Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Paula Brackston’s new novel Secrets of the Chocolate House, the second in the Found Things series
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Treat yourself to a glass of wine this evening and this excerpt from Secrets of the Chocolate House, the second novel in Paula Brackston’s bewitching Found Things series!
About the book
New York Times bestselling author Paula Brackston’s The Little Shop of Found Things was called ‘a page-turner that will no doubt leave readers eager for future series instalments’ (Publishers Weekly). Now, Brackston returns to the Found Things series with its sequel, Secrets of the Chocolate House.
After her adventures in the seventeenth century, Xanthe does her best to settle back into the rhythm of life in Marlborough. She tells herself she must forget about Samuel and leave him in the past where he belongs. With the help of her new friends, she does her best to move on, focusing instead on the success of her and Flora’s antique shop.
But there are still things waiting to be found, still injustices needing to be put right, still voices whispering to Xanthe from long ago about secrets wanting to be shared.
While looking for new stock for the shop, Xanthe hears the song of a copper chocolate pot. Soon after, she has an upsetting vision of Samuel in great danger, compelling her to make another journey to the past.
This time she’ll meet her most dangerous adversary. This time her ability to travel to the past will be tested. This time she will discover her true destiny. Will that destiny allow her to return home? And will she be able to save Samuel when his own fate seems to be sealed?
Read the excerpt:
From her viewing point at the top of the hill, the landscape of Wiltshire fell away into the hazy distance of the cooling autumn afternoon. Xanthe shielded her eyes against the lowering sun, a breeze disturbing her golden, spiral curls. The hills and slopes of the countryside were flattened by her lofty perspective, the distant villages and farmhouses appearing impossibly tiny, as if they could never hold real people. As she listened to the whirring call of the curlew, the rising notes of its distinctive song seemed to sound an alarm, a warning against the apparent peacefulness of the setting. For secrets hid among the long shadows of the dwindling day, in the dark copses atop the stout hills, within the stone walls of the old farmhouses, beneath the flagstoned floors of the ancient churches. And secrets were anchored to their hiding places only with the steadfastness of trust and the weight of danger.
* * *
She breathed in the scents of the wiry grass and gorse of the hill, letting her eyes focus on the far distance of the vista before her. It was not hard to imagine the view as it would have been four centuries earlier. Little change had taken place. The settlement boundaries had crept outward. Here and there a minor industrial estate sat unobtrusively, quietly industrious. If she listened hard she could discern the swoosh and rumble of traffic on the main road that crossed the valley, but there were no motorways here. No cities. Small communities inhabited the ancient landscape, all concerned with families, with survival, with their own intimate futures and worries. What was harder to imagine were the invisible veins of energy that crisscrossed the verdant scenery, like so many electricity cables, buried deep. But ley lines were infinitely more powerful, their influence stretching not only across the miles, but over centuries. Xanthe knew now how to look for them. She found a church spire off to her left in the east, and then, narrowing her eyes, turned to another, set in a village on the river. Another half turn to the west and she found an ancient burial site marked by a treeless mound. The line would cut through these potent points on the map of human habitation, and in turn be bisected by another line, drawn between two further points of power, and two more beyond that, and so on and so on, crosshatching the whole of the countryside, a network of energy, a web of timeless connection. Xanthe knew only too well the transformative strength of that energy in certain places. Places such as the old blind house at the bottom of the garden behind The Little Shop of Found Things. Not for the first time, she wondered how different things might have been had she and her mother chosen a different town in which to start their antiques business.
The chalk horse drawing Xanthe was standing next to was so large that had she been careless enough to step onto it, her Dr Martens would not have covered even one of its mighty hooves. The scale of the drawing, so artfully cut into the green turf, revealing the bright whiteness of the chalk below, always impressed her. The people who had taken the decision to carve the hill figure, hundreds of years before she came to live in Wiltshire, could not have known how long it would stand sentinel over the landscape. Xanthe found it heartening that the horse had survived weather, farming, battles, and the march of time itself to stand proud and steady all those long, restless years. It was a source of calm for her, so that she had come to enjoy visiting it, seeking out solitude and peace high above the county plains, whenever life’s events felt as if they were getting the better of her.
She pulled her old tweed jacket tighter around her and sat on the wiry grass, dropping her hand to run her fingers over the compacted chalk of the great horse’s noble head. She thought about how much had happened to her in the past few short months. Of how much she had come to understand things that only a short time ago she would have thought impossible. Even with everything so fresh in her mind it was still hard, at times, to believe it had all been real. To make sense of the fact that, with the help of the silver chatelaine, she had travelled back in time to 1605. That she had saved Alice. That she had met Samuel.
Getting to her feet again, she took a deep breath of the bracingly cool air. There was no point torturing herself with what might have been. With what she had glimpsed, felt, and lost. She had come to accept that she and Samuel could never be together. He inhabited his time, his world, and she hers. What she had felt for him, and he for her, she believed to be real, but she knew those feelings had been heightened by the danger surrounding the circumstances in which they had met. Magnified by that fact she had been so reluctant to acknowledge: that they would forever be separated by the centuries. This was where, and more important when, her own life belonged. She had people who needed her and cared for her here. And there was work to be done. If she and her mother were to make a success of their new business, Xanthe had to focus all her energies on it. Their financial difficulties were far from over, and Flora’s health was unreliable at best. This was not the time to be distant. They were a team, she and her mother. That had to be her priority now. She would immerse herself in her work and turn her back on memories of the past. She said a silent goodbye to the great horse and followed the path back to the parking place where her cherished black London cab sat waiting for her. It was still her most treasured possession; a memento of her city life, and a boon when scouring the country for antiques.
By the time Xanthe arrived back at the shop the day had fallen into twilight and the little town of Marlborough was enveloped in a heavy fog. She shivered as she put the closed sign on the shop door and called out to Flora.
“Mum? I’m home. I’m going to lock up. Where are you?”
The sound of crutches on the tiled floor of the hallway to the workshop gave her mother away. Her arthritis might have made them a necessary part of her mobility, but that didn’t mean she moved slowly.
“I was just putting the finishing touches to another mirror frame,” she said as she hurried back into the shop. Her fine, fluffy hair was kept off her face by what Xanthe suspected was a polishing rag, rather than a scarf, but still Flora looked appealing, her English rose skin and deep-set eyes maturing kindly. Being in her fifties suited her.
“Leaving the stock at the mercy of shoplifters?” Xanthe smiled as she spoke, but there was a seriousness to her words. They had been warned about a spate of light-fingered browsers in the town recently.
Flora shook her head. “No one gets through the shop door without that old bell letting me know.”
Xanthe thought guiltily about how many times she had done just that, sneaking in and out of the house so that her mother wouldn’t know she had been there. Covering her tracks. Protecting lies. Keeping secrets. “I expect that’s why Mr Morris never got rid of it,” she said.
“Well, if he used to restore things like I do he’d have needed it. I can’t be in two places at once, love, and when you decide to go off on one of your walks …”
“Sorry, Mum. Just needed a bit of air. Clear my head.”
“I’m teasing. Doesn’t take two of us to man this place, not all the time. What does need your attention, on the other hand, is the stock. Or rather the lack of it.”
“Christmas may seem ages off, but we can’t afford to miss the trade. People start shopping for gifts earlier and earlier these days. And if the things we find need some work doing …”
“OK, you’re right. I should be out scouting for more stuff.”
“If we don’t have it we can’t sell it.” She paused, her face more serious for a moment. “We need these few weeks to be a success. Your father is still dragging his heels when it comes to agreeing to the divorce settlement.”
“Still no news?”
Flora shook her head. “Why would he be in a hurry? He’s got the family home and the income from an established business.”
“Not to mention whatever his new woman brings to the party.”
Flora tutted. “No use relying on any progress this side of the New Year. We just have to focus on finding treasures and making sales. And we have to prepare for our first Christmas in our new home! Nearly December and not so much as a pudding stirred.”
The moment of tension passed as Flora gave way to her irrepressible love of the festive season. Xanthe made a mental note to make sure this would be a happy one, for both of them.
“Oh, and I want to get working on that lovely pine dresser we found in Devizes last week. We need to find a van from somewhere so we can collect it.”
“No way that was going to fit in my taxi.”
“Why don’t you ask Liam if he knows where we can get one from?”
As always the idea of seeing Liam brought with it a tangle of feelings. He had already proved himself to be a good friend, had helped her when she had needed him. And it wasn’t as if he was being pushy. But still it was clear his interest in her went beyond friendship. What he didn’t know, what he couldn’t know, was that Xanthe’s heart was still bruised after having to leave Samuel.
She realized her mother was looking at her, waiting for an answer.
“Sure, Mum. I’ll call him.”
“Oh, look.” Flora waved one of her crutches at the window. “No need. You can ask him now.”
Liam was standing outside. He was wearing his favourite old, soft, leather jacket and had his hands deep in his pockets against the cold. His stubble, Xanthe noticed, had passed just beyond what was fashionable into something a little more rugged, yet still he was dangerously good-looking. He gave a rueful smile, his light blue eyes crinkling at the corners. Xanthe opened the door.
“I was passing …” He grinned.
“Down a cul de sac?”
“I like to take in the sights …”
“In this fog?”
“For heaven’s sake, Xanthe, let the poor boy in and shut the door. It’s chilly enough in here as it is. We were just talking about you, Liam.”
“Oh?” He looked at Xanthe, who hurried to explain, the expression of hope on his face unnerving her.
“We need a van. To pick up a dresser.”
“A lovely piece,” said Flora. “We found it at an auction in Devizes.”
“Mum wants to work her magic on it with paint.”
“Do you have a van?” Flora asked Liam.
“No, but I know a man who does,” he said.
“Excellent.” Flora turned and stick-stepped her way toward the hall. “I was just about to muster up an early supper. Why don’t you join us and we can make plans?”
“Oh, well …” Liam hesitated for form’s sake, but Xanthe could see how keen he was to accept the invitation. “That’d be great,” he said at last.
“Brave man,” she muttered to him as they trooped upstairs to the little kitchen on the first floor. Her mother’s singular approach to cooking was not for the fainthearted, and Liam had already chewed through one of her lunches, so he knew what he was letting himself in for.
In the few busy months since buying the property, Xanthe and Flora had transformed the dusty, cluttered shop into a wonderful, light-filled space, stocked with gorgeous things. The living quarters, however, had not received the same attention. There were still packing cases in every room and the sitting room was mostly given over to being an office, apart from the green velvet sofa on which they flopped when time allowed. Nothing had been repainted, and the floors remained covered in nasty carpet or cracked linoleum. In the kitchen, plates and general paraphernalia sat about in stacks and heaps waiting to be found homes.
“Find yourself a seat,” said Flora, opening the fridge. She had given up apologizing for the mess. Xanthe suspected she no longer noticed it. It was only when visitors called that she herself saw their home with fresh eyes and felt a little embarrassed.
“We are going to redecorate up here,” she said. “Eventually.”
“Really? Can’t think why,” said Liam, moving a stack of Antique Trader magazines off a ladder-backed, pale pine chair. Xanthe recalled his own flat and realized that interior design, or the lack of it, was hardly a priority for him. He’d far more likely spend his time and money on his beloved classic cars. Just as she and her mother would rather be restoring a Georgian table, or reframing a set of Victorian prints, or repairing a crucial chip in a piece of powder blue Wedgwood china. She cleared some space on the old kitchen table and fetched bottled beers from the fridge.
“The dresser’s a big one,” she told Liam, handing him a bottle opener. “The base is over eight foot, three cupboards, and the top half has glass doors. Though we may have to abandon those.”
“Nonsense,” said Flora. “I’ve got the perfect set of hinges we can use.”
“My mate’s van will handle it, no problem.” Liam paused to take a swig of his beer. “I’ll text him. See when we can have it.”
“You don’t need to abandon the workshop; I can drive it,” said Xanthe, taking a packet of spicy noodles from her mother and putting them back in the cupboard, selecting rice instead.
“Course you can,” Liam agreed, “but you are going to need help lifting the dresser in and out of it, aren’t you?” He had about him such an easy charm it was impossible not to feel a little better for simply being in his company.
Xanthe smiled at him and nodded. She admired his patience. Some men would have given up on her by now. Would have realized she wasn’t looking for a relationship, taken the many hints she had dropped, and looked elsewhere. But not Liam. He was prepared to wait, and while he waited, to be a good friend. She couldn’t help liking him for that. And their shared love of music and performing gave them a safe common ground too. He was a good lead guitarist. Better than good, in fact. She remembered the first time she had heard his band play at The Feathers, and the first time she herself had sung there. It was good to have a friend who understood what it felt like to stand up in front of a crowd, to make yourself so vulnerable, to give of yourself in that particular way.
Liam was an undemanding guest, and soon they were all seated at the table, a stub of a candle found for an orphan silver candlestick, more beers, and bowls of rice with chopped-up frankfurters, spring onions, tomatoes, and a handful of sultanas Flora had flung in while Xanthe’s back was turned.
“Xanthe’s singing in The Feathers again the week after next,” she told Liam. “You will come along and support her, won’t you?”
“Try and stop me. Looking forward to it. Harley says takings go up every time you sing there, Xanthe. He’s always telling people about how brilliantly you sing. What’s the word he uses?”
“Stop, you’re making me blush.”
“Stupendous, that’s it. He tells everyone you’re stupendous!”
“He’s a good publican. He’s good at selling his events,” Xanthe said with a shrug. In truth, she was, at last, enjoying her singing again, welcoming the chance to perform, and to earn some money of her own. She had intended to make herself choose new songs. Singing the ones that were of that distant time – Samuel’s time –only made her melancholy. What was the point in wallowing? And yet, she still felt drawn to the melodies and sentiments of that era. Perhaps singing those ballads and love songs that Samuel would have known, just for a little longer, would help her ease away from him. Perhaps it was a way to prove to herself that she had accepted that she was never going back. The adventure was over. To return to him made no sense. It was too dangerous, and there was, ironically, no future in it for them. She had to focus on home, on work, on her singing. It was the right thing to do.
Liam interrupted her thoughts, checking a text on his phone. “Right, we can have the van on Thursday. That suit you?”
Flora answered for her, adding a liberal amount of brown sauce to her supper as she spoke. “Perfect. We’ve got a house clearance to do at Laybrook first thing tomorrow. I want to be back here by eleven at the latest so we don’t have to leave the shop shut too long.”
Xanthe nodded. “I took that booking. A lady who lived in the village all her life. The nephew is dealing with her estate. He said there’s nothing large, as the family have taken the major pieces of furniture. Mostly paintings, china, rugs, some glassware.”
Liam frowned. “Don’t you find it creepy, sifting through a whole lot of stuff that belonged to someone who just died? Sort of ghoulish?”
“No,” Xanthe said. “It’s fascinating. We get a unique glimpse into someone’s life through the things they chose to keep close to them. It’s very revealing. And it’s a privilege.”
“Not to mention a treasure hunt,” said Flora. “And Xanthe is always on the lookout for something that sings to her, aren’t you, love?”
Liam leaned forward, gesticulating with his fork. “Your daughter has been very cagey about her special talent, Mrs. Westlake. Plays it down every time I try to ask her about it.”
Xanthe helped herself to another beer. It wasn’t a secret, the fact that some of the antiques they found spoke to her, giving her glimpses of their past, but it wasn’t easy to talk about it without her feeling she must come across as a little bit bonkers. “Yes, well, I might find something special, I might not. Can’t know until I get there. More rice, anyone?”
She let the subject drop, but privately she could not help being excited at the prospect of this kind of house clearance. By all accounts the old lady’s house was something special in itself, and the village had a reputation for being one of the prettiest and best preserved in Wiltshire. They were almost certain to find some interesting and beautiful things for the shop, and that was what mattered. She told herself firmly that it might even be for the best if nothing in particular sang to her. No more mysteries. No more traveling back through time. She had to root herself in the here and now.