Holiday in the Hills by Lilac Mills

 

Chapter 1

 

Ivy (it’s-not-a-pen-name) Winter stepped out through Tenerife Airport’s sliding doors, caught sight of her pale gaunt face in the glass, and hastily donned her oversized sunglasses. Ugh, she really didn’t need any reminders of how drained and washed-out she felt, and certainly not when all around there were happy faces and cheerful voices.

‘How far is it?’ she asked the driver of the car that had been hired for her journey from the airport to the villa. It was on a hill somewhere, but from what she could see of Tenerife so far, there were lots of hills, including Mount Teide, the bloomin’ great big one at the centre of the island, so take your pick.

‘One hour.’ He held up a finger.

Great, she thought wearily. She’d already spent five hours travelling, and that didn’t include the obligatory two-hour wait at Stansted. Then there had been the queue at Passport Control this end, and the wait for her luggage – there was quite a bit of it, and it had taken a while for all three cases to appear. Now there was a further hour to go before she could have a G&T and a lie-down in a darkened room. Preferably both at the same time.

Ivy supposed she’d better let Nora know that she’d arrived safely and was on her way to the villa. Part of the ‘charm’ of this writing retreat was the lack of phone signal or wifi to distract her (although Ivy did find this mildly alarming – what if she needed to make an urgent call?), so she’d better ring her agent while she had enough bars on her phone.

‘Nora, it’s me, Ivy.’

‘Hello, hun. How are you?’

‘Hot and cross.’

‘I bet the weather is glorious.’

Through the car’s tinted windows, Ivy could feel the heat of the sun, and its glare bored into her sunglass-clad eyes until her head pounded. With a deep sigh, she closed her eyes and rested her head against the back of the seat. A headache was nothing new, and she wasn’t sure whether this one was a fresh ache, or was a continuation of the one she’d had since Daniel had dropped her – professionally and personally.

‘I suppose,’ she agreed, grudgingly.

‘You are a cross-patch, aren’t you? Wait until you see the villa. You’ll love it.’

‘Have you heard anything from Daniel?’ The line was silent. Ivy listened for a few seconds, then opened her eyes. ‘Hello, can you hear me?’

‘I’m still here.’

‘Good, I said—’

‘Look, hun, I’ve got to go. Give me a call when you can, OK? Give yourself a few days to settle in and we’ll speak later in the week – you can call me from the house phone.’

Ivy popped her mobile back in her bag and leant her head against the back of the seat again. A house phone was little consolation, but at least she could call someone in an emergency.

As for the matter of Daniel, it is said that an author is only as good as his or her latest book. Apparently, according to her royalties and the accolades she’d received, Ivy should be an absolute genius – if they were talking about published works, that is. The unpublished material – the manuscript she’d presented to her publisher two months ago, who had also been her lover at the time (not any more though, damn his rotten black heart) – was not so good. It was also nowhere near finished. All she had were the first six chapters, a rough outline, and Daniel’s scrawled and scathing notes.

He’d disliked it, to put it mildly. The plot was full of holes, he’d told her, the style was saccharine, the main character insipid and unengaging, and the opening lines were bland and yawn-inducing. Don’t hold back, will you, she’d thought at the time, hoping he was joking, knowing he was not. Even her incredibly supportive agent, Nora, had hummed and ahhed when she’d been presented with it.

Ivy had no one to blame but herself. She should never have bypassed Nora in the first place and shared her draft manuscript directly with her lover – and the man who also happened to be her publisher. Big mistake. On both counts. She should have waited until Nora had cast her beady and extremely critical eye over the outline. They could have polished it together until it shone (or not, but that was another matter).

Instead, Ivy had jumped the gun, riding high on her reputation as a highly successful and prolific writer, eager to share her work with Daniel. Her fans would buy anything she wrote – they always had.

But – and here was the rub, as Shakespeare had famously once written – her newest manuscript, the scrap that she’d managed to force out so far, was in fact dire. Her lead character, Libby, was flat and uninspiring – a fatal flaw for a protagonist who is meant to be a kick-arse vampire slayer – and the central romance was about as heated as a cup of tea left on the kitchen counter for an hour. Daniel was correct, although he needn’t have been so harsh about it. The problem was, Ivy didn’t have anything else in her. Nothing, nil, zero. The well of her imagination had run dry. It was as barren and withered as a blade of straw in the desert.

If her mind was blank, then her heart was, too. It had been scoured clean by Daniel’s disbelief that she, of all people, could have written such mediocre rubbish (his words). He could have been gentler, more understanding, more supportive. He could have helped her work through it.

But he’d been too busy, she’d found out later, supporting another author. A younger, prettier, more dynamic author. One who was going places. One who was likely to win an international prize or two. Ivy was too mainstream for such an accolade; she wasn’t literary enough. Authors of paranormal romance, sometimes with a touch of science fiction or steampunk, and always with a touch of naughtiness, didn’t tend to be nominated for those sorts of things. Therefore, Daniel had set his sights on a better prospect, both professionally as she would boost his standing in the industry, and personally, cue the younger, prettier thing, and Ivy had been cast aside. That particular story was an old and very predictable one, and Ivy hated herself for being the victim in her own personal drama. She should have known better. She did know better. But it hadn’t prevented her from being flattered by his attention and kidding herself that Daniel was different, that he loved her.

Right now, Ivy didn’t have anything new for her agent to pitch to a publisher. Her current books were doing well, but not well enough for her to retire, and without fresh material to give to her readers, those followers might abandon her. Emails from her fans had been flooding in for months, demanding to know whether she was writing a brand-new series, and when the first book in said series would be out. But soon, the flood of interest would become a trickle, and then a drip, until it finally ceased altogether, along with most of the royalty payments as her sales dropped off. Then what would she do? The only thing she was any good at was writing – although even that was questionable right now. Without her writing, Ivy was nothing. Making up stories was who she was, it was what she did, it was her whole identity. And now she was in danger of losing it along with herself.

‘We are here. Villa Colina,’ the driver announced.

Ivy straightened up and took her glasses off in order to have a better look at the house where she’d be staying for the next six months. That was how long her agent had taken the lease out for. She guessed that if she hadn’t produced anything meaningful at the end of that time, then she might as well take up a new career.

Ivy peered out of the window as the car crept between two iron gates, and pulled onto a longish drive before coming to halt outside a white-washed one-storey house with a red-tiled roof. Bougainvillea grew around the front door and pots of bright flowers were dotted around the outside. It certainly looked pleasing enough. She just hoped the inside matched the outside, and that there was a bottle of cold gin in the fridge.

‘Look. Vista.’ The driver opened her door and pointed out of the opposite window.

Ivy looked. She shuffled across to the other side of the car and blinked. Her mouth dropped open and her eyes grew wide.

The view was to die for.

The ground to the left of the drive dropped away dramatically to reveal a wide expanse of sea, with a small island near the shore, and a town or a large village nestled at the bottom of the mountainside she was on. God knows how many metres above sea level the villa was, but it had to be several hundred, if not a thousand. Maybe even more. The buildings below looked tiny. She could make out a harbour, several pools of the most magnificent turquoise, a church or two, and lots of higgledy-piggledy houses.

The miles and miles of sea hazed into the distance until the ocean and the sky became one, and Ivy was unable to see where one ended and the other began. The water was dotted with boats and white-crested waves raced across its surface, chased by a steadily blowing light breeze, which Ivy guessed was probably stronger further away from shore.

But it was the colours that stole her breath; she hadn’t known there were so many shades of blue, from almost silver to a dark navy, which contrasted with the almost black rocks, the occasional green palm tree, and the whitewashed, red-tiled houses.

Ivy climbed out of the car and stepped towards the sturdy wooden barrier at the cliff’s edge for a closer look.

The scene was certainly magnificent and mesmerising, although whether it would get her creative juices flowing, was an altogether different matter. She’d probably be better off in a dungeon with only a desk and a lightbulb for company if she wanted to get any work done. It wasn’t going to be easy writing about creatures of the night who liked to take a bite out of you and suck your blood, when you were facing scenery as spectacular as this, she thought. And in such brilliant sunshine and glorious temperatures, too.

Meanwhile the driver had retrieved her suitcases from the boot and was busily hauling them towards the front door, puffing and grunting.

Honestly, he needn’t make such a fuss, Ivy thought – they weren’t that heavy, and she couldn’t have managed with less. After all, she was probably going to be here for half a year (unless by some miracle she completed the first draft of this damn manuscript sooner), so she needed plenty of clothes and other creature comforts that she didn’t want to do without.

Ivy checked the printout that Nora had given her about the villa booking and scanned down the page until she came to the part where it mentioned the villa keys, and raised her eyebrows.

Apparently, the door to the villa was unlocked and the keys were on the table in the hall. Really? Had the owners never heard of burglars? She realised the villa was on the side of a rather large hill in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest village being a twenty-minute walk away, but honestly!

The driver dumped her cases by the generous-sized porch and muttered, ‘Ninety-five euro.’ He held out his hand and Ivy rooted in her bag until she found her purse, and handed some notes over, trying not to wince at the price. She thanked him and waited for him to get into his car and drive off, before turning to the villa with a sigh.

It might be wonderful, and she might be in a truly spectacular part of the world, but she was here to do a job, and she was dreading it. What if she was unable to write anything decent ever again? The thought sent icy fingers crawling down her back and, despite the heat, she shivered.

Pushing her misgivings aside, Ivy decided that today was not the best time to tackle her writing demons; she’d just endured a long journey, she was tired, dishevelled, and hungry. What she needed right now was to get her bearings, unpack, and have a gin and tonic before she addressed the issue of something to eat. Oh, and take some painkillers for this darned headache, though, to be fair, it was starting to ease on its own, probably due to the relief of having arrived at her destination.

Hesitantly, she grasped the ornate handle adorning the villa’s door and turned it. It swung open silently and for a moment she stood listening for any sounds from within.

Silence.

That was good, wasn’t it?

Hmm. Maybe it was too quiet. She wasn’t used to it, and now that became another thing to add to the list of things she would worry about in the middle of the night, along with plot lines – or the lack of them.

But for now, curiosity got the better of her and she peered inside, seeing a corridor with rooms off to the left and to the right. At the end of it, brilliant sunlight flooded in through a set of French doors, drawing her towards them.

Stepping over the threshold, her gaze darted everywhere, taking in the buttermilk-coloured tiles on the floor, the shelves filled with books which lined the hall, the soft yellow walls and the muted turquoise doors, through which lay three large bedrooms and a family bathroom. With her suitcases lying forgotten on the porch, Ivy slowly made her way into the heart of the villa, her attention on the view through the glass doors.

She already knew from Nora that the villa had a pool, but she hadn’t been expecting such a glittering, never-ending one with several sun loungers dotted invitingly on the terrace in front of it. The pool was cordoned off by a low garden wall which was covered by climbers, and a couple of gently waving palm trees threw much-needed shade in places. But what really took her breath away was the fact that one side of the pool area, the side looking out to the sea and that glorious view, was made up of clear glass panels. There was nothing obstructing the scenery and Ivy felt as though she was a part of it.

Surveying the rest of the pool area, she noticed a table and eight chairs situated under a wooden pergola with a sun canopy draped over it, along with a huge barbeque off to one side. Apart from the terrace, the area surrounding the pool was grassed, and Ivy could almost feel the cool tufts under her toes and the breeze ruffling through her hair.

Ivy had never been in an infinity pool before, and she was tempted to change into her swimming costume and dive right in, but she decided she’d better unpack first. Besides, a cold drink was much needed. Before that, though, there was the rest of the house to explore, and she slowly turned around to examine the room she was standing in.

Oh, this was nice, she thought. The living space was open plan, with a kitchen at one end and a sitting room at the other, with the transition between the two areas provided by a dining table and a desk with an office-type chair. There was a second set of French doors by the sofa, which also opened onto the terrace, and she could imagine how cool and airy the place would be with all of them open. The large desk was situated underneath a window which was positioned halfway between the two lots of French doors. Ivy could just imagine herself sitting there with her laptop, waiting for inspiration to strike while losing herself in the magnificent view.

The villa was light and airy, yet it had a cosy lived-in feel to it, which she put down to the little touches like the books in the hall, the paintings on the walls (some of them were exquisite and depicted scenes of what she assumed were the island’s beauty spots), and the rug on the floor in front of the sofa – it felt like a home not a holiday rental, and she fell in love with it immediately.

Nora had told her that the villa’s fridge and cupboards would be generously stocked by the rental company with essentials, enough to get her through the first few days, and when Nora had asked Ivy if there was anything in particular she wanted to add to the pre-arrival shopping list, the only thing Ivy could think of was marmalade and gin.

The marmalade was in one of the cupboards, she saw, after opening a few to check their contents, and the gin was in the fridge. Ivy took out the bottle and thoughtfully studied the rest of the items in there. Lots of salad stuff, vegetables, some mince, a couple of pieces of steak, chicken breasts, a selection of fruit, milk, fruit juice, eggs, cheese, Spanish-style ham… Plenty to make several meals from.

She opened the freezer door, expecting to see some ready meals, but instead came face to face with a drawer full of bags of ice and little else. Which meant that whoever had stocked her larder expected her to cook for herself, from scratch.

The idea didn’t appeal all that much. She’d become far too used to dining out over the past couple of years – usually at some function or another that Daniel was obliged to go to – that she’d practically forgotten what a kitchen was for. Never mind, there was bound to be a restaurant or two within strolling distance – she’d explore later. For now, a cool G&T and a handful of strawberries would have to do.

Taking her drink and a bowl of fruit into the garden, Ivy sank down into a padded chair and heaved a sigh, a mixture of emotions whirling through her mind.

Putting the perfection of the villa and its location aside, she was here for one reason, and one reason only. This wasn’t a holiday; this was work. And she was under no illusions that it would be hard work. Penning the outline for a whole new series in six months, with the expectation of at least one complete novel at the end of it, was daunting, especially since the novel in question was hardly her best work to date, and the meagre amount that she had written so far had to be seriously redone.

It was also terribly disturbing, because never before had she felt overwhelmed at the thought of writing. In the past, the stories had flown from her fingers, the words eager to be released into the world. Writing had never been just a job. She’d not seen it as a way to pay for a roof over her head and put food on the table (although it had, and then some). It had been essential, the tales within not letting her rest until she had released them from the prison of her mind, and she’d revelled in the excitement and sheer thrill of a new idea popping into her head, seemingly from nowhere.

Now, though, all she felt was unease and apprehension.

Because there was no new story in her head. Her mind was empty. Her heart was sore. And a future without her beloved storytelling terrified her.