Amber Cowie

Amber Cowie

Amber Cowie is a novelist living in a small town on the west coast of British Columbia. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Globe and Mail, Crime Reads, and Scary Mommy. Her first novel, Rapid Falls, was a Whistler Book Awards nominee, hit number one overall on Amazon, and was a top-100 bestselling Kindle book of 2018. She is a mother of two and reader of many. She likes skiing, running and making up stories that make her internet search history unnerving.


The Off Season
While recovering from a professional setback, documentary filmmaker Jane Duvall stays at a remote hotel during the off season with her new contractor husband, Dom, and his daughter, Sienna. Jane wants nothing more than to bond with her new family. But she’s unsettled by the cold, quiet presence of the hotel’s owner, Peter, who is overseeing Dom’s renovations.
Soon, Jane uncovers secrets that make her question exactly who she married, including a series of strange disappearances at the hotel in previous seasons. When a rainstorm of epic proportions threatens to flood the banks of the river and claim the Venatura Hotel, Jane must solve these mysteries if she’s to survive the off season.

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Chapter One

The first thing Jane saw on her wedding day was a text message.

tell him

She dropped her phone face down on the nightstand. The clunk woke her fiancé, Dom, whose half-lidded eyes, tousled hair, and sleepy smile made the advice completely unadvisable. God, he was beautiful. And he loved and trusted her. Why throw that all away?

“You okay?” he asked, as she sank her head back down on the feather pillows. He laid his large hand flat on the rise of her hip.

She paused before answering. His palm was warm, the crisp hotel sheets smelled faintly but not unpleasantly of industrial detergent, and the room was luxuriously shadowed by the thick floral curtains the maid had pulled across the floor-to-ceiling windows the night before. Behind the fabric, the late September sunrise would be beginning to play on the pointed peaks of the Lions, Vancouver’s most celebrated mountain view.

Below their hotel, the gray-blue waves of Burrard Inlet would be gently bumping the boats docked in the harbor as the leafy urban Japanese maples rustled in the breeze. Inside the honeymoon suite, though, the darkness was comfortingly complete.

No one could ruin this day.

Not even Mickey.

Though she hadn’t answered their text, Jane had formed a response in her mind: some secrets should be kept. Of all people, her friend and business partner should understand that.

Turning to Dom she whispered, “Absolutely perfect. Mickey wrote to wish us luck.”

Dom smiled. “That’s nice.” He kissed her. His lips were soft with sleep.

As her body responded to his touch, Jane was reassured about her decision not to reveal everything. Four months ago, she had been hesitant to start a fling with a half Chilean guy from the suburbs of the Lower Mainland. On the heels of a disastrous breakup and a devastating professional blow, her holiday was meant to be about recovery—not romance. But she had said yes, and now she was ready to promise Dom a lifetime. More than ready.

Their friends and family would come around.

The warnings and doubts from her inner circle were endless. So many red flags, they said, with worried expressions. As if Jane couldn’t list them herself.

They had known each other for less than six months.

He was thirteen years older.

This was his second marriage.

He had a teenage daughter.

She’d never been remotely interested in having children.

She was rebounding from a bad breakup, and her last film had nearly killed her career.

She understood why everyone was confused. For the last several years, her course had been unwavering. Her work had been her focus, though she’d been seriously dating Chien, a talented designer and producer who was gathering accolades as an edgy voice from the second-generation Chinese diaspora. Both of their careers were taking off precisely according to Jane’s plan—until it had all gone wrong.

Chien dumped her at the Hot Docs festival, the biggest documentary event in Canada, where she and Mickey were pitching a new project from their company, Ember Productions. The festival had started well. She and Mickey were in talks with Netflix to distribute their powerful new film, Failure to Thrive, and other distributors had expressed interest in the project too. They were heading into their screening when the story broke on CBC.

SPEED INVESTIGATED AS FACTOR IN FATAL CAR CRASH INVOLVING WOMAN ON DVP

Chien had unceremoniously yanked his arm from her grasp as her phone pinged with the first condemning messages. Jane wasn’t sure if it was a performative gesture of solidarity with the “victims” of Ember Productions or a preemptive self-preserving romantic breakup, but it made little difference. Chien left the theater before the screening began. After the boos from the audience and the hurtful accusations during the Q and A had died down, it took all of Jane’s integrity to convince Mickey—and herself—that they’d done the right thing. That they’d conducted themselves ethically.

The next morning, it had been harder to stand strong. Chien scrubbed her from all his platforms. Meanwhile, the media eviscerated Ember Productions; the review in the Toronto Star was particularly scathing. She and Mickey were called “heartless, cruel, moral criminals who should be serving time rather than accepting accolades.” Netflix killed the negotiations and canceled the rest of their meetings. Mickey texted that they should stop pitching the film. When Jane didn’t respond to a single message, Mickey had left her a voice mail dripping with accusation.

I told you that you pushed her too hard.

Jane had wanted to scream at Mickey for abandoning her, that they were the only person she had left. Instead, she’d booked a solo flight to Barcelona.

If Mickey was going to leave her all alone in the world, she might as well enjoy it.

As she trudged through security, she was resolute. What had happened on the project hadn’t been a bad choice—it had been the only choice. On the flight, after watching Imitation of Life, she scribbled furiously in her journal about removing toxic, shallow people like Chien from her life.

She vowed to never again be so poisoned by other people’s actions—or their reactions—that she couldn’t control her own. Jane committed to a life of courage, authentic communication, and artistic conviction unbothered by the superficial judgments (or approbation) of small-minded critics. Her first week in Spain had been both lovely and intensely lonely.

Then, she’d met Dom.

Talking to him had been like a balm to her blistered skin.

He was chivalrous, down-to-earth, good-natured, solid. And he was so far outside the industry that, to him, her career woes were remote and nearly undiscoverable. He wasn’t a CBC/NPR/BBC kind of guy—and he didn’t exist on a single social media platform beyond LinkedIn, which he sheepishly admitted he hadn’t updated in twelve years. He worked with his hands, he told her, holding them up for inspection, while explaining he was a contractor with his own business who preferred to talk to his clients on-site and in person. For him, computers were nothing more than a means to send job quotes and the occasional email—and even then, his brother handled the admin side of the business. Dom’s antiquated request to get to know each other the old-fashioned way was exactly what she needed, when she needed it. (From her own late-night doomscrolling, she knew a simple Google search of her name would reveal the ugly truth. The story behind her last production was the first link that appeared.)

So, they agreed. A fresh start for both of them.

She had never dated someone without searching their name at least once, so her pact with Dom created a relationship different from any she’d experienced before. There was no online prelude. What they had was real—no filters. From the first night, Dom made her feel new and safe. As they grew closer, he got to know her, not her history. He loved that she was a filmmaker. Accomplished. Intelligent. Admirable, even. But he showed little curiosity about her work. Someday, she’d tell him what had happened on Failure to Thrive. But for now, what was the point in opening old wounds?

Her marriage was the beginning of the rest of her life. All the doubters were forgetting who she was. This wasn’t a flighty white-knight fantasy. Jane was not the kind of woman who had spent years dreaming of her wedding day. At thirty-two, she was an independent, urban professional who had always eschewed the easy route of marriage to live alone and make documentary films. She rented a ground-floor studio apartment in a converted Victorian house at Fraser and Eleventh in the dynamic and diverse East Van neighborhood, only dating when someone truly remarkable came along—usually writers, actors, musicians. People who, like her, treasured experiences and art instead of Ikea furniture and massproduced decor telling them to live, laugh, and love. Dom wasn’t her type, but maybe that’s why it worked. At his core, he possessed all the attributes she loved and respected. He was honest and loyal. A creator, not a consumer.

And he turned her on like no one ever had before.

He liked to rope his fingers through her hair when they kissed, pulling back as his mouth moved down the line of her jaw to her ear. The things he whispered were flattering and shameless—coarse words softly spoken that made her warm and restless. She liked the look in his eyes when she had no clothes on. Half-lust, half-wonder, like she was better than he had ever imagined—and he couldn’t wait to put his hands all over her. When she laid on her stomach, he drew lines down her back with fingertips roughened by work. Every time he touched her, she felt like she mattered. Jane had to believe in herself and her choices. If she couldn’t do that, she had nothing left.

tell him, Mickey had texted.

 

I will, Jane thought back. Just not now.

A discreet knock on the door was room service with a complimentary mimosa cart. The hour that followed was a blur of white lace and sweet champagne. After a final coat of mascara, she applied lipstick, blew a kiss in the rosy-bulbed glamour mirror, then emerged from the huge bathroom in her department store dress with off-the-shoulder sleeves and a tea-length floating skirt.

Dom’s eyes shone as he crossed the room to take her hand.

“If I asked you something, would you say yes?” It was the same thing he’d said before proposing.

She nodded.

“Marry me?”

She tilted her face up to be kissed. Gentle at first, then deeper, harder, urgent. She broke away, a flush heating her cheeks. He grinned as she answered him the same way she had the first time he’d asked the question.

“Yes.”

The officiant met them in a small room on the ground floor of the hotel. He was a tall Black man with thoughtful brown eyes and a wary expression, who stood beside the two witnesses he had provided at their request. One was an elderly Chinese woman with penciled-on eyebrows, whose smile failed to reach her eyes. The other, a young white man with a jaw that jutted forward at the same angle as his brow sloped back, was sheened with sweat though the room was air-conditioned. There was no one else.

Jane’s parents had died when she was a teenager. She had no siblings.

Mickey was boycotting.

Dom’s brother, Ted, was running a big job for the company and couldn’t get away.

Dom’s daughter, Sienna, was in France on an exchange program.

The ceremony was simple and short: seven minutes from start to finish. When the officiant pronounced them husband and wife, unexpected tears pricked Jane’s eyes as she thought of her mother’s face. The memory flicked away like the silk handkerchief Dom whisked from his pocket to place in her hand before kissing her again. When they parted, Jane caught the older woman carefully dabbing at the corners of her own eyes. Her expression had changed from placid neutrality to open admiration.

As Jane and Dom rode up to their floor in the velvet-walled elevator, her stomach flipped. Married. She was married now. She kissed Dom again to dissolve her doubts. In the hallway outside their room, Jane fumbled for the key card in the small white clutch that Dom had insisted she carry—something borrowed!—as he nuzzled her neck.

His phone rang.

“Is it work?” Jane asked as he gave it a glance.

“It’s Sienna,” he said with a look of relief. “She probably wants to see how it all went. You go ahead. I’ll meet you inside.”

“You can take the call in here,” she said, nudging him with her hip before turning to the door, plastic card pinched between her finger and thumb.

But Dom was already walking down the hallway with the phone pressed to his ear. “Hello, sweetie,” Jane heard him say as he turned the corner at the T-junction.

Inside the room, Jane leaned against the wall and lifted her left hand to eye level. The thin, rose-gold ring on her finger shone brighter than any piece of jewelry she’d ever worn. Much to Dom’s chagrin, she had refused to let him buy her an engagement ring. It was too traditional, too ostentatious, too transactional. As a result, he had chosen a wedding band inlaid with tiny diamonds.

She walked over to the ivory couches embroidered with a white leafy design and fluffed out her full skirt before sitting down. It was nearly lunchtime. The sky was the hazy blue of a climate change–altered summer overstaying its welcome before the rains of autumn returned.

Burrard Inlet glittered below, and Jane spotted a few joggers slogging through the heat on their way to Stanley Park. She couldn’t remember feeling so content.

The door to the suite opened and she turned to her husband. Her husband! Her heart jumped.

“How is Sienna?” she asked brightly, full of optimism. “Was she thrilled for us?”

He smiled, but something dark danced in his eyes and he rubbed the heel of his hand under his clean-shaven jaw. “Yes, she was very happy for us. Just a little . . . distracted. She’s kind of going through something over there.”

Jane’s stomach dropped. Had Sienna discovered what she’d done?

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, you know teenagers. She wants me to change her ticket.” Stress wrote lines on both sides of Dom’s mouth, signaling his concern.

The champagne and orange juice gurgled inside her. She wasn’t much of a drinker, and she had overdone it this morning. She kept her voice calm. “She wants to come home early?”

Sienna was scheduled to return the following week from France. Jane had hoped to have a proper honeymoon with Dom at an oceanfront resort they’d booked in Tofino, but that could be rearranged if necessary. The last thing she wanted to do was alienate her new stepdaughter before their first meeting. Or worse, have Sienna bombard her father with details about her new stepmother that Jane hadn’t yet shared.

Dom frowned more deeply. “No, actually. She doesn’t want to come home at all. She says it’s too boring here.”

Jane paused. Her stomach unclenched. Of course. Sienna was a teenager in Paris. Her summer exchange-program credits allowed her to take the fall semester off. It was no surprise that she wanted to stay in Europe.

“So, what did you tell her? Are you okay with her taking a little more time to explore?”

Dom’s mouth quirked into something close to a small grin.

“Of course not. We’ve only got one more year together before she graduates high school and leaves for good. We need to bond as a family before she moves out.”

She nodded, but worry rippled through her body. She didn’t want Sienna to resent her before they met. Jane had never wanted a child of her own, but she had lots of love to give to Dom’s daughter. And like Dom, she wanted to unite their family as soon as possible. She wanted to be Sienna’s friend and confidant in a way her own parents had never been able to do with her—the worst way to start was being complicit in curbing Sienna’s freedom and ending her European adventure.

“We do need to connect, and you know I can’t wait to meet her, but I don’t want to cut her travels short. I don’t want to be a killjoy.”

Dom joined her on the couch. His body was heavy beside her, and he put a muscular arm around her shoulder. “I love how much you care for her already.” He lifted her chin and kissed her mouth. Jane was surprised by another wave of emotion at his kindness.

“I’m eager for us to be a family too, but we need to find a way to make coming home seem better than staying there.”

“That’s exactly what Peter said.” Jane tilted her head in surprise. “When did you speak with Peter?”

The name of Dom’s closest friend felt unfamiliar in her mouth—she’d yet to meet him as well. The two men had become close ten years ago when Peter hired Dom to reconstruct the façade of the aging Venatura Hotel he’d recently purchased in the wilderness of the Fraser Valley.

“He called while you were putting on your dress. To wish us luck.”

Jane placed her newly ringed finger on top of Dom’s. “That was nice of him. How’s the hotel?”

Dom flipped his hand over and clasped hers before kissing it. “Funny you should mention that.”

She couldn’t quite read his expression. Hope and possibility, but something else too. Concern? Before she could nail it down, he spoke again:

“If I asked you something, would you say yes?”

 


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