Halfway There
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1# in the Sisterhood of the Halfways series

A modern novel for lovers of mystery, romance and cake-baking…

Sarah Coles, forty-something divorcee and former high-flying lawyer, escaped London three years ago and now lives alone in a run-down Victorian house in the quiet Cotswolds village of Westwick, working part-time for local charities and driving a clapped out Honda Civic.

She belongs to the Sisterhood of the Halfways, part ladies’ support group, part rural mafia. The members of the Sisterhood focus on the good things in life: romance, wine, archery, gossip and cake. But when Sarah decides to build a modest summer house in her garden, things quickly spiral out of control.

Good friends turn bad as a minor mishap threatens to destroy her peaceful existence forever. At the centre of it all is local bakery owner, the mysteriously attractive Jack Mitchell, who makes exceedingly good cakes. But as Sarah tries desperately to put a brake on the bad blood (and litigation) that has followed events in her garden, it emerges that Jack has a shocking secret about his former life, one which threatens to put her in grave danger.

A mystery-romance with a backdrop of cake-baking, HALFWAY THERE is for readers of Sophie Kinsella, Joanna Trollope, Alexander McCall Smith and Jojo Moyes. Plus lovers of The Great British Bakeoff.

Publicado: Stef Nichols el
ISBN: 9781386810292
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Page 1 of 1

Halfway There

by

Stef Nichols

1# in the Sisterhood of the Halfways series

[PRE-PUBLICATION VERSION]

CONTENTS

COPYRIGHT

ABOUT STEF NICHOLS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

SUNDAY

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

MONDAY

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

TUESDAY

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

WEDNESDAY

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

THURSDAY

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

FRIDAY

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

SATURDAY

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

SUNDAY

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

WEDNESDAY

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

TWO WEEKS LATER

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

COPYRIGHT

Copyright © 2017 by Stef Nichols

Cover design: Carl Grimes

This book is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used merely to add authenticity to the work. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the author.

ABOUT STEF NICHOLS

Stef Nichols was born in 1968 and grew up in England and Spain. She studied English Literature and Linguistics, and currently works as a college English teacher in Spain. Her passions are reading, travel, and her two sons.

Halfway There is the first romantic mystery in the Sisterhood of the Halfways series. Book #2 in the series, Halfway Home, is out soon! Read more at:

www.stefnichols.com

Join her mailing list here.

SATURDAY

Chapter 1

I poured a good slug of gin into the punch, watching as pieces of fruit bobbed up and down on the purple surface like little sailboats in a storm. It was going to be a good party.

Through the back door came the sound of hammering, as Dave put the final touches to things out in the garden. We were cutting it a bit fine. The guests would be arriving soon, and still the structure itself wasn’t finished.

I listened to the rhythmic tap of his hammer for a while. When I looked down at the bottle in my hand, the last drops of gin were pattering onto a slice of pineapple in the centre of the purple sea. It had been a full bottle when I opened it.

If only I’d known the kind of storm I was creating …

Two minutes later I staggered out of the kitchen and into the garden, the huge crystal punch bowl in my arms. As if on cue, Dave was there to take it from me, the hammer now slung from his hip on a tool belt.

Come here, let me, he said, grabbing the bowl manfully, as if one more step and I would have collapsed in a heap on the grass, covered in alcoholic fruit.

Dave’s not the kind of man who allows women to do anything, not if he can do it for them. Gallantry is all fine and good in its place, I suppose. But personally I don’t have much of a place for it. Three years ago I was working as a lawyer at an investment bank, and a career in the legal profession had completely stripped me of the need for gallantry.

That’s my problem. Too independent, too self-contained. That’s what the Halfways say about me. Well, it’s what some of them say. We’re a mixed bag.

Dave carried the punch bowl over to the brand new gazebo that he’d just finished erecting out on my lawn. He set the bowl down on a buffet table at the centre of the octagonal space inside. The rest of the spread was already there ˗ sandwiches, sausage rolls, vol-au-vents, potato salad. Nothing fancy. There was no need to impress. I had a brand new white gazebo for that.

I stood on the lawn and looked at it. Even now I couldn’t really believe that it was there, in the shade of the cedar tree at the back of the garden: my very own gazebo. A folly, that’s what it was. An absurd construction that serves no obvious purpose. And it was my folly.

No doubt there would be an article in the parish newsletter in a week or two. Sarah’s Folly finally erected! Or perhaps it would be ‘Ms Cole’s’ folly. With our vicar it’s all surnames and correct titles. He’s very formal for a young man.

The vicar wouldn’t be seeing the new folly today, though. I hadn’t invited him. I knew I should have done, just like I should have invited everyone else in the village. But this day was special, just the Halfways, plus an assortment of husbands and other semi-essential menfolk.

Still, it ate away at the edge of my conscience, now that the day had finally arrived. The vicar might have bestowed some dignity on my new gazebo, a blessing perhaps. That’s definitely not how it turned out.

Just firmed up the panels at the back, Dave said, standing there next to the punch, hands on hips.

He’s a good-looking man, a touch stocky, six foot. The Halfways have spent the past three years trying to talk me into going on a date with him. The problem, though, is that he’s the kind of man who insists on telling you what the best thing on the menu is, then pressurising you into ordering it; the kind who chooses the wine without asking your opinion; who would definitely insist on paying the bill, which, considering that he’s a jobbing carpenter and I’m an ex-commercial lawyer, seems like an expensive sort of gallantry.

It’s not that I mind a man doing any of these things, but you get the impression with Dave that it would have been all of them, all the time. As for what might come later, I could never get past imagining his first embrace before shuddering with a squeamish sort of dread.

I went over to join him, and we stood there, on either side of the food-laden table in the middle of the gazebo’s bare wooden floor. The structure around us had eight sides, built entirely of timber. It was simple but elegant, painted a crisp, pure white and open to the elements from waist height. The roof was tiled in thin grey slates, and the whole thing was raised just two modest steps off the ground. A folly it might have been, but it was a damn pretty one.

The Halfways are a group of nine or ten women from the village, a countrified gang of like-minded ladies. Our exact number depends on domestic crises, riding accidents, divorces, affairs, elopements, deaths, breakdowns, plus the occasional falling out. The gazebo was designed so that all of us could fit inside, and no one else. Today there would be three times that number at the grand inauguration.

Goodness knows where everyone is going to sit! I said, pouring us both a glass of punch.

Weather looks like it’ll hold. Grass’ll be fine.

Well done, by the way. You’ve done a terrific job.

He downed his punch in a single gulp and shrugged.

I got paid, didn’t I?

Now, you can say many things about the Halfways, but you cannot accuse them of being unpunctual. As long as there’s the promise of food and drink, three o’clock means three o’clock. As the church clock struck the third of its long chimes, Emma was parking her ancient green Mercedes at a ridiculous angle across my front drive, and the others had already arrived.

In the garden were the rest of our friends, some alone, some with beloved dogs in tow, and one or two with menfolk they hadn’t been able to persuade to stay at home. Dave was there because he’d built the gazebo, and there was also an assortment of neighbours.

Some of these had been invited because I liked them, but in other cases the reason was more practical; even if they left early, they wouldn’t really be able to complain if the noise went on into the night. No vicar, though. Was it too late to run along to the vicarage and invite him round?

Just as I had imagined, the men were all standing on the grass, running their hands appreciatively along the gazebo’s wooden lines and listening to Dave as he explained the design. We’d got the plans off the internet and most of the painted wood was reclaimed from Dave’s workshop.

It hadn’t cost me a fortune, and the biggest headache had been the fact that it took an age to finish, Dave sitting for hours at my kitchen table and talking about carpentry while I fussed about pretending to be busy, and wishing that he’d just get on with building the thing.

Turn the clock back ten years, even three or four, and things would have been different. In my previous life I had been used to getting things done quickly and efficiently, and definitely without any unnecessary chit-chat. Listening to Dave as he rabbited on and on about the job had been irritating, to say the least.

Since I moved to the country in a fit of professional pique, one that doubled as a post-divorce hoorah and a sudden career switch, I had come to realise that village life is ten per cent action and ninety per cent talking about it. It took a bit of time to adapt, but to be honest there are worse ways of spending your time.

Inside the gazebo there were now seven of us. Two of our group were missing. Joanne was on a Norwegian cruise, and Jennifer was on a sales trip, which was code for a ridiculous quasi-affair she’d been having on and off with a man in Rome who sounded wildly inappropriate, and which made us all just a little bit jealous.

There were seven recliner chairs arranged around the table, and we were pretty comfortable in there as the afternoon sun angled inside and warmed the punch. Emma, she of the badly parked Merc, was already in her stocking feet as she made her way down a bottle of pinot grigio. She regaled us with stories about the gazebo her parents used to have in their garden, and of all the boys she’s got to second, third and (occasionally) fourth base with on its dusty floor.

Several of us rolled our eyes as she rattled on, but we knew that a few hours from now we’d all be trotting out similar stories. And, yes, they were stories we’d all heard before. It didn’t matter. We were having fun, and the assorted menfolk out on the lawn seemed happy enough. Everything was perfect.

Alice Blair was reminding us just how awful modern parents are. She teaches art at Gummerton School, and is the nearest thing we have to a hippy, although a well-dressed one, just the jangly earrings and a tendency to attribute every event in our lives to some shift in the position of the stars, or the tea leaves, or whatever.

Across from me was Jill Hodges. She’s the glamourous one of the group, always immaculate in designer outfits and that annoyingly perfect figure of hers. She’d already made good headway with the sausage rolls. Nothing unusual there. She had an appetite like a horse, and never seemed to put any weight on.

With Jill there was always a slight sense of dissatisfaction. She had the permanent air of a disappointed perfectionist, only I could never work out what was so disappointing to her. Today was no different. Her eyes darted this way and that, as if something was definitely amiss.

Before long the punch had all gone. Several of the girls got to their feet and retrieved pieces of purple-stained fruit from the bottom of the bowl, popping them into their mouths and looking at me expectantly. I took the hint and headed back to the kitchen, the crystal bowl in my arms, deftly avoiding Dave, who was deep in conversation about slates.

The party, then, was going well.

Chapter 2

If you have ever lived in a village you’ll know that like-minded people find each other out far more quickly than they do in cities or suburbs. Perhaps it’s the enforced intimacy of living so close to everyone else, or just the fact that you meet the same few dozen people every week, so you select the ones you really want to see with greater care.

When I arrived in Westwick I was a recently divorced forty-something, having abandoned London and a legal career in search of peace. I needed a bunch of friends, and as luck would have it I soon found them.

The full name is Little Westwick, but since there is no Bigger or Greater Westwick, we rarely bother with the Little. The place is tiny enough without drawing attention to the fact.

Not all the Halfways live in Westwick. Joanne is from Gummerton, a couple of miles up the road, and a few of the others are from even further afield. But that’s in rural distances; no one is more than a handful of miles away.

It began by accident. A bunch of us would meet up from time to time for lunch and a chat. Simple as that. Then, one beautiful summer’s day a couple of years ago we were having a picnic on the banks of the River Avon, when the conversation turned to death. It’s the same with any group of people who have got to a certain age; there’s always a parent, uncle, aunt or someone else who’s just passed away. Not a very cheerful thought, but there it is.

Anyway, while we chatted, Julia Dimmick was fiddling with her phone.

Oh no! she said, staring at the screen. I am exactly halfway through my life!

How do you know?

Article about average life expectancy. Julia bit the inside of her cheek and frowned as she scrolled down.

Had it been anyone else, we might not have paid much attention. But Julia was the village dentist, and was the nearest thing we had to a medical expert, which somehow made her the voice of reason in all things to do with health.

Each of us did the same quick calculation in our heads. Most of us were more or less in the same situation. We all considered ourselves to be in the very prime of our lives. Yet we were all at least halfway through our allotted time on the planet, according to the law of averages.

A quietness fell over the group, and before long the conversation had shifted discreetly to other topics. The damage, though, had been done, and none of us could get the idea out of our minds. We were halfway along our three-score years and ten. At least.

The picnic ended in subdued fashion. We dumped half-eaten quiches and chicken drumsticks in a bin in the carpark and said our goodbyes. Damn Google, I thought as I returned home alone after a ruined Saturday afternoon by the river.

Home? A five-bedroom house just off the centre of the village. Four more bedrooms than I need, and four more than I normally bother to clean. It’s a beautiful, late Victorian building, with a vast array of late Victorian plumbing and wiring issues that never seem to resolve themselves. And the roof leaks. Home.

I sat there in front of the TV, another Saturday evening on my own, flicking between a couple of uninspiring movies. Then my phone buzzed. WhatsApp is very useful, but let’s be honest, it’s normally a photo of a kitten or a link to a website with amusingly shaped vegetables. This time, though, it was a new group. The Sisterhood of the Halfways.

I had no idea what it meant.

Julia was the only member. This was her message: You see?

What? I asked myself. What do I see?

Then another buzz.

Em had joined the group, and had replied: Yes!

Then Jennifer, Joanne, Alice, Jill … They all seemed to get it immediately. Before I could think of anything to type, they were organising the first meeting.

And that was that. The Sisterhood was born. There are only two rules. Number one: be a good hostess. Number two: look out for each other.

Welcome to the Halfways, a rural mafia of ladies in the very prime of their lives.

Back in the kitchen I made up a fresh bowel of punch. I didn’t have too much fruit left, so I slung in a tin of pineapple chunks and chopped up my last banana. Let’s face it, no one had come for the vitamin C. Another full bottle of gin?

I decided against it, and poured in about half of a new bottle, reminding myself that there was also a decent supply of wine out there in the gazebo. The last thing I wanted was purple vomit stains on the bare wooden floor.

Go on, came a voice from behind me. Why not go all the way? We deserve it!

It was Dave. As he spoke he walked towards me, his thigh banging into the edge of the table. He came right up to me and his hand enclosed mine around the bottle. He tilted the bottle downwards until its contents gushed out into the punch bowl. As it