About a year before Rage.
“We’ve got a good night for it,” Isobel Sinclair told her three younger sisters, as she tossed more driftwood onto the sizeable pyre at the bottom of her garden.
“Do you think we should make a moat around it,” Donna, the family worrier, asked. “Just in case.” She adjusted the tie that kept her long golden hair off her face while she studied the pile of wood.
“The fire isn’t going to spread.” Agnes, the second oldest and only other blonde in the family, was clearly exasperated. “It’s the middle of winter. The ground is sodden and the bushes are too damn cold to catch fire.”
“But, there was that year…” Donna gnawed at her bottom lip.
Their youngest sister, Mairi, smiled wistfully. “Ah, the year of the petrol starter. We’ve never managed to get a blaze that ferocious since. It’s a pity we nearly burned down the town. I thought dousing the wood in accelerant was a great idea.”
“To be fair,” Agnes said, “we’d had an exceptionally dry winter that year, so the fire spreading wasn’t entirely our fault.”
“Aye.” Mairi nodded sagely, making her wild red curls bounce over her shoulders. “Never underestimate the effects of global warming. It makes fires hotter…or something.”
Agnes stared at Mairi with a mixture of bewilderment and disgust. “Did you pay even the slightest attention in school?”
“To what?” Mairi shrugged. “There was a whole lot of school to pay attention to. You need to narrow it down for me.”
“Never mind that,” Donna said. “Are we sure the fire needs to be this big?” She frowned at the mountain of wood in front of them.
“Aye.” Agnes’ smile was menacing. “There are a lot of bodies to burn this year.”
“Don’t call them bodies!” Donna looked like she might make a run for the hills. “They’re…dolls.”
“Whatever you say,” Agnes said.
“They’re effigies.” Mairi beamed at them. “See? I know stuff.”
“Well done,” Agnes drawled. “Now spell it.”
Mairi threw a small stick at Agnes’ head.
“Knock it off you two,” Isobel ordered. “I think we’re about ready to light this thing.” She wiped her hands off on her second-hand jeans. “But first, I’ll check that Sophie’s asleep and Jack’s okay watching her. Don’t fight while I’m gone. Remember—tonight isn’t about us. It’s about them.” She pointed at the dolls before turning toward the house.
“Bring back marshmallows,” Mairi called.
“And cheap wine!” Agnes added.
“Is there any other kind?” Donna asked.
“Not in my house,” Isobel muttered as she headed away from the cliff edge that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean.
The house she rented, for a pittance, was barely a step up from a hovel. But it was still a roof over the heads of her kids and the best she could afford in the tiny Kintyre town of Arness. Truth be told, even if she did have the money for a better place to live, she wouldn’t use it on a house in Arness. No, she’d use it to move her kids somewhere else entirely. Somewhere packed with opportunities for them. A place where they could have a safe yet exciting life. Somewhere far away from the disapproving scowls of small town Scotland, where a woman who’d gotten pregnant in her teens was always judged by her past.
Ah, well, if dreams were diamonds, she’d struggle under the weight of all that bling.
Fortunately for her, dreams were nothing more than whispers on the cold northern wind, quick to pass and leaving an icy shiver in their wake. As Isobel pushed through the warped kitchen door, with its boarded up window where glass used to be, the smell of frying eggs hit her hard. Her teenage son was hungry. Again.
Jack flashed a smile that was bound to leave a trail of broken hearts behind him throughout his life and nodded toward the stairs up to the bedroom. “Sophie’s asleep. It’s safe to have your coven meeting on the bluff. Her wee impressionable mind won’t be affected.”
“Cheeky arse.” Isobel stole a buttered slice of bread from his plate, making him narrow his eyes at her. “Anyway, it’s not her mind I’m worried about. It’s her need to test everything I tell her for herself. That child won’t believe fire is hot until she sticks her hand in one.”
“Aye.” Jack grinned. “Even at two, it’s clear she’s a Sinclair woman.”
“Are you trying to say that we’re all nuts, or all stubborn?”
“Take your pick.” He grinned.
Isobel rolled her eyes at him before bringing up the concern that weighed on her. “Jack, you know tonight doesn’t mean we hate all men, don’t you? We love and adore you. We think you’re going to be the very best of men. You know that, right?”
He gave her a look that made it clear she was being sappy again. “Don’t worry. I know this isn’t about me.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “And when a fifteen-year-old says that, you can be sure he means it. What is it you tell me? Teenagers are genetically designed to think the world revolves around them. See? I can listen.”
Isobel’s heart almost burst from looking at her son. “I love you to bits, Jack Sinclair.”
“Aye, aye, you can keep that touchy-feely stuff for your sisters,” he grumbled.
Isobel was about to wrap him in hug, just to make him suffer even more, when she spotted movement in the back yard. Mairi’s ex-boyfriend, Keir, was stomping down the path toward their wooden pyre.
“Oh, oh, we’ve got trouble.” Isobel spun on her heels and rushed out the door to head Keir off.
“Send him back here,” Jack called after her. “I could use some male company. I’m surrounded by so much female shit, I’m in danger of growing boobs.”
“Don’t say shit,” Isobel shouted back.
As the door slammed behind her, Isobel ran to catch up with the scowling man striding toward the bottom of the garden.
“Now, Keir,” she said. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
He cast her a sideward glance. “Like strangling your sister and throwing her off the bluff.”
“Aye, like that.” She tripped over a clump of grass and Keir’s hand shot out to steady her. “Let’s not be hasty.”
“Oh, we’re past hasty,” he muttered. “Way past hasty.” He caught sight of Mairi poking at the pyre and raised his voice. “Mairi Sinclair, you took my favourite bloody shirt and I want it back.”
Mairi straightened her shoulders, making the most of her full five feet and two inches, and faced off against a man who was at least a head taller. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you don’t.” He put his hands on his hips as he examined the area around the waiting bonfire. He spotted the large stuffed dolls pretty quickly—seeing as they were propped up against the fence near the bluff. “Don’t worry, I’ll get it myself.”
Each doll was made to represent a man who’d betrayed the trust of one of the sisters. Or just plain annoyed her. Their criteria was pretty flexible. But every year, where possible, they got a piece of clothing from the person they were “sacrificing” and some cheap clothes from the local jumble sale. They then sewed them all together, stuffed them with anything they could find, and added a balloon head with a photo of their target taped to the front of it.
Every year, Mairi made an effigy of Keir. An interesting titbit he’d learned the year their fire had gotten out of control. All things considered, he’d taken the discovery surprisingly well. In fact, it’d become a running joke for him. Whenever he saw Mairi in the days following Valentine’s, he’d lift his shirt and sniff before asking if she smelled smoke. Mairi didn’t think it was funny.
“You can’t have the shirt.” Mairi ran to stand in front of the doll. “I sewed it to the jeans and stuffed it. Had to trim it to fit. Your shirt is gone.” She folded her arms and smiled sweetly. “Bye bye shirt. And bye bye Keir. Off you go now.”
For a second it seemed like there was actual smoke coming out of Keir’s ears. “You knew I loved that shirt.”
Mairi’s smile widened. “That’s why I took it.”
“Stole it, you mean.” He took a step closer, looming over her.
Mairi was unmoved. “If you’re going to take off your clothes and leave them around your garage, then you can hardly blame me for picking them up. Now go away. You’re ruining Valentine’s Day.”
His fists clenched and unclenched, and his face turned a deep shade of red. Although Isobel knew there was no danger of Keir striking out at Mairi, it seemed like a good idea to calm the situation down. So she did what she’d been doing for her sisters since they were born. She stepped between them and trouble.
“Okay.” Isobel held up her hands as she wedged herself between the two of them. “Keir, why don’t you go back to the house? Jack is making sandwiches and there’s a couple of bottles of wine in the fridge. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be much better than being tried for murder?”
For a second it looked like Isobel was going to get squashed in the clash between Keir and Mairi, but then he took a breath, stepped back and pointed at her sister. “This isn’t over.”
“Whatever,” Mairi said. “Be sure to listen for the pop when your balloon head explodes. It’s my favourite part of the night.”
With a deep, rumbling growl, he turned and strode back to the house.
Isobel watched him go for a second before glaring at her baby sister. “Do you have a death wish? One day, you’re going to push that man too far. Is that what you want?”
“Please.” Mairi rolled her eyes. “Like I couldn’t handle Keir. Now, where’s the marshmallows?”
“I forgot them in the rush to stop Keir killing you.” Isobel rubbed her temple. As usual, Mairi was giving her a headache.
“Donna,” Mairi called. “Get the food and wine before Jack and Keir polish it off.”
“On it,” Donna said.
“And don’t forget to bring back your doll,” Isobel reminded.
Donna stopped dead and slowly turned back to them. “About that…”
The sisters groaned.
“You didn’t make a doll, did you?” Agnes demanded.
Donna shuffled in place. “The only man driving me nuts is Duncan, and I can’t set fire to him. He lost his wife.”
“Not recently,” Mairi snapped. “And you aren’t actually setting fire to anyone. They’re dolls. This is our Guy Fawkes night and you keep ruining it because you feel bad for your boss and won’t turn him into a Guy. Will you please just grow a pair and make a Duncan doll next year?”
“He might not annoy me next year.” Donna looked hopeful.
As if to disprove her point, the phone rang with Duncan’s ringtone—the music from Jaws.
Agnes narrowed her eyes. “Oh, he’s definitely going to annoy you next year.”
“Duncan,” Donna said into the phone. “What’s wrong?” There was a pause. “No, don’t fire the cook. I’ll talk to her.” Another pause. “She’s only been there a month.” A sigh. “I know she makes the wrong type of pies. I’ll deal with it. Just don’t go firing her until I’ve had a chance to sort this first. I’m your housekeeper. Let me do my job.” She hung up and stared at the blank screen. “Maybe I could burn my phone instead,” she said to her sisters.
“You have got to stop letting that man walk all over you,” Agnes said for the millionth time. “He’s your boss. All he gets from you is your job, not a pound of flesh.”
“He can’t help it.” Donna tucked the phone back in her pocket while her eyes pleaded with them to understand. “He’s still mourning and isn’t thinking straight.”
“Or,” Agnes said. “He’s a complete arse who’s taking advantage of your gentle nature.”
“It doesn’t matter what he is right now,” Mairi said. “We don’t have an effigy of him to burn. Donna is too soft to make a fake Duncan to sacrifice to the gods of broken hearts.”
“Is that what we’re doing here?” Isobel asked. “I thought we were getting out our frustrations at being single and abandoned on Valentine’s. I mean, I’m setting fire to the fathers of my two children, and neither of them broke my heart. Mostly, they left me with kids to raise, debt to clear, and a healthy mistrust of anyone with a penis.”
Mairi pointed at her. “That too.”
As a gust of wind whipped in from the sea, Isobel took a deep breath. “Weather’s changing, we better get the dolls on the wood and light this thing before the wind’s so bad it takes the flames up to the house.” She looked at the house. “I mean, I wouldn’t be sad if it burned down, but it’d be nice to have somewhere else to go first.”
“Dolls it is.” Agnes headed for the fence as Donna went off to the house to get the wine.
Isobel held no hope that Donna would also come back with the marshmallows. Jack and Keir had been alone in the kitchen for a full five minutes. Those sugary treats were gone.
“Who are you burning this year?” Mairi asked Agnes as they lifted their life-sized dolls.
Isobel dropped Jack’s father on his head—which was the least the bastard deserved for running out on his pregnant teen girlfriend. “You can’t burn Ryan. We all love him.”
“Exactly.” Agnes nodded. “Too many women want him. And if I can’t have him, nobody can.”
Mairi stared at Agnes for a beat. “Your brain is not like human brains, is it?”
“You’re one to talk,” Agnes said.
Together, the sisters worked to get the dolls fixed as near the top of the pyre as was possible, before retreating to sit on some old deckchairs that’d been set up for a good view of the blaze. Donna handed out mugs of wine to each of them, and they raised them to the waiting bonfire as a toast.
“Here’s to Ryan Reynolds,” Agnes said. “May his life be miserable without me.”
“Here’s to Keir McKenzie,” Mairi said. “May his balls fall off and his hair fall out.”
“I heard that!” Keir shouted from where he was standing outside the back door watching them.
The sisters drank.
“Here’s to Duncan.” Donna raised her mug. “I hope his heartbreak will heal and he’ll be able to live a full life.”
“You really don’t get what we’re doing here, do you?” Agnes asked a bewildered Donna.
Isobel cleared her throat. “Here’s to two crappy exes, one of which I had the misfortune of marrying, although both weren’t worth my time. The only good thing they gave me were my kids. May they rot, wherever they are, and may the gods of Valentine’s Day keep me from ever getting married or seriously involved ever again.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Agnes said.
They took another drink before tipping out their mugs onto the pyre.
With reverence, Mairi lit a match and held it to the kindling at the bottom of the pile of wood.
As they sat watching the blaze take hold, the lights from a small, lone boat caught their attention. It headed toward the small cove at the bottom of the cliffs. The one beneath Isobel’s house that was rarely used, even by the locals.
“Now that’s weird.” Isobel held out her mug for more wine that tasted like alcohol-infused vinegar. “Who’d use that cove to moor their boat? There’s nothing down there but rocks and debris, not to mention we’re miles from nowhere.”
“They must have a problem that forced them to moor,” Donna said. “Maybe we should go see if they need help.”
“Or.” Agnes held up another bottle of wine. “We can get drunk and watch our men burn.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Isobel said.