the edge of the table. “You’re messing with me, right?”

“No, I’m not; I saw her in the dressing room this morning.” Bridget adds tea bags to two mugs and taps her fingers impatiently while she waits for the water to boil. “If you came in early and got changed here like you’re supposed to do instead of crossing town in your uniform, you would have seen her too. You know what? Come to think of it, she did look a little…”

“A little what?”

“A little gay?” Bridget chuckles and winks at me while she pours the water and hands me a mug. “It was her energy, I suppose. Not sure how to explain it, but I felt this vibe coming off her.” She quietly studies me to gauge my reaction. “So, the fact that she’s checking you out might not be a bad thing.”

“Even if she’s a woman, that doesn’t mean she can behave like that,” I say, pretending to be unaffected by this new information. Truth is though, whether it be wrong or right, knowing Santa is a woman changes everything. It’s not very often that women flirt with me as they just assume that I’m straight, and I suddenly feel oddly flattered.

“No, I suppose not.” Bridget dips the rest of her cookie in her tea and leans over the table. “Well, if you want my advice, just tell her that you’re not interested. If she doesn’t stop, then take it to HR.”

Chapter 2

Hearing a whistle behind me as I cross the ground floor, I turn around. My mouth falls open when I realize it’s Santa, who’s tidying her ‘workspace’ after her shift.

Santa pulls down her beard to give me a crooked smile while she bends down to pick up a piece of red wrapping paper. The department store gives out small presents and candy to the kids and despite the cleaning team of elves who sweep the floors three times a day, there’s still wrapping paper and pieces of ribbon everywhere. Now that Bergman’s is closed and the kids are gone, Santa’s less subtle with her flirtations and she stares me up and down like I’m dinner.

I walk up to her, pretending to be offended, but I can’t help but smile back when our eyes meet. Hers are very, very blue. “Are you flirting with me, Santa?”

“Maybe.” Santa’s eyes pull into narrow slits and although her beard has snapped back into place, I know there’s an amused expression behind it. “Are you trying to get my attention…” Her big, fake belly bounces as she jumps off the stage and her eyes lower to the name badge on my chest. “Lucy?”

I let out an exasperated gasp and stare at her. “I’m most certainly not.”

“Then why did you just walk past me three times? In that sexy pencil skirt.”

“It’s my work uniform.” I roll my eyes. “I’m sure you’ve noticed all the women here wear it.”

Santa inches closer and lowers her voice. “Not true. Most of the women wear slacks.” She lowers her gaze, resting her eyes on my cleavage. “And even if they do wear a skirt, they certainly don’t wear it like you. Not with killer heels and a white blouse that’s buttoned down just enough to show the edge of a black lace bra.” She points to my legs. “And not with sheer pantyhose. Or are they thigh high stockings? I have a thing for stockings.”

My slight annoyance is replaced by a blush, and I hope the lights from the Christmas tree next to her stage work in my favor. I should be offended by her objectifying me like this but instead, it sends a twitch between my legs. The fact that she’s standing so close doesn’t help either; I can feel her breath on my face and her voice sounds deliciously intimate.

Maybe this whole Christmas spectacle isn’t going to be so bad after all if I have some entertainment in the form of flirtation to look forward to. I’ve seen her smile now; it’s dazzling, and her piercing eyes have captured my curiosity. Ignoring her last question, I shake my head and do my best to paint on a more serious expression. “Do you flirt with all the women who walk past you?”

Santa looks around to make sure no one is listening, and then turns back to me, her eyes burning into mine. “Only with the ones I’d like to fuck.”

“What?” My eyebrows shoot up and I bring a hand to my mouth. I’m a little outraged, my body is doing its own thing and I feel hot and flustered. Being a law student, conflict brews inside me. This is so wrong, yet I seem to like what’s happening here. Subconsciously I rake a hand through my dark hair and wonder if my eyeliner is still in place.

Santa simply shrugs. “You heard me.” Her confidence is through the roof, and I can’t help but laugh because she’s just too much.

“How come no one has reported you to HR yet?”

“You’re the only one I’ve flirted with so far.”

Her flattery is working and although I’m pretty sure she’s lying, I still like her answer. “How do you know I won’t report you?”

“I’m hoping you won’t.” Santa pauses. “I’m hoping you’ll just tell me to back off if I’m overstepping. Tell me, and I’ll leave you alone. Do you want me to stop?”

I decide not to answer her question as I’m not ready to admit how much I’m loving the attention. “How do you even know I’m into women?”

“Trust me, I know. I’ve seen you looking at me.”

“Have you now?” My voice is dripping with sarcasm but truthfully, she’s right. Ever since Bridget told me she was a woman I’ve been on the ground floor an awful lot. Remembering I’m supposed to finish my order, and that there are another six lists for me to complete before midnight, I hold up the box I’m carrying. “Well, I’m just here because I forgot to bring this; It needs adding to a jewelry order. I’m sorry to disappoint you but I wasn’t walking past to get your attention.”

“Hmm…” Santa nods slowly as she finger-combs her long white beard, never taking her eyes off me. “Do you work in the jewelry department?”

“No. I’m a personal shopper. Just getting the Christmas madness out of the way before we close next week.” I study her with an amused smile, not quite ready to leave just yet. Her straightforwardness is setting me on fire, and I don’t even know what she looks like. “But my guess is you’ll be working over Christmas.”

“True. I am Santa after all. I’ll be here until next week, and then I’ll be spreading the Christmas joy in private New York households.” She points to my package. “With bags full of the goodies you’re preparing.”

“Is that how it works? I didn’t know.”

“Yeah. Wealthy people pay good money to escape the Christmas stress. They put in their order, you collect the presents, wrap them up beautifully and personalize them, then someone prepares the Santa bags, and if they pay the extra thousand dollars, Santa personally drops them off on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.” She pats her chest. “With Santa being me and a dozen other Bergman’s Santas.”

I tilt my head and study her. “Forgive me for saying this, but I’m actually surprised Bergman’s gave you the gig; you’re not the most convincing Santa I’ve ever seen.”

Now it’s Santa’s turn to gasp, and she pulls down her beard again, giving me sight of luscious lips and a neat row of very white teeth. “Are you saying I suck at being Santa?”

I laugh and shake my head in amusement. “Come on; you have to admit that your beard and your glasses aren’t the best props and despite the subtle face paint, you still look too young. I just think that they could have easily found someone a little more convincing. Plus, you’re a woman.” Holding up a hand, I add: “Truthfully, I didn’t register the fact that you’re a woman at first, but surely the kids must notice when they sit on your lap and hear your voice.”

“You mean this voice?” she says, putting on a low and raspy voice that sends a chill down my spine. She climbs back on stage and sits down on her sleigh, her arms resting on the ornate, red velvet covered armrests. When she widens her legs, hunches her back and leans forward, her whole demeanor changes and I must admit that she’s actually very good. “It may be my first time as Santa and I might have to get some better glue for my beard as toddlers keep pulling at it, but believe me; the kids love me and they totally fall for it,” she continues in her Santa voice, drawing the words out slowly like an old man would.

I’m silent for a beat, admittedly impressed by her performance. “Okay, you sound pretty convincing.”

“Thank you.” Santa’s gaze drops to my legs again, no doubt still wondering about my stockings, before she turns her attention to the package I now have clutched against my chest. “So, what have you got in that little box, Lucy? Want to come sit on Santa’s lap and share?” 

My manager calls my name from the bauble section, and I straighten myself and clear my throat, letting Santa know our conversation is over. Fuck. Her request has aroused me and now all I can think of is sitting on her lap.

“No, I have work to do.” Curious to find out what she looks like without her Santa disguise, I’m contemplating going up to the dressing room for a while, assuming she’ll be there to get changed, but I really don’t have time. “What’s your name?”

“Zelda.”

“Oh.” I kind of expected her to stay in her Santa role and I’m pleasantly surprised that she didn’t. “I like it.” Giving my manager a wave to let her know I’m coming, I add: “It was interesting to meet you, Zelda. I’ll see you around.”

Chapter 3

It’s two a.m. by the time I’m in bed. Even naked on top of the covers, I’m warm and I wonder if I turned the heating up too high. After a quick shower and a pack of instant noodles, I still feel shaky and I realize it’s not from hunger or tiredness.

Santa—or Zelda—has my mind spinning with fantasies and I know I won’t be able to sleep unless I can find a way to relax. Replaying our conversation and remembering her smile, an intense flash of arousal shoots to my pussy, making my body ache with need.

‘Only with women I want to fuck.’ Jesus, could she have been any more direct? It’s been a while since I was so sexually drawn to someone. Sure, I’ve had the occasional fling here and there, but I don’t remember the last time I craved someone that specifically or fantasized about sex. I’ve only talked to her once but clearly that was enough for her to capture my undivided attention. God, I’m a sucker. One day I’m considering reporting her and the next, I’m having erotic daydreams about her.

Confused and conflicted, I let out a deep sigh as I glance at the pile of draft application letters for legal internships on the desk opposite the bed. I need to make sure they’re absolutely perfect before I post them in January, and I planned on editing at least one of them tonight but I’m too tired to move. I asked for overtime in my winter break so I’d have a small financial buffer for next year, when I’ll be doing internships and may have to cut down my hours at Bergman’s. Once I graduate and have my J.D, I’ll hopefully find a job as a paralegal while I focus on my bar exam, and then I can finally quit working as a personal shopper.

Studying is time-consuming and women have been the last thing on my mind for the past three years. Bridget keeps telling me that I should be dating at twenty-seven, but I just don’t know where to find the time and anyway, I’m never interested in taking it beyond the first night.

Unlike most people in my class, I don’t come from a wealthy family, and although I have a scholarship, I still have to work on the side to pay for the rent on my dorm room and to cover my living costs. Lucky for me, my lovely but noisy roommate Shelley is with her parents over the Christmas break, and the silence is blissful without her laughing out loud while she watches Netflix in bed and crunches her way through at least three packets of potato chips a night.

Between studying and my part-time job, there’s little time left for fun and I’m okay with that. Shelley and Bridget keep me entertained when I need it, and with only one year left before I graduate, I don’t want to waste money I don’t have. I’ll start having fun once I receive my first proper paycheck and I’m already dreaming about splashing out on some expensive lingerie before meeting co-workers for cocktails downtown. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am and I usually won’t allow myself to get distracted, but Zelda is distracting beyond belief and I’m loving it.

I can’t even say it’s a physical thing as I’ve only seen her in her Santa disguise. No, the attraction is different with her. It’s her energy and her confidence that is drawing me in. Her boldness and playfulness have me curious, and there’s so much I want to know. Why is she working as Santa? What’s her background? Her name is interesting, and I can’t imagine traditional parents naming their child Zelda. But most importantly—what does she look like? All I know is that she has an amazing smile, intense blue eyes, and that she’s into women, of course. Somehow, she knew I was, too.

Most people assume I’m straight, as I look very feminine. My hair is always immaculately styled and my signature feline black eyeliner and red lipstick never out of place. I’ve been told many times my near-black eyes are my selling point, which is why I accentuate them. With a beautiful Venezuelan mother and from what I’ve heard, a very average looking American father, I’m lucky to have my mother’s exotic looks.

Even when I’m not at Bergman’s, I tend to wear the same type of clothes I wear at work; pencil skirts, white blouses and black heels. Keeping it simple and timeless is key as I don’t have the budget to stay on top of fashion, but I need to look presentable in class. I guess you could say I look fairly conservative, although some—like Zelda—may argue that it’s rather sexy. My thigh high stockings—Zelda was right about them—are my only small form of rebellion. What I wear under my clothes is a treat to myself, my little secret, which is why I never get dressed at work. The black, lace bodice that I wore today is extremely low-cut at the front and with the matching garter belt, my lingerie is not meant for my colleagues to see.

A shiver runs through me as I imagine Zelda pulling me onto her lap and finding what’s underneath my skirt as she hikes it up with her white-gloved hands. Is she into lingerie? I’d be surprised if she wasn’t. With another week to go before Bergman’s closes for Christmas, it’s likely that we’ll see each other a lot in passing, and I might even get the opportunity to talk to her again. I might even get the chance to sit on her lap… That last thought drives me crazy and unable to stand the throbbing in my pussy any longer, I blindly reach for the vibrator on my nightstand, turn it on to the highest setting, and slide it between my legs. With Shelley gone, I’ve been using it every night, grateful for the privacy I’m so rarely blessed with. A groan escapes me as the device hits my clit, and I slowly roll my hips as I get used to the intense vibrations that will soon soothe my aching need. As I slide it up and down between my folds, covering my pussy in my own juices, my thoughts are with Zelda. I think of kissing her and it only takes me seconds to balance on the edge of an orgasm. Fuck. Why am I so into her? Removing the vibrator, I lie very still, my breathing quick and heavy as I stare up at the ceiling. Withholding is hard, but I know it will make my orgasm way more intense if I do.

After a minute or so, I slowly bring the vibrator back down and try to concentrate on the memory of Zelda’s lips that flashed a smile at me when she pulled down her beard. God, what I wouldn’t give to have those lips between my legs right now. This toy is great, but nothing compares to the real thing. I moan as my climax builds, and I lift my hips with a quick intake of breath. Shaking wildly, I let the warm waves of ecstasy wash over me while I murmur a curse. As expected, it’s intense and the throbbing in my clit almost hurts before it slowly starts to subside, bringing me back to reality. I breathe in deeply and run a hand over my swollen pussy, drawing out the last aftershocks until I finally fall asleep.

Curious to find out what will happen between Lucy and Santa?

‘Santa’s Favorite’ is now available for pre-order!