Friday, 7 October 2016

Excerpt and Release Day Post - One Christmas in Paris by Mandy Baggot

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They say Paris is the City of Love, so bring your je ne sais quoi and don’t forget the mistletoe!

Ava and her best friend Debs arrive in Paris just as the snow starts to fall. The Eiffel Tower glitters gold and the scent of spiced wine is all around, but all Ava can think about is Leo, her no-good, cheating ex.

Debs is on a mission to make Ava smile again, and as they tour the Christmas markets, watch lamplight glittering on the river Seine, and eat their body weight inpain-au-chocolat, Ava remembers there’s more to life than men ... Until they cross paths with handsome, mysterious photographer Julien with his French accent and hazelnut eyes that seem to see right inside her.

Ava can’t ignore the intense chemistry between them, but her fingers have been burned before and she can’t forget it, especially when her ex, Leo, starts texting again. Can Ava really trust Julien – and what exactly is his secret? 

Will Ava go home with a broken heart, or will she find true love amongst the cobbled streets of Paris? 

Join Ava and Julien in the most romantic city in the world this Christmas, as they discover the importance of being true to themselves, and learn how to follow their hearts.

One Christmas in Paris is a gorgeous, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy – perfect for fans of Jane Costello, Miranda Dickinson and Lucy Diamond.

One Christmas in Paris
By Mandy Baggot
Up-Do Hair, Kensington, London

Leo:[EMAIL] I’m sorry. Can we talk?[END EMAIL]
Ava Devlin swiped the email hard to the left and watched it disappear from the screen of her iPhone. That’s what you did with messages from liars and fakes who had whispered one thing into your ear, as they wrapped their arms around you, and did the complete opposite when your back was turned. She swallowed back a bitter feeling. She had always worried that Leo – successful, rich, good-looking in a Joey Essex kind of way – was maybe a little bit out of her league.
‘Boss or boyfriend?’
The question came from Sissy, the hairdresser who was currently coating Ava’s head in foils and a paste that felt as if it was doing nuclear things to Ava’s scalp.
‘Neither,’ she answered, putting the phone on the counter under the mirror in front of her. A sigh left her. ‘Not any more.’ She needed to shake this off like Taylor Swift.
Giving her reflection a defiant look, she enlarged her green eyes, flared the nostrils of her button nose and set her lips into a deliberate pout she felt she had never quite been able to pull off. With her face positioned like she was a Z-list celeb doing a provocative selfie on Twitter, she knew she was done. With men. With love. With everything. Her ears picked up the dulcet tones of Cliff Richard suggesting mistletoe and wine, floating from the salon sound system. Her eyes then moved from her reflection to the string of tinsel and fir cones that surrounded the mirror. This rinky-dink Christmas crap could do one as well. Coming right up was a nation getting obsessed with food they never ate in the other eleven months – dates, walnuts, an entire board of European cheeses – and a whole two weeks of alterations to the television schedule – less The Wright Stuff and more World’s Strongest Man. And now she was on her own with it.
‘Well,’ Sissy said, dabbing more goo on Ava’s head, ‘I always think Christmas is a good time to be young, free and single.’ She giggled, drawing Ava’s attention back to the effort Sissy was putting into her hair. ‘All those parties... people loosening up with goodwill and...’
‘Stella Artois?’ Ava offered.
‘You don’t drink that, do you?’ Sissy exclaimed as if Ava had announced she was partial to Polonium 210. ‘I had a boyfriend once who was allergic to that. If he had more than four it made him really ill.’
‘Sissy, that isn’t an allergy, that’s just getting drunk.’
‘On lager?’ Sissy quizzed. ‘Doesn’t it mix well with shots?’
Ava was caught between a laugh and a cry. She swallowed it down and focussed again on the mirror. Why was she here having these highlights put in? She’d booked the appointment when she’d had the work do to go to. Now, having caught Leo out with Cassandra, she wouldn’t need perfect roots to go with the perfect dress he’d bought her. She didn’t even like the dress. It was all red crushed velvet like something a magician’s assistant might wear. Like something her mother might wear. But Leo had said she looked beautiful and she remembered how that had made her feel at the time. All lies.
‘Stop,’ Ava stated abruptly, sitting forward in her seat.
‘Stop?’ Sissy clarified. ‘Stop what? Talking? Putting the colour on?’
‘All of it,’ Ava said. She put her fingers to the silver strips on her head and tugged.
‘What are you doing? Don’t touch them!’ Sissy said, as if one wrong move was going to detonate an explosive device.
‘I want them off... out...not in my hair!’ Ava gripped one foil between her fingers, pulling.
‘OK, OK, but not like that, you’ll pull your hair out.’
‘I want a new look.’ Ava scooped up her hair in her palms, pulling it away from her face and angling her head to check out the look. Nothing would make her jawline less angular or her lips thinner. She sighed. ‘Cut it off.’ She wanted it to come out strong, decisive, but her voice broke a little at the end and when she looked back at Sissy, she saw pity growing in her hairdresser’s eyes.
‘Well... I have to finish the tinting first.’ Sissy bit her lip.
Ava didn’t want pity. ‘Well, finish the tinting and then cut it off,’ she repeated.
‘Trim it, you mean,’ Sissy said, her eyes in the mirror, looking back at Ava.
Ava shook her remaining silver-wrapped hair, making it rustle. ‘No, Sissy, I don’t want it trimmed. I want it cut off.’ She pulled in a long, steady breath. ‘I’m thinking short... but definitely more Bowie in his heyday than Jedward.’
That short.’ Sissy was almost choking on the words.
‘You did say a change was good,’ Ava answered. ‘Change me.’ She sat back until she could feel the pleather at her back. ‘Make me completely unrecognisable even to my mother.’ She closed her eyes. ‘In fact, especially to my mother.’
With her eyes shut, she blocked out everything – Cliff Richard, the tinsel and fir cones, Leo. A different style was just what she needed. Something that was going to go with her new outlook on life. A haircut that was going to say, You can look, but if you set one eyelash into my personal space, suggesting joy to the world, you will be taken down. Nothing or nobody was going to touch her.
Ava’s phone let out a bleep and she opened one eye, squinting at the screen. Why didn’t Leo just give up? Why wasn’t he suctioned to Cassandra like he had been for God knows how long? She was betting Cassandra had never had to use Clearasil.
Sissy leant forward, regarding the phone screen. ‘It says it’s from Debs.’
Cheered considerably, Ava reached for the phone, picking it up and reading the message.

[TEXT STARTS]I know I said not to bring anything, but I totes forgot to get something Christmassy. Can you get something Christmassy? To eat... like those crisps that are meant to taste like turkey and stuffing or roasted nuts and cranberry. And bring red wine, not white, because I got three bottles of white today. And if you’ve completely forgotten all about coming to mine tonight for neighbourly nibbles before I leave for Paris then this is your reminder. Debs xx[TEXT ENDS]

Debs texted like she was writing a dissertation. There was no OMG, FFS or TMI with Ava’s best friend. And Ava had forgotten about the ‘neighbourly nibbles’. That was what having a break-up on your plate did to you – addled your brain and fried the important relationship circuits. Well, she was taking control now – elusive and aloof to anyone but her best friend – and the only frazzled motherboard was going to be the one with wires connected to men.
Ava looked into the mirror at Sissy. ‘After you’ve cut it, Sissy, I want you to make me blonder,’ she stated. ‘And not the honey kind.’ She smiled. ‘The Miley Cyrus meltdown kind.’

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Mandy Baggot is an award-winning author of romantic women’s fiction and a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. In Feb 2016, her Bookouture novel, One Wish in Manhattan was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Romantic Comedy Novel of the Year award. A contributor to writing blogs and short story anthologies, she is also a regular speaker at literary festivals, events and women’s networking groups.
Mandy loves mashed potato, white wine, country music, Corfu and handbags. She has appeared on ITV1’s Who Dares Sings and auditioned for The X-Factor and lives in Wiltshire, UK with her husband, two children and cats Kravitz and Springsteen.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Guest Review - The Christmas Promise By Sue Moorcroft

For Ava Bliss, it’s going to be a Christmas to remember…
On a snowy December evening, Sam Jermyn steps into the life of bespoke hat maker Ava. Sparks fly, and not necessarily the good ones.
Times are tough for Ava – she’s struggling to make ends meet, her ex-boyfriend is a bully, and worst of all, it’s nearly Christmas.
So when Sam commissions Ava to make a hat for someone special, she makes a promise that will change her life. She just doesn’t know it yet…
Curl up with this gorgeous, festive read – the perfect treat for fans of Katie Fforde, Carole Matthews and Trisha Ashley.

Guest Review By Mick Arnold
I am now a Master Milliner...well, perhaps not, but I know a whole lot more about hat creation than I ever did before. They go on your head. Correct?
Here I am, fresh from having survived the new Sue Moorcroft novel, The Christmas Promise. Don't get worried, by survived, I mean that Sue's stories are always emotional roller-coasters, she's that good.
Lucky enough to obtain an advance copy of this novel, I settled down to immerse myself, knowing that my attention would never be allowed to wander, no chance of skipping even a word here and I wasn't disappointed.
All wrapped up in a snowy cover, don't be fooled. Sue is a master of emotions and here, you're going to be pulled left, right and centre before the conclusion; actually, afterwards too however, you'll need to read the book for that little Easter egg.
Ava is to a degree, damaged emotionally, as are all good characters and we follow her in a journey of trust, who to trust, how much to trust them, learning to trust herself even. She dislikes Christmas due to her parents attitude to it when she was growing up and now finds herself caught up as the victim of Revenge Porn. Riding to her rescue is Sam. Ah, to have his qualities would be wonderful...I digress. Stumbling into each other, attraction is mutual but Sam is just as traumatised as Ava in his own way and so we watch them bond over his mother's cancer struggle, Ava's feelings of perceived guilt over those pictures, getting close but neither feeling able to make that final step that will enable them to become the couple we know they should be.
I refuse to give more of the plot away than that. If you want to know more, then there are other reviews where you can find that out. I'll only tell you about the emotions I experienced from reading this. So, the characters are perfectly written and make us love, sympathise and hate them at exactly the right moments. These are traits that only the best can accomplish and yet, somehow, this is still a love story, a love story with a lesson for us all that in even the worst of situations, there should be hope.
Speaking of hope, I trust I haven't made this sound like a hard read because it isn't. What it is, is a rewarding read. You will be rewarded whenever your throat chokes with emotion as mine did on many an occasion; you'll be rewarded when you punch the air crying, 'Yes!' as Ava (or Sam. Read the book) wins at something; you'll even be rewarded when you feel the tears slide down your cheek as the sheer emotional rollercoaster you're taken on compels you to ignore them and carry on reading.
My thanks to Avon and Netgalley for this review copy.
My thanks to Sue Moorcroft for having the guts and skill to write this for us.
(PS..take me to Middledip!)

An image posted by the author.
Sue Moorcroft writes women's contemporary fiction with sometimes unexpected themes. Her new book, The Christmas Promise, will be published by Avon Books UK (ebook 6 October 2016, paperback and audio 1 December 2016).
The Wedding Proposal, Dream a Little Dream and Is this Love? were all nominated for Readers' Best Romantic Read Awards. Love & Freedom won the Best Romantic Read Award 2011 and Dream a Little Dream was nominated for a RoNA in 2013. Sue is a Katie Fforde Bursary Award winner. She also writes short stories, serials, articles, columns, courses and writing 'how to'.
Sue was born in Germany, the daughter of two soldiers, then lived in Cyprus, Malta and the UK. She's worked in a bank, as a bookkeeper (probably a mistake), as a copytaker for Motor Cycle News and for a typesetter, but is pleased to have wriggled out of all 'proper jobs'.
Twitter: @suemoorcroft
Facebook: sue.moorcroft.3
Instagram: suemoorcroftauthor
Facebook author page:

Excerpt and Release Day Post - All I Want for Christmas by Jenny Hale

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by Jenny Hale
– out 6th October

All I Want for Christmas is a big, cozy Christmas story about the importance of family, the strength of childhood friendships, and learning to trust your heart.

Fans of Carole Matthews, Susan Wiggs and Susan Mallery – and anyone who likes the glow of Christmas lights and the rustle of wrapping paper – will fall in love with this feel-good Christmas treat.

Christmas comes once a year . . . But true love comes once in a lifetime.

Snowflakes are falling, there’s carol singing on every corner, and Leah Evans is preparing for a family Christmas at her grandmother’s majestic plantation house in Virginia. It won’t be the same now that her beloved Nan is gone, but when Leah discovers she has inherited the mansion, she knows she can give her daughter Sadie the childhood of her dreams.

But there’s a catch. Leah must split the house with a man called David Forester. Leah hasn’t heard that name in a long time. Not since they were kids, when Davey was always there to catch her.

Now David is all grown up. He’s gorgeous, successful, and certain of one thing: Leah should sell him her half of the house.

They can’t agree, but as they share memories over wine by the log fire, Leah notices a fluttering in her stomach. And by the look in his eyes, he’s starting to feel it too. 

Will it be Leah or David who must give up their dreams? Or, with a little bit of Christmas magic, will they finally understand Nan’s advice to them both about living life without regrets … and take a chance on true love?

By Jenny Hale
Chapter One

Leah used the scissors from her Christmas wreath-making project to open the package from Nan, her hands trembling. She missed her grandmother so much that she held her breath from the moment her fingers touched the envelope. She set the scissors next to the pile of spruce needles that were still on the kitchen table and ran her fingers through her thick, blonde hair. She’d straightened it that morning, but after all day in the rain and sleet, it had started to curl back up.
Tipping the package upside down, Leah caught a lone key in the palm of her hand, recognizing it immediately. She pulled out a stack of documents with a note in Nan’s scratchy handwriting clipped to the top. The notepaper was pink and lacy, the edges rounded delicately with little holes punched out. She laid the documents on top of a few Christmas cards that had come in the mail and focused on the letter, aching to hear Nan’s soft, reassuring voice again.
“Mama,” Leah’s daughter, Sadie said, pulling her out of her thoughts. She was still wearing the red-and-blue leotard Leah had gotten her as a surprise for her birthday. Sadie had seen it in her gymnastics magazine and she’d kept the page open to it all the time. When Leah had asked her about it, she’d said that one day she’d like to have one of her own. Together, they’d made the matching bow clip in her white blonde hair. Every day after school she put it all on to practice her gymnastics. And she was quite the natural.
“The Girls are here,” Sadie said. She bent down, placing her hands on the tile floor, between the table and the kitchen counter, keeping her feet in place until she lifted a leg into the air. Slowly, from a perfect standing split, she put her other leg up, straightening out into a handstand. Sadie had learned to do this move slowly, as swift movements used to send Leah leaping across the kitchen, throwing her arms around Sadie’s legs while simultaneously grabbing dishes and knick-knacks to keep them safe. But when Sadie did it slowly, Leah was able to see the precision in her movements, her skill evident, and she didn’t worry at all. Leah grinned.
Sadie righted herself and opened the side door that led to the driveway, sending a wave of wintery air in past the new wreath Leah had made from evergreens she’d found in the woods. She’d just hung it today. Leah slid the contents and the letter back into the envelope and put the key in her pocket. Another gust sent a chill through her as The Girls came in chattering together, Roz short and Louise tall, both swaddled in their winter gear.
“The Girls” was the name Leah had given to herself and her two best friends when they’d first met. They’d started out as a single mothers’ group of around seven women, which Leah had joined after meeting Roz, her coworker at the florist’s. But over the years, The Girls had dwindled to three—Leah, Roz and Louise—and they’d become more than a support group. They’d become best friends. Tonight, Leah was having them over for a late dinner.
“You’re early,” Leah said with a grin as Roz, all bundled up in a dark burgundy, double-breasted peacoat and striped fingerless gloves, set a bottle of wine on the counter dramatically. It was some sort of cutesy specialty wine with a gold, swirling Christmas tree on the label.
“Louise was insistent that the snow was going to fall all at once and if we waited any longer we wouldn’t be able to drive here,” Roz said, pulling off her gloves and dumping them on the counter. She ran her hand around Sadie’s ponytail affectionately and gave her a wink. Then she shrugged off her coat. Roz walked over to the cupboards and started rummaging around for wine glasses. Leah smiled—she liked how Roz felt as comfortable as if she were in her own house. She was like family.
“At least I can say we’re safe,” Louise said, giving Leah a side hug as she was holding a bowl of salad and a tin of cookies in her other arm. She was covered from head to toe, with a hunter-green, wooly scarf wrapped tightly around her neck, covering her long, red hair. “And you’re sure we can camp out here if the snow does start to fall?”
“We hardly ever have that kind of snow this early in the season,” Roz said, busying herself at the sink. “But I brought my toothbrush just in case!”
Leah’s house was small—a brick rancher tucked away behind a thick strip of woods that separated it from the main street, a four-lane expanse of pavement which was teeming at this time of year with holiday shoppers as they crawled along in traffic to get from one shop to another. But the woods allowed some privacy, and at night, in the dark, it seemed almost secluded. She had rented the house for its proximity to work and the cozy feel of the living room. Although quite crowded when everyone got together, it had offered a comfortable space to make memories with Sadie.
Louise looked at Leah thoughtfully for a second, as if just noticing her. “How are you?” she asked, studying her face until the pop of the wine cork behind them pulled her attention away.
Her friend could always read her. Leah was dying to see what Nan’s letter said, but she didn’t want to bring everyone down tonight by bursting into tears. It was supposed to be a fun night with The Girls.
“I’m fine, thanks.” Leah smiled. “I was just going through the mail…”
“Well, ignore it!” Roz said, swinging a glass full of red wine her way. The purple color of it nearly matched Roz’s dark hair. It was bottle-black, her latest beauty experiment, and in the light, it had almost a reddish-purple tint to it. “We’re going to have an amazing night of…” As she pressed her bright red lips together in thought, she handed the other glass to Louise. “What are we doing tonight besides drinking wine and having dinner? Did anyone get a movie or anything?”
“I thought we could play cards,” Louise piped up, taking a dainty sip from her glass and looking back and forth between Roz and Leah. “I brought some. They’re Toy Story though.”
Roz snorted as Louise pulled her five-year-old’s cards from her handbag.
“I couldn’t find mine so I took some from Ethan’s room,” she said.
Sadie climbed up into a kitchen chair and reached for one of the silver, foil-wrapped chocolates that Leah had put out for tonight. The two of them had started their Christmas decorating today, and they’d been nibbling on those chocolates since early afternoon. Leah gave her daughter her best not-too-many face.  
Roz poured one more glass of wine for herself and then filled a glass full of fruit punch for Sadie. Both Roz and Louise had the weekend free since their children were with their fathers, but Leah didn’t have anyone to help with Sadie, so Sadie always joined them. She was like an honorary member of The Girls.

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When she graduated college, one of Jenny’s friends said “Look out for this one; she’s going to be an author one day”. Despite being an avid reader and a natural storyteller, it wasn’t until that very moment that the idea of writing novels occurred to her.
Sometimes our friends can see the things that we can’t. Whilst she didn’t start straight away, that comment sowed a seed and several years, two children and hundreds of thousands of words later, Jenny finished her first novel – Coming Home for Christmas – which became an instant bestseller.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Extract and Release Day Post - The Taken by Casey Kelleher

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by Casey Kelleher
out on 5th October

When you’ve lost everything, you’ll do anything to survive.

Saskia Frost’s world is blown apart when her dad dies. Without any family, she’s on her own now and up to her eyeballs in her father’s debts. He owed a lot of money to some very dangerous men – Joshua and Vincent Harper. Before long, aspiring ballerina Saskia finds herself lap-dancing in a London club to survive. A club run by the infamous Harper brothers. Saskia is now their property and they’re going to make her pay every penny back. 

Teenager Lena Cona has fled a cruel and controlling marriage. She arrives in England with her newborn daughter, desperately relying on strangers for help. But she soon learns that not everyone can be trusted as she finds herself caught in the clutches of Colin Jefferies, a twisted individual obsessed by his own sinister secrets. As the sickening truth is revealed, Lena is forced to fight for her life - and her baby’s. 

When their worlds collide, Lena and Saskia form an unlikely friendship. But with the terrifying Harper brothers on their tail, as well as Lena’s vengeful and violent husband, can they escape with their lives?

By Casey Kelleher
Albania: One year earlier

Whimpering, Lena Cona looked down at the ground to where her brother lay.
The two men were shouting now, their voices angry, intimidating.
She tried to comprehend what they were saying, but their jumbled words were muted, merging into background noise as her ears began to ring loudly, a high-pitched screech filling her head.
She was in shock.
Unable to think straight, Lena tried to move, but she couldn’t.
Her legs were shaking, but her feet felt weighed down, as if her shoes were filled with lead.
She was afraid. Paralysed to the spot, all she could do was stare; her eyes fixated on the thick stream of blood that oozed out from the gash at the back of Tariq’s head.
He’d been hit.
The taller of the men had whacked him around the head with the butt of his gun.
They had a gun!
Panic ripped through her at the sudden realisation.
Lena tried to shout out; opening her mouth, a strained squeak barely louder than a whisper was the only noise that crept out.
‘Get in the car.’
The man pointed his gun at her now. Aiming it straight at her. His words were devoid of emotion, reflecting the same vacant hollowness that she could see in his eyes.
Stepping closer, he shoved the barrel against Lena’s chest.
‘Now!’ This time he bellowed, his face twisting in anger as he pushed the gun harder against her skin.
Lena could see his finger hovering threateningly over the trigger. This wasn’t an empty threat. She knew he was dangerous, but still she couldn’t move.
A few minutes ago she and her brother had been laughing and joking together.
Tariq had been walking her home from school.
That was her parents’ order: that her brother would walk her to and from school every day.
Lena had thought her parents were overreacting. Of course there were risks, but they didn’t apply to her, surely. Now she’d realised she’d been stupid, naïve. She remembered, with increasing terror, Néné’s harrowing tales of girls from Shkodër being snatched. Abducted and taken to the city’s main port, Vlorë, before being shipped off on speedboats across the Adriatic Sea, never to be seen again.
Her parents had pleaded with her to stay at home, to accept the traditional life of a normal Albanian girl just as many of her peers had done, but Lena was anything but normal.
Strong-willed. Defiant. Unlike most of the other girls in her class who had left school at the age of twelve or thirteen due to the pressures that their families had bestowed on them, Lena had refused to follow suit, insisting on completing her education. Why should she be penalised just for being born female? Why should she submit to a life doing what was expected of her? Instead, adamant to remain, schooled in a classroom of eleven boys, Lena had strived to be top of her class.
Not only had Lena excelled in mathematics, but she was also fluent in English. Her teacher had been impressed. He had told Lena that she had mastered the language so well that, eventually, she’d be able to teach it herself.
Lena had loved that idea. Travelling the world, working as a teacher or a translator. Practising daily, she’d even started to educate her parents and her brother. Just the basic words of salutation, or naming the food they ate.
She wanted to learn as much as she possibly could, so that, one day, she could have more than just what her parents had chosen for her. She didn’t want to be stuck here in Albania as just somebody’s wife, or somebody’s mother.
It may have been enough for Néné, but it would never be enough for her. Lena wanted so much more: to be treated as an equal; to experience the same opportunities and freedom that her brother had.
Unwilling to back down, she’d argued so intently that her parents had finally given in; insisting, in the end, that if Lena must continue with her schooling until she was nineteen then she could, on the condition that Tariq chaperone her.
Only now it seemed that fate had played out a cruel hand. Staring down at him she could see that Tariq was hurt, maybe dead.
And it’s all my fault, a voice screamed in Lena’s head.
‘Help me! Please, somebody?’ Shouting hysterically, Lena finally found her voice as she prayed that someone would come to her aid.
‘Help me, please… ’
Lena caught the gaze of a woman across the road, her eyes pleading with her to help her, but all that stared back at her was the woman’s fear. With an apologetic look, the woman put her head down and kept walking, pretending that she hadn’t seen.
Crying now, desperate, Lena scoured the street, looking for anyone that might help her, but the dusty road was almost deserted. School had finished; people were already indoors, evading the mid-afternoon scorching heat.
A single car passed by. Slowing down, the people inside stared out from behind the glass windows, but they didn’t stop to help her. They didn’t dare.
‘Pick her up,’ the taller man shouted now, directing the shorter man.
He did as he was told: grabbing her roughly from behind, clamping his hand over her mouth to mute her cries.
Lena saw their car. It was a battered-looking bright blue Mercedes, covered in flaky patches of orange rust. The back door was wide open; the engine running.
They are going to take me?
Gripped with fear, Lena dug her heels into the dry mud, trying her hardest to resist as one of the two men tried to grab at her feet, but it was no use. The men were much stronger than her.
Overpowering her, they lifted her off the ground, hauling her over to their car.
A hand came from behind her, clamping tightly across her mouth, making her gag for breath. Silencing her. Lena struggled to break free but her attempts only caused the men to hold on to her tighter.
‘Stay still, you stupid bitch!’
The man’s voice was commanding. He was losing patience. The sternness of his tone indicated that he’d had enough of her not complying. ‘Do as you are told, or you will be punished.’
Lena twisted her head back to where her brother lay sprawled out on the ground, motionless.
Hadn’t they punished her enough already?
She had no idea who they were or what they wanted. All she knew was that she couldn’t let them take her.
Her brother needed her. Despite feeling helpless, Lena couldn’t just leave him like this.
Kicking and clawing at the men like a wildcat as they tried to force her onto the back seat, her body convulsing, Lena fought to break free from her abductors.
If she got inside this car, maybe she’d suffer the same fate as all the girls before her.
She had to fight.
Kicking out her heel, her foot connected with the shorter man’s face. She startled him, just enough for him to lose his footing and his grip. Stumbling, he dropped her legs. But her small victory was short-lived.
A massive thud exploded at the back of her skull. The almighty blow from the man behind her immobilised her in an instant.
‘I warned you.’
Lena flopped forward like a rag doll.
She felt the man grab at her roughly, breaking her fall just before she hit the ground.
She felt herself being lifted up, thrown into the back of the car. She was dizzy, her head pounding.
A sharp burn of her scalp as the man seized a fistful of her long auburn hair. Wrapping it around his fist, he twisted her around to face him.
He was just inches away from her now; his face almost touching hers. He was so close that she could smell his stale rancid breath, see the glistening beads of sweat forming on his forehead. His face was puce from the heat and the struggle to get her into the car.
Still woozy from the blow she’d received to the back of her head, she tried to focus. Her vision blurred; she was surprised at how young her abductor looked. She had expected someone older. This man looked only a few years older than Tariq. No more than twenty, she guessed.
‘So, you think you’re a wild one huh?’
The man’s steely grey eyes flickered then, and Lena thought that she saw the tiniest hint of amusement behind them as he yanked at her hair even harder, ripping a clump from her scalp as he did so. The pain so acute, it forced Lena alert once more.
‘Well, it won’t take me long to tame you.’
Lena kept eye contact. Refused to let him see her pain; she stared back at him with nothing but pure contempt.
‘Stupid little girl.’
He punched her again, this time his fist locking hard with her cheek, her neck snapping back, her head smacking against the window behind her.
Slumped in the car now, Lena had nothing left. She was exhausted; her body weak and broken.
‘Tie her up,’ the man commanded, as the shorter of the men slid in beside her.
The man did as he was told. He bound her legs together tightly with coarse brown rope before wrapping thick black strips of tape firmly around her wrists. He was obviously taking no more chances with her.
The car began to move.
Petrified, Lena sat slumped in silence as she stared out of the window. Her gaze fixed on Tariq’s body, motionless, on the ground.
Move! Please, let me know that you’re okay?
Only Tariq didn’t. He remained completely still, lifeless, as the car continued off into the distance.
Lena watched until her brother was completely out of sight. All hope from her now gone.
She could feel the stream of blood pouring from her nose; the metallic taste mixed with the saltiness of her tears, filling her mouth.
Silent tears ran down her face as she wondered what fate was ahead of her.
She thought of Néné’s words once more.
About those girls. About what happened to them after they were taken.
How they were trafficked around Europe like cattle.
Her mother hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell her young daughter why the girls had been taken, but Lena knew. Rumours in Shkodër were rife. People in the village had spoken of how the girls that were taken were used for sex. Forced to earn money for men in ways so disgusting it was almost unimaginable to Lena.
Except maybe now she didn’t have to imagine it.
Maybe she was destined to experience the horror of it all herself, first hand.
Lena sobbed as she thought how she should have listened to her parents.
They only wanted the best for her, to keep her safe, but she’d been so foolish, so pig-headed. She’d put Tariq in danger.
These men were savages, animals.
Capable of anything.
Resting her head on the window as the car made its way out of Shkodër, out towards the rural mountains of the countryside, Lena closed her eyes and said a silent prayer.
She had no idea what fate lay ahead of her, but one thing she knew for certain, her nightmare was only just beginning.

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Born in Cuckfield, West Sussex, Casey Kelleher grew up as an avid reader and a huge fan of author Martina Cole.
Whilst working as a beauty therapist and bringing up her three children together with her Husband, Casey penned her debut novel Rotten to the Core. Its success meant that she could give up her day job and concentrate on writing full time.