Owen Coburn stared at the bottles lined in neat rows on the mirrored shelves opposite him. He’d never been one to drown his sorrows, but the collection of single malts seemed to whisper a lullaby more seductive than the songs of the mythical siren which the seafront pub had been named after. With more effort than it should’ve taken, he wrenched his eyes from the array of spirits and studied the rest of the busy bar as he waited to be served. Like his bedroom upstairs, the place was spotlessly clean, if a little worn in places.
Black-and-white photographs studded the pale-blue walls, showing scenes of Lavender Bay from times gone past. Ladies in white dresses clutching parasols in one hand, the fingers of the other tucked into the arms of besuited gentlemen as they strolled the promenade. Fishermen sorting their nets in the old harbour, faces leathered from years of exposure to sea and sun.
On the side of the wooden upright beside him a ragged line of young men dressed in their Sunday best beamed out of the past, their expressions a mixture of shy pride and cocky confidence. With their hair neatly slicked and battered suitcases at their feet, not one of them looked older than he was now. Owen wondered if any of them had understood what awaited them on the bloody fields of Europe and how many—if any—had returned. Faint writing at the bottom of the photo caught his eye. Hating the need inside him, Owen scanned the cramped squiggles on the photo. No Blackmores among them.
With a snort of disgust at himself, he turned away. What the hell was he doing chasing shadows? According to the piece of paper burning a hole in his pocket, Deborah Mary Blackmore had been 17 when she’d given up her son for adoption. She’d listed Lavender Bay as her place of birth, but extensive searches had yielded no trace of her. Either his mother was a ghost, or she’d lied about her name.
Requesting his original birth certificate had seemed like a good way of setting the final pieces of his past to rest. After a childhood in care where the kindest thing anyone had ever done was ignore him, compartmentalisation had become his daily survival technique—what hadn’t killed him didn’t make him stronger so much as it got stuffed in a mental box and shoved to the furthest reaches of conscious memory. As a result, he’d managed to convince himself that delving into his origins could be an exercise in intellectual curiosity, nothing more.
Unprepared for it, the emotional tsunami caused by the arrival of the innocuous brown envelope had swept him so far off course he wasn’t sure who he was anymore. With the words ‘father unknown’ thwarting half of his search before he could even get started, finding Deborah had become a near-obsession. He’d joined every online genealogy website he could find, and spent hours trawling through scanned images covered in spidery writing to no avail. After those efforts came up blank, he’d switched his focus to the whimsically named Lavender Bay. If he couldn’t find his mother, perhaps he could forge a connection with her birthplace instead. And, as the owner of his own building and property development company, if he could turn a profit in the process, so much the better.
When he’d boarded the train from London the previous morning he’d been full of foolish optimism. Walter Symonds, a local solicitor Owen had been cultivating a relationship with for the previous six months, had called to give him the heads-up on a potential property. Located directly on the seafront at Lavender Bay, it had looked ripe for development from what he’d been able to tell via Google Maps. The previous owner had died, leaving everything to a young woman who, from what Owen had been able to tell, had moved away from the area some years before. Hoping to jump the queue, he’d taken the unusual step of visiting in person to extend an offer to buy.
Expecting her to be grateful for an excuse to offload the place, Owen had been disappointed to find her well ensconced behind the counter of the emporium with zero interest in selling the place. An afternoon touring the local estate agents as well as a good recce on foot had yielded nothing in the way of other empty or struggling properties. In a last-gasp attempt to find any sign of the Blackmore family, he’d spent the past couple of hours tromping around the local churchyards and come back to the pub with nothing to show for his efforts other than a nasty nettle sting on his arm. In other words, his entire weekend was a total bloody bust. Time to put this foolishness behind him—he’d managed thirty years without any family to speak of, he’d manage the next thirty just fine.
‘Right you are. How’s your room, have you got everything you need?’ Oh great, she was the chatty sort.
‘Yes, it’s fine thanks.’ In so far as it had a bed and a kettle. Egyptian cotton and designer coffee machines hadn’t made it to Lavender Bay, that much had been clear from the moment he’d set foot in The Siren the previous day. Not that it mattered, now he wasn’t staying. ‘What’s the earliest I can check out in the morning?’
Mrs Barnes placed his drink before him with a wry laugh. ‘I’ll try not to take offence at your eagerness to leave. You can settle your bill before you turn in tonight and then you’re free to leave as early as you like. You’ll be wanting some breakfast before you go, though, surely?’
Her laughter shook her whole body. ‘Oh, you city folks! The magic of contactless payment has made it as far as the south coast, I assure you.’ She produced a card reader from beneath the bar. ‘Tap away, dear.’
‘That’s sweet of you, and I’ll take a glass of red for later, but not because you owe me an apology. You’re not the first to assume we’re a bit behind the times here, and you won’t be the last.’
Owen watched her tap the keypad a couple of times before offering him the machine once more. Mrs Barnes might not have taken offence over his assumption, but he was annoyed with himself. He’d had enough of people passing judgement when he was younger, and had always thought himself better than that. Being in the bay had thrown him off his stride far more than he could’ve imagined. Just as well he was going to cut his losses and head back home.
‘Didn’t you come down on the train?’
Mrs Barnes gave him the kind of pitying smile that did nothing to ease his increasing bad mood. ‘Well if you’re hoping for a swift getaway in the morning, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. The first train on a Sunday isn’t until 9.30—proof we’re behind the times on some things, I suppose!’
Bloody marvellous. ‘Well in that case, looks like I will be staying for breakfast, after all.’ As he was stuck there, he might as well make the best of it. A thought occurred to him. ‘Have you lived in Lavender Bay all your life, Mrs Barnes?’
‘Please, dear, call me Annie. And in answer to your question, I’m born and bred here, though compared to my husband’s family, we’re newcomers to the bay. There’s been a Barnes behind the bar of The Siren since before Nelson lost his eye, as Pops would say.’
The smile on Annie’s face was full of warmth, with just a touch of wry exasperation. ‘My father-in-law. He used to run this place—and interferes often enough for anyone to think he still does.’ That warm expression slid into something more considering. ‘Is there a reason for you asking?’
A raised eyebrow told him she wasn’t taken in by his glib response, but she didn’t push, thank goodness. ‘Of course, dear. Well, I’d better get on. Enjoy the rest of your evening.’
Not filled with any expectation of finding much enjoyment, Owen cast a quick glance around the bar. A few families; a handful of old men playing dominoes; a gaggle of teenagers who, in spite of the thickness of their eyeliner and the shortness of their skirts, barely looked old enough to be drinking the cider they were giggling over.
A couple of the girls caught him staring, and he cursed himself as they nudged each other. Owen turned swiftly back towards the bar, hoping he hadn’t drawn their attention. He wasn’t ignorant to the way he looked, and the last thing he wanted was to spend the evening fending off the clumsy flirtations of girls using him as target practice. Perhaps an early night might be better after all.
Shoulders braced, he waited with dread for the clip-clop of high heels on the wooden floor behind him, but when he heard nothing he began to relax. Perhaps the girls had decided not to try and tangle with him. Shaking his head at his own arrogance, Owen took a mouthful of his pint—perhaps they weren’t remotely interested in a bloke a dozen or more years older than them. He’d just convinced himself the coast was clear when the hairs on his arm prickled and he felt the presence of someone at his elbow.
Owen didn’t look around. He supposed she meant it as a compliment, but the reminder of his outsider status rankled. Nothing had worked out liked he’d expected it to, but wasn’t that the story of his bloody life? It was ridiculous, really, to have supposed he would feel any connection to a place he’d never heard of even six months ago, but the barb struck, bringing a sharper edge to his tongue than he might otherwise have intended. ‘The lack of webbed fingers gives it away, no doubt.’
‘And the lack of manners. Wow, Beth wasn’t kidding about you.’
It was her scathing tone as much as the mention of an unfamiliar name that caused Owen to turn. Expecting to see a giggling teen tottering on a pair of heels, he found himself instead staring down into a pair of bright blue eyes half-hidden by a shock of luridly dyed fringe. A snub of a nose—as though whoever had conjured her had left it unformed with the intention of returning to it later—sat between that vivid stare and a bow-shaped mouth plastered in scarlet lip gloss. A chin bold enough to be labelled stubborn finished off her heart-shaped face.
As if she’d used up every available colour between her hair, eyes and mouth, the rest of her tiny frame was shrouded from neck to toe in unrelenting black. Even the fingernails tipping the slender hand braced against the bar were coated in a glossy black polish. She looked otherworldly, like some pixie, or sprite hellbent on causing mayhem. Attraction punched him in the gut—raw, visceral and entirely unexpected. She was nothing like the women he normally dated. Too small, too scruffy, too individual. Owen never made a move without knowing exactly what the end outcome would be. Her impish smile told him all bets would be off if he took her into his bed.
Bed. Just thinking the word sent a kaleidoscope of images through his head and all the blood rushing to his groin. Too busy trying not to do something stupid like throw her over his shoulder and march her up the stairs to his room, Owen’s brain lost control of his jaw muscles and allowed it to sag open in disbelief.
The pale skin around her piercing azure gaze tightened. ‘What are you staring at?’
‘I…I have no idea.’ His brain still hadn’t caught up, apparently, because there could be no other explanation for allowing those words to escape from his lips. Scarlet stained her pale cheeks, creeping down her throat to disappear beneath the black material of her shirt. His eyes followed the blush as he wondered just how far down it went.
The sharp snap of her fingers mere inches from his nose startled his gaze back to her face. A fierce scowl twisted her rosebud mouth into an ugly pucker. ‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’ Shoulders suddenly drooping, she folded her arms across her chest and curled into herself as she turned away. ‘I should’ve listened to Beth; you really are a colossal arse,’ she muttered more to herself than him.
Damn, somehow he’d managed to offend her. A panicked feeling rose in his chest; he couldn’t let her slip through his fingers. He cast around for something to say. ‘You keep mentioning this Beth like I should know who you’re talking about.’
Keeping her eyes averted, the pixie gestured with a flick of her fingers to where a pretty brunette cuddled close against the side of a man he recognised. Sam was Mrs Barnes’ son and had served him at breakfast that morning, had even gone to the local shop to fetch the papers when he’d requested them. And the woman next to him… ‘Ah’.
He hadn’t known her first name, but Beth was the owner of the shop next door who had turned down his offer to buy the place. She’d also turned him down when he’d tried to suggest they negotiate over a drink, which had irked him at the time. With long brown hair curling over the shoulders of a navy Fifties-style tea dress, the well-turned-out woman was much more his usual type.
His eyes strayed to Beth once more but found little to hold his attention compared to his little sprite. He slid a couple of inches closer then leaned against the bar to be sure he was in her eyeline. ‘I thought I’d been very charming in my dealings with your friend.’
The pixie sniffed. ‘You wouldn’t know charming if it bit you on the arse.’ She turned her attention to Mrs Barnes as she moved towards them. ‘Can I get a bottle of champagne and a couple of glasses for me and Beth please, Annie? We’re celebrating her inheriting the emporium.’
Owen suppressed a grin as he watched the pixie try her best to ignore him while she chatted with Mrs Barnes as she served her. She might be only a slip of a thing, but she seemed to contain enough energy for a woman twice her size. If he held his hands towards her, he’d expect to see a current arcing from her towards his fingers, like one of those plasma energy balls. Though she did her best to pretend she was ignoring him, he couldn’t miss the way her eyes flicked in his direction every few seconds. This might get interesting, after all.
He let his gaze trace the pixie from the tips of her black boots to the peacock shock of her hair before leaning into her space a touch closer than was strictly polite. ‘You were wrong in what you said about arse-biting, you know. I’ve always found it very charming.’ That bright red flush mottled her cheeks once more, and he wondered if he’d miscalculated. It had been a harmless bit of flirtation, something that came as easily to him as breathing. Her bold appearance and brash words had given the impression of an experienced woman. The blush told a different story, however.
Clutching the ice bucket holding her bottle of champagne like a shield before her, she started to edge past him before stopping to stare up at him through her thickly mascaraed lashes. ‘What did you want with the emporium anyway? I hope you weren’t planning to sling up a load of ugly apartments like they did at the other end of the prom. They’re a dreadful eyesore, and not the kind of thing we need around here at all.’
The disdain in her tone shattered any sympathy he might have been harbouring towards her—and any other kind of feelings for that matter. The fact she’d hit the nail on the head about the kind of project he was interested in didn’t help either. Owen bristled. ‘Those flats bring a much-needed touch of class to the prom. People want more than donkey rides and kiss-me-quick hats, these days. This place is dying on its feet. You should be grateful anyone wants to invest in a provincial little backwater like Lavender Bay!’
Shock widened her azure eyes, and in their depths he read a deeper emotion, almost like pain. Expecting her to lash back, he squared his shoulders in preparation. When she spoke, instead of sharp and spikey, her voice was soft and full of disappointment. ‘I was right, you’re definitely not from around here.’ With a shake of her head, the pixie walked across the bar and out of his life.
If she’d slid a knife up under his ribs, she couldn’t have scored a more fatal blow. Turning his back, Owen gripped the edge of the bar as her words ricocheted around his brain. Not from around here. Myriad insults and accusations from the past swelled up to join them, forming a tortuous chorus. Bad blood will out. Rotten little bastard. No wonder your mother dumped you. Get back to where you belong. That last one was ironic to the extreme because Owen didn’t belong anywhere. Not in any of the foster homes he’d passed through, and most definitely not in this one-horse excuse for a town.
Bile burned the back of his throat and he swallowed it down with the last dregs of his pint. It was just as well the deal to buy the emporium had gone nowhere. Whatever he’d thought he was doing coming down here—looking for his bloody roots or some such bollocks—it had been a mistake. The only person he had ever been able to rely on was himself and he had the bitter experience to prove it.
Having slammed his empty glass down, Owen marched from the bar. Sod Lavender Bay, and sod big-mouthed pixies who didn’t know a good thing when they saw it. The sooner he got away from this godforsaken little town, the better.