Read an Excerpt
A Vengeful Deception
By Lee Wilkinson
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Chapter OneIt was Christmas Eve and, at five o'clock in the afternoon, already dark outside. In the old square, the carefully preserved Victorian street lamps spilled pools of yellow light on to the cobbles.
In line with the bow window of her now empty shop, Anna was stooping to nail down the lid of a wooden packing case.
An occasional glance through the uneven panes had told her that for the last half an hour or so there had been few people about in the square.
Most of the other shops, in what was something of a backwater, were already closed or closing. Only the jewellers and the expensive wine merchants, their windows glittering with tinsel, seemed set to remain open longer.
A sudden pricking in her thumbs, the certainty that someone was standing outside watching her, made Anna glance up sharply. Right on the edge of her vision, a dark figure was moving away.
Shrugging off a feeling of unease, she assured herself that it had no doubt been someone just innocently walking past.
Magnified by the bottle-glass, she could see huge, feathery flakes of snow starting to drift down. She had always loved snow, and the sight brought a touch of magic to an otherwise dismal day.
Bending again to her task, she finished knocking the final nail into the lid of the last packing case, and, putting down her hammer, looked around her with a faint sigh.
Apart from a residue of dust and packing materials, nothingwas left. The shelves and the window were bare, as was the dark, cramped office-cum-stockroom at the rear of the tiny Dickensian shop.
Only the slightly musty smell of old paper, leather bindings, and printer's ink lingering on the air spoke of books and a dream that had ended.
All the most precious first editions and manuscripts had gone, collected the previous day by the agent who had bought them.
The rest of the stock had been carefully packed into cases that were scheduled to be picked up during the quiet few days between Christmas and New Year.
From the first, Anna's long-cherished ambition to run her own specialist bookshop had been encouraged by her good friend Cleo.
Though complete opposites in both temperament and looks - Anna, tall and slim and dark, a quiet, self-contained girl, Cleo, short and plump and fair, bubbling with life and enthusiasm - the two girls had been friends since they were toddlers.
Throughout their schooldays and college years they had shared nearly all their hopes and fears, their successes and disappointments.
When Anna had finally managed to raise enough capital to rent the shop and add a few antique maps to her small amount of stock, Cleo had been as pleased as Punch.
Though a busy mother with young twins, she had given what practical help she could, and an endless supply of moral support.
But now, after many months of hard work and effort, and mainly due to lack of finance, the venture had sadly ended in defeat.
Cleo, vastly sympathetic but unable to help, had popped into the shop the previous day to lament its closure. `It's a damned shame. I just wish I could help in some way but, short of winning the lottery ... What will you do now?'
Anna had shrugged, trying to appear philosophical. `As soon as Christmas is over, start looking for a job.'
`It shouldn't be too difficult with your knowledge and qualifications.'
They both knew that the optimism was more than a trifle forced.
Rymington, a small, picturesque market town encircled by hills and quiet, fertile fields, was thriving and affluent. Within easy reach of London, it attracted a stream of seasonal holiday-makers. But jobs, other than in the tourist industry, were few and far between.
It was one of the reasons that had made Anna seize the chance and take over the shop on a short lease, and with what she knew to be barely sufficient capital. There had simply been no other opportunities available.
Despite that lack, she wanted to stay in Rymington where she had been born and brought up. After leaving college, a couple of years spent in London had only reinforced her dislike of big cities, and finally sent her home weary and disillusioned.
`You were so close to making a go of it,' Cleo had mourned. `If only the lease hadn't come up for renewal.'
But it had. And the considerably higher rent that Deon Enterprises, the new owners of the complex, were demanding had been the last straw.
All that remained of the stock Anna had so painstakingly gathered together had been bought as a job lot by an agent for a private collector.
Knowing she was in a cleft stick, he had beaten her down in price and finally, in desperation, she had been forced to sell at a loss.
Her only consolation was that the sale had raised just enough money to cover her debts, including what she owed the bank, and allow her to walk away with her head held high.
The same way she had walked away from David. No, she wouldn't think about David. Memory Lane was just a circular route around a lingering pain.
Squaring her shoulders, Anna crossed to the mahogany counter, her footsteps echoing in the emptiness, and, pulling on her coat, picked up her shoulder-bag and the small weekend case that waited there.
When they had exchanged Christmas gifts, Cleo had asked, `Will you be seeing Paul over the holiday?'
`No,' Anna had answered firmly. `He wanted me to, but I said I couldn't. I didn't want to raise his hopes.'
`You could do a lot worse.' Cleo, who had introduced the pair, felt she had a vested interest. `I know he's more than fifteen years older than you, but he's a well-respected barrister, with a very nice house, and he's not bad-looking. What more could any girl ask?'
Cleo was so happy with her own marriage that she felt sorry for anyone who didn't share the same blissful state.
`You do like him, don't you?' she persisted.
Resisting the temptation to say, not particularly, Anna agreed, `Yes, he's very nice.'
`And you like children.' Paul was a widower with a nine-year-old daughter.
`Yes, I like children,' Anna admitted. `Sophie's a sweet little girl. But that doesn't mean I want to be her stepmother.'
Sighing, Cleo gave up for the time being. `So what are you planning to do over Christmas?'
`Just have a nice quiet break,' Anna said lightly.
The other girl wasn't fooled for an instant. `That means you're going to be on your own. Why don't you come to us again? Come for the whole weekend.'
Alan, Cleo's husband, was a quiet, rather shy man, who wasn't fond of company.
`Thanks, but I don't think I will.'
`Don't be silly,' Cleo said, well aware of the reason for the refusal. `Alan won't object.'
He might not object, because he loved his wife and wanted to make her happy, but he wouldn't like it.
Though he'd done his best to make Anna welcome the previous year, when she had just moved back to the town, Anna had felt sure he would rather have been alone with his family.
`And the twins will be delighted,' Cleo urged. `They'll probably get you up at the crack of dawn, but it has to be better than spending a lonely Christmas in a bedsit.'
Troubled by the thought that Cleo might only be asking her out of a sense of duty, and might secretly prefer to have her husband and children to herself, Anna said, `Thanks a million. But I really won't be lonely. I'll find plenty to do.'
`Well, I won't try to persuade you, but if you change your mind at the last minute, just turn up. The spare room's ready, we've enough food to feed an army, and you'll be more than welcome. Truly.'
And this morning, over her solitary breakfast of toast and coffee, her spirits at their lowest ebb, Anna had changed her mind.
Excerpted from A Vengeful Deception by Lee Wilkinson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.