The eleventh entry of our Top 20 Undiscovered Shortlist is A Dark Horse by Annette Frampton.
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Over to Annette Frampton…
A DARK HORSE (BLURB)
Sharon thought she had a perfect marriage with lovable, dependable Dan, but from the moment ultra-chic, ultra-confident Ariel turns up at their tiny cottage on Halloween, instantly everything changes. Throwing herself into her work at the village pub, The Queens Arms, seems a good idea to blot out what’s going on, only to backfire when she hears her job too is on the line. But she thinks she’s really losing her mind when those around her not only seem to know who Ariel is, but are also intent on keeping it a secret. Could Ariel be the key that quite literally opens the can of worms some had hoped would never be spilled again?
And Dan? He’s a bit of a dark horse for sure, although after being persuaded into a disastrous day horse-riding with her mother in law, Sharon is going to make sure that horses of any colour are staying well clear of her carefully thought out new life-plan. It’s not until the stunning ebony racehorse – with a personal mission to bring up the rear in all it’s races – charges into Sharon’s life, that the confusion begins to unravel and recent events start to make some sense.
But is Sharon ready yet to let love find it’s way back into her broken heart?
READ THE FIRST 3000 WORDS OF A DARK HORSE OVER THE CUT
A Dark Horse by Annette Frampton
As soon as I turned into Kissingtree Lane, I knew the music was coming from our cottage. I’d got used to that and luckily so had the neighbours. Dan always said ‘Is there any other way to listen to rock?’
‘Rubbishy old thing.’ I mumbled, heaving at the crumbling, paint-splattered plank that was our front door until it burst open, releasing the volume, hitting me full on and all but flinging me right back onto the lane. Grabbing the door frame to steady myself it took what felt like eternity but was probably mere seconds to acclimatise. I could feel a huge grin spreading across my face. ‘Wow. That’s different.’
But he couldn’t hear me. The rhythm had him completely absorbed. Grinning wasn’t enough, I wanted to laugh. Once I realised that, I couldn’t stop. It exploded. Unladylike, but, hey, this was hilarious.
‘What are you doing?’ I shouted in the gaps between Bono’s wailings. Why was I asking? Duh, it was obvious he was doing press ups. And by sheer fluke, he was actually keeping time to the music. My question wasn’t so much what as where… ‘Umm,’ I waited for another gap. ‘Where are your pants?’ In fact, where were any of his clothes? I tweaked the volume on the Bang & Olufson to a more civilised level before moving to the head end. ’You really didn’t have to do this for me.’
‘Got to…. get….. fit, Shar.’ He puffed, sweat dripping onto the berber. ‘I thought I’d (puff) ‘exercise today…’ (more puff, then wheeze) ‘before I got on with….. (alarming wheeze) ‘my bits and … and…. bobs.’ Manic steel grey eyes met mine while his rear end continued it’s crazy horizontal dance.
Crispy leaves blowing around my legs reminded me the front door was still open. I slammed it hastily. Well, what would the neighbours think? ‘Hey, slow down. Don’t you give yourself a heart attack!’ I spluttered through uncontrollable laughter.
’Village fun run only a few more weeks….’ He was defiantly keeping the rhythm. ‘Fitness needs…. to be built up…. Slooowly.’
‘If you don’t stop right now then I’m going to have a heart attack cos’ this is the funniest thing I’ve seen in ages,’ my face beyond aching, tears tracking rivulets down my cheeks.
He crashed to the carpet, gasping hungrily for air.
‘Oh my God! Are you OK?’
‘Yeah, just give me a minute.’ He struggled for breath. ‘Can you pass me that towel?’
He dragged it roughly over his forehead and through his hair, sweaty strands sticking out at odd angles as he recovered and gave me his ‘me and Johnny Depp could be twins, don’t you know’ look. At least he didn’t actually say it any more. I had to admit the body might be amazing but the hairstyle brought Ken Dodd to mind for me, thought I quickly wiped that vision.
‘I can’t stop yet, Shar. Still got ab crunches to do.’
‘You’re taking this way too seriously.’
‘Mustn’t let the muscles seize up.’ He threw himself onto the carpet with scary determination. Beads of sweat glistened on taut skin over muscles piled on yet more bulging, rippling muscles. Incredibly only ten months ago my husband had been well-podgy Couch Potato Man complete with flabby love handles and jelly-belly paunch. I had to hand it to Dan for sticking to his New Year Resolutions. Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of getting fit. I love the idea of feeling great, looking great, and sitting around all tanned and toned and breathing vitality through every pore. But the reality is it has always stayed just that – an idea. For me, the January fitness craze had a habit of fizzling out when, however many rave reviews the DVD got, after the tenth attempt I still couldn’t get the hang of the manic step back, step sideways, push this way, now that way, being shouted at impossibly high speed by some scarily over-tanned and toned celeb bobbing about on the screen.
I sank into the nearest of the two squashy russet sofas to watch from a more comfortable vantage point.
‘You’re not really going to sit there?’
‘You’re looking good, babe.’ I thought, but never intended for the words to actually come out. Oops. As if his ego needed swelling.
‘I know.’ His cheeky grin making his eyes glisten and knocking years off his actual 41..
‘For goodness sake.’ I grabbed his discarded towel, hurling it at him in a fit of giggles.
‘Look, just let me finish. I’m nearly done.’ He paused for another quick wipe with the towel. ‘Could you put the kettle on? What are you doing home anyway?’
‘Oh, yeah. Thanks for reminding me. I’d better go get them before I forget. By the way….’
‘Umm, that’s the dog’s towel.’
‘No?’ He peered at it.
‘Yeah. Look, it’s smothered in mud where I wiped his paws off this morning.’ I cracked up, ducking as he threw it back at me.
He grinned, hitting the remote. Once more music filled the room.
I breathed in the relative quiet of the kitchen, then grabbed a couple of knives from the kitchen drawer, popping them into my bag. Instantly the back door rattled. I’d barely dipped the handle when in squeezed a flurry of excited spaniel surrounded by a whoosh of ochre leaves and a gush of chilly Autumn air. ‘Ouch!’ Claws like pins scratched through my jeans. ‘Hello, Pringle.’ I said in that excited way only dog owners can without anyone hearing them worrying for their sanity. Then he was off to greet Dan, a mere closed door not going to stop him. I flicked the switch on the kettle just as music flooded the kitchen when the dog finally bounced enough on the door handle to break into the living room.
‘Get off… no… shoo… ‘ I could hear Dan above the thudding beat.
By the time I’d dragged Pringle off and finished making tea, the exercise session was over and the house was silent. Dan was sitting cross-legged on the carpet wearing a fresh-from-the-airing cupboard apricot bath towel wrapped around him sarrong-style.
‘It’s really not fair playing your music that loud, Dan.’ I put down the tray loaded with his n’ hers mugs and the cookie jar.
‘Everyone’s out at work or something down our lane, Shar. Either that or empty weekenders cottages. Louise was going out as I came in and Mrs Potts is stone deaf. Who’s to worry?’ He shrugged.
‘OK, fair enough. I thought for a moment. ‘But what’s with the prancing around naked?’ I giggled.
‘Well you tell me how I’m supposed to train when it’s so hot in here!’
‘I thought training for a run just involved going out running.’
‘Now it’s this close, I need to do some cross-training.’ He winced as he took a glug of too hot tea.
‘You normally like the house toasty.’
‘But it’s way too hot to to do a workout.’
‘It’s got so cold out lately, babe.’ I protested. ‘And if you worked somewhere as cold as I do you’d appreciate it!’ I took a tentative sip.
‘Errr, you work indoors, I work outdoors. I’m not following your logic.’ He took a more delicate sip. ‘Anyway, there’s toasty and there’s living inside a boiler.’
Maybe an Aga and a woodburner was a smidge too much in a cottage you’d struggle to find space to twirl your granny around in. I levered the top off the cookie jar and peered inside in an attempt to change the subject, letting out an involuntary ‘Oooh’.
‘I can’t believe you still get excited about a few biscuits?’ He looked askance.
Immediately I felt guilty and compelled to check if my body had grown to the twenty stone it should be with all the scrummy cookies I regularly threw into it. ‘She keeps bringing them round.’ I shrugged.
‘I wish you wouldn’t encourage her.’
‘Well, I just don’t have your self-control, babe.’ I bit into a chunk of chocolate so exquisite it lit up every pleasure tastebud. It was definitely a perk of living next door to Louise aka The Cookie Queen aka my best friend. She made vast quantities of the most luscious cookies, way more than her kids could munch through, but boy, was I grateful as she deposited all the surplus in our cookie jar.
‘It’s a girl thing. You’re never going to understand, babe.’ Now I was feeling guilty that he was getting tetchy. Then more guilt with every bite scrutinised by Mr Perfect Pants who made a point of never touching a cookie, cake or anything else remotely unhealthy. Whoa, what’s with the guilt thing?
I reached into the jar again. ‘Here, change the habit of a lifetime and have one.’ I picked out a coconut cookie and leaned it against his mug. He picked it up and threw it away as if it would burn his fingers. Pringle’s head shot up from where he’d been sleepily sprawled on the rug, his mouth open, angled just right to catch it.
‘So what are you doing home? I thought it was Ethel’s big day today. You said you were working straight through.’
‘Oh, Ethel sent me to fetch a couple of kitchen knives, I’ve no idea why. But it’s so cold in that place, I needed something to warm me up before I go back in there.’ I cradled my mug, sipping it slowly, enjoying the warmth bringing my fingers back to life and watching the dog now peacefully stretched out in front of the unlit woodburner.
The clock on the wall caught my eye. ‘That can’t be the time! I’d better be getting back. Ethel will be wondering where I’ve got to. She must think I’ve gone into town to buy some.’ I laughed. ‘Can you believe it… a pub with no kitchen knives?’
‘I have no idea why you still work at that ridiculous place. You can do much better, you know.’
‘But I like it. It’s close by. Not much commuting involved. And it’s quirky.’
‘You can say that again.’ He laughed, scrambling to his feet. ‘I’d better be getting back too.’ He dashed upstairs, and even before I’d got my coat back on he was down again, this time clothed in joggers and dragging a tatty grey T-shirt on over his head. A whiff of BO hit my nostrils.
‘Oh, drat…. There’s a few bits and bobs I really wanted to put past you… Meant to go through them at breakfast. Business stuff. You know.’
’Tell me later, babe. You will be coming along to the pub tonight, won’t you?’
‘Oh, Dan, you have to. This is either going to be soooo embarrassing or soooo boring…. Ethel having a Halloween party! I dread to think….. but either way I really want you to be there. We’ll have plenty of time to talk then. Please?’
‘Yeah, course. See you later then. Love you, Shar.’ His breath on my cheek connected into a kiss.
‘Love you too, babe.’
Out on the lane it had happened again. I grabbed a handful and rushed back indoors.
‘Look. Look at this.’ I shook the bunch of little straggly plants over Dan who was now on the sofa lacing up his new workboots.
‘No, no, not nice, they’re out there again. Loads and loads of them. They weren’t there earlier.’
‘Like the other day. Lavenders. Lots and lots of lavenders. About fifty of them. All scattered around outside the front door.’
‘Can you stop showering me with mud.’ He brushed some away. ‘Maybe they’re weeds.’
‘They’re definitely lavenders.’ I sniffed at them. ‘Don’t you think it’s odd?’
‘No, I think it’s probably kids,’ he said dismissively. ‘Probably practising for trick or treat.’
‘Kids don’t buy lavenders to chuck around.’
‘Not buy them…. nick them.’
I thought for a moment. ‘Oh, yeah, you’re probably right. It’s just ..
‘I wish they wouldn’t do it. I hate seeing them like that. Like little dying bodies all over the road.’
‘You’re so dramatic, Shar.’
‘Stop laughing.’ How annoying is it when people laugh when you’re deadly serious? ‘It’s what they look like, OK?’ I brushed the loose mud out of his hair with my other hand.
‘I’ll just move these plants, then I really must get back. You couldn’t do me a favour could you and just pop next door while I deal with these. I texted Louise earlier. Hopefully she’s lending me an outfit for tonight.’
‘Louise? I told you she’s gone out, but she left you a bag over there. Sorry, I completely forgot to tell you.’
‘Oh, fantastic.’ I grabbed the bag and put it by the front door so I wouldn’t forget it. I loved dressing up and it was so rare these days to get the chance, even though I had a suspicion it was just going to be me, Ethel, Tom and Old George the same as any other night, apart from tonight we’d all be wearing silly costumes. Was I really that keen to confirm Old George’s suspicions that I’d make a great witch?
‘You’re not really going to humour the old bat are you?’
‘I hope you mean Ethel and not Louise? Louise would be most upset if she knew you’d called her an old bat.’
‘Very funny. You know what I mean.’
‘Yeah, OK, but I’m under orders to wear ‘somefing propriate’.’ Doing some air hyphens seemed appropriate for me and I managed to shower even more mud around in the process.
‘Do you mind?’
‘Oh, sorry.’ For some reason holding the plants a bit higher seemed to make sense. ‘I don’t know what’s up with her at the moment, but she’s acting a bit weird.’
Dan sniggered. ‘How can you tell? She’s always weird.’
‘Oh, so funny. I should have asked Louise to bring something round for you too, shouldn’t I?’
‘No, you very definitely shouldn’t.’
‘Ethel said you’d have to dress up as a ghoulie or…’
‘A what?’ He looked at me disbelievingly. ‘That confirms it. The woman’s insane.’
‘Ah, come on, she’s OK really. Once you get to know her ways.’ I couldn’t help laughing. He never could seem to ‘get’ her.
‘And her ways have ended up with how many people ever going in her pub?’
‘Mmmm, I know what you mean.’
‘There’s no way I’m dressing up as anything to sit there with those three old duffers.’
I really wished I could be like that. I’d love to just be able to say no.
‘Oh, and she says the instructions are in the bag.’ He carried on.
‘Huh? Oh, OK.’ I peeped inside. Just seemed like a mass of black.
I ducked out onto the lane, scooped up the rest of the limp plants, carrying them carefully through to the back garden. The wind caught the tattered tarp as I pulled it off the big tub and for a second I was completely covered in it. I giggled to myself and fought it off, scrunching it up and wedging it between two heavy pots. Poised trowel in one hand, plants in the other, I froze rigid, immediately letting go the lavenders, throwing most of them up in the air. My hands involuntarily were down rubbing frantically at my jellified knees. ‘Ooh, nooo…’ Call it phobia, whatever, but my imagination was in riot. I could feel them crawling up me. Those grossly slimy, transluscent bodies intertwining, heaving and doing other earthwormy things. They had to be pushed off but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it even though my reasoning knew the worms hadn’t actually left the ground. I didn’t want to see them but I couldn’t focus on anything else.
From inside the house, I heard a squeal. My instincts told me to check out what it was. There was only one option – backing away, slowly from that wriggling, writhing, squirming mass. The two dangling over the edge waving their revolting little bodies around were the final straw. Dragging my eyes away, I caught sight of the tarp. They were on that too. I felt wretchingly sick.
Once I got them to move, my legs couldn’t get me back inside fast enough. Like wheelspins on the patio I burst into the kitchen just as Dan was coming through from the living room.
‘Aargh!’ I was still rubbing frantically at my legs.
‘What on earth….?’ Then recognition dawned on him. ‘Oh, God. Oh, sorry. I forgot to tell you…’
‘Sometimes I could hate you.’
‘Don’t say that word. It’s not funny. You know what it does to me.’
‘Why can’t you have a sensible job? Why are they there?’
He was peering at me in a very disturbing way. Ummm, keep still a minute..’
‘Why?’ Panic was rising in my stomach.
‘Just let me just take that off your head.’
I screamed, my legs had to run on the spot, fast. ‘Get it off me.’
‘It’s Ok. It’s one of those plants, not a….’ He gingerly picked it off and waved the plant in front of my face. My frozen state thawed by one micro-notch.
‘I‘m really sorry. The fishing club asked me for them. They should be coming to fetch them soon.’
‘Are there any on me?’ I twirled round, shaking my arms and legs just in case.
‘No.. No..’ Err, Sharon….’
‘Look properly! Are you sure?’
‘There aren’t any more. It’s just mud, that’s all.’
‘Sharon, when you’ve finished dancing, there’s someone I want you to meet.’
‘What? Now?’ I couldn’t stop trembling, still looking for stray worms. ‘Can’t you see I’m having a trauma here?’
‘Sharon, you don’t have any worms, OK? And there’s a mad woman on the phone.’ He was building to a crescendo. ‘And there’s someone I want you to meet.’ He stepped aside. ‘This is Ariel.’