I’m alive! Yes, it’s official. I haven’t blogged in a very long time, but it’s only because life has been so busy. For those of you who don’t know, I’m an editor, author, mother of two, I run Booktastik, and I’m a part-time property valuer, plus I help my husband run his business. I’ve also recently taken up hapkido, because I’m trying to stay, or is that get, fit. It’s a losing battle, but I’m stubborn, so I’m not going down without a fight, literally. In the work-crazed madness that is my life, I’ve finally started writing consistently again.
There are some readers out there waiting for the next book in my epic fantasy series, The Rose of Nerine. I’m so sorry it’s not out yet, and I feel guilty, but I want it to be awesome, so it won’t be out until next year. I’ve more than half written that book, but it became a struggle. Life pressures, plus the pressure I put on myself to make it perfect had me stuck for words. I’d never believed in writers’ block before, but after suffering it for eighteen months, I realized it is totally a thing. A depressing, horrible cow of a thing. So in that time, around all my other commitments, I read, and I read, and I read. I discovered paranormal cozy mysteries, and I ended up reading a book a day. It was costing a fortune, so I decided, why not tell myself the story—it will take longer and it won’t cost me anything. And so I did :). I will be coming back to my epic fantasy, but I’m allowing myself a break to write some cozy mystery first.
The result of this decisions had my fingers flying over the keyboard. I wrote the first book in eleven days and the second in twenty. I’ve just started the third. I’ve almost finished final edits on the first book, which is coming out on the 29th of July. The second will go for first edits on 15th July and will be out on the 29th of August. I’m just waiting on the covers, which my awesome cover guy, Robert Baird is doing. I so can’t wait to see the final product, which will be totally original artwork. Eek!
Anyway, the purpose of this post is to introduce you to Lily, the main character in the Paranormal Investigation Bureau series. She’s a twenty-four-year-old Aussie photographer who finds out she’s a witch on the same day she discovers her brother’s been kidnapped, but he’s all the way over in the UK, in the quaint Kent village of Westerham. A witch from the Paranormal Investigation Bureau (PIB) turns up on her Sydney doorstep and convinces her to come with. They hop on a plane bound for the UK, and that’s where her adventure starts. I hope you’ll take this journey with her. So here are the first two chapters. And if you feel compelled to preorder it, it’s only 99 cents, and the links are after the sample. It’s available wide—Amazon, Kobo, iBooks (coming to Barnes & Noble soon). Enjoy!
WITCHNAPPED IN WESTERHAM
The bride’s nasally whine cut through the string quartet’s soft music. “Hey, photographer, not there. Move that way a bit.” She waved a large knife, indicating where I should go, the glossy white ribbon tied around the handle rippling with her efforts. “Remind me again why I’m paying you when I’m giving all the direction?”
God help me, but I wanted to shove her face into the wedding cake. Deep breaths. I tried to smile while I took a step to the left. I looked through the viewfinder of my Nikon and assessed the shot. The whitewashed weatherboard walls and iron chandelier holding candles created a magical backdrop. So pretty.
“No! Oh my God, do I have to do everything myself?” she shrieked, and I started. The bride bore down on me, knife still in hand, and pushed my shoulder until I was situated exactly where she wanted.
Who said weddings were an easy way to earn money? The bride retreated to her spot next to the groom. At least he had the good grace to blush. I wondered if he was reassessing his choice of a life partner. Bad luck, buddy; you already put a ring on it. “Are we ready to cut the cake now?” she asked, heavily pencilled eyebrow raised, as if I’d been the one holding things up. Sheesh.
“Look this way,” I said, my eye twitching. The bride, Tracy, rolled her eyes. I guess I was stating the obvious, but her husband had been looking at her, so what was I supposed to do? They both turned to the camera, Tracy’s scowl quickly switching to a glowing smile. I snapped a few shots while they poised the tip of the knife on the icing then pushed the blade into the four-tiered work of art.
With Tracy occupied, I quickly stepped back to my original position and clicked away as they fed each other cake. Why hire me if you’re not going to trust my judgement? It wasn’t like I was the cheapest photographer out there, and I doubted Tracy had a degree in visual arts. Who’d come up with the “the customer is always right” saying? Honestly, most of the time, the customer had no idea about shot composition and lighting. A headache threatened as I thought about the editing suggestions that would be coming my way next week.
Her parents joined her, and her father leaned in for a hug. I quickly moved forward, focused the lens and clicked some close-ups. That would be an amazing shot—the emotion in his face brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t wait to see it on my large desktop screen. Except…
I blinked and stopped clicking. I must be tired, because her father seemed see through, like I imagined a ghost would be. I could see Tracy’s mother through him. What the hell? I lowered the camera. And, of course, he was solid, normal again. I must need more coffee. Maybe Tracy’s whole crazy-bride thing had me so stressed that I was hallucinating.
Feedback exploded from the speaker system, destroying my hearing with laser precision. A giggle followed, and then a woman’s voice slurred out of the speakers. “Oopsie. Time to dance! Get your arses on the floor, peeps!” Taylor Swift blasted over the partygoers. So that was it for any conversation. I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and checked the screen. 8:45 p.m.: forty-five torturous minutes to go. At least the bride would be too busy to harass me, as her bridesmaids had dragged her onto the dance floor.
I slipped my phone back into my pocket and hoisted my camera in front of my face. This was probably one of my favourite parts of a wedding—the candid shots where everyone was having fun. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned.
The bride’s father stood there, solid as ever, thank God. He even smiled. “Hi, Lily. I wanted to say thank you very much for today. You helped make this an incredible day for my daughter. I know she can get a little carried away sometimes.” He shrugged, as if to say “what are you gonna do?” Hmm, I could think of a few things. “Anyway, here’s an extra something to show our appreciation.” His smile was genuine when he handed me a white envelope. It all felt a bit Mafia.
“Um, thank you, Mr Papadakis. That’s very kind of you.” He had already paid me the full amount for the job via direct debit, but I could only assume this was extra cash. I really wanted to know how much, but I wasn’t sure if it was polite to open the envelope in front of him.
“It’s my pleasure. My wife and I can’t wait to see all the pictures. Thanks again.” He smiled and made his way to the dance floor to bust some moves with his daughter. What a nice dad.
I took a deep breath and fought an unexpected tear. If I ever got married, I didn’t have a dad to celebrate with, or a mum. They disappeared when I was fourteen, presumed dead. Maybe I would just avoid the whole “getting married” thing, then I wouldn’t have to worry about missing them being there. At least I still had my older brother, James. After my parents disappeared, he took care of me. Then later, he met and married a London girl. They lived just outside London, but he called me every week, and I knew I’d be getting a call later for my birthday. He’d been over there for six years, but he never forgot the important dates.
I nabbed the last of the shots for the night, said goodbye to the bride and groom without too much drama, then lugged my equipment to my Subaru and packed it into the back seat. Once behind the wheel, I locked the doors—one could never be too careful—and opened the envelope. I simulated a drum roll by vibrating my tongue on the roof of my mouth—okay, it didn’t sound anything like a drum roll, but it was better than nothing. My ears rang from the loud music, but the crinkle of the envelope opening was still loud in the quiet car. I held my breath as I pulled out the contents… green plastic notes, which meant, oh my God! One thousand Aussie dollars in hundreds.
“Woohoo!” I screamed. This called for a song. “Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday, dear Lily. Happy birthday to me!” Best present ever. One-thousand un-taxable dollars. I grinned. Maybe I could duck over to the UK sooner than I thought. This money was so going into my holiday/visit-my-brother fund. I turned the radio on and sung along with the latest pop tunes all the way home. Maybe turning twenty-four wasn’t so bad after all.
Except, I may have spoken too soon.
I walked in my door at 10.45 p.m., and I was ready to go to sleep, but I didn’t want to miss James’s call. There was a hot shower with my name on it, after which I replied to a couple of texts from my friends wishing me happy birthday and begging me to come out with them, but I wasn’t in the mood. My birthday brought out the worst in me. I was normally a happy person, but depression came calling every birthday. It was easy to feel sorry for myself when I had no family to celebrate with. I missed the unconditional love I’d had when I was a kid—my parents’ and grandparents’ faces would light up when they saw me. The meals we’d have as a family, usually finished off with my grandmother’s apple strudel, were always a delicious feast with much arguing and laughter.
Comfy in my jammies, I settled onto my fawn-coloured couch and flicked through the channels. Yay that Bridesmaids was on, but boohoo that it only had twenty minutes left. It was my favourite comedy movie of all time. Maybe the universe was trying to make it up to me. I lay back on the couch, clutching my phone. At the end of the movie, I checked the iPhone screen. Nope, no calls, which I already knew, because the phone hadn’t rung, but I had to be sure, like sure, sure.
I yawned. 11.30 p.m., which made it 2.30 p.m. over in England. He should’ve called by now, unless he got caught up at work. Maybe there’d been a coding emergency, and all his company’s websites were down. That was more likely than him having forgotten, wasn’t it? Although, we all forget things sometimes. Disappointment settled over me. Tears burnt my overreacting eyes. Dammit, Lily, he’ll call. Stop being such a baby. I sniffled and wiped the heel of my hand over my eyes. No more crying.
Some other show called Dating Naked came on, where the contestants go on dates, you guessed it, naked. Oh, the horror of seeing people horse riding naked. Ew. I wouldn’t want to be the person cleaning that saddle afterwards. And I had no idea about anyone else, but the last thing I wanted to see on a first date was the guy’s junk, and trust me, I wasn’t a prude; it just wasn’t the most attractive part of a man. I was more of an “eyes and face” girl. Ah, late-night television, how you mock me. But I watched it, because it was better than staring at my phone. Okay, it wasn’t really, but whatever.
Shortly after 1:00 a.m., and two god-awful episodes of Dating Naked later, I fell asleep, clutching my silent phone.
Argh, morning. I turned my face away from the gross damp spot on my favourite cushion and wiped dribble off my face. There was nothing like waking up on the couch with an emotional hangover. I squinted and could just make out the time on my phone. No missed calls. No messages. It was too early for more disappointment. Time for coffee. Until my first coffee of the morning, I was only capable of grunts, but when James called, I’d have to do words.
I turned the machine on and filled the thingamajig—I had no idea what it was called, but that lack of knowledge didn’t affect my operating skills—with coffee grounds before screwing it into the main part of the machine. I pressed another button, but instead of hot water cascading through the grounds, sparks showered from the back of the machine.
“No!” I leaned over and ripped the plug from the wall, coughing through the smoke.
My coffee maker was dead. And what the hell? It was only twelve months old. I’d have to get the backup out—my stovetop percolator my grandmother left me when she died.
As I reached into the cupboard, my phone rang. It rang! Hmm, I didn’t recognise the number. Maybe James had trouble with his phone and had to borrow someone else’s?
“Hello… Lily?” A woman’s voice broke through the static, and it sounded like Millicent.
“Lily, hello? Are you there? It’s—”
The line went dead. That was two deaths already this morning. Yes, they were metaphorical deaths, but the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end anyway, and I shuddered. Today was not looking good. Maybe I should’ve just gone back to bed.
However, I wasn’t a giver-uperrer, so I pressed redial. It rang, but as soon as someone answered, the line cut out. Hmm. The reception in my apartment was always fine, but I moved to the window anyway.
I pressed redial. This time, it didn’t even ring. I blew a raspberry, frustration lacing each droplet of spittle that flew from my tongue. Okay, then. Time to get dressed. I was failing at life this morning, so I’d let someone else make my coffee. The café down the street made a decent brew. Maybe I’d take a walk along the beach after I grabbed my coffee. That sounded like a plan.
I found black sports tights and a red T-shirt in my clean-clothes basket—I hated putting clothes away; it was so time-consuming and boring—and put them on. I dragged my sneakers out from under the bed and put them on too, grabbed my wallet, keys, and phone, and opened the door… to a slim, fifty-something-year-old woman in a grey suit, her hand poised to knock. Huh?
“Can I help you?” I couldn’t see any brochures, so I was probably pretty safe from a religious lecture—not that I hated religion; I was agnostic, and I believed in my right to live peacefully in un-annoyed bliss with my choice, just as I believed others had a right to their beliefs without me judging them and demanding they all become fence-sitters, like me.
Her stern gaze raked me from head to toe and back again. Was my appearance the cause of her frown—my T-shirt was a little creased—or was it her super-tight bun? Actually, I didn’t really want to find out.
“Look, I’m just on my way out, Ms…?”
“Angelica Constance DuPree, but Ma’am to you.” Okaaay. As well as being bossy, she had a refined English accent, which gave her words more gravity. She tipped her head back so her nose pointed higher: all the better to look down at me. “And you’re Lily Katerina Bianchi. You’re about what I expected.”
What was that supposed to mean? I blinked. My brain had nothing. Coffee. I needed coffee. Also, how did she know my name? I supposed she could have found it on the Internet. Was she a stalker? She could have a knife or something tucked into the back of her skirt under her suit jacket.
“…Ma’am, would you like to chat while we walk? I have to get… somewhere.” Coffee didn’t sound important enough a reason to rush outside, but believe me, it was almost life and death. I’d have a migraine by lunchtime if I missed my daily caffeine hit. I eased past her and shut my door, the deadbolt automatically locking in place. It would probably be safer to talk to her in public. She gave off a cranky and slightly scary vibe, to be honest, oh, and she knew my name; let’s not forget that.
“Very well, then. Once you get your coffee, we can come back here and talk. This is a matter to be discussed in private.”
Say again? How did she know I was going out for coffee? Did I look like a coffee junkie in withdrawals? Nah, someone suffering coffee withdrawals didn’t look like anything, at least not until I opened my car door, leaned out and threw up from a migraine. Yes, it had happened. More than once. Don’t judge me; Ma’am’s judgey glares were all I could take right now. Ooh, she was also looking smug, like she had one over on me. I suppose being able to mind-read would make you feel like that. I wanted to read minds, dammit! I didn’t really believe she could do that, did I?
Gah, I wanted coffee, like really, really badly, but this was crazy. I didn’t know this woman. I was not letting her tag along, but how to say it? I wasn’t usually one to speak my mind and be “difficult.” Which was probably what got most women into situations they wished they’d avoided. Maybe it was time to learn to annoy people and not worry.
“Look, Ma’am, I don’t know you, and I have no idea why you’re at my front door, or how you know my name. I suggest you tell me what you want now, and get it over with. Frankly, I don’t have the energy for weirdness today.”
She narrowed her eyes, probably assessing my likelihood of running before she could stab me. I edged towards the stairs, ready to sprint one floor down to freedom.
Ma’am rolled her eyes and sighed. “Honestly, Lily, what are we going to do with you? I’m not here to hurt you; I’m here to protect and guide you.”
And that didn’t sound freaking weird at all. Stuff it. I took off, bounding down the stairs two at a time until I was out the door, on the footpath, in public. Safe.
The sun shone on a cool morning, and it looked like the day was going to be gorgeous—weather wise, at least. It may have been rude of me to just leave like that, but I preferred to be safe now rather than dead. And that’s not an overreaction. Trust your gut was one of those sayings I lived by. If I was wrong about Ma’am, I could always apologise later, and we’d laugh about it. Yep, or she wouldn’t laugh and hold it against me forever.
I hurried along the footpath, past an assortment of unit blocks, from red-brick two-storey ones to rendered brick twelve-storey ones. Monday morning brought out a mixture of joggers, surfers, and people dressed for work. I crossed at the traffic lights and soon reached Surfer’s Brew. The delectable fragrance of fresh coffee swirled around me. I breathed it in and sighed. Ah. That was more like it.
Just before entering, I looked back. No sign of my weirdo morning visitor. Maybe my morning was improving. I smiled and stepped up to the counter. “Morning, Frances. Can I get a regular skim cap?” I didn’t get coffee here every day—because I had my coffee machine, or used to have—how depressing—but I visited regularly enough that they knew me. Sometimes I wanted something frothy with chocolate on the top, and I was too lazy to do that at home.
Frances was in her mid-thirties, had gorgeous straight blonde hair, which was pulled back in a sleek ponytail, and an infectious smile. “Hey, chicky. Coming right up. A little birdie told me it was your birthday yesterday. Happy birthday!” She banged used coffee grounds out of the thingamajig and filled it with new ones.
“Aw, thanks. Did you run into the girls last night?” The girls being my besties, Sophie and Michelle.
“Yep. How come you weren’t there? They told me you piked.” She screwed the thingamajig into the machine and pressed the button. And wouldn’t you know, it worked. I wish my machine still worked.
“Big day photographing a wedding. One drink and I would have fallen asleep.” I laughed—it wasn’t too far from the truth. So what if I left out the bit where I had a pity party because my brother hadn’t called. I’d try calling him later. Knowing him, he had a good reason for missing my birthday, and I would keep reminding myself until I knew for sure.
Frances frothed the milk and poured it into the coffee before sprinkling lots of chocolate on the top—she did extra for me, because it was my favourite part. Then she did some magic with a spoon and made a cute little heart on the top of the froth. “There you go.” She smiled, and I handed her four dollars—coffee habits didn’t come cheap.
“Thanks. You’re a lifesaver. See you later.” I waved. She waved. The usual. I stopped just outside the shop, unpopped the lid and licked the chocolatey goodness off it before taking a sip. Heaven. The simple things were really the best.
I replaced the lid and started down the street, contemplating whether I should return to my apartment, and possibly run into Ma’am, or go for that walk. There was nothing like a stroll on the beach to settle my mind. The rolling surf was calming. During summer, I’d go body surfing, but the water was a bit cool now, and I was the first to admit, I was soft.
Hmm, if I went back now and had to deal with Ms Crazy-pants, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my coffee properly. That was an easy decision: walk it was!
But since when was life that easy?
I reached the end of the path and the beginning of the sand. Salty sea spray hazed the air, seagulls wheeled overhead, and the sun warmed my face. Surfers bobbed in the water, waiting for the next wave, and a young mother watched her two kids build a sandcastle. Before I could absorb the peace of the scene, I noticed something, or rather someone, that was out of place: a woman in a drab but well-tailored business suit and low heels with her arms crossed in front of her chest and another self-satisfied smile. Seemed like she only had two expressions: pissed off and smug. I breathed in deeply, and when I exhaled, my serenity went with it. Wasn’t it supposed to work the other way around?
“You can run, but you can’t hide.” Great, she was intimidating me with clichés.
“On a scale of one to ten, your creep factor is about an eight. Think you could tone it down?”
She smiled. It could have even been genuine this time. “At least you have some spunk. You’re going to need it, missy.” Her expression morphed into sad then quickly into serious.
I sipped my coffee. I had a feeling I was going to need all the caffeine support I could get before she was done with me.
Angelica nodded. “Unfortunately, you’re right.”
Not again with the mind reading. How was she doing that? “Can you please tell me what you want?”
“Look, we don’t have time to dilly-dally. You appear strong enough, at least, and there’s no way to say this nicely, so I’ll just say it. Your brother, James, is missing. He disappeared seven days ago.”
No amount of coffee could have prepared me for that. My stomach fell as fast as my cup. It hit the ground, still half full, dammit. The lid came off, splashing brown liquid on my runners and shins. A chill sluiced the sun’s warmth from my arms like the reaper’s scythe, leaving goosebumps in its wake. I shivered.
I was transported back to the day my mum’s best friend sat James and me down and explained that our parents weren’t coming home. Ever again. I remembered James gripping my hand and squeezing for dear life. We’d held fast to each other since then, until he’d gone off to the UK. Tears spilled down my cheeks. I wanted to fall to the ground and curl into a ball, but making a scene wasn’t going to help. Was James’s disappearance somehow related to my parents’? Was I next? No, don’t be stupid, Lily. Coincidences exist. That’s all it is.
Ma’am stepped closer and laid a stiff hand on my shoulder. She patted me awkwardly then dropped her hand. I appreciated the gesture: I wasn’t much of a hugger either. My personal space was just as important to me as my right to believe in nothing.
“You look a little pale, dear. I’m sure you have many questions. Let’s return to your apartment and grab your things. We have a plane to catch.”
What? “Where to?”
“Why, London of course. Then we’re driving to Westerham. You’re going to help us find your brother. Hopefully he’s still alive.”
Hopefully? Nausea clutched my throat and squeezed. There was nothing I could do. Nothing. And who was “us”? Common sense wormed its way into my head, or was that avoidance? This wasn’t really happening, was it? I shook my head slowly and tried to clutch onto something normal, safe. “I have work to do, photos to edit. I can’t just leave.” Not that I didn’t want to find my brother, but this was beyond crazy. Was he really missing or was this some farce to kidnap me? Although I wasn’t really kidnap material—there was no one rich who would pay ransom to get me back. Although, my parents hadn’t been kidnap-worthy either, and they’d disappeared, and my brother? Deep breaths, Lily.
I bent and gathered the cup and lid. No matter how loopy things got, I wasn’t a litterbug.
“You can edit the photos on your laptop on the plane or when we get to England. I could even have your desktop delivered, if you’d like. I know this is hard to believe. Just bear with me, and I’ll explain everything while you’re packing. Come on.” She started walking towards my apartment block.
I shuffled along next to her, my legs heavy as if they were weighed down with lead boots. My gut told me she was telling the truth, so I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. I bit my lip to keep from crying. Now wasn’t the time to fall apart. My brother needed me.
And I never let down those I loved.
Thanks for stopping by :).