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Authors: Christina Courtenay

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BOOK: The Soft Whisper of Dreams
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Maddie hugged her friend Kayla Marcombe and tried to hold back the tears that were threatening to overflow. Here, at last, was one place where she felt welcome. That thought almost opened the floodgates, but somehow she kept them closed for the time being.

‘Oh, Maddie, you know we love to have you here any time. It’s only natural you should want to get away from London after the last few weeks.’ Kayla put an arm round Maddie’s shoulders, despite the fact that her friend was almost a head taller, and pulled her towards the huge curved staircase. ‘Was it really awful?’

‘You have no idea.’ Maddie shuddered at the memories and followed her tiny friend up the stairs, hardly noticing the grandeur of her surroundings. Kayla was married to a baronet and lived in palatial style at seventeenth century Marcombe Hall in Devon, but Maddie had visited them frequently and the magnificent house had ceased to impress her. To her, it was simply Kayla’s home now.

‘Come and tell me all about it,’ Kayla invited, leading the way into one of the many guest rooms. This particular one was decorated in shades of primrose and lilac, but Maddie wouldn’t have cared if it was neon orange. As far as she was concerned, a spartan cell in a nunnery would have been preferable to her London flat at the moment. She’d desperately needed to escape.

Annie, the Marcombe’s housekeeper, clattered into the room with a laden tea tray. ‘Welcome to Devon again, Maddie,’ she beamed. Maddie felt as if she had come home, and the kindness of the old woman compared to that of her own so-called sister was almost too much for her composure. The threatening tears hovered on her lashes.

‘Thank you, Annie. It’s good to be here.’

Annie tactfully left the two friends together, and Maddie curled her long, slender legs into a deep chair with a sigh. Kayla poured them both a cup of tea, added lots of sugar to Maddie’s and passed her both the tea and a plate of biscuits.

‘This is heavenly, just what I needed. Why does it taste so much better here in the country?’

Kayla laughed. ‘The water perhaps? It might be marginally cleaner here.’ She sank into a chair opposite Maddie’s. ‘So come on, let’s hear it. You weren’t very coherent on the phone. All I could understand was that your life is a disaster.’

Maddie smiled ruefully. ‘That’s the understatement of the year. Sorry, Kayla, but I’ve had a terrible time of it. First it was the shock of my parents’ accident. Being woken up at midnight and having to rush off to hospital, only to find it was too late … well, you can imagine how I felt.’ She closed her eyes, reliving the horrible events of that night. They were etched onto her brain, a nightmare vision.

Kayla nodded sympathetically, but didn’t interrupt.

‘Then there were all the arrangements for the funeral to be made,’ Maddie continued, taking a sip of the scalding hot tea. ‘Olivia was no help at all as usual. I lost count of the number of times she changed her mind or pretended she’d never said something when she had. And the funeral itself ...’ Maddie shivered violently at the memory. Standing at not just one parent’s graveside, but two at once. It was so unexpected, so shocking, and had brought the reality of their deaths home to Maddie as nothing else could have done. ‘It was so final, Kayla. The end of a part of my life.’

‘I can imagine,’ Kayla murmured soothingly.

‘On top of everything else, Olivia and I had to see the solicitor that same afternoon. He insisted, and since he’s a family friend we couldn’t refuse. And then he dropped his bombshell – he told us I was adopted. That was the final nail in the coffin.’ She smiled feebly at her own bad joke, but at the same time tears welled out of her eyes and ran down her cheeks. She swiped at them ineffectually. ‘For God’s sake, Kayla, why didn’t they tell me?’

The anguished question was one which she had asked herself repeatedly since leaving her parents’ house. ‘I wouldn’t have loved them less and it would have explained so much.’ She shook her head. ‘I always knew I was different somehow. I mean, for a start, none of my family looked anything like me. Olivia must have sensed it too, although that might have been wishful thinking on her part. But I thought it was my fault, some fundamental flaw in me. All along it was just the fact that I was adopted.’

‘They never even hinted at it?’

‘No, never. I was treated exactly the same as Olivia. I honestly don’t think they ever wanted me to know.’

‘Perhaps they were afraid you would leave them, want to find your real parents?’

‘Why would I want to do that? My birth parents obviously didn’t want me, so why should I want them?’

‘Curiosity, maybe? Most adopted children want to find out about their natural parents.’

‘Well, not me. I’ve had my fill of rejection for a while. I have to take stock of my life now and seriously consider where I’m going. I need a complete change of scenery. A fresh start.’

‘Take your time. You only just got here. We don’t want to lose you too soon, so stay as long as you like. It’s lucky you were just temping at the moment and not in a permanent job.’

‘Yes. And I have some money put by for a rainy day. Somehow I think it has arrived. In fact, it seems to be pouring at the moment.’

‘No, no, that’s defeatist thinking. There must be some positive things happening in your life too. Didn’t you tell me you’d met this gorgeous man recently? What was his name again?’

‘David. And I didn’t mention him because he’s no longer in the picture.’ Maddie clenched her fists. ‘He was a bastard.’

‘What? But I thought ...’ Kayla looked bewildered. ‘You were so in love, last time I talked to you. Surely that was only a couple of weeks ago?’

‘That was before I found out he’d been hitting on my flat mate Jessie when I was out. Thank God for true friends! If she hadn’t told me, I might have made an even bigger arse of myself.’

‘Oh, poor Maddie, I guess you’re right. It really is pouring on you at the moment. Never mind, let’s go and find Wes and the kids and let the future take care of itself for a while. You’ll soon figure everything out. In the meantime, you can have a vacation. How does swimming down in the cove sound?’

Maddie dried her tears and managed a watery smile. ‘Absolutely fantastic. I’d rather swim in saltwater than produce buckets of it, which is all I seem to be capable of at the moment.’


Maddie woke early the next morning, drenched in perspiration and with all the bedding twisted round her legs. She lay in the semi-darkness of dawn, breathing heavily while her heart thumped against her ribcage. The dream had returned. Maddie groaned. ‘Not again, please,’ she whispered, but she knew that no one would be listening to her plea.

It was a dream which had plagued her as a child, and later as a teenager, playing out the same scenario night after night. It was always incredibly clear and always followed the same pattern. Afterwards she remembered every minute detail even though she didn’t want to.

Each time, she was in a sunny garden surrounded by rose bushes, bearing flowers of every hue. There was a swing hanging from the stout branch of an old apple tree, and somehow she knew it was hers. Whenever she looked at it she felt a sense of ownership and pride. Possessiveness even. The dream always began with her rushing towards it.

She was small. She knew that because she could never climb onto the swing unaided. Sometimes a pair of strong arms lifted her up and pushed her to dizzying heights, making her squeal with laughter. More often, though, she just hung on top of it, face down, and twirled round and round endlessly until the vertigo forced her to pause for a while.

If she stopped she could see the house. White, with windows that were pointed at the top – Gothic architecture, she assumed – and it was almost completely covered in wisteria, honeysuckle and various other climbing plants. It was a happy place, at least that was the impression she had. But in the dreams she never went inside. She always stayed in the garden.

Sometimes a giant with red hair and a beard came out of the house and walked towards her, smiling broadly. Then she would run to him, arms outstretched, and he would lift her sky-high, dancing around with her aloft. She laughed out loud, bubbling over with happiness.

That was where the dream ended most of the time, and she would wake up feeling bereft as if she had lost something infinitely precious. She had no idea what it was, but more often than not she cried, unable to halt the flow of tears.

Occasionally the dream ended differently, however. In her mind, she called it the dark version. The one that absolutely terrified her. The red-haired man would come out as before and she would run towards him, but soon after he would turn away and go back into the house. Then she was grabbed from behind by a pair of dark, hairy arms. A hand clamped down over her mouth, causing her to struggle in panic, fighting for breath. Twisting, turning, arms flailing, legs kicking frantically, she tried to catch a glimpse of her assailant, but there was only a fleeting impression of dark hair and eyes, a black beard and anger. Hatred even.

At that point she always woke herself up with a strangled scream for help, and she knew that was what had happened this morning. She had dreamed the dark version and the images were particularly vivid, leaving a bitter taste of menace in her mouth. It took her ages to still the frantic beating of her heart.

The dream hadn’t recurred since she’d moved to London several years previously, but it would seem she’d been wrong about thinking she’d grown out of it. Perhaps it had been brought on by the recent pressure she’d been under? Maddie sighed.

It seemed so real. Could it mean something? ‘Stop being an idiot,’ she told herself sternly and headed for the shower. The mind was a wonderful thing, but it could also behave irrationally. Dreams were only that, dreams, and she’d do best to try to forget it and hope it didn’t happen again.


Chapter Three


Alexander Marcombe stared out through the bars on the window and thought longingly of the sea. The day was hot and muggy, and he could feel little rivulets of perspiration pouring down his back. A refreshing swim in the Atlantic would have been perfect, but he would happily have settled for just a breeze. He sighed. The tiny cell was unbelievably stuffy.

Prison was definitely not a bed of roses, but then it wasn’t supposed to be, he thought ruefully. Despite everything, in some strange way Alex was thankful for his lengthy stay as Her Majesty’s guest. It had finally made him grow up, and on reflection – and he’d had a lot of time for that during the past three years – he thought it was the best thing that could have happened to him. Making his cellmate understand this concept, however, was a different matter.

‘You’re a weird son-of-a-bitch, Marcombe.’ Foster, a huge brawny man in his mid-twenties, shook his head in total incomprehension. ‘How the hell can you say you’ve enjoyed it here? You must be off your rocker.’ He scratched his head. His shock of dark hair had been given a crew-cut a month previously, and now it resembled the back of a hedgehog.

‘Quite possibly, but I didn’t say “enjoyed” exactly. I said it had made me mature, made me see life in a new light. I’ve learned some very valuable lessons during my time here and I don’t intend to forget them in a hurry. And I certainly wouldn’t want to return. Ever.’ Alex’s mouth tightened. There had been tough times when he’d wanted only to lie down and die, but something had made him carry on. Pride perhaps? Or just sheer bloody-mindedness.

‘Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say. When you go back outside though, and no one wants to give you a job in case you steal something, you’ll soon go back to doing what you’ve always done. What else is there? And before you know it, you’re back in here.’

‘I suppose you have a point there, but that won’t be the case with me.’ Alex knew Foster had already spent roughly half his life in one institution or another and tended towards a cynical view of the whole system. It was difficult to persuade him otherwise and he did seem to be stuck in a Catch 22 situation.

‘Oh, I forgot. You toffs stick together, don’t you? I ‘spect you’ll find a job just like that.’ Foster snapped his fingers loudly to emphasise his point.

‘Not quite, although I daresay it might be true for some people. No, I don’t think any of my former friends would employ me, but I’m lucky enough to have an older brother with more tolerance than I deserve. He’s been incredibly patient with me over the years, and now he’s promised to give me a home until I can stand on my own feet again.’

‘He ain’t a criminal?’ Foster asked suspiciously.

Alex laughed. ‘I don’t think he could be further from it if he tried. No, he’s a lawyer and I can’t see him ever doing anything that wasn’t right and proper.’

‘Sounds like a dead bore to me,’ Foster commented grumpily.

‘Now there you’re wrong. Conscientious and hardworking maybe, but he has a great sense of humour and you’d have a hard time finding a better sailor or sportsman. And there’s a mischievous side to him as well.’

‘Hmph.’ Foster lay down on his bunk and turned his face towards the wall. Then he added in a slightly wistful tone of voice, ‘The only thing my older brother ever did for me was talk me into joining him in a bank robbery that went wrong, and I found myself back in here faster than lightning. Rob’s a bastard.’

‘Yes, so you’ve told me.’ Alex didn’t know what to add to that so he stared out of the window again. ‘I can’t wait to get out tomorrow,’ he said finally.

‘Well, good luck to you. No offence, but I hope I don’t see you again.’ Foster turned around to face him, and Alex was pleased to see he was back to his normal, laid-back self, smiling again.

‘No chance, not in here anyway.’ He grinned confidently. ‘But why don’t you come and see me when you get out, instead of that brother of yours? Maybe I can help you find the straight and narrow.’ Alex noticed Foster raise his eyebrows in scepticism. ‘Only if that’s what you really want, of course.’

‘And how would you do that?’

‘Well, I’ll find you a job.’

‘Hah! Fat chance, mate.’

‘No, I’m serious. Or do you really want to keep visiting institutions like this at regular intervals for the rest of your life?’

BOOK: The Soft Whisper of Dreams
4.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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