A Killer Opening

First (unedited) Chapters

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CHAPTER ONE

 

It was the first Wednesday of September; three hundred and sixty-two days after the day that changed Amelia’s life.

On that day, Alfred Boustred, the family’s ancient, snow-capped solicitor, had accompanied Amelia, her mother Maud, and Oliver Kent in their limousine to a funeral service, then on to a well-attended wake.

Alfred had left the wake promptly to prepare for the Will reading, leaving Amelia, Maud and Oliver to round up the stragglers, then silently trudge the half a mile from Berkeley Square to the offices of Boustred & Co in Grosvenor Square.

On arrival, a sour-faced reed of a secretary had ushered them into Alfred’s office, where Amelia had taken her place on one of three unforgiving mahogany visitor chairs that stood facing a tatty, old, leather-topped desk, behind which Alfred had begun reading his late client’s Last Will and Testament. He read it aloud, with surprising vigour and impressive linguistic acrobatics.

But this was not just any Will.

This was the Will of Sebastian Ferdinand Dunnicliffe Ferver, Amelia’s Uncle Seb; a man who had been her rock and her last familial connection to her father, Maynard Ferver.

No more than ten minutes into the reading, as she shifted around on the frightful mahogany chair, trying fruitlessly to find a comfortable position, Amelia had learned that she had inherited an island, a townhouse in Berkeley Square, and a yacht named As You Like It, which was moored somewhere on the French Riviera. Oliver, who was sitting to her left, had burst instantly into gales of spite-filled laughter while Maud, who was seated to her right, seethed, speechless with rage.

The townhouse was lovely, all Chinese rugs and Louise XIV furniture, and it was located in Amelia’s favourite part of town. The yacht – well, you might say that in her almost thirty years on this blue planet, Amelia had yet to locate her sea-legs – but the island…

Her heart flipped like a kid on a trampoline while her scalp tingled at the very thought of El Pedrusco.

Uncle Seb’s island, you see, was not one of the hundreds of tiny Hebridean islands from which their ancestors had migrated south in a desperate bid to escape the impossibly long winters, and days so short that if you blinked you might miss them. The way Uncle Seb had described them to a ten-year-old Amelia had her imagining life inside an old black woollen sock.

No, Sebastian’s island, though admittedly insignificant when compared to its more famous neighbours – it was a mere three kilometres long by two kilometres wide at its broadest point – was perfect. A perfect, stunningly beautiful, and reassuringly uninhabited – except for a handful of eccentric artists, two dozen goats, and an occasional migrating flamingo – jewel in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea.

Two minutes after this welcome revelation, came an equal and opposite unwelcome one. There were to be three conditions on her bequest, and on hearing what they were, her scalp tingle became a shiver of trepidation.

‘Impossible!’ Maud cried. ‘A dangerous, foolhardy task, set by a delinquent, with no thought for the consequences!’

Amelia ignored her mother’s histrionics. Maud would see danger in a bowl of soup. Instead, Amelia sat, hands laid flat against her cheeks, wondering.

If she were to accept the challenge it would be the greatest risk she had taken in her life. She had learned at her mother’s knee to run from the merest whiff of risk. She had never once gambled, not even on the Grand National, a race on which even the most puritanical of the nation had a little flutter. But not Amelia, for if she was renowned for anything, it was caution; a painful, obsessive, zest for caution.

Her eyes had stung with tears. She had been tossed a much-needed lifeline, a reprieve from a miserable month in which her carefully constructed world had crumbled around her. And now, with uncharacteristic cruelty, that lifeline had been snatched away, as if her uncle, the one man she had trusted above all others, had sneaked up behind her and whipped the blue-grey, hand-woven, Chinese rug in the hallway of his Berkeley Square townhouse out from under her feet.

She knew why he had done it. Hadn’t he been nagging her to ‘live a little,’ almost as often as her mother had beseeched her to choose safety over adventure? She had known then, just as she knew now, that he was right to remind her that behind every door was not a serial killer, and more to the point, on every street corner was not a kidnapper. ‘Loosen your grip on life!’ he had told her, ‘Lest you throttle the best years out of it.’

Tears balanced on her lashes, not quite daring to spill over. Never in a million years would she have believed her wonderful rock of an uncle would force her hand in this way. But perhaps, she thought, when he wrote that Will, he was unaware of her current torment.

‘When was it written?’ she’d whispered through sandpaper when Alfred eventually finished speaking. Though barely audible, her words exploded bomb-like into the silent office. Maud’s face convulsed, then slackened. Oliver froze, stiff with guilt.

‘I attended him in his hospital room two weeks ago. He had recently returned to London to put his affairs in order,’ Mr Boustred replied, unbothered, or perhaps unaware of the tension building across his desk’s scarred surface.  ‘It seems he knew death was near.’

Oliver shifted, preparing to explain, but it was all too much for Amelia. She scraped back her chair, rising to her feet, anger pouring off her even as her tears still hovered, un-spilled on her lashes. But beneath the anger she could feel an iceberg approaching, bringing with it a chilling sense of betrayal. ‘You were here for two weeks and didn’t contact me?’ she asked. ‘Tell me you didn’t know what hell I was going through, at least give me that!’ she begged. ‘I wrote on the third of August and thought that perhaps – with his fanatical aversion to technology, and the island’s sporadic postal service – my letter hadn’t reached him before it was too late…for why else wouldn’t he come?’

‘He did come, you wretched child. He came home for you!’ Oliver snapped, not bothering to deny her accusation. ‘He came home to this cold, grimy, cacophony of negativity just to make sure you would get the life you needed, not the safe little nothing of a life you had chosen. It is a priceless gift,’ he continued, his voice vibrating with indignation. ‘Even if you can’t see that now.’

‘What good is this gift, as you call it? I have a year. A year in which I will either try and fail to best his ridiculous, pointless, challenge; a challenge that even the great Sebastian Ferver did not manage to achieve in his whole life. Or I will not try. Either way, when the year is done, I will have nothing…not even him…’ Amelia’s voice broke on the last word.

Oliver’s body jerked, as if from a blow. Not that she cared.

She had wiped his usual sneer of superiority right off his face, and she was glad. His face flushed red beneath its bronzed surface; he seemed ready to explode. Amelia had had enough of this day, enough of this office and enough of Oliver Kent, so instead of waiting for whatever tirade he was about to disgorge, she turned towards the doorway and moved toward it.

Amelia’s father, Maynard Ferver, had disappeared in deepest, darkest Africa when she was eight years old. A hysterical Maud had fallen into a vat of scotch to drown her sorrows, only deigning to leave her bed for the gala openings of her plays. Everything else – food, work, entertainment…everything – took place in her suite of rooms on the fourth floor of their once stunning, now dilapidated, old Georgian townhouse in Mayfair.

The drip, drip of years of neurotic negativity from a permanently drunk Maud had convinced her young daughter of two truths. First, that one should never take any risks, never go exploring, never truly live, lest something irreversible happen; and second, that Maud’s happiness, what little she allowed herself, was reliant on Amelia’s ongoing servitude.

From the age of eight, Amelia had been nursemaid, cook, housekeeper, receptionist, and a whole lot more to Maud’s Mrs Rochester. On her darkest days, Amelia considered meting out Mrs Rochester’s fate on her mother, but most of the time she dutifully dedicated herself to her role of caretaker.

She was miserable. Only school holidays on her uncle’s private island, with her two best friends Daisy and Leo, had soothed her ruptured soul.

And then came the debacle of Daisy’s kidnapping. Maud had deteriorated further, convincing herself that either she or Amelia would be next. Amelia had been sixteen by then, and so it was natural that she should add typist, personal assistant and wardrobe mistress to her Maud-focused repertoire. All to keep a roof over their heads and to babysit an increasingly unstable Maud.

And all the while she was sabotaging me behind my back, Amelia reminded herself, as if she could forget.

As she crossed the room, she had no idea where she was headed, not then. But by the time she reached the home some hours later, a home she had shared with Maud ever since she was a baby, she knew.

Amelia Ferver was going to grasp this challenge with both hands because she knew if she did not, her life would be exactly what Oliver had accused her of having already – a life unlived – and even Amelia, with her head firmly buried in the sand, knew that that was absolutely the worst kind of life anyone could have.

CHAPTER TWO

Eleven months and twenty-seven days later, Amelia woke beneath white cotton sheets, with the Mediterranean sun pouring in through her powder-blue shuttered windows in her very own newly constructed boutique hotel.

Soon after she woke, her dogs, Tulip and Monty, rose from their beds on the floor, stretched luxuriantly, then clambered up onto her bed to join her. Next to arrive was Oliver who, apparently sensing her D-Day jitters from way down the hall, had deposited her favourite breakfast out on her balcony’s wrought iron table, thankfully without uttering a word. She ate it, staring unseeingly out over the clifftops and the aquamarine sea to the west, and then on to her very own almost-mountain, La Colina Alta, to the north.

After downing two cups of tea and devouring three slices of marmalade laden toast, she descended the staircase, sliding her hand down the smooth surface of the olive wood bannister sitting atop a stained-glass balustrade down from the galleried landing and into the grand entrance hall below.

This morning, Amelia did not notice how the light reflected the blues, greens and aquamarine of the coloured glass up into the cathedral ceiling, nor did she notice how the vein that ran like waves through the expansive marble floor exactly matched the shade of the polished olive-wood stair rail.

She did not notice any of the beauty of her hotel or the island beyond its walls because she had a problem. A problem that the next few days would either kill or cure. As she descended into the marvellously grand but still warmly welcoming entrance hall, Amelia had her fingers firmly crossed.

Eleven months and twenty-seven days breaks down to eight thousand six hundred and eighty-five hours, or five hundred and twenty-one thousand, one hundred seconds.

Amelia had always loved numbers; they were predictable. Words were predictable too, of course, solid, sometimes even poetic, but they could be ambiguous, and today of all days, Amelia needed certainty over beauty, safety over the poetic. Which was why, in her anxiety, Amelia was doing what always did when she was nervous. She was counting.

Taking a deep breath that did nothing to abate the ever-present twisting sensation in her chest, Amelia – Lia to only her closest friends – headed to the sanctuary of her office.

 

 

***

‘Is Daisy’s room ready? Have all the changes she requested been made?’ Amelia asked Oliver, the middle-aged man with sun-bronzed skin, who was draped like a sunbathing lizard across one of the comfortable visitors’ chairs in front of her desk.

Oliver and Amelia had been working all morning and now, with the yacht carrying the first of her guests due at any moment, they were going over the final details for the two hundred and seventy-third time.

Only the keenest of observers would have caught the slight tremor in Amelia’s voice. Throughout the morning, trepidation had warred with excitement on this day which was sure to be high on drama, not least from her now-estranged mother, Maud. But it is a necessary evil if I am to win the prize.

Today was the culmination of twelve months’ worth of blood, sweat and tears. It was D-Day if you will; and it looked like the blood sweat and tears, she and her Man Friday, Oliver, had shed, might pull off the miracle they had prayed for.

All the same, Amelia couldn’t shake the heart-pounding sense of foreboding which had dumped a boulder in the pit of her stomach; a boulder she hadn’t felt since the morning she had walked out of Alfred Boustred’s office, instinctively accepting her uncle’s challenge to build a ‘healing hotel’ on El Pedrusco, his jewel of an island in the Mediterranean.

Amelia took a moment to study the man sprawled in the chair in front of her. He was still handsome for his age, which simple mathematics told her was not the fifty-something he looked. His raven dark hair, aquiline nose and perpetual sneer was somehow reminiscent of those grainy black and white photographs she had seen of ‘Lucky’ Lucan, the English Earl who had murdered the nanny and battered his wife with an iron pipe before disappearing in a puff of smoke.

Today, Oliver was dressed in the brand-new hotel uniform of crisp white shorts and a daffodil-yellow polo shirt. His whisky eyes were warm, though they seldom stayed that way for long. Oliver was a military man, just like her uncle, though he had been an officer in the Coldstream Guards, while Sebastian Ferver had been career navy.

The two men had met at the Victory Services Club, a stone’s throw from Hyde Park, and had been firm friends from that first meeting until the day of her uncle’s death. Amelia was willing to bet they had been more than friends, but she would never ask and risk embarrassing a man she had known for most of her life – a man who had, with workmanlike efficiency,

swabbed her childhood cuts and grazed knees. In any case, Amelia was sure, out of love and respect for her uncle, Oliver would be taking that particular secret to his grave.

Oliver had been at Sebastian Ferver’s side for more than twenty-five years. Three days shy of year earlier he had walked solemn and dignified beside his friend’s coffin as it wended its way through Highgate Cemetery to the Ferver family plot. He had been the only person left standing in the pouring rain at Amelia’s side –Maud and Alfred had sheltered in the limousine – beside the deep hole it had been lowered into long after the other mourners had been ferried back to his townhouse for what Oliver had called, ‘tea and wake’.

That day and those blasted conditions! Amelia thought, pulling one of the orchids from the vase on her desk and fiddling with its off-white petals.

Everything depended on her old school friend, now Hollywood’s darling, being present at the grand opening. Oliver knew that, though at that moment, slouched low in his chair, he did not appear to be taking the upcoming opening quite as seriously as she.

‘Everything has been arranged in accordance with her agent’s detailed instructions,’ Oliver answered, in his haughtiest tone, which wasn’t as haughty as he thought. Not if you had lived a lifetime as Maud Lavender’s daughter.

‘Are you sure?’ Amelia asked again, her voice brittle with desperation, because she was desperate. If this opening didn’t go according to plan, she would lose everything they had both worked so hard to build. 

‘I have allocated her the Palm Suite,’ Oliver relented. ‘It is the largest room we have, with triple aspect views of the sea, the mountain, the artists’ community and the lighthouse beyond. The bed has been shifted so that she can easily reach the light switch from its confines. A torch, candles and a book of matches have been placed on the nightstand, and Ms. Forrester’s desperate need for Fort Knox security, on an island with more goats than people, has been assuaged by the installation of three separate locks on the suite’s entrance door as well as on each of the windows, not least the miniature bathroom window, that even a toddler couldn’t squeeze itself through should it feel so inclined.

‘I am sure our preparations will be more than satisfactory to meet the demands of Hollywood’s favourite princess.’ Oliver could not have sounded more like Uncle Seb at that moment, and Amelia’s chest tightened in grief. He was being facetious, no one with ears could have missed that fact. He wasn’t supposed to use it with her; they had a deal. But she would allow it, just this once, because it was her two hundred and seventy third asking of that question.

‘And Maud’s room?’ she dared to ask, the weight of her mother’s imminent arrival for the pre-opening press junket heavy in her gut, because Maud Lavender was not only famous for the exquisitely crafted plots of her West End and Broadway productions, but also for her alcohol drenched, sometimes sharp-wittedly hilarious, always devastatingly acid, commentary on life. Maud hated everything almost as much as she feared everything, and she did not hold back in expressing that hatred.

Amelia would gladly have foregone the dubious pleasure of her mother’s presence at the gala if the blasted woman hadn’t been her only access to Herb Hogan, the most influential – and definitely the sleeziest – member of the entertainment industry press pack. And, of course, Maud wouldn’t think of inviting him without receiving her very own engraved invitation.

‘I have checked Ms. Lavender’s room myself. She will have no genuine complaints on her arrival.’ They both knew her mother would find plenty to complain about in the Dorchester, so there was little hope of Amelia’s little island hotel passing muster.

For Amelia, Uncle Seb’s bequest and subsequent rug-pulling challenge couldn’t have come at a better – or worse, depending on your perspective – time. Of course, she would have preferred the dear old fool to have stayed alive, so he could comfort her when her mother had been revealed to be more of a monster than even Amelia had believed her to be. But failing that, the problem he had set had distracted her from Maud and the double-whammy of heartache and heartburn that came from being her daughter.

‘The musical chairs have been accomplished. Stop worrying!’ Oliver growled. ‘Pau is safe in his lighthouse and Bill has been moved to one of the bungalows to make room for the hoards arriving for the weekend. Sawubona and Tantriana will be in the suite next to you. Price Whitney will have the blue suite next to Daisy and Leo will have the yellow suite on her other side. Wendy will have the second room in your mother’s suite, so she can be at your mother’s beck and call twenty-four hours a day, and the slimeball, Herb Hogan, has requested a bungalow.’

‘He wouldn’t prefer a suite in the main building?’ Amelia asked, surprised. The bungalows were lovely with their own little gardens and terraces, but they weren’t particularly close to the amenities.

‘No, apparently the king of the paparazzi is not a people person,’ Oliver said, his tone dry, though his lips were twitching. Then magically, Amelia felt a deep laughter bubble up from deep in her chest, a laugh so silly and instinctive that the boulder in her stomach melted.

The moment of humour passed, as it always did with grumpy old Oliver, and Amelia’s jitters roared back with a vengeance. The stakes were high. The slightest hitch and she would lose the one stable thing she had left in the world. El Pedrusco, the island her Uncle Seb had left to her in his Will.

‘Everything will be okay, you know,’ Oliver said, his angular face gentling.

‘It really does have to be, you know. For both our sakes,’ Amelia grumbled, shaking her head, her chestnut bob flowing like water as she did.

According to the ancient, yet apparently not yet senile, solicitor Alfred, the terms of Uncle Seb’s Will were legally airtight even if they did offer up the biggest challenge of Amelia’s life.

It had all been right there in black and white. In order to inherit everything, bar the life interests in their cottages he had left to each member of the island’s artists’ community, and a bequest to Oliver that he would only receive on the same conditions as her own, Amelia must in the space of one short year, fulfil her uncle’s lifelong dream.

By the first anniversary of his death, she must have built a thirty-room ‘healing hotel’ on the island, she must mark the occasion with an opening gala befitting the perfection that was El Pedrusco. And lastly, both of her long lost, but once dearest childhood friends, Daisy Forrester and Leopold (Leo) Alcott, must be present at the gala opening.

On the day of the funeral, two warring sets of words echoing in her mind, Amelia had made a deal with the Universe. She would do something she had not done since she had climbed the bent old olive tree halfway up the path to the summit of La Colina Alta; she would take a risk in honour of her uncle. If she succeeded, she would be a very wealthy and happy, if utterly exhausted, woman. If she did not, she would surrender to her mother’s way of thinking, slink back to London and return to the safe, unfulfilling, world of Maud Lavender.

That was Amelia’s motivation for going over their plans for the two hundred and seventy third time. Oliver’s incentive in this grand project of theirs was that her success would be his success. Oh, he certainly wanted to honour his oldest friend’s final wishes, but Sebastian Ferver had dangled a financial carrot in front of him too.

If Amelia succeeded, there was a million pounds sitting in a bank with his name written on it. Unsurprisingly, that single-minded purpose had helped to drive them further than Amelia had thought possible.

‘Ahem.’ Oliver’s tetchy throat clearing interrupted Amelia’s thoughts. ‘If you’re planning on besting darling Seb’s inexplicably complicated and tiresome challenge, you better head for the—’ His sarcasm-laden diatribe was interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps.

Oliver did not utter another word, just scowled and glared at Amelia. In that moment, Oliver reminded her of her mother Maud. He was like a dominant dog, angry and snarling in the face of an approaching intruder. The type of dog you must never be off guard around; must never back down or he’d pounce and you would end up getting your throat ripped out.

Which was why Amelia’s gaze was steady, quietly assertive, as it met his and held. And all the while, the footsteps continued their determined, ominous, approach.