(prequel to A House Full of Secrets)
If she was to go back to the beginning of it all, Vikki knew that if it hadn’t been for the party in Shoreditch, she might have never spoken to Niall. Only for the moment of chance that drew her out onto the balcony at the same time as him – he was alone for once without his circle of admirers – she might never have exchanged a word with him. If she hadn’t talked to him then, and caught a glimpse of the man behind the jokey mask, she would have drifted right past him whenever she ran into him on future occasions, leaving him to his flirtatious fans.
She almost didn’t go to the party in the first place. “I’ve changed my mind,” she said, glowering at her friend in the mirror. “I’m not going out tonight. I’ve no intention of playing gooseberry to you and Steve.” She raked her fingers through her hair, mussing up the short sharp style.
“Stop ruining your blow dry,” Mia said. She fanned out the contents of Vikki’s make up bag across the dressing table. “You shall go to the party, I’m getting you party ready, and what’s more I’m ordering you to enjoy it.”
“Maybe I’m all out of social niceties,” Vikki said. “It might be Saturday night but I just want to get comfy in my onesie and crash out in my cosy little flat for the night. I have wine and a box set, so happy days.”
Mia shook her head, “No way, darling, that is not allowed. Tonight is the first part of my mission to get you back out into party mode again. You will look magnificent. You will be magnificent,” she said, extravagantly. She tipped her head to one side. “Or else lowlife number two has won. And all my rescuing has been in vain. Is that what you want?”
Vikki couldn’t help a grin from breaking across her face. “Nah. You’ve been a star the way you looked after me and my mangled heart, you’ve been the best shoulder to cry on, ever.”
Mia gave her a warm smile. “Honey, you needed more than a little TLC after those skunks,” she said. “They weren’t worth one single tear, let alone any room in your head. I think you’ve learned your lesson about falling for the wrong kind of guy. You’ve got to glue a feisty, kick-ass attitude onto your soft face and get out there. Steve’s mates are cool and the party will be fun.” She waved a mascara wand in the air. “You don’t need much of this, you look gorgeous enough.
Vikki stared into the mirror and wondered how a feisty attitude could change her face; right now the expression in her grey eyes was wary, and her short dark hair was messy where she’d scored her fingers through it. She fixed it with some sculpting gel and forced her mouth into a smile. She tilted her face towards her friend.
“Right then, transform me.”
“Atta girl,” Mia said, brandishing the mascara wand. “Now you’re talking.”
The party, a surprise fortieth for Greg, one of Steve’s mates, was being held in a converted warehouse attic in London’s East End and was in full swing by the time they arrived. 80’s music bounced off the stripped-back walls and echoed up to the vaulted roof, and there was a team dedicated to keeping the wine and beer in full flow. Vikki was introduced to a sea of faces, features flickering in the colourful strobe lights, names escaping her in the general melee. She heard herself laughing and joining in the fun – the loud music and anonymity of it all set loose something different inside her, a more carefree, fun-loving Vikki, who had put the past behind her. Finally.
Later, she escaped out to the small balcony, feeling the need for a minute alone away from the frenzied gaiety. One of Steve’s mates was already out there, a tall, red-headed guy. They’d been introduced, he wasn’t with a significant other but had been surrounded by an audience of gorgeous women. Now he seemed to have had the same idea as her.
“Hey, Vikki, having a good night?” he asked, waving his bottle of beer.
Up close, she barely came to his shoulder. “Yes, great,” she said, looking up at him. “Sorry I didn’t catch your name?”
“It’s Niall,” he said.
“Niall?” Vikki echoed, trying to place the name along with his shock of reddish-gold hair and amber-green eyes, the soft hint of a lilting accent. “Scottish?”
“Nah. Irish. From a place I bet you’ve never heard of, the county of Mayo, the most wonderful place on earth.”
His genuine smile put her at ease, along with his friendly eyes. “If it’s all that great what are you doing here?” she teased.
“Having fun,” he said, swigging his beer. “Isn’t that what life’s all about? How about you?”
“London, born and bred,” she said. “Having fun also, and wow – that is some view,” she went on, gravitating towards the railings. “I could stand here all night, looking at this,” she said impulsively. From their vantage point, a night-time London shimmered like a magic carpet below them, the city glittering with lights, the Shard spectacularly beautiful, lit from within and almost iridescent against a navy sky.
After a minute, Niall spoke. “I suppose it’s not bad for a night-time city-scape,” he said.
“But not as good as Mayo?” Vikki said.
She fully expected him to come out with a funny riposte. He didn’t.
He tipped his beer to his mouth before he answered. “Nope – where I come from, you step outside the door into a thick, pitch black night. There’s nothing but the deepest, darkest silence. Everywhere. And then you look up.” He paused briefly before continuing in a quiet voice, “If it’s a clear night, it will take your breath away, because there’s nothing above you only an immense sky made up of millions and billions of stars. Small ones and big ones, twinkling and glittering like diamonds, all crowding into the space. It’s so full of life, but at the same time, profoundly silent. It’s just … incredibly beautiful,” he finished up, his voice trailing away.
His words were almost hypnotic. She sensed something unguarded in his tone, and thought he’d forgotten she was there. He hadn’t.
“Hey – where did all that come from?” he said, blinking his eyes.
“You were talking about the most wonderful place on earth,” she said.
“I was, wasn’t I?” Niall smiled wistfully. In the next moment, as if conscious that he’d let drop some invisible armour, he snapped it back on, waved his hand across the vista in front of them and said in a jokey tone of voice, “See how many landmarks you can name in ten seconds.”
“You first,” she said. “Impress me.”
He did. He rattled off a number of landmarks before other party-goers squeezed out onto the balcony, waving sloshing glasses carelessly and surrounding them in a wall of noise, and Vikki found herself swallowed up by the crowd before they all surged back inside.
Three weeks later, there was another party, and this time it was a Saturday afternoon craft beer cruise along the Thames. Vikki scanned the group to see if Niall was among them and spotted him leaning back against the rail of the boat, ambushed by several women, all of whom were laughing at his jokes.
Later, when the crowd had shifted and reformed, she gravitated alongside him, watching the pennies of sunlight glint on the surface of the water as they scudded along by the Victoria embankment. “How does the Thames compare to the rivers back home?” she asked him, tilting her head to look up at him.
“So you remembered me?” Niall grinned.
“How could I forget? Your sunburnt hair is like a flag,” she teased, unwilling to admit it was his genuine smile and the sound of his words that she’d remembered the most, and if it hadn’t been for that quiet moment on the balcony in Shoreditch she would have ignored him completely.
“It doesn’t compare at all,” he said.
“So London’s good for something,” she said, meeting his amber-green eyes as she smiled in victory.
“London’s good for lots of things but nothing beats the rivers back home.”
“I might have known,” Vikki said, rolling her eyes in mock dismay.
“The rivers back home are so pure and crystal clear as they splash down the flinty mountains that you can see right through to the stony bed and sip the water from your bare hands.”
“You’re boasting,” she said.
“I’m not.” He held her gaze for a moment, and then he grinned. “Although you don’t drink it if you’re paddling in it at the same time.”
“Stop,” she said.
“And – how’s this for a bit of magic – the Mayo rivers run all the way to America,” he went on, leaning on the rail and staring across the river.
“They flow down to the beautiful sea off the west coast, and across the ocean the next stop is America. I tried getting there once wearing my swimming ring,” he went on, looking serious for once, and then his eyes lightened. “But it got snagged when the river went under a low bridge and was punctured. I was terribly deflated.”
“Oh you!” She laughed and shook her head. They were joined then by other friends in the party and for the rest of the afternoon Vikki couldn’t help being aware of him on the periphery as they both mingled with the group.
She didn’t expect to see him two weeks later at the after’s of a wedding. Pippa was a friend of Vikki and Mia’s who got married to Dave in a small formal ceremony, and followed it with a big party in Soho hotel. Niall was sitting across from her at a round table that seated twelve of them. Too far away to chat comfortably to, especially when he was between two women who were outdoing each other in their attempts to bat false eyelashes and thrust on-display cleavages at him. Vikki was glad her understated red dress covered her curves.
“How does this compare to Irish weddings?” She asked him, when she met him crossing the foyer in the break before the disco began. Pippa had pulled out all the stops and the theme and décor of the party venue oozed love and romance.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“They’re off the scale, I suppose,” she said.
He shrugged. “I haven’t a clue,” he said, his eyes honest and guileless. “I’ve never been to one. Weddings aren’t usually my thing, but Dave is a good mate.”
“I’m not a fan of romance and happy-ever-after either.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Your girlfriends will be very upset with that,” she said, unable to stop a grin from spreading across her face. “Then again, they might find you an irresistible challenge.”
“They’ll be disappointed,” Niall said. “I’m not in the market for anything serious. Not now, not ever.”
“Neither am I,” Vikki said, twirling around and going back to the party.
Later, when Mia and Steve got up to dance, Niall took his bottle of beer and went across to the empty seat beside her. “I think I’m safer on this side of the table,” he said, sitting down.
“This is the second time tonight we’re in agreement.”
“That has to be a world record.”
They chatted and laughed their way through the evening. They compared their worst holidays, Niall trying his best to outdo Vikki in the calamity stakes, so much so that she had to hold her sides, she was laughing so much. They compared the times they’d had too much to drink, and again Niall had the more colourful, cringe-worthy exploits. At the end of the evening he kissed her on the cheek and thanked her for saving him from being irresistibly challenged.
Then there was the rock concert in Wembley Arena. Vikki was part of a group from the office who’d got freebie tickets and she was queuing up at the bar half way through the night when she felt a tip on her shoulder.
She turned around. “We have to stop meeting like this,” she said to Niall.
“Nah,” he said. “Think of the fun we’d be missing out on. Besides we need to save each other from any incurable romantics, irresistible or otherwise.”
“That’s the best proposition I’ve ever had,” she said airily.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked.
“Same as you, I expect. Queueing for a drink at a concert.”
“I could have sworn you came out here to give your ear drums a rest.”
“Why did you?”
“Yeah, I think it’s a load of shite.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Vikki grinned. “That’s why I’m glad I got a freebie,”
“So why don’t we split and head to the pub?”
For a moment she stared at him, then, “You’re on,” she said, peeling away from the queue.
They relaxed like friends who were totally at ease and had no aspirations towards each other. Their night in the pub led to more, and over the next few months, their casual friendship played out against the background of their favourite London haunts; occasional dinners, trips to the movies and the theatre, Friday-after-work drinks, Saturday brunch.
Having come through two disastrous relationships, being in the company of someone who treated her gently and with the utmost kindness behind the cheerful banter was a new experience for Vikki. She felt the scars in her heart gradually healing with Niall’s good-natured attention. She sensed there were parts of his life he was keeping under wraps and he rarely spoke of his family or why he’d moved to London, but, equally, Niall didn’t know the real Vikki Gordon, behind the happy-go-lucky face, never mind the dark thoughts that disturbed her sleep.
She couldn’t pinpoint the moment when her friendship for him deepened into something else. But it did. She realised gradually that a weekend without seeing him was an empty weekend, being in his company filled her with a mixture of excitement and the certainty that this was where she was meant to be. But during a moment alone at his fortieth birthday party, this time on a balcony in Hammersmith, Niall told her that he counted her as one of his true friends, but that something had gone badly wrong years ago, and that was why he wouldn’t allow himself to ever get serious about anyone.
Not wanting to ruin their friendship, Vikki knew she had to stay light, friendly and funny at all costs.
Otherwise she’d lose him for good.
©2018 Zoë Miller
A HOUSE FULL OF SECRETS
An invitation to visit Niall’s childhood home is too good an opportunity for Vikki to pass up. This is the chance she’s been waiting for to get closer to her friend and meet the family he’s always been so cryptic about.
But when Vikki arrives at the beautiful but remote Lynes Glen on Ireland’s west coast, and finally meets Niall’s estranged brother Alex and his overbearing sister Lainey, she realises that this reunion will be far from heart-warming.
As Vikki fails to convince any of them that she saw a mysterious woman at the lake – off-limits since a tragic accident – strange and sinister incidents begin to happen at the Blake family home. What secrets are they keeping? And why exactly did Niall ask Vikki to join him for the weekend?