Prologue

Even though Finnian Kane, master magician and illusionist, was hanging by her feet from a burning rope one hundred and eighty feet above huge spikes on the London Arena floor, she was centred and happy. The atmosphere in the auditorium was tense to say the least, but the show had gone like clockwork, and this illusion was the finale, the one the audience left talking about every night.

Finnian’s show had a steampunk circus style, so the audience was circled around the middle of the arena floor, which Finnian made her stage. As Finn struggled with her straitjacket, she kept her eye on the fire burning its way through the rope above her feet, burning its way down to the threads. She then looked below her at the floor covered with four-foot high razor-sharp spikes. A large piece of meat was impaled on them, a piece of meat one of her stagehands had thrown down from the platform, before the illusion started, to prove to the audience that the spikes were real.

Everything was going to plan, and Finn had her audience in the palm of her hand. The trick was to delay her escape from the straightjacket until the rope was nearly on its last thread, to heighten the suspense. Finn fed off the audience’s trepidation, fear, worry, wonder, and amazement. Here onstage she was accepted and loved for being different, not chastised for it, and that was why she loved it so much. There was risk, but the risk made the payoff even more exciting. If she had her environment and the people around her in her control, then it worked. Finn always kept ten steps ahead—if she didn’t, she’d get hurt, both physically and mentally.

The rope was down to its last few threads, and the audience was starting to squeal with fear for her. She released herself from the straitjacket and unclasped her feet just in time for the rope to break. Everyone in the crowd screamed, and she landed miraculously, on two feet, perched on spikes beside the impaled meat. There was silence for a few seconds, and then Finn looked up, smiled, and gave a nod of the head, and the audience roared.

The stage went black, and when the lights came up again, Finn was on the ground a few feet away from the spiked floor. Finn’s dancers appeared and the music played while the crowd cheered. Finn took her ringmaster’s jacket and steampunk top hat, with a playing card and feather tucked in the band, and put them on.

She walked around all sides of the audience taking their applause. The cheering crowd filled her with the high of performance. There was nothing like it, nothing like the pleasure of people loving her, wanting more of her.

Finn took off her top hat and gave one last low bow, revealing her trademark hair. It was brown, shaved in short at the back and sides, but on top she had a sweep of platinum blond, which she styled in many elaborate different ways, depending on her mood. Tonight it was gelled up into a longer version of a fauxhawk.

“Thank you for coming, everyone!”

She ran backstage while the noise was still at its loudest. “Great show, Finn,” her PA Christian said. He took her top hat and handed her a bottle of water and a white towel.

Finn was physically tired and her muscles burned, but she felt energy coursing through her veins. She took a long drink of water and said, “Thanks. Is my guest here?”

Christian nodded. “In your dressing room waiting.”

“Thanks. Get the car ready to take us to the restaurant in an hour.”

Finn walked down the corridors leading from the arena stage to the dressing rooms. The corridors were busy with her dancers and stage crew, who all congratulated her on a great show.

Normally after the show she experienced a gradual comedown after the high of performance, a downer which Finn tried to fill with sex and clubbing. But tonight the most special woman in the world was here, and she couldn’t wait to see her.

At the corner of the corridor, next to her dressing room, one of her main dancers, Layla, waited for her, and Finn sighed internally.

Finn didn’t know when it happened, but gradually the appeal of sex with her dancers or groupies who followed her entourage to a club afterwards had lost its appeal. She didn’t understand why, because she loved sex, loved women, but there was something missing now. Maybe there’s something wrong with me? Maybe she was losing her sex drive?

Layla had been with the show for a long time and knew that Finn usually wanted no-strings fun, and that had suited her completely. There was never going to be any other woman in her heart apart from the one sitting in her dressing room just now.

“Fantastic show, Finn,” Layla said, slipping her palms under Finn’s jacket.

“Thanks.”

Layla trailed her fingernails down Finn’s cheek. It should have made her feel something. The touch was meant to be seductive, and it was anything but.

“There’s a new girl in the troupe that wants to meet you. These new girls always fall for you, don’t they? They don’t realize what a cold-hearted bastard you are.” Layla laughed.

That assessment of her character stung Finn somewhere deep inside her. But that was part of her illusion. Only one woman knew who she really was. “You know me only too well, Layla.”

“Why don’t we head to the club and then see if she’s interested in coming back to the hotel with us?” Layla said.

Finn couldn’t think of anything worse. Threesomes or more, which used to be so exciting to her, now were just boring—but she had to keep up the mysterious, in control, untouchable, Finnian Kane illusion. So she took hold of Layla’s waist and backed her against the wall.

“That sounds like fun, but I can’t tonight. My baby sister is at the show tonight. I’m taking her out for dinner.”

Everyone knew Finn’s sister. Charity was the most important woman in the world to her, and when she came to visit, all her plans changed.

Layla brought her lips close to Finn’s. “Oh, well. There’s always tomorrow. You know I’m always here, ready to have any kind of fun you want.”

“Yeah, I know you are,” Finn said with a sigh. And the rest of the women I meet.

Layla squinted quizzically. “Is there something wrong?”

“No, nothing,” Finn said, anxious to get away and to see her sister.

Layla reached up and tried to stroke Finn’s long fringe, but she caught Layla’s wrist to stop her.

“I better go. Carrie will be waiting.”

She disentangled herself from Layla’s grasp and walked towards her dressing room.

 

v

 

Finn stepped into her dressing room and found Carrie waiting for her on the couch. “Come here, baby sister.”

Charity jumped up and flew into Finn’s arms. “Finn! The show was totally amazing.”

Finn squeezed her sister tightly and spun her around in her arms. Five years younger than Finn at age twenty-two, Charity Maxwell was the apple of her eye, and the only permanent woman in her life.

As she hugged her she felt the always petite Charity was slimmer. She pulled back and said, “Have you lost weight?”

Charity was unusually silent for a few seconds, and then just brushed it off. “I don’t know, probably. I hardly get time to eat, the café and shop are so busy.” She ran her hand through Finn’s hair, and softly grasped her blond fringe. “When are you going to get this thing chopped off?”

Finn laughed. It was a running joke. Carrie pretended to hate her hair, but secretly Finn knew she liked it.

“It’s my thing. It makes me”—Finn swirled her hands in an elaborate fashion—“mysterious. Come and sit down.”

She took Charity’s hand and pulled her over to the couch. When they sat Finn realized her sister looked tense. She knew her sister inside out—she had been solely responsible for her since age sixteen. Charity was the driving force behind Finn’s career. She had always promised her sister she would be a success and look after her the way their father never could.

Magic and illusion had been her life from an early age, and when she and Charity found themselves on their own, Finn worked two jobs and did some street magic and performed in clubs in London to make ends meet. She’d launched her own YouTube channel, and with her distinctive steampunk image to build a following, she soon was being noticed by media. Add hard work and perseverance, and she was finally able to give Charity the security her sister wanted. Finn had purchased a piece of prime London property and made Charity’s dream come true of owning a vegetarian café and New Age shop.

Finn was a staunch atheist, but her sister had found her own personal solace in the New Age world.

“They repeated your exposé on spiritualists and psychics last night on TV.”

“They did?” Finn smiled. “I didn’t even know it was coming on again.”

Not only a mentalist and magician, Finnian Kane was a crusader against the frauds and fraudsters of the religious and spiritualist worlds—faith healers, psychics, anyone who took people’s money and promised them something that was not humanly possible. For the benefit of the TV audience, she would show how the fraudsters made the alleged supernatural happen with nothing more than tricks and illusion.

Charity leaned on Finn’s shoulder. “You know your shows always bring in big TV audiences. Thank God my customers don’t know you’re my sister.” She joked, “It would be bad for business.”

“Don’t worry, you know I’ll never do a show on crystal healing and angels. That’s your thing and I respect that. Help me take off my make-up and we can go out for dinner.”

Charity suddenly looked uncomfortable and serious. “I need to talk to you first.”

“What is it? You haven’t got a new boyfriend I have to threaten with bodily harm, have you?” Finn joked, but she had a sinking feeling.

“No, no boyfriend for you to frighten as per usual. Let’s just talk for a while.”

“Something’s wrong, isn’t it?” Finn said seriously.

Charity simply nodded, and her eyes filled up with tears.


Chapter One

The function room of an upscale London gay and lesbian bar was an unusual venue for a Church of England strategy meeting, but although attended by vicars from all over the country, and one bishop, this meeting was highly unofficial.

Bridget Claremont, vicar to the parish of Axedale, sat at the head of the table, chairing the monthly meeting of the Christian LGBT group, Love and Hope.

Bridget smiled as she watched her colleagues—Kate, a vicar from Manchester, and Jerry, who ministered a parish in Leeds—argue over the tone of their next campaign.

Kate banged her hand against the table and said, “We need to, if you’ll forgive the pun, stop pussyfooting around this issue and trying to get change with gentle persuasion. We need to act now.”

Bridget didn’t blame Kate for her advocacy of more direct action. She had a beautiful spouse, who was her civil partner, and wanted to be married in the fullest sense of the word.

Jerry interjected, “But we don’t want to frighten the Church hierarchy off. We know a lot of them are dinosaurs, and some of them are so far in the closet they are in Narnia. If we don’t tread carefully, we could set our campaign back years.”

Bridge decided to step in, since they were coming to the end of the meeting. “I think I could sum up the feeling of the meeting by saying this: We are all frustrated by the inconsistency over the sexual freedom of gay clergy. As I know from experience, being gay in the Church means your freedom is based on the whims of your bishop. If you have a sympathetic bishop, you can be more relaxed in your personal relationships, but if you don’t, you can feel an alien in your own church. Before we work on the campaign for the marriage proposal at the next synod, we need to first have the Church recognize that they should not be looking into our private lives, or our bedrooms. Do the bishops ask our straight colleagues if they remain celibate before marriage? I think not. We must have equal rights with them. At our next meeting, we can look in detail at that question.”

Kate raised a hand to be granted one last chance to speak.

“Yes, Kate?”

“I just wanted to add that if we do not achieve our goals by the synod meeting next year, I will be prepared to marry and force the Church into action.”

Bridget could see the anger and frustration in her eyes. If the Church reprimanded her, she could see Kate dragging the Church through the courts. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.

“Thank you, Kate. I think we all understand your frustration. We’ll end there, and get some tea and coffee, shall we?”

Everyone agreed and started to stand. As the meeting broke up, Bishop Claremont, who had been sitting to the side, made her way over to Bridget with a big smile on her face.

“There’s my little Bridge. Give your old aunty a hug.”

Bridge embraced her favourite aunt tightly. “You’re far from old, Aunt Gertie. You have more energy than most of us here put together.”

Gertrude Claremont had dedicated herself to the Church and its many causes from an early age and, after a long campaign, became one of the country’s first female Church of England priests, then the first woman bishop, and was Bridget’s inspiration to join the Church.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Gertie said.

She kissed Bridget’s cheek and they walked arm in arm over to the side table, where tea biscuits and cakes had been provided for the meeting.

After they each took a sip of tea, Bridget said, “Thank you for coming to the meeting. The support of a bishop is really important to our cause.”

“It’s my pleasure. Gay rights are very important to me, and should be to the Church if we wish to stay relevant in a modern world. You can always count on me.”

Bridget was lucky to have such a supportive family. The Claremonts were from a long line of trailblazers, rebels, and libertarians. Whether it was her mother, her father when he was alive, her brother, or her aunt, she could always count on their unstinting support.

Aunt Gertie took a bite of cake and asked, “How is Harry? Married life still suiting the once-committed bachelor?”

Bridget chuckled softly. “Amazingly, yes. I’ve never seen Harry happier in all her life than she is with Annie and Riley. It’s their anniversary today and we’re having a bit of a celebration at the church hall tonight for them.”

“Wonderful. I’m always happy to see young people happy and in love. It must be your turn next, eh?”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.”

Bridget kept a forced smile on her face but inside she felt a sadness that had been creeping up on her slowly since Harry had gotten married. Love was something she craved, but in a small village like Axedale it was hard to meet someone, let alone deal with all the problems her position as vicar would bring to any relationship.

“And your parish? Is Axedale still enjoying their modern woman vicar, in biker jacket and heels?” Gertie joked.

That was something Bridget could answer honestly and enthusiastically. “My parishioners are wonderful. I couldn’t have been luckier to have the pastoral care of such wonderful people. The village is going from strength to strength, now that Harry and Annie have rebuilt the estate to what it once was. There’s plenty of work for the locals and the tourists are flooding in. Mrs. Peters the postmistress says she’s never done as much trade in years. It’s wonderful to see.”

Gertie cleared her throat and asked, “And your new bishop?”

Bridget placed her tea down on the table and sighed, facing the difficult question. “Bishop Thomas Sprat. He certainly is a huge change since old Henry Lovejoy hung up his cloak—”

“And his heels!” Gertie interjected.

Bridget chuckled. “Quite so. Going from the world’s most gay-friendly bishop to the most antigay one I’ve ever met has not been easy. I got into a lot of hot water for giving Harry and Annie a blessing in church.”

Gertie shook her head. “Yes, I heard about that, but don’t take it personally. Sprat has been gunning for me for years too. He led the campaign against women bishops, if you remember.”

“Indeed I do. If you’re not a white middle to upper class male, he has a problem,” Bridget said.

Gertie took Bridget’s hand and squeezed. “Don’t let him distract you from your good work in Axedale. Carry on as you are, and remember—you’re a Claremont. We are not shrinking violets and we don’t run from the good fight.”

“I won’t, Aunt Gertie.”

“Excellent. Would you like to have dinner before you return to the country?” Gertie asked.

Bridget looked at her watch and scowled. “I’m sorry, Aunty, I’m going to have to get back to Axedale pretty sharpish. I promised to help set up for Harry and Annie’s surprise party.”

“Next time then,” Gertie said.

They exchanged kisses, and Bridget said goodbye to the other group members and headed out into the London streets in search of a taxi.

Bridget felt a sense of melancholy descend upon her as she walked down the street. Her aunt had verbalized something she had secretly been turning over in her mind. She was thirty-six years old and had no one to share her life with, and no prospect of such.

Being single hadn’t always bothered her. Before she took holy orders, her social life and her sex life had been more than healthy, but that part of herself had been locked down inside once she dedicated her life to the Church. She was so consumed with her vocation and looking after her parishioners that it didn’t seem that worrisome.

That all changed when Harry met Annie. Daily, she saw the joy and the happiness that love and the comfort of a partner brought to the once grumpy, career driven countess, and it made her heart ache for the same.

Bridge stuffed her hands in her leather jacket’s pockets and sent up a silent prayer to God.

God, if I am meant to walk through life alone, help my heart make peace with that, but if there is anyone out there for me, please guide them to me.

Her prayer was interrupted as she walked past a newspaper seller.

“Evening news! Famous mentalist and magician Finnian Kane does own disappearing act after sister’s death. Evening news!”

Bridget stopped and looked at the front page of the newspaper on display. It showed a picture of the famous magician in her steampunk gothic-inspired ringmaster’s outfit, complete with top hat and cane.

She had never seen one of her shows but did know that Finnian caused upset in the religious community for her evangelical atheism, debunking faith healers, psychics, and the like.

Bridget quickly hailed a taxi, and as she got in a bus passed displaying a full-length picture and advert for Finnian Kane’s stage show, Mysterium.

I pray you find peace, Bridget said from her heart and then got into the taxicab quickly.

“St. Pancras train station, driver.”

 

v

 

Harry and Annie held hands as they walked down to the village from Axedale Hall. Riley ran ahead, crossing the river and the bridge that led to the centre of the village.

Annie heard Harry sigh and said, “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

“Remind me why we changed our anniversary plans. Riley was delighted to be having a sleepover with her friend Sophie, and we—” Harry stopped, pulled Annie close, and whispered in her wife’s ear, “And we were going to play master and slave in the Roman pool room. But instead the church council calls an emergency meeting about street lighting.”

Annie laughed and gave her a swat on the behind. “Behave, your ladyship. If it’s important to the village then it’s worth changing our plans. Besides”—Annie sneaked her fingers under Harry’s shirt and scratched her nails along her stomach, just the way Harry liked—“we’re leaving in the morning for a month in Rome, and I’m sure when your mother meets us there, she’ll be delighted to babysit Riley.”

Harry groaned as Annie continued to touch her. “Darling, you know what that does to me.”

“I do, just reminding you that I’m worth waiting for. Imagine—you, me, Rome, alone in the villa we’ve rented. What could be a better place to play master and slave, hmm?”

Annie painted quite the picture in her mind, and it was worth waiting for. “I’d wait forever for you.”

They shared a sweet kiss before Riley shouted at them to hurry up. Once they started walking again, Harry said, “Why did you insist we dress so formally for a council meeting anyway, although I’m not complaining about you in that dress?”

Annie giggled, held up her hand, and gazed at the anniversary present Harry gave her. “I couldn’t wear my beautiful eternity ring for the first time in jeans and a jumper, Harry, and I have a feeling we might want to be dressed a little nicer tonight.”

“How do you know?” Harry said with confusion.

“Just a feeling.”

When they got to the church gates Riley said, “Wait here a minute. I need to go in first.”

“Why?” Harry asked.

Riley hesitated, as she seemed to search for an excuse in her head, but Annie saved her. “It’s okay, sweetie. On you go.”

Harry really had no clue as to what was happening. “Annie? What is this? You know I don’t like surprises. Do you know anything?”

“Relax, sweetheart. I don’t know anything for sure, but I have an idea the village might be up to something.”

Riley came out with a huge smile on her face, and said, “You can come in now.”

Annie pulled Harry by the hand.

“I don’t like this.”

When they walked through the doors of the church hall, what looked to be every one of the villagers jumped out from behind the tables, and shouted, “Surprise!”

Harry instinctively tensed up. She did not like to be taken by surprise and not be in control of things, but then she looked down at Annie’s smiling, happy face, and all her tension left her.

 

v

 

The church hall was filled with music, laughter, and the sound of happy children running around. Bridget sat on the edge of one of the tables, with her glass of wine in hand, watching Harry and Annie dance closely on the dance floor. She sighed, but smiled at the sight. It was wonderful to see her best friend so happy, but that little niggling part of her wondered if she could ever find the same.

Harry and Annie looked like they were unaware that they were not alone. They were lost in each other, and the way they touched, Bridge half expected to see sparks of electricity fly from their fingers. She looked to the side and saw Quade, Harry’s assistant estate manager, talking with one of the other farmers.

“Quade?” Bridget pointed to the dance floor.

When Quade looked to where she was pointing, Bridge said, “I think we better cut in before they make Mrs. McCrae blush.”

Quade laughed and followed her over to their friends. Bridge tapped Harry on the shoulder, “May we cut in?”

Before Harry could start to complain, Quade had danced off with Annie.

“Bridge, did you really have to? I was enjoying dancing with my wife, and now she’s been stolen by a rugged farmer,” Harry said with mock anger.

Bridge smacked her on the shoulder. “Oh, shush and dance with me. You’ll have Annie for a whole month. I want to see you before you go.”

“Very well.” Harry slipped her arm around her waist, and they started to dance.

“So, have you had a fabulous anniversary, your ladyship?” Bridge asked.

Harry twirled her around and said, “It’s been wonderful, Bridge. We both really appreciate everything you’ve all done, and how much the whole village has taken Annie and Riley to their hearts.”

“It’s our pleasure, and we all wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for the village. There’s work for everyone, the tourists are bringing much needed income to the shops and tea rooms—”

“All because Annie whipped me into shape and changed me,” Harry finished for her.

“No,” Bridge replied. “All because you allowed love into your heart, and let go of your hurt. This Harry has always been inside you.”

“I’m very lucky. I just wish I could see you happy too, Bridge. You deserve it.”

Bridge tensed, and then laughed it off. “Please. Who wants a celibate vicar?”

The song finished and Harry gave her palm a kiss. “Perhaps it’s time to move on, Bridge?”

Bridge saw images of a nightclub, heard the thumping of music, and then someone call her name across the club…

“Bridge. Bridge?” Harry shook her from her thoughts.

“Sorry, I was miles away.” Bridge forced a smile.

Harry leaned in and kissed her cheek. “I know, but it’s been a long time.”

“Don’t worry about me. Worry about a rugged butch stealing your fair lady.” Bridget pointed over to Quade hugging Annie.

“I think I see a rent increase in Quade’s future,” Harry joked.

 

v

 

Bridge kicked off her heels, sat down putting her feet up on the chair in front of her, and yawned. It had been a busy, tiring day. After Harry and Annie headed home, the other partygoers started to disperse, well fed, watered, and happy. Bridge and Quade stayed behind to clear up.

She watched Quade busily sweeping up the hall floor and said, “Quade? Please take a pew and chillax for a minute. You’re making me feel more tired than I ought to be.”

Quade laughed and placed her brush against the wall. “Chillax? You’re so down with the kids, Vicar. It’s no wonder the village young people love you.”

“Oh, shush. Bring me a glass of wine on your way, and something for yourself. I think we deserve it.”

Quade went to the drinks table and poured out a glass of wine, then drew a pint from the barrel of home-brew beer that she had brought to the party.

Bridge accepted the glass from Quade and took a large glug. “Oh, I needed that.” Quade sat, and Bridge said with a smile, “Your Axedale Ale went down well with the locals. You’ll soon have to be selling by the barrel—I know Mr. Finch at the pub has said so.”

Home-brew real ale was somewhat of a hobby of Quade’s and was starting to become very popular with the Axedale locals.

“I don’t know about that, but everyone seems to enjoy it.”

Bridge chuckled to herself. That was Quade, modest and self-deprecating. The more she got to know Quade the more she liked her. They had always been friends, since Bridge came to the village, but they had gotten closer since Quade started managing the estate and often joined Harry, Annie, and her for a weekly meal.

It was just typical, thought Bridge. The one other lesbian in their village, and the only chemistry they had was as friends.

“It was a great party, wasn’t it?” Quade said. “Everyone seemed to enjoy it.”

Bridge took a sip of her wine and smiled. “I loved the look on Harry’s face when she walked in. She doesn’t like surprises. They make her feel out of control, and there was a split second of the old grumpy Harry ready to come out, but Annie squeezed her hand and smiled, and Harry immediately relaxed and beamed back at her with happiness. It’s amazing what love has done for her. They have an intense chemistry. When you watch them gazing at each other, you’re surprised they don’t tear each other’s clothes off right there and then. It must be wonderful to have that feeling with someone you love.”

Bridge was no stranger to sex. She had always been a very sexual creature, which might have been God’s sense of irony given her current occupation, but when God called her to his service she felt she had to choose, and her love for God won.

Her position meant she had to toe the party line, follow Church rules, and remain celibate, until such a time as she and her LGBT colleagues received marriage equality within the Church. Some queer vicars, she knew, flouted that rule in the privacy of their bedrooms, but they took the chance of losing their position. Bridge was not willing to lose this life she had built for herself. It meant everything to her.

Quade looked down and swirled her beer around her glass. “Yeah, it’s an amazing thing, love. Harry’s lucky to have Annie just walk into her life. Have you ever been in love, Bridge?”

Bridge took another large gulp of wine. “No, I wasn’t lucky enough to have somebody love me, but I did a lot of looking, if you know what I mean.”

Quade gave an exaggerated sigh. “It’s a bad day when your vicar has more experience with women than you do.”

“Oh, come now, Quade. A strapping butch like yourself must have ladies banging your door down.”

“Not even a knock. I’ve lived in this village practically all my life, and in that time, there have only been three other lesbians here—Harry, Annie, and you, Vicar. Harry and me? Just…no. Annie was perfect but she had eyes for someone else and—”

“There’s me. Clearly not compatible, although you are extremely handsome,” Bridge said with a wink.

“You have way more experience than me, Vicar. Tell me, why aren’t we compatible?” Quade said with a mischievous question in her voice.

Bridge smiled as she thought back to her pre-church days when celibacy was not part of her make-up and the things she got up to would have frightened the life out of poor Quade. “Our energies are too similar, let’s just say.”

“Oh? How?”

She leaned forward into Quade’s personal space and said in a very seductive voice, “Well, you might like my short skirts, stockings, and heels, but you wouldn’t like those heels walking up and down your back.”

Quade’s eyes went wide with shock, and then she started to laugh. “You’re right. I like my women a bit softer than that, Vicar.”

Underneath their jovial conversation, Bridge felt a melancholy creeping up on her. “I wish I could meet someone to love me, Quade. I wouldn’t like to think that I’ll grow old alone, and I have to have faith that God has a plan for us both and will guide the right people to us at the right time.”

Quade held up her pint and said, “From your lips to God’s ears. Let’s make a pact. If neither of us is married by the time we’re forty-five, we get hitched. What do you say?”

Bridge smiled. “Is that a proposal, Sam McQuade?”

“Of sorts.”

Bridge got up and walked around to the back of Quade’s chair. She leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Can I bring my whip?”

Quade jumped and turned to look at her friend with horror, “Christ, no. I just proposed to a vicar who has her own whip? I think we need to check with your bishop that you really are a vicar.”

Bridge picked up a rubbish bag and snorted. “He would tell you I’m the devil incarnate. Let’s get this place cleaned and locked up.”

Quade shook her head in amusement and grabbed her broom. “Is it wrong to say I hope you and your whip find that person to love before the task falls on me?”

Bridge’s designer heels clicked on the floor and echoed around the room as she walked over to Quade. She gave her a peck on the cheek and said, “You’re a good friend, Quade.”


Chapter Two

On Sunday morning, Bridge shook hands with her parishioners as they filed out of church. It had been strange without Harry, Annie, and Riley in the front pew. They were such an integral part of the community now, and the church and the village seemed empty when they were gone. Normally Bridge and Mrs. Castle, and sometimes Quade, would go to Axedale for lunch after church for one of Annie’s famous roast dinners, but today would be a much longer, lonelier day.

“Lovely sermon, Vicar,” Mr. Finch from the pub said. “But here’s hoping no mere mortals can turn water into wine, or I might go out of business,” he joked.

“Fear not, Mr. Finch—” Bridget’s witty retort was interrupted by the roar of a motorcycle engine. The sound was out of place in the quiet village.

Everyone looked around and gazed at the bike which slowed down just across the road from the church. It pulled up next to Mr. Butterstone, who had just left the church, and then he started directing the rider with some animated hand gestures. Although she couldn’t see the rider’s face, Bridge admired their leather jacket, biker boots, and jeans. She had always had a thing for leather and motorbikes, and wasn’t an expert, but it looked like the bike was a classic Harley-Davidson.

The rider then nodded and zoomed off towards the other end of the village, and Mr. Butterstone hurried back over to the church. In this insular village, newcomers were big news and those still at the front of the church gathered around to hear his report.

“Mason’s cottage is rented at last,” Mr. Butterstone said excitedly.

“Who was it?” Mrs. Peters said. “Did they give a name?”

Mr. Butterstone shook his head. “No, don’t even know if it was a bloke or woman I was talking to. They weren’t very chatty.”

“I’m sure they will soon warm up,” Bridge said. “I’ll call in on them later and give a welcome to the village.”

Bridge was always happy to be welcoming to anyone, but someone with good taste in leather and motorbikes was even more welcome.

 

v

 

“That’s everything, mate.”

Finn put down a box marked delicate on the coffee table of her new cottage and walked over to see the movers out the cottage door.

“Thanks Bob. I—”

She was cut off midsentence by her mobile, which had been ringing incessantly since she arrived.

“Looks like someone is desperate to get hold of you,” Bob said.

As if her management, PR company, and show entourage calling wasn’t bad enough, somehow the press had gotten hold of her number and had been calling constantly since this morning, and it was driving her mad.

Finn had kept her destination secret, even from her management company, so determined was she to have her privacy.

She looked at Bob and realized he and his crew knew exactly where she was and when she arrived. They’d known who she was as soon as they’d arrived at her London apartment this morning to start the job. Her look was distinctive and unmistakable. Since Finn and her show—and her two-tone hair—were plastered all over billboards and buses in London, it didn’t take her movers long to suss her out. If she wanted to keep her anonymity, she would have to buy their silence.

She took out her wallet and pulled out a wad of notes. Unlike most people who normally carried cards and a few coins, Finn always carried paper money in her wallet. It was a quirk that had developed as she’d started to earn good money. She knew what it was like to be poor. When she had to take the sole responsibility for herself and her sister at age seventeen, sometimes all the money they would have left to feed themselves for the whole week would be five or ten pounds. The pressure and anxiety of trying to make that last would never leave Finn. So when she started to make money, it made her feel safe to know her wallet was full.

Bob eyed her wallet greedily. She took out some notes and started to count them.

“Listen, Bob, I’m down here for an indefinite break, and I don’t want anyone to find me.”

She let him see the notes at the back of her wad of money were hundreds.

“Would you and your guys like to help me with that?”

Bob nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, no problem. We can do that.”

Finn took out a hundred pound note for every one of the movers, and a little extra for Bob, and held it out to him.

“You have no idea where I moved to, do you?”

“Haven’t the foggiest, mate.”

She handed the cash to him and he just about snatched it from her hand.

The door shut and Finn was finally alone. She walked over to the box on the coffee table and opened it up. On top of the box was a large framed photo of Finn and Carrie, taken on the first night of her first arena tour three years ago.

Finn sat down on the couch and let her fingers caress the glass, hoping to connect with her. She felt the tears start to well up in her eyes, as they had done so many times before. She hurt unbelievably and didn’t feel like the pain would ever end. That’s why she’d come here, to this little village no one had ever heard of, to hide from the world and work out where she went from here.

In the space of a few months, her whole life had been broken, and she didn’t have the first idea of what to do to make things better, or if she should even try.

This was my fault.

Finn put the picture on the table and scrubbed her face in frustration. She was so tired of these emotions, so tired of feeling empty.

Her head snapped up when she heard the screech of the garden gate, and then the unmistakable sound of high heels on the path.

Great, a bloody local. Just what she needed.

Finn’s heart sank when the person knocked on the door. The last thing she wanted was a nosy welcoming committee. She ignored the knock, and luckily the living room curtains were shut, so the visitor would have no idea she was in.

The insistent knocker at the door then began to speak. “Hello? Hello? Is there anyone in there?”

“Clearly not. Bugger off,” Finn said in a whisper.

But they didn’t give up. “My name’s Bridget and I’m the vicar here.”

“Perfect, fucking perfect. A bloody vicar.” Finn started to pace.

“I know you’re in there.” The vicar certainly wasn’t giving up easily. “I saw the movers just leave.”

“Fuck me, why can’t people just leave me alone?” Finn said with anger.

In the end, Finn thought it would be easier to open the door and get rid of the no doubt frumpy, old, do-gooding vicar directly. She pulled open the door and said, “What is it? I’ve no time—”

Her words died in her throat when she saw who was standing there. Instead of a frumpy grey-haired crone, there was a stunningly good-looking woman in a tight miniskirt, heels, and a biker jacket.

The woman gave her an open smile, and Finn’s eyes dropped to her legs, in that skirt, in those heels. She had always been a leg woman.

“Good afternoon. My name’s Bridget, and I’m vicar here. I just thought I’d pop over to welcome you to the village, check if you were settling in okay, and…”

Finn never heard the rest of the sentence. Her eyes travelled up the vicar’s body and soon were captivated by her lips, and the deep, dark lipstick she wore.

She quickly pulled herself together in time to hear Bridget say, “Is there?”

Finn was lost in the conversation, and her annoyance had returned. “What?”

“I wondered, is there anything you need?”

“I don’t need anything from anyone, and I certainly don’t need ministering to,” Finn replied sharply.

Bridget’s brow furrowed as if she was assessing Finn and how to handle her. “Well, if that’s the case, I’m delighted.” Bridget reached into the pocket of her biker jacket and pulled out a church leaflet. She held it up for Finn to take. Finn did, and as her fingers touched Bridget’s highly polished manicured nails, a jolt of static electricity made them both jump.

Bridget chuckled and said, “As a woman of God, I’d say that was a sign. We’d be happy to see you in church on Sunday, if you would like to join us.”

Finn looked down at the leaflet and saw it contained all the times and information for church services. “I’m gay and an atheist. You wouldn’t want me.”

Instead of provoking surprise or anger, which was Finn’s intention, Bridget gave her a wink and a quick reply. “So am I—gay, that is—and we can work on the atheist bit.”

She’s gay? Axedale had a gay female vicar in heels and a biker jacket? Had she walked into the twilight zone?

Finn was lost for words. Being well schooled in human response, cold reading, and suggestion usually allowed her to steer most conversations wherever she wanted them to go, but in this moment, with this strange woman in front of her, her mind was blank.

Feeling a little bit panicked, she tore up the leaflet, threw it at the vicar’s feet, and slammed the door.

 

v

 

Bridge felt a lingering annoyance all day. She couldn’t remember anyone being as openly rude to her as their village newcomer had been today.

“Bloody obnoxious fool,” Bridge said under her breath as she walked into the village pub, The Witch’s Tavern.

She was greeted warmly by the villagers as she entered, and she soon spotted Quade at one of the tables by the open fire in the corner.

Quade waved her over. “Evening, Vicar. I got your usual.”

Bridge sat and just about downed her usual drink of Campari and soda. Quade looked surprised. “Bad afternoon, Vicar?”

“I paid our new resident a call.” Bridget swirled what was left of her drink around her glass.

“And? Man, woman, or beast?” Quade joked.

“Woman—and a beast, by my reckoning.”

“Uh-oh. It takes a lot to rile you up, Bridge. What happened?”

Bridge sighed and placed her glass down on the table. “I took over the church leaflet and my best smile, and she slammed the door in my face.”

Quade raised an eyebrow. “She must be brave to slam a door in a vicar’s face.”

“It seemed to be the vicar part that was most egregious to her. The worst thing was she’s one of us.”

“One of us?” Quade asked.

“As gay as the day is long.” Bridget sipped her drink. “But with the worst attitude, and very rude.”

Quade leaned closer and smiled. “Sounds intriguing. Another lesbian in the village. Your type?”

Bridge snorted. “Hardly.”

“Mine?” Quade said hopefully.

Bridge shook her head. “I doubt it. She’s boyishly butch with the strangest haircut.”

“Looks like our impending marriage is safe then,” Quade joked.

“Exactly. I was sure I knew her face from somewhere though.” Bridge stood. “I’ll get some more drinks.” The newspaper Mr. Finch was looking at behind the bar caught Bridge’s eye. Now she was seeing the newcomer everywhere.

“Bridge? What’s wrong?”

She went over to the bar and asked to see the tabloid, confirming her suspicion. It’s her.

Bridge turned and showed Quade the picture, gesturing. “This is her. The famous magician who’s gone AWOL.”

“Finnian Kane?” Quade said.

The low chatter in the pub stopped suddenly. Obviously, they all knew the celebrity better than she did.

Bridge nodded. “That’s her.”

Suddenly Bridge felt a sense of guilt welling up inside. From what she had picked up from the news media, Finnian Kane had gone to ground after her younger sister died of an aggressive cancer.

She was grieving.


Chapter Three

The next day, Bridge was walking back from visiting one of her parishioners when she noticed a motorcycle parked outside the post office. There was only one person in the village who owned a motorcycle, and that was the enigmatic Finnian Kane. Bridge stopped for a second and admired the bike from afar. You do have very good taste, Ms. Kane.

Although she had never ridden herself, Bridge always had a liking for motorcycles—the leather and everything that went with it—which, she believed, would account for the ripple of excitement running through her body at the moment.

The one thing that didn’t seem to fit the Harley was the artist’s easel strapped to the back of the bike. She would never have guessed Finnian Kane to be the arty type. Bridge resumed her walk and saw Kane exit the post office with a gaggle of schoolchildren behind her. At the head of the bunch was Riley’s best friend Sophie, saying, “Please show us a trick, Finn! Please, please?”

Bridge smiled at the exuberance. It was a big thing for a small village like this to have a celebrity living here, no less a famous magician.

Her smile soon wavered when she heard Finn snap, “No, I don’t practice magic any more, okay?”

Bridge was only a few feet away now, and Finnian looked up and met her eyes. There was so much pain, anger, and confusion in those eyes that her heart ached.

“Good morning,” Bridge said.

Finnian held her gaze for a few more moments, and said, “Is it?” She pulled on her helmet and mounted her bike. The children looked entirely crestfallen, but just then Finnian flipped up her visor and rummaged in her pocket and handed some money to Sophie. “Buy some sweets for you and your friends.”

With that she drove off and the children hurried back into the post office.

So, you’re not as bad as you want to make out. Bridge walked into the post office and up to Mrs. Peters at the counter.

“Good morning, Vicar. You’ll never guess who we had in here.”

She watched as Mr. Peters tried to serve the excited children at the sweetie counter.

“Finnian Kane?”

“Yes, she’s nothing like she is on TV though. Mr. Peters and I always enjoy watching her shows. She’s bright, happy, charismatic, but here she was moody, and a little lost.”

“A lost sheep,” Bridge said.

That was exactly what she thought when she’d looked into Finnian’s hurt and emotional eyes.

“Although,” Mrs. Peters added, “she is as good-looking in real life as she is on the TV.”

“Yes, indeed.” Bridge thought back to meeting her at the cottage and outside the shop. There was no doubting she was a delightfully good-looking butch, but very different than her friend Quade. Quade was what she would call old-school butch, rugged, handsome, and traditional, whereas Finn was what she would describe as boyish in her looks and charm.

I wonder how old she is. She looks younger than me.

Bridge realized she had become lost in her thoughts when Mrs. Peters said, “Wouldn’t you say so, Vicar?”

“Sorry, Mrs. Peters. Say again?”

“Ms. Kane is very intense. She walks around as if she is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.”

“I think you are right.”

As rude as Finn had been to her the twice she had met her, Bridge did feel as though she should persist in trying to help her. After all, wasn’t it every vicar’s job to lead the lost sheep back to their flock?

 

v

 

“Fuck! You can’t do anything right.” Finn pulled her headphones from her ears and threw them on the ground beside her easel.

Finn couldn’t stare at the four walls of her cottage any longer and had to get out. One of the reasons she had rented the cottage was the summer house in the garden. The previous tenant had been a potter and it was fully set up and ready to be a painting studio, but today she needed some space and fresh air in her lungs. She had grabbed her easel and set off on her bike to find the perfect spot.

She’d stopped when she saw a car park and signs for the beginning of a forest trail, and eventually made her way up to the top of a small hill. It had a bench that looked out over a valley, and a ruined castle in the distance. Perfect for painting.

Finn had been there since the morning but had been making frustratingly slow progress. Painting was something she had always enjoyed but hadn’t had the chance to do in a long, long time. The last few years of her life had been twenty-four-seven performances and travelling to venues all over the world. She had been so busy, she hadn’t stopped to appreciate what she had, and now her happiness was gone. The colour of life had deserted her, and she couldn’t see how she could live on in this bleak world.

Finn looked down at her paint-covered hands and saw them tremble. It was no wonder she couldn’t paint the way she wanted—she couldn’t even control herself.

Finn, I’m scared. What if you were right? What if there’s nothing?

The voice that haunted her thoughts threatened to bring tears to her eyes. She pulled off her baseball cap and scrubbed her face vigorously. Just then Finn heard the telltale sounds of footsteps on the gravel path leading to the lookout area.

She had been lucky that all day there had only been a couple of dog walkers passing her spot. Finn quickly smoothed back her hair and replaced her baseball cap, back to front.

As she had done with the others who had passed by, she kept her eyes low and hoped they would walk on without incident. But instead of a pair of trousered legs and a dog come upon her, she saw a pair of knee-high broad-heeled lady’s biker boots that nearly made her swallow her tongue.

Finn’s eyes travelled up the boots that had various buckles and zips all the way to the top and ended at the knees of the sexiest pair of legs she had seen.

“Good evening, Ms. Kane.”

That upper-class voice she would recognize anywhere. The vicar. Her brief arousal was extinguished by the image of the dog collar around Bridget’s neck.

Finn was lost for words, and Bridget said, “Are you going to reply to me or my boots?”

She looked up and gave her a hard stare. “It’s Finn, and I don’t intend to talk at all.”

“Such nonsense,” Bridget said. “Budge up.”

Before Finn had time to protest, Bridget plonked herself down on the bench beside her, and leaned in to her. “Budge up, unless you want me to sit on your knee.”

Bridget was in such close proximity that Finn could smell her perfume, and her body reacted in a way it hadn’t in a long time.

Whatever perfume Bridget wore, it made Finn think of sex, and that was wrong on so many levels. She was grieving, and the woman in question was a bloody vicar. Finn scooted up the bench like a frightened rabbit, something she had never felt like around a woman before.

Finn tried to feign nonchalance, and leaned back against the seat. “Didn’t think you would be much of a walker, Vicar.”

“Well that’s good then, because I don’t like to fit people’s expectations.” Bridget gave Finn a smile and a wink. It was always thrilling to surprise people. No one quite believed she was a vicar, anywhere she went or any who she met. “I like to walk here just before dinner and find some peace, sort out my thoughts, and make my sermon plan for Sunday.”

“Just before dinner? What time is it?” Finn quickly looked at her watch. “Five thirty? I completely lost track of the time.”

“Have you been up here since this morning?”

Finn nodded. “Got lost in my painting.”

Bridge narrowed her eyes. Finn must have missed meals. “Have you not eaten anything all day?”

Finn scowled like a moody teenager. “Does it matter?”

She resisted the urge to bite back, and sat back against the bench. Bridget wondered again how old Finn was. She did seem to be much younger than her, but that could be simply the effect of Finn’s boyish looks and appearance, today made even more apparent by her ripped jeans, checked hooded shirt, and baseball cap worn back to front.

There was silence for a few seconds before Bridge said, “It is beautiful up here, isn’t it. I like to think of this as God’s back garden.”

Finn laughed cynically. “Or simply a beautiful landscape created by billions of years of natural evolution.”

Bridge mentally rubbed her hands together. Oh, don’t even go down this road, Finn. I’ll have you for breakfast.

But maybe if played correctly she could get Finn to open up and have a conversation, and the human contact she was clearly crying out for.

“There you go making assumptions again. You think I don’t believe in evolution?”

Finn started to put away her paints and wipe her brushes. “No, I wouldn’t think a vicar would.”

“I’m not only a vicar, I’m a scholar as well. I was well educated not only in Bible texts, but in Greek, Latin, Egyptian, and esoteric doctrines. I know there are truths and myths in all ancient documents.”

Finn put down her brushes and turned to face her. Bridge could see a spark in her eyes that hadn’t been there before. Had she hit on something to make her lost sheep engage with the world?

“Do you believe God made the world in seven days?” Finn said quickly.

“No,” Bridge fired back.

Finn scooted closer to her on the bench. “Do you believe in Adam and Eve?”

“Or Adam and Steve?” Bridge corrected her.

“Exactly. Adam, Eve, Steve, whoever?”

This was becoming jolly good fun, Bridge thought. “No, I don’t. I believe that back in the mists of time we made those allegories and myths to try to make sense of concepts we didn’t understand, but I do believe God made everything happen, and the message is always the same. God is love, and love is all that matters.”

“Oh, please. Do you know how many men and women of God I’ve heard say that while they line their pockets with money? Faith healers, so-called miracle workers that turned out to be two-bit magicians and cold readers, and not very good ones at that.”

She hadn’t seen much of Finn’s work, but Bridge knew that Finn was a controversial figure within the Christian and spiritualist communities, making it her life’s mission to debunk the darker sides of those religions.

“That’s not the faith or the God I represent, Finn. I don’t promise miracles, or healing. I talk to people about being the best they can be. Loving your neighbour, helping those worse off than yourself, being kind, and loving one another. That is the God I’ve given my life to.”

“The God of love who takes away the only love you’ve ever known? No, thanks.”

As Finn threw her painting things into her bag, Bridge thought how different she was to the confident, charismatic performer she had seen on YouTube clips she had looked up last night. Now she was angry, bitter, and perhaps on a path of self-destruction, if the bottle of vodka peeking out of her bag was anything to go by.

Bridget said the first words of comfort that came to her mind, “The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart. Merciful men are taken away, and no one considers that the righteous is taken away to be spared from the evil.”

Quick as a flash, Finn finished the quote for her. “He enters into peace. They rest in their beds, each one who walks in his uprightness. Isaiah 57:1–2. Don’t quote scripture at me and hope I’ll find comfort in it. There is no comfort,” Finn said coldly and calmly.

Bridge was taken aback by Finn’s biblical knowledge. “You’re not what you seem to be, Finn.”

“That’s because I’m not. I’m an illusion. Everyone presents an illusion of themselves to others—very few people see us as we really are. Look at you, for example.”

Bridget was surprised the conversation had rounded on her. “What about me?”

“You are an illusion of your own making. You’re not the vicar people expect.”

“You’ve only known me for five minutes. You know nothing about me. I am everything I seem, a vicar who…likes fashion. Maybe a bit different, but nothing wrong with that.”

Finn put her canvas in her bag and folded up her easel. “That’s where you’re wrong. You see, I am excellent at reading people. I’ve trained myself over my life to look beyond the illusion and read a person’s psyche. That’s why I’m so good at what I do, at cold reading.”

She swung her bag onto her shoulder and lifted her easel. “I think you are hiding behind that dog collar, and all the other mumbo jumbo you preach. You’re hiding a part of yourself, a part that will never quite let you go.”

“How dare you—” Before Bridget could continue her rant, Finn walked off, leaving Bridget fuming.

 

v

 

After dinner Bridge walked up to Axedale to check on the house and the horses. She walked into the stable and the horses whinnied and neighed when they saw her holding the bag of goodies her housekeeper had sent for them.

“At least someone’s pleased to see me,” Bridge said.

She took out her bag of carrots and gave one to each horse before stopping at Willow’s stall. Willow was Riley’s beloved horse and she had left strict instructions to bring her an evening snack. She took out an apple and rubbed Willow’s nose as she fed her the fruity treat.

Bridge smiled as the horse gobbled up the apple and whinnied for more. She reached into the bag and got her a carrot, which Willow gratefully received.

“If only all the members of my parish were as easy to help.”

She just couldn’t shake the conversation she’d had with Finn earlier. Even though the woman was obviously going through a lot of grief, her attitude irked her. Bridge had always had a natural need to help people, but now that she was a vicar, the need was also a duty. It wasn’t nice to have her attempts to make a connection thrown in her face.

She also felt a sense of guilt that she felt angry at Finn’s petulance and distrust. “Bloody arrogant—”

“Penny for them?” a voice behind her said.

Bridge nearly jumped out of her heels. She turned around and saw Quade standing there. “Dear God, Quade. You nearly gave me a heart attack.”

Quade came closer and patted Willow. “Evening, Vicar. Sorry about that. Who’s driven you to swear on this lovely evening?”

“Oh, just a lost sheep I’m having trouble trying to welcome to the flock.”

Quade leaned on the stall door. “You mean our new resident celebrity?”

Bridge nodded, and Quade replied, “Maybe she thinks you’re a wolf, Vicar.”

“What? Why would she think that? There’s nothing scary about me.”

Quade raised an eyebrow and said, “Oh, I could list a few things.”

Bridge gave her a soft hit to the arm. “Behave, Quade. I’m not scary. I’m just a vicar with fabulous heels.”

Quade laughed. “No, seriously. You just said it yourself. You’re a vicar. Isn’t she known for being an evangelical atheist?”

“Yes. So?”

“Well, sometimes the thing you hate the most is what scares you the most. You, Vicar, represent the Church. Maybe that’s what it is?”

Bridge thought about her last conversation with Finn. She’d implied that Bridge was hiding behind her dog collar. Maybe Finn did resent what the dog collar represented.

She grabbed Quade and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “That’s brilliant! You’re not just a handsome face.”

Quade rolled her eyes. “Yeah, so handsome the women are beating down my door. Listen, maybe I should try first, maybe take a keg of Axedale Ale? Surely no one can refuse that.”

Bridge rubbed her hands together with satisfaction. She loved finding a new positive angle to try to relate people to each other and to God. She had helped Harry, with the huge help of Annie, so there must be hope for Finnian Kane.

She shouldn’t care since Finn was so rude to her, but the pain she had seen in Finn’s eyes the two times they had met was not something she could easily ignore. Bridge’s calling was to help others, and in her parish, the buck stopped with her.

“Yes, you go first. She might relate to you better. Then I’ll come up with something and try again.”