• Agatha Frost

Read the first 2 chapters of Toffee Apple Torment...

We're only days away (coming September 30th) from the release of TOFFEE APPLE TORMENT the 6th book in my bestselling Claire's Candles series, so what better way to celebrate than to give you a sneak peek at the first 2 chapters of the book.


Halloween is upon Northash and there's a woman in Mrs Beaton's garden...


Read below and enjoy!


 

Chapter One


Claire Harris loved Halloween. She treasured nothing more than cosying up under a fluffy blanket on a crisp autumn night watching one of her many favourite Halloween films while the wind whipped at the leaves outside. Despite her mother’s dislike of the day, even at thirty-six, Claire wasn’t planning to give up on it anytime soon.

And the toffee apples!

Inhaling the mouth-watering scent drifting from the rows of curing candles in the back room of her shop, Claire couldn’t believe it had taken her until the middle of October to take a stab at making her own toffee apple scent. When she was a child, they’d been the one sugar-laden ‘but it’s a fruit, Mother’ item that easily made it into the shopping trolley. The juicy green apple and smooth caramel top notes blended perfectly with the rich base of musky vanilla, all tied together by frosted sugar.

Claire could practically taste it.

It might have been her favourite homemade creation, so why wasn’t the knot in her midsection loosening? She’d never changed her star candle mid-way through a month before.

Would the change work?

After giving the rows of curing jars another scan, she returned to the front of her shop, where her best friend and only employee, Damon Gilbert, was fiddling with a plug under one of the bottom shelves. While she’d been applying the last foil labels in the back room, the soft streetlamps had replaced what had been left of the early evening light.

“I really hope this works,” Claire said.

“Why wouldn’t they work?” Damon craned his neck in her direction as he stabbed the plug around. “Please tell me you didn’t buy lights from that cheap online shop again. The new fire extinguisher hasn’t turned up yet.”

“How was I supposed to know they’d catch fire?”

“Your first clue was that the postage cost you more than the lights. The two-month slow boat from China was your second. The fizzing sound? Definitely the most important. Blowing up tonight would be a bit inconvenient. I have plans.”

“I promise it won’t happen,” she said, peering around the black sheet to scan her unlit window display. “And not to worry. I’m sure the shop’s insurance will cover stitching you back together for your funeral.”

“Cheers, boss. I’ll ensure my mother knows to expect me in one piece at the viewing.” Still, he hesitated. “Seriously though, please say you’ve at least tested these?”

“Damon, plug them in, or I might consider giving you a written warning.”

“Legally, I get two verbal warnings before you can do that. Although, a court might consider that my first verbal warning, so I guess I should get myself down to the job centre to find a new—”

The plug clicked into place. A bubble-gum pink glow tickled the edges of the black sheet. Before Damon could plant himself on the floor to read the instructions from front to back as he had done with the unfortunate flaming lights, she fished the remote control from the box.

The bitter wind engulfed Claire as she hopped from her warm shop onto the crunchy leaves carpeting the pavement outside. She looked around the square, surprised to see they were one of the few shops that’d bothered to stay open. There was still half an hour of trading time left, so where was everybody?

“Even the pub looks quiet,” she said. “What’s going on, Damon?”

“Just a slow day.”

“Slow day, slow week, slow month?”

“Weather’s been rotten lately.”

“But it’s a Saturday.”

“A chilly October Saturday.”

“Still meant to be the busiest day of the week.”

“It was the busiest day of the week.” Burying his hands deep in his pockets, Damon turned to the shop. “C’mon, it’s freezing. Don’t you want to see the results of your hard work?”

As obscured as the bright side had seemed lately, Claire forced her attention to the remote control. A few clicks of the self-explanatory buttons through the windowpane confirmed that the new lights were as easy to use as she’d assumed they’d be.

“The last set had already burst into flames by this point,” she said, stepping back off the kerb. “Shall we assess, Mr Gilbert?”

He bowed out to the road. “After you, Miss Harris, and do watch the traffic.”

Hand at her ear, she called, “I can barely hear you over the chatter of the hundreds of eager shoppers.”

Leaning against the cold stone of the central clock tower, they took in the display. Usually, she’d stare at it from different spots in the square, often going back to move things around, but for the first time, she didn’t feel the urge to start tweaking.

“It’s eye-catching,” she said.

“It is eye-catching.”

“Is it too much?”

Damon shook his head. “My good friend, I think it’s a stroke of genius.”

The black void of the window of Claire’s Candles throbbed neon green like toxic waste. From within a bed of cobwebs, the strips of LED lights pulsed up at ten floating toffee apple candle jars with flickering electronic flames. Between the jars, apples drizzled in toffee sauce hung at different heights.

Claire didn’t mind that she couldn’t see the snarling faces she’d spent hours drawing onto the apples with a black marker pen. She also couldn’t see the invisible wire holding up the candles or that the jars themselves only had an opaque layer of carefully poured wax coating the glass to keep them light. The cobwebs and apples were plastic, the toffee sauce a paint and glue mixture, and she’d done it all on her own.

“I thought you were crazy when you said you wanted floating candles in the window for Halloween,” Damon said, patting her on the shoulder, “and yet here we are with a window full of floating candles.”

“Not bad for forty quid, a C in GCSE art, and an idea that came to me in the shower. Only time will tell if this is enough to raise our profit margins from the dead. This has to work.”

“Oh, that’s what you meant.”

“I tested the lights last night.” She nudged him in the ribs. “Just wanted to scare you.”

“This time of year does something to you.” Returning the nudge, he nodded across the square. “It’s already catching eyes.”

Damon gestured to two women leaving the fluorescent brightness of the gym. Their eyes remained fixed on Claire’s shop as they walked to the row of parked cars. Before Claire could decide if it would look desperate to call across to tell them the shop was still open, she realised who the women were.

“They might be looking for a different reason.”

Claire waved to Linda Weir and Joan Donovan who she knew from her mother’s Women’s Institute meetings. The best friends, who always looked like they could smell something awful on the ends of their noses and walked like they had rods straightening their spines, climbed into the same car. They didn’t return the gesture, but she had barred them from her shop over the summer.

“I never realised the trade in Northash was so seasonal,” she said, wiping her fogged-up glasses on the hem of her jumper when they returned to the radiator warmth of the shop. “That’ll teach me for opening in spring and assuming the good times would never end.”

“All that rain in August and September didn’t help,” he pointed out. “Most tourists only come for Starfall Park, and there’s not much appeal when it’s lashing down. It’ll pick up again by Christmas, you’ll see.”

With the worry creeping back in, Claire picked up one of the finished toffee apple jars from the circular display and popped off the lid. Inhaling, she hoped they could hang on until Christmas to find out.

“You know your candles aren’t the problem,” he said before she could ask the question. “I thought you nailed it on the first go. Sweet, spicy, and perfect for Halloween. It’s a one sniff sensation.”

Claire couldn’t help but look at the reduced-price pumpkin spice candles she’d moved that morning to the bottom shelves above the plug. She’d believed Damon’s optimistic speech more at the beginning of the month when she’d stocked them on the Star Candle of the Month display. They had sold more than any other candle, but overall, sales were still trending downwards, and the colder the days turned, the fewer people made it through the front door.

Damon pulled Claire into a hug. Their short statures were perfectly matched.

“Where were we both working this time last year, boss?”

“The candle factory on the hill.”

“And what did you dream of to get through those gruelling shifts?”

Claire looked around the shop. Along with wax melts and diffusers, the shiny labels of her hundreds of homemade candles lined the shelves. Despite her current mood, she smiled.

“This.”

“Exactly.” He joined her in smiling. “We are going to make this work. It’s already proved it works. We just need to figure out some different marketing strategies, that’s all. How about another round of coupon flyers?”

“Cost more to print than we made back.”

“Then something else.” He gave her another hug, softer this time. “We’ve got this, okay?”

Claire sank into the hug, once again reminded why Damon was one of her closest friends. They’d worked side by side for fifteen of the seventeen long years Claire had clocked in at the factory. Even on bad days, they always found something to laugh about.

“Say it.”

“We’ve got this.”

“That’s better,” he said with a wink. “Why don’t we call it a day? Save on the bills, and we’re already in our coats. We’ll attack this from every angle on Monday. For tonight, try and chill out, okay?”

“I’m not sure if I can.” She pulled her little fingernail from between her teeth, where she’d done a number on chewing it already. “Dinner at my parents? My mum has got a big surprise. I’m not sure I can face it alone.”

“I told you I have plans. I have a thing.”

Damon gave the nervous smile and glasses-twitch he did every time he had ‘a thing’ he didn’t want to talk about, and Claire didn’t push the subject. She knew where he was going and who he was spending his time with, but she wasn’t looking to catch him out. She was happy for him, even if she felt shut out. If Damon and her oldest friend Sally thought they were keeping their romance secret, Claire wasn’t going to be the one to tell them otherwise.

After running upstairs to her flat above the shop to feed her cats, Domino and Sid, Claire locked up. She and Damon parted ways with another declaration that they would figure something out. He turned the corner at the post office, presumably to carry on up Park Lane. He’d long since stopped walking the long way around to disguise that he was spending his night in Upper Northash.

Buttoning her jacket as she went, Claire set off toward her parents’ cul-de-sac. Pausing on the corner of Warton Lane, she listened to the brass band practising in Trinity Community Church. They started rehearsing for Christmas events every October. For Claire, the swelling music always signalled that it was time to get excited for Halloween, even if they were trumpeting through ‘White Christmas’.

Four Warton Candle Factory employees were already under the canopy of bare trees on their way down the hill. Half a year ago, she might have been following behind them. Not long enough ago to forget the discomfort of those lumpy blue jumpsuit uniforms, but long enough that she only recognised half of the people wearing them.

There was every chance that the two new faces were Claire and Damon’s replacements at the sticker station, but that was the candle factory. Half the employees spent their entire working lives there, and the other half barely stayed long enough to claim a locker. As the Northash saying went, the factory was there for anyone who needed a job.

Most small towns didn’t even have that security these days.

But Claire had already put in her time.

“We’re not going back there,” she whispered, pulling herself away from the music. “I won’t let it happen.”


 

Chapter 2


“Evening, Mrs Beaton,” Claire called to her parents’ elderly neighbour as she entered the cul-de-sac. “Quite windy tonight, don’t you think?”

From her barely opened door, Mrs Beaton’s blinking gaze landed on Claire. The gale dragged at the old woman’s shabby nightie. Claire offered a wave, but like Linda and Joan outside the gym, Mrs Beaton didn’t return it. She slammed the door shut, and several of her countless cats scurried from the long weeds that had engulfed her front garden.

Wondering if she stank as rotten as the weather and her candle sales, Claire hurried into her parents’ hallway, away from the worsening wind. The scent of her latest creation sweetly spiced the air. Just from a few sniffs, she could tell it was the second version, before she’d sweetened the base notes with a dash more frosted sugar fragrance.

“Mum?” Claire called down the hallway, shrugging off her jacket as the chill left her bones. “Dad?”

Claire’s most recent stint of living in her childhood home had ended thanks to the flat above the shop, giving her the independence to leave a bra on her bedroom floor or not wash the dishes immediately after every meal. Small things to most people, maybe, but ginormous issues thanks to her mother’s show-home standards.

“Kitchen, little one,” her father, Alan, replied.

If Claire had been the source of the two pairs of shoes on the stairs, the coat slung over the banister, and the screwdriver on the side table, she’d have heard about it. She kicked off her shoes and walked down the thick carpet toward steam and the sound of The Archers playing on BBC Radio Four.

“Mum would pop a blood vessel if she saw all that condensation,” Claire said, crossing the kitchen to open the steam-soaked windows. “Is she still working?”

“Should be finishing soon.” In Claire’s mother’s frilly apron, Alan turned to check the clock with a smile as wide as ever. “She comes home at all hours now that she’s not at the post office. We’ve truly shaken off the old routine, as it were.”

Through the clearing steam, the candle factory lit up the darkness on the hill, just beyond the farm adjoining their garden. She turned away and leaned against the sink. The sight was too close for comfort right now.

“Busy day?”

“Finished my new window display,” she replied, without technically lying. Claire looked around, noticing that the hallway clutter continued into the dining room. “Want me to tidy up before Mum gets home? It all looks a bit too normal.”

“Isn’t it wonderful?” More steam billowed into the kitchen as he checked the joint of roast beef in the oven. Claire opened the back door to fan in some cool air. “Ever since she started this business, she’s like a new woman. Not that there was anything wrong with her, of course. But she was wasted in the post office. Anyone else, after a day of cleaning, would come home exhausted. Your mother? I’ve never seen her so relaxed. She’s working out all those cleaning urges and being paid for it. I’m telling you, Claire, you showed her how you can start again at any age.”

Claire tried to smile around the lump forming in her throat. Her mother had credited her a dozen times for encouraging her to start her own cleaning business when she lost her job at the post office. Seeing her daughter ‘finally realise her potential in her mid-thirties’ was all Janet needed to know she could do the same ‘even in her sixties.’

“Dad?” Claire started. “Can I talk to you about—”

“Pass me the gravy boat, will you?” He flapped his finger at the narrow corner cupboard as the boiling kettle pinged. “What was that, love? Something wrong? Not you and Ryan, is it?”

“No, things with Ryan are great.” Blinking hard, she tiptoed for the dish perched on the top shelf. Her mental wall rebuilt itself, forcing her to pivot. “I don’t suppose you know what Mum’s surprise is about?”

“I was hoping you’d know.”

“I can never gauge her emotions over text messages,” she said, glad of the change in topic, “but she used an exclamation point when she invited me for dinner. That must mean something.”

“Last time she came home with a surprise, we had the kitchen refitted again.” Picking up his cane, he made his way to the hallway as headlights shone through the front door’s frosted windowpane. “No need to start guessing. That’ll be her.”

A honking horn drew them to the doorstep. As a white van reversed into the small driveway, Claire assumed they’d ventured outside prematurely. That was, until she saw her mother behind the wheel.

“Surprise!” Janet called, yanking up the handbrake. “What do you think?”

“I’m not sure what to think, love.”

“For the cleaning business,” she said, forcing the door shut against the wind whipping at her hair. “Don’t worry. It didn’t cost a fortune. I bought it from a lovely gentleman who runs his own tiling business. He wants something bigger, but this is perfect for my needs.”

“You bought a van,” Claire remarked with an impressed nod. “I thought you didn’t like driving?”

“I’ve had to get used to it, haven’t I?” Janet motioned for them to join her at the back doors. “I’ve been so busy, and I can’t keep leaving your dad stranded without the car.”

Busy.

Claire remembered that feeling.

“I can start taking the carpet cleaner out.” Janet’s smile grew. “I guarantee the floors of some of these offices I’ve been scrubbing have never seen such a thing. Incredible, isn’t it?”

Claire stared into the dusty, paint-and-plaster-splattered interior of the small white van. It was incredible. Incredible to see her mother – a stiff-upper-lipped, prim-and-proper woman who’d only ever sat behind a post office counter her whole working life – excited about a filthy white van.

“I’m so close to being able to hire someone.”

“That’s quick.” The lump rose in Claire’s throat. “Doing that well?”

“Not so much in people’s houses, but I’m doing a roaring trade in the corporate sector, and I’ll take the work where I can get it.”

“She’s become quite the social media whiz,” Alan said, beaming with pride. “Can’t keep up with the demand, can you, love?”

“Going from sitting all day at the post office to walking around offices the size of football fields, I’ve never been in better shape.” She held out her hands to show her slender frame, though she’d always been the slimmest in the family, especially compared to Claire, who’d inherited her portly figure from her father’s side. “Should we get in before that beef joint dries out to a – Oh, Alan!” Janet’s finger flapped across the cul-de-sac. “Beaton is on the loose again!”

With the help of his cane, her father set off at a surprising speed. Claire followed him to the edge of the garden, where she spotted Mrs Beaton hurrying through her gate and into the road, still only in her nightie. Mrs Beaton’s startled eyes landed on Alan, sending her scurrying in the opposite direction.

“She keeps doing this,” Janet explained as they attempted to intercept her lap around the cul-de-sac. “Mrs Beaton! You’re going to catch your death!”

But Mrs Beaton either didn’t hear or didn’t care. She cut across the road again, lips moving and fist shaking in the air as the wind sent her wiry grey hair in all directions. She’d always kept it quite short, but it didn’t look like it had seen a pair of scissors in a while. She spotted Claire and diverted straight at her with determined strides.

“There’s a woman in the garden.” She grabbed Claire’s arms, her long nails digging through her jumper. “There’s a woman in the garden.”

“A woman?”

“Don’t entertain her, Claire,” Janet instructed as she caught up. “She’s been at this all week. Mrs Beaton, why don’t we get you—”

“There’s a woman in the garden,” Mrs Beaton repeated, her glassy eyes staring deep into Claire’s. “There’s a woman in the garden, Claire.”

“There’s no woman in your garden, dear.” Janet scooped her arm around Beaton’s frail shoulders. “Why don’t we get you back home?”

“There’s a woman in the garden.”

“Yes, yes. Let’s go have a look together, okay? And like last night and the night before, we’ll see there’s no woman in your garden.”

“There is.

With Alan joining them along the way, they managed to guide Mrs Beaton through her swinging garden gate. The cul-de-sac’s detached cottages were all similar in build and size, their differences merely cosmetic. Mrs Beaton’s house had always been a little less maintained, but Claire hadn’t noticed how shabby it looked these days.

“There’s a woman in the garden,” she repeated, breaking free and darting for the front door. “There’s a woman in the—”

Mrs Beaton dashed into her dark hallway. Janet and Alan exchanged worried glances, and Claire’s gut joined in the feeling.

“What’s going on?”

“I think her mind is going,” Janet said quietly, stepping towards the house. “She’s slammed the door on us every time we’ve brought her home lately, and it’s happening at an alarming rate. If it’s not a woman in the garden, it’s something else.” Looking over her shoulder, she forced a sickly smile and called around the cul-de-sac, “Yes, that’s right, don’t rush to help your elderly neighbour.”

“Go and put the kettle on for her,” Alan said as he walked to the corner of the house. “I’ll give the garden a quick search. It seemed to calm her down last time.”

Claire followed her mother into the dark hallway, where a chorus of meows wasn’t the only thing hanging heavy in the air. Having two cats, she knew how quickly their food and cat litter could stink up a place if not adequately tended to. Mrs Beaton had more cats than Claire had ever been able to count accurately, and it reeked like it.

“Oh, Mrs Beaton,” Janet groaned as she flicked on a lamp. “I had no idea it had got to this.”

Claire went to speak, but the words didn’t come. Her parents’ hallway, with its random screwdriver and shoes on the stairs, looked sterile compared to Mrs Beaton’s hoard. Though identical in layout, this house seemed to have been last decorated around the time Claire was born, but the décor was the least of the house’s problems.

“There’s stuff everywhere.” Claire struggled to get the words out.

Stacks of newspapers lined the stairs. Bags of who-knew-what were piled high enough to touch the ceiling. A well-trodden path through scattered cat litter and biscuits led to the kitchen door. Mrs Beaton wasn’t in the sitting room. She couldn’t be. There seemed to be no feasible way into the room – if it could be called a room at all, anymore. Atop piles of everything from clothes to bags of rubbish, cats of every shape and colour stared at them with glassy eyes.

With her sleeve over her mouth and nose, Janet used the tip of one finger to push the grimy kitchen door open. Though a mess, the counters were at least somewhat clear. Unlike most of the cul-de-sac houses Claire had visited, Mrs Beaton still had a wall between the kitchen and dining room. Through a serving window in the middle of the wall, Mrs Beaton twitched at the curtains to the back garden.

“We have to do something,” Claire said, stopping her mother from entering. “Did you know she was living like this?”

“I’d noticed she wasn’t putting the bins out anymore, but...” Janet looked around as though she could feel the walls crawling. “I haven’t been inside in years. I knew she was getting forgetful, but that’s just Mrs Beaton, isn’t it?”

Claire nodded, knowing exactly what her mother meant without needing to elaborate. Mrs Beaton had always been a mystery. She’d lived in the cul-de-sac longer than anyone could remember, and she’d seemed old all that time. If she had a first name, Claire couldn’t recall hearing it, and if she had relatives, they never visited. She’d always kept to her cats, and any crossovers into the life of the cul-de-sac happened by accident and without purpose.

While Janet filled the kettle at the sink, Claire approached Mrs Beaton. Three tabby cats caught her hand as she passed the dining room table. Mrs Beaton glanced over her shoulder with the same fond smile Claire wore whenever she looked at her own cats.

“My dad’s having a look for that woman,” Claire said softly, squeezing past a stack of hardback books to join Mrs Beaton at the window. “When did you see her?”

Mrs Beaton looked as though she was concentrating on the answer, but the expression vanished as quickly as it came, and she went back to watching Alan wading through the waist-high jungle that used to be her garden.

“I bet the cats love playing in that.”

“Oh, they do.” Mrs Beaton nodded, her face lighting up again. “You should see them all bombing around on a nice day. Not had many nice days lately, have we?”

“I can’t disagree.”

Janet hurried in with a cup of tea and placed it on the table after shooing the cats down. Like the kitchen counters, the table’s surface, though scratched, was relatively clear.

“Three sugars, Mrs Beaton,” Janet called loudly and slowly. “For your nerves.”

Mrs Beaton’s lips pursed, and she scowled into the dark in a way that had Claire swallowing down a laugh. She had seen the same look on Granny Greta’s face many times. It was the ‘don’t talk to me like I’m senile’ look.

“Claire?” Alan called from the garden, waving above the weeds. “Have you got a light on you?”

Leaving Mrs Beaton with her sugary tea, Claire pulled open the back door as much as possible and squeezed through the gap. Using her phone’s flash, she found the path to the middle of the garden that her father had made.

“See that shape at the bottom?” He gestured towards the shadows near the sagging fence. “Do you think it could be mistaken for a person’s silhouette poking through the grass?”

Claire shone the light on the bottom of the garden. Though it was around a person’s height, the silhouette was nothing more than a jagged tree stump.

“Maybe?” she said. “I’m not sure if—”

“Hang on.” Alan took the phone from her and set off toward the stump. “There’s something shiny down there.”

Claire strode after him until the weeds grew sparse enough to walk. She joined her father at the stump. A spade jutted from the ground in front of the tree, its black handle reflecting the bright light. It looked brand new. After jamming his cane into the soil, Alan crouched and picked up a handful of dirt.

“Damp,” he said, looking at the spade. “Hasn’t rained all week, so this must have been recently turned over. Something tells me Mrs Beaton hasn’t been digging a…”

Alan trailed off as he scanned the light along the rectangle of disrupted soil. As he’d done when he spotted the shovel’s handle, he doubled back to something else shiny.

“Oh,” he said, rising to his feet and yanking his cane from the ground. “Claire, we might want to step back from this.”

Claire couldn’t move.

Or look away.

An emerald glittered on a gold ring band. The ring belonged to a finger and the finger to a hand. The wrist vanished into the mud, but the rectangular shape of the disrupted earth suggested more to be discovered beneath it.

“It’s a grave,” she said. “Think we might need to call the police.”

“I think you’re right, little one,” he said, handing her the shining phone with a shaky hand. “And we may owe Mrs Beaton an apology. It turns out she was right. There is a woman in the garden.”


To be continued in TOFFEE APPLE TORMENT, out September 30th!



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