A Killer Opening
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 Berkley 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 to 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 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.