Hi and welcome to my stop on this Random Things Blog Tour for The Last Stage! First of all, many thanks to Anne Cater for the invitation and to Orenda Books for the ARC I received many moons ago. If you feel like reading my full review, you can find that here, but today I have something even better: a tiny enticing sliver of this brilliant thriller!
First, lets take a look at the blurb:
At the peak of her career as lead singer of a legendary 1980s indie band, Meredith Vincent was driven off the international stage by a horrific incident. Now she lives incognito in a cottage on the grounds of Minstead House, an old stately home, whilst working in the gift shop. Her past is behind her and she enjoys her new life.
But a series of inexplicable and unsettling incidents have started to happen around her – broken china, vandalised gardens… And when a body is found in the gardens of Minstead House, Meredith realises that someone is watching, someone who knows who she is and who wants to destroy her…
A dark, riveting and chilling psychological thriller, The Final Stage is a study of secrets and obsessions, where innocent acts can have the most terrifying consequences.
Secrets and obsessions, what’s not to love, right?! I’m telling you, you need this book, but let’s start with this extract from the start of The Last Stage, when things are still seemingly calm and peaceful…
Always look at what you have, she reminded herself, not what you’re missing. Although that was more difficult after three mugs of whisky. Two decades ago, when her band won a BRIT Award for their third million-selling single, she’d have been as horrified as Iain had sounded in that phone call last year to know that this was where she would end up. And now she had talked herself into teariness over a rejection, after four dates, by a guy in his fifties who wore bicycle clips and played bridge.
But she knew that Gary wasn’t the real reason for her distress.
‘You aren’t remotely ugly,’ Ralph finally said, about two minutes past appropriate.
‘I mean, I think I’ve lost my looks since I was younger, but I’d never have said I was ugly.’ Meredith forgot that Gary actually hadn’t ever used that word. ‘My eyes are too close together, I’m too old and I have too many crow’s feet, but really?’
‘I’m sure it’s nothing to do with that. You’re a stunner, even for a woman your age. Especially for a woman your age. Maybe you’ve got bad breath? Paula’s always telling me that I have.’
‘That’s not particularly helpful,’ she said grumpily.
‘Come here, I’ll check. I’m your friend. I’m allowed to tell you these things.’
She started to laugh as Ralph hauled himself out of his chair and lumbered towards her, steadying himself on the edge of his desk on the way.
‘No! Go away!’
He crouched down with difficulty and gently took her chin in his hand, laughing too. ‘Breathe!’ he commanded.
‘Stop it!’ She wriggled away, feeling that moment of euphoric drunkenness where life seems suspended in happiness, like an insect in amber.
Ralph always cheered her up. When the three of them got together on the wine, horseplay and a lot of giggling weren’t unusual. Ralph and Paula’s son, Jackson, now twenty, had witnessed this a couple of times, much to his disgust and opprobrium. This, however, was the first time it had happened without Paula there to be the third corner of the triangle.
Ralph was still squatting at her feet. She had always thought what nice eyes he had – kind, green, and surprisingly clear for a man of his age and prodigious alcohol intake. And despite the undertone of JD, he smelled amazing.
He stopped chuckling and put his palm heavily on her knee as if to haul himself back up. Then he paused. ‘For what it’s worth, Meredith, I think you’re gorgeous. Honestly. I always have.’
‘Thanks,’ she said, smiling. It was the tender affection in Ralph’s voice that made her lean slowly towards him and rest her cheek on the side of his striped shirt. His shoulder felt reassuringly meaty and warm, and she felt his arms encircle her, his chin digging gently into her neck. At that moment he felt like a dad, and her instant response wasn’t remotely sexual.
‘You smell fantastic,’ she muttered, just stating a fact, but he must have construed it in a different way because he pulled away and kissed her on the lips, so lightly at first that she saw it only as a gesture of affection. She responded… …
And that was the point of no return.
There was always a point of no return.
A minute later they were kissing, properly, and it was lovely. He no longer remotely felt like her dad. He was a really good kisser, just the right amount of pressure and tongue action, and his hands began to roam around her body, rubbing her back at first, then along her thighs, and up over her breasts, where they stayed, squeezing gently until she felt a corresponding thrill between her legs. She wanted to stop but found herself pressing closer to him, sliding out of the chair and onto her knees so that their torsos were pressed tightly together.
‘I want you,’ he murmured, and in the heat of the moment it didn’t seem ridiculous or at all inappropriate. She just nodded, kissing him again. ‘I always have. Can we go back to the cottage?’
Meredith hesitated, reality creeping in for a moment. She didn’t want to sleep with Ralph in her bed or on her sofa. Somehow that felt worse than anything that happened here. Like calories in food not counting when it was eaten from someone else’s plate.
‘I can’t wait that long. And someone might see us walking over there,’ she said. ‘One of the gardeners might be working late.’
‘Do you want to?’ His hand was inside her bra, rolling her nipple between his fingers.
She nodded again.
‘You know what else I’ve always wanted to do,’ he whispered.
‘Have sex in the Gilt Room.’
‘Ralph! You dirty bugger. With me, or just anybody?’ She couldn’t help laughing. The Gilt Room was as it sounded – the house’s formal drawing room on the ground floor, a chandelier the size of a baby elephant in the centre and the walls and ceilings entirely covered in ornate gold leaf. ‘There’s CCTV in there; we can’t.’
‘Let’s go and have a look,’ he said, dragging her to her feet and handing her the bottle of Jack. ‘With you, of course, in answer to your question,’ he added, as Meredith took a swig, grinning at his answer. They had dispensed with the formality of mugs.
‘Surely you know where all the CCTV is? You’re estates manager!’ she reminded him, feeling naughty and rebellious. ‘And if there is a camera in there, deal’s off.’
Meredith was fairly sure there would be a camera. The room was stuffed with valuable vases, oil paintings and objets d’art. But as Ralph said, they didn’t have CCTV in every room. She started visualising where they might do it. On the rug? Best not on the rickety old brocade sofa; that was an original piece from when Lady Wilmington lived here. That would be hard to explain, if they broke it.
They adjusted their clothing and Ralph finished the bottle, putting it back in his desk drawer, and then they walked down the back stairs together from the converted servants’ quarters. He squeezed Meredith’s arse on the way. ‘No cameras down here,’ he said cheerfully.
She thought later that it was strange she hadn’t come to her senses in the brief hiatus, while they tried, like teenagers, to find somewhere exciting and forbidden to shag. But, she supposed, she was so aroused by then that not doing it didn’t feel like an option anymore.
They reached the ground floor and cautiously emerged through the Staff Only door into the public areas of the house. It was still and quiet.
‘Where’s Leonard?’ she whispered.
‘His shift doesn’t start till nine-thirty,’ Ralph whispered back.
‘And George is over at the stables this evening. He told me earlier he was going to go and change all the lightbulbs in there because Fred’s on holiday. I think we’re alone.’
Had he planned this? Meredith doubted it. He was too pissed. But he was right about Fred the handyman being on holiday.
He did seem very aware of the timings … but she soon stopped thinking about it. They were in the long, dark corridor leading to the Gilt Room, four vast six-foot-tall Chinese vases acting as sentries as they passed by.
‘Dammit, look,’ Ralph said, jerking his head up towards the doorway. The small shiny black dome was affixed to the ornate ceiling just inside the room; a CCTV camera. ‘Kind of spoils it, doesn’t it?’
Meredith didn’t know if he was talking about the architecture or the moment.
‘Follow me,’ he added. ‘I have a plan B.’ She laughed and did as he said. This was crazy, but it was fun.
Will they go ahead with plan B, or won’t they, and when will that body mentioned in the blurb show up? Find out now: The Last Stage can be bought as an eBook directly from Orenda Books or in every format from retailers such as Amazon.
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