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As Elin Warner runs, the air feels sticky like gum, catching in her eyes, hair.
Only six a.m., but the heat is already bouncing off the pavement, solid walls of it, with no breeze to sweep it away.
The route she's taking is part of the South West Coast Path-houses on either side, lavish Victorian and Italianate villas that stud the wooded hillside. Gleaming pinpoints of sunlight are bouncing off the windows as her reflection shifts alongside her in the glass-cropped blond hair mushrooming up and out with each step before settling back around her face.
The exteriors of the houses seem flimsy in the heat, their edges blurred. The verges outside are parched yellow-grass not just suspended in growth, but withering and dying, bare patches opening up like sores.
Summers have been hot before, but none like this: weeks of sunshine; spiking, record-breaking temperatures. Newspapers printing endless images of cracking motorways, fried eggs clichŽ-cooking on the bonnets of cars. Forecasters had predicted a reprieve several weeks ago, but it never came. Just more sun. Nerves are fraying, people ready to snap.
Elin's just about holding on, but her internal landscape is at odds with the external. With each day of blistering heat that passes comes the exact opposite inside her: the cold grip of fear creeping back.
It keeps her up at night, the same thoughts on repeat. With it, the control strategies: the running, relentless exercise. The past few weeks, an escalation-earlier runs, longer runs, secret runs. Self-flagellation.
All because her brother, Isaac, had mentioned her father had been in touch.
A few yards on, the houses on the left give way to a green. The coast path runs behind it, hugging the lip of the cliff.
Leaving the pavement, she darts into the opening for the path.
Her stomach lurches.
No fence, only a few feet of land between her and a hundred-foot plunge to the rocks below, but she loves it: it's coast path proper-no houses between her and the sea. The view opens out: Brixham on her right, Exmouth to her left. All she can see is blue-the sea a darker, inkier shade than the chalky pastel of the morning sky.
With each step, she feels the heat from the ground rising up through the soles of her sneakers. She wonders for a moment what would happen if she kept moving: whether she'd eventually implode-an engine overheating-or whether she'd simply carry on.
It's tempting: to keep going until the thoughts stop, and she doesn't have to try to hold on anymore-because that's what it feels like sometimes: as though she's having to grip too hard to normality. One small slip, and she'll fall.
At the top of the hill Elin slows, her thighs screaming, thick with lactic acid. Hitting pause on her Fitbit, she notices a gray car cresting the hill. It's moving fast, engine throaty, scattering the seagulls picking at a flattened carcass on the road.
Something registers as she takes in the shape, the color. It's Steed's car, she's sure of it, the DC brought in to help her on her reassignment. It speeds past, a blur of dust-dulled alloy and flying gravel. Elin catches Steed's profile: slightly crooked nose, strong chin, fair spikes of hair gelled into submission. Something about his expression pulls the last bit of breath from her. Elin immediately recognizes it: the quiet intensity of someone flooded with adrenaline.
He's working. On a job.
The car stops at the bottom of the hill. Steed flings open the door, jogs in the direction of the beach.
Pulling her phone from her shorts, Elin glances at the screen. The Control Room hasn't rung. A job, just down the road, and they called Steed instead.
Familiar worries resurface, the same ones that have consumed her ever since HR and Anna, her boss, decided that she wasn't ready for full duties after her career break.
Steed's a speck in the distance, moving toward the beach. Elin shifts from foot to foot. She knows the right thing to do is to stick to her plan-to run home to breakfast, to Will, but pride gets the better of her.
Running hard down the hill, she passes Steed's car and crosses the road. No cars; only a cat slinking across the tarmac, fire-striped undercarriage nearly touching ground. She crosses the scrubby patch of grass to the empty beach beyond. No Steed.
Walking left, along the shore, she passes the restaurant jutting out on metal pillars above the beach. A rustic-looking shack, name emblazoned in driftwood above the door. The Lobster Pot. It's shuttered. Last night, the terrace would have been heaving, strings of fairy lights illuminating wine bottles in coolers, baskets of shiny mussels and fries.
A few feet on, she finds him; there, beneath the overhang of the restaurant. He's kneeling on the sand, muscles straining through the fabric of his shirt. The raw physicality is always the first thing Elin notices about Steed, but he's a dichotomy: the hard, honed body belied by the softness of his features-heavy-lidded, sensual eyes, a wide, full mouth. He's that rare kind of man: the type women simultaneously feel protected by and protective of.
They've slipped into an easy working relationship. He's younger than her, late twenties, but there's none of the thrusting bravado you sometimes get in men of that age. He's astute, has a knack of asking the right questions, an emotional intelligence that's all too rare.
A woman is standing beside him. She looks to be in her late forties, tall and muscular. Her blue swimming cap is still on, the same hue as her swimsuit, the thin layer of rubber emphasizing the shape of her skull. Despite the heat, she's shivering, jiggling from foot to foot in a nervous rhythm.
Steed turns, and as he moves Elin sees it: a leg, splayed against the sand-a pale calf, lettuce-like fragments of seaweed suckered to the skin.
She finds herself stepping forward to get a better angle.
A teenager. Ugly wounds-slashes to the face, chest, and legs. The clothes are almost completely shredded, the polo shirt split down the seam, across the torso.
Closer again, and her vision blurs, the syrupy haze of the air giving the scene a sloppy focus. As she takes another step, reaction tips over into realization.
She sucks in her breath.
Steed swivels around to face her at the sound, eyes widening in surprise. "Elin?" He hesitates. "Are you-"
But the rest of his words bleed into the air. Elin starts to run.
She knows now why they'd called Steed instead.
Hana Leger and her sister, Jo, are waiting on the jetty for the boat to take them to the island, suitcases and bags piled around their ankles. Hana rubs the back of her neck. It feels as if the sun were homing in on the soft skin there, direct as a laser beam.
The water around them is thick with people: paddlers, swimmers, dinghies bobbing, lone figures tracing the horizon on paddleboards. Children splash in the shallows, kicking up spray. Chubby toddler arms punch at froth.
Hana's stomach tightens, but she forces her gaze back to the squatting toddler.
Don't look away. She can't be blind forever.
"You okay?" Jo looks at her through her aviators, blows out over her upper lip. The motion lifts up the thin strands of white-blond hair that have fallen loose from her ponytail.
"Just hot. I didn't expect it to be so bad down here. Sea breeze and all." Hana's dark hair, cut in a bedraggled bob, is damp, sticking to the nape of her neck. She ruffles it.
Jo rummages in her backpack. It's one of those technical, lightweight packs, covered in zippers and pockets. Pulling out a bottle of water, Jo swigs and then offers it to her. Hana drinks: it's warm, plasticky tasting.
Her sister cuts a striking figure. Tall, tanned, she manages to elevate the white cotton beach dress and leopard-print Birkenstocks, slightly fuzzy from wear, into something hip and effortless. Every part of Jo is lightly muscled from a regime of yoga and running and skiing.
Hana follows her to the end of the jetty, squinting. The island itself is a blur-the bright circle of sun behind casting it into shadow. Only one thing is clear: the infamous rock protruding from the top left of the island-the side profile that gestures to a hooded figure, a protuberance jutting out like a scythe.
Hana's stomach tightens, the sight a hit to her solar plexus. "I didn't expect it to actually look like-"
"A reaper?" Jo turns, ponytail swishing against her face.
"Yes." Despite her sunglasses, a murky shadow of the rock appears every time she blinks. It's a stark contrast to the brochure-all white sandy beaches, lush foliage.
"But you're looking forward to it? The break, I mean." Jo raises her voice above the whine of a Jet Ski.
"Of course." Hana squeezes out a smile, though she's secretly been dreading this trip.
She'd actually said no when Jo first called. The idea of a holiday with Bea, their older sister, and Maya, their cousin, boyfriends included, seemed odd. They hadn't seen each other in months, after steadily drifting apart over the past few years. While Jo said it was all about getting them together again, Hana struggled to understand it. Why now? After all this time?
She offered up what she thought was a solid excuse: without Liam, it didn't feel right, but Jo was persistent: phone calls, texts, she'd even turned up at her flat-a rare occurrence-with a hard copy of the retreat's brochure.
Jo wore her down, simultaneously making Hana feel old and prissy for declining. This was Jo's modus operandi: she's a leader, not in a bossy way, but by the sheer force of her personality. Somehow, you got caught in her slipstream, unaware you were even being led.
It never bothered Hana as much as it irked Bea. Bookish, and fiercely introverted, Bea found Jo's energy and extroversion overwhelming. Perhaps it washed over Hana more because she was in between: Academic, but not Bea's level. Sporty, but not an athlete like Jo.
"I'm going to post a view of the island from here . . ." Jo takes a photograph.
Hana turns away. It pisses her off-this constant documenting of every move they make, but she can't complain. This trip is a result of Jo's frenetic social media activity: as a travel influencer she gets paid in kind with free holidays. She has nearly four hundred thousand followers who like that she's natural, regularly commenting on her "relatability"-her slightly too-wide mouth, the Streisandesque kink to her nose.
"That can't be ours." Jo slips her phone back into her pocket. "Not already." A boat is making its way across the water, leaving a foamy spume of white in its wake. Hana glances at the blocky lettering on the side. lumen. Jo checks her Fitbit. "Actually, it's already five to. Where's everyone else?" She turns to the beach. "Saying that, I think that's Seth over there . . ."
Hana follows her gaze. "Is it?"
"Is it?" Jo mimics. "Conjure up some vague enthusiasm, Han." She shakes her head. "I know you're not a fan. He's too 'risky'"-she makes quote marks with her fingers-"for you, isn't he?" Jo's face tightens. "I wish I'd never told you now. It wasn't exactly serious."
A bead of sweat trickles between Hana's shoulder blades. Jo's the master of this: the sudden turn. "A criminal record is serious. We were only looking out for you."
"He got in with the wrong crowd. End of it." Jo's eyes flash. "Not everyone's perfect, you know, not everyone can do happy-clappy songs all day, teach kids how to add."
Hana looks at her. There it is. The sting in the tail. This is why this holiday is a bad idea. Because Jo, as usual, is able to chop her down with a few choice words. The worst thing is, it's not just a gibe, it is what the rest of the family think of her-a reductive clichŽ, knee-deep in Play-Doh, singsong calling the roll.
They'd never imagine the reality: the kids' sticky, pinchy fingers in hers, the nitty-gritty machinations of their brains that slip straight from their mouths, no filter, and how, after a term with them, Hana knew exactly what kind of humans they'd become.
Jo puts up her hand, waving, all smiles again as Seth approaches. Switch flicked.
"Yay," she shouts. "You're here!"
Hana does a double take. A well-built man in shorts and a T-shirt is walking toward them. The height, gait, the baseball cap pulled low over his eyes-it's gut-wrenchingly familiar. With the sun in her eyes, his face is hard to make out, the similarities uncanny. Despite what her logical mind is telling her, her heart leaps before reality hits.
Of course it's not him. Liam is gone. Dead, dead, dead.
Swallowing hard, she collects herself. It's then she notices another, slighter figure behind Seth. It's Caleb, Bea's boyfriend. But no Bea. She asks Jo, "Where's Bea?"
"She canceled." Jo's voice pitches higher. "I told you, didn't I?"
"No," Hana says tightly. "When did this happen?"
"Last week. Something came up with work, I think. A trip to the U.S." Bea canceled. It shouldn't be a surprise. She's always been a workaholic, but the past few years had taken it to another level.
"So she sent Caleb instead. A placeholder."
Jo shrugs. "It'll be good to get to know him."
"You didn't want to rearrange it for when Bea could come?"
"No. Too late, and besides, we need this, Han." There's a look of quiet determination on her face. "To reconnect." Before Hana can reply, Jo starts walking up the jetty, long, loping strides. "I'll go and meet them." But as she walks past Hana, Jo knocks over her own backpack, balanced on her case. Unzipped, the contents immediately scatter: hairbrush, diary, a purse. A half-empty bottle of water careers across the jetty. "Shit . . ." Jo grabs it, clumsily shoving everything back in before resuming her jog to Seth.
Hana's about to follow when she realizes that Jo's missed something: a crumpled piece of paper. Bending down, she picks it up. Her eyes skitter across the page.
It says Hana, then three small sentences all the same, but the first two crossed out, and started again.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
When Elin reaches the apartment, sweat is pouring off her, a damp ring marking the neck of her tank top a deeper shade of blue. Her skin is burning, not from the exercise but the conversation she'd had with Anna walking back up the hill. They'd exchanged small talk, but Elin knew the real reason for her call. Steed had been in touch. Told Anna he'd seen Elin.