Other Guest
by Cooper, Helen






"After a shocking death at a luxurious Italian resort, two very different women must question everything-and everyone-they love in order to untangle truth from lies in this twisty, captivating read"-





Helen Cooper is the author of The Downstairs Neighbor. She is from Derby and has a MA in Creative Writing and a background in teaching English and Academic Writing. Her creative writing has been published in Mslexia and Writers' Forum; she was shortlisted in the Bath Short Story Prize in 2014, and came third in the Leicester Writes Short Story Prize 2018.





*Starred Review* Cooper follows Downstairs Neighbor (2021) with another difficult-to-put down thriller. Leah visits a resort on a lake in northern Italy that is owned and operated by her sister, her sister's husband, and the couple's daughter. Still coming to terms with the death of her sister's other daughter, Amy, who drowned a year before in unsettling circumstances, Leah is disconcerted to find that Amy seems to have been all but forgotten by the family-she is never mentioned, and no photographs of her are on display. Everyone is behaving suspiciously, and Leah is mysteriously threatened when she starts asking questions. The suspense builds at a steadily increasing pace, as does Leah's discomfort with her family's behavior. Meanwhile, back in England, Joanna, on the mend from the abrupt breakup of a long-term romance, finds herself drawn into an unsettling relationship with a handsome bartender, who seems to already know all about her. Both Leah and Johanna get caught up in what escalates into a terrifying game of cat and mouse. Neither of them-they are complete ­strangers-has any idea of the extent of the lies and deceptions that hide a terrible truth involving both of them. Brilliantly characterized, boldly plotted, and boasting an ending that readers will think they have figured out only to have everything turned around. The perfect vacation thriller. Copyright 2022 Booklist Reviews.





Three storylines involve the unexpected, suspicious death of a 21-year-old woman in Italy. Amy is-was-the 21-year-old daughter of a polished couple who run a luxurious Italian lakeside resort. Her sister, Olivia, is 17 and working hard to become the same kind of gracious, beautiful, focused hostess as their mother, Charlotte. Their father, Gordon, dreamed of creating a high-end resort, and now that he's managed it, his entire focus is on retaining it. Leah, Charlotte's sister, was very close with Amy and never truly grieved the loss of her niece. She's forced to take compassionate leave at work one calamitous day when everything boils over and her grief at Amy's death can no longer be contained. The first thread follows the last eight hours of Amy's life as she plots her secret escape from the resort to Scotland, where she will finally attend college. The second follows Joanna, the head of counseling services at an English university, who's putting her life back together after her long-term partner breaks up with her. The third follows Leah's visit to the resort nine months after Amy's death as she tries to process her feelings and find some answers despite being stymied at every turn. Author Cooper has created a twisty tale of darkness and light, calmness and storm, rigid facades and underlying messiness as the three storylines unfold independently before resolving together as one in an unexpected fashion. A thriller that relies on misdirection while dealing with issues of family, love, mental health, assault, and suicide. Copyright Kirkus 2022 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.





Three storylines involve the unexpected, suspicious death of a 21-year-old woman in Italy. Amy is-was-the 21-year-old daughter of a polished couple who run a luxurious Italian lakeside resort. Her sister, Olivia, is 17 and working hard to become the same kind of gracious, beautiful, focused hostess as their mother, Charlotte. Their father, Gordon, dreamed of creating a high-end resort, and now that he's managed it, his entire focus is on retaining it. Leah, Charlotte's sister, was very close with Amy and never truly grieved the loss of her niece. She's forced to take compassionate leave at work one calamitous day when everything boils over and her grief at Amy's death can no longer be contained. The first thread follows the last eight hours of Amy's life as she plots her secret escape from the resort to Scotland, where she will finally attend college. The second follows Joanna, the head of counseling services at an English university, who's putting her life back together after her long-term partner breaks up with her. The third follows Leah's visit to the resort nine months after Amy's death as she tries to process her feelings and find some answers despite being stymied at every turn. Author Cooper has created a twisty tale of darkness and light, calmness and storm, rigid facades and underlying messiness as the three storylines unfold independently before resolving together as one in an unexpected fashion. A thriller that relies on misdirection while dealing with issues of family, love, mental health, assault, and suicide. Copyright Kirkus 2022 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.





Prologue

I've seen so many storms rage over this lake. I know how the water blazes as if it's on fire, how the rain blows in huge pillars between the mountains. I've watched flaming arrows of lightning dive towards the surface, and I've felt my hands clench in recognition of all that anger and energy. Like the wildest punk anthem I've ever heard, like a band trashing their own instruments, swept up in the anarchy of the moment. I've even shouted at storms the way a fan might scream during a gig - the closest I can get to that kind of freedom.

But I've never been stupid enough, before tonight, to find myself on a tiny boat in the middle of it all.

I did feel this storm approaching. The thrum and taste of it in the air. But the day escalated faster than the weather - confusion, arguments, suspicion, panic. By the time the sun began to set and the rain closed in, I'd run out of choices. Now I try to see the storm as a transition, washing away all the bad moments, or even as my ally, my disguise, if I can just get through it - get away - and not look back.

Two lightning bolts rip downwards. The jagged shapes of the mountains are briefly backlit - and something else is illuminated at the edge of my eyeline, too. My heart thuds as I turn to squint at it. Another small boat looms out of the spray, like a mirror image of mine, lurching towards me with a silhouetted figure on board.

1.
 
Joanna

Despite everything that had happened, there were times when Joanna loved living alone. When she woke to nothing but birdsong in the morning, and yellow light through her new curtains, and she could starfish across her bed into patches of coolness. Or when she came home after a busy day, poured a glass of wine, and sat in her shady little garden without having to talk or think. Nobody to gate-crash the quiet, to complicate that hard-earned sip of sauvignon blanc.
 
Then there were the other times, of course.

The nights when she would wake in chilly darkness to a house full of creaks and too much space in her bed. The weekends when all her friends were busy with their families or partners, and her Spotify kept landing on songs that were spiked with memories.

Or the evenings like this one, when a glass of wine and the last rays of June sun weren't enough to lift the darkness of a truly harrowing day.
 
Joanna burrowed her bare feet into the grass of her garden, trying to focus on the tickly sensation between her toes. But her head was too full of the awfulness, the guilt. The failings in her department that had almost caused something unthinkable.

Almost, she reminded herself, clenching the stem of her glass.

Still, the image blared again: a figure on the roof of the university's tallest building, on the wrong side of the safety barriers. The marks his palms had left behind on the railings from gripping so tight.
 
Joanna shook her head and reached for her phone, instinctively opening the WhatsApp group she had with her closest friends. She could write something and there would be a flood of compassion, reliable and lovely friends that they were. But then she'd feel guilty for attracting so much attention, and she'd start backtracking, saying oh, it wasn't really that bad, and surely they'd all had much more stressful days with their teething babies and hectic school runs. Somehow, she felt she'd used up her quota of sympathy during her breakup with Luke. Her friends had been heroes throughout those hideous few months, but now she shied away from mentioning other troubles, even from admitting that Luke still plagued her thoughts. She'd had her unwanted limelight.

Pushing aside the phone, she took another cold gulp of wine. There were several sensible things she could do for her mental state. Things she'd recommended to many of the students she'd counseled over the years. But meditation and mindfulness now seemed much less appealing than going to a pub and getting drunk among strangers.

Joanna left her glass on the bench and ran to fetch her purse.

***

She had called into the Last Junction a few times since moving to this part of Derby. It was a red-brick pub next to the station, usually full of people who were either waiting for trains or had just got off one, their suitcases parked next to their tables as they drank. Part of its appeal was that there was never anybody she knew. Although Derby was a city, it felt tiny sometimes. Joanna had been part of the same crowd, hanging out in the same places, since she was sixteen. And almost every memory from those two decades circled back to Luke.

But in this pub, as usual, she didn't recognize a single person under the dim lighting. Even the barman wasn't somebody she'd seen working in here before-he was younger than the other staff, though he had a face that could've put him anywhere between late twenties and early forties. Boyish dimples but crinkly eyes. Curly, soft-looking hair, but a tinge of silver in his blond stubble. He blinked as if she'd startled him, then studied her face as though there was something strange about it. There probably was. Smears of mascara always transferred themselves to her upper eyelids when she was stressed, like two extra brows. There would be sweat patches under her arms and her long skirt would be crushed from hours sitting in hot rooms chairing crisis meetings. She felt too tired to fix herself, though. Too tired even to drag a finger over her lids.
 
"Rum and Coke, please," she said.

"Which rum?" the barman asked.

Joanna looked at him in surprise. She didn't want to have to make decisions; she'd spent all day doing that, or failing to. This wasn't the kind of pub where she expected to have to show knowledge or preference.

"Any's fine."

"Shall I choose for you?"
 
"Please." The idea of relinquishing responsibility, even for this minor thing, was a relief.
 
"Something with a bit of spice?"

"Something strong."

He raised his eyebrows. Joanna flushed at how she must look, marching in alone and demanding strong alcohol. The barman scanned the shelves, swooped in on a bottle, and poured amber liquid into an ice-filled tumbler.

"You sure you want Coke in it?" he asked.

She nodded but then saw that he was grinning, that it was a joke. Joanna gave in to a small amount of banter: "But only because neat rum on a Thursday teatime isn't socially acceptable."

The barman opened a miniature glass bottle of Coke, surprising her again because she'd expected it from a pump. When he sloshed some into her drink before handing her the rest of the bottle, she couldn't help twirling it in her hands, a nostalgic feeling rising in her. Picnics when she was young. Being allowed a bottle of Coke as a treat. Mum, before her illness, opening one at arm's length in case it had got fizzed up on the way there. That blue and yellow checked blanket they used to have, which they would shake out afterward, sandwich and cake crumbs flying. What had happened to the blanket? It was exactly the kind of thing Joanna had been filling her new house with: artifacts from a pre- or post-Luke world, bracketing the chunk of her life that had been snipped out from the middle.

She realized the barman was waiting with the card machine. Not impatiently, though. He seemed to be watching her drift into a reverie about the Coke bottle as if he understood. Maybe everybody got nostalgic about those glass bottles. That was probably the idea.

"Sorry," she said, tapping her card.
 
"No problem. He smiled at her again. "Enjoy."

The only spare table was so close to the toilets it got bumped every time somebody passed in or out, so she decided to perch on a bar stool instead. The spicy warmth of the rum flooded her mouth, and the barman made a thumbs-up-or-down gesture, checking whether she liked his choice. She gave him a quick thumbs-up. Because she had hardly eaten all day and rarely drank spirits, the alcohol surged through her, blurring and softening the evening's edges.

"Make sure I don't have more than two," she found herself calling to him. "I've got work tomorrow, and I have to be . . . can't be . . ."

"Two." He nodded. "Bad day?"
 
"Is it that obvious?"
 
He came back toward her. "What happened?"
 
At some point, the pub had almost emptied. It was another thing she'd liked about the place the handful of times she'd been: the way a proportion of the customers would abruptly leave en masse, presumably all catching the same train. Then there'd be another influx, but hardly anybody would stay for more than a couple of drinks. The transience was refreshing. So different from the bars she and Luke used to go to with their friends at weekends, where everybody knew one another, and the nights would follow a well-worn pattern. She had loved that at the time, of course. In the aftershock of separation, she'd grieved for the routines of their life almost as much as for him.
 
"I don't really want to talk about it," she told the barman. "Thanks, though."
 
But he continued to hover, drying glasses with a squeaky cloth, the quiet of the pub beginning to feel like a loaded pause in a conversation.
 
"Work?" he prompted, and she nodded. "What do you do?"
 
"I'm head of counseling services at the uni. I used to be a student counselor but now I run the department and it's . . ."
 
"Tough, I'd imagine."
 
"Yep." Joanna's eyes fuzzed with tears. That poor student, whose name she'd spoken and written and read countless times today. The student they'd almost failed-except they really meant her, Joanna, because she was in charge, it was her responsibility. And almost wasn't accurate either, because the young man had been failed, even though he was alive.
 
Joanna had only ever wanted to help students cope with the stresses of university. Of struggling to fit in, keep up, keep going. Being a counselor had been hard at times too, but every day she had felt she'd achieved something, listened to someone. Since her promotion, she'd barely spoken to a student in weeks. Her job had become a treadmill of meetings and spreadsheets and frustrations. There was never enough money or staff; there were always too many students in need. How had she never realized how much strain their services were under as she'd sat in a little pod with tissues and privacy blinds, focusing on each individual without panicking that there were a hundred more on a waiting list?
 
All she did now was think about that waiting list.
 
"A student who should've had a counseling appointment weeks ago"-Joanna tried to swallow her tears along with another gulp of rum-"attempted to . . ." She stopped before it all avalanched out; she could lose her job for disclosing it to a stranger in a pub. "Sorry, I can't actually tell you."
 
The barman's smile had faded now. "Sounds like you've got a lot on your plate," he said, letting her off the hook of explaining fully.
 
Joanna swirled her drink so the ice cubes clinked, a sound that reminded her of summer barbecues and weddings. Of Luke, because he'd always been with her at those things.
 
"I'm too aware of the bigger picture now. All the people who have to wait for help, the ones who don't get it at all. Turns out I'm the kind of person who can help someone who's sitting in front of me, but not the kind who can make important decisions about-"
 
"Impossible decisions," he said. "Seems to me?"
 
Joanna paused for a moment. She thought of the medical student who'd reached the limit of what he could cope with alone. The lecturer who'd talked him down, her own brilliant staff stepping in afterward. The inquiry that had been launched and the meetings she'd had to manage while all she'd wanted was to talk to that student herself.
 
She didn't tell the barman any of this. But she did talk more generally about her job-the most she'd spoken about herself in months. At intervals she thought, What are you doing? Shut up! But she couldn't once she'd started. There was something in his manner that invited confidence-an attentiveness, a stillness-as the pub got even quieter and its small windows darkened.
 
He kept his word, refusing to serve her a third rum. The second had seemed stronger, though, bringing a welcome anesthesia to her brain. When she realized they'd reached closing time, and that her tongue felt almost tender from oversharing, she snapped back to herself. He flicked on the lights and she was suddenly sober and exposed.
 
"Get some sleep," he said as she left. "Tomorrow's a new day."
 
It was what her mum used to say when Joanna was upset. Maybe she had told the barman that during the course of their conversation and he was simply echoing it now? She murmured it as she made her way home through the dark. The streets were deserted and she kept jumping at shadows and sounds. More than once, she was convinced she heard footsteps behind her, but each time she turned, there was nobody there. She hugged her elbows and walked quickly, wishing she'd left the lights on in her empty house.
 
2.
 
Leah
 
The final stretch of Leah's journey had to be taken by boat. Small ferries, exclusive to guests of Il Mandarino Luxury Holiday Village, departed every hour from "the dock with the golden railings." The smartest, shiniest dock on this part of Lake Garda.
 
Leah was the only person waiting there that afternoon, anxious and sweating in her weather-inappropriate black jeans. The glaring blue of the lake surrounded her on all sides. A rocky mountain reared out of the water to the north, looking almost muscular as the sun rippled over its curves and planes. Behind it, out of sight, lay the resort. Waiting to reveal itself to those who were privileged enough to be staying there.
 
Would her sister come on the ferry to meet her? Leah had told Charlotte what time she expected to arrive, but Charlotte had been typically vague about her intentions. Since landing, Leah had been on tenterhooks. Might she meet her at the airport? she'd wondered first. No, but there had been a man in mirrored sunglasses holding a sign with Leah's name on it, who'd whisked her into a plush, air-conditioned car and driven her to the small town of Malcesine, the last stop in reality before Il Mandarino.
 
Stepping out into blinding sunlight, Leah had looked around for Charlotte again before assuming she should head to the dock and hope for a ferry. It was unsettling, not knowing at what point she would clap eyes on her sister after two years apart. It wouldn't have occurred to Charlotte that Leah might be nervous, that most people-especially Leah-liked to have schedules and plans. "Charlottetime," their dad used to call it, laughing fondly at his eldest daughter's ability to be hours late and not even appear to realize. Since moving to Italy and immersing herself in Il Mandarino, Charlotte seemed to exist even more in her own unfathomable world.
 
At least, she had when Leah had last visited. To her shame, she didn't know who her sister might be now. How grief might have changed her. Leah reminded herself she was here to build bridges, to assess with her own eyes whether Charlotte was "coping fine," as her strange, brief emails always claimed she was.
 
Her gaze was tugged toward the center of the lake, where the blue was darker and denser, where the water seemed to swallow the sunlight rather than bounce it into her eyes. Something dragged at her stomach, like a weight trying to pull her in. She gripped the golden railings of the dock but they were scalding hot and she jolted back. At that moment, she spotted the ferry cutting a frothy path toward her, an orange and gold Il Mandarino flag streaming from its top deck.

At the front stood a familiar figure, with long dark hair bannering in the breeze. Not Charlotte, as Leah misidentified her for a moment, but her daughter, Olivia, Leah's niece.

Leah's other niece, as she couldn't help thinking of her now.

The boat drew up, gleaming with water droplets and polished chrome, its tapered prow giving it the look of a miniature yacht. It was empty apart from the man driving it - also in reflective shades - and Olivia, wearing a pale orange shift dress and high strappy sandals. She stepped down carefully, her heavily made-up face composed in a smile. Again, if Leah squinted, she could've been looking at a younger clone of Charlotte. The mother-daughter resemblance was even more pronounced than the last time she'd been here.

"Auntie Lee!" Olivia brushed Leah's cheek with a cool, perfumey kiss. "Welcome back."

Leah swallowed, unable to speak. Her niece was greeting her as she'd been trained to welcome all guests of Il Mandorino: as if they were a temporary member of a special family.

Except Leah was one of the family. It was just that only Amy had ever made her feel that way.






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