Read Me (Connections #3)

Read MeDenial is not a river in Egypt.

Running her own coffee shop doesn’t leave Leah Deacon much time to go looking for trouble, but trouble has a way of finding her. The bundle of papers she finds concealed in a second hand writing bureau needs to be returned to its rightful owner, but that rightful owner would rather pretend the past hadn’t happened, and Leah had never uncovered it.

Historian Andrew Kendall is definitely not pleased with Leah for crashing into his family and upsetting his mother, but there are long-buried secrets to be revealed. As a Doctor of Egyptology he’s well used to investigating history’s mysteries and if solving the puzzle of his own family’s past means spending time with the infuriating Leah Deacon, so be it…

Warning: contains some accidentally-on-purpose spilled coffee and even more spilled tea…

* * * * *

Amazon Kindle | Apple iBooks | B&N Nook | Kobo

Universal Book Link for READ ME showing all available vendors.

* * * * *

Chapter 1

Full days off from work mid-week were rare for me; if I had any time to myself at all it was a half hour at lunchtime or a rushed sandwich at my desk mid-afternoon. I wasn’t always stuck at my desk; I had the business account manager at the bank and our chartered accountant to see regularly, and my business partner (a sleeping partner, as the saying went; she provided the money and I provided the work) to update. Suppliers to meet with occasionally, too. There were just so many demands on my time that whole weekdays off, or even half days, were few and far between. So while my working environment could change throughout Monday to Friday, the pressure to get things done rarely did. Maybe I could have gone a little easier on myself, but midwifing a new business and keeping it viable in those early days wasn’t the sort of thing I wanted to leave to other people. Fortnight-long holidays would have to wait. Days off here and there? Allowable, but all right, I held my hands up to it. Leah Deacon wasn’t good at ceding responsibility to staff members, especially when it was partly my money and mostly my reputation on the line.

Control freak, moi?

Weekends were a little easier, although I sometimes had paperwork to deal with. Putting in an appearance for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoons was common and failing that, working from home before trying to relax with friends. The workload was always lighter than Mondays to Fridays; the shop opened at weekends but my Saturdays and Sundays were if not exactly sacred, then ring-fenced with an unspoken don’t even think about it…if you can help it. It was advice I gave to others, and completely ignored with regard to myself. How dare anyone add to my workload? How dare? But massively hypocritical Leah just kept piling it on herself, like the masochist she was.

This Saturday afternoon had me curtain-twitching and tapping my feet as I gazed up and down the street on which I now lived. Waiting on someone else getting their arse in gear wasn’t a special talent of mine. Time was precious, but the charity shop had been no more specific than “We’ll be there sometime before five.” My laptop sat discarded for the moment on the settee, a spreadsheet lurking in the cloud for me to see to in between instances of jumping up and rushing to the window, but like the watched kettle which never boiled, the anticipated delivery van never arrived.

Thankfully I’d showered as soon as I’d got up that morning, so I wouldn’t be caught short, half-dressed in the bathroom at the very moment my intercom went, but being due to meet friends later on that evening meant I wanted to shower again at some point, get changed, do my hair and makeup. And the longer these irritating morons took to deliver a bloody writing bureau, the less time I’d have to make myself look slightly less stressed and slightly more presentable. It had been too damn long since I’d had a proper night out with Sarah and Wallis, and apparently Wallis’s kinda sorta sister-in-law-of-sorts, Amelia, would be joining us too. Lord knew how that would affect the group dynamic given that I’d found her to be a bit strange on the rare occasions we’d met. I guess being stabbed by your own mother, even if accidentally, does that to a woman. Wallis had urged me to “Go easy on her,” and out of respect for my friend, and the fact said friend regularly rode Amelia’s brother, easy I would go.

It was a point of pride to me that I was the one who’d set up Wallis Jackson and Oliver Chandler in the first place. It was plain to anyone with a working pair of eyes that she fancied the barman in Grape & Grain and he kept giving her the glad eye so, being a woman who liked to get things done, I’d forced Wallis’s number on him and said, “Look, one of you guys has to make the first move. She’s single, call her.”

And he had, that very night, when Wallis had been staying over at my new place, helping me make up some flat-pack furniture. She’d tried very hard to appear angry at me taking over, but it had been obvious she was excited at the prospect of getting laid for the first time in far too long. Excited and scared. Wallis used to drink a lot, and used that to self-medicate some deep-seated critical feelings about herself, so she’d wondered, “What are the chances of this working out for me?”

We all worried about prospective relationships. Such was the way of the world. Me and Matthew, however? We’d split up months ago, hence me living in a new flat, buying up new bits and pieces as and when I had the spare time and money to do so…and having friends stay over to help me make up bookcases and shit. Such were just about the only circumstances under which I got to see my mates, because of my quaint insistence on burying myself in work, praying the shop became, and stayed, a success. That was one reason for my acquired workaholism. Paperwork also helped me deal with splitting from Matthew. Was I heartbroken? No. But it was still a huge change. A serious relationship existing, then…not. Add in the fact that any sex was better than no sex and the longer I was single, the longer I went without.

I wasn’t above a one-nighter to scratch the itch, but when the hell was I supposed to meet anyone for something long-term when my time was being wasted, waiting in for a delivery that could appear at any time between now and five? Sure, that left me time enough to shower and change before meeting the girls, but this was my time, damn it, and I resented someone else pissing it away like it meant nothing. If only everyone I met would just bloody well do as they were told, life would be so much simpler.

Trying not to stamp my feet or grit my teeth or do anything similarly petulant because I was a grown-up businesswoman now, I returned to the settee (a treat to myself, brand, spanking new and from an online company which enabled me to choose my own delivery time with a two-hour window) and the spreadsheet. It was routine, pretty mindless stuff, but necessary.

It didn’t seem fair that other people refused to work exactly to my convenience, but I somehow managed to restrain myself from gritting my teeth into a fine dust by sitting on the settee and directing my concentration towards the spreadsheet and accounting software. Things looked good, if I chose to be realistic, but I did tend to err on the side of caution and not celebrate too hard, even though we were in the black. It was difficult not to ponder on how if things could be earned and collected, they could likewise be lost and gone.

“You ought to be grateful, Deacon,” I said out loud to the empty room. Most small businesses folded within the first two years and though we still existed within that time frame, truth be told, I had a feeling we stood a good chance of making it. One couldn’t make absolute predictions of course, but the numbers didn’t lie. They were, if not exactly clairvoyant, reassuring.

I nevertheless always carried with me a sense of guilt whenever I spent money on myself or my new home. As if I ought to have ploughed it straight into the business with no thought for myself, but since the split with Matthew I’d had to just bite the bullet and get on with it. We were okay with each other now, as much as an ex-couple could be, but there had obviously been problems between us or we’d still have been together. It was a relief not to be, but undeniably, the need to find somewhere else to live had been an added stressor on top of money, the business, the fact I’d not socialised with my friends for a good long while. Not properly, anyway. A drink with Wallis and her staying over here hardly qualified as painting the town red, getting shitfaced and possibly arrested along the way.

Not that I’d ever been arrested. I’d gotten up to only a moderate amount of mischief in my university days and the only time I’d seen a set of handcuffs had been…well, the less said about that, the better.

Rumbling reached my ears, along with the coughing of an engine as it came to a halt, and I leapt to my feet, on high alert again and, truth be told, grateful for an excuse to push the laptop to one side.

“Oh Christ, at last,” I groaned, and turned tail, heading for the door. The delivery guys buzzed the intercom and I let them into the building straight away without so much as a hello. No time for chit-chat.

It was for the best that the flat I’d found was on the top floor of a tenement block, given that I now lived alone and it was more difficult to break into an upstairs apartment, but the delivery men probably didn’t think the same way. From my open front doorway, I heard the puffs of exertion as they ascended, manoeuvering the writing bureau up each flight of the stairwell.

“Just leave it in the hallway,” were about the only words I spoke; I did wonder if I should have made more conversation instead of acknowledging they were only here to deliver a writing bureau, but decided seconds later that small talk wasn’t really necessary. The exertion of shifting furniture all day would toughen them up, make them fit…but also tire them out.

“Sign here,” one puffed out, confirming his breathless state as he handed me a piece of paper and fished a pen out of the breast pocket of his overalls.

Once they’d left me on my own again, I swiped my hands in a wiping motion, as I’d been the one to lug the item upstairs to my flat. “Right, let’s have a look at you.” Maybe something I should have done before signing the piece of paper, just to make sure everything was in order but all I’d been thinking about at that point was how much I needed them to hurry up so I could go have a shower and do my hair.

I pulled down the desk ledge, wondered if it would have been too much bother for them to dust the pigeonholes before delivering the bureau. The drawers seemed okay, apart from one which stuck. Damn it, did oil work on wood? What did one use to get the runners to yield without making that jarring screech?

I jiggled the bottom drawer about a bit, kicking myself for not having tested it in store; I’d only opened the top one to check the depth, to judge how many work folders, writing pads and other bits and pieces it would hold.

Wondering if it was worth trying to shift it into the living room myself, to the space which I’d created for it, I decided to leave that task for another day. Better to dust and polish it here, then I’d only have one carpet to vacuum to tidy up any resultant debris. The delivery guys might have tracked in some dirt and I didn’t want to trail that into the living room.

That damn drawer, though. It took some doing to remove it, which I thought might have been a mistake, depending on how easy it would be to slide back in, but…

“What the…” A document folder lay underneath where the drawer had been, on the ‘casing’ of the bureau itself; thin, but containing just enough paperwork, documentation or whatever, to impede the easy transition of the drawer runners. My first thought was, how on Earth did a folder manage to slide down the back of the drawer to the bottom of the bureau’s frame?

My second was the folder’s not creased or bent out of shape.

Almost as if it had been put there deliberately. Added to which, I couldn’t figure out exactly how a folder could fall from one drawer down the back of another, to the bottom of the unit.

I dashed into the kitchen to check the time; not long to go at all before I really had to get moving, but just enough to do some minor investigations.

Back to the hallway, and I sat on the floor beside the one discarded drawer and reached into the frame of the piece to retrieve the folder. The thin layer of dust showed me it had been there a while and blowing on the folder to clean it was a mistake. I sneezed a couple of times, muttered, “This better be something interesting to make up for that.”

A moderate bundle of papers of various sizes. They looked like letters, mostly. I pulled out one sheet; none had envelopes which had obviously been discarded for some reason; perhaps ease of storage? Maybe, if this folder had been hidden, to minimise the bulk of paperwork to be discovered? Not that the lack of envelopes made it any less indiscreet, because the sheet of paper I pulled out seemed incriminating enough. A letter, from someone called Carol, to David, and—

“Jesus Christ,” I murmured, screwing my eyes shut and sliding the paper back into place. That hadn’t been something I’d ever want to see again. I mean, sure, I was in my late twenties and far from a virgin, but…there was something profane about casting my eyes over such words intended for the eyes of one other person, and one other person only. Almost like…almost as if I had walked in on two people in an intimate embrace.

Whoever Carol and David had been, they’d had a passionate affair judging by the few lines I’d seen. Photos, too, of…

“Fucking hell…” I wasn’t the sort of woman to hold back from swearing — except in a business setting of course, where it could be seen as unprofessional — but in the near-silence of my hallway, sat on the carpet on my own, those words seemed even more chilling, even more shocked, than usual. It was common nowadays for the F-word to be thrown about with abandon and this was the first time in a long while I’d used it in genuine, near-breathless shock.

Heart thumping in my chest, I lifted a photo closer to my face, as if that would make the story even clearer, explain to me what was going on. A woman with a hairstyle that placed her somewhere in the early to mid eighties, holding a baby, but…not smiling. You’d think…

I flipped the photo over. Andrew.

Would this be Carol, then? And Christ, what the hell had I discovered, judging by the tone of the letters? A love affair, a baby…dare I look through the papers to see if there was anything else to be discovered?

Was it any of my business? Probably not, but…these letters, these photographs…they weren’t mine, and whoever they belonged to would want them back, surely? Given their intimate nature, they’d be frantic about finding them although if they were that important, why hide them away at the back of a writing bureau and give the piece away to a second hand furniture charity shop?

None of this made sense.

The pieces were there and it was pretty damn obvious that two people had been up to something they shouldn’t have been, given the clandestine nature of all this paperwork, the letters, the photos…

And the larger, folded piece of paper right at the back of the folder. It didn’t matter any more that I should have been in the shower, washing my hair or shaving my legs. This mystery, this partially-solved puzzle had dropped into my lap and I couldn’t walk away from it now.

“Holy shit…” This large piece of paper was a photocopy…of a birth certificate, belonging to a one Andrew Stephen Kendall. The father named wasn’t the guy mentioned in the letters and now I had even less idea what the hell was going on.

Or rather, what had gone on, thirty-odd years previous. Before even I had been born.

Shoving everything back into the document folder, I took a deep breath. I had no clue what to do now. But at least I’d have three people from whom I could seek advice, later. Just wait until the girls heard what I had to tell them.