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Ellie gave in to the insistent nagging at the fringes of her sleep and woke up. She focused on the display from the digital clock next to the bed.
Two-sixteen—and she needed to go to the bathroom. But it was her first night in an unfamiliar house and she didn't really want to be crashing around in the dark, even if she was the sole occupant.
She punched her pillow and flopped onto her other side, burying her head under the duvet. She could last. Clamping her eyes shut, she shifted position again, wriggling into the mattress. The seconds sloped by in the thick silence. She lay completely still, counting her heartbeats.
Apparently she couldn't last. Bother.
She blinked and tried to see where the outline of the door was in the blackness of the bedroom. The dull green glow from the alarm clock lit the duvet but not much more. The edge of the bed was about as inviting as the edge of a cliff.
Ellie Bond, get hold of yourself! A grown woman has no business being scared of the dark. Even in the kind of huge old house that looked as if it might have ghosts or bats in the attic.
She flung the duvet off and planted her feet firmly on the carpet, but hesitated for a couple of seconds before she stood up and inched towards the wall.
Ouch! Closer than she'd guessed.
Maybe she should have paid more attention when she'd dumped her cases in here, but she'd been so exhausted she'd only managed half her unpacking before she'd fallen into the large, squashy bed.
She rubbed her shoulder and felt along the wall for the door. It was a couple of steps to the left from her point of impact. The antique handle complained as she twisted it millimetre by millimetre. She winced and opened the door slowly and carefully. Why, she didn't know. It just seemed wrong to be too noisy in someone else's house late at night, even if they were away from home.
Ellie leant out of the doorway and slid the flat of her hand along the wall in search of the light switch.
Where was the stupid thing?
Certainly not within easy reach. But as she crept along the hallway the clouds parted and sent a sliver of moonlight through the half-open curtains at the end of the landing. Bingo! She could see the bathroom door, right next to the window. She padded more speedily along the wooden floor, her bare feet sticking to the layers of old varnish.
Relief swirled through her as she scrambled inside the bathroom and yanked the light cord. A few minutes later she opened the door and froze. The moonlight had evaporated and she was left standing in the pitch-dark.
Don't panic, Ellie. Think!
There had to be logical way to deal with this.
'Okay,' she whispered out loud, 'my room is the—' she counted on her fingers '—third on the left…I think.' All she had to do was feel for the doors and she would be back in that wonderfully comfortable bed in no time.
She tiptoed close to the wood panelling, letting her left fingers walk along the surface in search of door fames.
She meant to creep slowly, but with each step her pulse increased, adding speed to her steps.
She opened the door and made a quick dash for the bed. Ever since she was a child she'd had an irrational fear that some shadowy figure underneath would grab her ankles when she got close. She'd even perfected a sprint and dive manoeuvre in her teenage years. She decided to resurrect it now.
She tripped over a discarded shoe and stumbled into a solid wall of…something.
It was warm. And breathing.
There was somebody in the house! A burglar, or an axe-wielding maniac…
Her brain short-circuited. Too much information at once. Too much to process. Thankfully, more primal instincts took over. She backed away, hoping she hadn't got muddled and that the door was still directly behind her. But she hadn't made more than two steps when a large, strong hand grabbed her wrist.
Ellie's stomach somersaulted and she froze. Without even thinking about why or how, she lunged at him, whoever he was, and shoved the heel of her hand under his chin, causing him to grunt and stumble backwards.
Mother, I will never moan about the self-defence classes you made me go to in the village hall again!
In the surreal slow-motion moment that followed, she wondered why a burglar would be bare-chested in March, but before the thought was fully formed in her head his other arm grabbed her and he fell, taking her with him. She came crashing down on top of him, and then they lay winded in a tangle of arms and legs on the floor.
Here, he had the advantage. She didn't know how, but she could sense he was taller than her, and if the chest she'd just landed on was anything to go by he had five times as many muscles. Somehow as they'd fallen they'd twisted, and she was now partly pinned underneath him, her legs trapped. She started to wriggle.
I should have paid more attention at those classes, instead of gossiping at the back with Janice Bradford.
Because the man obviously had no intention of letting her loose. In one swift movement he flipped her onto her back, his hands clamping both her wrists and digging them into the scratchy wool rug while his knees clamped her thighs together. The air left Ellie's body with an 'oof noise.
She flailed and struggled, but it was like trying to dislodge a lump of granite. Eventually she lay still beneath him, every muscle rigid. His toothpaste-scented breath came in short puffs, warming the skin of her neck. Panic fluttered in her chest.
It dawned on her that her original assumption that he was a burglar might be a tad optimistic. Things could be about to get a lot worse.
She had to act now—before he made his next move.
In a moment of pure instinct, she lifted her head and sank her teeth into the smooth skin of his shoulder. Then, while he was yelping in pain, she used every bit of strength in her five-foot-five frame to rock him to her left, getting him off-balance and thereby gaining enough momentum to swing him back in the other direction. The plan was to fling him off her so she could escape.
The plan was flawed.
He tumbled over, all right, but as she tried to crawl away he got hold of her right foot and dragged her back towards him. Ellie tried to stop herself by twisting over and clawing at the rug, but large tufts just came away in her fingers. And then she realised she was travelling further than she'd scurried away. She was being dragged back towards the bed.
That was when she started shouting. A wave of white-hot anger swept up her body.
How dared he?
'Get out of my bedroom!' she screamed. 'Or I'll—'
He was angry, but there was something more in his voice—confusion?
Harsh light flooded the room, accompanied by the click of a switch. Ellie peeled her face off the carpet and blinked a few times, desperate to focus on anything that might give her a clue as to where the door was. Her eyes began to adjust, and she made out a tall figure against the pale blue of the wall.
Pale blue? Oh, help! My room is a kind of heritage yellow colour.
She crinkled her eyelids until they were almost shut, and swivelled her head to face her attacker. Through the blur of her eyelashes she saw a pair of deep brown eyes staring at her. There was something about them…Had she dreamt about a pair of eyes just like that before she'd woken up? Half a memory was lodged somewhere, refusing to make sense.
Ellie's chest reverberated with the pounding of her heart and she felt the fire wash up her face and settle in the tips of her ears. He looked as astonished as she felt.
She had seen those eyes before, but not in her dreams. They hadn't been scowling then, but laughing, twinkling…
Ellie let out a noise that was part groan, part whimper as the memory clunked into place. She started to collect her limbs together and move away.
'I'm…I'm…so sorry! I got lost in the dark…' She shot a glance at him, but his face was still etched with confusion. 'I mean, I thought you were a—a maniac'
He blinked. Something told her his assessment of her hadn't been dissimilar.
'I know who I am. Who on earth are you?'
She licked her lips—they seemed to have dried out completely—and cleared her throat. 'I'm Ellie Bond, your new housekeeper.'
One month earlier
Ellie's limbs stopped working the moment she crossed the threshold of the coffee shop. The woman in the red coat was early. She wasn't supposed to be here yet, but there she was, sitting at a table and reading a newspaper. After a few seconds the door swung closed behind Ellie, hitting her on the bottom. She didn't even flinch, mainly because she felt as if she'd swallowed a thousand ice cubes and they were now all jostling for position as they slowly melted, spreading outwards through her body.
The woman's long dark hair almost touched the tabletop as she bent over an absorbing story. Chunky silver earrings glinted in her ears when she flicked her hair out of the way so she could turn the page. Earrings that Ellie had given her for her last birthday.
The woman hadn't noticed Ellie yet, and she was glad about that. She stared harder. Perhaps if she just stood here for a moment, took her time, it would come to her.
Something the woman was reading must have bothered her, because she stiffened and, even though her head was bowed, Ellie knew that three vertical lines had just appeared above the bridge of the woman's nose. That always happened when she frowned. When people had been friends for more than a decade, they tended to notice little things like that about each other without even realising it. The brain collected a scrap-book about a person, made up of assorted images, sensations, sounds and aromas, all of which could be called up at a moment's notice. And Ellie had plenty of those memories flooding into the front of her consciousness right now—untidy college bedrooms, the smell of dusty books in the library, the giggles of late-night gossip sessions…
A fact that only made the current situation more galling.
Ellie couldn't remember her name.
Since the accident, finding the right name or word had become like rummaging around in the cupboard under the stairs without a torch. She knew the information she wanted was in her brain somewhere, but she was fumbling in the dark, not really knowing what she was looking for and just hoping she'd recognise it when she finally laid hold of it.
A waitress bustled past her, and the movement must have alerted her friend to the person standing at the edge of her peripheral vision, because she looked up from her newspaper and smiled at Ellie.
Ellie waved back, but behind her answering smile she was running through the letters of the alphabet, just as she'd been taught at the support group, to see if any of them jogged her memory.
Anna? Alice? Amy?
The woman stood up, beaming now, and Ellie had no choice but to start walking towards her.
The chunky earrings bobbed as her friend stood and drew her into a hug. Ellie just stood there for a moment like a rag doll, and then she made a conscious decision to contract her arm muscles and squeeze back. Not that she was opposed to hugging; it was just that her brain was far too busy ferreting around for the right letter, the right syllable, to get her started.
Christine... Caroline... Carly?
Carly. It seemed right and not right at the same time.
A whisper tickled her ear. 'It's so good to see you, Ellie!'
Ellie knew her friend would understand if she just admitted her memory blank. But Ellie was fed up with being understood. She just wanted to be—to live her life the way everyone else did, without the sympathetic glances. That was why she'd arranged this meeting in the first place.
A familiar sensation washed over her. She imagined it to be what it might feel like if portions of her memory were buoys, chained to a deep and murky ocean floor, and then all of a sudden one freed itself and floated upwards, arriving on the surface with a plop.
'Hi, Charlie,' she said, and finally relaxed into the hug. 'It's good to see you too.'
She tried not to, but as she pulled away and sat down Ellie sighed, deep and hard. Charlie tilted her head and looked at her.
'How are you?'
Ah. How innocent that phrase sounded. How kind and well-meaning.
Ellie had come to hate it. People were always asking her that, normally wearing a concerned expression. Oh, she wasn't fooled a bit. It wasn't small talk. Chit-chat. What people wanted from her when they asked that question was a full psychological and medical rundown.
She smiled, but her lips remained firmly pressed together. 'I'm great. Really.'
Charlie kept staring at her. 'Still getting the headaches?'
'Only occasionally,' she replied, shrugging the observation away.
The wicked twinkle returned to Charlie's eyes as she stood back and looked Ellie up and down. 'You've had your hair cut,' she said.
Ellie automatically raised a hand to feel the blunt ends of her tousled blonde curls. She'd only had it done a few days ago, and she still wasn't used to finding fresh air where there had once been heavy ringlets that reached halfway down her back. The ends now just brushed the tops of her shoulders. It was shorter, maybe a bit younger, and a heck of a lot more manageable.
'I was ready for a change,' she said.
That was why she was here. She might as well get down to business and ask Charlie the question that had been burning her tongue all morning. If she didn't do it soon she was likely to get distracted and end up going home without mentioning it at all. She opened her mouth to speak.
'I don't know about you,' Charlie said in a grave voice, 'but I can't be expected to indulge in a month's worth of gossip without a side order of caffeine—and possibly a muffin or three. It's just not done.'
Ellie glanced over at the counter then stood up.
'I'll have a…'
Oh, flip. What was the word? She knew she knew it, but it seemed to be speeding away from her, like a dream that was fast evaporating with the last traces of sleep.
'You know…the fluffy, milky drink with powder on top.'
Charlie didn't bat an eyelid, bless her. 'Two cappuccinos, please,' she said to the barista.