Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at Beyond the Books! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring Dark is the Sky by Jessica Chambers. Ordering information follows. If you would like to learn more about Jessica, visit her website at www.jessicachambers.co.uk. Enjoy!
Twelve years earlier, Olivia and Joel Cameron invited the family to spend the weekend at their new country home. Olivia hoped to provide them all with a much-needed escape from their anxiety over the recession crippling the nation; instead, the visit ended in tragedy when Scott, Joel’s wild and outrageously sexy youngest brother, was found dead. The repercussions tore the family apart.
Now, Olivia’s sister Violet has persuaded her to host a reunion. She claims it’s time they finally put the past behind them and laid their ghosts to rest. However, some wounds run too deep to heal, and some secrets are too destructive to remain hidden. Still grieving for the man she loved, Violet is determined to uncover the truth behind his death—a truth she believes lies within her own family.
As the web of deceit and hostility begins to unravel, family ties are tested to the limit, and no one will emerge unscathed.
Olivia fought a rising hysteria. Why had she let Vi talk her into this? She took a huge slug of gin and tonic, trying to organize her thoughts. Since her sister had suggested this dratted get together in the first place, surely the least she could do was be here to lend a capable hand. But, no. She was far too busy for anything so mundane as slaving over a hot stove, and too wrapped up in being the revered barrister to spare a thought for anyone else. Olivia sighed. That was unfair, she knew. Vi always worked so hard, perhaps too hard, and it must have cost her a great deal of courage even to contemplate this reunion.
Raking a hand through her hair, lank from the steam fogging the farmhouse kitchen, she surveyed the chaos. On the table dominating the room, carrier bags spilled their contents over its scrubbed-pine surface. Dirty saucepans and crockery littered the worktops, waiting to be loaded into the dishwasher, which hadn’t yet been emptied. She still needed to liquidize the leftover Christmas turkey for soup, chop the Everest of vegetables to go with the roast lamb, and throw together a trifle and apple crumble for pudding. Olivia’s head throbbed with the enormity of her mental checklist. Even once she’d prepared dinner, there were beds to change and bathrooms to clean, not to mention the considerable task of making herself presentable. In her current state, she would send her guests screaming from the house in terror. God, she’d never be ready in time!
Olivia gulped another mouthful of gin. Normally she would have looked forward to spending a weekend catering for her family. She loved entertaining, and when Violet first suggested the gathering some months earlier, she had jumped at the idea. But that was before everything changed, before her world crumbled and left her standing alone in the ruins.
“I can’t do this,” Olivia had told her sister in a desperate phone call the previous week. “I’m going to have to cancel.”
“Why?” Violet sounded concerned. “This isn’t like you. What’s happened?”
Unable to confide the truth even to her sister for fear that her brittle self-control would shatter into a thousand pieces, Olivia could only mumble something vague about getting cold feet.
“For heaven’s sake, Liv,” Violet said. “You’re being ridiculous. It’s twelve years now since … since it happened. Do you want this big, black cloud to hang over us forever? We need to move on. I need to move on.”
Her sister’s pain was evident even through her impatience. How could Olivia refuse her? No matter that her own heart was in shreds, she had to be strong for Vi. Now she faced the elephantine task of spending an entire weekend with her family, of putting on the vivacious front they expected of her and wishing them a happy new year while keeping up the pretence that all was well. She wasn’t sure she was up to the challenge.
Swallowing the last of her drink, Olivia glanced out of the kitchen window. Snow fluttered past like confetti, draping the grounds in a fluffy eiderdown, and the laden sky promised more to come. Perhaps her family would decide the driving conditions were too treacherous and stay at home. She could hope.
“Mum!” Lottie’s voice drifted through the house. “I need you.”
“Sweetheart, I’m a bit tied up at the moment. Can you come downstairs?”
“But I’ve just got out of the shower.”
Olivia rolled her eyes. Reducing the heat on the simmering turkey carcass, she sculpted her features into the cheerful mask that had been so natural only weeks before, and hurried along the narrow passage to the hall. Lottie, her seventeen-year-old daughter, stood on the landing at the head of the stairs. Her golden-brown hair, so like Olivia’s, hung in a dripping curtain down her back and a pink towel clung to the long, slender body she’d inherited from her Aunt Vi. Olivia was always telling her how lucky she was to be so slim, but Lottie complained that she looked like a boy and hankered after her mother’s curves.
“You’re keen,” Olivia said. “No one’s due for a few hours yet.” And thank heavens for that, or her family would think they’d wandered into war-torn Kabul.
“I wanted to get in there before you and Dad hogged all the hot water.” Lottie looked away, twirling a strand of wet hair around her finger. “Mum, can I borrow your black top for tonight?”
“Black top.” Olivia searched her muddled brain. “Which black top, sweetheart?”
“You know, the tight one with the silver, glittery bits.”
“Gosh, I’d forgotten I had it. Yes, of course you can. In fact, you may as well have it. There’s not much chance of me squeezing into it again without going on a crash diet.”
“Wow, thanks.” Beaming, Lottie blew her a kiss and dashed away along the landing.
Olivia smiled. It wasn’t like her daughter to take so much trouble over her appearance. She spent most of her time in cords and baggy jumpers, either galloping around the Denninshire countryside on her beloved horse or curled up by the fire with a book. Still, it was so long since Lottie last saw her cousins and Olivia suspected she’d always been a little in awe of Emma’s beauty. It was natural Lottie should want to look her best. Not that she need worry. With her sweet, oval face, soft mouth and hazel eyes, she was far lovelier than the overconfident Emma; at least, Olivia thought so.
Halfway along the passage to the kitchen, she froze as the shrill ringing of the telephone pierced the silence. Almost at once, the sound was cut off; Joel must have picked up. Olivia’s stomach lurched. Please, not again. Heavy with dread, but unable to resist torturing herself, she crept to the half-open study door to listen. Joel sat at the desk with his back to her, body hunched around the receiver as though to conceal it from view.
“What do you take me for?” he was saying in a low voice. “Of course I haven’t … No, she doesn’t suspect a thing, I promise.”
An invisible fist squeezed Olivia’s heart; she couldn’t breathe. How much more of this could she take? Bile burned the back of her throat and Olivia swallowed it down. Don’t let me be sick, she thought. Shock and nausea drained the strength from her legs and she put out a hand to steady herself against the doorframe.
Joel glanced around and saw her. The color leached from his face, leaving it chalk-white beneath the fringe of black hair. He met her gaze, features tight, dark eyes pleading for understanding. Olivia looked back at him until the tears stung her eyelids. She wanted to scream from the rage and anguish tearing at her insides. Don’t fall apart, Liv. Not now. Turning from his guilty expression, she stumbled away.
Lottie unearthed the prized black top amongst the jumble in her mother’s wardrobe and took it back to her room, where she laid it on the bed beside her best jeans. The outfit would look great with the cowboy boots her parents gave her for Christmas. She hugged herself and waltzed around her room, letting the towel fall to the carpet. In just a few short hours, she would see Adam again. The thought spurred her heart into a canter and her skin tingled with anticipation.
Due to the rift between her dad and Uncle Tim, Lottie saw little of her cousins while growing up. What they fell out over, she didn’t know. She sensed it had something to do with Cameron’s, the family investment bank of which her dad was once a director. Years before, too far back for her to remember, he had left the business to start up on his own, producing vegetables for local restaurants, but his reasons remained a mystery.
“It all happened too long ago to concern you,” was his only reply whenever Lottie asked him about it.
Even her mum, normally so open, claimed not to know what caused the bad feeling between the brothers, although Lottie didn’t wholly believe her. Dad must have confided in her, if no one else.
Whatever the basis for the estrangement, Lottie hadn’t seen her cousins since Granddad Cameron’s funeral eight years ago. This was why, when their paths crossed by chance two months earlier, she and Adam failed to recognize one another. They met on a geography field trip to Exmoor with their respective schools, and by the time they made the connection, it was too late.
Retrieving her towel, Lottie sat on the edge of the bed to dry her hair. Would things have been different if she and Adam had known of their kinship from the outset? She didn’t think so. Surely nothing could have prevented the immediate attraction that sparked between them as they caught one another’s eye during dinner on the first night, or stopped them forging a bond that strengthened with every moment they spent together. They’d been inseparable for the entire week, talking endlessly as they studied the moor and surrounding area by day and escaped to quiet corners of the hostel in the evenings. In fact, Lottie didn’t think she’d ever talked so much. Always shy, especially with boys, she was both amazed and delighted how easy she felt with Adam.
She touched her lips, remembering the warm softness of his mouth on hers, the thrilling weight of him as they’d lain together on the narrow bunk bed in her dormitory while the other students watched a firework display outside. Her pulse sped up. Just think, a whole weekend to spend with Adam, showing him around the rambling grounds she adored, stealing kisses in the many secluded spots, and all the while keeping their relationship secret from their family. Not that they were doing anything wrong. It wasn’t illegal to fall in love with your cousin, even if your dads were twins; she’d made a point of looking it up on the Internet. Yet, Lottie suspected their parents wouldn’t be happy if they discovered what was going on. Not happy at all.
Joel opened his mouth to say something, he didn’t know what, but Olivia had already gone. Hands shaking, he returned the phone to his ear. “Look, I have to go. We’ll talk later.”
He dropped the receiver back on its cradle, cutting the female voice off mid-entreaty, and put a palm to his aching forehead. Damn and blast it. How could he have been so careless? With a sigh, Joel hauled himself out of the chair and left his study to trudge along the passage. The kitchen door was shut, but he ignored the hint, slipping into the room and closing the door behind him. At least he could shield Lottie from whatever might be said between them.
Olivia acted as though she hadn’t heard him come in. Joel watched her empty carrier bags, slamming bottles and jars into cupboards with unnecessary force; it was a miracle they didn’t smash to pieces. Her lips were compressed in a tight line, a sure indication she was fighting tears. As if he needed anything to make him feel worse.
“It’s not what you think.” The words sounded lame even to his own ears, not least because he’d repeated them so often over the past two weeks.
Clearly deeming the remark unworthy of response, Olivia carried a heap of carrots over to the worktop and began skinning them. She wielded the knife with such ferocity Joel guessed she was imagining doing the same to a certain part of his anatomy. He winced.
“Liv,” he tried again, “You’ve got it all wrong.”
“Have I?” She looked up at him, eyes flashing like jade in her flushed face. “So who were you speaking to just now?”
Joel dropped his gaze. “No one important. Just … just someone about work.”
“Silly me, I should have realized. So what did the restaurant order that’s so top secret you can’t tell me about it?” She flung his own words back at him. “’She doesn’t suspect a thing, I promise.’ What’re you up to, Joel? Slipping cannabis in the veg boxes? Give me a break.”
“I know it sounds unlikely—”
“An out and out bloody lie, you mean.”
“All right,” Joel said, “so it wasn’t a client, but that doesn’t automatically mean I’m guilty of what you think.”
“And what do I think?” Olivia’s sneer clashed with her soft features. “Or are you so eaten up with guilt you can’t even bring yourself to put it into words?”
“No. I’m just not willing to give your accusation any credence by naming it.”
“Don’t you patronize me! I suppose you’re going to tell me next I’ve imagined the whole thing: the way you put the phone down whenever I come into the room, your mood swings, the endless dropped phone calls.”
“Like I said, those were probably just wrong numbers.”
“Funny how it only happens when I answer the phone.” Olivia thrust the knife towards him, and for an instant Joel feared she would run him through the heart. “No, the only thing wrong with those phone calls was that the woman on the other end got me instead of you. What I don’t understand is how you expected to keep something like this from me. I thought you knew me better than that.”
“Yeah?” Joel’s temper rose. “Well, that makes two of us. I never believed you’d be so quick to jump to conclusions. Why can’t you just trust me?”
“Trust you? After the way you’ve been sneaking about lately? That’s hardly the behavior of an innocent man, Joel.” Still holding the knife, Olivia crossed her arms over her chest and drew a shuddering breath. “Okay, if you’re really not having an affair, what is it?”
He flinched from the plea in her expression, the faint glimmer of hope. “I can’t tell you.”
There was a long silence.
“No,” Olivia said, voice catching, “I didn’t think so.”
He raised his head to see her eyes brimming with tears.
“Liv.” He started forward, wanting to put his arms around her, to tell her everything was all right. But it wasn’t all right, and they both knew it.
“Don’t touch me,” she hissed. Shoving him aside, she threw open the kitchen door and stormed out.
Joel fought the urge to charge after her; what would be the point? He was the last person Liv wanted around right now, and who could blame her? Hell, what a God-awful mess. As if his marriage heading for the rocks wasn’t bad enough, he now had to contend with a whole weekend playing gracious host to his family. Compared with that, the prospect of his enraged wife knifing him in the chest was almost appealing.
Olivia resisted the temptation to slam her bedroom door; she didn’t want Lottie to know anything was wrong. Once alone, she flung herself on the bed and sobbed into the pillow. How could Joel do this? Did eighteen years of marriage mean so little to him that he could risk it all for the sake of a cheap thrill? As well as the good times they’d shared, they had been through so much together, helping one another come to terms with the horror of that long-ago summer and struggling to get by financially when Joel left the family business. Yet he had tossed it aside as though it held no more value than the weeds he extracted from his vegetable patch.
If someone had asked her a few weeks before to name her most painful experience, Olivia would not have hesitated to say childbirth. However, labor paled to a mere twinge in her memory beside the anguish of first overhearing Joel on the phone to his—she could scarcely bring herself even to think the word—mistress. Excruciating though giving birth had been, the memory faded the instant she held Lottie in her arms and gazed in wonder at the perfect life they’d created. She doubted the pain of Joel’s betrayal would diminish for as long as she lived.
Gripped by a sadistic desire to torment herself, just as she would prod a bruise as a child to test how much it hurt, Olivia recalled her first encounter with Joel. She met him during the second of her wild student years. True to form, that Saturday night found her in a London nightclub, wearing out her ridiculously high heels on the dance floor and pouncing on every good-looking young man unfortunate enough to catch her eye. She spotted the Cameron brothers several hours into her alcoholic marathon and discovered afterwards that they’d been out for dinner first to celebrate Scott’s eighteenth birthday. Struck by the possibilities posed by four such handsome specimens, she reeled over to their table.
“So, which of you sexy beasts can I tempt to a dance?” she slurred, or so the brothers claimed. Olivia had been too paralytic to remember, and to this day suspected they were having her on.
“Not sure that’s such a good idea,” Joel said, reaching out to steady her as she swayed. “Perhaps you should sit down.”
“Sit down? I’ve hardly started.” To endorse her words, Olivia seized his hands to drag him to his feet, and fell flat on her back in a drunken stupor.
The next thing she knew, she awoke in a strange bed to find a handsome young man watching her with serious dark eyes. Joel later explained how he’d left his brothers at the club and ordered a taxi to take her back to his flat. Olivia supposed she should have been alarmed, all alone at the mercy of a stranger, but it was impossible to doubt his kindness. He cooked her an enormous fry-up, which she ate with enthusiasm at the kitchen table. Afterwards, they sat on his balcony in the autumn sunshine, getting to know one another over endless mugs of coffee. When Olivia arrived home later that afternoon, she had a glow on her cheeks and an invitation to dinner the following evening.
Their relationship blossomed despite the differences in their personalities, or perhaps because of them. Joel proved a steadying influence on Olivia, while she taught him to laugh at himself. In addition, they shared the bond of losing their mothers at a young age and being brought up by career-obsessed fathers. Less than twelve months after passing out at his feet, Olivia discovered herself pregnant and Joel proposed. With absolutely no regret on her part, and earning her father’s unerring disapproval, she abandoned her English Lit degree at the start of her third year. Lottie was born the following June and Olivia had never looked back. Until now.
She clenched her fists against the rending pain in her gut. Frequently over the years she had sent up prayers of thanks for her good fortune in finding a man like Joel, pitying the couples she knew who were not so blessed. She’d believed her marriage was solid, that it really was till death do us part. What a fool she had been, and how smug.
Shoving the memories aside, Olivia wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her jumper and sat up. Pull yourself together, she scolded. Your world might be in pieces, but there’s no sense crying about it when you have a million things to do. Taking deep breaths to calm her sobs, she went to stand by the bedroom window and rested her hot face against the glass. The snow swirling past her in thickening flakes gave the illusion of peering into a snow globe. It transformed the grounds into a picture from a Christmas card, hiding the tired grass under a white carpet and dressing the bare trees in glittering cloaks. Joel’s greenhouse and the stables where Lottie had so often re-enacted the nativity as a child looked like enormous iced Christmas cakes.
The beauty of the scene cut through Olivia like the wind howling down the chimney. She couldn’t tear her eyes away. The idea of leaving this place, of selling up and splitting the proceeds, was almost as devastating as losing Joel. Not that it didn’t harbor its fair share of ghosts. In those terrible days following the tragedy, they’d seriously considered moving away to escape the constant reminders. However, to the incredulity of their families, Olivia and Joel’s love for the old farmhouse remained intact. This was their forever home, the place where they envisioned spending the rest of their lives. They couldn’t bear to leave it. Gradually, the happy memories overshadowed the bad and, though they never forgot what happened, they somehow learned to live with it.
Locking her emotions away in the secret compartment of her heart, Olivia turned from the window and glanced at her watch. Heavens, she needed to get on! Her guests would arrive in just over two hours, expecting to be fed, entertained and made welcome. More importantly, they needed the chance to put the past behind them at last, Violet most of all. For this one weekend, she must set her own troubles aside and channel all her efforts into ensuring the visit went smoothly. Only once it was over would she allow herself to confront her uncertain future.
– Book excerpt from Dark is the Sky. Purchase your copy at Amazon for only $16.95 by clicking here!