"a rich, mystery debut" Kirkus Starred Review
A picture hides a thousand lies... And only Iris Grey can uncover the truth.
Iris Grey rents a quaint cottage in a picture-perfect Hampshire village, looking to escape from her crumbling marriage. She is drawn to the neighboring Wetherby family, and is commissioned to paint a portrait of Dominic Wetherby, a celebrated crime writer.
At the Wetherby's Christmas Eve party, the mulled wine is in full flow - but so are tensions and rivalries among the guests. On Christmas Day, the youngest member of the Wetherby family, Lorcan, finds a body in the water. A tragic accident? Or a deadly crime?
With the snow falling, Iris enters a world of village gossip, romantic intrigue, buried secrets, and murder.
About the Author
Tilly's first book, ADORED, was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming an instant New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller. She now divides her time between the UK and America, writing her own books and the new series of Sidney Sheldon novels.
Read an Excerpt
Two months earlier
Iris Grey set down her brush and blew on the tips of her frozen fingers.
It was a bitterly cold morning in Hazelford, leaden and drear, with a stinging October wind that presaged the end of autumn and the onset of winter in earnest. But despite the cold, there was something about the heavy darkness of the morning sky, with its clouds purple and swollen like bruises, that made Iris want to get outside and paint. That and the fact that she'd been awake since four, staring at the ceiling in Mill Cottage, fighting back her own dark clouds of depression, running over everything in her mind until she could stand it no longer. She had to do something.
Picking up her brush again, she dipped the tip into the bright white oil paint she used to re-create the tiny, glancing flashes of light reflected off the river. At least I'm here and not in London, she thought. Not stuck in that miserable flat with Ian.
Ian McBride, Iris's husband of almost eighteen years, was back at their place in Clapham, no doubt still fast asleep. Nothing stopped Ian from sleeping. Not earthquakes or hurricanes or bombs, and certainly not the trivial matter of a disintegrating marriage. He's my estranged husband now, Iris thought. Then she laughed, because 'estranged' was a stupid word that nobody except newspaper columnists ever used, the same way that railway announcers said 'alight' when they meant 'get off the train' or 'beverage' instead of drink.
Still, 'estranged' was what Iris and Ian were, given that Iris had rented Mill Cottage on her own and often spent weeks here at a time without so much as a phone call home. Then again, whenever she did go home, she and Ian barely spoke to one another, making it hard to know what the point of a phone call might be.
Five foot two and naturally slim, people generally considered Iris to be pretty in a petite, elfin, slightly bird-like way. At forty-one, she could easily have passed for five years younger, with her dark hair, shiny like a raven's feathers, pale, clear skin and sad chocolate-brown eyes that were too big for her face and lent her an almost cartoonish look. On the other hand, she was not a woman who 'took care of herself', as the women's magazines liked to say. She rarely wore make-up, and had never in her life indulged in a pedicure or a facial or any of the other countless rituals that most of her girlfriends seemed to devote so much time to. And although she did like clothes, her art agent had once defined Iris's style as 'deranged jackdaw' – picking out the brightest, shiniest, most colourful garments available and throwing them onto her body in as random and thoughtless a manner as possible. From time to time, for special occasions, Iris would tone it down and, when elegantly dressed, was a strikingly beautiful woman. But today she was wearing a more typical ensemble of oversized dungarees tucked into wellington boots, a rainbow-striped polo-neck sweater, fingerless gloves made to look like sheep, a charity-shop duffel coat two sizes too big for her and a knitted Peruvian hat.
Staring intently at the swirling waters of the Itchen, Iris considered her next brush stroke, pushing thoughts of her husband out of her mind. God, it was hard to paint water. An accomplished portrait painter, Iris was an expert at capturing human expression and emotion, boiling her subjects down to their essence and recording that essence on canvas. Stupidly, she'd always imagined landscape painting as being more static. Less challenging, perhaps, because it was less alive. How wrong could you be?
If nothing else, standing on a cold Hampshire riverbank since the crack of arse had taught Iris that everything was alive. Everything was moving, evolving, changing constantly. The river swirled and danced and rushed; the clouds drifted and morphed their way across the sky; the spindly tree branches swayed and shivered pathetically in the wind like the starved limbs of concentration-camp prisoners, pleading for escape. Even the mellow gold stone of the Mill itself seemed to have a life of its own, glowing with light and warmth at one moment and retreating into gloomy shadow the next.
It really was a beautiful house. The perfect size – large enough to feel stately and grand, yet small enough to remain romantic and charming – the Mill at Hazelford was Iris's idea of the quintessential English country idyll. Both the house and Iris's rented cottage in the grounds belonged to Dom Wetherby, author of the wildly popular Grimshaw books, a series of crime novels featuring an ageing, cantankerous detective of the same name. Iris had started reading one of the books a few years ago, but then lost it halfway through and never got around to finishing it. It was some story involving a Swiss bank and Nazi gold. There might have been a Russian prostitute in it. In all honesty, Iris wasn't really a fan. In her view, the real world was already more than sufficiently populated with grumpy middle-aged men without the need to add to their number in fiction. But she admired Dom Wetherby's larger-than-life personality and had always coveted his stunning house, which she'd driven past numerous times, en route to various repertory theatres with Ian.
Iris's husband was a playwright, at one time very successful, although these days a medium run in provincial rep, otherwise known as crumbling, half-empty small-town theatres, was the best Ian McBride could realistically hope for. One dreary weekend at the end of the summer, Iris had just happened to see an advertisement in the Sunday Times 'Property' section that felt like fate.
It was headed: 'The Mill at Hazelford'.
I know that house, Iris thought. That's my dream house.
'Two-bedroom cottage to let,' ran the copy, 'on idyllic private Hampshire estate. Would suit artist or writer.'
Before she had time to talk herself out of it, Iris rang the number on the ad and rented Mill Cottage for six months. It will be my artistic escape, she lied to herself. A place to go and paint in peace.
She waited for the inevitable explosion from Ian – they couldn't afford it, not after all the money they'd blown on IVF. It was an indulgence. How dare Iris commit to something like that without discussing it with him first, et cetera, et cetera ... But in the event, he merely shrugged and went back upstairs to write. Iris tried not to admit to herself how bad a sign this was for the state of their marriage.
Originally the idea was that she would go to the cottage to paint at weekends, but weekends soon became weeks. Fast-forward a month and a half and here Iris was, effectively living in Hazelford full-time. Alone. Like a mad cat lady, only without the cats.
In their place Iris had her doll's house, a beautifully made antique Dutch model, hand-turned in elm and complete with working sash windows and miniature louvred shutters. It had been Iris's most prized possession since childhood, a gift from her grandmother Violet, and she had always treasured it. Obviously she knew a forty-one-year-old woman 'playing' with doll's houses had more than a touch of the pathetic about it. No doubt she should have grown out of it years ago. But admiring and rearranging the miniature rooms, adding over the decades to her collection of tiny, perfectly formed objects, had brought Iris immense pleasure and peace, and it was such a harmless hobby, in the end, she couldn't bring herself to give it up.
Pulling her thick duffel coat more tightly around her against the cold, she glanced up and smiled broadly. A swan had unexpectedly appeared round the river bend, followed by four cygnets. Pristine white and regal, the mother bird extended her elegant neck and dramatically spread her wings just for a moment, shaking them out like a Brazilian carnival dancer showing off her bejewelled costume. Then she re-folded them neatly onto her back, all the while gliding towards Iris. Behind her, her four adorable brown chicks bobbed along awkwardly, as ungainly as their mother was graceful.
'Oh, how lovely!' Iris said aloud, watching the little family pass. But as soon as they'd disappeared from sight, the sadness hit her like a bowling ball in the stomach.
You're being ridiculous, Iris told herself firmly. You're an educated, rational woman. You will not feel envious of a bloody bird!
Time for a cup of tea. Putting down her brushes, cold to the bone, Iris held the still-wet canvas at arm's length and was heading towards the cottage when raised voices made her turn round.
'Stop! What are you doing?'
Ariadne Wetherby, Dom's wife and Iris's landlady, sounded frightened. Iris had barely met the family since she took the cottage. The Wetherbys kept themselves to themselves. But on the rare occasions their paths had crossed, Dom Wetherby's wife had always come across as a gentle, floaty, hippyish, softly spoken sort of person. It made the alarm in her voice now doubly disconcerting.
'What? D'you think I'm going to drown you?'
The other voice was a man's, a young man's. Also loud, but there was no fear in his tone. Only malice.
'Push you in and hold you down? Like the witch that you are?' He laughed, a horrible, throaty sound that broke into a smoker's cough at the end. 'God knows you deserve it.'
'Stop it! Billy ... no!'
A scream, loud and shrill, made Iris drop her brushes and canvas and scramble up the bank. Slipping on the wet ground, mud splattering onto coat and face, she saw them within seconds, just a few yards further along the bank. A slim, dark-haired young man had grabbed hold of Ariadne Wetherby's outstretched arms and was forcing her backwards towards the rushing river. From where she was, Iris could only see Ariadne's back, but the man's face was clearly visible: handsome, yet made ugly by the contorted, sadistic expression, the narrowed eyes and the cruel, mocking curve of his lips.
'Is everything all right?' Iris shouted over the roar of the river. Clearly everything wasn't, but this seemed the best way to get their attention, to make the man realise he'd been seen at least.
It worked. He looked up, startled, and instantly released Ariadne.
'Everything's fine,' he shouted back coolly.
Ignoring him, Iris moved closer to where they were, addressing herself solely to Ariadne. 'Mrs Wetherby? Are you OK? Do you need help?'
'No, no, thank you. I'm fine.' Ariadne straightened her windswept hair, the imprint of her earlier panic still visible in her strained expression. But then she smiled, relieved, and the tension evaporated. Slipping her hand around the young man's waist, she leaned into him, as if the two of them were the best of friends. 'And please, you must call me Ariadne. Sorry if we disturbed you. This is my middle son, Billy. He'll be living with us at the Mill for a while.'
The young man raised an unenthusiastic hand in greeting. 'Hello.'
Iris didn't wave back, or move any closer. She'd seen the cruelty in Billy's smile and eyes earlier, the way he'd revelled in his mother's terror until Iris came along and surprised them.
'Billy, this is Iris Grey, our tenant at the cottage,' Ariadne Wetherby continued briskly, doing her best to normalise the situation. 'Iris is an artist.'
'So I see,' said Billy, taking in Iris's eclectic outfit with a sardonic, disdainful look. 'I took an art class last year,' he added, more convivially, mirroring his mother's cheerful manner.
Ariadne looked pained. 'Iris doesn't need to hear about that, darling.'
Billy shrugged. 'Doesn't she? Oh well. If you say so, Mother dear. Doesn't matter, anyway. Turns out I was shit at it.' He winked at Iris.
An awkward silence descended. How exactly was Iris supposed to respond to a comment like that? Had she warmed to Billy at all, she might have offered some words of encouragement. As it was, she couldn't remember the last time that she'd taken such an instant dislike to a person.
'You're sure you're all right?' she asked Ariadne, pointedly ignoring Billy.
'Quite sure, thank you.'
Iris turned away. Making her way back down the slippery bank towards her cottage, one thought played and replayed in her head.
I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't interrupted them? Would he really have hurt her? Pushed her in?
* * *
After a disappointing morning's sketching, and still haunted by her earlier encounter on the riverbank, at three o'clock Iris decided to walk into the village for a restorative brew at Hambly's Tea Shop and to buy some food for supper. Ian had once described her as being as skilled in the kitchen as an octopus on a mountain bike. Unkind, perhaps, but undeniably true. Iris couldn't make toast without setting off the smoke alarm, and sometimes had fantasies about the horrible deaths she would like to inflict on Deliciously Ella. Thankfully, Hazelford was posh enough to have a village shop that stocked excellent organic ready meals (not Ella's) and homemade deli salads, so she was in no immediate danger of starvation.
Hazelford Stores was at the very top of the High Street, a charming, steeply cobbled lane leading from Jessop's Rise at the top of the village all the way down to St Anne's Church and the river at the bottom. Widely regarded as the prettiest village in Hampshire, Hazelford had been used as the setting for numerous Jane Austen adaptations and ITV period dramas, and since taking the cottage, Iris couldn't shake the feeling that she was living on a film set. Not that that made her love the place any less. On a clear day, standing outside Hazelford Stores, you could make out the spires of Winchester Cathedral in the distance, although today's miserable weather made it hard even to see across the road to Tannenheim's bookshop, another of Iris's favourite haunts.
A little bell rang as she opened the shop door, but nobody heard it. They were all too busy arguing.
'It's a bloody disgrace is what it is. Skipping the meeting is one thing, but not to send apologies? It's so rude, Jean. It's insulting. He's supposed to be the sodding chairman!'
Harry Masters, a retired piano teacher in his early seventies and a devoted, life-long Hazelford resident, had worked himself up into a fury. The usually mild-mannered old man was red in the face, with strands of grey hair sticking up at oddly wild angles from where he'd run his hands through them. The artist in Iris would have loved to sketch him.
'All Dom Wetherby cared about was stopping the planners from developing those fields. Now his beloved view is safe, he can't even be bothered to pretend to do his job. He's probably sat at home, sending out invitations to his precious Christmas Eve party. Wondering which D-list celebrities he's forgotten to ask this year.'
'Come on, Harry,' Jean Chivers, Hazelford Stores' proprietress said reasonably. 'We're all happy enough to go to the Christmas Eve party and drink his champagne, you included. And we all voted against the development. Nobody liked that smarmy Russian. It wasn't just Wetherby.'
'Yes, but why, Jean? Why were we against the development?'
'Because it was bad for the village.'
'Exactly!' The piano teacher warmed to his theme. 'We cared about the village. But do you honestly think Wetherby gives a rat's arse about Hazelford? Course he doesn't. All Dom Wetherby cares about is Dom Wetherby. He only asks us to his party every year so he can look like the lord of the manor, throwing a few scraps to the village peasants.' Harry Masters folded his arms with furious finality.
'Look, Harry, we all know you was upset when Wetherby got elected chairman,' Alan Chivers, Jean's husband, observed good-naturedly, loading the old man's groceries into an eco-friendly paper bag. 'But at the end of the day, he was elected. He put his name in the hat and people voted for him. Lots of people.'
'Blinded by celebrity,' Harry muttered darkly, handing over a twenty-pound note and pocketing his change. 'More fool them. Well, now they're reaping what they sow, aren't they? They've got a chairman who's too important, too famous, to turn up to meetings. I call it bloody outrageous.'
Grabbing his groceries, he stormed out, brushing past Iris and a couple of other customers in his blind anger.
Jean Chivers looked up and rolled her eyes at Iris. 'Don't mind Harry. He's got his knickers in a twist about Dom Wetherby again.'
'Oh,' said Iris, still feeling shaken from her earlier run-in with Dom Wetherby's wife and son, and not quite sure what she could add to the conversation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder at the Mill"
Copyright © 2017 M. B. Shaw.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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