#BlogTour: THE MAIDENS by Alex Michaelides @AlexMichaelides @wnbooks @RandomTTours @annecater

Publication: 10th June 2021 – Weidenfeld & Nicolson

WE ALL KEEP SECRETS. EVEN FROM OURSELVES.

St. Christopher’s College, Cambridge, is a closed world to most.

For Mariana Andros – a group therapist struggling through her private grief – it’s where she met her late husband. For her niece, Zoe, it’s the tragic scene of her best friend’s murder.

As memory and mystery entangle Mariana, she finds a society full of secrets, which has been shocked to its core by the murder of one of its own.

Because behind its idyllic beauty is a web of jealousy and rage which emanates from an exclusive set of students known only as The Maidens. A group under the sinister influence of the enigmatic professor Edward Fosca.

A man who seems to know more than anyone about the murders – and the victims. And the man who will become the prime suspect in Mariana’s investigation – an obsession which will unravel everything…

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I am thrilled to welcome you on my stop for the blog tour of The Maidens, the new compelling novel by Alex Michaelides.

The author’s debut novel, The Silent Patient, was one of my favourite in 2019 and I was really excited when his new book was announced and I couldn’t wait to read The Maidens. I loved the university setting of Cambridge, the complex characters, the murder mystery, the Greek mythology, and the surprising and unexpected resolution.

Once again, the protagonist of the novel is a psychiatrist, a group therapist, to be precise. Mariana has a lots on her plate when she receives a call for help by her niece in Cambridge: she is struggling with the grief of losing her husband a year earlier and one of her patient is becoming obsessed with her, but a body has been found in Cambridge and her niece Zoe thinks it may be the body of a friend, so Mariana packs her things and travels to her former university to support her. However, she would never have imagined to find herself entangled in the investigation as she suspect the murderer is Edward Fosca, a Greek tragedy professor with his own group of Maidens who follow him around and worship him. And, even if no one believes her, Mariana won’t stop until she finds out the truth…

Slow-paced and suspenseful, The Maidens is a great read. The plot is intricate, and I loved how the author combines murder and Greek tragedy together. But, my favourite thing about The Maidens is the character of Mariana. Flawed, intricate, and driven, her story, her secrets, her family are slowly unraveled. She is haunted by the many losses she has suffered through her life, the latest one her husband who died suddenly a year earlier during a holiday and that she is so deeply grieving that she still hasn’t packed away his things. Also, she has to face daddy issue, regrets, and secrets that once uncovered, will change her life.

Once again, Alex Michaelides took me completely by surprise with shocking revelations and twists that I didn’t see coming and kept me engaged for hours with this compulsive new novel that it is out now.

A huge thank you to Anne and Weidenfeld & Nicolson for inviting me to join the blog tour and providing me with a proof of the novel.

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ALEX MICHAELIDES was born in Cyprus in 1977 to a Cypriot father and an English mother. At 18, he moved to the UK to study English at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received an MA. Alex then went to film school in Los Angeles and got his MA in writing at the American Film Institute. He wrote the film Devil You Know, starring Rosamund Pike, and co-wrote The Con Is On, starring Uma Thruman and Tim Roth. Disillusioned with screenwriting, he moved back to the UK and took a job at a therapeutic community for teenagers in North London while studying psychotherapy.

But before he quit writing for good, he decided to have one last throw of dice and sat down to write the detective story which became the international bestselling novel, The Silent Patient. The book went on to be a world record-breaker, debuting at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, the first adult UK debut ever to do so. Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, have secured film rights and a screenwriter and director are now attached. The Maidens is his second novel.

#BlogTour: THE COUPLE by Helly Acton @hellyacton @ZaffreBooks @Tr4cyF3nt0n

Publication: 27th May 2021 – Zaffre

Millie is a perfectionist. She’s happy, she’s successful and, with a great support network of friends and family (and a very grumpy cat), she’s never lonely. She loves working at a big tech firm and is on track be promoted to her dream role. The last thing she needs is romance messing up her perfectly organised world.

Besides, normal people just don’t have romantic relationships. Everyone knows that being in a couple is a bit . . . well, odd. You know, like having a pet snake or referring to yourself in the third person. Why rely on another person for your own happiness? Why risk the humiliation of unrequited love or the agony of a break-up? No, Millie is more than happy with her conventional single life.

So, when Millie lands a new project at work, launching a pill that prevents you falling in love, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. That is, until she starts working with Ben. He’s charming and funny, and Millie feels an instant connection to him.

Will Millie sacrifice everything she believes in for love?

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Happy Sunday everyone!!! I am really thrilled to welcome you on my stop for the blog tour of The Couple, the fantastic new novel by Helly Acton.

This novel wasn’t at all what I expected, it was much better. In The Couple, the author depicts a cynic world where being single is conventional and ordinary, where couples are not well-welcomed nor accepted, where love is rejected and leads only to heartache and unhappiness.

The protagonist of the story is Millie. She doesn’t believe in love and being in a relationship. All her life is based on a strict schedule that she follows diligently, and she has one goal: to become chief creative officer of the company she works for, Slide.

Ben is Millie’s opposite. He is impulsive, he is the “King of Chaos”, he is also funny, sweet, and Millie can’t stay away from him, especially when they start to work together to promote a pill that prevents from falling in love and that erases heartbreak.

The Couple is such a fun read! Ben and Millie’s chemistry, the witty and flirty dialogues, the stories of love and friendship, and the likable and relatable characters kept me completely engrossed in The Couple. I enjoyed Ben and Millie’s relationship, their easy friendship that developed in something more, the amusing text messages they exchanged, their banter, and their differences made for an entertaining and addictive read.

The Couple is a superb rom-com with dystopian elements that exceeded my expectations and that I keep thinking about it. I enjoyed the author’s writing style and I look forward to reading more of her novels.

A huge thank you to Tracy and Zaffre Books for inviting me to join the blog tour and providing me with a proof of this incredible novel.

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Helly Acton is a copywriter from London with past lives in Zimbabwe, the Middle East and Australia. She studied Law at King’s College London before following a more creative path into advertising. At 26, Helly took a career break to travel in Africa and Asia, before landing in Sydney. Six years and one life-affirming break up later, she returned home and threw herself into online dating in the city. Helly uses this experience as a single woman in her early thirties – torn between settling down and savouring her independence – as a source of inspiration.

Helly currently lives in Berkshire with her husband, Chris, their little boy, Arlo, and their little dog, Milo. Sometimes, she gets their names mixed up.

#BlogTour: TALK BOOKISH TO ME by Kate Bromley @kbromleywrites @ZaffreBooks @Tr4cyF3nt0n

Publication: 27th May 2021 – Zaffre

A hilarious romcom for fans of Beach Read and The Hating Game

Inspiration can be found in the most unlikely – and inconvenient – places

Kara Sullivan is definitely not avoiding her deadline. After all, it’s the week of her best friend’s wedding and she’s the maid of honour, so she’s got lots of responsibilities. She’s a bestselling romance novelist with seven novels under her belt, so she’s a pro. Looming deadlines don’t scare her, and neither does writer’s block, which she most certainly does not have. She’s just eager to support Cristina as she ties the knot. Right? Right.

But then who should show up at the rehearsal dinner but Kara’s college ex-boyfriend, Ryan? Turns out he’s one of the groom’s childhood friends, and he’s in the wedding party, too. Considering neither Kara nor Ryan were prepared to see each other ever again, it’s decidedly a meet-NOT-cute. However, when Kara sits down to write again the next day, her writer’s block is suddenly gone. Are muses real? And is Kara’s muse . . . Ryan?

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Good morning everyone and welcome to my stop for the blog tour of Talk Bookish To Me, the entertaining new novel by Kate Bromley.

Kara is a bestselling author of historical romance novels, but she is struggling writing her latest novel and the deadline is very close. But then inspiration arrives from the latest person she expected: Ryan, her first boyfriend, her first love, the man who broke her heart and who she hasn’t seen in ten years, until he turns up at her best friend’s pre-wedding party. So what if Kara has to spend time with him so that she can write?! She has no feelings for him, right? The more time Kara spends with him, the more she writes, even if that means old wounds, regrets, and feelings resurface…

Talk Bookish To Me has many elements that will keep you captivated. First of all, the protagonist, Kara Sullivan is likable and relatable. She talks a lot about books so we could easily be best friends. She is also loyal, smart, and funny so you have no choice but to like her and wish her a happy ending. This is a rom-com with a bit of drama: the chemistry between Kara and Ryan is strong from the very beginning and I loved their witty exchanges and their easy relationship, but their past is always there haunting them and secrets could risk their relationship. Also, if you like the book-within-book novels, you’ll enjoy reading passages from Kara’s novel with two fantastic characters and more romance.

I almost forgot one of the best characters in the novel and, without a doubt, my favourite: Duke the dog. He created some of the funniest scenes in the book and I adored him!

Talk Bookish To Me is the perfect escapist and entertaining novel, full of humor, romance, friendship, and books. Highly recommended!

A huge thank you to Tracy and Zaffre for inviting me to join the blog tour and providing me with a copy of the novel.

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Kate Bromley lives in New York City with her husband, son, and her somewhat excessive collection of romance novels. (It’s not hoarding if it’s books, right?) She was a preschool teacher for seven years and is now focusing full-time on combining her two great passions – writing swoon-worthy love stories and making people laugh. Talk Bookish To Me is her first novel.

#BookReview: FOR THE WOLF by Hannah Whitten @hwhittenwrites @orbitbooks

Publication: 1st June 2021 – Orbit

The first daughter is for the Throne.
The second daughter is for the Wolf.

For fans of Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale comes a dark, sweeping debut fantasy novel about a young woman who must be sacrificed to the legendary Wolf of the Wood to save her kingdom. But not all legends are true, and the Wolf isn’t the only danger lurking in the Wilderwood.

As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose–to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.

Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood–and her world–whole.

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“The First Daughter is for the throne. The Second Daughter is for the Wolf. And the Wolves are for the Wilderwood.”

For The Wolf is a beautiful and dark tale of sacrifices, curses, and magic that kept me completely hooked from the first to the very last page and I keep still thinking about it days after I finished reading it.

The protagonist is Red. A princess, the second daughter of a queen, her fate was sealed the moment she was born. As a second daughter Red will be sacrificed to the Wolf, the creature living in the forest of Wilderwood, in exchange for the return of the Gods. Red accepted her fate a long time ago and she’s been waiting and preparing for the day she will be given away. Red has her own reasons to go into the Wilderwood as she thinks it is the only way to protect her twin sister Neve and those she loves from her magic.

When Red arrives in the Wilderwood, she finds out that there is more to the legends and myths she’s heard all her life and she allies with the Wolf to save both her people and the forest. In the meantime, her twin sister Neve, the future queen, refuses to leave Red in the hands of the Wolf and the Wilderwood and won’t stop at anything to get her back, even if that means creating dangerous and deadly alliances.

The story is beautifully-written and it is so engrossing and intriguing. There is magic and curses, legends and sacrifices, monsters and gods, heroes/heroines and villains, romance and alliances that will make it almost impossible to put the book down. The characters are well-developed and Red is a fantastic heroine, loyal, brave, and strong-willed.

I was drawn to this novel by the buzz around it and, once I started reading it, I wasn’t disappointed. It is a dark and addictive fairy-tale that reminded me of Little Red Riding Hood and The Beauty and the Beast, but it also original and unique. I loved For The Wolf and I can’t wait for the sequel, For The Throne, to come out.

A huge thank you to Orbit and NetGalley for providing me with a proof of this novel.

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Hannah Whitten has been writing to amuse herself since she could hold a pen, and sometime in high school, she figured out that what amused her might also amuse others. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, making music, or attempting to bake. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and children in a house ruled by a temperamental cat.

#BookReview: THREADNEEDLE by Cari Thomas @Cari_Threads @HarperVoyagerUK

Publication: 27th May 2021 – HarperVoyager

Within the boroughs of London, nestled among its streets, hides another city, filled with magic.

‘Magic and love. Love and magic. They destroy everything in the end …’

Anna’s Aunt has always warned her of the dangers of magic. Its twists. Its knots. Its deadly consequences.

Now Anna counts down the days to the ceremony that will bind her magic forever.

Until she meets Effie and Attis.

They open her eyes to a London she never knew existed. A shop that sells memories. A secret library where the librarian feeds off words. A club where revellers lose themselves in a haze of spells.

But as she is swept deeper into this world, Anna begins to wonder if her Aunt was right all along.

Is her magic a gift … or a curse?

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I was just a few chapters into my reading of Threadneedle that I was already a big fan of the author and I was completely addicted to the series (duology, trilogy?) and its characters.

The story is set in modern London where witches hide their magic. The protagonist is Anna, a sixteen-year-old orphan who lives with her aunt. All her life, Anna has been told that she needs to keep her magic hidden or the Hunters will find her and kill her, and she is preparing, under her aunt’s alert eye, to become a Binder. As the name implies, Binders bind their magic forever and can’t never use it.

Anna accepted her fate a long time ago until Effie and Attis enter her life. New in her school, where she’s always kept her head down and been a nobody, they convince her to join her coven and explore her magic. Suddenly, Anna’s life become more exciting as she keeps secrets from her aunt, she becomes popular, she goes to parties, and she explores magic libraries searching for the truth about her parent’s deaths and her magic.

I really liked the character of Anna. Having lost her parents when she was just a few months old, she’s been raised from an aunt that at the beginning I thought was simply overprotective and stern and then find out that was like the evil stepmother of fairytales. Anna dreams of freedom, of using her magic without fear, of travelling the world and falling in love, but she remains under her aunt’s control until she meets Effie and Attis. Effie is lively, exuberant, and a troublemaker who is not afraid to use her magic. Attis is charming and witty and probably he was my favourite character as I always looked forward to his appearance and his conversations with Anna.

The story is incredible, well-structured and intriguing. It is full of surprises and twists that I didn’t see coming and I was completely engrossed in the magic, but also Anna’s typical teenage problems, the family mystery, and, of course, the magic libraries. I am really looking forward to reading book 2, because I need to know what happens next and I highly recommend Threadneedle to all fantasy lovers and not!

A huge thank you to HarperVoyager and NetGalley for providing me with a proof of this fantastic story.

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Cari Thomas grew up in the Wye Valley area of Wales and, after studying English Literature & Creative Writing at Warwick University and Magazine Journalism at the Cardiff School of Journalism, moved to London. She worked as a journalist and at a creative agency, before finally doing what she’d always wanted to do: quit her job and write a book about magic.

The result is Threadneedle, her debut novel and the first in her Language of Magic series. Be introduced to a world of wild, ancient witchcraft hidden within today’s London; where libraries made of books breathe dusty pages beneath the city, where witch clubs serve up magical cocktails and vintage shops sell memories. A world where magic gleams light and very, very dark.

Cari now lives in Bristol with her husband and son. Discover more on her website: CariThomas.com

#BlogTour: THE SECRET BRIDESMAID by Katy Birchall @KatyBirchall @HodderBooks @JennyPlatt90

Publication: 13th May 2021 – Hodder & Stoughton

You are cordially invited to the wedding of the year . . .

Sophie Breeze is a brilliant bridesmaid. So brilliant, in fact, that she’s made it her full
time job.

As a professional bridesmaid, Sophie is hired by brides to be their right hand woman,
posing as a friend but working behind the scenes to ensure their big day goes off without a
hitch. From wrangling rowdy hen dos to navigating last minute portaloo cancellations and
family dramas, there’s no problem she can’t solve.

So when she’s hired by an actual Marchioness to help plan the society wedding of the year,
it should be a chance for Sophie to prove just how talented she is.

Of course, it’s not ideal that the bride, Cordelia Swann, is an absolute diva and determined
to make Sophie’s life a nightmare. It’s also a bit inconvenient that Sophie finds herself drawn
to Cordelia’s posh older brother, who is absolutely off limits. And when a rival society
wedding is announced, things start to get rather complicated…

Can Sophie pull off the biggest challenge of her career, win over a reluctant bride, and
catch the eye of handsome Lord Swann all while keeping her true identity a secret, and her
dignity intact?

Heart warming and hilarious, The Secret Bridesmaid celebrates the joys (and foibles) of weddings, the nuances of female friendship, and the redeeming power of love in its many, unexpected forms.

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I am delighted to welcome you on my stop for the blog tour of The Secret Bridesmaid by Katy Birchall.

This is probably one of the funniest and most enjoyable books I have read this year. I had such a good time reading The Secret Bridesmaid, often with tears in my eyes from laughing, and I absolutely adored the protagonist, Sophie.

Sophie loves weddings and she enjoys helping brides so much – and she is really good at it – that she decided to turn it into a career. She is a professional bridesmaid, hired by brides (or their mothers) to help them through the preparation of their wedding so that they can enjoy it and have the wedding of their dream. She is very successful, but her job is also very secretive and often she changes her name and just the bride and very few other people know that she is being paid to be a bridesmaid.

Lady Cornelia Swann is a socialite often on tabloids for her lavishing lifestyle and her long list of boyfriends. She is now getting married and she is going to be Sophie’s biggest client, but also her biggest challenge, because Sophie has been hired by Cordelia’s mother to control her during the preparation of the wedding against Cordelia’s wishes, who does her best to make Sophie’s work as hard as possible. Sophie is determined to get the job done, even though Cordelia makes it loud and clear that she doesn’t want and need Sophie’s help. However, Sophie doesn’t give up even when she finds herself picking up Cordelia’s dry cleaning or deep in the water in St. James’s Park trying to call swans to her.

Sophie is an amazing heroine. She is fun, honest, cheerful, and reliable. She really cares about her job and her clients. She wants them to have the wedding of their dreams even if that means she has to wear a Chewbakka costume at a Star Wars-themed wedding or she has to dye her hair red to match with the other bridesmaids.

The story is hilarious and captivating. I really enjoyed the addition of Whatsapp messages, calls, and emails, that made for some laugh-out-loud conversations. While the story focuses mostly on the protagonist’s own development and her relationship with bridezilla Cordelia, there is also some romance as Sophie falls for Cordelia’s hot playboy brother and the scenes between these two were some of my favourite in the novel.

A witty and lovable heroine, an entertaining and refreshing plot, and an addictive writing make of The Secret Bridesmaid a fantastic read, the perfect book for all fans of Sophie Kinsella and rom-com stories.

A huge thank you to Jenny and Hodder & Stoughton for inviting me to join the blog tour and providing me with a proof of this novel.

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Follow the rest of the blog tour:

Katy Birchall is the author of several young adult novels including The It Girl series, the Hotel Royale series and Morgan Charmley: Teen Witch. She is the co-author of the middle grade Lightning Girl series and Star Switch with Alesha Dixon, and the Find the Girl teen series with YouTube stars Lucy and Lydia Connell. Katy was proud to be the author of a retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma for the Awesomely Austen series, a collection of Austen’s novels retold for younger readers. She has also written a non fiction book, How to be a Princess: Real Life Fairy Tales for Modern Heroines. The Secret Bridesmaid is her first adult novel.

#BookReview: THE PERFECT LIE by Jo Spain @SpainJoanne @QuercusBooks #ThePerfectLie

Publication: 13th May 2021 – Quercus Books

He jumped to his death in front of witnesses. Now his wife is charged with murder.

Five years ago, Erin Kennedy moved to New York following a family tragedy. She now lives happily with her detective husband in the scenic seaside town of Newport, Long Island. When Erin answers the door to Danny’s police colleagues one morning, it’s the start of an ordinary day. But behind her, Danny walks to the window of their fourth-floor apartment and jumps to his death.

Eighteen months later, Erin is in court, charged with her husband’s murder. Over that year and a half, Erin has learned things about Danny she could never have imagined. She thought he was perfect. She thought their life was perfect.

But it was all built on the perfect lie.

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The Perfect Lie is another fantastic and gripping novel by Jo Spain. With complex and multi-layered characters, a twisty and intense plot, and full of ‘I-would-never-have-guessed’ revelations, once again I found myself completely engrossed in another of this author’s novels.

Alternating between the past and the present, the story is told mostly from the perspective of Erin Kennedy. Erin is a book editor who left Ireland after a family tragedy that, five years later, still gives her nightmares, and moved to New York. Here she meets Danny, a NYPD detective. After two years of marriage, she thinks she knows her husband very well, so why did he suddenly jump to his death? And why is he being investigated by the police? And why his colleagues, the people he considered his friends and family, refuse to tell her what is going on? With so many questions and no answers, Erin has no choice but to find out the truth herself.

The Perfect Lie is a psychological thriller with capital letters. It grabs the reader’s attention from the beginning. Right at the start the story is intense and suspenseful. And, as the story continues, it just gets better and better. The author unravels the truth slowly, giving the reader just a bit of information at the time, leaving you wondering and eager to see what happens next, so that it’s almost impossible to put the book down.

The characters are intriguing and well-developed and I especially liked the protagonist Erin. She is brave, smart, and determined and she won’t stop until she finds out the truth about her husband, even if finding out the truth could be dangerous and hurtful.

The Perfect Lie is a brilliantly-written page-turner full of twists and jaw-dropping and chilling revelations that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last word!

The Perfect Lie is out now and I would like to thank Millie and Quercus for providing me with a proof of this novel.

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Jo Spain is the author of the bestselling Inspector Tom Reynolds series and several international No. 1 bestselling standalone novels, including The Confession and Dirty Little Secrets. Her first book, With Our Blessing, was a finalist in the 2015 Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller.

Jo, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, writes TV screenplays full-time. Her first crime series was broadcast on RTE in 2018 and she’s currently involved in a number of TV developments including adaptations of her own novels, in Germany, Britain, Iceland and Finland.

Jo lives in Dublin with her husband and four young children.

Her favourite writers include Pierre LeMaitre, Fred Vargas, Agatha Christie, Liane Moriarty, Jodi Picoult, Jane Harper, JP Delaney and Lucy Atkins.

#BlogTour: THE WHOLE TRUTH by Cara Hunter @CaraHunterBooks @VikingBooksUK @EllieeHud

Publication: 29th April 2021 – Penguin Books UK

An attractive student. An older professor.

Think you know the story? Think again.

THE NEW UP-ALL-NIGHT THRILLER FROM THE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER CARA HUNTER, PERFECT FOR FANS OF LINE OF DUTY

She has everything at stake; he has everything to lose. But one of them is lying, all the same.

When an Oxford student accuses one of the university’s professors of sexual assault, DI Adam Fawley’s team think they’ve heard it all before. But they couldn’t be more wrong.

Because this time, the predator is a woman and the shining star of the department, and the student a six-foot male rugby player.

Soon DI Fawley and his team are up against the clock to figure out the truth. What they don’t realise is that someone is watching.

And they have a plan to put Fawley out of action for good…

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Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for The Whole Truth, the thrilling new novel by Cara Hunter.

In the fifth book in the terrific DI Adam Fawley series, Adam and his team are called to investigate a delicate case. A college student accuses his professor of sexual assault, while she claims that she doesn’t remember what happened. In the meantime, when an apparent suicide turns into homicide, the team’s loyalty and trust toward Fawley is tested and a true crime podcast threatens to reveal the truth about an old case that involves Alex, Adam’s wife.

I ADORED The Whole Truth! What a read! First of all, we learn more about the characters’ personal lives. Adam is worried about his wife pregnancy. Her age, the stress of their son’s death a few years back, the resurface of an old case, and Alex’s claim that someone is watching them don’t make for an easy time. DC Quinn is still trying to prove himself from a mistake in a previous case and, for once, he is in a stable relationship. DC Verity Everett is worried about her father’s declining health. DC Erica Somer is struggling with choices she has to make. Luckily, DS Chris Gislingham is there holding the fort for everyone.

And the plot is gripping and intriguing. I raced through it. I read it during a busy time and I tried to sneak in a few pages every time I could and I stayed up late at night to finish reading it! This series written by Cara Hunter is one of my favourite, I always look forward to the next book, and The Whole Truth is probably the best so far, although the previous books are close behind. The twists, the suspense and the tension, the mystery, the wondering (did he do it? did she do it?), the addictive writing, the incredible and complex characters kept me on the edge of my seat and made it impossible to put the book down. A must-read!

A huge huge thank you to Ellie and Viking Books for inviting me to join the blog tour and providing me with a proof of this gripping novel.

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Cara Hunter is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling crime novels Close to HomeIn the DarkNo Way Out and All the Rage, all featuring DI Adam Fawley and his Oxford-based police team. Close to Home was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and was shortlisted for Crime Book of the Year in the British Book Awards 2019. No Way Out was selected by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 best crime novels since 1945. Cara’s novels have sold more than a million copies worldwide, and the TV rights to the series have now been acquired by the Fremantle group. She lives in Oxford, on a street not unlike those featured in her books.

#Extract: THE LITTLE SHOP OF HIDDEN TREASURES by Holly Hepburn @HollyH_Author @BookMinxSJV @TeamBATC #StartingOver #TheLittleShopOfHiddenTreasures

It’s publication day for Part 1: Starting Over of the brand new Holly Hepburn series, The Little Shop of Hidden Treasures, and I am delighted to share the first two chapters of this beautiful story!

Publication: 6th May 2021 – Simon & Schuster UK

When Hope loses her husband, she fears her happiest days are behind her. With her only connection to London broken, she moves home to York to be near her family and to begin to build a new life.  
 
Taking a job at the antique shop she has always admired, she finds herself crossing paths with two very different men. Will, who has recently become the guardian to his niece after the tragic death of his parents. And Ciaran, who she enlists to help solve the mystery of an Egyptian antique. Two men who represent two different happy endings.
 
But can Hope trust herself to choose the right man? And will that bring her everything she really needs?

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Chapter One

It was the flamingo that first caught Hope Henderson’s eye.

            Tall and proud and gloriously pink, it stood in the middle of the shop window demanding her attention. And it wasn’t alone, she saw as she slowed down to take a closer look – it had several feathery siblings, of varying heights and pinkness, and a grey and black heron loomed beside them, cleverly made from twisted metal. Above, a sign warned them to Mind The Gap. Another pointed cheerily to the circus, although as far as Hope could tell, the arrow was aimed directly at an ancient flowery chamber pot. And above that was a framed vintage poster advertising a balloon race to Paris.

            Hope stopped walking, fascinated both by the variety of stock and the lack of any apparent design. The shop occupied a corner slot, with two wide, arched windows on each side of the glossy yellow, angled door. A magnificent grey rocking horse dominated the window next to the flamingos, its shiny black mane glistening in the late-morning sunlight. One eye seemed to fix upon Hope as she stared and she was sure she could almost hear a whinny. She had always been drawn to the shop as a child, demanding a visit to peer into its windows whenever her family came into York. And as a student in London, she had spent too many Sunday afternoons wandering up and down Portobello Market, fantasizing about what she would buy if she had any money. This wasn’t Portobello Road, though, and she was a long way from London; the gothic spires of York Minster peeking through a side street reminded her of that. She was home, after more than a decade away.

            The shop’s name, picked out in cherry red and adorned with gold leaf above the bright yellow woodwork, tugged at Hope’s imagination the same way it always had: The Ever After Emporium. How could anyone fail to be enchanted by a name like that, she wondered. Underneath the name, in smaller letters, were the words Purveyors of Treasure Great and Small. And beneath that, Est. 1902. Proprietor: James T. Young Esq.

            Hope spent a few minutes gazing at the windows, marvelling at the mindboggling mix of items and oblivious to the crowds of late-spring tourists jostling along the pavements behind her. Only the chimes of the Minster bells roused her, ringing out quarter to twelve and reminding her it was time to meet her sister for lunch. With a final nostalgic glance into the Emporium, she stepped back and hoisted her bag onto her shoulder, preparing to walk away. And then she saw the advert.

Part-time Staff Required.

No Experience Necessary.

Apply Within.

It was handwritten in a vibrant turquoise ink, and the extravagant loops and swirls of the cursive script suggested to Hope that the writer was the kind of person to imbue even the most practical things with a sense of style. For a moment, she was tempted to push open the door and go inside. She had never been allowed to go in when she was younger but there was nothing stopping her now. Besides, hadn’t her family been suggesting for a while that she found a new job? It had been a few months since she’d taken redundancy, after all, and she’d been too busy with the sale of her home in London and the move north to think about what might come next. But they meant a proper job – in an office, with people she could get to know over chats about their weekend and the boxsets they’d binged. They didn’t mean a part-time role in an antique shop, no matter how much she’d loved it as a child.

            Reluctantly, Hope turned away from the Ever After Emporium and made her way through the cool and shaded Minster Gates alleyway towards the cathedral, where Charlotte would be waiting. Maybe she would pop back to the shop after lunch; there must be something inside she could buy to brighten her new apartment. And maybe she’d ask about the job too.

*

‘So, how have you been?’

            To a casual observer, Charlotte’s attention seemed to be fixed on spooning apple puree into her daughter’s mouth faster than the toddler could spit it out but Hope wasn’t fooled by her sister. She’d seen the way Charlotte’s gaze had sharpened as they’d greeted each other outside the Minster and that watchfulness hadn’t dissipated as they’d strolled to Lucia in Swinegate Court and settled into their seats in the sun-dappled courtyard. Not even the cute waiter or the buzz of their fellow diners could distract her; she’d placed her order and resumed her barely concealed appraisal of Hope without missing a beat. It was the way Hope’s entire family regarded her and she knew that the details of how she looked and behaved today would be shared. Not in a gossipy or unkind way, but with love and concern and born from a desire to help. And Hope loved them all the more for it, even as she wished they’d accept her assurances that she was fine.

             ‘I’m all right,’ she replied, pushing some haddock puttanesca onto her fork. ‘Starting to settle in. I’ve unpacked most of the boxes, at least.’

            Charlotte glanced across the table, briefly, then focused on her toddler, Amber, once more. ‘You’re still too thin. Are you eating?’

            That was also a regular on the ‘Is Hope Okay?’ bingo card. She lifted the forkful of haddock into her mouth and chewed. ‘Yes, I’m eating,’ she said, once she’d swallowed. ‘Getting my five a day and plenty of exercise. Staying off the drink and drugs.’

             ‘Glad to hear it,’ Charlotte said, and frowned. ‘Although there’s no shame in taking anti-depressants, if you need them.’

            Trust Charlotte to turn a flippant remark into a nudge about her mental health, Hope reflected. But it wasn’t a surprise; she’d known how it would be if she moved back to York and subtlety had never been Charlotte’s strong point. ‘I know,’ she said softly and tried to catch her sister’s eye. ‘I’m fine, Charlotte. Honestly, don’t worry.’

            Whatever Charlotte had been about to say next was lost as Amber blew a full-lipped raspberry, spraying apple puree across the wooden tabletop. The hubbub of the busy courtyard seemed to quieten a little and there was a brief silence around the table, punctuated by the toddler’s delighted giggles and a weary sigh from Charlotte. ‘It’s a good job I chose the pork belly,’ she said, looking down at her plate. ‘At least apple goes with it.’

            Raising her napkin, she started to remove globules of apple from the coppery fuzz that covered Amber’s head. Hope took the opportunity to change the subject. ‘I can’t believe how much she’s grown. Last time I saw her she was barely crawling.’

            Charlotte gave a wry nod. ‘That’s babies for you. I wish someone would invent clothes that grow with them.’

            Hope grimaced in sympathy. Charlotte often grumbled that their older brother, Harry, had been inconsiderate enough to have two sons, with a third on the way, which meant very few hand-me-down outfits for Amber. ‘I’m sure Mum is happy to help – you know she loves shopping for the kids.’

             ‘She does,’ Charlotte agreed. ‘And I’m very grateful. It’s just that Amber seems to grow overnight – what fits her one day is too small the next and I’ve got so many things she’s only worn once. I’m keeping them all for—’ She stopped and wiped her daughter’s face, not looking at Hope. ‘For whoever has the next baby.’

            The unspoken words hung in the air. Harry and his wife had declared three boys was enough for any sensible parent and weren’t planning any more children once the newest one arrived. Charlotte had been through a difficult pregnancy with Amber, which had culminated in an emergency caesarean, and had repeatedly said she never wanted to go through anything like it again. Logically, the baton to produce the next grandchild should be handed to Hope – it was certainly the way she’d expected things to go when she’d married Rob five years earlier. Then the diagnosis had come and everything had fallen apart. And now she wasn’t sure she’d ever get close to kissing another man, let alone doing what needed to be done to make a baby.

             ‘As long as it’s not Joe,’ Hope said, keeping her tone light.

            Joe was their nineteen-year-old brother – a surprise arrival all those years ago – who was currently in his first year of university in Edinburgh and widely considered to be a responsibility-free zone. Charlotte shuddered. ‘Can you imagine? He’s still a baby himself.’

            And that was the lot of many ‘happy surprise’ kids, Hope supposed; Joe would always be the baby of the family, even if he had children of his own. She pictured him, his russet curls so like her own, albeit much shorter, and smiled. ‘He’s a good lad. He’d cope.’

             ‘And he’d have all of us to help.’

            With a side order of meddling, Hope thought, hiding a grin. She’d counted her family among her blessings a thousand times over the last few years, but there was no denying their well-meaning ministrations could also be a bit overwhelming. ‘Luckily, Joe is eminently sensible and knows all about the birds and the bees,’ she said mildly. ‘I don’t think you’ll be handing over Amber’s baby clothes any time soon, unless there’s someone in the village who needs them.’

            Charlotte was quiet for a moment as she scraped the last of the puree from the container. ‘Speaking of the village, I ran into Simon Wells last week. He asked after you.’

            The sentence itself was innocuous enough and it was said in a tone that dripped innocence. But Hope was used to this game too. Simon Wells was an old schoolmate who lived in Upper Poppleton, where she’d grown up. The same village her parents and Charlotte still lived in, where everyone kept a friendly eye on their neighbours and asked after family members who might have moved away. It was perfectly possible that Simon had politely enquired how Hope was doing, especially since she was sure the whole population knew she’d moved back to York. But that wasn’t what her sister meant. ‘Charlotte—’

             ‘I’m just saying,’ her sister said, wide-eyed. ‘He’s a nice guy – single and not too difficult to look at. You could meet him for a drink, chat about old times.’

             ‘I’m not interested in going on a date with him,’ Hope said flatly.

‘Okay,’ Charlotte said, unperturbed. ‘I get that. How about online dating – didn’t you download Bumble?’

            Hope swallowed a sigh. She had and the app had sat there on her phone, unopened and faintly accusing, until she’d deleted it. ‘I’m not ready.’

Charlotte took a mouthful of cannellini beans and chewed with a meditative air, her gaze fixed on Hope. ‘But you went on a few dates in London, didn’t you?’ she said once she’d swallowed. ‘I know these dating apps are a bit hit-and-miss but was it so awful that they put you off meeting anyone entirely?’

            Hope fought the urge to shake her head and instead watched the summer sun play on the amber sandstone walls of the courtyard. She’d been up for dating at first – not exactly enthusiastic but willing to accept that after eighteen months it might be time to start living her life again and knowing she had to start somewhere. And one or two of the dates had gone well, leading to second and third dates. She’d allowed one of them to kiss her, a guy called Matt, and it hadn’t felt awful. Just odd, as though it was happening to someone else. On their next date she’d opened up about her relationship history and the ground had suddenly shifted. He’d listened in horrified sympathy, had rallied for the remainder of the date, and then simply stopped replying to her messages. Next had been Adam, who’d puffed out a long breath on their second date and said he wasn’t sure he was ready to be the man who followed Rob. She’d begun to gloss over the subject after that, giving vague answers that hinted at a failed marriage, and then cried into her pillow when she got home because it felt wrong to pretend. And, eventually, she decided her heart had been bruised enough. She hadn’t dated since.

             ‘I’m just not ready,’ she told Charlotte again and then sought something to soften the words. ‘I want to get myself settled here first, find my feet and spend some time rediscovering the city. Maybe look for a job.’

            Charlotte’s face lit up. ‘That’s a great idea. I saw something the other day that would be perfect for you – good money with a decent company—’ she said animatedly, then seemed to notice Hope’s expression. ‘But I’m sure you know what you’re looking for.’

            That was half the trouble, Hope thought. She had no idea what she was looking for. Except for an unspoken desire to get away from who she had been before, to try something new. Her mind strayed back to the looping turquoise ink on the advert in the Ever After Emporium’s window and she felt something flutter deep inside her, a tiny ripple of something that might have been excitement.

            She smiled at Charlotte. ‘Haven’t a clue,’ she said, as a burst of optimism warmed her heart. ‘But I’m hoping I’ll know when I see it.’

*

A bell rang as Hope pushed open the door of the antique shop. It didn’t tinkle, as shop bells usually did; this sound was deeper, almost too loud, and she wasn’t sure if she imagined the hum of vibration as the ringing died away. Glancing up, she saw a large, perfectly polished brass bell coiled inside an ornate framework over the door.

             ‘Sorry about that.’ A rich, broad Yorkshire accent cut through the dust motes dancing in the disturbed air and caused Hope to look around to see who was speaking. ‘Our bell once adorned the door of Figgis and Blacks in Mayfair. I’m afraid it has delusions of grandeur.’

            A man rose from behind an old-fashioned dark oak counter, a cardboard box in his hands. He had an abundance of neatly combed white hair, with a pair of golden wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose, and wore a tweed jacket that was certainly vintage, if not quite antique. His appearance was somehow familiar and strange at the same time and Hope knew that if she’d been challenged her to come up with someone who looked like they might own an antique shop, she would probably have described the man before her now, gazing at her with an enquiring expression.

             ‘Is there something in particular I can help you with?’ he asked, placing the box on the counter. ‘Something you’re looking for? Or would you prefer to browse?’

            Now that it came down to explaining that she was interested in the job, Hope felt a little of her confidence drain away. Was she crazy to be even thinking about working there?

             ‘I suppose I’m looking for Mr Young,’ she said slowly, fighting the urge to seize the ready-made excuse and spend a happy twenty minutes wandering around the shop.

             ‘Then you’re in luck.’ He smiled and held out a hand. ‘I’m James Young, owner of the Ever After Emporium. Welcome!’

            Too late to back out now, Hope thought as she walked forwards to shake his outstretched hand. ‘Hope Henderson. It’s about the advert in the window. For the part-time assistant.’

            If he was surprised, he didn’t show it. ‘Of course. Would you like to hear more about the role?’

             She nodded and felt her apprehension ease. He hadn’t laughed, that was a good start. Although that might follow when she revealed her total lack of relevant experience. ‘Yes, please.’

             ‘Why don’t we start with a quick tour? I can fill you in on the way round.’

            He raised a solid-looking flap in the counter and pulled back a carved door panel beneath to make his way out to stand beside her. She noticed an understated forest green waistcoat beneath the tweed jacket and caught the gleam of gold at waist height. Of course, Hope thought, almost nodding to herself. Of course he has a pocket watch.

             ‘It sounds grand, describing it as a tour, but the Emporium is bigger than it looks from the outside,’ Mr Young went on, waving a hand that took in the full length and breadth of the shop, spanning the two sets of windows on either side of the door. ‘There’s another room through the back where the books are kept, and a small kitchen, plus the storerooms upstairs. Over the years I’ve experimented with trying to organize the stock into eras but people seem to prefer a more higgledy-piggledy approach.’

            Which explained the gloriously mismatched window displays, Hope mused. ‘I suppose they don’t always know what they’re looking for – browsing and discovering a hidden treasure is half the fun.’

            Mr Young’s eyes gleamed. ‘Exactly so. Besides, I’m not totally sure the shop doesn’t rearrange itself overnight. It would certainly solve one or two mysteries.’

            His voice was so matter of fact that Hope wasn’t sure he was joking. But he didn’t elaborate. Instead, he pointed to an aisle that ran parallel to the window with the flamingos. ‘We’ll start this way.’

Hope followed, hardly believing she was inside the Ever After Emporium. The shop was blessedly cool, a welcome relief on a warm April afternoon, and she realized she’d expected it to be gloomy, like something from a Dickensian novel. But it wasn’t like that at all; the natural light from the windows was perfectly complemented by discreet modern spotlights in the ceiling, bathing everything on display in a clean silvery light. Her attention was instantly caught by an exquisite bone china tea set laid out on an occasional table to their right. Delicate yellow and pink roses wound their way around the teapot and cups, spilling across the saucers and plates and climbing around the milk jug and sugar bowl. She let out a delighted puff of appreciation as she stopped to stare.

            Mr Young glanced over his shoulder. ‘Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s Wedgwood, you can tell from the quality but the three-letter code on each piece removes any doubt. This particular set dates back to 1934.’

            She had been about to reach out to lift one of the teacups but withdrew her hand hurriedly. If she dropped it, the interview would be over before it had even begun and she’d have to buy the set, broken cup and all. This must be why she hadn’t been allowed inside the shop as a child; she was less likely to break something now but decided it was best not to take any chances and thrust her hands into her pockets.

            ‘Over here, we have a pair of chairs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh,’ Mr Young continued. ‘Beside them, you’ll see a working gramophone but that’s not for sale. There are a few items like that – marked with a red dot and just for display. Production companies sometimes get in touch to enquire about hiring things and the gramophone is popular.’

            Again, Hope made sure she stayed in the centre of the aisle as she followed him, but her gaze flicked left and right as they walked. A glossy grandfather clock ticked to one side, its walnut case burnished to a mirror-like gleam, and she was tempted to stop and study the sunlit ship sailing sedately through a wedge-shaped panel in the ivory clock face. It reminded Hope of the one Rob’s grandmother had kept; she had always insisted it would come to him, when she died, never dreaming for a moment that she’d outlive her grandson. Hope pushed the memory aside and forced herself to focus on the here and now. The shop was everything she’d imagined it would be, a treasure trove of delights, and she longed to linger over some of the things Mr Young led her past. If she didn’t get the job, she’d certainly be back to browse. Possibly every day.

            ‘The position is for twenty hours a week, Monday to Friday, with the occasional weekend to cover the other staff,’ Mr Young said. ‘I’m fairly flexible and happy to work around family commitments, if you have them.’

            He waited and Hope thought of her too quiet apartment. ‘No commitments,’ she said with what she hoped was a brisk smile.

             ‘The work is mostly customer-facing on the shop floor but there’ll be a bit of inventory and record-keeping when things are quiet. We offer generous annual leave, on-the-job training and a competitive salary, plus there’s a staff discount scheme.’ He led her through a crooked wooden doorway into a softly lit square room. ‘This is where we keep the books.’

            The breath caught in Hope’s throat as she stepped inside. It was the kind of room every book lover dreamed of; the walls were lined from ceiling to floor with shelves, and every shelf was filled by spines of all colours and sizes. The walls on her left had glass doors on the top half of the shelves – some of the books inside were wrapped in clear covers and she assumed they were valuable first editions. To her right, she saw a mahogany ladder that rolled parallel to the stacks, giving access to the upper shelves. The air was heavy and still, filled with the unmistakeable scent of old paper, old print, old words. She inhaled deeply, drinking it in, and allowed herself a contented sigh.  The Emporium held more treasure than she’d ever imagined.

             ‘Are you a reader?’ Mr Young asked, and Hope realized he’d been watching her reaction closely.

            ‘Absolutely,’ she replied and her eyes wandered to the shelves again. ‘Anything and everything.’

            He nodded. ‘We’ve a number of excellent first editions here, including a wonderful Pride and Prejudice and a mint copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.’ His eyes twinkled. ‘As well as some lesser-known classics – are you familiar with A History of British Carpets by C.E.C. Tattersall?’

            She hesitated, once more unsure whether he was joking. ‘Er . . . not really.’

            Mr Young laughed. ‘Consider yourself lucky. But you never know, one day a historical carpet enthusiast might walk into the shop and we’ll have exactly what they’re looking for.’

            Hope looked more closely at the nearest shelf, imagining herself opening a worn leather cover, turning the age-tinted pages and breathing in their distinctive smell. If she hadn’t been in love with the Ever After Emporium before, she was now. Although she was beginning to suspect that if she worked there, she’d have very little of her wages left at the end of the month, in spite of the staff discount Mr Young had mentioned.

            ‘The first floor is home to the store rooms and the office and the second floor is home to me,’ he said as they left the book room and continued to the last corner of the shop, where he paused beside an ornate dark wood staircase marked Staff Only. ‘But I’m sure you must have questions. Is there anything you want to know?’

            Hope cast her mind back to her last job application, some seven years earlier. It had been a well-paid, responsible position and had therefore involved a lengthy and stressful process. She was sure there’d be no psychometric testing for this role but it would be useful to know what she could expect. ‘Do you know when the interviews might be?’ she asked.

            He shook his head, causing Hope to immediately assume he hadn’t been planning to interview her at all. But he surprised her. ‘We’re not big on formality here. I find it often works better to have a nice chat. A bit like the one we’re having now.’

            ‘Oh,’ Hope exclaimed, wrong-footed again. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.’

            Mr Young waved a hand apologetically. ‘My fault – I should have explained. But now that you’ve had a look round and got a rough idea of what the job entails, are you still interested?’

            The Emporium was everything she’d anticipated and more, Hope thought, remembering the delicate floral tea set, the arching chairs and, most of all, the room full of books. And then she recalled how little she knew about any of them. ‘Yes, I’m interested, but . . . ’ She trailed off, filled with certainty that she was wasting both their time. ‘Look, I’ll be honest – I used to pass this shop when I was growing up and always loved looking in the windows. And seeing the advert today reminded me of that. But I have to admit I don’t know anything about antiques.’

            Mr Young studied her for a moment. ‘I’m not necessarily looking for someone who knows the business. I like to think I’m pretty good in that department.’

            Hope puffed out a breath. ‘I don’t really have any shop experience, either.’ She offered him a self-conscious grimace. ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have troubled you.’

            ‘It’s no trouble,’ he replied easily. ‘Truth be told, I’ve never been one for judging people solely by their CV and qualifications and it sounds like the shop has been calling you for a long time – you just didn’t know it. So how about a different approach? Why don’t you choose an object – anything you like – and tell me about it.’

            Confusion swirled in Hope’s brain. Hadn’t she just explained she knew nothing about antiques? ‘But—’

            He gave her an encouraging smile. ‘I don’t mean the manufacturer or provenance or anything like that. Just have a look round, find something that speaks to you, and tell me its story. Whatever you think that might be.’

            Immediately, Hope’s thoughts flew to the book room, where hundreds of stories were patiently waiting to be told. But she knew it would be cheating to choose one of those; Mr Young wanted something that came from her, from her own imagination. The trouble was, now that she needed it her mind had gone completely blank. Mr Young waited – it felt to Hope as though the whole shop was waiting – and the steady tick-tock of the grandfather clock seemed impossibly loud in the silence, although she worried her thudding heart might give it some competition. Taking a deep breath, Hope forced herself to remember the items that had caught her eye. The Wedgwood tea set had been first – she could imagine that being used to serve afternoon tea in the parlour of a well-to-do 1930s house . . . Hope frowned. No, not a wealthy family, perhaps one that didn’t have much money but saved what they could and used the tea set on special occasions. And then there was the gramophone – she could almost hear it playing at a wartime tea dance, with that distinctive faint crackle as the needle travelled along the groove. But although she could picture both items being used, neither gave her anything more – a story she could tell. She felt the hot rush of failure burn her cheeks and was about to shake her head when her gaze fell on the clock again. Rob had once told her that, as a child, he’d believed his grandmother’s clock hid a secret door leading to another world.

            ‘Like the wardrobe that goes to Narnia,’ he’d said with a self-deprecating head shake. ‘I must have been reading the books.’

            ‘Did you ever find it?’ Hope had asked, and he’d smiled.

            ‘Would you believe me if I said yes?’

            That had been the moment she’d known she loved him – really loved him – and his refusal to elaborate, because he’d sworn an oath never to reveal the secret, only delighted her more. And now, listening to the tick of the clock in this quirky, magical shop, she could half-believe that all grandfather clocks hid doors to other worlds. Here was a story she could tell, although she doubted she’d do it justice.

            Taking a moment to calm her racing heart, she gathered her thoughts. ‘I’d like to tell you about the clock,’ she began, clearing her throat. ‘It was made centuries ago for a duke and duchess and stood in the hallway of a grand house for many years, although they never really noticed it until it was gone. Even then, it was the absence of the tick they noticed, which was a great shame, because the clock had a secret that might have changed their lives.’

            Hope paused and risked a glance at Mr Young but he gave no indication whether this was what he’d been expecting. Instead, he tipped his head to indicate she should continue.

            ‘The clock was given to a boarding school, where it stood for many years, watching children hurry past on their way to and from classes. Until one day, a child didn’t hurry past. This child stopped and studied the clock. That evening, at midnight, he crept downstairs when everyone else was asleep and lifted the hook at the side of the door.’

            Now when Hope looked at Mr Young, she thought she detected a spark of interest in his expression. ‘Inside the clock, the child found another doorway – one that led him to a world of adventure and enchantment.’ She hesitated and swallowed the lump that had suddenly appeared in her throat. ‘And when he ran out of time in this life, far sooner than anyone expected, he breathed his last breath without sadness or complaint, knowing he’d lived a thousand lives in the world through the clock.’

            The words seemed to hang in the air for an age as Mr Young regarded Hope steadily. ‘Wonderful,’ he said at last, with the gentlest of smiles. ‘Just wonderful. When can you start?’

Chapter Two

One month later

It had been raining for three days. Hope watched rivulets of water cascade from the awning over the florist’s shop opposite the Ever After Emporium and sighed. The River Ouse was fuller than normal for the time of year and the Foss seemed higher too. If it didn’t stop raining soon, Hope thought she might actually need the faded orange and white lifebuoy that was propped against a battered ship’s chest opposite the counter. In fact, it was just possible they might need to drag the Noah’s ark from the window display.

            High Petergate was uncharacteristically empty of its usual horde of May tourists, although Hope knew they were rarely deterred for long. The occasional car splashed through the puddles and any pedestrians who had braved the deluge hurried along with their heads hidden by umbrellas or tucked inside hoods. No one was stopping to gaze into the windows of the Ever After Emporium, let alone come inside. It was the quietest Thursday morning Hope had experienced since she’d started work there three weeks earlier and she was starting to wonder whether she’d see a single customer before lunch. Of course, it meant she had plenty of time to study the book Mr Young had given her on Victorian furniture but although she was keen to learn, it wasn’t the most engrossing read she’d ever picked up.

            The Minster chimed outside, accompanied by the faint call of the cuckoo clock that hung on a wall deeper inside the shop, and Hope saw the time was 11.15. Stretching her arms over her head, she bookmarked the page and considered making a cup of tea. Mr Young was in the store rooms upstairs, undertaking some restoration work with a local craftsman, but she didn’t want to disturb him. Surely it would be fine to leave the till unattended for a few minutes while she nipped into the tiny kitchen tucked away beneath the curving staircase at the rear of the shop . . .

            No sooner had she clicked the kettle on than the bell above the door jangled. Swallowing a huff of disbelief, Hope dropped the teabag she held into a cup and hurried back to the shop floor. A man stood in front of the door, his umbrella dripping onto the mat. Beside him was a blonde-haired little girl of around four or five, dressed in a bright yellow raincoat, with yellow wellington boots.

            ‘Good morning,’ she said, smiling. ‘There’s an umbrella stand by the door if you’d like to use it.’

            The man looked up as she approached but the child’s eyes stayed firmly downcast. ‘Thanks,’ he replied. ‘Although I’m bound to forget it on the way out.’

            She watched as he slotted the folded umbrella into the stand. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll remind you. Is there anything in particular you’re interested in or would you prefer to browse?’

            His gaze flickered to the little girl as he wiped the rain from his fingers. ‘Brodie was very taken with the rocking horse in your window. And the flamingos next door.’

            Hope’s smile deepened. ‘Ah, the flamingos are my favourites too,’ she said, trying to catch the girl’s eye. ‘Would you like a closer look?’

            But Brodie didn’t look up or respond. Instead, one yellow-booted foot turned inwards to rub against the other.

            ‘I think she’d like that very much,’ the man said, moving away from the doorway and into the aisle that led deeper into the shop. ‘Thank you.’

            Hope lifted the counter and slipped through the gap to join them. ‘I hope they’re going to behave themselves,’ she said gravely. ‘Last time I took someone to meet them they caused a dreadful hullaballoo.’

            This time she did get a reaction but it wasn’t the one she’d anticipated. Rather than laugh, Brodie moved closer to her father’s leg and hid her face. He threw Hope an apologetic look. ‘She takes things a bit literally, I’m afraid.’ He dropped down to the child’s level and spoke in a soothing voice. ‘It’s okay, the lady was only joking. The flamingos aren’t going to hurt you.’

            Hope shook her head in dismay. ‘No, they absolutely won’t. I was being silly – I’m sorry.’

            This met with silence, although a tell-tale wobble of the shoulders suggested it wouldn’t last long, and Hope felt a scarlet flush of consternation start to creep across her cheeks. Any minute now the child was going to burst into tears and it would be all her fault.

            ‘I’m really sorry—’ she began, as the man straightened up and looked around.

            His gaze came to rest on a small North African puzzle box that sat on the counter beside the till. ‘Look, Brodie, it’s a secret keeper,’ he said. ‘Like the one Grandma has.’

            He glanced at Hope, as if asking permission to pick it up, and she hesitated. The polished cedarwood puzzle box was one of the items that wasn’t for sale – Mr Young had given her a list and reminded her that a red dot meant ‘Do Not Sell’. But it wouldn’t hurt to let Brodie look at it, would it? Especially since the box didn’t open. Little fingerprints could be polished away and no one would be any the wiser. ‘Go ahead,’ she said.

            Brodie’s focus changed the moment her father held out the box. She let go of his leg and took it, stretching her small hands around the ornate cube and tilting it this way and that. A faint rattle from inside seemed to catch her attention and she raised the box to her ear, shaking it gently. A moment later, she sat cross-legged on the floor and began to probe the carved cedarwood surface with deft fingers.

            Disaster apparently averted, the man relaxed and studied Hope with fresh curiosity. ‘You’re new here, aren’t you?’

            She nodded. ‘Yes, I started a few weeks ago. Look, I’m really sorry for upsetting your daughter. I was just trying to be friendly.’

            An odd look crossed his face and Hope cringed inside, wondering if she’d made another faux pas. But then he glanced down at the girl, engrossed in the puzzle box, and he offered Hope a wry smile. ‘No harm done. Brodie is – well, I suppose you might say she’s sensitive.’ He held out his hand. ‘I’m Will Silverwood. I own Silverwood’s jewellery shop, over in the Shambles.’

            Something in the way he spoke suggested there was more to Brodie’s reaction than simple sensitivity. For a split second, Hope was tempted to ask what he meant but it wasn’t really any of her business. She shook his hand instead. ‘Hope Henderson. Pleased to meet you.’

            His fingers were still cool from the rain and the skin felt the tiniest bit rough against hers. But it was his smile that really caught her attention – the kind that was so warm it was like coming in from the cold on a frosty day. She liked the way it made his eyes crinkle at the edges, as though she was an old friend he hadn’t seen for ages. His eyes were nice too, she decided – hazel, framed with generous lashes – and he had good hair, golden brown with a hint of curl, although it was touching the collar of his coat and looked in need of a trim.

            Will cleared his throat, a gentle, barely there sound that brought Hope back with a jolt. With an icy rush of horror, she realized she’d been staring dreamily at him for an embarrassingly long time. And worse – so much worse – she was still holding his hand. ‘Sorry,’ she said, letting go as though his fingers had burned her. ‘I didn’t mean to – I’m so sorry!’

            ‘Don’t apologize,’ he said, and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened. ‘I’ve been known to daydream mid-conversation too. I like to think it’s the sign of a creative mind.’

            His generosity made Hope cringe even more, because she hadn’t been daydreaming, she’d been – what, exactly? Not perving, she thought with an inward shudder, but definitely . . . admiring. And that wasn’t something she wanted to admit to a total stranger – to a customer, no less. ‘Ha ha,’ she said weakly. ‘I’ll have to remember that for the next time I – er – drift off.’

            ‘It’s a useful explanation,’ he agreed. ‘So what brings you to the Emporium? Have you always worked in antiques?’

            Praying she didn’t look as flustered as she felt, Hope wondered how to reply; admitting she’d applied for the job on a whim would make her seem even flakier than she already appeared and it was hardly a professional response. ‘I’ve always had an interest in old things,’ she answered, choosing her words with care. ‘And who could resist the opportunity to spend every day somewhere like this?’

            ‘Not me,’ Will said. ‘Or Brodie, for that matter.’

            They both glanced down at the girl, who was still absorbed in her task. ‘I’m afraid the box isn’t for sale,’ Hope said. ‘It’s a bit of an enigma – no one’s been able to work out how to open it.’

            He nodded. ‘My mother has one. I remember spending hours trying to get into it and was ready to take a hammer to it until my brother revealed the secret.’

            ‘Which was?’

            ‘A few impossible-to-detect sliding panels and cleverly hidden compartments,’ he replied.       ‘But each box is individually crafted – what opens one won’t work on another. They wouldn’t be much good for keeping secrets if they all worked in the same way.’

            Hope smiled and felt the last vestiges of embarrassment fade away. ‘Well, this one seems set to keep its secrets forever. I don’t think Mr Young would appreciate us taking a hammer to it.’

            Will laughed and Hope decided she liked that too. They stood for a moment, smiling at each other, until the bell over the door jangled again and a tall woman with a hood over her eyes hurried inside. ‘Hells bells, Hope, is it ever going to stop raining?’

            She paused in the doorway, shaking down her hood to reveal a mane of lustrous dark hair as she took in the scene. ‘Oops, I didn’t realize you had a customer.’ And then her expression lit up. ‘Oh, but it’s only Will. I don’t have to mind my manners after all.’

            Hope had to swallow a grin; she’d met Iris on her second day at the Ever After Emporium, when the florist had hurried across the road and begged to borrow an Art Deco vase for the Blooming Dales window display. From that first whirlwind encounter, Hope had formed the distinct impression that Iris wasn’t really one for observing the social rules that governed most people’s behaviour. She was forthright and bold, wore scarlet lipstick and winged eyeliner as though she woke up that way every day, and had the kind of irrepressible smile that hinted she might bubble up into laughter at any moment. Hope had warmed to her immediately and thought she might be on her way to making her first new friend in York. It wasn’t surprising that Iris would know Will – Hope got the impression that there was a real sense of community within the ancient walls that surrounded the city’s heart. There was probably a traders’ association, where the glamorous florist must turn heads and steal hearts in equal measure.

            ‘Not just me,’ Will said, shifting slightly so Iris could see the child at his feet.

            ‘Oh,’ she breathed, walking towards them. ‘This must be Brodie.’

            ‘It is,’ he replied. ‘So, minding of manners is definitely still required.’

            Not that Brodie was paying any of them the least bit of attention. She was still poking and prodding at the box, turning it over and over in her small hands, and Hope could almost feel the girl’s determination to solve the riddle. But the secret had eluded all the adults of the Ever After Emporium – was it possible that a child would succeed where they had failed? Hope pictured her nephews and their boisterous, exuberant approach to play; the box would have been discarded in favour of a football within seconds. But Brodie was entirely different – all her concentration was focused on the job and she seemed to be enclosed in her own little world. It was remarkable.

            ‘How is she coping?’ Iris asked, lowering her voice. ‘More to the point, how are you coping?’

            Will smiled but this time it didn’t reach his eyes. ‘Oh, you know. Taking it one day at a time.’

            Wary of being caught staring again, Hope let her own gaze drift around the shop as she wondered about the exchange. There’d been sympathy in Iris’s tone and sadness in Will’s. Hope recognized the vagueness of his reply too, using the sort of words she had when she’d needed to politely fend off well-meaning enquiries after Rob’s death. A failed marriage, perhaps, and all the heartache and adjustments that brought. It would certainly explain the way Iris was watching Will, as though he might break at any moment. Hope was familiar with that look as well, although thankfully not from Iris or anyone else in York, apart from her family. She’d told Iris she was single, when the florist had asked what her partner did, and then deflected the conversation onto safer ground. Another coping mechanism.

            ‘How’s business?’ Will asked, glancing at Blooming Dales through the rain-speckled window.         ‘I suppose the flowers don’t mind the wet weather.’

            ‘They might not but I do,’ Iris said, wrinkling her nose. ‘Walk-in trade is down this week – it’s a good thing we’ve got plenty of wedding orders to keep us busy.’

            His eyes drifted to Brodie once more. ‘Your windows always look so amazing. Maybe we’ll pop in and pick up a bouquet for home, to remind us it’s almost summer.’

            Iris dipped her head. ‘I could deliver it, if you like, save you having to carry it in this rain. Do you have a favourite flower, Brodie?’

            That got the little girl’s attention. She raised her blonde head to study Iris, then flicked her gaze towards the window.

            Hope thought she understood. ‘Pink, like the flamingos?’

            Brodie gave a shy nod.

            ‘Flamingo pink,’ Iris repeated approvingly. ‘Very nice. I’m thinking gerbera, roses and maybe some alstroemeria. Tall and graceful, just like the birds.’

            Will gave her a helpless look. ‘They won’t look graceful if I have to arrange them. Do they come in a vase?’

            Iris winked at Brodie. ‘I’ll take care of everything. All you’ll have to do is put the bouquet into water.’

            ‘I can probably manage that,’ Will said. ‘With Brodie’s help, obviously.’

            ‘Then how does a Saturday morning delivery sound?’ Iris asked. ‘You can drop me a message later with the address for delivery.’

            ‘Sounds like the perfect way to start the weekend,’ Will said. ‘Thanks, Iris. This is very kind of you.’

            The florist waved away his thanks. ‘It’s no trouble. I deliver all over the city – have bike, will travel.’

            Hope blinked as she tried to build a mental picture. ‘You deliver flowers by bike? How?’

            ‘Of course,’ Iris said, grinning. ‘We’re very eco-conscious. I attach a lightweight trailer to the back, load it up and off I go.’

            ‘In all weathers?’ Hope said, with a dubious glance at the rainy street outside.

            ‘Us Yorkshire women are made of stern stuff,’ Iris replied. ‘But we’re practical too – I also have a cosy little Volkswagen van for when the weather is really grim.’

            Hope was about to say that she was a Yorkshire woman too, although her years in London had worn her accent away, but Brodie stood up abruptly and handed the puzzle box to Will. He checked his watch. ‘You’re right – we should probably think about lunch.’ He gave the box to Hope. ‘Thanks for letting her handle it.’

            ‘It’s a shame she didn’t crack the mystery,’ Hope said. ‘Mr Young would have been delighted.’

            His eyes creased at the edges as he smiled. ‘I’m sure we’ll be back.’

            ‘Maybe next time, then,’ Hope said. ‘I’ll have a word with the flamingos too.’

            It was only after Will and Brodie had made their way back out into the rain, with the umbrella safely in hand, that Hope realized what had been troubling her. In the whole time they’d been in the shop, she’d hadn’t heard the little girl make a single sound.

            Iris puffed out her cheeks when Hope mentioned Brodie’s silence. ‘No, she doesn’t speak. Not since the accident.’

            Cold dread settled in Hope’s chest. Maybe Will wasn’t newly separated. Maybe it was more awful than that. ‘The accident,’ she repeated slowly.

            ‘The car crash,’ Iris said. ‘Back in February, on the A64. You might remember – the road was closed for the best part of a day.’

            Hope swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. ‘I wasn’t living here then.’

            The florist sighed. ‘It was terrible, one of those freak accidents that doesn’t seem to be anyone’s fault. You only needed to glimpse the car to know no one could have survived.’

            One hand flew to Hope’s mouth as Iris confirmed her worst fears. ‘Oh no.’

            ‘Brodie was devastated, as you’d expect. Will’s doing his best but it takes time, doesn’t it? I know kids are resilient but that’s an impossible hole to fill.’

            Especially when he’d be struggling with the loss of a partner himself, Hope thought as sympathy and pity welled up inside her. It was a miracle he was coping as well as he was; she certainly hadn’t after Rob’s death.

            ‘Poor Brodie,’ Iris went on, with a sorrowful shake of her head.

            ‘Poor Will too,’ Hope said. ‘He must be grieving as well.’

            A frown creased Iris’s forehead. ‘Of course. Losing a brother is awful. But Brodie lost both her parents – I’m not surprised she’s retreated into herself.”

            The words crashed over Hope like a wave. Had Iris said Brodie had lost both parents? ‘But I thought . . . isn’t he—’

            Iris stared at her for a moment, then slapped her own forehead. ‘Oh, I’m an idiot! Of course you assumed Will was Brodie’s dad – why wouldn’t you?’

            Bewildered, Hope pieced together the evidence. ‘So he’s her . . . uncle?’

            ‘And her closest living relative,’ Iris replied. ‘Or at least, the only one capable of looking after a five-year-old. His mother has dementia, I think, and lives in a care home. And Will is Brodie’s godfather – there was no question of her going anywhere else.’

            Anywhere else being foster care, Hope guessed, or a distant relative or family friend who were virtual strangers. Another wave of pity swept over her. ‘That poor girl.’

            ‘Yeah,’ Iris agreed. ‘Obviously, it’s been tough for Will too. It’s not as though he’s got anyone to help him. Imagine going from being a single bloke to a surrogate parent overnight.’

            While dealing with his own loss too, Hope thought. Although she could imagine having someone else to care for might help with the grief; plenty of people had suggested she get a puppy or a kitten in the months after she’d lost Rob but it hadn’t seemed fair when she’d be out at work every day. A child was another ballgame entirely. The sense of responsibility must be overwhelming.

            ‘He took a shine to you, though,’ Iris went on, a smile playing at the corners of her scarlet lips. ‘And you’re single too. New in town.’

            Hope’s face bloomed with sudden heat. ‘What? That’s not true. I mean, yes I am single and new here but he definitely wasn’t . . . he didn’t—’

            She broke off as Iris threw her a disbelieving look. ‘Hope. You could have cut the tension between you with that silver letter-opener over there.’

            ‘But –’ Hope flailed in mortified bewilderment, thinking back to the moment Iris had burst into the shop. ‘But there was no tension – we were chatting about the puzzle box.’

            ‘It looked like more than that to me. You were both smiling for a start.’ Iris waggled her eyebrows. ‘Really smiling.’

            She couldn’t deny that, Hope thought, resisting an urge to fan her overheated cheeks. ‘Maybe we were,’ she said. ‘But it was on a strictly professional basis.’

            The other woman nodded. ‘I’m sure it was. But even so, I know chemistry when I see it.’ She paused to smirk at Hope. ‘Sexual chemistry.’

            Hope wanted to crawl under the nearby Edwardian occasional table. Iris was sharp – of course she’d noticed her admiring Will. She might as well have been projecting an enormous cartoon love heart over her head. ‘I’m sure he has enough on his plate at the moment,’ she said, hating the stiffness in her voice. ‘And I’m not looking for a relationship either.’

            Instantly, Iris looked contrite. ‘Ah, I’m getting carried away – making assumptions. It’s a weakness of mine – sorry.’

            Hope took a deep breath and willed her flaming skin to cool down. ‘It’s okay. No harm done.’

            ‘Good,’ Iris said and paused, looking at Hope with a speculative gaze. ‘If you’re not looking for a relationship, are you at least in the market for making new friends?’

            ‘Yes,’ Hope said cautiously.

            The florist beamed at her. ‘Great! How do you feel about dancing?’

#BlogTour: MIRRORLAND by Carole Johnstone @C_L_Johnstone @BoroughPress @fictionpubteam @RandomTTours @annecater

Publication: 15th April 2021 – The Borough Press

The most dangerous stories are the ones we tell ourselves…

No. 36 Westeryk Road: an imposing flat-stone house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A place of curving shadows and crumbling grandeur. But it’s what lies under the house that is extraordinary – Mirrorland. A vivid make-believe world that twin sisters Cat and El created as children. A place of escape, but from what?

Now in her thirties, Cat has turned her back on her past. But when she receives news that one sunny morning, El left harbour in her sailboat and never came back, she is forced to return to Westeryk Road; to re-enter a forgotten world of lies, betrayal and danger.
 
Because El had a plan. She’s left behind a treasure hunt that will unearth long-buried secrets. And to discover the truth, Cat must first confront the reality of her childhood – a childhood that wasn’t nearly as idyllic as she remembers…

AMAZON

WATERSTONES

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I am thrilled to welcome you on my stop for the blog tour of Mirrorland, the incredible debut novel by Carole Johnstone.

Cat and El are twins. Actually, they are Mirror Twins – “rare, special, two in one hundred thousand” -, their mother would dress them in identical clothes so that when Cat looked at El it was like looking in a mirror. Their childhood was far from ordinary, living with their mother and grandfather in no. 36 Westeryk Road, in a house where each room had a name and they had created a world of fantasy full of adventures called Mirrorland.

Now in their thirties, Cat and El haven’t spoken and seen each other in twelve years, but when El suddenly disappears, Cat hops on the first plane back home. El’s husband is distraught, the police is convinced that El is dead, but Cat knows she is alive and thinks that this is just another trick of her sister to get attention. And when Cat starts to get emails full of clues, her search for her sister turns into a treasure hunt and she is forced to face her past and her childhood.

I really enjoyed Mirrorland. It is stimulating, engaging, intense, and compelling with complex and multi-layered characters. It is not always easy to follow the story as the fantasy merges with the reality and the past mixes with the present, but I found myself completely immersed in the world of Mirroland and its characters and in the story of the two sisters. As you read, you realize that Mirrorland is not simply a world invented by two very creative children and their mother, but the truth is much more disturbing and darker than you expect: how much of Mirrorland is fantasy? And, is El disappearance connected to Mirrorland? Is her husband involved? And why the two sisters haven’t spoken to each other for twelve years? The truth is slowly unraveled and it is completely unexpected.

Slow-paced, well-written, and carefully-plotted, Mirrorland is a twisty and thrilling story that will keep you hooked from the first to the last page. Highly recommended!

A huge thank you to Anne Cater and The Borough Press for inviting me to join the blog tour and providing me with a proof of the novel.

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Carole Johnstone’s award-winning short fiction has been reprinted in many annual ‘Best of’ anthologies in the UK and US. She lives in Argyll & Bute, Scotland, with her husband. Mirrorland is her debut novel.