The Safe Place Page 1

Author: Anna Downes

Genres: Thriller , Fiction

For my family


WHEN THE car bypassed the main terminal building and pulled up next to a sign that said PRIVATE JET CENTER, Emily breathed in so fast she almost choked.

“You’re kidding me,” she said to her driver (her very own driver!), who smiled and opened the door for her like she was Cinderella.

A security gate led her through a glass tunnel to a departure lounge so elegant it could have been a hotel lobby. Precisely no one rummaged through her luggage or even asked to see a boarding pass; instead, she was ushered straight out onto the tarmac, where two pilots and a flight attendant greeted her personally with shiny white smiles. The attendant took her passport and led her toward a small plane, sleek and bullet-nosed, with just six passenger windows and a little staircase that dropped from a door in the side.

Emily climbed the stairs into a glossy, leather-lined heaven. Suddenly regretting her choice of comfy flight wear (black leggings, a Ramones T-shirt, and a pair of old Converse sneakers), she stood gawping at the armchairs and full-length sofa, waiting for the crew to realize their mistake and escort her back to the terminal. We’re so sorry, they would surely say. We thought you were someone else. Or she would wake up in her shabby little flat, her lungs full of mold spores, to find that it had all been a dream. Any minute now, she thought.

But she was not asked to leave, and the plane did not shimmer and fade. It took off into the sky with no questions asked, and a measly one hour and forty minutes later they were back on the tarmac. This time, though, instead of London’s neat network of buildings, Emily was looking at a low, barnlike structure with an unpronounceable name painted in large blue letters across the side.

She made her way off the plane and into the tiny terminal, where her suitcase and passport were waiting for her. The arrivals lounge was small and silent, and totally empty. The only other person in the room was a tall man with a tangle of dusty hair and a jaw full of stubble. Emily put her bag down on the floor and squinted at him. The man stared back with heavy-lidded eyes. From somewhere on the tarmac outside, there came a muffled shout and the slow, intermittent beeping of a vehicle in reverse. She hesitated, waiting for someone else to appear—perhaps a nice silver-haired gentleman with a peaked cap and a handwritten sign. But eventually she had to concede that this towering, glowering stranger was her ride. She gave him a tentative smile.

“Emily?” he said in a low, gruff voice. In a thick French accent, her name sounded more like Ey-milly.

She nodded.

“Yves,” he said. Then he reached out, grabbed her bag, and strode off toward the exit, leaving her to trot after him like a puppy.

In the parking lot, Yves opened the door of an enormous black SUV, so tall that Emily had to climb up into it like she was mounting a horse. He stowed her bags in the trunk, planted himself in the driver’s seat, and reversed out of the parking space without so much as a cough.

As they sped away on a flat stretch of road, Emily attempted conversation from the backseat. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” she said. “Will we be working together much?” But Yves didn’t reply, and seventeen minutes later he still hadn’t said a word, so she resigned herself to gazing out of the window in silence.

Road signs flashed by: Avenue de Cordouan, Boulevard de Pontaillac, Rue des Platanes. She tried them out, rolling the sounds around in her mouth. L’?le d’Aunis. Saint-Marc-des-Fontaines. Beaulieu-les-Marais. They tasted like poetry.

Green fields were punctuated by yellow sunflowers and rust-red roofs. White stone walls ran over hills striped with neat rows of grapevines. She saw farmhouses, rivers, and tall spindly trees; pointed spires, crumbling churches, and, in the far distance, a thin blue stripe of ocean.

Gradually, the roads became narrower and the trees became thicker. Then, with no warning at all, Yves swung the car onto a dirt track. Leaves brushed the sides of the car like fingers, and branches reached out to one another overhead, forming a tunnel of green. The bonnet dipped low as the track sloped downhill, giving the impression that they were burrowing deep into the earth.

They drove through increasingly dense woodland for what felt like hours. Twigs tapped at the windows and snapped under the tires, and Emily tried to remember if the Frenchman had produced any actual evidence that he was who he said he was. Kicking herself, she realized that she hadn’t thought to verify his identity; she’d just followed him to his car and strapped herself in.

Her breath became shallow. She watched the man who called himself Yves. His eyes were locked on the road, his jaw clenched tight as he navigated the potholes. Furtively, she checked her phone: no service.

It became dark inside the car as the canopy grew thicker and daylight gave up trying to break through. Emily wondered how much farther they would, or could, drive; surely they would hit the ocean at some point? She twisted in her seat to search for signs of civilization, but the view through the back window was even less reassuring than the one in front. The land looked as if it had never seen a fence, let alone roads or buildings. They were in the middle of nowhere.

Finally, just as she began to weigh up the pros and cons of throwing herself from a moving vehicle, they began to slow. Peering through the windshield, Emily spotted rods of black iron up ahead. A gate. As they came closer, she could make out letters in the design.

“Querencia,” she read aloud.

They pulled up next to a gleaming security panel and Yves opened his window, reaching through to punch buttons on a small keypad. “Voilà,” he said, startling Emily so much that she jumped. “We have arrived.”

There was a buzz and a clank, and as the gates slowly parted, Emily’s mouth fell open, all thoughts of escape melting away. A wonderland of color and sweet floral smells seemed to spill through the gap like paint: purple petals, emerald leaves, pink blossoms, orange butterflies, all pouring out of a pure blue sky. Even the light seemed different from any she’d seen before.

The SUV lumbered onto a sandy driveway. Rolling down her own window, Emily stuck her head out, eager to absorb as much as possible. Cicadas chirruped steadily from their hiding places, and somewhere to her right she could hear chickens clucking as well as a thin plaintive cry—a sheep, maybe? Pathways snaked off between sprays of lavender, and a hammock swung lazily next to a cluster of tomato plants, each one bursting with bright red fruit. Ahead, through branches and foliage, she glimpsed the sparkle of a pool, and beyond that yet more water, darker and flecked with white.

And then two houses rose out of the flora, one on either side of a sprawling circular lawn: two huge whitewashed castles standing sentinel over a fairy kingdom.

Emily gave a low whistle as the car came to a stop. She could feel it already. This was the kind of place where things could be different, where she could be different.

“What is this place?” she breathed.

“You like it,” said Yves, more a statement than a question. His face was turned away, his expression hidden.

“Like it?” She was lost for words. She felt like Dorothy stepping out of her monochrome world into the Technicolor land of Oz—so much so that she half expected munchkins to crawl out from between the flowers and start singing. She shook her head, marveling at the speed with which her life had changed. Rock bottom one minute, and the next minute … this.

Tipping her face to the sun, Emily let the breeze trail across her face like a silk scarf.

“I love it,” she said, as the gates closed behind her. “I never want to leave.”



GOOSE BUMPS spread over Emily’s arms like a rash.

“Sorry,” said a tall blond woman, who had neglected to introduce herself. “We’ll be ready to go in just a tick.” She fiddled with her digital camera, adjusting its position on the tripod.

Emily smiled politely. She had auditioned in countless church halls, but this one took cold and drafty to new levels. Echoes bounced off the walls and danced around the room, making it almost impossible to hear what anyone was saying.

A bearded man sitting behind a wooden table stifled a yawn.

“I do apologize,” the woman muttered, squinting at the camera. “This won’t take a moment.… Aha! There we go, all sorted. I hope this doesn’t make you feel too uncomfortable, Emily, but we’re recording all our auditions today. It helps us when we’re having our casting discussions later on. Just ignore it if you can.”

Emily nodded. Under her skirt, sweat trickled down her thighs.

“Right, so we’ll start recording. Just give your name and agent to the camera, then we’ll get straight into the scene.”


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