'Ahran Elessar is a cross between Mr Darcy and Christian Grey...'

Chapter 1                      

 

“Goodnight lovely boy.”  I stroked the side of my eight-year-old nephew’s pale face, noticing the purplish smudges under his eyes caused by a day of crying.  I tucked his duvet in around his shoulders. “Your mummy would be so proud of you.  I’m so proud of you, it’s been a difficult day and you’ve coped with it so well.”

“I miss her auntie Sophie.”  His voice wobbled and I watched a tear roll down each cheek.  My heart went out to him.  There had been times today when my grief had threatened to engulf me, and yet, in spite of his tears and his own grief, he had tried to be my pillar of strength. 

“Come here.” I gathered him in my arms and he began to sob quietly into my shoulder.

It was the first anniversary of Katie’s death.  A year ago today her life had been snuffed out on a lane just outside our village when her car had skidded on a patch of ice causing her to lose control and nose-dive into a ditch.  She suffered fatal head injuries.  It was the tragic end of a young woman’s life, the end of a doting mother and the end of my very special sister.

“I know you miss her, my darling, I miss her too.”  My throat constricted.  I closed my eyes and took a deep breath willing my tears to stay put.  The pain my sister’s death had caused could only be matched by the pain I felt for my nephew’s loss.  No child should ever have to suffer the death of their mother.

Toby took a shuddering breath. “Do you think she can see us?” He wiped his eyes.

“I’m sure she can.”  I gave him a reassuring squeeze.  I sat back and put my hands on his shoulders. “Your mummy is with you every second of every day, watching over you, watching you grow into a clever, funny, and wonderful young man.”

He gave me a weak smile. 

“She loves you and is counting on you to hold your head up high and be brave.”

He sat up a little straighter and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his pyjamas. “I mustn’t let her down must I?”

His look of fragile determination swelled my heart. “You could never let her down.”

He was a handsome little boy, tall and muscular for an eight-year-old with a natural talent for sport and a distinct phobia of hairdressers.

I brushed a curl away from his right eye.  I felt a desperate urge to reassure him and let him know he wasn’t alone.  “I want you to know that I’ll always be here for you.  I may not be your mummy, but I will always look after you and keep you safe as if I were.”

Toby nodded and his bottom lip trembled.

I wasn’t sure I could hold it together for much longer.  I got to my feet.  “It’s getting late and you’ve got school tomorrow.”

I said this maybe a little too brusquely as I struggled to hold back the tears.  I needed to go downstairs and bury myself in the sofa so Toby couldn’t hear my sobs.  But not before I had made a significant dent in the bottle of wine chilling in the fridge.

I stood up and switched the lamp off beside his bed. 

“I love you Auntie Sophie.” 

“I love you too,” I said, swallowing back the lump in my throat.  I bent down and gave him a kiss on the cheek.  “Sleep tight and see you in the morning.”

I made my way down to the kitchen taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly in the hope that it would ease the pain lodged in my chest.  It had been a tough day and I felt sad and wrung out.  I knew that Toby would be asleep in a matter of minutes.  I, on the other hand, would struggle to find any respite in sleep until the early hours of tomorrow morning.  Insomnia had become my new best friend since Katie’s death.  Why was it that, as an adult, I had lost the ability to switch off? I envied that about children.

I let Toby’s dog, a Weimaraner called Mungo, out for a last wee before retrieving the bottle of wine from the fridge.  All I wanted to do now was curl up on the sofa and cry until I couldn’t cry anymore.  I made my way into the lounge and poured myself a glass.  I downed it and stared into the fire roaring in the log burner.  My tears began to fall.  I put my glass on the coffee table and buried my face in the cushions.  I sobbed for my sister and the future she would never have, for Toby who would never feel his mother’s comforting arms around him again, and for myself, who felt the loss of Katie so keenly that it had been a constant weight tugging at my heart over the last twelve months. 

Eventually, my tears subsided and my grief was reduced to dry, chest heaving sobs.  Despite feeling exhausted, I knew if I went to bed now I would only lie there, staring at the ceiling in the dark.  I scoured the sitting room for my Kindle.  The days I could cope with, I could keep busy and push the shadows of grief to the background, but it was the nights I struggled with most when the house was quiet and dark.  Darkness only seemed to emphasise my sadness and fear.

Mungo barked outside the back door.  I suspected he hadn’t barked sooner because he’d been through the rubbish bag I’d put out earlier.  I opened the door and he came trotting in licking his lips confirming my suspicions. “You are a naughty dog!”

He gave me a look as if to say ‘Well, if you hadn’t left me out there so long I wouldn’t have been forced to do it’.  An uninvited blast of cold air chased in after him and I shut the door quickly. “It’s chilly out there Mung.” 

Disinterested in any assessment of the weather, he sat expectantly, swishing his tail across the floor waiting for his last biscuit of the day.  I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Mungo, all you think about is your stomach.” I held out my hand.  “Paw!”

He quickly obliged.  I gave him a biscuit and he swallowed it whole.  I smiled and bent down to give him a kiss on his wet nose.  Even though he was Toby’s dog and his greediness knew no bounds, I was fonder of the mutt than I cared to admit.  He sauntered off to his bed and I went back into the lounge, refilled my glass and sat back down on the sofa. 

Earlier this afternoon, we’d visited the place where we had scattered Katie’s ashes.  It was a beautiful spot and a great vantage point on the South Downs.  It was one of the places where we had all loved to walk.  Toby and I had spent a long time sitting on the hill, looking into the distance and reminiscing about the sweet, gentle, fun loving person we had both lost.  We laughed and cried and hugged one another, and then walked down the hill to the village pub where they were holding Hatherley’s annual Thanksgiving festival.  It was a celebration peculiar to our village, a throwback to the area’s farming roots.  We stayed long enough to watch the procession leave the pub as it began the traditional candlelit walk through the high street, and then went home.  Neither of us felt in the mood to take part.

I sighed.  Where was my Kindle? I felt between the cushions of the sofa to see if it had slipped down between them, but there was no sign of it.  I continued my search until I remembered it was on my bedside table.  I checked the front and back door were locked and switched off the lights before heading upstairs, leaving the darkness of downstairs behind me.

I passed Toby’s bedroom door and a sad smile crept across my face.   Katie had met his father, Tagan, at a bar one night whilst she was in her first year at university.  She’d quickly become besotted with him.  Two months later he walked out of her life as quickly as he had walked in, leaving her pregnant and devastated.  She had tried to contact him, but he hadn’t return her calls.  Callous Bastard! He was obviously a player and my poor sister had got her fingers burnt.  The only good to come out of it was Toby, who quickly became the centre of her life and it was him that helped to heal her wounds.  Unfortunately, the wounds ran deep and it was obvious to anyone who knew her well, that some of the sparkle had gone from her eyes.

I brushed my teeth and padded into the bedroom, my eyes settling on the Kindle on the nightstand. Ah, there it is!  I got into my pyjamas and climbed into bed, my thoughts turning to my own love life.  I had been dating Marcus Hampton one of the junior partners at the local doctor’s surgery for a couple of months now.  He was keen and clearly wanted to take our relationship further.  I enjoyed our meals out, trips to the cinema and a kiss at the end of the evening, but after a number of failed relationships, that had been enough up until now.  I liked him.  He was nice looking and had a good sense of humour, even if he was a bit short.  The problem was, like with most of the men I had dated, I didn’t feel there was much chemistry.  I remember Katie telling me that when she and Tagan had been together it was like there was a palpable electricity that charged between them.  I had to take her word for it because I’d never felt anything like that.  I obviously wasn’t the chemical or electrical type.

When I really thought about it I had never really let anyone get too close.  I preferred to keep men at a distance where they couldn’t hurt me, disappoint me or die, just like most of the other important people in my life had done.  Unfortunately, there had been a rather sad pattern to my existence.  I had lost my father, my mother and now my sister and their deaths had left me with a debilitating fear of what the future might hold.  I was powerless against the nasty little voice in my head, which was always ready to whisper sickening doubts about what could happen and what might be.  I did my best to silence it, but it was never long before it resurfaced.

I sighed and looked over at the bedside clock.  It was getting late.  It was Monday tomorrow and the usual routine would begin for another week.  I hadn’t ironed Toby’s school shirt and I had to get to the Cash and Carry first thing. 

My phone bleeped with a message.  I picked it up. 

‘Hi Gorgeous.  Hope today hasn’t been too traumatic for you.  Just to say I’m thinking of you.  I’ve got a busy week ahead, but can’t wait to see you on Friday.  Thought maybe we could catch a film and go for dinner afterwards.  Give me a call and let me know what you fancy. Marcus x’

I smiled to myself.  He was very sweet.  I tapped out my reply.

‘Thank you.  It’s been pretty tough.  I’ll have a look at what’s on and give you a ring.’ I paused.  Oh what the hell! ‘I’ll miss you. Sophiex.’

It was the first time I had said anything like that to him.  Perhaps it was time to settle for what I had and move our relationship on.  My phone bleeped back almost immediately.

‘I’ll miss you too!  Marcusxxx’

I put the phone back on my bedside.  Yes, maybe I would give Dr Marcus Hampton a chance.

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Chapter 2

 

The persistent buzz of the alarm clock dragged me out of my slumber.  I had slept!  I couldn’t believe it.  I had actually fallen asleep quickly and slept all night.  I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.  I jumped out of bed.  A good night’s sleep was a good omen.  Yesterday had obviously been somewhat of a watershed and I had woken up feeling uncharacteristically optimistic.  When I had showered and dressed I went into Toby’s room.  “Time to get up,” I said, pulling back the curtains.  There was a slight stirring, but no answer so I left him to come to on his own and went downstairs into the kitchen.  Mungo was lying in his bed and barely opened his eyes to register who it was. 

“You need to go outside, whether you like it or not.”  I held open the back door.  He ignored me.  “Mungo!” I said more insistently, “Out!” 

He got up, stretched as if he had all the time in the world and ambled out, not giving me a second glance.  I switched the kettle on and put the breakfast things out on the table. 

“Toby!”  I turned the radio on and found myself humming along to it and then Mungo scratched at the back door.  I let him in and he went straight back to his bed, grumbling to himself as he did two circuits of the confined space before settling back down.  I made a cup of tea and Toby came into the kitchen in his pyjamas, looking half asleep.

“Morning sweetheart,” I said brightly.

He mumbled something which I think was ‘Morning’ and got into Mungo’s bed, laying his head on the dog’s shoulder.  He sucked his thumb and absentmindedly stroked one of Mungo’s silky ears.  I had spent the last year trying to persuade him not to suck his thumb, but had failed miserably.

“Don’t lie in the dog’s bed you’ll smell all doggy,” I groaned. 

“But he’s nice and warm,” Toby protested, making no attempt to move. 

“Go and put your dressing gown on.  It’s cold this morning.”

“I can’t find it,” he said around his thumb.

“It’s at the bottom of your bed.”

He got up reluctantly and sauntered back upstairs. 

I couldn’t help marvelling at my nephew’s lack of urgency in the mornings.  If it was up to him, he wouldn’t get to school much before lunchtime, unlike me who felt the pressure in the morning, largely due to my reluctance to come to terms with the alarm.  Once I was able to drag myself out of bed and stumble downstairs to make a cup of liquid first aid, I would gradually start to come round.  A shower and a second cup of tea was the final passage into full consciousness.  When it hit, I usually had about twenty minutes to have breakfast, chivvy Toby along and take him the eight-minute drive to his village school.  We rarely got to school before the bell. 

But this morning was different.  I looked at the clock.  This morning I was actually early.  And as if to celebrate my good start, the sky was a brilliant blue and the November sun was doing its best to look less like a watery Satsuma and more like the fiery ball it was.  It buoyed my spirits no end.

Toby re-joined me wrapped in his dressing gown and poured the milk onto his breakfast, slopping a glug of it over the side of his bowl.

“Toby!” I dabbed at it with the dishcloth.

“Sorry,” he said sheepishly.

I could never be cross with him for long, he was always so endearingly contrite. “Have you put your homework in your bag?”

He nodded his mouth full of Cheerios. 

“And your reading book?”

He nodded again.  He was getting better at being more organised.

“And don’t forget you’re going to Adam’s for tea tonight.”

“I know.  Can I take my army gear?” he asked. 

One of Toby and his best friend’s favourite games was playing armies.  It usually involved building a camp with cushions from the sofa and then hours of quiet discussion as they planned and plotted their next move.  It was always more about tactics and strategy than loud, raucous attack.

I started to clear the dishes away.  “Go and get dressed and I’ll bring your shirt up when I’ve ironed it.”

 

*****

 

We made it to the school gates well before the school bell.  I gave Toby a kiss on the cheek.  Adam joined him at the gate and they walked into school with their heads together, thick as thieves.  I smiled and pulled away in my old red Land Rover that clung to life by a spark plug.

 I wasn’t happy about having to buy stock from the Cash and Carry, it went against all my principles of only using local produce, but I was left with no choice after being let down by one of my usual suppliers.  Fortunately, my dear friend and saviour, Audrey Goodfellow was opening up the shop this morning.  

The Coffee Shop was a bustling little place and I was pleased to still be doing a good trade in spite of the economic downturn.  I had built on the success of my mother and sister’s efforts and despite the sometimes haphazard way I went about things, I discovered I had a natural business sense which surprised nobody more than me.  I’d tweaked the menu since I had taken over.  The local workmen still came in religiously for a fry up, but I had also managed to attract the later commuters with a more upmarket fare.

I got what I needed at the wholesalers and drove back to the shop. The last year had been a real period of personal adjustment for me.  Not only had I had my sister’s death to deal with, but I was plunged into parenthood overnight, fulfilling my promise to Katie that if anything ever happened to her I would become Toby’s legal guardian.  Nothing had prepared me for the daunting sense of responsibility and self-doubt this new role had engendered.  I sighed as I pulled into the back yard behind the shop, I refused to dampen the optimism I had felt first thing this morning and ground the gears as I shoved my poor old Land Rover into reverse.  It had been a tedious three-and-a-half-hour round trip and the lunchtime rush was starting to kick in.

“Hi Sandie,” I said as I heaved a box up onto the counter in the tiny kitchen. Sandie, a local girl who other than Audrey, was my only employee, was busy frying eggs. 

She glanced up. “Hi Sophie, alright?”

“Yeah good thanks, you?”

She nodded in response and carried on cooking.  She was a sweet girl but like most seventeen year olds was master of few words.  I smiled and finished unloading the car.

The coffee shop wasn’t a big place, it could seat thirty at a push, but it kept me, Audrey and Sandie busy.  At that moment, Audrey came rushing into the kitchen.  “Sophie love, thank goodness you are here, we are rushed off our feet.” 

“Don’t worry, the cavalry has arrived,” I said, squeezing her shoulders affectionately as she made her way back into the shop with an order.

 It turned out to be a hectic couple of hours.  A coach load of American tourists had come to visit Betherlands, the local stately home, and had wandered into the village.  Apparently, they’d been told by their tour guide that Hatherley was a typically quaint English village.  Fine by me, that kind of talk was good for business.  By four o’clock, however, the shop was empty, the sun had admitted defeat and it was getting colder by the minute. 

We all sat down for a well-deserved cuppa.  “Oh, I meant to tell you Sophie, a man came into the shop looking for you this morning.  He was most insistent about knowing where you were,” Audrey said disapprovingly.

I sipped my tea. “Really, did he say what he wanted?”

“No, but he wasn’t very happy when I refused to give him your mobile number.  I told him to come back at lunchtime.  He didn’t come back though, did he?” She turned to Sandie for confirmation, who just shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.

 “He seemed very keen to find you,” Audrey continued.

 “What did he look like?”

“Well, he was tall with very short blonde hair and spoke with a foreign accent.”

“And he was hot,” Sandie added.

Audrey gave her a withering look.

“What? He was!”

I was puzzled by my mystery visitor. “I wonder what he wanted.”

Audrey looked concerned.  “I assumed you would know.”

“He’d be difficult to forget if you had met him,” Sandie said.

Audrey ignored her. “I don’t like strangers turning up asking for your number, it’s not right and I didn’t like his tone at all,” she said, sounding cross. “If he turns up again I shall give him a piece of my mind.”

“It was probably just some salesman,” I said, trying to reassure her.  “If it was urgent, I’m sure he will come back.” 

Audrey harrumphed her disapproval.  Dear Audrey, she was like my mother should have been.

“How was yesterday?” she asked, changing the subject. 

“Well, pretty hard, as expected.  Toby was a little trooper though,” I said with a sad smile.

“He’s a dear little lad and he’s coped with the loss of his mother so maturely.  You are doing a great job.” Audrey patted my hand.  Many a time I had poured out my insecurities about being Toby’s guardian to her.

“I’m doing my best.  He supports me as much as I support him.”

“You are lucky to have one another.”

“It’s hard though, I miss Katie so much.”

 “I know you do, we all do,” she said sympathetically.

I took another sip of my tea. “But, do you know what?  As tough as yesterday was, I actually woke up this morning feeling optimistic about the future, probably for the first time in the last year.  Toby and I have an easy relationship, he’s getting on well at school and the shop is doing okay.”  I left out the bit about moving things forward with Marcus.

“That’s the spirit my dear.”

I looked into Audrey’s kind face.  She was an attractive older woman; she was lined, but her bone structure was delicate and her skin unblemished.

“Thanks Aude you are such a support; I don’t know what I’d do without you.” I squeezed her hand.  “Let’s shut up shop and head home early, I don’t think anyone else is coming in this afternoon.” I glanced outside.  “It looks like it might snow.”  Even though it was dark the sky had taken on a heaviness in the light of the street lamps that hadn’t been there before.  I picked up our mugs.

 “Now that’s enough of that kind of talk, I’m not built for the cold,” Audrey said, shaking her head and shivering as she walked past me to get her coat.

“Don’t be such a spoil sport, there’s nothing like a dump of snow, especially when there’s sledging potential,” I said, putting the mugs in the sink.

“Yeah, I love a bit of sledging,” Sandie agreed, showing an uncharacteristic enthusiasm.  The girl obviously had hidden depths.

Audrey shook her head. “I’m afraid I’m getting too old for that sort of thing.”

“Rubbish, you’re a spring chicken Aude,” I teased.  “I bet you could give the kids a run for their money.”

She laughed. “Forty years ago maybe.  I prefer a more sedentary pace of life now.” 

She had always been very secretive about her age but she had to be in her mid to late sixties.  I smiled and shrugged on my coat.  “Can you lock up at the front? I’m going out the back.”

“Course love, see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, see you tomorrow,” I said.  “Bye Sandie.”

“Bye,” she replied.

I could see my breath in the glow of the security light out the back.  I pulled my scarf up to my chin.  My old truck started after a few throaty attempts and I patted the dashboard. “Good girl,” I said gratefully and reversed out of the shop’s back yard.

I drove home and thought about Audrey.  She was such a good friend and support.  She lived alone with two cats she adored, and it so happened that her friend and neighbour, Paul Franklin, was the love of her life, not that she had any idea I knew.  Unfortunately for Audrey, Paul was his wife’s loyal and totally committed full time carer.  Once a week, Audrey and Paul would spend companionable time together when Eva went into respite care.  They did the crossword together and discussed the news topics of the day and I knew it was these moments that Audrey secretly lived for.  Poor Audes, she was such a warm, loving person, but had never been married and I would have liked nothing more than to see her settled with someone she loved.

I turned into my road and was dragged away from my thoughts by the sight of a tall shadowy figure standing by my front gate.  My mind flitted to the conversation Audrey and I’d had earlier about the mysterious stranger who had come into the shop asking questions about my whereabouts.  I felt a shot of adrenaline and did a quick risk assessment as I often did in situations that made me feel vulnerable.  The street was quiet and there were no lights on in the house next to mine.  I contemplated turning around and then thought better of it.  If this was the guy who had come into the shop this morning, he was obviously persistent and would no doubt catch up with me sooner rather than later.  It was about time I toughened up.

I pulled into the drive at the side of my house and glanced in the rear-view mirror.  I hoped the man might have moved on, but not only was he still there, he was walking up the garden path ready to meet me at the front door.  My new found bravery wavered and I grabbed my mobile phone, bringing Marcus’ number up on the screen as a precaution.  I got out of the car and held my phone in my pocket as I approached the man, who was now waiting for me under the porch.

He was tall and wore dark jeans and a dark jacket.  His collar was turned up and his hands were pushed hard into his pockets in a gesture against the cold. 

“Can I help you?” I said with a cheeriness I didn’t feel.

“I’m looking for Sophie McAllister,” he replied in an accent I struggled to place.  He didn’t look like my idea of a homicidal maniac, in fact far from it.  Sandie had been right, he was spectacularly good-looking.  His hair was fair and very short, he had a well-defined brow and an angular jaw.  All in all, pretty breath-taking.  I found myself staring at him struggling to assimilate the oxygen I was drawing into my lungs and momentarily forgetting my earlier assumption.

  “Do you know where I could find Ms McAllister?” he repeated, interrupting my appraisal of his not inconsiderable good looks. 

“Um yes, I’m Sophie McAllister,” I replied breathlessly.  Get a grip!  He might be a fine example of a man, but that didn’t mean he was any less inclined to do me harm, judging by the size of him, he could probably throttle me with one hand.  “Can I help you?” I asked again. 

He offered his hand for a handshake and I flinched at the sudden movement. 

“My name is Ahran Elessar.”  

His hand was as warm as mine was cold.

“Are you the legal guardian of the boy?”

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Chapter 3

 

His terminology struck me as odd and then I realised he was talking about Toby.  I snatched my hand from his.  The hairs on the back of my neck stood up like the hackles on a dog and the unease I felt when I first saw him returned.  I decided to play ignorant.  “I’m sorry I’m not sure what you mean.  Who did you say you were again?” 

“Ahran Elessar,” he said, enunciating it as if I was either deaf or stupid.  “I need to talk with you about your nephew as a matter of urgency.  Could we step inside?” 

How did he know anything about Toby?   My uneasiness increased. Who was this guy?  He was clearly no salesman and the last thing I had expected was the topic of conversation to be about my nephew.  Apprehension prickled across my skin.

“Can we go inside and talk?” he urged more insistently.

I stood on my doorstep weighing up whether I should let him inside or just tell him to get lost.  He acknowledged my hesitation by taking a step closer and lowering his voice.  He was close enough for me to smell his citrusy aftershave.

“You and your nephew are in grave danger, I have been sent to protect you.”  His expression was serious and fear crashed through my body causing my fingertips to tingle.  “I know how this might seem,” he continued, “But it’s very cold out here.  Can we talk about this in the warm?”

Why were our lives in grave danger? I stared at him blankly.

 He didn’t appear overjoyed about being here, but there was something about him that was calm and reassuring. 

“Are you the police?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, looking mildly amused.

“Then how do I know you don’t mean us any harm?”

“Please believe me when I say I’m not here to hurt you.  If I meant you any harm I could do it right here, right now.” 

It was true, he could attack me on my doorstep and no one would hear my screams.

“You and your nephew are not safe and I am here to protect you,” he said, repeating his earlier statement.  “Can we please go inside and I will explain?”

His sincerity seemed genuine, but it was the thought of Toby coming to any harm that finally forced my decision.

“Okay.  Although my boyfriend will be home any minute.”  This of course, wasn’t true.

My hand was shaking when I put the key in the lock.  I opened the door and Mungo rushed out of the kitchen and charged up to my unexpected visitor wagging his tail and whimpering like an idiot. Great! Some guard dog you are!

Ahran had to duck as he walked through the doorway and my hallway suddenly felt very small.  I must be mad! I thought to myself, but instead of sending him away I found myself offering to take his coat.

He hesitated as if I had caught him off guard. “Er, yes, thank you.”  He shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to me.  

 I hung it up and got a waft of his aftershave again mixed with the kind of smell you get when your skin has been exposed to hot sun.  I wondered how he could possibly smell of the sun when it had been freezing cold all day.

Mungo was going over the top with his canine welcome and I grabbed his collar.  He could be so irritating. “Mungo, that’s enough!”  Dogs were supposed to protect their owners, weren’t they? “Sorry,” I apologised and led him into the kitchen.  Fortunately, I had lit the Aga yesterday and the kitchen felt warm and inviting.

“In your bed,” I commanded before Mungo could even think about resuming his overly friendly assault on my visitor.  He did as he was told, but shot me a look of disappointment at having his enthusiastic greeting curbed, it wasn’t often we had new people to the house for him to sniff and lick.

Jeez! In the light, the guy was even better looking than I had first thought. “Come in,” I swallowed.  My mind was reeling.  The presence of Mr Elessar was unsettling, but I couldn’t help wondering what it was we had done to make someone want to harm us? Toby was just a child and the worst I had ever done was thirty five in a thirty zone.

“Please take a seat.”  I congratulated myself for my calm manner when I felt anything but calm.

He pulled out one of the wooden chairs at the kitchen table and it creaked as he sat down.  Without his jacket he was lean and broad.  His skin was lightly tanned and his eyes were the most mesmerizing shade of blue, it was difficult not to stare at them. I cleared my throat. “Can I get you a drink? Tea…Coffee?”

“Just a glass of water, please.”

I switched the kettle on, feeling like I needed the comfort of a mug of tea.  I poured his glass of water and tried to still the tremor in my hand.

“Thank you,” he said, taking the glass from me, his hand as steady as a rock.  At least he was polite, which wasn’t a quality I usually associated with serial killers.

“Where is your nephew now?” he asked, wasting no time in getting to the point.

I chose to lean up against the counter rather than take a seat opposite, for some reason it made me feel like I had more of an advantage.  I held my mug with both hands seeking its reassuring warmth.

“He’s at a friend’s,” I replied.

I eyed my unexpected visitor warily.  I’d have placed him in his early thirties.  He sat with an easy confidence and wore an expensive looking black sweater that clung to what must have been some seriously toned muscles underneath.  He had faint laughter lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, but other than that, his face was flawless.  His long legs were muscular and clad in a pair of designer jeans and he wore a pair of brown leather Chelsea boots.  All in all, expensively turned out and not what you would expect of a potential bodyguard.

“Okay so can you please tell me what this is all about?” I insisted.

Ahran leant forward on the table, his expression solemn.  “The boy in your care is very…” He paused searching for the right word “…special.”

I gave a humourless laugh. “You don’t think I know that?  He’s the only family I have left.”

“I understand he is important to you after the loss you have suffered, but what I mean is he is special in an...” Once again he searched for the right words, “... unusual way.”

I felt confused.  How did he know what loss I had suffered? And what did he mean Toby was special and unusual?

“How do you know anything about us?” I demanded. 

“I know a lot more about you and the boy than even you know.”

More than even I knew? He was talking in riddles.

“Do you know who the boy’s father is?” he continued as if to prove his point.

“Toby, his name is Toby,” I said in frustration.  I was beginning to feel out of control.

He ignored me and raised his eyebrows waiting for my answer.

I sighed.  “His father is called Tagan, but he doesn’t have anything to do with Toby and never has had,” I said bitterly.

Ahran made no comment and continued with his game of ‘I Know More Than You’.  “His name was Tagan Halsan and he was my cousin.”

 “Well you can tell Tagan Halsan to go to hell.  If he thinks he’s having Toby he is sorely mistaken.” I put my mug down and stepped away from the counter.   “If this is why you have come then you can get out of my house.” I could feel hot tears prickling at my eyes.  They would have to take Toby away over my dead body and not without a fight before that.  A sinking feeling dragged at my stomach.  I could almost feel the cracks beginning to fracture my fragile world.  I was a fool this morning to think I could lead a normal and settled life.  Things always turned to shit!

Ahran remained calm.  “I don’t think you heard what I said.  Tagan was my cousin.  He died over eight years ago.” He paused and let me digest this information.  “And I have no intention of taking the boy away from you,” he said, his expression softening just a little.

“Then why have you come to see us now?  As far as Toby,” I said, emphasising his name again, “Is concerned, his father was never interested in him when he was alive, why should it matter now that he is dead?”  I couldn’t help feeling a small vindictive twinge of satisfaction knowing that Tagan no longer walked this earth. 

“Tagan never knew he had a son,” Ahran replied in a clipped tone.  My vilification of his cousin was obviously beginning to annoy him.

 “Yeah right, more convenient to play ignorant at least there is less chance of having to pay maintenance,” I continued, unable to help myself.

He drew in a deep breath before continuing. “We had no idea Tagan had a son at first and it took me a while to find you both.  If Tagan had known he had sired a son, believe me he would have come looking for him himself.”

I snorted.  Sired a son.  Hello? We are in the 21st century!  And where was that accent from?

Before I had a chance to question him, Ahran continued.

“The picture you paint of my cousin is not an accurate one.  Tagan would have been very proud if he had known he had a son even if he is...” Ahran stopped himself.  “He just would have been very proud and I’m sure he would have wanted to get to know him.”

“What were you going to say? Even if he is what?”

“It doesn’t matter.”  Judging by the expression that flickered across his face, it was something he found disagreeable. “What does matter is that my family has enemies and we have reason to believe that they may come after Toby.” 

Suddenly I felt nauseous.  “What kind of enemies? Are you in the Mafia or something? Its drugs isn’t it?” I said, throwing my hands in the air and shaking my head, not giving him the chance to answer any of my questions. “I knew it!”  I thought about Toby’s good for nothing father it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out that he was some addict who had got into debt to some badass drug dealer.  Whatever illegal pies Tagan and his family had their fingers in, Toby and I wanted no part of it.

Ahran laughed.  I couldn’t help noticing how the humour softened his face.

“No, we are not the Mafia and drugs are not important where I come from.  I’m afraid the people who might come after Toby are far more dangerous than the kind of people you might have seen in some gangster movie.”

This was not what I wanted to hear.  I’d seen The Godfather I couldn’t conceive of anyone more dangerous than a Mafia gangster.  I started to feel the room spin and my knees began to buckle at the thought of Toby being hurt.  I clutched the edge of the counter behind me.

“Are you okay?”

I glared at his outstretched hand as if it was a poisonous snake. “No, I’m not okay,” I spat.  “You turn up out of the blue and tell me that the most important person in my life is in danger, an innocent boy who has never caused anyone any harm, his only crime that he is the son of some…” I searched for the right word, Ooh, I could come up with some choice ones! “Criminal!” I seethed and glared at him.  His expression grew darker.

“You have the wrong impression of my cousin.”

“Oh have I? Well, your cousin,” I said with exaggerated emphasis, “Got my sister pregnant and walked away never to be seen again.  Katie never received any support. Toby has had to grow up not knowing who his father was and now, because of him, his life is in danger.  I’m sorry if I seem a little bitter.” I didn’t sound in the least bit apologetic.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes which caused tears to spill down my cheeks as it all began to sink in.  Suddenly, I felt as if all my fight had just up sticks and left.  I sobbed into my hands.

 I felt Ahran’s warm hand on my arm.  I wasn’t prepared for his sympathy.  I pulled away.  I didn’t want to know who Toby’s father was and what trouble he and his family were in. I just wanted Ahran Elessar to go away, rewind back to this morning and for Toby and I to carry on with our lives blissfully unaware of everything he had just told me.

I wiped my eyes.

“Can I get you a tissue?” He offered awkwardly.  My tears were obviously making him uncomfortable.

I sat down at the kitchen table. “Could you just get me a glass of water please?” I muttered.  For some reason I was finding it difficult to think straight when he was stood so close.  I felt upset and confused.

“Yes of course.”  He looked relieved he had something to do.  I got the impression he wasn’t used to emotional women, although I’m not sure why, there had to be a long line of broken hearted females trailing not too far behind him.

I took a sip from the glass he handed me.

“I know it’s a lot to take in, but I cannot emphasise enough that your lives are in danger.  No matter what you think of my cousin you need to seriously consider my family’s offer of protection.”

I eyed him suspiciously. “What have your family done exactly that has made this enemy so angry that they would want to come after an innocent child?”

“Unfortunately, Tagan killed the son of a very powerful woman where I come from and she wants revenge,” he said with a hint of regret.

This was more like the image I had of Tagan.  “So he’s a murderer?!”  I knew he was a waste of space. Oh Katie, why oh why did you have to get tangled up with someone like that?!

“You misunderstand,” Ahran said in his cousin’s defence.

“Well, you either kill someone or you don’t.”  I gave a humourless laugh.  “If he killed someone then he was a murderer.” 

He looked like I had just slapped him in the face.  I’d obviously hit a nerve and it took him a moment to recover.

He shook his head.  “You are wrong,” he said quietly.  “Tagan was a brilliant soldier, he had no choice, it was kill or be killed.”

“Tagan was in the army?”  I digested this piece of information.  I wasn’t sure I really want to know any more about him.

Ahran continued. “Yes, he was also the heir to my uncle’s extensive estate, which makes Toby the next rightful heir.  Capturing Toby would not only be a just revenge in Bazeera’s eyes but he would also be a very useful bargaining chip for her to get her hands on my family’s land.”

I laughed. “This is some kind of joke right?”

“I have never been more serious in my life,” he replied without a hint of a smile.

“Okay, so you are telling me that some woman wants to kidnap Toby because his father was some kind of lord?” I asked incredulously.  The picture Ahran was painting of Tagan as a titled soldier who had fought honourably for his country, jarred with my image of him being a druggy good-for-nothing who slept around.

“Not a lord, a prince.”

 “A prince!” Jesus! I was happier thinking the worst of him, it made it easier to accept that he had deserted my sister. 

“Yes, he was a prince from a very wealthy and respected royal family.”

“And Toby is the next heir?” I asked, hardly believing what I was hearing.

“Yes,” he replied patiently. 

It felt like my brain was made of cotton wool.  I was having difficulty processing the simplest of his answers.  I sat there for some time staring at a mark on the floor.  I turned it over in my head. Toby’s father was a prince, which means Toby is a prince and heir to some wealthy foreign kingdom.  No matter how much I repeated it in my head it didn’t sound any less crazy.

“My family would like you and Toby to accompany me back to my family’s home where we can offer you full protection,” he said, repeating his earlier proposal. 

Despite feeling bewildered I started to think about the practicalities.  We couldn’t just up sticks and leave with this stranger.  We had our lives here.  “And how long do you think we would need to stay with you?” I asked, playing along.

“As long as it takes for my people to remove the threat,” Ahran said with little emotion.

“And how would you do that?” I asked not sure I wanted to hear the answer.  I was from a rural community in East Sussex, nothing like this ever happened.

“Until Bazeera is overthrown,” he replied matter of factly. 

I had a sinking feeling that overthrown was a euphemism for being killed.  It all sounded rather too serious and dangerous.  What had we found ourselves in the middle of?!

I tried to reason with him.  “Surely the police can deal with this.  If Toby’s life is in as much danger as you say it is then the police or special branch or whoever deals with this kind of thing should be able to do something about this Bazeera.”

He frowned and shook his head. “There is no need to involve the police.  We are capable of dealing with our own problems.” 

I still wasn’t convinced that they weren’t part of the mob. I stood up and started to pace the kitchen.  “I can’t take Toby out of school, away from all his friends and everything he knows to go off with a stranger for an indeterminate amount of time.” I stopped in front of him.   “Besides I’ve got a business to run.”  I hoped that I might be able to convince him he was being melodramatic.

“I don’t think you quite understand what Bazeera is capable of,” he warned.

“Maybe not, but we can’t just walk away from our lives.”  I took a deep breath and tried to calm my nerves and temper my frustration.  “Look, you’ve got to try and see this from my point of view.  A guy I’ve never met before turns up on my doorstep and tells me that my nephew is a prince and heir to a fortune and that his life is in danger from some power hungry woman because she wants vengeance and a slice of that fortune.”

Ahran shrugged and shook his head as if to say, ‘And your point is?’

“It just all sounds too far-fetched and why should I believe you anyway, you’ve not provided me with any hard evidence.”  I hoped by talking some sense I would be able to convince him that his story was too absurd and that he really shouldn’t believe everything he is told either.

I moved towards the door. “Now if you don’t mind, I have to go somewhere.”  I felt more resolute, this sort of thing just doesn’t happen in real life.  Denial was the best policy until I had proof.  “If you can provide me with some irrefutable evidence that what you say is true then perhaps we can talk again.”  I had no intention of putting Toby at any risk, but this was Hatherley, the most criminal thing that ever happened here was fly-tipping in a field gateway. 

Ahran ran his hand over his hair in frustration.  He went out into the hallway where I’d hung up his jacket and then came back into the kitchen.

 “Look, take this.”  He handed me a small rectangular tablet.

“What is it?” I eyed it suspiciously.

“It’s a cell phone.”

“I’ve got a phone thank you.”

“You will need this if you want to contact me.” 

Somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered why he couldn’t just give me his number.  “You obviously need some time to think about this.  In the meantime, if you feel threatened in any way, do not hesitate to phone one of the two numbers programmed into it.  I can get here quickly if necessary.  I will give you two days and then I will come back for you both.”

I’d had enough of arguing with him. “I’m sorry I am going to have to go.” I tossed the phone on the table as if accepting it would make everything he had just told me true.

I followed him to the front door and offered my hand. “Well Mr Elessar, it’s been, er, interesting, and if there is anything I’m worried about you can rest assured I will give you a call.”  I was pleased I had come up with a sensible plan amidst this madness.

Ahran looked at me intently. “I mean it, we haven’t got long.  If anyone new turns up in your village, or threatens you or Toby in any way, you must call me immediately.” 

“Yes of course I will,” I said in my sweetest and best air hostess voice.  “Now if you don’t mind.”  I handed him his jacket and opened the front door as a signal for him to leave.

 “Please be vigilant, for yours and Toby’s sake.” He sounded angry.  It wasn’t the first time this evening.  I’d got the distinct impression that he didn’t want to be here and he wanted me to be difficult even less.  He had obviously expected us to go with him, but I was damned if that was going to happen without more proof.  He hesitated and then turned and walked out into the darkness.

I slowly shut the door behind him.  My head ached.  As implausible as Ahran’s story was, could I afford to ignore it? What would be the point of making up a story like that? Perhaps he was just a very convincing fraud, albeit a very good-looking one.  I leaned back against the door and took a deep breath.  Were our lives really in that much danger?

 

*****

 

The alarm woke me at 6.30 as usual.  I’d eventually got to sleep about half past three after tossing and turning thinking about Ahran’s visit.  I slowly put my feet to the floor.  My head was pounding as if I had been drinking.  I was still struggling to believe what he had told me and the evil voice in my head was doing its usual thing, spouting negativity and insisting that I could be putting our lives in danger if I didn’t heed Ahran’s warning.  “Oh shut up!” I grumbled and went into the bathroom.

I thought about the day ahead.  My best friend Bennie had just got back from her latest assignment and she was coming over this evening for a takeaway and a catch up.  She had been in Kenya for over a month filming a new litter of lion cubs in one of its nature reserves.  I missed her and her sensible counsel even more than usual in the light of last night’s unexpected bombshell.  She was one of those people who talked sense and at this moment in time I really needed someone to be sensible.  After I’d had a shower my headache had lessened and I felt a little better as I headed downstairs.  Bennie would know what to do.

Toby was already dressed and sat at the breakfast table eating a bowl of Cheerios with Mungo drooling at his elbow. 

“What have I done to deserve the pleasure of your company at this hour of the morning?” I asked cheerily, if a little suspiciously.

“Nothing,” Toby said as he slurped down the last couple of spoonfuls of cereal. “I’m going on a school trip today, remember.  I’ve got to be at school by seven thirty.”

“Dammit! I’d forgotten all about your trip and I need to make you a packed lunch,” I said, hopping from one foot to the other as I tried to decide what to do first.

“Don’t worry, I’ve made it already,” Toby said.

I was always dubious of the nutritional value of a packed lunch made by Toby, but I didn’t have time to argue.  I hardly even noticed when he put his breakfast bowl on the floor and Mungo began to lap up the leftover milk.  It was one of my pet hates.  I went over and gave him a hug.

 “You are amazing Toby McAllister, do you know that?” I gave him a kiss on the cheek.  Ahran’s words came back to me and I contemplated life without my little nephew.  A lump formed in my throat and tears stung my eyes.  I quickly turned away and busied myself with putting some toast in the toaster.  I hoped we would never see Ahran Elessar again.

“Yeah, I know,” Toby replied.

“And modest too,” I laughed, wiping my nose on my sleeve.

“Are you alright Auntie Sophie?”

“I’m fine,” I said, dodging his question.   “Go and brush your teeth, we’d better get going.” We made it to school just in time.

It wasn’t as busy at the coffee shop as it had been the day before, so the three of us made the most of the lull and got on with some of the mucky jobs we’d been putting off for a week. I cleaned the coffee machine.  Sandie worked on the grills and Audrey tackled the fridge.  It was a hive of activity and just what I needed to keep myself occupied.  I hadn’t told Audrey about Ahran’s visit because I didn’t want to worry her.  I decided I wouldn’t say anything until he had proved to me that what he’d said was true.  I fully intended to tell Bennie tonight though.  I had to share it with someone.

It had been a busy day cleaning and we rewarded ourselves with tea and some unsold cake.  We congratulated ourselves with what we had achieved and shut up shop safe in the knowledge that everything was spick and span.  I picked Toby up from afterschool club and was regaled with stories of his school trip to the Natural History Museum.  He flaked out after his bath not even able to stay awake for a story.  I tucked him in and kissed his forehead.  We had got through the day without being attacked by evil, vengeful enemies from far off places.  I began to think that Ahran’s visit had been some kind of stupid prank.I put some plates in the oven and a bottle of wine in the fridge.  It had been too long since I had seen Bennie.  I smiled at the thought of my best friend.  Her name wasn’t actually Bennie it was Cordelia.  I remember the day I met her so clearly, it was at the village primary school, the same one that Toby now went to.  We were both five.  I had been at school for a term and she had just moved into the village with her parents.  She had been a real tomboy and figured that nobody at school would be any the wiser if she renamed herself Benjamin.  She reasoned that boys had more fun and decided a name change might make her life more exciting.  She was an only child.  Her parents, Edward and Gwen Blythe-Smith, after twenty three years of trying, had resigned

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