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The Retreat: A Novel

The Retreat: A Novel

by Sarah Pearse

Narrated by Elizabeth Knowelden

Unabridged — 10 hours, 36 minutes

Sarah Pearse

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Overview

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Sanatorium, a Reese's Book Club pick, here, Detective Elin Warner uncovers the truth behind the suspicious deaths on a stunning island getaway

They couldn't wait to stay here.

An idyllic wellness retreat has opened on an island off the English coast, promising rest and relaxation-but the island itself, known locally as Reaper's Rock, has a dark past. Once the playground of a serial killer, it's rumored to be cursed.

But now they can't leave.

A young woman is found dead below the yoga pavilion in what seems to be a tragic fall. But Detective Elin Warner soon learns the victim wasn't a guest-she wasn't meant to be on the island at all.
 
And they would do anything to escape.
 
The longer Elin stays, the more secrets she uncovers. And when someone else drowns in a diving incident, Elin begins to suspect that there's nothing accidental about these deaths. But why would someone target the guests at this luxury resort? Elin must find the killer-before the island's history starts to repeat itself.
 
Most are here to recharge and refresh. But someone's here for revenge. . . .


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

05/02/2022

Bestseller Pearse’s so-so sequel to 2021’s The Sanatorium takes British police detective Elin Warner to an isolated luxury resort off the coast of Devon, a setting much like the first book’s Swiss hotel. Elin used to investigate major crimes, but after she suffered a breakdown because she couldn’t catch the man who killed two young girls, she was assigned to less significant duties. Now, she’s dispatched to Cary Island, the site of a wellness retreat, where one of the guests has fallen to her death. The fatality appears to be an accident, with the victim’s last moments captured on video and no indication that anyone pushed her. But after another guest’s body surfaces, with ample evidence of foul play, Elin probes whether the deaths are related and whether they’re connected to the island’s grim history, which includes the slaughter of a group of teenagers on a school outing 20 years earlier. The plot twists and characters are unremarkable, as is the familiar story of a traumatized police officer getting an opportunity for redemption by catching a killer. Hopefully, Pearse will broaden her repertoire next time. Agent: Charlotte Seymour, Andrew Nurnberg Assoc. (July)

From the Publisher

Praise for The Retreat:

“A riveting, twisty page-turner . . . Readers of Pearse’s earlier book or Ruth Ware’s suspense novels will be hard-pressed to put down this atmospheric, sometimes creepy novel.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“Full of foreboding and high-stakes tension, Sarah Pearse's latest is a page-turner. The past doesn't stay buried for long, at sea or on land, and what comes to the surface is both shocking and chilling.”
Nita Prose, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Maid

“Pearse goes from strength to strength in The Retreat. The suspense inexorably builds to a stunning climax. An added treat is the return of Elin Warner, who is a fascinating character one can only root for.”
—David Baldacci, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dream Town

“If Sarah Pearse’s sensational debut The Sanatorium summoned the dangerous spirits of Gothic storytellers past, her new novel The Retreat recalls the one-by-one-by-one nerve-shredding of Agatha Christie at her darkest. Pearse is one of those rare contemporary writers—alongside Ruth Ware, Lucy Foley, and Alice Feeney—both reviving and refreshing the traditions of mystery fiction. A fresh, daring, irresistible thriller.”
A. J. Finn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in the Window

“Sarah Pearse has done it again! The Retreat is a heart-pounding, adrenaline-soaked thrill ride, packed with well-drawn characters, settings so real you could touch them, and cliffhangers and twists as belly-flipping as a dive off the fictional island's Reaper's Rock. Block off your schedule, because once you start reading, you won't be able to stop.”
—Andrea Bartz, New York Times bestselling author of We Were Never Here

“Sarah Pearse has expertly crafted another eerie, atmospheric thriller that will have you looking over your shoulder as you read. A wonderfully chilling story of grief, revenge, and family secrets. An absorbing escape!”
—Ashley Audrain, New York Times bestselling author of The Push

“Deliciously paced with rich worldbuilding, The Retreat teems with questionable motives, unspoken frustrations, and hair-raising cliffhangers. Pearse's latest thriller is a reminder that beneath the glimmering exterior of the places and people we love, vengeance often lurks. I absolutely could not put this book down!”
—Sarah Penner, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Apothecary

“Detective Elin Warner is back in another atmospheric thriller. Pearse cleverly develops intrigue and ramps up the tension relentlessly as the stakes become deadly. Fans of The Sanatorium will love it.”
Gilly Macmillan, New York Times bestselling author of The Long Weekend

“Dazzling and inventive, like an Agatha Christie mystery split open by a heatwave. Sarah Pearse won readers' hearts with The Sanatorium, and The Retreat is every bit as transporting, with another unforgettable setting and a complex web of secrets. I didn't want it to end.”
Flynn Berry, New York Times bestselling author of Northern Spy

“Be careful who you root for, as no character is safe in Sarah Pearse’s new novel The Retreat. In the spirit of a true thriller, the tension is taut and the suspense is real as the pace builds to a heart-stopping finale. A triumphant second novel, which is no mean feat.”
—Sandie Jones, New York Times bestselling author of The Other Woman

“A story as unsettling as the island that serves as its setting. Don't trust anyone at The Retreat.”
—Stacy Willingham, New York Times bestselling author of A Flicker in the Dark

“Unsettling, unnerving and unforgettable. The Retreat is the kind of creepy, atmospheric thriller that burrows deep beneath your skin until the chilling climax.”
Chris Whitaker, New York Times bestselling author of We Begin at the End

“With The Retreat, Sarah Pearse confirms her spot as a world-class thriller writer. Superb.”
—Steve Cavanagh, author of Thirteen

“Just like The Sanatorium, The Retreat tells a twisty, chilling and tense tale in a location so vividly imagined, you feel like you’re there too, among the guests. Long may Sarah Pearse continue to ruin the idea of luxury-resort travel for us all…”
Catherine Ryan Howard, international bestselling author of The Nothing Man

“Atmospheric and richly described, with surprises around every corner. From the terrifying prologue to the chilling final twist, Pearse has created another highly creepy thriller!”
—Allie Reynolds, author of Shiver

“I absolutely loved it. So many threads, more red herrings than a North Sea fishing trawler, cliffhangers galore and my absolute favoriteshort, snappy chapters. It's a riveting, twisty turny read, a classic whodunnit with a killer final twist.”
—John Marrs, bestselling author of The One


Praise for The Sanatorium:

“CHILLING! The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse is an eerie, atmospheric novel that had me completely on the edge of my seat. Let’s set the mood. . . You’re in a remote location—at a hotel—and there’s a snowstorm. The winds are howling, the snow is pelting in every direction, there’s a missing person, and a dead body shows up!” 
—Reese Witherspoon

“Creepy, deeply claustrophobic, mind-numbing, teasing, twists and turns galore, this book is a towering example of a masterful hand at work. If only Hitchcock were still around to film it.”
—David Baldacci

“When guests at a five-star resort in the Alps disappear mid-blizzard, vacation’s over for detective Elin Warner. It’s The Shining but with a full house.”
—People

“I devoured this in one sitting.” 
—Parade

“I absolutely loved The Sanatorium—it gave me all the wintry thrills and chills. It was just wonderful.”
—Lucy Foley, New York Times bestselling author of The Guest List

The Sanatorium is an absolutely splendid gothic thriller—gracious in its nods to the classic locked-room mystery, yet bold enough to burst out of that room through the window. Pearse writes prose as fresh and crisp as Swiss Alp powder, and her characters fascinate even as their numbers dwindle.”
—A. J. Finn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in the Window

“Pearse’s The Sanatorium will keep you checking over your shoulder. This spine-tingling, atmospheric thriller has it all: an eerie alpine setting, sharp prose, and twists you’ll never see coming. A must-read.”
—Richard Osman, international bestselling author of The Thursday Murder Club

Sarah Pearse’s The Sanatorium is a knockout. Mesmerizing, lyrical prose contrasts starkly with the dark story events in this debut thriller set at a remote luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps. Tense, claustrophobic, with a horrific connection between past and present that is utterly unpredictable—I loved this book!” 
—Karen Dionne, #1 international bestselling author of The Wicked Sister

“It's hard to believe this is a debut novel, given how masterfully Sarah Pearse writes. The setting is starkly chilling, the characters are smart and vulnerable, and as you turn the pages, the slow creep of claustrophobia sets in. Highly recommended.”  
—Sarah Pekkanen, #1 New York Times bestselling coauthor of The Wife Between Us

“A mix of whodunnit and psychological thriller with hints of horror, this fine debut. . . is smartly structured and often powerful.”
—The Sunday Times (London)

“Sarah Pearse’s chilling debut is making waves . . . The Sanatorium certainly has an eerie, cinematic appeal... Sinister scene well and truly set, unexplained disappearances commence and dark family dynamics emerge, with quick chapters that keep pages turning. With whispers of The Shining in setting and The Girl on the Train in pace, it . . . will please fans of suspense. Either way, it’s crying out for a screen adaptation and provides a welcome, if unsettling, distraction from current events.”
—Vanity Fair (UK)

“This impressive debut is a twist on the classic locked-room mystery in a wonderfully eerie gothic setting. Its sharp prose builds suspense through a series of twists that will send an alpine chill up your spine, building to an unpredictable finale. This clever, compelling thriller deserves to be a bestseller and marks out Sarah Pearse as one to watch.”
The Sunday Express (London)

“A colorful and tense murder mystery with a chilling (in more ways than one) atmosphere. . . There is a pleasing pressure-cooker feel to proceedings, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None. Pearse uses clever red herrings—secrets, pills, affairs, mental illness—and the stand-off scenes between Elin and the murderer are genuinely scary.”
—The Irish Times

“Slowly the dark secrets hidden in the sinister building emerge from the shadows. There are echoes of Hitchcock and du Maurier, but Pearse has her own distinctive, emotional voice—one to be admired.”
—Daily Mail (London)

“Pearse’s engrossing debut boasts a highly atmospheric setting . . . This dark tale of family dynamics is sure to please suspense fans.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Pearse not only creates believably fallible characters, she also vividly portrays the frigid landscape of Le Sommet buffeted by blizzards, and a chilling epilogue cries out for a sequel. Crime-fiction readers will want to keep an eye on Pearse.”
—Booklist (starred review)

“The perfect claustrophobic setting packed with mystery and edge-of-your-seat tension.” 
—Natasha Preston, New York Times bestselling author of The Cellar

“Dark, suspenseful and downright chilling, Pearse’s debut, The Sanatorium, is a triumph. Vividly set against the backdrop of the Swiss Alps, it had me on the edge of my seat from the first page. Pearse’s writing is sublime. Pearse has a big future ahead of her.”
—Sally Hepworth, bestselling author of The Mother-in-Law

“The Sanatorium is definitely a debut novel to watch out for. What a chilling read! One of the creepiest thrillers I’ve ever read. So atmospheric, clever and compulsive. LOVED it!”
—Claire Douglas, bestselling author of Last Seen Alive

“A superb debut offering an astonishingly creepy and isolated backdrop, great characters, tension and twists. Hugely atmospheric with enough menace to keep you looking over your shoulder!”
—Sam Carrington, bestselling author of I Dare You

“A spine-tingling setting, an unnerving cast of characters and so many incredibly creepy moments . . . this is not one to read before bed!”
—Elizabeth Kay, author of Seven Lies

“An incredible debut . . . Clever, creepy and utterly compelling.”
—Samantha King, author of The Perfect Family

“A superbly atmospheric crime debut. Deliciously creepy and clever, it’s everything you could want in a thriller. Very highly recommended!”
—Simon Lelic, author of The Search Party

“An atmospheric thriller with the perfect claustrophobic setting. This is equal parts creepy, suspenseful and gruesome—everything you could want in a novel for this genre. This is a sure-fire hit guaranteed to keep you seeing shadows in the snow on those freezing winter nights. I loved it.” 
—C.J. Skuse, author of Sweetpea

“I loved it—such a wonderful sense of location, and the tension is knife edge-sharp.” 
—Michelle Adams, author of If You Knew My Sister

Library Journal

★ 06/01/2022

Pearse follows the best-selling first "Elin Warner" novel The Sanatorium with a riveting, twisty page-turner. Memories of the murders at Reaper's Rock, a small island off England's coast, still linger. But, 20 years later, it's the site of a luxury eco-resort. When the guests find a body on the beach, Detective Sergeant Elin Warner is sent to the island. After a recent case triggered panic attacks, Elin isn't sure she's ready to run an investigation again. It appears the young woman's death, a fall over a banister, was an accident, but she wasn't supposed to be on the island, and something about her death tweaks Elin's suspicion. When two more people die, Elin begins to wonder if the stories of a curse on the island might be true. The murders pile up, and Elin and Police Constable Steed dig into the island's history of murder and violence, looking for connections to the current deaths. VERDICT Readers of Pearse's earlier book or Ruth Ware's suspense novels will be hard-pressed to put down this atmospheric, sometimes creepy novel.—Lesa Holstine

Kirkus Reviews

2022-05-25
A woman’s death at a luxury resort off the coast of England leads to fears a serial killer has returned.

This is the second installment of Pearse’s Det. Elin Warner series, and while you can read the novel as a stand-alone, familiarity with Elin’s background would be helpful to understanding her character’s emotional arc. The case into which Elin is drawn this time takes place at a luxury resort on an island off the coast of England, an idyllic setting with a dark past and the foreboding nickname Reaper’s Rock. Despite the fine dining, upscale accommodations, and amenities like yoga and kayaking, an old series of murders haunts the island, now rumored to be cursed. When a woman dies falling from a balcony, Elin and her partner, DC Steed, set out to investigate what they think is an accident. But then another guest linked to the first victim drowns, and Elin begins to believe the deaths are connected and that someone is targeting a family gathered at the resort for a vacation. Gradually, secrets and ties to the island’s past are revealed. The plot is solidly grounded in thriller tradition, but at times Elin doesn’t seem to act like a real detective. She’s still shaken by previous events in her life, but would she really be so quick to invite her boyfriend, who designed the resort, to join her on the island while she’s working the investigation? And why is she so quick to fall prey to the foreboding atmosphere? Pearse sets up a classic premise but too often relies on coincidence to push the plot forward, and the threat of a storm brewing as the case draws to a close feels like a cliché.

Coincidence and cliché mar this traditional detective thriller.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940176197488
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 07/19/2022
Edition description: Unabridged

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Read an Excerpt

1

 

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.

 

Of course.

 

2

 

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.

 

3

 

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.

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