Zara laughed. It was a glittery, rollicking laugh that bounced off the crystals in her cavernous shop. ‘Treasure Hunt’ was always full of customers and she took pride in the variety of handicrafts she sold. From items that cost a few dollars to the heirloom pieces that had been lovingly restored, there was something for absolutely everyone. It had been featured in tourist magazines and blogs on several occasions, but she always made sure the photographs did not include her.
‘Do you think my niece would like this?’ Reginald said, holding up a jade necklace.
‘Is she tall?’
‘No, no, my niece is very short, about five foot two,’ Reginald replied.
‘And is she blonde or brunette?’
‘She’s a brunette.’
‘Uh huh and how old is she?’
‘Oh, Deirdre’s about thirty-five. She looks younger, though. More like twenty-nine. I think it’s the freckles on her nose; they’re very sweet.’
‘I see. Well, something more delicate might suit her better. Perhaps a silver chain with a pendant on it, like this one.
‘Oh, before I forget, I’m having a masquerade ball at the end of the month and I’d like you to come,’ Reginald said.
Zara’s face went pale. ‘Um, well, I’ll have to check my schedule.’
‘My darling, I’m welcoming you to town. Please accept my invitation.’
‘Oh, alright.’ Zara said.
‘Well that settles it, then. Have a lovely day!’
And with that, Reginald punched the air with his cane and sailed through the door. What have I gotten myself into? Zara wondered, grinding her teeth.
‘Oh, Uncle Reggie, it’s beautiful!’ Deirdre exclaimed. ‘I love amethyst. You know, I can wear it to the opera with the guy I’m seeing. I met him on a blind date and we really hit it off.’
‘That’s lovely, dear,’ Reginald said.
‘Yes, he’s already given me some rubies, but this is charming.’
Reginald’s shoulders slumped. He had hoped his niece would be grateful for the trinket, but perhaps he was losing his touch. Back in his day, a lady would be happy for a garnet or some amber, but nowadays, it was bling, bling, bling.
‘You know, he’s got this huge penthouse apartment, but it’s nothing on this. Your view is truly spectacular.’
Deirdre could see a pair of swans gliding along the river. Their feathers blazed and the ripples surrounding them were like soft caresses. How elegant, she thought. Growing up, she’d been an ugly duckling and was made fun of for being flat chested and freckly. Her only friend, a white and cinnamon barn owl would stare at her through the window and she’d imagine all the sage, judicious things he was telling her, like that one day she’d be proud and independent and beautiful, just like him. When she did snag a date, the polyester-clad cretin would gawp at Celine. Tall and ethereal, Deirdre’s younger sister was a beacon to men and at the age of sixteen, she had been mistaken for twenty-one.
Thankfully, Gerry changed all that. He lived next door and after they’d exchanged a couple of pleasantries, he confessed that he was very lonely. She would cook him cakes and scones, leave casseroles at his front door and sometimes spent the evening with him. They’d watch Antiques Roadshow and outdated sitcoms which bored her silly however she knew what she was doing. He’d take her out for dinner and she always let him pay. Afterwards, he’d beg to kiss her which made her stomach churn, but every now and then she allowed him a quick peck. Over strawberry shortcake, he told her where he’d hidden some cash in case of a ‘rainy day’, which was Gerry’s worst mistake.
After six months, she had tired of the charade and one night, Deirdre injected him with insulin while he was snoozing on the lounge. She had stolen the vials from the hospital and applied a fresh layer of lipstick before she knocked on his door. A combination of wine and North by Northwest made him drowsy and once she’d incapacitated him, she located the money and quietly left. Picturing the barn owl ripping its prey to shreds, Deirdre had smiled. I’m taking my cues from you, she thought. The money had paid for breast augmentation, liposuction and fillers. She had to top up the collagen now and then, but that was loose change.
Louise stared at the mirror and sucked in her stomach. Would she be punished for eating one too many cream puffs? The bruises from last week’s beating were beginning to fade and she was looking forward to using less concealer. A couple of girls at work had noticed the discolouration on her arms and she was terrified they would say something. Oliver, her partner worked at the same law firm and it was only a matter of time before someone contacted the authorities. The problem was, she’d already called the cops and they had treated her with distain and contempt. In fact, they’d accused her of wasting police time, which had been the most harrowing part.
She was sure there were good cops out there but sometimes, she wondered. Initially, they were very happy but over time Oliver became critical, controlling and cruel. The first time he’d hit her she’d been standing in the foyer of their shared apartment. He’d accused her of chatting up his best friend, which was blatantly unfair. They’d shared a table and she had been making small talk. Isn’t that what you were supposed to do? He’d given her a posy of zinnias and apologised profusely, but she’d been in a zombie state for days. Three weeks later, he pinched her in the lift and she had cried out. The next day, she found a post-it note with an explanation accompanied by a love heart.
‘You were grinning at Michael again. Why do you keep flirting with him? I’m your boyfriend, not him,’ the note read.
Since she couldn’t even remember speaking with Michael, who was on reception, Louise felt hopeless. Why couldn’t Oliver simply realise he could trust her? As the months rolled by, Oliver calmed down and they had dinners by the lake and schmoozed with wealthy clients. In tender moments, he had called her his little wood sprite and Louise felt vindicated. She had proven her loyalty and now she was enjoying the benefits. However, just like before, the abuse resumed and now he was telling her what to wear, what to eat and whether or not she could see her friends.
Zara’s cat was sleeping on the ironing board and she bent to pick him up. You’re going to ruin all my clothes, she thought. Cream Puff sank his claws into her skin and growled. She burrowed into his fur and rocked him gently. Zara had bought him from a Ragdoll breeder and was instantly smitten. Her psychologist had recommended getting a pet and she agreed that he was better medicine than all the antidepressants and anxiolytics put together. ‘We have a simple life, don’t we?’ Zara whispered. But would it be simple forever? Just the other day, a customer had come into the store and made her innards twist. The woman had demanded to see her entire range of Turkish lamps and was put out that there were only a few on offer.
She had tottered around the shop in towering stilettos and selected a few postcards. While Zara processed the transaction, the woman drummed her fingernails on the counter.
‘I must say, it’s a bit dingy in here, but I guess that’s to be expected in a hick town.’
‘That’s true,’ Zara said, adding ten dollars to the bill.
‘My goodness, these are expensive.’
‘Would you like me to refund your purchase?’
‘Oh no, that’s alright.’
The woman had smiled and popped the postcards into her handbag. Before she turned to leave, her eyes widened. ‘Do I know you?’
Zara’s cheeks flamed. ‘Oh, no. I…I don’t think so.’
Cream Puff purred loudly, oblivious to Zara’s distress. Some nights he would pace up and down the apartment like a guard dog and she wondered whether he had a sixth sense. My little protector, Zara thought. One of her friends had recommended getting a Bullmastiff or a German Shepherd, but she didn’t want to raise suspicion. There’d been plenty of probing questions already and she was loath to give them oxygen. Why were people in country towns so frustratingly curious? Cream Puff had shredded the upholstery on her lounge and there was fur everywhere, but it didn’t matter. In a previous life it would have, but that was in the past where it belonged.
Deirdre yawned. A silver tray laden with croissants and coffee stood on the bedside table and the aroma made her salivate. Oliver had begged her to come home, but she was having too much fun. Most mornings she slept in and had brunch on the patio. In the afternoons, she strolled around the estate and watched pleasure craft mosey on by. She was serious about Oliver but she didn’t know whether it was his money or his personality she liked more. He had a large nose and beady little eyes, but a weekend on his superyacht had won her over.
After a quick shower, Deirdre joined her uncle in the conservatory. Reginald peered over his newspaper and removed his glasses. ‘You’re up early,’ he said.
‘Don’t scold me uncle. The life of a nurse is very hard.’
‘I know, I know. I’m so glad you’re having some time off. Have you thought of re-training? Perhaps you could become a psychologist or a paralegal. I’m sure Oliver could do with your help.’
‘Yes, I’ve considered it, but I haven’t even paid off my first degree, let alone a second.’
‘I see, well if you ever consider it, I don’t mind lending you the money,’ Reginald said, patting Deirdre on the hand.
‘Oh no, it’s O.K. Nursing’s not so bad. You know, Oliver’s taking me to a play next week and then we’re going skiing. I can’t believe how generous he is.’
‘Yes, he sounds like a real catch.’
‘You know, he’s had a really awful time. He went to work one day and when he got home, his girlfriend had disappeared. There was no rhyme or reason to it and he was completely heartbroken. I mean, how could anybody do that to someone they love? It’s appalling,’ Deirdre said, shaking her head.
The doorbell rang and the housekeeper bustled downstairs.
‘Miss Zara is here to see you sir,’ the maid said, before curtsying and scurrying off.
Reginald nodded and stood up. ‘Hello Zara. I’d like to introduce you to my niece Deirdre.’
Zara shuddered. Deirdre was the woman who had bought the postcards. ‘Uh, we’ve met before,’ Zara said, fisting her hands.
‘Yes, of course. You sell the knickknacks on the corner.’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
And suddenly, Deirdre knew where she had seen Zara. The natural light from the large windows made her eyes look deeper and greener than they had in the cluttered shop. She was the girl from Oliver’s photo album. The girl who had broken his heart. He’d hired private detectives, scoured social media and called all her friends, but she had simply vanished. Deirdre thought of contacting him right away, but then she considered Zara’s long legs. They reminded her of her sister Celine. Oh no, thought Deirdre. I’m going to keep him all to myself.