Could love be the biggest adventure of all?
Filmmaker Lily’s life is all about work and adventure. So when she suffers an accident on her travels and finds herself recuperating in the quiet French seaside village where she spent her childhood, she can’t wait to escape. Not least because Olivier – Lily’s childhood friend and former crush, who she has spent the last thirteen years avoiding – is staying next door . . .
Strong-minded masterbaker Olivier is happily settled in St Pierre, preparing to marry and put down roots. But Lily’s return to the village risks turning his carefully-laid plans upsidedown, and as the pair rediscover their familiar rivalry and fun, sparks fly.
Is Lily really as fearless and independent as she seems on the surface – or is she just running from the past? And what if Olivier is the only one who can teach her what it really means to be brave?
The sun had almost completely sunk behind the forested hill to her right, but the blue-tinged fading light wasn’t the only reason why Lily didn’t see the men coming. She was intent on her task of filming Yolanda as they walked home from the coffee farm, using her tiny, hand-held camera to capture the words as they spilled from the other woman’s lips. Yolanda’s dark eyes were glazed with tears as she spoke slowly, allowing Maria, the young interpreter, time to repeat her words in English. Lily did her best to keep the camera level and listened, spellbound.
‘I came here with nothing,’ Maria translated. ‘No experience, no skills, no tools. Nothing but my children and the clothes on our backs . . .’
Lily’s breath caught, and excitement gathered in her stomach. She knew this feeling: on the cusp of a revelation. The turning point when her work came to life, when a potentially dull documentary about a women’s cooperative producing coffee in Colombia became a personal story, a heroic account of adversity overcome. Her heart thumped in anticipation and she hoped the light would be strong enough for her camera to catch the haunted look in Yolanda’s eyes.
But those same eyes glanced ahead, looked twice, then widened with fear.
Yolanda stopped in her tracks. Next to her, Maria gasped. Still holding up the camera, Lily frowned and turned to follow their frightened stares.
Three men stood in the middle of the road, blocking their path. She took in the shadow of a knife, the barrel of a shotgun and dusty scuffed boots, and though she didn’t follow every word of the rapid-fire Spanish that their leader spoke, she got the gist. The man was the eldest of the three, his skin like worn leather, and some- thing in his eyes made Lily shiver. She lowered her camera.
‘Th-they want our money,’ Maria whispered.
Lily nodded but didn’t take her eyes off the men.Their narrowed gazes flickered as they registered her scars, then hardened. The leader sneered.
‘We don’t have any money,’ Maria told them in clear, careful Spanish. ‘We’ve been at work. All we have is our tools, see?’ She nudged Yolanda who held open her bag.
Her words seemed to anger him. His lip curled as he spat out more words even faster. Lily strained to understand what he said and simultaneously she scanned her surroundings, looking for help. The bus which had dropped them had long since gone, and they were still half a mile or so from the village; there was no one around on this lonely road. Here in Colombia roadside robberies were notoriously common. And violent.
Her skin tightened and memories of terror crashed back. This wasn’t the first time she’d feared for her life. She pushed the flashbacks aside and looked at the women next to her. Maria was barely eighteen, and Yolanda had four beautiful children waiting at home who were dependent on her. Whereas Lily had no one.
No, she didn’t have no one. Mamie’s face sprang up in her mind, and Lily’s heart kicked as she thought of her grandmother. But she couldn’t stand back and do nothing. If anything happened to Yolanda, Lily would never forgive herself. So she sucked in air and stepped forward, placing herself in front of the women. She kept her spine straight as she met the angry man’s gaze and said in his language; ‘These women have nothing. Here, take this.’
She held out her small camera and it was snatched from her hand. Over her shoulder was the case containing her large camera and tripod. She prayed they wouldn’t want it. Other people treasured their wedding ring or a favourite watch or trinket – but her most valuable possession would always be her camera.
‘I have cash too,’ she said, opening her bag and willing them to take the money and leave.
The older man glared up at her. He was a foot smaller than her, but that didn’t give her much of an advantage when he was armed with a shotgun.
He took the cash, and nodded at her shoulder. ‘The bag,’ he commanded.
She glanced at the strap. ‘It’s just a camera. It’s old, not worth anything.’ It might fetch a little cash, but to her it was invaluable. She had insurance of course, but there were hours of great footage on there, crucial scenes which she hadn’t yet uploaded to her laptop and which she’d never be able to recover.
‘Give it to me,’ he said.
There was a cold glint in his eye which turned her skin to ice, but she held his gaze. ‘Here, take my watch,’ she offered instead.
He took it. ‘And the bag,’ he insisted.
The men flanking him watched impassively.
‘Give it to him,’ Yolanda whispered from behind. Lily’s hand squeezed the strap. Her camera meant a lot to her but it wasn’t worth endangering lives for. Only a fool would do that. And she couldn’t risk Yolanda or Maria getting hurt. She went to lift the strap from her shoulder, but she had hesitated a moment too long and the man lost patience.
He lifted a hand and the two others stepped forward. The butt of a rifle connected with her shoulder, and the blow was hard and swift. Lily staggered back, stunned. As she clutched her shoulder, they hit her again and she landed faced down in the dust. She saw the glint of a knife. Yolanda screamed. Arms and faces blurred as she tried to shield her head. She felt more thumps and she heard the women’s cries, but pain was making Lily gasp and her eyes screwed shut as she battled to control it.
The men’s footsteps pounded the road and quickly vanished.
Yolanda’s face appeared over her. ‘Lily! Lily, are you alright?’
‘Yes,’ she managed through gritted teeth. It was a lie. Her shoulder and arm were screaming with pain. ‘Did they hurt you? Where’s Maria?’
Yolanda shook her head. ‘They didn’t touch me. Maria’s gone to get help.’
Lily looked around. ‘My camera?’
Yolanda hesitated before answering. ‘They took it.’ She picked something up from the ground. Lily recognised the strap of her case. It had been sliced with a knife. ‘They took your purse too. I’m sorry.’
‘The purse doesn’t matter,’ said Lily. Unlike her camera, she thought heavily. But at least she was alive, and the women – as far as she could tell – were unharmed.
Yolanda bent over her again and said something. It was becoming an effort to understand, even to think. Lily caught the words: ‘Doctor . . . Don’t move.’ Yolanda’s face, her words – everything was becoming pixelated and breaking up.
She let her head fall back. The charcoal sky and the faint line of the moon swam above her like reflections in a pool of water, then sank into darkness.
People pushed past Lily as she bent to pick up her small suitcase and cross the road to the taxi rank. It was tricky juggling two cases with one arm bandaged in a sling, and her laptop case slipped off her shoulder. She reached down to pick it up, but a large hand swiped it away.
‘Hey!’ She gripped the strap, the robbery all too fresh in her mind.
‘Let me help you with your case,’ said a deep voice. As she looked up, her eyes widened. ‘Olivier!’
She stared at him, seeing both the boy he’d once been and the man he had become: tall and well built, his muscular frame filling his white t-shirt and black jeans. Memories flashed up like film clips. The two of them as children chasing through the olive grove, dangling from tree branches, dreaming up dares – and then that fateful kiss in the midday sun.
Even now, thirteen years on, her skin heated at the thought.
‘Who did you think it was?’ he grinned and looked at her hand, still holding on tight to the strap.
Embarrassed, she let it fall to her side. ‘I thought – I don’t know . . .’
‘Hello, Skinny,’ he grinned, and bent to kiss her on both cheeks. His scent was woody and enticing, and Lily tried to feign indifference as he drew back, but heat stole through her.
Until his gaze lingered a fraction of a second too long on the left side of her face. Quickly, she dipped her head, letting her long brown hair fall forward over her cheek.
‘We’d better move,’ she said, nodding at the busy road she’d been about to cross. Cars and taxis juddered past, hooting impatiently and weaving in and out of pick-up zones. ‘We’re getting in everyone’s way here.’
‘My car’s just there,’ he said and pointed. He had slung her laptop case over his shoulder and was wheeling her suitcase away towards the car park. She had to walk fast to keep up.
‘I wasn’t expecting to be collected,’ she said.
‘Mamie sent me.’ Something stirred in her chest when he called her gran by the same name she used. He’d always done it, claiming she was like a grandmother to him, even if they weren’t related. ‘She was worried you wouldn’t be able to carry all your luggage with a broken arm, but you haven’t got much. Where’s your camera?’ Olivier stopped beside a black car and unlocked it. It was a four by four, she noticed; as solid and sure of itself as its owner.
‘It got damaged in the – er, accident.’
‘You travel light,’ he said, loading her belongings into the boot of his car.
She thought of the huge rucksack which she’d had to leave behind in Colombia because she couldn’t lift it with only one arm. ‘I left a lot of things behind. I’ll collect them when I go back.’
‘How is your arm?’
She climbed into the car. ‘It’s okay,’ she said, yanking at the seatbelt with her good hand. Each time she pulled, it sprang back before she could clip it in.
‘Here, let me,’ he said, and reached across.
She pressed herself back into her seat, but his hand brushed against her hip as he strapped her in and she stilled, caught off guard by the electric charge that shot through her, making her skin spark.
‘Did I knock your arm?’ he asked, seeing her rigid frame. ‘No,’ she said quickly, ‘I–I’m fine.’
She looked away, mortified that she was so sensitive to him. Nothing had changed, then. She still responded to him like a hormonal teenager, and he was still completely indifferent.
He put the car into gear and navigated his way out of the car park.
‘You seem to know the airport well,’ she said, amazed at how confidently he steered his way through the complicated maze of lanes and signs. The roundabout ahead was planted with palm trees that shimmered in the heat, and she was glad that the car’s air-con had already kicked in.
‘I suppose I do. I often fly down to see my parents.’
She nodded, and tried to picture him in Paris, master baker with his own chain of bakeries and a training school, but it wasn’t easy. In her mind he would always be a young boy with a gleam in his eye as he set her yet another challenge.
‘I hope you’re not too tired after the journey,’ he said, ‘I’d better warn you, Mamie has prepared a feast for you tonight. Everybody’s coming.’
They pulled on to the motorway and the car picked up speed.
‘Really?’ Her brow creased. ‘I didn’t want her to go to any trouble . . .’ Though she had to admit that her heart lifted at the thought of seeing his parents and brothers. As a girl she had loved spending time with his family. Perhaps it was because her own parents were divorced, so most of the time it had been just her and her dad, that she used to love the noise and chaos at the Lacostes’ home.
‘You know what she’s like. Besides, she’s thrilled that you’ll be staying so long for once. Is it a record?’
‘Is what a record?’
‘You staying here more than five days.’ Was it her imagination or did she hear an edge of criticism in his voice?
‘I try and get here as often as I can, but between filming and editing, I don’t get much time off.’ She could have gone to her flat in London to recuperate but, much as she hated to admit it, even to herself, her injury meant that she needed help.
‘Not even to see your grandmother?’
Lily looked at him. Was he judging her? There had been a time when she would have known him well enough to tell, but now she wasn’t sure. They hadn’t spent any real length of time together for years.
‘How often do you come home?’ she countered, although she knew the answer because Mamie always told her about his visits. She and his mother, Béatrice, were close. Neighbours, they saw each other practically every day.
‘Every month,’ he said with a shrug. ‘And all the holidays of course.’
‘Is that why you’re here – for the summer?’
He nodded and she felt a sinking in her stomach. It would be impossible to avoid him if they were both here all summer. She read the signs at the side of the road and calculated that they were still over an hour away from the seaside village of St Pierre. Perhaps it was because she hadn’t slept much on the plane, but she couldn’t relax, her body was too tense, too aware of the man sitting beside her. Why had Mamie sent him and not his dad, Raymond, or one of his brothers? Anyone but Olivier.
She surreptitiously eyed his long fingers that made the steering wheel look small, and the knotted muscles in his forearms, the bronzed skin dusted with rough hair. Why was she so bothered by him? Because of that kiss? Surely not.
And yet it was still fresh in her memory; the pitying look in his eyes as he’d prised her off him and crushed her with his gentle words of rejection. Her cheeks had burned with humiliation.
She tried to push it out of her mind and focus on the here and now.
‘Actually,’ he said, ‘it might be a more long-term arrangement if things go according to plan. I want to move back home.’
‘Really? You’d leave Paris? That’s a big move.’
He nodded. ‘I’m house-hunting at the moment.’
‘Seen anything you like?’
‘No. I’ve visited a few but none of them were right so far.’ His dark brows pulled together in a deep frown and she wondered why he was so worried about it.
‘Won’t it make things difficult for you professionally to base yourself so far from your headquarters?’
He shrugged again. ‘It shouldn’t make much difference. I spend most of my time overseeing the business and sitting in meetings rather than working in the bakeries. I can travel to Paris or work from here just as well.’
She supposed that having reached the height of his profession he could afford to take a backseat if he wanted to. But she couldn’t picture him as the type to sit back and do nothing.
‘So how did you break your arm?’ he asked. ‘Mamie said the phone line was really bad when you called. She didn’t catch what you said.’
Lily stiffened at the memory of the assault. She’d been deliberately vague on the phone to her grandmother. If Mamie knew about the robbery she’d be worried sick when Lily went back to finish the film. ‘It was a silly accident. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time . . .’
‘Don’t tell me – you fell out of a tree?’ He winked, and the laughter in his eyes made her stomach tighten.
‘That was your speciality, not mine!’ Why did remembering their childhood days fill her with the warmest of sensations?
‘So what happened?’
She didn’t want to lie, but she had to protect Mamie from the truth. ‘I was filming and – er – next thing I knew I was on the ground.’
‘So you did fall out of a tree.That’s not like you, Skinny. You must have been totally caught up in the filming.’
‘I was.’ If she and Yolanda hadn’t been so engrossed in conversation, they might have seen the men coming.
‘Have you finished the film?’
She shook her head. ‘I had only just started. It’s so frustrating that I had to leave, but I couldn’t film with this,’ she nodded at her sling, ‘and I was staying with a family of five who didn’t have much room. I didn’t want to get in their way while this heals. It’s going to be weeks before I can use it again.’
She pictured Yolanda’s home where she’d been staying: a rough shack made of wood and corrugated metal, the roof held down with bricks, and four children squeezed into one bed so that Lily could have the other. Though she’d been reluctant to leave, she’d had no choice. With her right arm in a sling she couldn’t even pick up a camera, never mind use one. She’d needed help from the nurses just to get dressed to leave hospital.
But frustrating as it was, she had to focus on getting better and then she would return to finish the documentary.
‘You’re already thinking about going back?’ he laughed. ‘Why not look on the bright side? It’s July – summer is the best time to take a break and spend some time at home with your family.’
‘Actually, the timing is terrible. I can’t wait to get back. The film is due in October and it’s really important. My first real commission – if I let them down, I may as well kiss goodbye to my career.’ It would be a huge black mark against her name. And then, of course, there was the prestigious film prize she hoped to enter. This film would meet the criteria perfectly.
‘Can’t you speak to them and ask for the deadline to be extended?’
‘No. They said from the start that the deadline was fixed and I agreed to it. I’ll look totally unprofessional if I don’t deliver on time.’
He glanced at her, one brow raised. ‘Even though you broke your arm?’
‘Yes.’ He didn’t understand. This was her first real opening, and opportunities like it were so rare. She simply couldn’t afford to fail because there might never be another.
‘So what’s your film about?’ he asked.
‘A women’s farming cooperative,’ she said, her voice instantly brightening. ‘They grow coffee. Women running their own business is pretty revolutionary in such a macho culture. They’re inspirational. Determined to make a success of it and to be financially independent and self- reliant. They have fascinating stories to tell.’
It was all the more frustrating that she’d just started to earn their trust and get them to open up when the robbery had interrupted everything.
‘I’ve done the maths, though. If my arm heals fast, I should be able to get back by the beginning of September and that will give me just enough time to finish it.’ It would be tight. Really tight. But she’d work all hours, editing through the night if necessary to get it done.
‘You’re passionate about your work,’ he said, casting her an assessing look.
Why did he sound so disapproving? ‘Of course. If I let them down, my reputation will be ruined.’
‘Your reputation,’ he said flatly.
‘Why the black look? Or have you climbed so high you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be at the bottom of the ladder trying to work your way up?’
‘I haven’t forgotten. But I have learned that reputation and status are not the be all and end all.’
She glared at him, wondering why he sounded so bitter. ‘That’s easy to say when you’re a celebrity with ten bakeries to your name.’
‘I’m not a celebrity,’ he muttered and indicated right to leave the motorway. ‘I don’t do anything to court attention.’ ‘You’re still a celebrity.’ The papers and gossip magazines adored him. Handsome and successful at such a young age, he was bound to attract attention, whether he welcomed it or not.
He slowed the car as they approached the exit and the tollbooths marked péage.
Olivier slotted his card in the machine and waited impatiently to retrieve it. He’d jumped at Mamie’s request to meet Lily, seeing this as a chance to spend quality time together – something they hadn’t done for years. But hearing her talk about her work like this made him tense. She sounded just like his ex, Nathalie. Ambitious. Self- centred. Mercenary.
And yet that wasn’t how he remembered Lily. As a child she’d been endlessly curious, adventurous, concerned for others. But a lot had changed during the intervening years. His mouth flattened. What about spending time with her grandmother? Was that not important to her?
He plucked his credit card out of the machine and went to slot it in his wallet but missed.
‘I’ll do it,’ said Lily, holding out her hand. Her stunning Audrey Hepburn eyes met with his.
‘Thanks,’ he said and his gaze dipped to her scarred cheek as he handed her the wallet and card. He drove on, trying to concentrate on the road, the roundabout, anything but Lily and her damaged face.
Her scars always disturbed him. They had faded now, but when he’d visited her in hospital her injuries had been livid and looked intensely painful. Lily never mentioned the pain, though. Then again, her burned and blistered skin must have been nothing next to losing her father. They’d been so close, father and daughter.
Olivier’s chest tightened in sympathy for the grief she must have felt. And he wondered, as he’d wondered so many times before, if the fire was the reason why she didn’t come back here as often? Certainly it had changed her, but why hide from those closest to her? It didn’t make any sense.
Yet the facts were, she kept herself to herself, she only saw his family for the odd meal, and every time he came home she found a reason to suddenly leave. Let’s face it, most of her visits didn’t coincide with his at all. How many times had he been disappointed to learn that she’d left the week before he arrived? It couldn’t be coincidence: she was as elusive as a bird. The last time they’d spoken properly had been before the fire, when he was seventeen and she’d tried to kiss him – and he’d so clumsily rejected her.
His hands gripped the steering wheel tighter. He hadn’t handled that well and he’d felt guilty for a long time afterwards. But it had been years now, and Lily was a tough cookie. She’d probably forgotten all about it.
‘You still have an English accent, you know,’ he said. Although she’d grown up in London, her French was almost perfect, but as a boy he’d teased her mercilessly for every vowel sound that was even slightly off the mark.
‘Oh yeah? And how’s your English?’ she retaliated with a smile.
‘I’m just a baker. I don’t need to speak English.’
She casually stretched out her long legs in front of her. Although she’d been skinny as a child, the nickname wasn’t really appropriate any more. She’d grown up from the awkward, gangly teenager to be tall and slim, with an athletic figure other women must envy.
‘Just as well. No one would understand you, Chicken.’
His lips curved as she used her old nickname for him. He hadn’t thought of it for years. ‘That name was never justified. I never chickened out of any challenge. Not one dare.’
‘But you wanted to.’ She flicked her hair back over her shoulder. It was smooth and glossy like caramel.
‘Yes I wanted to, I admit it. It’s perfectly normal not to want to throw yourself off a cliff or break an arm swinging from the trees. I don’t have a death wish.’
‘You were as competitive as I was. It worked both ways, Lacoste.’
True, he acknowledged with a nod.
‘Have you seen your mother lately?’ he asked as they turned off the main road and headed toward the fishing village of St Pierre.
Instantly, he sensed her withdrawal.
He glanced sideways and saw her chin lift as she turned away and studied the plane trees at the side of the road, her expression giving nothing away.
‘She’s busy touring?’
‘How would I know?’
‘You don’t talk?’
‘She emails from time to time. I don’t reply.’
He didn’t blame her, yet he didn’t know how she could talk about it so calmly. It had made him seethe that when Lily’s father had died and Lily was in hospital, Darcy Green, the accomplished English pianist, hadn’t allowed the news to interrupt her international concert tour. Most mothers would have rushed to be with their child. Not her. It was Mamie who had flown to London and stayed at Lily’s bedside during the long months it took for her to recover.
Darcy had only turned up once her daughter was ready to be discharged from hospital. It had broken Mamie’s heart to see Lily go with her, but they’d all hoped that the woman who’d been so absent from her daughter’s life might now change and step up to the mark.
They were disappointed. Within a year, Lily was in boarding school and Darcy was on the road again.
‘You cut her off?’ he asked, casting her a wary glance.
She sat tall, rigid in her seat, eyes narrowed. ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with her.’
‘She’s your mother,’ he suggested quietly.
Lily barked a laugh. ‘Only in name. She didn’t do much to live up to the title.’
‘I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m sorry–’
‘Don’t be.’ She turned to look at him and her sage- green eyes held his gaze. ‘I’m not.’
He slowed down as they approached Mamie’s house and turned left off the road before the steep slope down to the village. Outside the green metal gates, he unfastened his seatbelt.
‘You can drop me here,’ Lily said as he went to open his door.
‘I’ll help you with your bags.’
The rusty gate squeaked as she pushed it open, and they ducked under the waterfall of magenta-coloured bougainvillea flowers. The gravel crunched underfoot as they approached the old farmhouse. It was very different from his parents’ next door. Where theirs was modern and had repeatedly been extended or improved over the years, Mamie’s house was exactly as it had always been: built from uneven stones, sandy and pink in places, with undulating terracotta roof tiles and a square turret. Olivier glanced up at the grapevines, already heavy with fruit, which hung from the pergola. The kitchen doors stood open and he stepped inside. The oven was on so he knew Mamie must be nearby somewhere.
‘Want me to carry these up for you?’ he asked, holding up Lily’s small cases.
She rolled her eyes. ‘I can manage,’ she said, and the flash of her smile transported him back to when they were eight and she used to laugh off his challenges, then turn them back on him. ‘I have a broken arm. I’m not completely helpless.’
‘Never said you were,’ he smiled. ‘See you this evening, then.’
‘Yes. See you later.’ She looked around her, and her eyes brightened visibly as she took in the rustic wooden table and the old dresser against the wall.
He hesitated a moment before saying; ‘It’s good to have you back, Skinny.’
And he meant it. Selfish as it might sound, he was glad she’d broken her arm because Mamie needed her here. This was where she belonged, it was her home, and he’d seen the way her eyes lit up when they’d rolled up outside Mamie’s rusty gates.
Having Lily back was like September rain after the long, dry summer. She’d breathe new life into the place. He’d missed their sparring, their teasing, he’d even missed their arguing. He might be a responsible adult with commitments, but Lily reminded him of the kid he’d once been and she’d always have a special place in his life.
She looked surprised, and her cheeks flushed.
He strode off, and as he ducked through the doorway he heard her call after him; ‘Thanks for the ride, Chicken!’ He shook his head and grinned as he made his way back to his car.
Publishing in ebook and paperback on 27th May 2021.