Authors: Tara Bond
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To my readers
Eight years ago
“Ah, Charlotte, there you are!” My mother's voice boomed out as I walked into the drawing room, the last one to arrive. I froze, automatically straightening my shoulders, as her eyes swept over me, assessing my appearance. She looked elegant in a cream linen suit, and I knew she expected me to try to live up to her high standards.
After a moment, she gave a brief nod of approval, and my body relaxed as I exhaled.
“I like that dress on you. It suits your figure.”
I bit back a smile. It was hardly a surprise that my mum was a fan of the navy coat-dressâafter all, she'd bought it for me that day, commenting in her usual none-too-subtle way that it would probably be nice if I wore it when we went out that evening. To be honest, I'd rather be in jeans and a
T-shirt, but I trusted my mother's choice implicitly. A successful human rights lawyer, she always looked neat and stylish, and I aspired to be just like her. Unfortunately that was pretty much a pipe dream. While her petite frame and poker-straight, glossy dark hair made her seem effortlessly chic, my heavier build and untameable mousey curls meant I was unlikely to ever attain her polish and sophistication.
“William?” She turned to my father, who was sitting on the couch, reading the newspaper. “Tell your youngest how good she looks.”
“I don't need to.” My dad glanced up from his paper and winked at me. He was a neurologist, equally as successful as my mother in his field, but while she was sharp and businesslike, he was softer, cosier, like an academic. “Charlotte always looks beautiful.”
I could always rely on my father for support. He was much more approachable than my motherâless intimidatingly perfect. While he was undoubtedly an attractive man, tall and trim with salt-and-pepper hair, there was just enough hint of a middle-aged paunch to make him seem human.
“Let's have a look at you,” my sister Kate chimed in. She was curled up on one of the armchairs, her long, slender legs tucked beneath her as she texted on her mobile phone. I looked enviously at the simple white dress she was wearing, feeling suddenly over-dressed and chunky in my own dark ensemble. Kate was the lucky one; she took after our mother.
Sometimes it was hard not to feel bitter about that.
My sister finally sent her message and then looked up to smile at me. “Good job, Mouse. You scrubbed up well.”
I cringed at her use of my hated nickname. It didn't take a genius to work out why I'd been branded with itâin my over-achieving family I was the quiet one, the shy girl who lurked in corners. I often felt like the ugly duckling in a family of swans.
“Well, now we're all here, shall we open the bubbles?” As usual my mother took control. “What do you say, darling?”
Sighing, my father folded up his newspaper, and headed over to the sideboard where a bottle of champagne rested in an ice bucket. Tonight was a celebration. Kate had just finished her second year at medical school, and she'd found out this morning that she'd come top of her class in the end-of-year exams. We were going out to a nearby restaurant to celebrateâit was in a country hotel, where we always went to celebrate family occasions. For me, those tended only to be birthdays, never the academic successes that came so easily to my siblings.
The only person missing from the family gathering was my brother, Christopherâor Kit, as we all called him. Like our mother, he'd studied Law at Oxford, and now, having just finished his one-year Legal Practice course, he was taking a well-earned break before he started his training contract at one of the big corporate law firms. Not that I'd
personally have called climbing Mont Blanc much of a “break,” but my brother loved sport and any kind of physical challenge.
My father eased out the champagne cork with a loud pop. Bubbles fizzed over and he quickly picked up a flute to catch the liquid. He poured three glassesâfor him, my mother and Kateâand then turned to me.
“And how about you, Charlotte?” At seventeen, I was still a year too young to drink. “Perhaps a small glass just for a toast.”
“Thank you,” I murmured as he poured out a measure that was a third the size of the others.
“To Kate,” my mother said, and my dad and I echoed the words, as the four of us clinked glasses.
I took a sip of the champagne. It wasn't my first time drinking it, but for whatever reason it hit my throat the wrong way, and I hiccupped. My hand clamped over my mouth as my family turned to look at me.
“Oh, Mouse!” My sister laughed indulgently. “Very elegantâ”
The phone rang, cutting off her words. No one moved to answer it. Kate's friends and admirers all used her mobile, and I didn't really have anyone who'd be calling me.
My father sighed. “Don't trouble yourselves. I'll get it.”
He put his glass down, and headed across the room. As he lifted the receiver, he automatically checked the caller
identification. “International. It must be Kit.
“Hello. Kit, my boyâ” His cheery greeting froze on his lips as the caller began to talk. The smile dropped from my father's face, and his expression grew serious. “Sorryâwhat are you saying?”
A knot began to form in my stomach. Whoever was on the end of the line spoke again, and my father's eyes darted over to where the rest of us stood, waiting, watching. He swallowed, hard, as though trying to clear a lump in his throat. “Just hold on a second.”
He turned from us and disappeared from the room, closing the door behind him. He began to talk again, but we could hear only the muffled sound of him speaking and couldn't make out the words.
Mum, Kate and I all exchanged worried looks. None of us spoke. It was as though we sensed this wasn't the time to speculate on what was going on.
We waited in silence as the minutes ticked by. Finally everything went quiet in the hallway. We watched as the door handle bent and my father walked back into the room. His head was bowed, and he was still clutching the phone in his hand. He looked stunned, as though he'd just been punched and was trying to make sense of what had happened to him.
“William?” My mother was on her feet, her arms wrapped protectively around her body, already anticipating bad news. “What is it? What's going on?”
There was a long silence, when all I could hear was the sound of my own heartbeat filling my ears, and then he finally raised his eyes to her.
“It's Kit.” He spoke slowly, clearly, as though trying to make an effort to enunciate every word. “It seems there was an accident. An avalanche. Kit was buried in the fall. The rescuers managed to dig him out, and they airlifted him to hospital. The doctors did everything they couldÂ .Â .Â . But KitÂ .Â .Â .” His voice broke a little, and then he tried again. “Well, I'm afraid Kit's dead.”
I burrowed farther under my duvet, trying to block out the incessant ringing. I wasn't sure where the shrill sound was coming from, but it was the last thing I needed after the tequila shots I'd downed the previous night. All I could think about right now was the incessant throbbing pain hitting me right between my eyes, beating away like a pulse. I just wanted the noise to stop, so I could fall back to sleep, and hopefully wake up hangover-free in a few hours.
It was only when I heard my flatmate, Lindsay, throw open her bedroom door, and stomp across the hallway, that I finally figured out the source of the noiseâit was our intercom. That was when the pieces fell into place.
, of course, the bane of my existenceâhere to ruin my day.
As Lindsay answered the intercom, I closed my eyes, and willed her to pretend that I wasn't in. She knew how much I hated these occasions, and had been known to lie on my behalf more than once. But it was too much to hope for today, I realised, as I heard her tell him to come up. Lindsay was a good friend, but she didn't like to get up before midday, and I knew she'd hold me responsible for today's early-morning call. This was her revenge.
She didn't bother waiting for him to climb the five flights of stairs up to our top-floor flat. Instead, I heard her leave the door on the latch, and then on the way back to her room, she threw something against my door, to make sure I was awakeâfrom the thud it sounded like a shoe.
“Charlie? Mr. No Fun's here,” she called out. I flinched at the volume. “You might want to make yourself decent. If that's even possibleÂ .Â .Â .”
I heard her bedroom door slam shut, as she headed back to sleep. Lucky her.
As though I didn't have enough problems already, the mattress next to me shifted, and I froze as a warm, hairy leg brushed against my bare skin. I came out from behind the pillow, peeled my crusted eyes open and saw a man lying next to me, naked apart from a sheet pulled over his middle, mercifully preserving his modesty. My alcohol-addled brain couldn't exactly place him right now, but he was an attractive guy, if you liked that rough, rock-band look. His hair
was way too long, his nose and lip were pierced, and both arms were covered in tattoos. He was entirely my type.
I couldn't remember much about last night, but it didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened. I worked behind the bar at a pub in Camden, and he was typical of our clientele. No doubt I'd served him, we'd got talking, and then after my shift we'd headed on somewhere to continue drinking, before one thing led to another. It wasn't the first time something like this had happenedâin fact, it was kind of a weekly event for me. I was just surprised I'd let him stay over. Most of the time, I kicked them out straight after the deed was done. It was the best way to avoid that awkward morning-after moment, where the guy felt obliged to pretend he was going to call, and I felt obliged to pretend I wanted him to.
But I didn't have time to worry about getting rid of my unwanted guest right now. I had far more pressing problems with my other male visitor, whom I'd just heard coming into the flat.
I'd just about managed to sit up and pull on my black kimono dressing-gown when the door to my bedroom door was thrown open by my self-appointed protectorâand gigantic pain in my buttâRichard Davenport.
Even at this time in the morning, Richard was the epitome of a young, successful businessman. Tall and tanned, no doubt from Saturday mornings on the tennis court, he was,
as always, impeccably turned out in chinos and a blue button-down shirt. He never seemed to step out of the house looking anything less than perfect, and today was no exceptionâhis dark hair was short and neat, his strong jaw clean-shaven, and I could smell the fresh scent of his shower gel from where I sat hunched over on the side of the bed, reeking of my own signature aroma of fags and booze.
I'd known Richard for most of my life. He'd gone to the same boarding school as my older brother, Kit, and they'd been best friends since they were eleven. I'd never had much to do with Richard growing up. After all, I was five years younger than him and Kit, and a girlâhe'd barely seemed to notice me. But when I'd moved to London seven years ago, that had all changed. I guess out of some sense of duty to my brother, he'd taken it upon himself to keep an eye on me, which entailed phoning every few weeks to check up on me, and making sure that I attended the obligatory family get-togethers. Which would explain his presence in my flat today.
Of course his interference irritated me no end. At twenty-five years old, it wasn't like I needed a babysitter. I wasn't sure why he couldn't just mind his own business.