“As you can see,” Margaret said, opening the creaking door, “it’s a little sparse. But you mentioned you wanted something authentic and rustic, so I thought this was the perfect cabin for you.”
Sparse? This wasn’t sparse. It was the bloody grapes of wrath.
I glanced around the cabin, which didn’t take very long, as the room was the size of a postage stamp and contained exactly five items of furniture – a bed, a small desk under the window, a chair for the desk, a long bench along the wall beside the door containing a sink and some shelves, and a faded armchair beside the fireplace. The tiny windows above the desk and beside the door let in a square of grey light, which only made the dark wood walls and low ceiling look even more gloomy.
I want to go home.
The thought hit me like a freight train, dislodging me from the present and sending me back in time, halfway across the country, to where I once had a nice Tudor cottage at the end of a quiet street. I planted window boxes and painted the front door bright red.
Margaret droned on about the plumbing and the handyman and the sewage and the other quirks of the property. I nodded along, barely listening, lost in the grief steamrolling across my whole body.
It’s no use wanting it. You can never go back. You don’t have a home anymore.
My therapist, Nancy, said it was normal to grieve for a lost home the same way you would grieve for a person. I hated the grief – it made me feel so weak, so pathetic, pining away for all my stuff. I always thought I was pretty grounded, that I didn’t place much value on possessions and things, that I could take whatever shit people threw at me and hurl it right back. But while I watched that fire consume everything I owned, I felt as though a piece of myself had burned up along with it.
All my photographs. The diaries I’d diligently kept ever since intermediate school. The furniture I’d collected from estate sales and elegantly restored. The paintings I’d bought at local art fairs. My computer with all my early story drafts. The piles and piles of books. The English Rose crockery Grandmother Mary left me. The gold bangles my mother gave me on my sixteenth birthday, made by craftsman in our ancestral village in Ghana. Who was I without these pieces of a life?
“You need a fresh start, Rosa,” Nancy told me, after listening to another of my tirades about the fire. “If you really feel like a shell of a person, then take the fire as an opportunity to remake yourself. Do what you’ve always wanted to do. Be bold.”
Be bold. That was my new mantra. I still wasn’t sure it fit, but I was doing my damn best.
As soon as my insurance payout landed in the bank, I handed in my notice at my crappy administration job at the accounting firm in Old Garsmouth; the tiny, backward, completely white village outside of Leeds where I’d lived since university. My boss – the white, leggy Susan, who had done her bit to make my life miserable – at least had the decency to look pissed. “Going back to Africa, then? Going to go steal yourself a jigaboo husband?” she sneered, before informing me she wouldn’t be paying me my last paycheque.
“You can keep it.” I grinned at her, before walking out of there with my head held high, black curls bouncing over my shoulders. Susan could keep her stupid check. I had 300,000 pounds burning a hole in my pocket. And I knew exactly what I was going to do with it.
I googled “Remote forest cabin England.” The first entry that came up was for a collection of cabins on the edge of the Crookshollow Forest. They were owned by an elderly woman named Margaret who rented them out to artists and yogis and any other weirdo who needed a tranquil place to think and create.
It sounded perfect, mostly because it was far, far, far away from Old Garsmouth and the charred remains of my life. I called Margaret immediately and gave her my credit card number for the deposit.
And now I was here, standing in the place I’d call home for the next year. Looking around the drab interior, I couldn’t help but think I should have checked out the cabin first. So much for practising being bold.
Maybe bold doesn’t work for you, I thought as I dropped my bag beside the battered armchair, sending up a cloud of dust that made me cough and splutter. Stuffing bulged from long gashes in the arms, and I could see more stuffing poking out from beneath the sagging seat. Maybe you should have just got an apartment—
No. Stop being so dismissive, Rosa. This is your new life. This is where you’re finally going to write your book.
I wandered over to the window, pulled out the chair and looked down at the tiny desk, barely large enough to fit a cup of coffee and my laptop. When I’d come up with the idea of holing up in a cabin in the forest to write, I had visions of those cute cabins you see on the internet, all comfy beanbags by the fireplace and strings of fairy lights and plush couches covered in moroccan blankets placed around warm braziers. I pictured mosquito nets and bright-coloured rugs and a Japanese-style dining nook and little framed motivational quotes stuck to the walls.
This cabin barely had room for a beanbag, much less a Japanese-style dining nook.
Margaret was looking at me expectantly. “Is something wrong?” She rapped her wooden walking stick against the floor.
I realised I was frowning. Quickly, I plastered a smile across my face. “It’s lovely, really. It’s just a little … bare.”
“It’s yours for the whole year, dearie. Feel free to decorate it as you like. JK Rowling used it for the whole summer a few years back. She put up some lovely cream curtains.”
That made me beam. If it’s good enough for JK Rowling, it’s good enough for me.
“I’ll leave you to get settled in.” Margaret hobbled down the front steps. “Don’t forget what I said about the plumbing!”
“I won’t.” I waved, frantically replaying our conversation in my head to try and figure out if I remembered hearing anything about plumbing. “Bye, Margaret.”
Alone at last with my insanity. I dumped my suitcase beside the bed, and started pulling out the few possessions I’d brought with me, mainly stuff I’d bought since the fire. My clothes I had to leave inside the case until I could buy some drawers. The torch and ereader and books and drink bottle went beside the bed. A framed picture of my beloved cat, Lennox (after Lennox Lewis) took pride of place on the windowsill above the desk.
Poor Lennox. I’m so sorry.
Tears burned the corners of my eyes. Oh no, you don’t. I was here, in my cabin, about to start the next phase of my life. This wasn’t the place to get all hysterical again about shit that was in the past.
I slammed my laptop down on the desk harder than I’d intended, placing my new coffee cup, a pad of paper and set of new pencils beside it. This was it. This was where I’d write my novel. This was where I’d pour out all the hurt and pain and anger that had been brewing over the years.
This was where I’d make them all pay.
* * *
After I finished unpacking, I went for a walk around the cabin to admire the wonderland that would be my home for the next year.
Margaret owned a small parcel of land at the edge of Crookshollow Forest, left to her by her first husband after his death. Her house – a beautiful, sprawling eco-lodge built from enormous rough-hewn logs – was up at the opening of the driveway, near the dirt road leading deeper into the forest. Right down the back of her land, some three miles from her house and not even accessible by car, were a collection of six cabins all made from wood felled from the forest by Margaret’s second – also late – husband.
Each cabin stood several hundred metres from its neighbour, and the tightly packed trees and uneven ground made them practically invisible, hidden away like witches homes in fairy tales. The whole place had a fairy-tale vibe about it – small paths meandered off in several directions, one leading me down to a swimming hole in the stream, the others leading to lookouts or the day hikes through the forest mentioned on the website. Each cabin had its own letterbox – carved from wood in the shape of animals by Margaret’s talented third – also late – husband. Mine was a wolf. Maybe he would be my spirit animal, to go with my new mantra and my new life.
I headed for the nearest path, and wandered a little way. Branches swayed gently in the breeze, and the cool light of the moon shone between the leaves, creating bubbles of light that danced over the ground. In the distance, I could hear an owl hooting, and the rustle of some critter moving through the undergrowth. I stood silent, taking it all in, wrapping my body in an armour of peace.
Best of all, there was no one else around.
I could see the faint flickers of light through the trees, indicating at least two of the other cabins were occupied. But they’d come here for the same reasons I had, to get away from the world. My only company would be these tall, majestic trees – no one was yelling abuse at me, or telling me to go back to Africa, or threatening to cut me just because I was black.
I sucked in deep breaths of crisp, cool air. It felt damn good.
By the time I returned from my walk, I was in much greater spirits. I knew I could make this work. In the moonlight, even the dreary cabin didn’t seem so bad. In fact, it had potential. I decided to visit town tomorrow and buy a few things to brighten up the cabin, as well as some groceries. I definitely needed groceries. When I returned from my trip, I could start writing.
As it was, I’d brought a few essential supplies to see me through the night. Dinner was tinned beans on toast, cooked over the little gas stove Margaret had provided. I had a bottle of red wine in my pack, and even one of Sam’s old cigars. As I lit up the cigar and took a deep drag, I felt like a real writer.
As the moon rose higher in the sky, casting a cold haze through the trees, I poured myself a third glass of wine, stubbed out the cigar (what a disgusting thing. Why did I like it when Sam smoked them, again?), and picked up my ereader. A few pages into the latest Zadie Smith novel, I realised I desperately needed to go to the bathroom.
The bathroom. Where was the bathroom?
I hadn’t given too much thought to it when Margaret had gestured at the rear of the cabin, but now when I went to hunt for the facilities, I couldn’t find a doorway inside, which meant only one thing.
Don’t tell me. Don’t fucking tell me …
Yup. I had somehow managed to rent a cabin that didn’t even have a fucking indoor bathroom.
Cursing at my stupidity, I grabbed my ereader and held it out in front of me, using the screen as a torch as I fumbled my way across the porch and—
I rubbed my knee. The ereader didn’t make a very good torch.
Hobbling around the balustrade, I found my way to the steps at the end of the porch. Sure enough, when I descended them, I found myself facing a tiny wooden shack so small I secretly hoped it was a TARDIS, because if it wasn’t bigger on the inside I couldn’t see how my booty could possibly fit through the door.
I grabbed the handle and tugged. The door rattled on ancient hinges, but didn’t budge. My bladder howled in protest. Squeezing my thighs together, I shoved the ereader under my armpit, gripped the handle with both hands, and yanked it back as hard as I could.
The door flung open, sending me sailing backward. My foot caught on a loose tree root, and I toppled over backward, my palms and ass stinging as they caught the brunt of my fall. My ereader clattered against a stone, and the light flickered out.
Great. This was turning out to be a real disaster. Tears pressed at the corners of my eyes, but I wiped them away with a stinging palm. I wasn’t going to let the stupid toilet get to me. That wasn’t being bold.
Look on the bright side, Rosa, I reminded myself. At least the door’s open now.
I rolled over and got to my feet, brushing the dirt off my ass. I grabbed the door and walked into the dark closet, pulling it shut behind me, leaving a gap just big enough that the moonlight could give me some visibility. I sat down, did my business, and tried not to think about how many creepy crawlies were lurking in the shadows. I stood up, and grabbed the thin cord hanging from the ceiling to flush the toilet.
The toilet didn’t flush.
You can’t be serious. I am not doing this. I’m not living in a fucking cabin with a toilet that doesn’t work.
I yanked the cord again, harder this time.
The loo made a gurgling sound, but nothing else happened.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” I said aloud, my voice sounding hollow in the darkness. Great. This is just perfect. I should have listened more carefully to Margaret’s warnings about the plumbing. What had she said, while I was busy thinking about the fire again?
Even when I was hundreds of miles away, Old Garsmouth still managed to fuck up my life.
Well fine, I wasn’t going to deal with this problem in the dark. I’d call a plumber in the morning. I slammed down the lid, and turned on the tap to wash my hand. A tiny trickle came out, followed by nothing except a loud, thumping noise from the pipes.
“Aargh!” I pounded my fist against the wall. Something scuttled across my knuckles.
“Aargh!” I yanked my hand away and stumbled out the door, straight into a tall stranger who was standing on the path.
“Do you need some help?” A deep voice boomed in my ear, with the familiar heavy vowels of a Scottish accent. Huge arms wrapped around my body.
“Aargh!” I flailed my arms about, tearing myself away from his grip. Who the hell was that? Why was some guy walking around my cabin at night?
And why did my body suddenly feel so strange? It was as though I’d stuck my finger in a light socket. All the hair on my body stood to attention. I could only imagine what the frizz on top of my head must look like. My heart thundered in my chest, but this wasn’t fear – it was something else. It almost felt like … excitement.
I fought against the overwhelming urge to throw myself back into the arms of the stranger. What is that about?
I backed against the side of the loo, and studied the stranger. Even in the moonlight, it was obvious he was the world’s most attractive man. Well, maybe not the most … Idris Elba was still alive, of course, and Sam Heughan. But this guy would certainly make top five. And he had the significant advantage in that he was in my immediate vicinity, although I still had yet to ascertain if that was a good thing or not.
He had long, floppy red hair that tumbled around his face in tousled waves. A line of dark stubble crossed his strong, square jaw, and the corners of his mouth lifted up into a cheeky half-grin. Eyes of blue ice looked me up and down with predator-like focus. Even with a thick leather jacket on, I could see the dark shapes of a tattoo poking out from the side of his collar. He carried a metal box in his hand. A gold ring dangled from the top of his right ear. God, I’d love to grab that with my tongue and—
What are you even thinking? This is nuts. That’s a white guy, standing in the dark. Hot or not, he can’t be there for any good reason.
I backed away further, trying to ignore the desire surging through my body. Stay alert, Rosa. Ignore your body for the moment. It’s probably having some kind of seizure. If he makes a move, turn and run for the path at the other side of the cabin—
“Are you having some plumbing issues?” the stranger asked, taking a step forward.
I held up a hand. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I demanded, in a voice that oozed the confidence I did not feel. “You’re sneaking around my cabin in the middle of the night wearing all black, you scare me half to death, and the first thing you have to say to me is about the plumbing?”
He shrugged, a full-on wicked grin spreading across his face, the kind of grin that might move him from top five hottest guys on Earth into the top three. “Why not? I help lots of women with their plumbing.”
“Don’t be disgusting. Are you here to attack me? I warn you, I’m dangerous when provoked.” I tried to make my feet move back, but they were frozen in place.
“Oh, I bet you are.” There was that grin again. Cocky, self-assured. Sexy as hell. Damn this guy. “In all seriousness, though. I just came to see if you were all right. I’ve brought my tools.”
He jiggled the box in his hand, which upon closer inspection did indeed look like a toolbox. Certainly not big enough to carry a body around in. That was some positive news.
I still wasn’t buying it. “Do you just randomly walk around the forest in the dark, looking for plumbing disasters? You still haven’t told me your name.”
The guy set down the box, and held up both hands in a gesture of supplication. “My name’s Caleb. Caleb Lowe. Margaret hired me to do some carpentry work around the place. I’m staying in the cabin just over there.” He jerked his thumb at the trees behind us. “She asked me to come out and check on you, offer my services for whatever you need.” Caleb grinned again. “Looks like I got here just in time.”
My shoulders relaxed a little. Margaret had mentioned something about a handyman. But that gorgeous, white face and the thrumming energy surging through my body still left me feeling off-guard. “How do I know you’re not just some crazy dude pretending to be the handyman? I’ve seen a lot of horror films that started with conversations just like this, and they always end up with the heroine slashed across the throat and being dragged into some kind of dungeon torture chamber.”
“You watch horror films that regularly begin with the protagonist and the serial killer discussing plumbing?” He raised an eyebrow. “Where are you getting your film recommendations, the National Plumbing Association Film Festival?”
“So you admit you’re a serial killer.”
Caleb grinned again, then leaned into the closet and tapped the pipe on the wall. “Let me guess, you don’t have any water, right? But the pipe’s making a gurgling noise?”
“Yeah, that’s about the size of it.”
“Too easy,” he grinned.
A flush crept across my cheeks. Thankfully he wouldn’t be able to see it in the dark. “Yeah, well, it’s been a long day. If I’d known I’d be swapping double entendres with an itinerant fix-it serial killer, I would have taken the time to bone up a bit.”
I wondered if he got that that one was deliberate, but he burst out laughing, and I found m\y unease melting away. It didn’t help that the strange energy was still flowing through my veins, and my hands were itching to run through his hair.
“Funny as well as gorgeous, you might be my new favourite neighbour.” Caleb held up his toolbox like a peace offering. “I know what’s wrong because the exact same thing happened to me the first day I moved in. I can fix this in a few seconds for you, if you like.”
I was still a bit apprehensive, but the energy in my body screamed at me to accept his offer. Besides, I needed to have running water, and all I knew about toolboxes was that they provided a great surface for stacking books. I waved an arm dismissively at the toilet, as if the whole thing really wasn’t that big a deal. “Yeah, sure. Knock yourself out.”
Caleb set down his toolbox, and took out a couple of strange-shaped tools. He bent down beside the toilet, giving me an excellent view of his tight, muscular ass swinging in the air. A few moments later, his head popped back up again. He leaned in and turned the tap on. Water gushed freely into the sink.
I flinched a bit, sorry I’d been so suspicious. “Thanks so much.”
That grin again. Damn, it made my knees weak. “Don’t mention it. It was worth it for the excuse to come over here and meet you. It’s been fun.”
It’s been fun. Oh, screw Idris, Caleb was the most attractive man I’d ever seen. Clearly, my body screamed for him. It had been so long since Sam Seymour, and there hadn’t been anyone else since. I desperately wanted to be touched, and a guy like Caleb would know his way around a woman’s body, of that I had no doubt.
I toyed with the idea of asking Caleb in to finish off the wine. As I opened my mouth, a hard thought stopped me.
Caleb was white.
I couldn’t overlook that key fact. I wasn’t normally attracted to white men. It probably had something to do with the fact that white men had been a source of much of the misery that had invaded my life, especially in recent years. The police never caught the arsonists who burned down my house, but I knew they were white. It was pretty obvious when you thought about it.
Sam Seymour, the biggest mistake of my life, had been white, too. After him, I’d sworn I’d never go there again.
And yet here was the most beautiful man I’d seen, and instead of staring at me with disgust, or calling out some kind of slur, he was friendly, and dare I hope … even a little flirtatious?
I was all alone here in the middle of the woods, in a forest known for strange occurrences. Only six months ago, Crookshollow had hit the national news after a reporter was found dead, torn apart by some kind of wild animal. There were some mysterious goings-on at an archaeological site, too, and before that, a dead rockstar showing up in perfect health, and some kind of altercation at an art gallery … Clearly, this place attracted weirdos and freaks of the first order.
Maybe it would be good to have someone looking out for me.
I couldn’t have a lover, much as I might want one, but maybe … maybe, it would be good to have a friend. Especially a friend who knew his way around a toolbox.
Just friends, that’s all. It’s okay to be friends with a white guy, if you don’t get involved. What’s the harm, right?
I plastered a smile on my face. “While you’re here, would you like to come in for a cup of tea?”
Oh girl, my brain berated me as I walked up the steps ahead of Caleb, trying not to let my hips sashay too much. You are in for a world of hurt.