SC Skillman
author
 
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Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds. Massive change of plan. I’m in love. Craig is gorgeous, sexy, intelligent. Moved to his place. Group called Wheel of Love. Changes people’s lives. Paradise here. Staying forever...

Juliet, concerned that her younger sister has fallen in love with the charismatic Craig, leader of the Wheel of Love, sets off for the Cotswolds to investigate the mystery.

She arrives in Craig's community hoping to rescue Zoe. But  intrigues, liaisons & relationships flare & flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle of men & women; & despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love - with completely unforeseen consequences.
 
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"Mystical Circles will captivate you from the first paragraph."
 
 Marsha Randolph, Amazon reviewer
 
 
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Read the first chapter here:
 

1

 

Arrival

Juliet was trembling. It had all happened so fast. The explosion of anger between the two men. The rush for the car park. The engine roaring into life. As the rear lights picked her out, she dodged aside just in time. The next thing she heard was a loud bang. And the sickening crunch of metal giving way. And a fountain of fragmenting glass.

He’d slammed on the brakes too late.

And it was all her fault.

*****

Juliet’s palms were slippery on the steering wheel; she wiped the sweat away from her upper lip. The air conditioning might offset the strong heat of this June day, but not the burning anxiety she felt. Even the spectacular beauty of the high limestone hills and deep valleys as she headed west from the A417 had failed to calm her. A sign half hidden by the trees proclaimed that she’d found ‘The Wheel of Love’. She turned in at the entrance.

Further down the valley, she could see the two steeply pitched gables of the farmhouse with its mellow honey-coloured stone. It looked idyllic. But that held no pleasure for her; her stomach twisted with apprehension for Zoe.

She drove round the house to the gravel parking area at the back. A Bentley and a Saab were parked up against the woodland fence. She was about to nose her Renault Mégane in between them then realised there wasn’t quite enough room, and reversed into the space on the other side of the Saab. She drew to a halt and turned the engine off.

She pulled a copy of an email from the door pocket. A few phrases leapt out at her with the same force as when she’d first read them.

Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds…massive change of plan…I’m in love…Craig invited me out for supper…got to know him a whole lot better…gorgeous, sexy, intelligent…all I ever dreamed of…moved to his place…fantastic farmhouse a few miles from Cirencester…group called Wheel of Love…changes people’s lives…won’t be coming back…glad to leave London…paradise here…staying for ever…why not visit?... Material for a documentary here!..I’ll tell Craig you’re ringing…know what you’re like with a story.

See what you think!

Love Zoe.

Juliet bit her lip, folding the sheet of paper. Zoe’s tone still needled her as much as when she’d first read it. Zoe knew her sister wouldn’t be able to resist coming to find out what was going on. And the suggestion about a documentary had worked out just as Zoe had proposed. Still, Juliet didn’t like it, not one bit.

She was deeply suspicious of this Craig guy, for a start.

But friends and colleagues hadn’t been at all sympathetic. One had said, Hey, the love of her life and the truths of the universe all wrapped up in one package – great! But Juliet knew she needed to come and see the situation for herself.

Another colleague had advised her to wait and see if this infatuation would blow over, despite the tone of the email. Not a hope. Not if Juliet knew Zoe. Too late now, anyway. She was here.

She had, in the limited time available, done a bit of research into whatever powers Craig might produce. Psychological powers, she thought most likely. Mind control. That sort of thing. But, as she’d discovered when she’d googled the subject, Knowledge is power.

Prepare yourself: that was the key. Know what you’re up against.

So thinking, she stuffed the copy email into her shoulder-bag, pushed the door open and jumped out. Ahead of her she could see the north-facing wall of a fine tithe barn. The stonework all looked in perfect condition.

The atmosphere closed in around her. She drew a deep breath and felt strangely unsatisfied. Going to the back of the car, she opened the boot to lift her suitcase, laptop and portable recorder out. Setting them down on the ground, she locked the car.

As she turned, a champagne cork in the gravel drew her eye. She picked it up and twisted it in her hands, pondering. Then she glanced towards the back door, and saw the discarded bottle lying there. Going across, she took hold of that too.

She was suddenly aware of being watched.

A silver-haired man appraised her. “Found the champagne so soon?”

She straightened. “No. The bottle was empty when I saw it on the ground.”

Might this be Craig? Did Zoe now prefer her men lined and wrinkled? But his Yorkshire accent soothed her. It hadn’t seemed anything like so pronounced over the phone.

“Who are you?” he asked.

She put the champagne bottle and cork back down. “Juliet Blake. Zoe’s sister.”

He held out his hand to shake hers. His grip was firm, businesslike and brief. “McAllister’s the name.”

So it was Craig. She was about to ask where Zoe was, when he broke in.

“You caught me on a rare break. I’ve been slaving over a hot computer up there.”

“Oh? How hot?”

“Scorching. Sweated over one cursed Excel spreadsheet all morning. Income and expenditure for the last year. Decided to take a break for the sake of my sanity.”

“Auditing the accounts? Bit late, surely? We’re more than halfway through June.”

His glance sharpened. “Why? Not an accountant, are you?”

“No.” I introduced myself to him on the phone only yesterday. Surely he remembers. “You know I’m a freelance radio journalist.”

Silence cut between them.

“Journalist?” She could hear his breathing for a few moments. He moved a little closer. His eyes penetrated hers.

Why was he playing this game with her? She indicated her portable recorder. “It is still OK for the interviews?”

“Interviews?”

Is he testing my nerve, pretending he doesn’t remember? Juliet  gave a brittle laugh. But her BBC training five years back had taught her to get on with people of all types, and she was adept at disguising her true feelings.

“Want to start with me then?” he said.

 “That would be a good idea,” she replied. “After all, you’ve already enchanted my sister.” And you can begin by explaining how you managed to lure Zoe to your group.

He stared at her and then burst out laughing. “Me? Enchanted her? Wish I had! No, you’ve got me wrong. That’s my son Craig you’re talking about.”

“He’s your son?”

“Expecting character instead of youth, were you?” he asked.

Her cheeks burned. She clenched her fists, rammed deep in the pockets of her combat jacket. How would she manage to keep up this restrained image? But she visualised Toby, her programme editor contact at Radio 4, who she hoped to sell her documentary to, and it helped.

“So he agreed to your coming to investigate?”

“He did.”

“You fixed a fee?”

“Yes. Half payable on recording, the balance payable on broadcast.”

“That’s something.” He nodded. “A step in the right direction, any road.” He considered her. Then he deftly changed the subject. “Which matters most? Your keenness to quiz the group? Or your fears for your sister?”

She flushed. “Well, naturally, I’m worried about Zoe.”

“No need. They’re not axe murderers. Mad, I grant you; but harmless. Does that help?”

It didn’t really. “Mad in what way?”

“Best you find that out for yourself. I won’t tell you what to think. Last person to look to for that. Though you and I may have something in common.”

“How so?”

“You’re unhappy about your sister. And I… my problem’s my son. He’s created his own philosophy of life. Knows why we’re here and what for. Always beat me. But when it comes to the practical stuff…”  He shook his head. “No money sense at all.”

Their eyes met and held. The atmosphere hung heavy between them. “You don’t cast Craig in a very good light,” Juliet said. “But he’s mesmerised Zoe.”

“True. Special ability he has with young women. He can be very charming.”

She resisted an urge to follow him up on this subject. So, Craig’s charming is he? I’ll be the judge of that, when I meet him. “Good to have met you, Mr McAllister.”

“Call me Don. Can I give you a hand?”

“Thanks, but no. I’ll be all right.” She walked back to her car, picked up her recorder case, and slung the strap over her shoulder. She was just about to grasp the handles of her laptop bag and suitcase when she saw Craig’s father had followed her, and was standing close by. “Well, Don, I’d best be getting in.”

“How long are you staying?” he asked.

“Few days at the most.”

“You’ll find the bookings diary in the front hall. Table near the stairs.”

She nodded.

He studied her. “Good luck. You’ll need it.”

She stifled a smart reply.

“No sense in false pride,” he said. “Let me carry your bags.”

She moistened her lips. You need to get on with him or you won’t last long as an interviewer. “All right.”

As they reached the back door, her mobile phone buzzed. Digging it out of her pocket, she took the call, aware all the time of Don’s searching gaze as she spoke to Toby’s personal assistant.

“How are you getting on, Juliet?”

“Just arrived,” Juliet answered in a low voice. “Can’t say yet.”

“Met Zoe yet? And Craig?”

“No to both. Tell Toby I’ll call later.”

“Fine. Bye – good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Don had the door open for her. Before she could step through, however, her way was blocked. Someone was coming out: a man. Early thirties. Tall. Dark haired. She swallowed. Was this him?

“Well timed,” said Don.

“Oh, thanks, Father.” Craig wore a deep-raspberry polo with white cotton twill trousers. He closely resembled a former English cricketer turned television personality. He looked athletic and relaxed, faultless in the role, completing the effect with gleaming Reeboks.

His eyes were fixed upon hers, dark and intense. He took her hand, and pressed it. “You must be Juliet. Delighted to see you here.”

Her mind went blank. It was as if all thoughts cut out, for one second, two, three…

Craig broke the silence. “Did you have a good journey?”

“Yes thanks.” She heard herself breathing. Almost as if she’d stopped, and restarted. Bizarre. What had happened just then?

He still had not released her hand. It seemed as if only she and Craig stood there, with no other person present.

Then, swiftly, she found words, as he dropped his hand back to his side. “Thank you for agreeing to the recordings.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You impressed Zoe with your talk in Cirencester last week. She seems set on a long stay here.”

Craig smiled. “She certainly is.”

“May I see her? Is she around?”

“No, she’s in the barn doing a group meditation.”

“Not to stop before time’s up. On pain of death,” said Don shortly.

Craig switched subjects. “Like the house, Juliet?”

“I love what I’ve seen of it so far. To find a house so old in such beautiful condition…”

“Thank you,” said Craig. “It was a bit run-down when we found it. But we’ve done some good work since then.”

“Yes, haven’t we?” said Don. She could have sworn he was trying to suppress mounting rage. “Very different state when we first saw it.”

She looked from one to the other. It had taken only the very briefest exchange for her to register an odd blurring of the boundaries between father and son in the matter of who owned this place.

“See the date above the door there?” said Craig. “1532. As you might expect, a fascinating history. The first family who lived here were strong Catholics. This property was used as a safe house for displaced monks. Feel free to look around when you’ve settled in.” He held her gaze for a few more moments.

“That’s kind,” she replied. “But I’m most anxious to see Zoe as soon as possible.”

“Absolutely. I’ll let her know you’ve arrived, once she’s out of meditation.” He still contemplated her. Then his manner became brisk. “As I said on the phone, take as much time as you like to explore the community. You’re welcome to speak to anyone you wish.”

“Good. We must have a briefing, Craig. When’s the best time for us to talk? We need to discuss the contract, and get it signed. And then I’d like to learn something about your group members. And draw up a schedule of interviews.”

“Of course, Juliet. Four o’clock suit you? Fine.”  He turned to Don. “You two clearly met a few moments before I turned up.”

“We did.”

Craig rubbed his hands together. “Would you please show Juliet round then, Father? I’m just off to deal with an urgent call. See you later.” And without giving further details, he shot away, round the north side of the house.

Juliet turned back to Don. 

“Come on,” Don said, and they stepped into the house.

They stood in the passageway. The stone walls were whitewashed, and a variety of corn dollies hung along their length. To her left Juliet could see the utility area, and to the right a rack containing an assortment of boots and walking shoes.

“Aha,” she said. “So the group are keen on walking then?”

“No doubt about that,” said Don.

“Just as one might hope, among these rolling hills.” She could hardly wait to get out there, crossing stiles and streams, following woodland trails that might lead her to the top of a high escarpment and open onto stunning views.

Don continued to look at her. He’s trying to read my thoughts. Such as – ‘at least they do something normal like going for country walks’.

Don led the way forward until he reached a right-hand turn. At this point, a door ahead banged open and someone charged out. She stopped just in time:  a small, slight woman in a flimsy voile dress.

“Oh! Hello, Don,” she said.

“Watch where you’re going, Laura.” He jerked his head towards Juliet.

Laura assessed Juliet with birdlike eyes, and Juliet returned the scrutiny. Laura could have been in her twenties, or her late forties, for all Juliet could tell. Her hair fanned around her head like a gorgon. Looks like she hasn’t brushed it in days. Wouldn’t impress in a BBC production office. Not that she’d be likely to enter one.

“You’re Zoe’s sister, aren’t you?” Laura spoke in a breathless voice.

“Yes, I am.”

“Thought as much. Recognised your hair. You look so like her.”

“Yes. People often say that.”

“You’re a freelance journalist, aren’t you? Zoe told us. And I was expecting a big power-dressing media type.”

“Were you?” said Juliet, amused.

“Let me introduce myself. I’m Laura. Laura Greevey.” She held out her hand, which Juliet took at once.

“Pleased to meet you, Laura.” Laura’s fingers felt light and insubstantial.

Disengaging her fingers from Juliet’s, Laura turned to speak to Don. “You’re taking Juliet through, are you?”

“Looks like it. Craig landed me the job.”

“I’ll do it if you like,” Laura offered.

“Oh no,” he said. “Suits me fine. Want to join us, Laura?”

“Be happy to.” She looked at Juliet. “Zoe’s booked you a room. We’ll show you up there.”

Juliet followed Laura and Don into the dining room. Shafts of light slanted across the flagstone floor, and the finely blended scent of ancient oak timbers and beeswax polish came to her nostrils. She gazed at the dark exposed beams and the deep window recesses. Her heart lifted, despite herself. This looked and felt like the sort of place you might dream of staying in for a country house weekend break.

Other elements combined in the fragrance. Looking about her, she recognised the source of these as the basket of apple logs in the fireplace, together with two shining bronze bowls of freshly cut roses.

“What an inviting room,” Juliet said.

“Yes.” Laura indicated a small black door to the left of the inglenook. “Beyond that’s a secret spiral staircase. Not so secret any more of course. Winds up through the thickness of the wall, and takes you to the Monk’s Room. I love it there.”

“Good place to hide. If it all gets too much,” said Don.

“Hope I’ll have no need for that.”

He chuckled. “Expect you will.”

Juliet’s spine tingled.

Without qualifying his last statement, Don nodded at the oak refectory table set beneath a low-hanging wrought-iron chandelier. “They eat here in the evenings.”

Juliet turned to Laura. “I see you can seat sixteen.”

“That’s right. Enough to accommodate the permanent members, and any visitors like you. Come along.” Laura led her past the table. Juliet stopped. On the wall before her hung a large tapestry panel. She gazed at it, her favourite medieval scene, from The Lady and the Unicorn, with its rich colours and exquisite details. There stood the lady at the entrance to her tent, beneath the words: A mon seul désir, my heart’s one desire, jewels spilling from her hands as her maidservant held out an open casket. She was flanked by the seduced unicorn begging at her left, and the lion to her right. How appropriate for Craig to choose this, for the Wheel of Love.

They passed through the doorway and entered a sitting room. Late morning sun streamed through the leaded window panes, tinting the oak floor timbers gold, and enriching the colours of the silk long-fringed rugs.

“Another lovely room,” murmured Juliet. But something wasn’t quite right. Though she couldn’t say what.

A gold-painted grandfather clock dominated the opposite corner. A number of flame-red velvet armchairs invited the three, from their position in front of the oak wainscoting.

Laura chattered on. “We won’t sink into them now. We all gather in here for drinks before dinner.”

“That’s right. A whisky or two guarantees survival in this group,” muttered Don.

On the surface, it all looked perfect to Juliet, with or without the addition of a cocktail hour. And it was clear why Zoe loved this place. And yet she still felt something was not as it should be. She managed a polite smile.

They passed through a further doorway into the entrance hall, again with low ceilings, polished oak floors and wainscoting.

Don fanned the pages of a bookings diary on the circular table. “Here’s your room,” he said. “It’s up in the loft. I’ll take your suitcase. Let’s go.”

“Oh,” said Laura, “and have a brochure while you’re at it.” She lifted one from a pile beside the diary, and tucked it into Juliet’s pocket.

They began to climb the oak staircase, which creaked with every step. Laura and Don led her past the first floor.

“Keep climbing,” said Laura. They went up a steeper, narrower flight of stairs to the attic, which had been converted to provide extra accommodation.

“Here you are.” Don opened the first door on the left. “Two more bedrooms along there. Can’t think for the moment who’s in them.”

“I look forward to finding out.”

“Now I come to think of it, might be Zoe’s in one,” he said. “There’s a bathroom up here too. Settle in.” He put the suitcase on the bed. For a moment he looked around thoughtfully. “Not bad up here. Me, I’m in the goose house.”

“The goose house?” she asked.

He laughed. “Been converted into a bedroom and bathroom. Round the south side of the house, past the barn.”

“And very nice too,” said Laura, behind Don.  “Almost wish I was in it myself.  But I’m down on the first floor.” She giggled. “Near Al’s room.”

Juliet looked at her. What did this signify? Who was Al?  She’d make it her business to find out before long.

“Make yourself comfortable,” went on Laura. “You’ll find lunch in the kitchen. See you down there.” And before Juliet could ask again when she might expect to see Zoe, Laura and Don disappeared.

Once in her room, Juliet sank onto the bed and took several deep breaths.

Well, she’d arrived. But she did wish she’d met Zoe. Her instinct was to set off and search for her sister at once. She had so many questions. What might Zoe’s plans be for herself and Craig? Did the pair of them, in fact, have any plans? And the group: mad but harmless, Don had said. What did that mean? And did Zoe agree?

Unpacking could wait. She jumped to her feet again. Then she remembered the brochure. Quickly, she pulled the tri-fold format publication from her pocket, and opened it out.

If you’ve been searching all your life, but have so far not found what you’ve been looking for, you’ve come to the right place. Here at the Wheel of Love, you may sharpen your subtle knife and cut a window into heaven. There are no limits to what you can achieve here; only those you impose upon yourself.  You’ve chosen to come so we promise to supply the necessary tools. If you accept these tools and use them well, you’ll enter a freedom you’ve never dared dream of.

Craig will reach deep down into your spirit and touch a part of it you never knew was there.

She closed the brochure. Creepy. She didn’t need him to reach down into her spirit, or provide her with tools to enter heaven. Nor did she trust the word freedom, until she knew how he defined it. How did Zoe get caught up in this?

But she had to admit the place didn’t look like her idea of the headquarters of a weird sect. More like a luxurious English country retreat.

And there was Craig’s father. A brusque Yorkshireman auditing the accounts. Sharp-tongued and clearly not a hundred percent in sympathy with his son.

She speculated about Craig’s community. She’d only met one member so far, Laura. Quaint little lady. Elfin features. Seems to have stepped out of a nineteenth-century children’s novel. Probably meet her again later.

Then she focused on her surroundings. A compact room, purple curtains, lilac carpet, fitted out in antique pine, perched beneath the black rafters. The dormer window had diamond leadlights and golden sandstone mullions. From where she was standing, she could see down to the front of the house, onto the gravel forecourt.

Then movement before the front door attracted her eye. Zoe. As Juliet watched, her sister made her way round to the back of the house. Juliet hurried from the room. If she was quick, she’d catch up with Zoe in the car park where she’d met Don earlier.

Retracing her steps back through the rooms Laura and Don had shown her, she went along the passageway to the back door.  Opening it and stepping through, she just avoided tripping over the champagne bottle, and hastened forward.

“Zoe!” she called.