Follow a Star is the third release from Christine Stovell and we have a little sneak peek for you. Read the first two chapters and fall in love with the characters.
Follow a Star by Christine Stovell
Sometimes your heart’s the only navigator you need
May Starling’s had enough of her demanding career and even more demanding ex. Responding to a ‘crew-wanted’ ad, she follows her dreams of escape only to find herself at sea with red-haired Bill Blythe.
Bill warns May that close-quartered living can create a boiling pot of emotions, but even May is surprised by the heat building up inside the vintage wooden boat. And when May and Bill tie up at Watling’s Boatyard in Little Spitmarsh, May’s determined to test her new-found feelings on dry land.
But May’s dream of escaping her former life is in danger of being swept away when several unwelcome blasts from the past follow her ashore, all seemingly hell-bent on reminding her it’s never that easy to clear the decks.
May Starling stood outside the deserted railway station on what should have been a pleasant July evening, wondering what had happened to the man who was supposed to be meeting her. There wasn’t a car in sight. Certainly no sign of the new silver Jaguar that Cecil Blythe claimed she wouldn’t miss. Nor was there, she thought looking round for a crumb of comfort, a cheery line of cabbies jostling for her custom.
There were three texts on her mobile, all from Aiden, which she ignored, and when she tried the number for Cecil Blythe it was unavailable. Perhaps he’d gone straight to the marina and was now so engrossed in his new toy he’d forgotten all about her? May squinted up at the blue and peach summer sky then down at the empty street curving over the crest of a hill. From the brow she’d probably be able to see the sea. If she was really lucky she might even spot a cluster of masts or the gleam of white hulls glowing apricot under the evening sun. Or she could stand there, checking her watch and phone every few minutes, until Cecil Blythe remembered he was supposed to be collecting her.
Hefting her bag over her shoulder, she set off, telling herself some vigorous exercise would settle that fluttering feeling of anxiety batting at her fragile hopes with insistent wings. Her sense of disquiet had grown on the journey. Squeezed on to the cramped train from outer London to the south coast with dozens of office workers at the dog-end of the week, her nerve endings prickled every time a blank stare slid over her, only relaxing when whoever it was turned their attention elsewhere.
But it was ridiculous to imagine that anyone would even notice her, let alone recognise her. They all had their own lives to get on with and weekends to plan. Who’d be looking for her here? Not Aiden, anyway; the great outdoors was the last place he’d expect to find her. So she could loosen up, use the brisk walk to regain her perspective and enjoy her adventure. If Cecil Blythe’s new boat had been berthed in one of the marinas closer to the mouth of Portsmouth’s historic harbour, she wouldn’t even have needed a lift, but Jollimarine, some four miles up one of the sleepier creeks meandering off from the main body of water, was a lot less accessible by land and public transport.
It couldn’t be that hard to find, could it? Logically, all she had to do was to follow the road downhill to the sea until she got her bearings. Striking out, though, it seemed to be a very long road. And now that the few houses grouped around the station were behind her and fields widened out either side, it was lonely too. Lonelier than she would have wished …
Careful what you wish for, wasn’t that the saying? And oh, how she’d wished for her dream to come true. If only she’d realised that shooting for the moon would send her spinning back down to earth. If only someone had warned her about … May gradually became aware that she wasn’t alone any more. So far as an old Land Rover Defender could creep along, this one was. And right beside her. May took a quick sideways glance at a male face turned towards her then stared fixedly ahead.
Ohmigod! A kerb crawler. Here she was out in the middle of bloody nowhere and someone was after her body. He was probably some sex-starved farmer. She’d read about all these lonely men, forced to advertise for ‘housekeepers’, unable to attract girls from the city to their isolated acres. He shouted something. She caught the word ‘darling’ and hurried on. He roared ahead, stopped the car and, before she knew it, was blocking her path, six foot plus of lean muscle and broad-shouldered with it. May was not looking forward to running away from someone who looked as if he spent all his time wrestling bullocks to the ground. Especially not one with that hair colour. She whimpered.
‘I hope I haven’t got this wrong,’ he said, running his fingers through the offending mane. ‘Are you May Starling?’
Having conjured up an image of someone small and wiry, she was taken aback that her prospective skipper was so much taller, more energetic and, frankly, ginger-looking than she’d expected. Somewhere along the line, she’d also overestimated his age. The man in front of her was in his prime and bristled with vitality, like a Rhodesian Ridgeback eyeing up a rabbit. Slap in the middle of two hundred acres he probably wouldn’t look quite so strapping, but most boats would feel pretty confined with him aboard. ‘You must be Cecil Blythe,’ she said, recovering herself.
‘I’m Cecil’s nephew,’ he said, pulling on the Land Rover’s passenger door which opened with ominous groans. ‘We need to talk.’
It didn’t feel like an invitation so much as an order, and not a particularly friendly one at that. There wasn’t another soul in sight, but if she could hoof it back to the station, at least she could always hammer down someone’s front door if he made a nuisance of himself. ‘I don’t think so,’ she told him, starting to ease her bag off her shoulders in case she had to make a fast getaway. ‘I don’t know the first thing about you.’
‘Bill. How’s that for starters?’ he said, looking exasperated. ‘Bill Blythe. And you’re quite right not to trust me,’ he continued. ‘We’re complete strangers, aren’t we? Whereas you’ve done your homework and you know all about Cecil.’
‘Enough,’ May nodded, with more conviction than she felt.
‘Well, I know he retired early.’
‘That’s true,’ Bill agreed pleasantly. ‘Cecil did indeed retire early, when he was fifty-two. Twenty years ago, in fact.’
May tried to sound nonchalant. ‘Many people sail at that age. He’s obviously fit enough to sail from Portsmouth, round the east coast and up to Little Spitmarsh or he wouldn’t be contemplating it. I daresay he’s factored sufficient breaks into the equation. At a steady pace it’ll take, what, a week at most? So, I’m not especially bothered about your uncle’s age; it’s a delivery trip not a blind date.’
‘I’m afraid Cecil had quite a different impression, especially from the tone of your reply,’ he told her, pushing one hand through the untidy red-gold thatch in apparent disbelief. ‘The excitement was too much for him.’
‘Oh God!’ May dropped her bag. ‘Is he …?’
‘Stable. A suspected heart attack. The hospital’s keeping him in while they run more tests, but getting himself in such a state of agitation isn’t helping.’ He shot her a look of sympathy before his blue gaze clouded over. ‘I blame myself really. Cecil’s been talking for years about buying this boat if it ever came on the market. I should have known he was serious. He sailed her when he was a young man and I think he thought this was the way to recapture his youth. I didn’t realise he’d tracked her down until he showed me that ridiculous ad. Even then I didn’t think anyone would be daft enough to reply.’
May chewed her lip. If only she hadn’t been in such a hurry to get away. Maybe she should have calmed down a bit before pressing Send. ‘Your uncle’s ad wasn’t that bad,’ she said, more to convince herself than the man in front of her. How did it go now? Sea fever? Skipper, early retired, with comfortable yacht waiting, seeks friendly female fellow-rover. If you must go down to the seas again, let’s test the water together! ‘I would have given a wide berth to anyone expecting anything other than the sea to shake his cabin.’
As for being daft? Even though she’d been feeling slightly reckless, she had made very sure to avoid the fifty-something millionaire looking for a ‘sexy adventuress to spoil in exchange for no-strings fun.’ May stared at her bag and examined her conscience. Her e-mail, as far as she could recall, had been a light-hearted attempt to distinguish her reply from all the others. Given how wretched she’d been feeling at the time, she thought it was quite an achievement. For once in her life she had acted entirely on impulse, but unlike other people who managed to get away with it, this had all blown up in her face. Any other woman would probably have found themselves preparing to sip champagne on the sun deck with the Solent’s answer to George Clooney.
It was suitable punishment, she supposed, for her uncharacteristically impetuous behaviour that she’d inadvertently responded to the fantasies of a fragile old fraud. If that wasn’t bad enough, she had nowhere to stay. Having thoroughly burned her bridges with Aiden, and her parents planning a rave, who on earth could she land on for a week without being discovered?
May pulled herself together. ‘I’m terribly sorry about your uncle. It was precisely because his advert made him seem like a man with a sense of fun that made me think he’d appreciate a humorous reply – I had no idea that anyone would get hurt as a consequence.’
‘“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea where I can handle myself pretty well on a boat as you’d know if you give me a try.”’ Bill quoted. ‘So far as Cecil was concerned he’d got a fast yacht and a fast woman to match.’
‘Oh, come on,’ May said, defensively. ‘It was supposed to be amusing.’
‘Yeah, well don’t take up writing poetry for a living, will you, or you’ll end up with all kinds of strange followers,’ he muttered.
May shot him a look to see if his barb was deliberate, but judging from his expression he was just thoroughly hacked off. And probably worried sick about his uncle too. She picked up her bag and struggled to redeem herself. ‘I don’t suppose there is anything I can do to help, is there?’
There was a long pause during which May waited for him to tell her that she had done quite enough already.
‘The bit in your reply about being able to handle yourself on a boat—’
Put like that, it didn’t sound too clever; she really hadn’t been thinking very clearly when she’d sent that reply.
‘I assume that’s a reference to your sailing experience,’ Bill said gruffly.
May longed for the ground to swallow her.
‘Since this boat means so much to Cecil, I’m going to make sure that it’s waiting for him as soon as he’s better,’ he continued. ‘It’ll give him an incentive to get well.’
‘That’s kind of you.’ May was relieved Bill sounded so sure of Cecil’s recovery. He might even give her a lift back to the station instead of getting her charged with attempted manslaughter.
‘No.’ He smiled at her as he took her bag and threw it in the Land Rover. ‘It’s kind of us. You signed up for this trip too. Remember?’
Exactly what had Cecil been thinking? Bill saw May Starling’s pale lips part in alarm as her bag landed in the back of the beaten-up Defender where it dislodged a coil of salty old rope that let off a soupçon of aroma of dried seaweed. May stood at the side of the road making sad kitten faces at him with innocent honey-brown eyes that didn’t fool him in the slightest.
‘Your carriage awaits, Madam,’ he said, with an exaggerated sweeping gesture, leaning back against the passenger door which squealed in protest. She turned a cool gaze on him, the sad kitten act dropped as she weighed up her options. Not quite the impressionable old man with money to splash around she’d been expecting, he thought, almost laughing at her sheer transparency. Next would come the excuse, the urgent appointment she’d suddenly remember once it dawned on her that her meal ticket had been cancelled. He got ready to retrieve her bag. An extra pair of hands to ensure the safe delivery of Cecil’s precious boat would have been useful, but he strongly suspected that it would be no great loss doing without this particular first mate. He got the feeling that May Starling was used to other people running round after her, not used to hard work, in which case the walk back to the station would do her good. What a pity it was downhill.
‘Hold on a minute.’ She walked round to the back of the car, pulled out her phone, mouthing the registration number as she tapped it in and fired off a text. ‘Just so people know where to find me.’
Bill stood back as she swung herself into the passenger seat, his amazement temporarily forgotten as he registered the denim shorts moulding one peachy posterior and the lightly tanned, shapely legs. He slammed the door with unnecessary force, annoyed with Cecil and irritated with himself for the unwelcome revelation that the dormant goaty gene had apparently just surfaced in him.
‘You work around boats, then,’ said May, jerking her head at the pile of marine debris behind them on which her bag sat, playing king of the sandcastle.
‘Oh this isn’t mine,’ he shouted above an engine that sounded as if it ran on shrapnel before checking the rear mirror and pulling away. ‘I persuaded the guy who runs the yard at Jollimarine to lend it to me. I came down by train yesterday. I didn’t fancy leaving my own vehicle at the yard.’
‘I thought all these south coast marinas were rather smart. You’d think you’d get good security for the rates they charge so that boat owners don’t have to worry about their posh cars while they’re away.’
Bill smiled to himself. ‘Mine’s not very posh,’ he said smoothly. ‘But I need it for work. It’s a white Transit which takes all my tools.’
‘Ah,’ she said, sinking a little further into her seat.
Well, that had killed the conversation. One minute there you were anticipating a champagne cruise with a silly old fool with more money than sense, the next you found yourself press-ganged into doing nautical service with White Van Man. He almost wanted to apologise for trampling all over her fantasy. A couple of miles along the road and he could feel harsh reality sinking in when, out the corner of his eye, he saw her face turn towards him. He whistled tunelessly to himself as her gaze travelled slowly from the top of his unruly hair that needed a cut, over the thoroughly loved turtle-green hoodie and grubby grey canvas trousers and down to his battered brown work boots.
‘You are qualified to sail this boat, aren’t you?’ she said, at last.
‘Trust me,’ he grinned. Little Spitmarsh didn’t have many natural assets, but it did offer plenty of opportunities for messing around in boats. In theory, at least, when he wasn’t booked up with work for weeks. There weren’t many property developers who could still turn a profit in the straightened economic climate, but Matthew Corrigan, the man he’d been working with for the last two years, had achieved it through sheer hard graft and not being too greedy. An unfair amount of natural charm seemed to work wonders too. Beside him, he could sense May Starling’s lingering doubt quivering in the air like a taut string.
‘Anyway,’ he added nonchalantly, ‘you’re the one with all the experience, aren’t you? So, together, we’ll be just fine.’
Her gaze snapped back to the windscreen and she folded her arms and clicked her heels together. Perhaps, like Dorothy, she was wishing herself back home, except those weren’t ruby slippers on her feet, but deck shoes. An affectation, he wondered, part of the pretence? Or maybe she really did know something about sailing? The trip would be a lot less stressful for both of them if he didn’t have to worry about instructing her. But if not? She was about to find he was going to go right ahead and put her to work anyway.
‘So, tell me a bit more about the boat,’ she asked, ‘you’ve checked her over, right? Made sure she’s seaworthy?’
‘Well,’ he began, clearing his throat, ‘we’re nearly there so you’ll see for yourself soon enough.’ The truth was that the last couple of days had left him wrung out and wondering which way was up. His preparations might not have been as thorough as he’d have liked. All that had persuaded him to leave the old man’s hospital bedside was his uncle’s anxiety about the boat he had just bought and his concerns for his crewing companion. Cecil’s flagging spirits had only lifted when he’d extracted a firm promise from Bill to get the boat to him without any further delay. And although he’d left Cecil resting a little more comfortably, Bill had his own worries, like the sixteenth-century farmhouse he was currently working on. The demanding project had only been saved from slipping behind schedule with help from his mate Matthew, but even knowing he didn’t have to cope entirely unassisted hadn’t made it any easier to relax.
Three changes on the five-hour train ride to Portsmouth meant he’d done little more than catnap on the journey. The fatigue had really hit him once he’d checked into the nearest hotel, where he’d slept so deeply he’d woken dazed and disoriented. Getting his head round charts and tide tables again had taken some doing. By the time he’d done that, found the boatyard and made a brief inspection of Cecil’s Folly, as he nicknamed her, it was mid-afternoon and it suddenly occurred to him that Cecil’s crew would be on her way. He’d made a quick call to Matthew’s wife, Harry, who ran her own boatyard in Little Spitmarsh, to beg her to persuade the miserable old sod at Jollimarine to lend him the Landie, then dashed up to collect the woman sitting reluctantly beside him.
Bill made a show of concentrating on locating the blind entrance into Jollimarine to ward off any awkward questions and hoped that neither of them was in for any more interesting surprises.
‘Right,’ he said, pulling up on a stretch of gravel, ‘this is the place. Cecil’s boat’s been moved to a temporary berth on the visitors’ pontoon as we’re not staying long. Do you want to leave your bag here for a minute whilst we go and find her, then we’ll unpack properly later?’
Outside the car, he paused for a moment just to compose himself and enjoy the sight of the evening sunshine gilding the silvery creek in a golden light as the low water lapped the shore. Apart from the distant hum of motorway traffic carried in the light breeze to remind him how busy the south-east was compared with his quiet East Anglian bolthole, it was surprisingly peaceful. May Starling stood silently beside him and he couldn’t decide if she too was absorbing the tranquillity of the evening or was simply occupied in her own thoughts. This voyage probably wasn’t quite turning out as she’d expected either.
What he did know, though, was that she was standing close enough for him to be acutely aware of the warmth of her body and her delicate, cotton-fresh scent. If he’d needed proof that he was working too many hours round sweaty men on construction sites, this was it. But with Cecil likely to take up what little spare time he had left, May Starling’s every move seemed set to remind him that the chances of him resuming anything like a social life were a remote prospect.
‘Come on, then,’ he said, pushing his hair back off his forehead along with his second thoughts about his crew and indicating that she should go first. He could do this; he was a strong man with self-control, not some freak who got off on sniffing defenceless young women. The denim shorts sashayed in front of him and Bill instantly regretted the gentlemanly conduct that was making him feel decidedly ungentlemanly.
To be fair to her, he thought, concentrating on not losing his footing on the wooden pontoon jutting out across the water like a miniature pier, she hadn’t exactly overplayed her attributes. As far as he could tell, she wore hardly any make-up and her light brown hair was subtly sun-kissed and fell in natural waves to just beneath her shoulders. In her baggy cream cardigan worn over a stripy T-shirt she looked wholesome and ordinary, familiar even; the very essence of the girl-next-door.
‘You’d better lead the way now,’ she said, standing back.
A variety of boats bobbed on short mooring lines before them, like dogs impatient for a walk straining on their leads, some with elegant pedigrees, others a little less well groomed. The springy boards bounced beneath his tread and all of a sudden he remembered the hotel bedroom he’d woken up in that morning and the king-sized bed he’d stretched out in before resigning himself to the cramped conditions of a small wooden boat. A boat, he noticed, seeing it squatting in its visitors’ berth, which now looked even smaller when he thought about the practicalities of sharing with a complete stranger and a female one at that.
‘She’s a little beauty, isn’t she?’ he said, with what he hoped was a hearty degree of conviction.
‘How quickly do you think we can get to Little Spitmarsh?’ she asked, one hand sliding up to her temple. ‘Three days? Four?’
Hmm. That rather indicated he hadn’t sounded convincing enough. He stole a quick glance at her other hand, the one still folded across her body, and found himself ridiculously satisfied to find it ring-free. Not, of course, that that particular detail was relevant in any way. They were just two sensible adults getting on with the job of delivering Cecil’s boat to Little Spitmarsh. How he would deal with Cecil after that was another issue, but it comforted him to think that when he stepped ashore his next task would be a whole lot easier if he didn’t have to deal with an irate husband or fiancé waiting on the quay to add to the mess he was already struggling to clear up.
With the boat still resting in the berth at Jollimarine the next morning, May sat up in her sleeping bag – the ones they’d had to rush to buy before the last shops shut once the rudimentary arrangements on the old wooden boat became apparent. Bill had gallantly let her have what was described as a sleeping cabin, but really boiled down to a couple of thin foam mattresses on a V-shaped shelf lining the boat’s forepeak. There was no door, but the previous owner had hung a curtain to divide what was essentially an open-plan interior and afford some notional privacy. On the other side of the curtain, Bill, she supposed, was still stretched out on one of the long settee berths.
It was strange that in her not entirely extensive sailing experience – she’d deliberately been a bit vague in her reply about exactly how many sea miles she had under belt – she’d somehow failed to appreciate the true cheek-by-jowl nature of life aboard. Yet, one night of having Bill Blythe just metres away was rather more disturbing than she’d imagined. Especially now, when her bursting bladder was insisting that she did something about emptying it pretty sharpish.
May stole a glance round the curtain. The saloon – the main cabin serving as a multi-purpose living space – was flooded with light but otherwise unoccupied. Despite her first appearances at the end of a tiring and frustrating day, Lucille, as the boat was named, was rather lovely. The patina of her teak interior gleamed richly, and a painted white ceiling – deckhead, she corrected herself, remembering the nautical term – created a sense of airiness and space. Sunshine streamed over the gimballed brass oil lamps that swung gently with the boat and scattered the morning light over the terracotta and jade cushions softening the long settee berths. An antique French barometer, mounted on a bulkhead, insisted that the day would be Beau.
On the compact stove in the minuscule galley space, a polished kettle was noisily trying hard to come to the boil. The perfect cover, thought May, since the boat loo – heads, she reminded herself – was a tiny enclosed space with cardboard-thin walls, which, to May, felt horribly like peeing in public. Perching carefully, so as to avoid unnecessarily broadcasting what she was doing, she was disconcerted to hear Bill moving about on deck sounding like the giant about to climb down the beanstalk.
Despite a certain amount of tension, she accomplished her mission then had to struggle with the complicated arrangement of pumps and levers which worked the flush. Overhead, the footsteps stopped abruptly, leaving only the sound of a squeaky pump and water gurgling round the bowl. May’s red face peered back at her from the small speckled mirror over the doll-sized basin as she tentatively tried the tap, which coughed out icy water. Hearing Bill, doing his Big Foot impression, about to make his way below deck, she hastily dried her hands on her fleecy top since there was no towel on the rail – something else to add to the growing list of provisions required – and prepared with some apprehension to take a fresh look at Lucille’s substitute skipper.
Her impressions the previous evening had surely been coloured by a tumult of emotions. Perhaps now that she’d had some rest and could think rationally he wouldn’t look quite so tough, rough and red-haired? And he had displayed a touching concern for his uncle, so he was evidently a caring man. She turned to see long legs in dirty-grey workman’s trousers coming down the steps of the companionway to an accompaniment of snatches of something that sounded like a Foo Fighters anthem. Great, so she was being cast adrift with someone who fancied himself as a bit of a stadium rocker – boy, it was going to be a long voyage!
But the scowl forming on her face faded as something else began to drift, like her concentration, as she noticed that Bill’s long legs were followed by rippling stomach muscles and broad shoulders defined by a clinging dark T-shirt. Toned arms appeared and, ah, as Bill ducked his fiery head under the hatch – that hair. No, definitely not her type.
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